Hui Shi wondered, “You are not the fish. How do you know that it’s happy now?” Zhuangzi replied, “You are not me, then how do you know that I don’t know it?” “Indeed, I’m not you,” Hui Shi responded. “Certainly I can’t possibly feel what you feel. But one thing is sure – you are not the fish, so what the fish feels cannot be known to you.”
“Let’s go back to the original question that you raised,” Zhuangzi said. “The question you asked - ‘How do you know that it’s happy now?’ - implied that you actually knew I’d already known that the fish is happy. You were asking me how did I know it. Well, I knew it from the bridge.”
Zhuangzi (c. 369-286 BC) was known as Zhuang by family name while his given name was Zhou. He was a scholar in the region of Meng in the State of Song (now somewhere near Shangqiu, Henan Province) during the mid-Warring States Period. When he was young, he once served as superintendent in a lacquer-yard. Zhuangzi was a contemporary of King Hui of Liang and King Xuan of Qi. Little is known about the life of Zhuangzi from historical records, except some information about him from Records of the Historian by Sima Qian. However, we can form a better understanding of his thought from his works that have been handed down to us.
The book Zhuangzi extant consists of 33 chapters, which fall into three sections: "Inner Chapters," "Outer Chapters" and "Miscellaneous Chapters." It is generally acknowledged that the seven chapters contained in the "Inner Chapters" were written by Zhuangzi himself. Some of the thoughts conveyed in the "Outer Chapters" and "Miscellaneous Chapters" are also found to be identifiable to a certain extent with that conveyed in the "Inner Chapter." Taking advantage of the form of literature, Zhuangzi gives expression to the philosophical thought of Taoism. Owing to its unique ornate style and irregular language, the book Zhuangzi appears to be more complicated, mystical and beautiful than the works of other contemporaries. For this reason, we conclude that Zhuangzi marked the beginning of the school of "romanticism" in the tradition of Chinese literature.
In addition, Zhuangzi's way of thinking upon philosophical matters exerted a great influence on later generations. The Dark Learning (Xuanxue) of the Wei and Jin dynasties and the Chan sect of Buddhism in China find their roots in Zhuangzi. Negligible as the influence of Zhuangzi's philosophy upon political affairs was, the role it played in modeling the personality of Chinese intellectuals was exceedingly significant. Zhuangzi pursues absolute spiritual freedom and strongly affirms the ideal personality that "The perfect man cares for no self; the holy man cares for no merit; the sage cares for no fame." His writings are marked by boundless spiritual ethos and tremendous spiritual power.
Zhuangzi's prose describes an incomparably spacious place. It reads:
In the North Sea there is a kind of fish by the name of kun, whose size covers thousands of li. The fish metamorphoses into a kind of bird by the name of peng, whose back covers thousands of li. When it rises in flight, its wings are like clouds that hang from the sky. When the wind blows over the sea, the peng moves to the South Sea, the Celestial Pond.
The spiritual ethos Zhuangzi aspires for is like the big flying bird, roaming freely in a space beyond the mundane world, "only seeking communication with the infinity of the heaven and the earth and showing no disdain for anything in the world." In terms of physical form, Zhuangzi takes after the holy man living on the faraway Mount Guye: "With his skin as white as ice and snow, he is as amiable as a virgin. He rides on the cloud, harnesses the flying dragon and roams beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spiritual power, he protects the creatures from the plague and ensures a bumper harvest."
In addition to this, there are also some similarities between him and the recluses like Nanguo Ziqi who "sat leaning on his low table, gazed at the sky and breathed gently." Having abandoned the extreme self, Zhuangzi, though like a withered tree in appearance, hears the music of the Heaven. When commenting on those who become slaves of worldly considerations, he says:
Men of great wits are open and broad-minded; men of small wits are mean and meticulous. Men of great eloquence speak with arrogance; men of small eloquence speak without a point. They are restless when they are asleep and they are listless when they are awake. They are always involved in the outside world, daily embroiled in the battle of wits.
Out of consideration for the true meaning of life, Zhuangzi returned to observing it with his acute senses. In this way he could look into the minute details and the smallest subtleties of all the matters in the world and know both the imposing grandness and the trifling movements of all the things in the universe. Zhuangzi's writings are unusually imaginative. If we can say that people living in the age of The Book of Songs were much concerned about their own lives and the things closely related to them -"utilitarianism"- and that this utilitarianism could find its source in Nature, then Nature in Zhuangzi's writings was not used in the material sense of the word, but was perceived in the spiritual sense.
Zhuangzi's thinking is unconventional. In his writings, many eccentric and abnormal men with certain deformities are depicted as ‘holy men,’ men who have attained enlightenment or immortality through practicing Taoism. Apart from portraying Nanguo Ziqi, a holy man who "sucks the wind, drinks the dew," he appears to be more interested in artisans, people who possess special skills. In the mind of Zhuangzi, these artisans are the ones who are the closest to Tao. These artisans are a butcher who carves a bullock, such as Artisan Shi who "waved his axe with a whirl and chopped off the speck of plaster which was as thin as a fly's wing from the Ying man's nose without hurting the nose," the haunch-backed old man with a concentrated mind. Zhuangzi's thought as was conveyed in his works is always beyond all expectations. In his writings, an empty skull can speak and a deformed man may well be the one who is closest Tao. Instead of giving a truthful account of what was going on in his mind, he made massive use of allegories in his writings. Zhuangzi designated Hui Shi in his writings as a strong counterpart in debate. In most cases, Hui Shi appeared as being contrary to Zhuangzi's viewpoints. The following famous allegory about a phoenix and an owl may serve as an example.
Phoenix was a holy bird living in the south. It set out from the South Sea and flew toward the North Sea. "It stopped only on the parasol tree ate only the bamboo fruit and drank only the sweet water from the spring." As it passed by, an owl which had just caught a rotten rat looked up and threatened with a screech, reckoning that the phoenix had come to grab its rotten rat.
This is a very famous passage from "Autumn Floods" in Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi told Hui Shi this story to express his contempt for position and power. During the time when Hui Shi was the prime minister of King Hui of Liang in the State of Wei, someone told Hui Shi that Zhuangzi had come wishing to replace him as the prime minister. Thereupon, Hui Shi grew afraid and sent people to search for Zhuangzi, who looked for him for three days and three nights. Later, Zhuangzi went and met Hui Shi and told him this allegory, which expressed Zhuangzi's viewpoint of regarding the position of prime minister as a rotten rat. Obviously, the two were as far apart in aspiration and interest as heaven and earth.
Aside from this, there are still many more famous allegories in Zhuangzi, such as "Dismember an ox as skillfully as a cook" and "An ugly woman imitates a famous beauty knitting her brows."
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