Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Zhuangzi: Big and Useless — and Not So Good at Catching Rats

by Eric Schwitzgebel (guest blogger)

[Cross-posted at The Splintered Mind]

Okay, I’ve written about this before; but, to my enduring amazement, not everyone agrees with me. The orthodox interpretation of Zhuangzi puts skillful activity near the center of Zhuangzi’s value system. (The orthodoxy here includes Graham, Ivanhoe, Roth, and many others, including Velleman in a recent article I objected to in another connection.)

Here is one reason to be suspicious of this orthdoxy: Examples of skillful activity are rare in the Inner Chapters, the authentic core of Zhuangzi’s book. And the one place in the Inner Chapters where Zhuangzi does indisputably praise skillful activity is in an oddly truncated chapter, with a title and message (“caring for life”) suggestive of the early, immature Zhuangzi (if one follows Graham in seeing Zhuangzi as originally a Yangist). Even the term “wu wei”, often stressed in skill-based interpretations as indicating a kind of spontaneous responsiveness, only appears three times in the Inner Chapters, and never in a way that indisputably means anything other than literally “doing nothing”.

Zhuangzi writes:

Maybe you’ve never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low — untill it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there’s the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats (Watson trans., Complete, p. 35).

On the one hand, we have the skill of the weasel, which Zhuangzi does not seem to be urging us to imitate; and on the other hand we have the yak who knows how to… how to do what? How to be big! It has no useful skills — it cannot carve oxen, guide a boat, or carve a wheel — and in this respect, Zhuangzi says it is like the “big and useless” trees that repeatedly occur in the text, earning Zhuangzi’s praise. Zhuangzi continues:

Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? (ibid.)

That is the core of Zhuangzi, I submit — not the skillful activity of craftsmen, but lazy, lounging bigness!

Where else does Zhuangzi talk about skill in the Inner Chapters? He describes the skill of a famous lute player, a music master, and Huizi the logician as “close to perfection”, yet he calls the lute-playing “injury” and he says these three “ended in the foolishness of ‘hard’ and ‘white’ [i.e., meaningless logical distinctions]” (p. 41-42). Also: “When men get together to pit their strength in games of skill, they start off in a light and friendly mood, but usually end up in a dark and angry one, and if they go on too long they start resorting to various underhanded tricks” (p. 60-61). He repeatedly praises amputees and “cripples” who appear to have no special skills. Although he praises abilities such as floating on the wind (p. 32) and entering water without getting wet (p. 77), these appear to be magical powers rather than perfections of skill, along the lines of having “skin like ice or snow” and being impervious to heat (p. 33); and its unclear the extent to which he seriously believes in such abilities.

How did the orthodox view arise, then? I suspect it’s mostly due to overemphasizing the dubious Outer and Mixed Chapters and conflating Zhuangzi’s view with that of the more famous “Daoist” Laozi. Since this happened early in the interpretive tradition, it has the additional force of inertia.

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December 20, 2008 - Posted by | Daoism | ,


  1. A few brief comments:

    1. I suggest reading the Zhuangzi anthology as a haphazard record of a plurality of intersecting and overlapping discourses. We will probably never be able to determine the authorship of the hundreds of contributions to these discourses, and in any case, as you point out, the nature of this literary conversation was such that a single author might have contributed bits of text exploring different points of view without attempting to unify them into a coherent position.

    2a. I think the crux of the Cook Ding story is, as you imply, a kind of general “skillfullness” or cognitive-affective-physical “agility.” So, in response to Eric, I’d agree that the story isn’t promoting skill per se as an ideal. Cook Ding is meant to illustrate how to “nourish life.”

    2b. On the rhetorical force of the Cook Ding story: Yes, indeed. Not only is Ding a lowly servant, his occupation is filthy and disgusting. Yet he performs his job with the grace and beauty of the most refined ritual dances and illustrates how to live. Even a noble can learn from him. (“And fools take themselves to be awake, so certain they know it. Noble! Herdboy! Indeed!”)

    3a. I agree that there’s a general resistance in ZZ to the idea that The Way is to commit to a training regimen — and so, in response to Eric, I wouldn’t put skill qua skill at the heart of (one of) the Zhuangzi normative vision(s). I do think there’s a conception of a kind of human excellence at work in some strands of ZZ, however, and skilled performances are seen as (sometimes) displaying the sort of excellence in question.

    3b. Xunzi’s criticism strikes me as among the key challenges for admirers of ZZ to answer.

    3c. On whether ZZ is a “wise” text: Many of the issues the anthology raises are profound. But there’s no reason to expect that all of the contributions it records to the discourse on those issues are especially wise or well thought out. Some are downright fantastic. Yet some might provide raw materials from which one could arrive at wisdom.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | December 21, 2008

  2. A clarification of my remarks on point #1 above: By reference to the Zhuangzi anthology, I mean the “outer” and “mixed” books as well as the “inner” ones. I don’t consider the “inner” ones authorially or philosophically privileged. All of books 1-28, and probably 32, seem to me contributions to pre-Han intellectual discourse that should be taken into consideration. (Books 29, 30, 31, and 33 are formally distinct from the others and are probably Han texts.)

    Eric, pinning down the bits of text that could be ascribed to the historical Zhuang Zhou is probably an intractable task. But some people might argue that since the story of the big useless tree in Book 1 is about Zhuang Zhou, it is unlikely to be by him.

    One intriguing possibility is that the writer of the “Tian Xia” essay, Book 33, might be well informed about Zhuang Zhou (he is about Mozi and Songzi, but it’s hard to be sure about the other figures he discusses). If so, the portrait of Zhuangzi there might be accurate. It’d be interesting to go through the whole anthology and see what parts match up with the characterization of Zhou’s views in “Tian Xia.”

    Comment by Chris Fraser | December 21, 2008

  3. Just a quick thought about Eric’s post: between the weasel and the ox, to think of the contrast as between being useful and useless seems to me to fall into the very sort of trap that Zhuangzi might be warning against. For what is some skill, size, shape, etc. useful? Laudatory skill, size, shape, etc. depends on how well it actually furthers some end or other. That’s why one can only contrast the weasel from the ox along some consideration of desideratum or other. Can it fill the sky? (ox) Can it catch mice? (weasel) Can it nourish life? (“going beyond skill”) Can it preserve its own life? (being useless)

    The skill discussions seem to me to be part of this larger set of observations about how evaluative attitudes must track some particular, motivated perspective or other–except possibly for some kind of evaluative attitude about “the great dao” or some such non-perspectival thing.

    Zhuangzian attitude toward the Zhuangzi: what is the skill-reading good for? what is any reading of the text good for?

    Comment by Manyul Im | December 21, 2008

  4. Thanks for the detailed comments, folks!

    On the Inner Chapters: It seems to me that there is a distinctive authorial voice here that is present rarely or only sporadically in the Outer and Mixed chapters, so I do think it’s worth treating 1-7 as by a single author and viewing all the rest as only tangetially relevant to that author. I don’t think that author had a coherent view, because I don’t think ZZ was in the business of putting together coherent views (as I argue in a 1996 essay), but we shouldn’t infer multiple authorship from lack of coherence in *this* particular case.

    On the virtuoso menial: Yes, I definitely like the idea that it’s a jab at elitism, on a par with elevating “cripples”.

    On “practice”: I’m inclined to agree with this point, at least for ZZ. I don’t see him as pushing a particular regimen but rather resisting regimens.

    On “nourishing life” vs. skill: I would resist the idea that ZZ values skill even subordinately as a way of “nourishing life”. The yak and tree live out their years without skill, and indeed because they lack skills.

    Manyul, I like your idea of thinking about what the skill reading of the ZZ is good for, but I’m not sure that that’s a Zhuangzian reading. It seems too practical and purposive for ZZ as I see him. Don’t ask what the gourds are good for, or the tree, or the yak….

    Comment by Eric Schwitzgebel | December 22, 2008

  5. Let me respond on the issue of multiple authorship, because it’s difficult (it certainly gives me headaches) and it’s one I hope more people will think about. (I know many people read Manyul’s blog without commenting.)

    To me, a multiple-author hypothesis for the inner chapters isn’t an inference from lack of thematic coherence. I see it as an alternative explanatory theory with which a single-author hypothesis must compete to see which has greater explanatory power.

    The explanandum is the text. By that, I mean not only its content but its literary and physical structure. In the case of the inner chapters, we’re talking about seven bamboo scrolls (pian 篇), each comprising half a dozen or more brief anecdotes, stories, or essays. These might originally have been written separately on short sections of bamboo strips called ce 冊 and then recopied or fastened together to form scrolls (evidence of this process is clear in anthologies such as the Mozi and Xunzi). So we want to ask which hypothesis, single-author or multiple-author, better explains the physical and literary structure of these seven scrolls and the content of the graphs in them.

    The argument for a multiple-author hypothesis for the “inner scrolls” is presumably roughly as follows. (I’m not endorsing the argument, just presenting it.)

    (i) A multiple-author hypothesis explains the literary structure of the scrolls and their physical structure at the time they were written and compiled as well as or better than a single-author hypothesis. A multiple-author hypothesis is also probably more consistent with what little we know about the process of textual formation by which the Zhuangzi was produced.

    (ii) A multiple-author hypothesis explains the content of these scrolls more simply and comprehensively than a single-author hypothesis does.

    (iii) So a multiple-author hypothesis is more likely to be correct.

    I suspect most people who deny (ii) do so because they haven’t really considered the implications of (i). The crucial point is that (i) removes any presumption in favor of a single-author hypothesis. Once such a presumption is disqualified, it becomes difficult to deny that a multiple-author hypothesis explains the range of views, themes, and writing styles we find in these seven scrolls as least as well as, and probably more simply than, a single-author theory.

    I know of two bad arguments against (i) and one better one. The first bad argument is that the Zhuangzi has traditionally been attributed to an author named Zhuang Zhou; therefore some part of it must be by him; and the likely candidate is the seven “inner” scrolls. The rebuttal is that for all we know, no part of the anthology is by him. (None of the Guanzi was written by Guan Zhong, probably none of the Shangjun Shu is by Shang Yang, and so forth.) The Han Shu assumes that Zhuang Zhou wrote scrolls 29, 30, and 31, but no one today agrees. If Han dynasty archivists were wrong about which parts Zhuang Zhou wrote, then later tradition might be wrong, too. (The practice of attributing the “inner” scrolls to Zhuang Zhou seems to have started only with Wang Fuzhi in the 17th century. He doesn’t give much of an argument for it.)

    The second bad argument is that expert consensus holds that these seven scrolls are by Zhuang Zhou. The rebuttal is that actually the experts disagree. This was the premise of Liu Xiaogan’s book on the subject. Liu thought he had new evidence that would settle the controversy. (It didn’t.) Of course, some experts endorse the single-author hypothesis, but they rarely give arguments for it (to Liu’s credit, he does, but they’re not very convincing).

    The better argument is that an unknown editor (or editors) at some point set off the inner scrolls from the others, designated them “inner,” and gave them three-word thematic titles, which none of the other scrolls have. Clearly, these seven had a special status to that editor. One plausible explanation of this status is that he thought they were written by Zhuang Zhou. In rebuttal, however, there are other plausible explanations too. If the editor did his work before the Han dynasty, then he lived in a culture in which people didn’t sign their work and hadn’t developed a concept of “authorship” or “ownership” of a piece of writing. So authorship may not have been a concern for him. (And he might have believed, as parts of the Zhuangzi contend, that a true sage leaves no trace of himself behind.) He may have lacked any reliable information about the authorship of the scrolls (we don’t know when the “inner” scrolls were first identified as such). The designation “inner” might indicate only that the editor personally considered this material the highlights of the fifty-two scrolls he’d collected. For all we know, he or someone before him recopied bits from different scrolls to form these seven. Perhaps he/they rearranged material around these seven topics in order to capture what he/they considered the gist of the collection or to present the parts of most interest to the likely audience.

    So there are a plurality of plausible scenarios, of which “reliable attribution of privileged authorship” is just one. That plurality is enough to support premise (i).

    The issue, then, is whether premise (ii) is justified — or, more broadly, whether a multiple-author or single-author hypothesis better explains the content of the seven scrolls. I don’t want to try to make a case for multiple-author in a blog post (and I’m not sure I endorse it myself). Instead, let me just point out that it’s highly unlikely a single-author hypothesis can be justified, since there are strong reasons to doubt that single-author can explain the scrolls’ content better than multiple-author.

    We can all agree that certain parts of the inner scrolls are tightly linked thematically and stylistically (for me, talk of authorial “voices” is too imprecise to be analytically useful). For example, surely several of the amputee stories in Bk 5 are closely linked, and they also cohere well with the death stories in Bk 6, one which in turn shares a line with the death story in Bk 3. The themes of “being at ease with the time and dwelling in the flow” and accepting one’s fate tie a number of passages together.

    But there are also numerous passages in the inner seven that I suspect don’t fit together well by any obvious criterion — thematic, stylistic, vocabulary, idiom, rhyme, and so forth. The paean to the “genuine man” at the beginning of Bk 6, with its Legalist-sounding asides, doesn’t sound like the writer of Bk 2 or of the Cook Ding story. (And the “Legalist” stuff can’t be written off as “interpolations.” To admit there are “interpolations” is to endorse a multiple-author hypothesis.) Bk 6 includes a rhapsody on Dao followed by a list of mythological figures, some of whom Chinese scholars suggest allude to Han dynasty stories. The list doesn’t sound like the writer(s) of Bk 2; nor, really, does the description of Dao. I don’t see any reason to think the story of Liezi, Huzi, and the shaman in Bk 7 is the work of the same person as the big tree story in Bk 1, nor the stories in Bk 4. If there is a reason to think the dialogue between Yan He and Qu Boyu in Bk 4 is by the same person as the Peng bird story in Bk 1 or the pipes of heaven passage in Bk 2, I’d be happy to learn about it.

    The challenge for a single-author hypothesis is to show how these various pieces of text are better explained by ascribing them to a single writer than to different writers (who might have been members of the same “textual community”). It seems to me that this would be very difficult to do. But in the absence of a compelling argument for that conclusion, there is no good reason to believe that the seven inner scrolls are by a single author.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | December 23, 2008

  6. “I know many people read Manyul’s blog without commenting.”

    Indeed, of late I’m one of those (oh…oops!).

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | December 23, 2008

  7. Perhaps skill resides in Te. Each thing, ZZ tells us, has its particular place in Tao: the blade of grass and the pillar, etc. And all “move as one and the same”. There is a certain equality here: each thing has its unique place, Te, in Tao and no thing is superior to any other. Skill, then, is not something possessed by an elite. Rather, skill is working with the particulars of a given context in such a manner that one’s Te is maximally expressed. If one tries to be skillful at something other than one’s own Te, he will fail (I’ll never be a major league shortstop – damn it!). And if you think that skill is something that can be abstracted from particular circumstances and taught to others in different circumstances, you are wrong, and bound to fail. So much for the teaching profession…. But Cook Ding is a skilled (skillful?) man.

    Comment by Sam | December 29, 2008

  8. Chris: I certainly can’t claim to be expert on some of the textual details that might help adjudicate the single author vs. multiple author debate. However, as you point out, there is a kind of thematic coherence to (most of!) the Inner Chapters. You mention ut some good examples. There’s also the skepticism/relativism, the reappearance of Wang Ni and Huizi, the big/little theme, the uselessness theme, the playfulness with names, the self-undermining, etc., and these cross-link with each other. This body of themes, styles, and devices seems to me sufficiently distinctive to merit the attribution to a single author. Furthermore, most of the echoes of these themes, styles, and devices in the Outer and Mixed Chapters seem to me to lack the panache of the Inner Chapters (obviously, this is a tricky judgment!), with the striking exception of some stories that involve Zhuangzi himself (such as the story about his and his wife’s deaths) where the panache of the Inner Chapters seems to shine through again — a fact, if it is a fact, that in my judgment adds further credibility to the idea that this “Zhuangzi” was indeed a single author with such a voice.

    You’re right that there’s some legalist-sounding stuff in the Inner Chapters that seems not to fit. I’m also not sure what to do with the occasional serious-sounding mysticism in the Inner Chapters which has always seemed to me to jar with the stylistic and thematic unity of most of the rest (especially the self-undermining). I suspect it’s too suspiciously convenient for me to assign that to a different author and retain just the parts of the text I love!

    Comment by Eric Schwitzgebel | January 2, 2009

  9. Eric, in my view, your “official” stance — which, to my chagrin, remains the mainstream stance today — doesn’t give due weight to the significant thematic and stylistic incoherence in the inner “scrolls,” to the processes by which the scrolls were formed, and to their significance in the culture in which they were written and edited (to which SCW alludes).

    They were probably compiled and edited from several existing collections of short texts by one or more persons who identified doctrinally with the sorts of views we find in the opening essays of books 12-14 (we know this because of the three-word titles). The editors might well have mixed material from different sources and added comments of their own. (This would explain some of the weirdness in the first half of Bk 6.)

    Also, as SCW (and Lafargue) rightly emphasizes, all this material was produced in a culture without anything resembling our conception of “authorship” or “ownership” of a written work. There are grounds for doubt as to whether the editors knew or could have known who in fact composed the various texts they had collected.

    So actually there are good grounds for your “unofficial” stance that some parts jar so severely with the rest that you’d like to attribute them to a different writer. Given the nature of the scrolls and the processes by which they were formed, there’s no presumption in favor of authorial unity. These are not unified essays, chapters, or books; they’re the equivalent of notebooks in which some unknown person has copied a few short texts, origins unknown.

    I suspect people’s tendency to find a unique, coherent voice in the inner scrolls is due largely to unconscious biases such as availability error and confirmation bias.

    We also need to ask what the point of these texts was for their primary audience. I doubt they were ever meant to cohere doctrinally, nor that the title “Zhuangzi” was more than a label for a broad intellectual-psychological-religious orientation.

    Some scholars have suggested, persuasively, I think, that part of the point of these texts is “evocative,” to provoke the audience to look at things in new ways. (If I remember correctly, Wu Kuang-ming emphasizes this idea.) In his work on the DDJ, Lafargue proposed that some statements in Daoist texts be read as proverbs or adages, whose point is essentially tied to particular pragmatic contexts, since when read as general propositions, they are false. (This seems to me to work for some passages, but not all.)

    Some parts of the anthology may have had canonical status within certain master-student groups (perhaps the first few parts of Book 12 are an example). By contrast, a likely explanation for material such as the first half of Bk 4 is that it was written for and read by members of an intellectual circle employed in frustrating, stressful official positions (the second half might express their fantasies about escaping from said positions and recommendations for younger colleagues). Were each of those three pieces written by the same person? I don’t see how we could answer that question. Fortunately, though, we don’t need to answer it in order to interpret them fruitfully.

    I myself suggest reading the Zhuangzi as a series of “discourses” comprising a variety of short texts that approach various themes from various angles. These could be by one author or many; it doesn’t really matter. As SCW says, given the nature of the texts, the authorship issue is largely irrelevant to interpretation.

    An analogy: the Zhuangzi anthology is like a collection of unsigned posts on a group blog, together with the ensuing comments, rather than a coherent treatise or even a focused collection of remarks such as Wittgenstein’s PI.

    SCW, I’m sympathetic to Lafargue’s thoughts in the passage you quote, and his speculation about the roots of the culture of anonymity and pseudonymy is plausible. But I think the specific model he offers applies only to some pre-Han texts, not all, and probably not the Zhuangzi. The paragraph you cite might be a largely correct description of, say, the origins of the Ruist Analects. But in the case of the Zhuangzi, I think we’re not just looking at archival preservation of lore, but creative literary composition (though perhaps the literary efforts began as a new genre for expressing ideas picked up through transmitted lore or wisdom).

    Strictly speaking, then, some people who wrote ce 冊 (no one wrote books, in our sense) did so to express something original, or at least to express something in an original way. The spirit of Lafargue’s remark may be correct, though. Perhaps these creative writers still saw themselves as using novel language to express transmitted wisdom of which they were not the “authors,” and which no one could presume to take credit for.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | January 4, 2009

  10. Chris and all,

    I find the idea of the Zhuangzi text (or perhaps other early texts) as like “a collection of unsigned posts on a group blog” to be quite facinating; it suggests that the social networking/web 2.0 world we are in may, in certain ways, resemble the creative world of ancient China — and that bringing these out might help us (and our students) better grasp what these “texts” are and how they were created. I’d be interested in others’ thoughts along these lines. In particualr, how does the contrast between “archival presentation of lore” vs. “creative literary composition” fit in here, exactly?

    Comment by Steve Angle | January 4, 2009

  11. I’m not as comfortable with the idea of “coherence” in the absence of a theory about authorship, whether it is we who attribute it or the possibly numerous compilers of the received text. Doesn’t the aim of interpreting something as coherent *require* the assumption either that the theory of single, or at least single-minded, authorship is true or that it is false? Take this string of blog comments; trying to attribute them to a single-minded author or set of authors would steer the coherence interpretation toward some kind of indirect, perhaps apophatic, or maybe vaguely skeptical reading. On the other hand, trying to separate out the different voices (authors) with their differing views and agendas would provide a very different coherence. Maybe I’m missing the thrust of what you are suggesting about discounting authorship questions.

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 4, 2009

  12. Very nice, Stephen; though the ethereality of WordPress conversations makes bamboo strips seem downright adamantine.

    You’re certainly right about the availability of voices over specifiable persons to whom to attribute pre-Han authorship. Here’s where I think Chris’s point in comment 8 reasserts itself: “a multiple-author hypothesis for the inner chapters isn’t an inference from lack of thematic coherence. I see it as an alternative explanatory theory with which a single-author hypothesis must compete to see which has greater explanatory power. The explanandum is the text…” So, there is still an important “authorship” choice–at least of univocality versus diversity–that needs to be made, and it will affect the type of coherence that we can attribute to the text. But maybe now I’m just saying some all too obvious things.

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 5, 2009

  13. Steve (Angle): The example of Wikipedia also helps students identify with the idea of a culture in which writers do not sign their work.

    By the contrast between “archival recording” with “creative composition,” I had in mind the difference between texts such as individual entries in Book 4 of the Analects or sayings recorded in the Daodejing (“a journey of a thousand miles…”), on the one hand, and those such as the first big tree story in Bk 4 of the Zhuangzi. The former could have been simply records of a saying the scribe had heard, whereas the latter seems an original literary composition. (I doubt such extended stories or dialogues are transcriptions of oral compositions.)

    Comment by Chris Fraser | January 5, 2009

  14. If we could return to the original question about the importance of “skill” for Zhuangzi, is there a coherent attitude towards skill that is present throughout the text, despite the apparent contrast between the “unskilled” tendencies of the inner chapters versus the “skilled” outer chapters? That is, rather than reading the inner chapters as being purely antipathetic to skillful action, could we read the examples of skillful action given in the outer chapters as being creative commentaries which advance an understanding of skillful action which is still compatible with the “intent” of the inner chapters? In particular, the passages in chapter 19 come to mind, where there is also mention of how to “nourish life.” Confucius answers Yan Yuan’s question about how a swimmer who has never even seen a boat before can be a skilled ferryman by saying:

    “When you’re betting for tiles in an archery contest, you shoot with skill. When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim. And when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck. Your skill is the same in all three cases – but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind. He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside” (Watson)

    So, it seems that the discussions of skillful people in Zhuangzi do not mean to valorize skillful actions for instrumental reasons; what is important in these “knack” stories is not the actual action, but the psychological disposition which lies behind the action. That disposition involves a detachment from the external goals of an action, from the “outside considerations” which weigh down the mind with ideas of gain and loss. Zhuangzi’s portraits of skillful action therefore does not need to be read as advocating special skills or supernatural abilities, or simply lazy non-action. As Tian Kai Zhi says in Ch. 19,

    “In Lu there was Shan Pao – he lived among the cliffs, drank only water, and didn’t go after gain like other people. He went along like that for seventy years and still had the complexion of a little child. Unfortunately, he met a hungry tiger who killed him and ate him up. Then there was Chang Yi – there wasn’t one of the great families and fancy mansions that he didn’t rush off to visit. He went along like that for forty years, and then he developed an internal fever, fell ill, and died. Shan Pao looked after what was on the inside and the tiger ate up his outside. Chang Yi looked after what was on the outside and the sickness attacked him from the inside…..’Don’t go in and hide; don’t come out and shine; stand stock-still in the middle.’ He who can follow these three rules is sure to be called the finest.” (Watson)

    The point is that attachment to any set of goals, or to any particular perspective, is unwise and self-defeating. Now, of course there will be passages throughout the text which may seem to privilege supernatural skill or inactive uselessness. If we can read the outer chapters as a kind of textual auto-commentary, then can we take such a synthesis of the two poles of action to be the meaning of the text, or are we left with the text positing an unresolvable tension?

    Comment by Amit | January 8, 2009

  15. Hi Amit,

    Interesting suggestion. So, you want to take detachment from goals as the (outer-chapter) synthesis of two things (in the inner chapters) that seem in tension: supernatural skill and inactive uselessness.

    I see the connection between the detachment from goals/perspectives and inactive uselessness. But I don’t really see the connection between such detachment and skillfulness. Even if a particular kind of attachment is self-defeating (“trying too hard” or something like that), to attain a high level of skill in cutting, wheel-making, fishing with one’s bare hands, or catching cicadas with a stick, there has to be some kind of attachment to a goal or perspective, or else, why bother? More to the point, in the skill passages there seem to be recommendations to take on the perspective that “spirit” (ling 靈 , shen 神 and the like) provides versus what the eyes, ears, mouth, limbs, and heart provide. I don’t think that’s really detachment per se, but instead detachment specifically from the perspectives that can limit or otherwise prove useless in the pursuit of some goal. What do you think?

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 11, 2009

  16. For those who are interested, Peony at her Tang Dynasty Times blog has a post going on wu-wei, skill, and related items.

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 15, 2009

  17. Thanks for your reply, Manyul. I think a “synthetic” reading is also attractive because it is helpful in making sense of the notion of seeing use in the useless, a notion which can be found throughout the Zhuangzi, both in the inner and outer chapters. As you pointed out, the connection between “useful uselessness” and a life of inactivity is easy enough to see. But, if the ideal of useful uselessness can be read as being applicable to the Zhuangzi and its various examples of valuable action or ways of living, then we should be able to make sense of the skill stories in terms of useful uselessness as well. Of course, because the idea of “useful uselessness” seems to be flatly contradictory, it seems that it would have no role in the kinds of skillful activity the Zhuangzi prescribes or valorizes at times. If the whole point of a skill is its instrumental utility, then in what sense could such an action be useless? You point out a similar dilemma with what I was trying to say about detachment from goals and perspectives. If any action necessarily involves attachment to a particular perspective or set of goals, then how could there be detachment from these things?

    Now, I don’t think that Zhuangzi is advocating detachment from particular perspectives to the point of complete annihilation. In the the butterfly dream story, there is a still a particular perspective present, even if it cannot be sure it is a butterfly or Zhuangzi. Likewise, in the dialogue in Ch. 4 between Yan Hui and Confucius on reforming a tyrant, Yan Hui eventually proclaims after having fasted his heart according to Confucius’s advice, “Before I heard this, I was certain that I was Hui. But now that I have heard it, there is no more Hui. Can this be called emptiness?” That is, while fasting the heart led Yan Hui to remove the evident certainty that accompanied his ordinary and mundane sense of personal identity, he still says, “I have heard it [i.e. Confucius's advice],” which implies that there is still some kind of perspective which is present and remains after the process of heart-fasting, even if it may be of a different character as than that of ordinary and petty persons. Zhuangzi’s sage does not deny discriminations altogether; rather, “the sage embraces things” and does not parade his discriminations around like ordinary people (Watson, Qiwulun).

    So, if Zhuangzi is not simply advocating a detachment from all perspectives, but is advocating useful uselessness and is doing so through giving examples of skillful activities, then we have understand the ways in which such activities are useful in their uselessness. I don’t think the question, then, is about what the obstacles are to the achievement of skillful actions and their goals in general, as the end of your comment seems to suggest. To leave a reading of Zhuangzi in those terms is to see his advocating of uselessnes in purely instrumental terms, which misses the real force of Zhuangzi’s useful uselessness, I think. Rather than reducing one into other, so that Zhuangzi is either advocating complete uselessness in the form of inactivity, or uselessness in the sense of effortless or “not trying too hard” in order to fully achieve the usefulness of an action, we can see Zhuangzi as advocating a certain quality of action, which may outwardly skillful or not. In that case, the loafing ox, the mutilated cripple, the cicada catcher and the woodworker are all similar as far as the nature of their particular perspectives. I would think that if they were all forced to answer the same questions that the swimmer is asked in Ch. 19, they would also answer that their respective ways of being began with what they were used to, grew up with their nature, and let things come to completion with fate.

    How then are we supposed understand the character of Zhuangzi’s way of being? I started with the notion of detachment because I think it is appropriate for getting at the sense in which Zhuangzi’s actors are not motivated by ideas of profit or gain, even if in a literal sense there is a goal they are trying to achieve, like catching a cicada or building a bell stand. Useful uselessness is helpful in bringing out the character of ideal action as entailing both; there is a use to an action, but the action’s value is not solely dependent on the actual attainment of its goal for its worth, so cicada catching can be seen as a worthy action in its own right. It is to be pursued for its own sake, and because performing it is in accord with one’s nature. The action is not exhausted by the attainment of a goal, nor is it frustrated by a lack of attainment; instead, it flows from a source of inexhaustible spontaneity (like dao itself). Zhuangzi’s ideal action, then, is not of a contrived nature. Following their own natures, taking on the perspective of shen, and privileging the inner as opposed to the outer all have more importance than just promoting the successful and efficient attainment of a goal. Rather, they give expression to one’s inborn nature, or, if xing is too controversial of a notion, these qualities give expression to dao through the actions of the individuals in the same way that tian blows through the pipes of the ten thousand things. If I may refer to Chris’s recent paper in Asian Philosophy on Zhuangzi and emptiness, I think that seeing the resonance between an individual’s nature or ideal way of being and the nature of dao is helpful in understanding the value of a “radical” reading of Zhuangzi’s ideal way of life. Maybe we don’t have read Zhuangzi as advocating an erasure of the human perspective completely in order to merge with the Dao, but at the same seeing how the justification and appeal of his ideal of human living still draws on the nature of dao.

    Comment by Amit | January 15, 2009

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