Ceaseless generation of new perspectives
March 14, 2011 1:45 AM   Subscribe

Zhuangzi as Philosopher Essay by Brook Ziporyn made available (there's also some other prefatory matter there) at the website of the publishers of his translation of the Zhuangzi, one of the seminal texts of Daoism, putatively authored by Zhuang Zhou in the fourth century BCE. Via, where there's plenty of other informed discussion on Zhuangzi, Daoism and other ancient Chinese thought.
posted by Abiezer (24 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Agh, I still find myself thinking 'Oh, you mean Chuang Tzu?'. Maybe this'll help my education.
posted by Segundus at 2:19 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks! I'm quite fond to Thomas Merton's abridged version of Zhunagzi, who is often known as Chuang Tzu. Very readable and clear for a modern American.
posted by msalt at 2:20 AM on March 14, 2011

I have obviously been assimilated by the Hanyu pinyin borg, Segundus, as that didn't even occur to me. I'll add a tag.
posted by Abiezer at 2:21 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

"The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.
The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to."
- Zhuangzi
posted by msalt at 2:35 AM on March 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

msait, The Tao Te Ching has a passage beautifully expressing a similar idea:

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
posted by Dia Nomou Nomo Apethanon at 5:18 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

@msalt - A more plausible translation of the end of that - and one that keeps the joke that's in the Chinese (a pun on 言 as both "speech" and "to speak," or "words" and "to say") - is "Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? I'd like to have a word with him!"

Everyone has got their favorite translation of Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu, if you must); mine is Victor H. Mair's Wandering on the Way, which combines philological expertise with a joyful weirdness that captures the essential strangeness of the text better than any other translation I've seen. A. C. Graham's translation is great to have as a reference, but is somewhat controversial, and is in any event probably most of interest to people trying to work out their classical Chinese grammar using a translation as a crib. Watson's translation is serviceable but has a few errors, and like his other translations tends to rely heavily on Japanese readings of the text, meaning that he reads Zhuangzi as proto-Zen.

I haven't read the Ziporyn translation, but will have to check it out. The more the merrier, I say: Zhuangzi is, besides its philosophical content (which is as motley and self-contradictory as the rest of the text), one of the truly great works of world literature: the start of the 'Autumn Floods' chapter, in particular, is one of the loveliest things I think I've ever read, and the passage in the Outer Chapters (24, I think, though I can't swear to it) where Zhuangzi mentions in passing that he misses his late philosophical sparring partner is a perfect description of loss.
posted by bokane at 6:24 AM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

When I was in highschool I read the tao te ching and a bunch of little tao of books (tao of Pooh, tao of physics or genes or something) in the back of an einstein bagels. I haven't read this one but there is nothing that makes me so happy as taoism. I don't call myself an anything but more than any other religious text I read taoism feels alive and vibrant and joyful and delighted to be. We don't need enlightenment, we already are here in the universe. You can't fail. Bein in the universe and thinking of something other than this moment is still an activity of this moment.

And in case you're wondering how crazy I am, I still believe that atoms are happy to exist. All the little carbon atoms are so happy to have all the little hydrogen and oxygen atoms floating nearby. (Now when I take chemistry and biology classes all the little molecules and cells look like happy little beings to me)

Of course I didn't really have friends in highschool so I suppose being friends with atoms, trees, ants, books, and the universe itself was a useful endeavor.

Well thank you for opening my morning with Taoism, such a happy way to wake up. Now to find coffee. I like to imagine that I will finish learning hanzi someday and read the originals (LOL) because having learned like 18 characters in 6 years, clearly I've nearly mastered the 4000 characters I would need to read them... right?
posted by xarnop at 6:52 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I like to imagine that I will finish learning hanzi someday and read the originals ...

Hey, it can be done. One of the things that made me learn Chinese was a copy of the Stephen Mitchell version - I wouldn't say "translation" now - of the Daode Jing: my parents gave it to me for a Christmas present when I was 15, and I fell in love with it and decided that I'd learn Chinese to read it in the original. Five years later, I was taking a class in guided readings in the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi at Beijing University. There was a lot of hard work in between, but it's far from impossible.

One thing I think that is often overlooked is the sheer number of different voices in early Daoist texts. Even today, people talk in terms of "Laozi" and "Zhuangzi" as if they were real people; we have no real evidence that they were, and even if they had been, there are plenty of people who later used the names. The Daode Jing is a mixture of gnomic rhyme, much of it having to do with Indic-style breath control exercises, quietist philosophy in the mode of Yang Zhu, and instructions on how to rule a small state that is surrounded by larger, more powerful states. The Zhuangzi incorporates all of these, and adds in plenty more to boot: the voice of Zhuangzi, a logician gone bad; a whole host of later Daoists and their ongoing arguments with Confucians and followers of Mozi, and later with each other.
That said, what I found most electrifying about the Zhuangzi when I read it - in English and then in Chinese - was the sense of a real personality behind parts of it, a mind that I could recognize and connect to and more often than not agree with. I'd never had that sense before when reading anything else in classical Chinese, and I've had it only rarely since.
posted by bokane at 7:24 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

> And in case you're wondering how crazy I am, I still believe that atoms are happy to exist

Crazy, maybe, but not alone. John Updike wrote "The Dance of the Solids" for Scientific American and SA put it online here when he died in 2009. Updike provided a few introductory lines the last of which is "Solidity emerges as being intricate, giddy, playful."

The last couplet of the last verse is especially aprops to happy atomic-level thingies:

Magnetic Atoms, such as Iron, keep
Unpaired Electrons in their middle shell,
Each one a spinning Magnet that would leap
Bloch Walls whereat antiparallel
Domains converge. Diffuse Material
Magnetic when another Field
Aligns domains like Seaweed in a swell.
How nicely microscopic forces yield,
In Units growing Visible, the World we wield!

That "nicely" is nice. Beyond any doubt Updike was aware of the complicated etymology and meaning drift of "nice"...

late 13c., "foolish, stupid, senseless," from O.Fr. nice "silly, foolish," from L. nescius "ignorant," lit. "not-knowing," from ne- "not" (see un-) + stem of scire "to know." "The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c.1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced "too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness." [Fowler]

personal fave quatrain:

Textbooks and Heaven only are Ideal;
Solidity is an imperfect state.
Within the cracked and dislocated Real
Nonstoichiometric crystals dominate.

Happy little nonstoichiometric crystals, I'm glad you exist too.
posted by jfuller at 8:22 AM on March 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

It looks like it's out of print in America, but Tsai Chih Ching's comic adaptation is amazing.
posted by khaibit at 8:23 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you for posting this, Abiezer. Zhuangzi is my favorite philosopher, and I still want to do my own translation (some day...).

Everyone here knows about Daoist religion and Chinese folk religion, and how little they have to do with Daoist philosophy, right? Okay, good.
posted by jiawen at 9:52 AM on March 14, 2011

This comic adaptation of Zhuangzi's sayings is pretty fantastic. Thanks for all these great links!
posted by cubby at 10:10 AM on March 14, 2011

khaibit - Same author, different title. I wonder if these are the same books of if there is a series?
posted by cubby at 10:14 AM on March 14, 2011

My favorite is The Secret of Caring for Life, as translated by Burton Watson. Terebess Asia Online (TAO) has several different translations of Zhuangzi/Chuang Tzu up online along with a host of other resources.
posted by Huplescat at 10:30 AM on March 14, 2011

Yes; IIRC, Cai Zhizhong ("Tsai Chih Chung," if we really must) has a whole series.
posted by bokane at 10:31 AM on March 14, 2011

> khaibit - Same author, different title. I wonder if these are the same books of if there is a series?

They're different books. I have both.
posted by ardgedee at 11:59 AM on March 14, 2011

Excellent! I can't wait to start digging through this.

I started reading the Dao De Jing after pursuing my interest in the Yi Jing over at Wengu Zhixin, which has a large collection of Chinese/Daoist literature. I was really struck by just how different much of the thinking was in comparison to Western philosophy. Sometimes I would read a passage that would strike my truth chord in a resonance which would crack and sometimes shatter my inherited societal ideals of 'right'. I distinctly remember thinking "What would the "Western world" be like if we had integrated these concepts into our society?", especially in terms of the emphasis on humility and non-dualistic or non-deterministic thought. My apologies if I've mangled the expression of my thoughts in terms of philosophy; I don't know it well in an academic sense.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

So by that logic, then as an economic entity increases profit, it decreases usefulness? Sounds about right to me.
posted by nTeleKy at 1:39 PM on March 14, 2011

(self-link) Exterminating Angel has published 3 chapters of a slim book I'm writing of Daoist manifestations in modern America. ("American Koans" is their title; mine is "Philosophy Without All Those Words.")
posted by msalt at 5:37 PM on March 14, 2011

I haven't read through the essay yet, but I've read Ziporyn's translation of the Zhuangzi texts. I'm curious as to the applicability of his philosophy (or Daoist philosophy in general) to Western or American culture. To me there definitely seems to be a segment of the American public who adhere to a sort of cowboy philosophy that might well cohere to Zhuangzi's teaching. Not only would they probably like his tone, but I think that the emphasis on "wandering" speaks to the Harley-Davidson cross-country cowboy motorcyclist in all of us, taking everything as it comes (Okay, maybe not Harley-Davidson riders since they might be more a fair-weather sort of rider).
posted by mangasm at 7:46 PM on March 14, 2011

I've never understood why Zhuangzi isn't better known in the U.S., even if we keep spelling his name differently. (It hasn't stopped Will Oldham.)
For example, the chapter Cracking the Safe seems awfully modern.
posted by msalt at 8:19 PM on March 14, 2011

jfuller: Scientific American had me thinking poorly of Updike until I realized that they'd repeatedly screwed up their transcription of his poem. Here's one that makes sense and appears to be correct.
posted by eritain at 2:03 PM on March 16, 2011

aside from 'pbonons', surely a typographic error
posted by eritain at 2:08 PM on March 16, 2011

Listening Ridiculously and the Oddity of the Zhuangzi

A Certain Butcher (Cook Ding in Zhuanzi)

Both from Warp, Weft, and Way, an excellent blog Abeizer pointed me to.
posted by msalt at 2:05 AM on March 22, 2011

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