The Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu. Chapter 1. Argument: Space infinite. Time infinite. Relativity of magnitudes, physical and moral. The magnitude absolute. Usefulness as a test of value. The usefulness of the useless.*

In the northern ocean there is a fish, called the Leviathan, many thousand li in size. This leviathan changes into a bird, called the Rukh, whose back is many thousand li in breadth. With a mighty effort it rises, and its wings obscure the sky like clouds.

At the equinox, this bird prepares to start for the southern ocean, the Celestial Lake. And in the Record of Marvels we read that when the rukh flies southwards, the water is smitten for a space of three thousand li around, while the bird itself mounts upon a typhoon to a height of ninety thousand li, for a flight of six months' duration.

Just so are the motes in a sunbeam, blown aloft by God. For whether the blue of the sky is its real colour, or only the result of distance without end, the effect to the bird looking down would be just the same as to the motes.

If there is not sufficient depth, water will not float large ships. Upset a cupful into a small hole, and a mustard-seed will be your boat. Try to float the cup, and it will stick, from the disproportion between water and vessel.

So with air. If there is not a sufficient depth, it cannot support large birds. And for this bird a depth of ninety thousand li is necessary; and then, with nothing save the clear sky above, and no obstacle in the way, it starts upon its journey to the south.

A cicada laughed, and said to a young dove, 'Now, when I fly with all my might, 'tis as much as I can do to get from tree to tree. And sometimes I do not reach, but fall to the ground midway. What then can be the use of going up ninety thousand li in order to start for the south?'

He who goes to Mang-ts'ang, taking three meals with him, comes back with his stomach as full as when he started. But he who travels a hundred li must grind flour enough for a night's halt. And he who travels a thousand li must supply himself with provisions for three months. Those two little creatures, what should they know? Small knowledge has not the compass of great knowledge any more than a short year has the length of a long year.

How can we tell that this is so? The mushroom of a morning knows not the alternation of day and night. The chrysalis knows not the alternation of spring and autumn. Theirs are short years.

But in the State of Ch'u there is a tortoise whose spring and autumn are each of five hundred years' duration. And in former days there was a large tree which had a spring and autumn each of eight thousand years' duration. Yet, P'eng Tsu is still, alas! an object of envy to all.

It was on this very subject that the Emperor T'ang spoke to Chi, as follows: 'At the barren north there is a great sea, the Celestial Lake. In it there is a fish, several thousand li in breadth, and I know not how many in length. It is called the Leviathan. There is also a bird, called the Rukh, with a back like Mount T'ai, and wings like clouds across the sky. Upon a typhoon it soars up to a height of ninety thousand li, beyond the clouds and atmosphere, with only the clear sky above it. And then it directs its flight towards the south pole.

'A quail laughed, and said: Pray, what may that creature be going to do? I rise but a few yards in the air, and settle again after flying around among the reeds. That is the most I can manage. Now, where ever can this creature be going to?'

Such, indeed, is the difference between small and great. Take, for instance, a man who creditably fills some office, or who is a pattern of virtue in his neighbourhood, or who influences his prince to right government of the State, his opinion of himself will be much the same as that quail's. The philosopher Yung laughs at such a one. He, if the whole world flattered him, would not be affected thereby, nor if the whole world blamed him would he lose his faith in himself. For Yung can distinguish between the intrinsic and the extrinsic, between honour and shame, ‹ and such men are rare in their generation. But even he has not established himself.

There was Lieh Tzu again. He could ride upon the wind, and travel whithersoever he wished, staying away as long as fifteen days. Among mortals who attain happiness, such a man is rare. Yet although Lieh Tzu was able to dispense with walking, he was still dependent upon something. But had he been charioted upon the eternal fitness of Heaven and Earth, driving before him the elements as his team while roaming through the realms of For-Ever, upon what, then, would he have had to depend?

Thus it has been said, 'The perfect man ignores self; the divine man ignores action; the true Sage ignores reputation.'

The Emperor Yao wished to abdicate in favour of Hsü Yu, saying, 'If, when the sun and moon are shining, you persist in lighting a torch, is not that a misapplication of fire? If, when the rainy season is at its height, you still continue to water the ground, is not this a waste of labour? Now, sir, do you assume the reins of government, and the empire will be at peace. I am but a dead body, conscious of my own deficieny. I beg you will ascend the throne.'

'Ever since you, sire, have directed the administration', replied Hsü Yu, 'the empire has enjoyed tranquillity. Supposing, therefore, that I were to take your place now, should I gain any reputation thereby? Besides, reputation is but the shadow of reality; and should I trouble myself about the shadow? The tit, building its nest in the mighty forest, occupies but a single twig. The tapir slakes its thirst from the river, but drinks enough only to fill its belly. To you sire, belongs the reputation: the empire has no need for me. If a cook is unable to dress his funeral sacrifices, the boy who impersonates the corpse may not step over the wines and meats and do it for him.'

Chien Wu said to Lien Shu, 'I heard Chieh Yu utter something unjustifiably extravagant and without either rhyme or reason. I was greatly startled at what he said, for it seemed to me boundless as the Milky Way, though very improbable and removed from the experiences of mortals.'

'What was it?' asked Lien Shu.

'He declared', replied Chien Wu, 'that on the Miao-ku-she mountain there lives a divine man whose flesh is like ice or snow, whose demeanour is that of a virgin, who eats no fruit of the earth, but lives on air and dew, and who, riding on clouds with flying dragons for his team, roams beyond the limits of mortality. This being is absolutely inert. Yet he wards off corruption from all things, and causes the crops to thrive. Now I call that nonsense, and do not believe it.'

'Well.' answered Lien Shu, 'you don't ask a blind man's opinion of a picture, nor do you invite a deaf man to a concert. And blindness and deafness are not physical only. There is blindness and deafness of the mind, diseases from which I fear you yourself are suffering. The good influence of that man fills all creation. Yet because a paltry generation cries for reform, you would have him condescend to the details of an empire!

'Objective existences cannot harm him. In a flood which reached to the sky, he would not be drowned. In a drought, though metals ran liquid and mountains were scorched up, he would not be hot. Out of his very dust and sifting you might fashion two such men as Yao and Shun. And you would have him occupy himself with adjectives!'

A man of the Sung State carried some sacrificial caps into the Yüeh State, for sale. But the men of Yüeh used to cut off their hair and paint their bodies, so that they had no use for such things. And so, when the Emperor Yao, the ruler of all under heaven and pacificator of all within the shores of ocean, paid a visit to the four sages of the Miao-ku-she mountain, on returning to his capital at Fen-yang, the empire existed for him no more.

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, 'The Prince of Wei gave me a seed of a large-sized kind of gourd. I planted it, and it bore a fruit as big as a five-bushel measure. Now had I used this for holding liquids, it would have been too heavy to life; and had I cut it in half for ladles, the ladles would have been ill adapted for such purpose. It was uselessly large, so I broke it up.'

'Sir', replied Chuang Tzu, 'it was rather you who did not know how to use large things. There was a man of Sung who had a recipe for salve for chapped hands, his family having been silk-washers for generations. Well, a stranger who had heard of it came and offered him 100 oz. of silver for this recipe; whereupon he called together his clansmen and said, "We have never made much money by silk-washing. Now, we can make 100 oz. in a single day. Let the stranger have the recipe."

'So the stranger got it, and went and informed the Prince of Wu who was just then at war with the Yüeh State. Accordingly, the Prince used it in a naval battle fought at the beginning of winter with the Yüeh State, the result being that the latter was totally defeated. The stranger was rewarded with territory and a title. Thus, while the efficacy of salve to cure chapped hands was in both cases the same, its application was different. Here, it secured a title; there, a capacity for washing silk.

'Now as to your five-bushel gourd, why did you not make a boat of it, and float about over river and lake? You could not then have complained of its not holding anything! But I fear you are rather wooly inside.'

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, 'Sir, I have a large tree, of a worthless kind. Its trunk is so irregular and knotty that it cannot be measured out for planks; while its branches are so twisted as to admit of no geometrical subdivision whatever. It stands by the roadside, but no carpenter will look at it. And your words, sir, are like that tree ‹ big and useless, not wanted by anybody.'

'Sir', rejoined Chuang Tzu, 'have you never seen a wild cat, crouching down in wait for its prey? Right and left it springs from bough to bough, high and low alike, ‹ until perchance it gets caught in a trap or dies in a snare.

On the other hand, there is the yak with its great huge body. It is big enough in all conscience, but it cannot catch mice.

'Now if you have a big tree and are at a loss what to do with it, why not plant it in the domain of non-existence, whither you might betake yourself to inaction by its side, to blissful repose beneath its shade? There it would be safe from the axe and from all other injury; for being of no use to others, itself would be free from harm.'

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* Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition, 1889; second edition, 1923.




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