The Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu. Chapter 30. Wen Wang the Swordsman*

Of old, Wen Wang of Chao loved sword-play. Swordsmen thronged his halls, to the number of three thousand and more. Day and night they had bouts before the prince. In the course of a year, a hundred or so would be killed or wounded. Yet the prince was never satisfied.

Within three years, the State had begun to go to rack and ruin, and other princes to form designs upon it. Thereupon the Heir Apparent, Li, became troubled in mind; and said to the officers of his household, 'Whosoever shall persuade the prince to do away with these swordsmen, to him I will give a thousand ounces of silver.'

To this his officers replied, 'Chuang Tzu is the man'.

Thereupon the Heir Apparent sent messengers to Chuang Tzu with a thousand ounces of silver, which he would not accept, but accompanied the messengers back to their master.

'What does your Highness require of me', asked Chuang Tzu, 'that you should bestow upon me a thousand ounces?'

'I had heard', replied the young prince, 'that you were a famous Sage, and I ventured to send this money as a present to your servants. But as you would not receive it, what more can I say?'

'I understand', answered Chuang Tzu, 'that your Highness would have me cure the prince of his peculiar weakness. Now suppose that I do not succeed with the prince, and consequently with your Highness, the punishment of death is what I have to expect. What good would the thousand ounces be to me then?'

'On the other hand, if I succeed with the prince, and consequently with your Highness, the whole State of Chao contains nothing I could not have for the asking.'

'You must know, however', said the young prince, 'that my father will only receive swordsmen'.

'Well', replied Chuang Tzu, 'I am a good swordsman myself.'

'Besides which', added the Heir Apparent, 'the swordsmen he is accustomed to see have all dishevelled hair hanging over their temples. They wear slouching caps with coarse tangled tassels, and short-tailed coats. They glare with their eyes and talk in a fierce tone. This is what my father likes. But if you go to him dressed in your ordinary scholar's dress, the result is sure to be disastrous.'

'I will accustom myself to the dress', replied Chuang Tzu; and after practising for three days, he went again to see the young prince, who accompanied him into his father's presence.

The latter drew a sharp sword and awaited Chuang Tzu's approach. But Chuang Tzu, when he entered the door of the audience chamber, did not hurry forward, neither did he prostrate himself before the prince.

'What have you to say to me', cried the prince, 'that you have obtained your introduction through the Heir Apparent?'

'I have heard', replied Chuang Tzu, 'that your Highness loves sword-play. Therefore I have come to exhibit my skill.'

'What can you do in that line?' asked the prince.

'Were I to meet an opponent', said Chuang Tzu, 'at every ten paces, I could go on for a thousand li without being stopped'.

'Brave!' cried the prince. 'There is not your match in the empire.'

'When I fight', continued Chuang Tzu, 'I make a show of being weak but push a vigorous attack. The last to start, I am the first to arrive. I should like your Highness to make trial of me.'

'Rest awhile', replied the prince. 'Stay here and await orders. I will arrange a day for you.'

Thereupon the prince spent seven days in trying his swordsmen. Some sixty of them were either killed or wounded, but at length he selected five or six and bade them attend in the audience-chamber with their swords. He then summoned Chuang Tzu and said, 'Now I will see what your swordsmanship is worth'.

'I have been longing for this', replied Chuang Tzu.

'Does it matter to you', asked the prince, 'of what length your weapon may be?'

'Not at all', replied Chuang Tzu. 'I have three swords, of which I will ask your Highness to choose one. We will then proceed to the trial.'

'Which are your three swords?' enquired the prince.

'There is the sword of the Son of Heaven', said Chuang Tzu, 'the sword of the Princes, and the sword of the People'.

'What is the sword of the Son of Heaven?' asked the prince.

'The stone wall of Yen-ch'i is its point', replied Chuang Tzu. The mountains of Ch'i are its edge. Chin and Wei are its back. Chou and Sung are its hilt. Han and Wei are its sheath. It is enclosed in the four hordes of barbarians, wrapped in the four seasons, surrounded by the great ocean. It is made of the five elements. It is the arbiter of punishment and reward. It operates under the influence of the Yin and the Yang. In spring and summer it is at rest. In autumn and winter it moves abroad. Push it, it does not advance. Raise it, it does not go up. Lower it, it does not go down. Whirl it around, it does not change position. Above, it cleaves the floating clouds; below, it cuts through the density of earth. One flash of this blade, and the princes of the empire submit. Such is the sword of the Son of Heaven.'

At this the prince seemed absorbed in his reflections. Then he enquired, saying, 'And what is the sword of the Princes?'

'The wise and brave', replied Chuang Tzu, 'are its point. The incorruptible are its edge. The virtuous are its back. The loyal are its hilt. The heroic are its sheath. You may push this sword too, it will not advance. Raise it, it will not go up. Lower it, it will not go down. Whirl it around, it will not change position. Above, it models itself upon the round heaven, in order to keep in harmony with the sun, moon, and stars. Below, it models itself upon the square earth, in order to keep in harmony with the four seasons. It adapts itself to the wishes of the people, in order to diffuse peace on all sides. One flash of this blade is like a roaring clap of thunder. Between the boundaries of the State there is not left one but who yields and obeys the command of his prince. Such is the sword of the Princes.'

'And the sword of the People?' enquired the prince.

'The sword of the People', replied Chuang Tzu, 'has dishevelled hair hanging over its temples. It wears a slouching cap with coarse tangled tassel, and a short-tailed coat. It glares with its eyes and talks in a fierce tone. When it engages in conflict, above, it cuts off head and neck; below, it smites liver and lungs. Such is the sword of the People. It is like a game-cock. One day, its life is cut short, and it is of no more use to the State.

'Now you, great prince, wield sovereign power, and yet you devote yourself to this sword of the People. I am truly ashamed of it.'

Thereupon the prince drew Chuang Tzu up on to the dais, and the attendants served food, the king three times assisting with his own hand.

'Be seated, great prince', said Chuang Tzu, 'and compose your mind. I have said all I have to say on swords.'

After this the prince did not quit his palace for three months, while the swordsmen, submitting to the new order of things, died in their own homes.
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* Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition, 1889; second edition, 1923.


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