Open main menu


CHUANG TZŬ[1] belongs to the third and fourth centuries before Christ. He lived in the feudal age, when China was split up into a number of States owning a nominal allegiance to the royal, and weakly, House of Chou.

He is noticed by the historian Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien, who flourished at the close of the second century B.C., as follows:—

Chuang Tzŭ was a native of Mêng.[2] His personal name was Chou. He held a petty official post at Ch'i-yüan in Mêng.[3] He lived contemporaneously with Prince Hui of the Liang State and Prince Hsüan of the Ch'i State. His erudition was most varied; but his chief doctrines are based upon the sayings of Lao Tzŭ.[4] Consequently, his writings, which extend to over 100,000 words, are mostly allegorical.[5]

He wrote The Old Fisherman, Robber Chê, and Opening Trunks, with a view to asperse the Confucian school and to glorify the mysteries of Lao Tzŭ.[6] Wei Lei Hsü, Kêng Sang Tzŭ, and the like, are probably unsubstantial figments of his imagination.[7] Nevertheless, his literary and dialectic skill was such that the best scholars of the age proved unable to refute his destructive criticism of the Confucian and Mihist schools.[8]

His teachings were like an overwhelming flood, which spreads at its own sweet will. Consequently, from rulers and ministers downwards, none could apply them to any definite use.[9]

Prince Wei of the Ch'u State, hearing of Chuang Tzŭ's good report, sent messengers to him, bearing costly gifts, and inviting him to become Prime Minister. At this Chuang Tzŭ smiled and said to the messengers, "You offer me great wealth and a proud position indeed; but have you never seen a sacrificial ox?—When after being fattened up for several years, it is decked with embroidered trappings and led to the altar, would it not willingly then change places with some uncared-for pigling?...... Begone! Defile me not! I would rather disport myself to my own enjoyment in the mire than be slave to the ruler of a State. I will never take office. Thus I shall remain free to follow my own inclinations."[10]

To enable the reader to understand more fully the writings of Chuang Tzŭ, and to appreciate his aim and object, it will be necessary to go back a few more hundred years.

In the seventh century B.C., lived a man, now commonly spoken of as Lao Tzŭ. He was the great Prophet of his age. He taught men to return good for evil, and to look forward to a higher life. He professed to have found the clue to all things human and divine.

He seems to have insisted that his system could not be reduced to words. At any rate, he declared that those who spoke did not know, while those who knew did not speak.

But to accommodate himself to conditions of mortality, he called this clue TAO, or The Way, explaining that the word was to be understood metaphorically, and not in a literal sense as the way or road upon which men walk.

The following are sentences selected from the indisputably genuine remains of Lao Tzŭ, to be found scattered here and there in early Chinese literature:—

All the world knows that the goodness of doing good is not real goodness.

When merit has been achieved, do not take it to yourself. On the other hand, if you do not take it to yourself, it shall never be taken from you.

By many words wit is exhausted. It is better to preserve a mean.

Keep behind, and you shall be put In front. Keep out, and you shall be kept in.

What the world reverences may not be treated with irreverence.

Good words shall gain you honour In the marketplace. Good deeds shall gain you friends among men.

He who, conscious of being strong, Is content to be weak,—he shall be a cynosure of men.

The Empire is a divine trust, and may not be ruled. He who rules, ruins. He who holds by force, loses.

Mighty is he who conquers himself.

He who Is content, has enough.

To the good I would be good. To the not-good I would also be good, in order to make them good.

If the government Is tolerant, the people will be without guile. If the government is meddling, there will be constant infraction of the law.

Recompense injury with kindness.

The wise man's freedom from grievance is because he will not regard grievances as such.

Of such were the pure and simple teachings of Lao Tzŭ. But it is upon the wondrous doctrine of Inaction that his claim to immortality is founded:—

Do nothing, and all things will be done.

I do nothing, and my people become good of their own accord.

Abandon wisdom and discard knowledge, and the people will be benefited an hundredfold.

The weak overcomes the strong, the soft overcomes the hard. All the world knows this; yet none can act up to it.

The softest things in the world override the hardest. That which has no substance enters where there is no fissure. And so I know that there is advantage in Inaction.

Such doctrines as these were, however, not likely to appeal with force to the sympathies of a practical people. In the sixth century B.C., before Lao Tzŭ's death, another Prophet arose. He taught his countrymen that duty to one's neighbour comprises the whole duty of man. Charitableness of heart, justice, sincerity, and fortitude,—sum up the ethics of Confucius. He knew nothing of a God, of a soul, of an unseen world. And he declared that the unknowable had better remain untouched.

Against these hard and worldly utterances, Chuang Tzŭ raised a powerful cry. The idealism of Lao Tzŭ had seized upon his poetic soul, and he determined to stem the tide of materialism in which men were being fast rolled to perdition.

He failed, of course. It was, indeed, too great a task to persuade the calculating Chinese nation that by doing nothing, all things would be done. But Chuang Tzŭ bequeathed to posterity a work which, by reason of its marvellous literary beauty, has always held a foremost place. It is also a work of much originality of thought. The writer, it is true, appears chiefly as a disciple insisting upon the principles of a Master. But he has contrived to extend the field, and carry his own speculations Into regions never dreamt of by Lao Tzŭ.

It may here be mentioned that the historian Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien, already quoted, states in his notice of Lao Tzŭ that the latter left behind him a small volume in 5,000 and odd characters. Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien does not say, nor does he give the reader to understand, that he himself had ever seen the book in question. Nor does he even hint (see p. v.) that Chuang Tzŭ drew his inspiration from a book, but only from the "sayings" of Lao Tzŭ.

Confucius never mentions this book. Neither does Mencius, China's "Second Sage," who was born about one hundred years after the death of the First.

But all this is a trifle compared with the fact that Chuang Tzŭ himself never once alludes to such a book; although now, in this nineteenth century, there are some, happily few in number, who believe that we possess the actual work of Lao Tzŭ's pen. It is, perhaps, happier still that this small number cannot be said to include within it the name of a single native scholar of eminence. In fact, as far as I know, the whole range of Chinese literature yields but the name of one such individual who has ever believed in the genuineness of the so-called Tao-Tê-Ching.[11] Even he would probably have remained unknown to fame, had he not been brother to Su Tung-p'o.[12]

Chuang Tzŭ, indeed, puts into the mouth of Lao Tzŭ sayings which are now found in the Tao-Tê-Ching, mixed up with a great many other similar sayings which are not to be found there. But he also puts sayings, which now appear in the Tao-Tê-Ching, into the mouth of Confucius (p. 275)! And even into the mouth of the Yellow Emperor (pp. 277-278), whose date is some twenty centuries earlier than that of Lao Tzŭ himself!!

Two centuries before the Christian era, an attempt was made to destroy, with some exceptions, the whole of Chinese literature, in order that history might begin anew from the reign of the First Emperor of united China. The extent of the actual mischief done by this "Burning of the Books" has been greatly exaggerated. Still, the mere attempt at such a holocaust gave a fine chance to the scholars of the later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-221), who seem to have enjoyed nothing so much as forging, if not the whole, at any rate portions, of the works of ancient authors. Some one even produced a treatise under the name of Lieh Tzŭ, a philosopher mentioned by Chuang Tzŭ, not seeing that the individual in question was a creation of Chuang Tzŭ's brain!

And the Tao-Tê-Ching was undoubtedly pieced together somewhere about this period, from recorded sayings and conversations of Lao Tzŭ.[13]

Chuang Tzŭ's work has suffered in like manner. Several chapters are clearly spurious, and many episodes have been interpolated by feeble imitators of an inimitable style.

The text, as it now stands, consists of thirty-three chapters. These are a reduction from fifty-three, which appear to have been in existence in the fourth century A.D.[14] The following is the account given in the Imperial Catalogue of the first known edition :—

Chuang Tzŭ, with Commentary, in 10 books. By Kuo Hsiang of the Chin dynasty (A.D. 265-420).

The Shih-shuo-hsin-yü[15] states that Kuo Hsiang stole his work from Hsiang Hsiu.[16] Subsequently, Hsiang Hsiu's edition was issued, and the two were in circulation together. Hsiang Hsiu's edition is now lost, while Kuo Hsiang's remains.

Comparison with quotations from Hsiang Hsiu's work, as given in Chuang Tzŭ Explained, by Lu Tê-ming, shows conclusive evidence of plagiarism. Nevertheless, Kuo Hsiang contributed a certain amount of independent revision, making it impossible for us to regard the whole as from the hand of Hsiang Hsiu. Consequently, it now passes under the name of Kuo Hsiang.

Since Kuo Hsiang's time, numberless editions with ever-varying interpretations have been produced to delight and to confuse the student. Of these, I have chosen six, representative as nearly as possible of different schools of thought. Their editors are :—

1.—Kuo Hsiang of the Chin dynasty. (a) As given in the Shih Tzŭ Ch’üan Shu, or Complete Works of the Ten Philosophers. (b) As edited by Tan Yüan-ch’un, of the Ming dynasty, with his own valuable notes.

2.—Lü Hui-ch’ing of the Sung dynasty.

3.—Lin Hsi-yi of the Sung dynasty.

4.—Wang Yü of the Sung dynasty. Son of the famous Wang An-shih.

5.—Hsing Tung, a Taoist priest of the Ming dynasty.

6.—Lin Hsi-chung, of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties.

Where there is a consensus of opinion, I have followed such interpretation without demur. But where opinions differ, I have not hesitated to accept that interpretation which seemed to me to be most in harmony with the general tenor of Chuang Tzŭ's philosophy. And where all commentators fail equally, as they sometimes do, to yield anything at all intelligible, I have then ventured to fall back upon what Chuang Tzŭ himself would have called the "light of nature." Always keeping steadily in view the grand precept of Lin Hsi-chung, that we should attempt to interpret Chuang Tzŭ neither according to Lao Tzŭ, nor according to Confucius, nor according to Buddha, but according to Chuang Tzŭ himself.

Of the thirty-three existing chapters, the first seven are called "inside" chapters, the next fifteen "outside," and the remaining eleven "miscellaneous."

The meaning of "inside" and "outside" is a matter of dispute. Some Chinese critics have understood these terms in the obvious sense of esoteric and exoteric. But it is simpler to believe with others that the titles of the first seven chapters are taken from the inside or subject-matter, while the outside chapters are so named because their titles are derived casually from words which happen to stand at the beginning or outside of each.

Compared with the "miscellaneous," these latter seem to have been classed together as elucidating a single principle in terms more easy of apprehension; while the "miscellaneous" chapters embrace several distinct trains of thought, and are altogether more abstruse. The arrangement is unscientific, and it was probably this which caused Su Tung-p'o to decide that division into chapters belongs to a later age. He regards chaps, xxix-xxxii as spurious, although Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien alludes to two of these as Chuang Tzŭ's work. It has indeed been held that the inside chapters alone (i-vii) are from Chuang Tzŭ's own pen. But most of the other chapters, exclusive of xxix-xxxii, contain unmistakable traces of a master hand. Ch. xvii, by virtue of an exquisite imagery, has earned for its author the affectionate sobriquet of "Chou of the Autumn Floods."

Chuang Tzŭ, it must be remembered, has been for centuries classed as a heterodox writer. His work was an effort of reaction against the materialism of Confucian teachings. And in the course of it he was anything but sparing of terms. Confucius is dealt with in language which no modern literate can approve. But the beauty and vigour of the language are facts admitted by all. He is constantly quoted in the great standard lexicon which passes under the name of K'ang Hsi.

But no acquaintance with the philosophy of Chuang Tzŭ would assist the candidate for honours at the competitive examinations which are the portals to official place and power. Consequently, Chuang Tzŭ is studied chiefly by older men, who have retired from office, or who have been disappointed in their career. Those too who are dominated by a religious craving for something better than mortality, find in his pages much agreeable solace against the troubles of this world, with an implied promise of another and a better world to come.

It has been publicly announced that translations of Lao Tzŭ and Chuang Tzŭ are to appear among the Sacred Books of the East.[17]

Now to include the Tao-Tê-Ching in such a series would be already a doubtful step. Apart from spuriousness, it can only by a severe stretch of courtesy be termed a "sacred book." It undoubtedly contains many of Lao Tzŭ's sayings, but it also undoubtedly contains much that Lao Tzŭ never said and never could have said. It illustrates rather that period when the pure Tao of Lao Tzŭ began to be corrupted by alchemistic research and gropings after the elixir of life. It was probably written up in self-defence against the encroachments of Buddhism, in those early days of religious struggle when China was first flooded with the "sacred books" of the West. It is not seriously recognised as the Canon of ancient Taoism. Among the Taoists of to-day, not one in ten thousand has more than heard its name. For modern Taoism is but a hybrid superstition,—a mixture of ancient nature-worship and Buddhistic ceremonial, with Tao as the style of the firm. Its teachings are farther removed from the Tao of Lao Tzŭ than Ritualism from the Christianity of Christ.

As to Chuang Tzŭ, his work can in no sense be called "sacred." Unless indeed we modify somewhat the accepted value of terms, and reckon the works of Aristotle among the "sacred" books of the Greeks. Chuang Tzŭ was scarcely the founder of a school. He was not a Prophet, as Lao Tzŭ was, nor can he fairly be said ever to have been regarded by genuine Taoists as such.

When, many centuries later, the light of Lao Tzŭ's real teachings had long since been obscured, then a foolish Emperor conferred upon Chuang Tzŭ's work the title of Holy Canon of Nan-hua.[18] But this was done solely to secure for the follies of the age the sanction of a great name. Not to mention that Lieh Tzŭ's alleged work, and many other similar forgeries have also been equally honoured. So that if works like these are to be included among the Sacred Books of the East, then China alone will be able to supply matter for translation for the next few centuries to come.

Partly of necessity, and partly to spare the general reader, I have relegated to a supplement all textual and critical notes involving the use of Chinese characters. This supplement will be issued as soon as possible after my return to China. It will not form an integral part of the present work, being intended merely to assist students of the language in verifying the renderings I have here seen fit to adopt. As a compromise I have supplied a kind of running commentary, introduced, in accordance with the Chinese system, into the body of the text. It is hoped that this will enable any one to understand the drift of Chuang Tzŭ's allusions, and to follow arguments which are usually subtle and oft-times obscure.

Only one previous attempt has been made to place Chuang Tzŭ in the hands of English readers.[19] In that case, the knowledge of the Chinese language possessed by the translator was altogether too elementary to justify such an attempt.[20]


  1. Pronounce Chwongdza.
  2. In the modern province of An-hui.
  3. Hence he is often spoken of in the book language as "Ch'i-yüan."
  4. Pronounce Lowdza. The low as in allow. See p. vii.
  5. Of an imaginative character, in keeping with the visionary teachings of his master.
  6. See chs. xxxi, xxix, and x, respectively.
  7. The second of these personages is doubtless identical, though the name is differently written, with the Kêng Sang Ch'u of ch. xxiii. The identity of the first name has not been satisfactorily settled.
  8. See p. 17.
  9. This last clause is based upon a famous passage in the Lun Yü:—The perfect man is not a mere thing; i.e., his functions are not limited. The idea conveyed is that Chuang Tzŭ's system was too far-reaching to be practical.
  10. See. p. 434.
  11. The Canon of Tao, and Tê, the exemplification of the reof. See p. 45. I have discussed the claims of this work at some length in The Remains of Lao Tzŭ: Hong Kong, 1886.
  12. The brilliant philosopher, statesman, poet, &c., of the Sung dynasty (A.D. 1036–1101).
  13. A curious parallelism will be found in Supernatural Religion, vol. i, p. 460:—

    "No period in the history of the world ever produced so many spurious works as the first two or three centuries of our era. The name of every Apostle, or Christian teacher, not excepting that of the great Master, was freely attached to every description of religious forgery."

  14. On the authority of the I-wên-chih.
  15. A work of the fifth century A.D.
  16. Of the Han dynasty. Mayers puts him a little later, viz., A.D. 275.
  17. The China Review, vol. xvi, p. 195.
  18. In A.D. 742.
  19. The Divine Classic of Nan-hua. By Frederic Henry Balfour, F.R.G.S., Shanghai and London, 1881.
  20. One example will suffice. In ch. xxiii (see p. 309) there occurs a short sentence which means, "A one-legged man discards ornament, his exterior not being open to commendation."

    Mr. Balfour translated this as follows:—"Servants will tear up a portrait, not liking to be confronted with its beauties and its defects."