Zhuang Zhou


“Do you know about the sacred tortoise?”
Some questions to consider, regarding the utility of philosophy:
Are philosophers better people?
Are philosophers more fun to be around?
Are philosophers longer lived?
Are philosophers wealthier?
Are philosophers happier?

Zhuang Zhou (pronounced “Jwong Joe”) was a Chinese philosopher said to have lived from 369 to 286 BCE. His self-titled magnum opus, the Zhuangzi, is a canonical Daoist text and one of China’s great philosophical classics. Revered as a brilliant deconstruction of everything from Confucianism to the possibility of truth, the book synthesizes philosophy, paradox, and anecdote in an inimitable style, and it continues to exert a powerful influence on thinkers across the globe.

But writing about Master Zhuang’s thought is a tricky business. In its current form, the Zhuangzi reflects centuries of additions and edits, so many that no one can know for certain which words are truly Zhuang’s, or what any missing words might have added. On top of that, there’s the problem identified by translator Burton Watson: “Whenever I sit down and try to write seriously about Master Zhuang, I seem, somewhere in the back of my head, to hear him cackling away at the presumption of such an endeavor.”

The solution? Working from the original Chinese, with the aid of Brook Ziporyn’s recent Zhuangzi translation, I here reconstruct an exclusive interview with the cantankerous genius. Do I put words in his mouth? I do, just as he did with Confucius. Do I stretch the truth? Mix fact with fiction? On occasion, but only to earn his sympathy. After all, as Master Zhuang’s favorite book states so eloquently, “Imitation is the most profound form of agreement.”[1]

In this way, though I still hear him cackling, I think he is cackling with me, not at me.

—Alan Levinovitz


THE BELIEVER: What’s your earliest memory?

ZHUANG ZHOU: A funny question. Why my earliest memory? Wouldn’t you rather hear my most interesting one?

BLVR: Sure. It’s just something I like to ask people.

ZZ: My most interesting memory is of my first real dream. I was a caterpillar, wriggling around in the earth, just the way a caterpillar would. Following my caterpillar whims, completely unaware of anyone named Zhuang Zhou. And then? Hua! I woke up! Zhou, in the flesh, on my bamboo mattress. Was I Zhou, I thought to myself, who had been dreaming he was a caterpillar, or a caterpillar dreaming he was Zhou?

BLVR: What do you think it meant?

ZZ: I’m not the one to ask about that. If you want to know the meaning of a dream, better go to the city and pay a yarrow-stalk reader. I hear Crippled Shu is good, the hunchback with his chin stuck down in his navel and his pigtail pointing up at the sky. He’ll know whether caterpillars are inauspicious. Pay him enough and he might even tell you which ancestor was upset or pleased with me at the time.

BLVR: That’s not exactly what I was asking. I mean what did you learn from it?

ZZ: Learn from a dream? Like a schoolbook lesson? I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of learning this or that. Trying to pin down a dream is a fine way to kill it.

BLVR: Really? If I’d dreamed that I would have thought, Hmm, it probably says something about my personal frustrations. Do I think I’m a caterpillar because I’m insecure? Is it because of my mother?

ZZ: So anxious! You might prefer the version in my book, where I dreamed about being a butterfly, not a caterpillar.

BLVR: Why did you change the caterpillar to a butterfly?

ZZ: Because it doesn’t matter. Both versions are true to what happens. Caterpillars become butterflies every day. I was a caterpillar-dreamer and then the caterpillar became a butterfly. Hua! I was a butterfly-dreamer. I was a young boy, I was a man. Hua! I am an old man. Tonight what will I become? During the night, very old men sometimes become nothing at all. [Laughs] All the same story.

BLVR: Some philosophers use dreams as evidence that our senses can deceive us.

ZZ: What do they know? When you’re dreaming, you don’t know it’s a dream. You might even interpret a dream in your dream—and then wake up and realize it was all a dream. Perhaps a great awakening will reveal this to be a dream as well. Only fools imagine they are already awake. How clearly they understand everything! How easily they distinguish this deception from that reality!

  1. The book is called the Qixie, and Master Zhuang cites it in his opening chapter. The title is difficult to translate. Burton Watson renders it as Universal Harmony, while Ziporyn has The Equalizing Jokebook.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Alan Levinovitz is assistant professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University. He is currently working on a book about the philosophy of toys, researching the history of fine print, and blogging at top-philosopher.com.

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