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Notes on Literary Chinese

Selections from Zhuang Zi

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Literary Chinese Prose

Collection of Literary Chinese Prose

Selections from Zhuang Zi

Zhuang Zi 莊子 (369-286 BCE) was an influential Taoist philosopher who lived during the Warring States Period 戰國時代. He was born in the City of Meng 蒙城 in the state of Song. He lived during the reign of King Hui of Wei 魏惠王 (reign 370—319 BCE).

Taoist philosophy 道家 is a school of thought based primary on the books Dao De Jing 道德經 by Lao Zi 老子 and Zhuang Zi 莊子. Taoism 道教 as a religion is connected with Taoist philosophy but also includes many Chinese folk traditions. Some modern writers do not identify Zhuang Zi with Taoism.

Zhuang Zi's writings are collected into a book of the same name. The English translations here are based on The Writings of Chuang Tzu by James Legge (Legge, 1891) with both English and Chinese made available online by the Chinese Text Project.

A Fabulous Bird



From: The Floods of Autumn

Huizi was a minister in Liang. Zhuang Zi went to see him. Some one had told Huizi that Zhuangzi was come with a wish to supersede him in his office. Huizi became afraid, and instituted a search for the Zhuangzi thoughout the state for three days and three nights. Zhuangzi went to see him and said, “There is a fabulous bird in the south of China called a yuanchu. Do you know it?” Starting from the South China Sea the yuanchu flies to the Bohai Sea. Now, if it does not find Chinese parasol it will not rest. It will only eat bamboo seeds [Cheng Xuanying says that lianshi are bamboo seeds. Wu Tingxu says that lian is a loan character for practice.] and only drink from the purest springs. Once an owl caught a rotten rat. When the yuanchu went passing overhead the owl looked up to it and gave an angry scream. Today, do you also wish to use the kingdom of Liang to frighten me with a scream? Yao Nai says that this language shows the vulgar nature of Zhuang Zi's disciples.


This text selection is from the section 秋水 The Floods of Autumn in Zhuang Zi. Liang was the capital of the state of Wei. The sections in square brackets [] are additional annotations included in Fuller. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 122-125) Fuller also gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. See the entry for Zhuang Zi in the References. (Legge, 1891)

Dragging One's Tail in the Mud



From: The Floods of Autumn

Zhuang Zi was fishing in the Pu River. The king of Chu sent two second level ministers to him, with the message, “I wish to burden you with the charge of my territories.” Zhuangzi held his rod and, without looking around, said, “I have heard that in Chu there is a spirit-like tortoise-shell, the wearer of which died 3000 years ago. The king keeps it in his ancestral temple, in a bamboo box covered with cloth. Was it better for the tortoise to die, and leave its shell to be thus honoured? Or would it have been better for it to live, and keep on dragging its tail through the mud?” The two officers said, “It would have been better for it to live, and draw its tail through the mud.” Zhuang Zi said, “Go then. I will keep on drawing my tail through the mud.”


This text selection is also from the section The Floods of Autumn 秋水. Fuller gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 126-129)

The Skull




From: Perfect Enjoyment

When Zhuang Zi went to Chu, he saw an empty skull, bleached but still retaining its shape. Tapping it with his horse-switch, he asked it, saying, “Did you, Sir, in your greed of life, fail in the lessons of reason, and come to this? Or did you die, in the service of a perishing state, by execution? Or was it through your evil conduct, reflecting disgrace on your parents and on your wife and children? Or was it through your hard endurances of cold and hunger? Or was it that you had completed your term of life?” Having given expression to these questions, he took up the skull, and made a pillow of it when he went to sleep.

At midnight the skull appeared to him in a dream, and said, “What you said to me was after the fashion of an orator. All your words were about the entanglements of men in their lifetime. There are none of those things after death. Would you like to hear me, Sir, tell you about death?” “I would,” said Zhuang Zi. The skull resumed, “In death there are not (the distinctions of) ruler above and minister below. There are none of the phenomena of the four seasons. Tranquil and at ease, our years are those of heaven and earth. No king in his court has greater enjoyment than we have.” Zhuang Zi did not believe it and said, “If I could get the Ruler of our Destiny to restore your body to life with its bones and flesh and skin, and to give you back your father and mother, your wife and children, and all your village acquaintances, would you wish me to do so?” The skull stared fixedly at him, knitted its brows, and said, “How should I cast away the enjoyment of my royal court, and undertake again the toils of life among mankind?”


The text is from the Outer Chapters Perfect Enjoyment 至樂. The Overseer of Destiny 司命 is a Taoist immortal who kept ledgers of allotted life spans. Fuller gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 149-152)

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