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.

December 20, 2008 Posted by | Daoism | , | 17 Comments