Chuang Tzu. Chapter 17. Argument: Greatness
and smallness always relative. Time and space infinite. Abstract
dimensions do not exist. Their expression is concrete. Terms are
not absolute. Like causes produce unlike effects. In the unconditioned
alone can the absolute exist. The only absolute is Tao.*
It was the time of autumn floods. Every stream poured into the
river, which swelled in its turbid course. The banks receded so
far from one another that it was impossible to tell a cow from
Then the Spirit of the River laughed for joy that all the beauty
of the earth was gathered to himself. Down with the stream he
journeyed east, until he reached the ocean. There, looking eastwards
and seeing no limit to its waves, his countenance changed. And
as he gazed over the expanse, he signed and said to the Spirit
of the Ocean, 'A vulgar proverb says that he who has heard but
part of the truth thinks no one equal to himself. And such a one
'When formerly I heard people detracting from the learning of
Confucius or underrating the heroism of Poh I, I did not believe.
But now that I have looked upon your inexhaustibility ‹
alas for me had I not reached your abode, I should have been for
ever a laughing-stock to those of comprehensive enlightenment!
To which the Spirit of the Ocean replied, 'You cannot speak of
ocean to a well-frog, the creature of a narrower sphere.
You cannot speak of ice to a summer insect, the creature of a
season. You cannot speak of Tao to a pedagogue: his scope is too
restricted. But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere
and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance,
and I can speak to you of great principles.
'There is no body of water beneath the canopy of heaven which
is greater than ocean. All streams pour into it without cease,
yet it does not overflow. It is constantly being drained off,
yet it is never empty. Spring and autumn bring no change; floods
and droughts are equally unknown. And thus it is immeasurably
superior to mere rivers and brooks, though I would not venture
to boast on this account, for I get my shape from the universe,
my vital power from the Yin and Yang. In the universe I am but
as a small stone or a small tree on a vast mountain. And conscious
thus of my own insignificance, what is there of which I can boast?
'The Four Seas, are they not to be the universe but like puddles
in a marsh? The Middle Kingdom, is it not to the surrounding ocean
like a tare-seed in a granary? Of all the myriad created things,
man is but one. And of those who inhabit the land, live on the
fruit of the earth, and move about in cart and boat, an individual
man is but one. Is not he, as compared with all creation, but
as the tip of a hair upon a horse's skin?
'The succession of the Five Rulers, the contentions of the Three
Kings, the griefs of the philanthropist, the labours of the administrator,
are but this and nothing more. Poh I refused the throne for fame's
sake. Confucius discoursed to get a reputation for learning. This
over-estimation of self on their part, was it not very much your
own in reference to water?'
'Very well', replied the Spirit of the River, 'am I then to regard
the universe as great and the tip of a hair as small?'
'Not at all', said the Spirit of the Ocean. 'Dimensions are limitless;
time is endless. Conditions are not invariable; terms are not
final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard
the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows
that there is no limit to dimension. He looks back into the past,
and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what
is near; for he knows that time is without end. He investigates
fullness and decay, and does not rejoice if he succeeds, nor lament
if he fails; for he knows that conditions are not invariable.
He who clearly apprehends the scheme of existence, does not rejoice
over life, nor repine at death; for he knows that terms are not
'What man knows is not to be compared with what he does not know.
The span of his existence is not to be compared with the span
of his non-existence. With the small to strive to exhaust the
great, necessarily lands him in confusion, and he does not attain
the object. How then should one be able to say that the tip of
a hair is the ne plus ultra of smallness, or that the universe
is the ne plus ultra of greatness?'
'Dialecticians of the day', replied the Spirit of the River,
'all say that the infinitesimally small has no form, and that
the infinitesimally great is beyond all measurement. Is that so?'
'If we regard greatness as compared with that which is small',
said the Spirit of the Ocean, 'there is no limit to it; and if
we regard smallness as compared with that which is great, it eludes
our sight. The infinitesimal is a subdivision of the small; the
colossal is an extension of the great. In this sense the two fall
into different categories.
'Both small and great things must equally possess form. The mind
cannot picture to itself a thing without form, nor conceive a
form of unlimited dimensions. The greatness of anything may be
a topic of discussion, or the smallness of anything may be mentally
realized. But that which can be neither a topic of discussion
nor be realized mentally, can be neither great nor small.
'Therefore, the truly great man, although he does not injure
others, does not credit himself with charity and mercy. He seeks
not gain, but does not despise his followers who do. He struggles
not for wealth, but does not take credit for letting it alone.
He asks help from no man, but takes no credit for his self-reliance,
neither does he despise those who seek preferment through friends.
He acts differently from the vulgar crown, but takes no credit
for his exceptionality; nor because others act with the majority
does he despise them as hypocrites. The ranks and emoluments of
the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame
no cause for disgrace. He knows that positive and negative cannot
be distinguished, that great and small cannot be defined.
'I have heard say, the man of Tao has no reputation; perfect
virtue acquires nothing; the truly great man ignores self; this
is the height of self-discipline.'
'But how then', asked the Spirit of the River, 'are the internal
and external extremes of value and worthlessness, of greatness
and smallness, to be determined?'
'From the point of view of Tao', replied the Spirit of the Ocean,
'there are no such extremes of value or worthlessness. Men individually
value themselves and hold others cheap. The world collectively
withholds from the individual the right of appraising himself.
'If we say that a thing is great or small because it is relatively
great or small, then there is nothing in all creation which is
not great, nothing which is not small. To know that the universe
is but a tare-seed, and that the tip of a hair is a mountain,
this is the expression of relativity.
'If we say that something exists or does not exist, in deference
to the function it fulfils or does not fulfil, then there is nothing
which does not exist, nothing which does exist. To know that east
and west are convertible and yet necessary terms, this is the
due adjustment of functions.
'If we say that anything is good or evil because it is either
good or evil in our eyes, then there is nothing which is not good,
nothing which is not evil. To know that Yao and Chieh were both
good and both evil from their opposite points of view, this is
the expression of a standard.
'Of old Yao abdicated in favour of Shun, and the latter ruled.
Kuei abdicated in favour of Chih, and the latter failed. T'ang
and Wu got the empire by fighting. By fighting, Poh Kung lost
it. From which it may be seen that the rationale of abdicating
or fighting, or acting like Yaop or like Chieh, must be determined
according to the opportunity, and may not be regarded as a constant
'A battering-ram can knock down a wall, but it cannot repair
the breach. Different things are differently applied.
'Ch'ih-Chi and Hua Liu could travel 1,000 li in one day, but
for catching rats they were not equal to a wild cat. Different
animals possess different aptitudes.
'An owl can catch fleas at night, and see the tip of a hair,
but if it comes out in the daytime its eyes are so dazzled it
cannot see a mountain. Different creatures are differently constituted.
'Thus, as has been said, those who would have right without its
correlative, wrong; or good government without its correlative,
misrule, they do not apprehend the great principles of the universe
nor the conditions to which all creation is subject. One might
as well talk of the existence of heaven without that of earth,
or of the negative principle without the positive, which is clearly
absurd. Such people, if they do not yield to argument, must be
either fools or knaves.
'Rules have abdicated under different conditions, dynasties have
been continued under different conditions. Those who did not hit
off a favourable time and were in opposition to their age, they
were called usurpers. Those who did hit off the right time and
were in harmony with their age, they were called patriots. Fair
and softly, my River friend; what should you know of value and
worthlessness, of great and small?'
'In this case', replied the Spirit of the River 'what am I to
do and what am I not to do? How am I to arrange my declinings
and receivings, my takings-hold and my lettings-go?'
'From the point of view of Tao', said the Spirit of the Ocean,
'value and worthlessness are like slopes and plains. To consider
either as absolutely such would involve great injury to Tao. Few
and many are like giving and receiving presents. These must not
be regarded from one side, or there will be great confusion to
Tao. Be discriminating, as the ruler of a State whose administration
is impartial. Be dispassionate, as the worshipped deity whose
dispensation is impartial. Be expansive, like the points of the
compass, to whose boundlessness no limit is set. Embrace all creation,
and none shall be more sheltered than another. This is the unconditioned.
And where all things are equal, how can we have the long and the
'Tao is without beginning, without end. Other things are born
and die. They are impermanent; and now for better, now for worse,
they are ceaselessly changing form. Past years cannot be recalled:
time cannot be arrested. The succession of states is endless;
and every end is followed by a new beginning. Thus it may be said
that man's duty to his neighbour is embodied in the eternal principles
of the universe.
'The life of man passes by like a galloping horse, changing at
every turn, at every hour. What should he do, or what should he
not do, other than let his decomposition go on?'
'If this is the case', retorted the Spirit of the River, 'pray
what is the value of Tao?'
'Those who understand Tao', answered the Spirit of the Ocean,
'must necessarily apprehend the eternal principles above mentioned
and be clear as to their application. Consequently, they do not
suffer any injury from without.
'The man of perfect virtue cannot be burnt by fire, nor drowned
in water, nor hurt by frost or sun, nor torn by wild bird or beast.
Not that he makes light of these; but that he discriminates between
safety and danger. Happy under prosperous and adverse circumstances
alike, cautious as to what he discards and what he accepts; nothing
can harm him.
'Therefore it has been said that the natural abides within, the
artificial without. Virtue abides in the natural. Knowledge of
the action of the natural and of the artificial has its root in
the natural, its development in virtue. And thus, whether in motion
or at rest, whether in expansion or in contraction, there is always
a reversion to the essential and to the ultimate.'
'What do you mean', enquired the Spirit of the River, 'by the
natural and the artificial?'
'Horse and oxen', answered the Spirit of the Ocean, 'have four
feet. That is the natural. Put a halter on a horse's head, a string
through a bullock's nose, that is the artificial.
'Therefore it has been said, do not let the artificial obliterate
the natural; do not let will obliterate destiny; do not let virtue
be sacrificed to fame. Diligently observe these precepts without
fail, and thus you will revert to the divine.'
The walrus envies the centipede; the centipede envies the snake;
the snake envies the wind; the wind envies the eye; the eye envies
The walrus said to the centipede, 'I hop about on one leg, but
not very successfully. How do you manage all these legs you have?'
'I don't manage them', replied the centipede. 'Have you never
seen salive? When it is ejected, the big drops are the size of
pearls, the small ones like mist. The fall promiscuously on the
ground and cannot be counted. And so it is that my mechanism works
naturally, without my being conscious of the fact.'
The centipede said to the snake, 'With all my legs I do not move
as fast as you with none. How is that?'
'One's natural mechanism', replied the snake, 'is not a thing
to be changed. What need have I for legs?'
The snake said to the wind, 'I can manage to wriggle along, but
I have a form. Now you come blustering down from the north sea
to bluster away to the south sea, and you seem to be without form.
How is that?'
"'Tis true', replied the wind, 'that I bluster as you say;
but any one who can point at me or kick at me, excels me. On the
other hand, I can break huge trees and destroy large buildings.
That is my strong point. Out of all the small things in which
I do not excel I make one great one in which I do excel. And to
excel in great things is given only to the Sages.'
When Confucius visited K'uang, the men of Sung surrounded him
closely. Yet he went on playing and singing to his guitar without
'How is it, Sir,' enquired Tzu Lu, 'that you are so cheerful?'
'Come here', replied Confucius, 'and I will tell you. For a long
time I have been struggling against failure, but in vain. Fate
is against me. For a long time I have been seeking success, but
in vain. The hour has not come.
'In the days of Yao and Shun, no man throughout the empire was
a failure, though no one was conscious of the gain. In the days
of Chieh and Chou, no man throughout the empire was a success,
though no one was conscious of the loss. The times and circumstances
were adapted accordingly.
'To travel by water and not avoid sea-serpents and dragons, this
is the courage of the fishermen. To travel by land and not avoid
the rhinoceros and the tiger, this is the courage of hunters.
When bright blades cross, to look on death as on life, this is
the courage of the Sage. Yu! rest in this. My destiny is cut out
Shortly afterwards, the captain of the troops came in and apologized,
saying, 'We thought you were Yang Hu; consequently we surrounded
you. We find we have made a mistake'. Whereupon he again apologized
Kung Sun Lung said to Mou of Wei, 'When young I studied the Tao
of the ancient Sages. When I grew up I knew all about the practice
of charity and duty to one's neighbour, the identification of
like and unlike, the separation of hardness and whiteness, and
about making the not-so so, and the impossible possible. I vanquished
the wisdom of all the philosophies. I exhausted all the arguments
that were brought against me. I thought that I had indeed reached
the goal. But now that I have heard Chuang Tzu, I am lost in astonishment
at his grandeur. I know not whether it is in arguing or in knowledge
that I am not equal to him. I can no longer open my mouth. May
I ask you to impart to me the secret?'
Kung Tzu Mou leant over the table and sighed. Then he looked
up to heaven, and smiling replied, saying, 'Have you never heard
of the frog in the old well? ‹ The frog said to the turtle
of the eastern sea, "Happy indeed am I! I hop on to the rail
around the well. I rest in the hollow of some broken brick. Swimming,
I gather the water under my arms and shut my mouth. I plunge into
the mud, burying my feet and toes; and not one of the cockles,
crabs, or tadpoles I see around me are my match. Why do you not
come, Sir, and pay me a visit?"
'Now the turtle of the eastern sea had not got its left leg down
ere its right had already stuck fast, so it shrank back and begged
to be excused. It then described the sea, saying, "A thousand
li would not measure its breadth, nor a thousand fathoms its depth.
In the days of the Great Yü, there were nine years of flood
out of ten; but this did not add to its bulk. In the days of T'ang,
there were seven years out of eight of drought; but this did not
narrow its span. Not to be affected by duration of time, not to
be affected by volume of water, such is the great happiness of
the eastern sea."
'At this the well-frog was considerably astonished, and knew
not what to say next. And for one whose knowledge does not reach
to the positive-negative domain, to attempt to understand Chuang
Tzu, is like a mosquito trying to carry a mountain, or an ant
to swim a river, they cannot succeed. And for one whose knowledge
does not reach to the abstrusest of the abstruse, but is based
only upon such victories as you have enumerated, is not he like
the frog in the well?
'Chuang Tzu moves in the realms below while soaring to heaven
above. For him north and south do not exist; the four points are
gone; he is engulfed in the unfathomable. For him east and west
do not exist. Beginning with chaos, he has gone back to Tao; and
yet you think you are going to examine his doctrines and meet
them with argument! This is like looking at the sky through a
tube, or pointing at the earth with an awl, a small result.
'Have you never heard how the youth of Shou-ling went to study
at Han-tan? They did not learn what they wanted at Han-tan, and
forgot all they knew before into the bargain, so that they returned
home in disgrace. And you, if you do not go away, you will forget
all you know, and waste your time into the bargain.'
Kung Sun Lung's jaw dropped; his tongue clave to his palate;
and he slunk away.
Chuang Tzu was fishing in the P'u when the prince of Ch'u sent
two high officials to ask him to take charge of the administration
of the Ch'u State.
Chuang Tzu went on fishing and without turning his head said,
'I have heard that in Ch'u there is a sacred tortoise which has
been dead now some three thousand years. And that the prince keeps
this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest on the altar of his
ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have
its remains venerated, or be alive and wagging its tail in the
'It would rather be alive', replied the two officials, 'and wagging
its tail in the mud'.
'Begone!' cried Chuang Tzu. 'I too will wag my tail in the mud.'
Hui Tzu was prime minister in the Liang State. Chuang Tzu went
thither to visit him.
Some one remarked, 'Chuang Tzu has come. He wants to be minister
in your place.'
Thereupon Hui Tzu was afraid, and searched all over the State
for three days and nights to find him.
Then Chuang Tzu went to see Hui Tzu, and said, 'In the south
there is a bird. It is a kind of phoenix. Do you know it? It started
from the south sea to fly to the north sea. Except on the wu-t'ung
tree, it would not alight. It would eat nothing but the fruit
of the bamboo, drink nothing but the purest spring water. An owl
which had got the rotten carcass of a rat, looked up as the phoenix
flew by, and screeched. Are you not screeching at me over your
kingdom of Liang?"
Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu had strolled on to the bridge over the
Hao, when the former observed, 'See how the minnows are darting
about! That is the pleasure of fishes.'
'You not being a fish yourself', said Hui Tzu, 'how can you possibly
know in what consists the pleasure of fishes'?
'And you not being I', retorted Chuang Tzu, 'how can you know
that I do not know'?
'If I, not being you, cannot know what you know', urged Hui Tzu,
'it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know in what consists
the pleasure of fishes'.
'Let us go back', said Chuang Tzu, 'to your original question.
You asked me how I knew in what consists the pleasure of fishes.
Your very question shows that you knew I knew. I knew it from
my own feelings on this bridge.
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Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition,
1889; second edition, 1923.