The Tao of Odds and Ends


© Barry Kavanagh 2003

Butterfly    Tao

Part four: Yang Zhu and "The Minister of the Waves"

As mentioned in the last part, Zhuangzi only wrote the seven 'Inner Chapters', and a few other fragments, of the book named after him. The rest of the material is a miscellany, and contains many examples of less sophisticated philosophy than Zhuangzi's own.

One of these examples is the following story from chapter 26:

Chuang Tzu's [Zhuangzi's] family were poor so he went to borrow some rice from the Marquis of Chien Ho. The Marquis of Chien Ho said, 'Of course. I am about to receive the tax from the people and will give you three hundred pieces of gold - is that enough?'

Chuang Tzu flushed with anger and said, 'On my way here yesterday I heard a voice calling me. I looked around and saw a large fish in the carriage rut. I said, "Fish! What are you doing there?" He said, "I am Minister of the Waves in the Eastern Ocean. Sire, do you have a measure of water you could give me?" Well, I told him, "I am going south to visit the Kings of Wu and Yueh and after that I would redirect the course of the Western River so it will flow up to you. Would that do?" The large fish flushed with anger and said, "I am out of my very element, I have nowhere to go. Give me just a little water and I can survive. But giving me such an answer as that means you will only ever find me again on a dried fish stall!"' [45]

It has been argued that this is a Yangist story [46]. Yangism was a philosophy apparently derived from Yang Zhu, who lived around 350 BC.

The central tenet of this philosophy was that preserving one's life and the health of one's body is more important than anything else, especially more important than the accrual of possessions or the attainment of political power.

Yang Zhu is famous for this exchange:

Ch'in Ku-li asked Yang Chu [Yang Zhu]
"If you could help the whole world by sacrificing one hair of your body, would you do it?"
"It would surely be of no help to the world to give one hair."
"But supposing it did help, would you do it?" Yang Chu did not answer him [47].

The questioner seems to be a Mohist, a follower of Mozi, who taught that the correct dao to guide society was a preference of what is beneficial for human beings, over what is harmful. In the continuation of this story, the Mohist is asked by a disciple of Yang Zhu's, "If you could gain a state by cutting off one limb at the joint, would you do it?"[48]. This is a question that the Mohist is unable to answer. The difference between one hair and a limb is, in principle, only a matter of degrees. Note that to the Yangist, helping the whole world is merely gaining a state. The Mohist assumes that it is a good thing to attain political power, so that the Mohist dao can be transmitted for the good of all. To the Yangist, attaining political power is inherently bad. Both philosophers consider themselves to be altruistic; while the Mohist wants to help the whole world, the Yangist denies himself power and possessions.

The story concerning 'the Minister of the Waves' can be read as a Yangist story, because its point seems to be that the preservation of one's life has to take priority. Nothing can replace the basics needed for health and survival. When Zhuangzi needed food, an offer of anything else was useless, because at that moment, he needed food to remain alive. As, in addition to this, four whole chapters of The Book of Zhuangzi (chapters 28 to 31) seem to be substantially Yangist, it may be true that Zhuangzi was once a disciple of Yangism, and he was in some way part of that tradition. His philosophical development may have started from that initial position. It has been speculated [49] that the story in chapter 20, in which Zhuangzi hunts a bird [50], is a story that relates his transition from Yangism to his own, original, less self-centred philosophy. The story focuses on "bodily safety" [51], and it is the only one in which Zhuangzi runs from danger, and, more unusually, he is "gloomy" afterwards, in the epilogue to the story:

When Chuang Chou [Zhuangzi] got home he was gloomy for three days. It made Lin Chi'eh inquire
'Why have you been so gloomy lately, sir?'
'In caring for the body I have been forgetting what can happen to me. I have been looking at reflections in muddy water, have gone astray from the clear pool…' [52].

Perhaps, during this gloom, he realized the significance of the multiplicity of perspectives in the world (cicada-mantis-jackdaw-Zhuangzi-forester-etc.) and this led to him devising his own philosophy. In his writings, he challenged conventional assumptions such as the preference of life over death, and even questioned whether it was pragmatic to distinguish between the two of them. In the process, he must have become harmonized to the reality of death.

This is because Zhuangzi's philosophy in the 'Inner Chapters' clearly refutes Yangism. In chapter 5, mutilated criminals and cripples are celebrated for their worth, regardless of their deformities. In chapter 6, death, like life, is not abhorred or avoided, it is accepted as a natural process. Death and life "have the constancy of morning and evening" [53]. In that chapter, and among 'biographical' stories in the book about Zhuangzi, there are a series of unusual tales in which scenes of the dead or dying are confronted without distaste, and the traditional Chinese rites of mourning are unapologetically mocked. The Book of Zhuangzi encourages its readers to face the reality of death.

Nowhere is this better expressed than in the following passage. A friend visits Zhuangzi, whose wife has died, to offer his consolation. He finds Zhuangzi "squatting with his knees out, drumming on a pot and singing" [54]. When his friend is shocked, Zhuangzi gives this great speech about his acceptance of the natural process:

"When she first died, I certainly mourned just like everyone else! However, I then thought back to her birth and to the very roots of her being, before she was born… Her body wrought a transformation and she was born. Now there is yet another transformation and she is dead. She is like the four seasons in the way that spring, summer, autumn and winter follow each other. She is now at peace, lying in her chamber, but if I were to sob and cry it would certainly appear that I could not comprehend the ways of destiny. That is why I stopped" [55].