Chuang Tzu. Chapter 4. Argument: People
must fall in with their mortal environment. Virtue should be passive,
not active. One should be rather than do. Talent is a hindrance.
But of petty uselessness great usefulness is achieved.*
Yen Hui went to take leave of Confucius.
'Whither are you bound?' asked the Master.
'I am going to the State of Wei', was the reply.
'And what do you propose to do there?' continued
'I hear', answered Yen Hui, 'that the Prince
of Wei is of mature age, but of an unmanageable disposition. He
behaves as if the State were of no account, and will not see his
own faults. Consequently, the people perish; and their corpses
lie about like so much undergrowth in a marsh. They are at extremities.
And I have heard you, Sir, say that if a State is well governed,
it may be neglected; but that if it is badly governed, then we
should visit it. The science of medicine embraces many various
diseases. I would test my knowledge in this sense, that perchance
I may do some good to that State.'
'Alas!' cried Confucius, 'you will only succeed
in bringing evil upon yourself. For Tao must not be distributed.
If it is, it will lose its unity. If it loses its unity, it will
be uncertain; and so cause mental disturbance, from which there
is no escape.
'The sages of old first got Tao for themselves,
and then got it for others. Before you possess this yourself,
what leisure have you to attend to the doings of wicked men? Besides,
do you know what Virtue results in and where Wisdom ends? Virtue
results in a desire for fame; Wisdom ends in contentions. In the
struggle for fame men crush each other, while their wisdom but
provokes rivalry. Both are baleful instruments, and may not be
'Besides, those who, before influencing by their
own solid virtue and unimpeachable sincerity, and before reaching
the heart by the example of their own disregard for name and fame,
go and preach charity and duty to one's neighbour to wicked men,
‹ only make these men hate them for their very goodness'
sake. Such persons are called evil speakers. And those who speak
evil of others are apt to be evil spoken of themselves. That,
alas! will be your end.
'On the other hand, if the Prince loves the good
and hates the bad, what object will you have in inviting him to
change his ways? Before you have opened your mouth to preach,
the Prince himself will have seized the opportunity to wrest the
victory from you. Your eye will fall, your expression fade, your
words will stick, your face will change, and your heart will die
within you. It will be as though you took fire to quell fire,
water to quell water, which is popularly known as "pouring
oil on the flames". And if you begin with concessions, there
will be no end to them. Neglect this sound advice, and you will
be the victim of that violent man.
'Of old, Chieh murdered Kuan Lung Feng, and Chou
slew Prince Pi Kan. Their victims were both men who cultivated
virtue themselves in order to secure the welfare of the people.
But in doing this they offended their superiors; and therefore,
because of that very moral culture, their superiors got rid of
them, in order to guard their own reputations.
'Of old, Yao attacked the Ts'ung-chuh and Hsü-ao
countries, and Yü attacked the Yu-hu country. Homes were
desolated and families destroyed by the slaughter of the inhabitants.
Yet they fought without ceasing, and strove for victory to the
last. These are instances known to all. Now if the Sages of old
failed in their efforts against this love of fame, this desire
for victory, ‹ are you likely to succeed? But of course
you have a scheme. Tell it to me.'
'Gravity of demeanour', replied Yen Hui, 'and
dispassionateness; energy and singleness of purpose, ‹ will
'Alas!' said Confucius, 'that will not do. If
you make a show of being perfect and obtrude yourself, the Prince's
mood will be doubtful. Ordinarily, he is not opposed, and so he
had come to take actual pleasure in trampling upon the feelings
of others. And if he has thus failed in the practice of routine
virtues, do you expect that he will take readily to higher ones?
You may insist, but without result. Outwardly you will be right,
but inwardly wrong. How then will you make him mend his ways?'
'Just so', replied Yen Hui. 'I am inwardly straight,
and outwardly crooked, completed after the models of antiquity.
'He who is inwardly straight is a servant of
God. And he who is a servant of God knows that the Son of Heaven
and himself are equally the children of God. Shall then such a
one trouble whether man visits him with evil or with good? Man
indeed regards him as a child; and this is to be a servant of
'He who is outwardly crooked is a servant of
man. He bows, he kneels, he folds his hands; ‹ such is the
ceremonial of a minister. What all men do, shall I dare not to
do? What all men do, none will blame me for doing. This is to
be a servant of man.
'He who is completed after the models of antiquity
is a servant of the Sages of old. Although I utter the words of
warning and take him to task, it is the Sages of old who speak,
and not I. Thus my uprightness will not bring me into trouble,
the servant of the Sages of old. 'Will this do?'
'Alas!' replied Confucius, 'No. Your plans are
too many and are lacking in prudence. However, your firmness will
secure you from harm; but that is all. You will not influence
him to such an extent that he shall deem to follow the dictates
of his own heart.'
'Then', said Yen Hui, "I am without resource,
and venture to ask for a method.'
Confucius said, 'FAST ... Let me explain. You
have a method, but it is difficult to practise. Those which are
easy are not from God.'
'Well', replied Yen Hui, 'my family is poor,
and for many months we have tasted neither wine nor flesh. Is
not that fasting?'
'The fasting of religious observance it is',
answered Confucius, 'but not the fasting of the heart.'
'And may I ask', said Yen Hui, 'in what consists
the fasting of the heart?'
'Cultivate unity', replied Confucius. 'You hear
not with the ears, but with the mind; not with the mind, but with
your soul. But let hearing stop with the ears. Let the working
of the mind stop with itself. Then the soul will be a negative
existence, passively responsive to externals. In such a negative
existence, only Tao can abide. And that negative state is the
fasting of the heart.'
'Then', said Yen Hui, 'the reason I could not
get the use of this method is my own individuality. If I could
get the use of it, my individuality would have gone. Is this what
you mean by the negative state?'
'Exactly so', replied the Master. 'Let me tell
you. If you can enter this man's domain without offending his
amour propre, cheerful if he hears you, passive if he does not;
without science, without drugs, simply living there in a state
of complete indifference, you will be near success. It is easy
to stop walking: the trouble is to walk without touching the ground.
As an agent of man, it is easy to deceive; but not as an agent
of God. You have heard of winged creatures flying. You have never
heard of flying without wings. You have heard of men being wise
with wisdom. You have never heard of men wise without wisdom.
'Look at that window. Through it an empty room
becomes bright with scenery; but the landscape stops outside.
Were this not so, we should have an exemplification of sitting
still and running away at one and the same time.
'In this sense, you may use your ears and eyes
to communicate within, but shut out all wisdom from the mind.
And there where the supernatural can find shelter, shall not man
find shelter too? This is the method for regenerating all creation.
It was the instrument which Yü and Shun employed. It was
the secret of the success of Fu Hsi and Chi Chü. Shall it
not then be adopted by mankind in general?'
Tzu Kao, Duke of She, being about to go on a
mission to the Ch'i State, asked Confucius, saying, 'The mission
my sovereign is sending me on is a most important one. Of course,
I shall be received with all due respect, but they will not take
the same interest in the matter that I shall. And as an ordinary
person cannot be pushed, still less a Prince, I am in a state
of great alarm.
'Now you, Sir, have told me that in all undertakings
great and small, Tao alone leads to a happy issue. Otherwise that,
failing success, there is to be feared punishment from without,
and with success, punishment from within; while exemption in case
either of success or non-success falls only to the share of those
who possess the virtue required.
'Well, I am not dainty with my food; neither
am I always wanting to cool myself when hot. However, this morning
I received my orders, and this evening I have been drinking iced
water. I am so hot inside. Before I have put my hand to the business
I am suffering punishment from within; and if I do not succeed
I am sure to suffer punishment from without. Thus I get both punishments,
which is really more than I can bear. Kindly tell me what there
is to be done.'
'There exist two sources of safety', Confucius
replied. 'One is Destiny: the other is Duty. A child's love for
its parents is destiny. It is inseparable from the child's life.
A subject's allegiance to his sovereign is duty. Beneath the canopy
of heaven there is no place to which he can escape from it. These
two sources of safety may be explained as follows. To serve one's
parents withut reference to place but only to the service, is
the acme of filial piety. To serve one's prince without reference
to the act but only to the service, is the perfection of a subject's
loyalty. To serve one's own heart so as to permit neither joy
nor sorrow within, but to cultivate resignation to the inevitable,
‹ this is the climax of Virtue.
'Now a minister often finds himself in circumstances
over which he has no control. But if he simply confines himself
to his work, and is utterly oblivious of self, what leisure has
he for loving life or hating death? And so you may safely go.
'But I have yet more to tell you. All intercourse,
if personal, should be characterized by sincerity. If from a distance,
it should be carried on in loyal terms. These terms will have
to be transmitted by some one. Now the transmission of messages
of good- or ill-will is hardest thing possible. Messages of good-will
are sure to be overdone with fine phrases; messages of ill-will
with harsh ones. In each case the result is exaggeration, and
a consequent failure to carry conviction, for which the envoy
suffers. Therefore it was said in the Fa-yen, "Confine yourself
to simple statements of fact, shorn of all superfluous expression
of feeling, and your risk will be small."
'In trials of skill, at first all is friendliness;
but at last it is all antagonism. Skill is pushed too far. So
on festive occasions, the drinking which is in the beginning orderly
enough, degenerates into riot and disorder. Festivity is pushed
too far. It is in fact the same with all things: they begin with
good faith and end with contempt. From small beginnings come great
'Speech is like wind to wave. Action is liable
to divergence from its true goal. By wind, waves are easily excited.
Divergence from the true goal is fraught with danger. Thus angry
feelings rise up without a cause. Specious words and dishonest
arguments follow, as the wild random cries of an animal at the
point of death. Both sides give way to passion. For where one
party drives the other too much into a corner, resistance will
always be provoked without apparent cause. And if the cause is
not apparent, how much less will the ultimate effect be so?
'Therefore it is said in the Fa-yen, "Neither
deviate from nor travel beyond your instructions. To pass the
limit is to go to excess."
'To deviate from, or to travel beyond instructions,
may imperil the negotiation. A settlement to be successful must
be lasting. It is too late to change an evil settlement once made.
'Therefore let yourself be carried along without
fear, taking refuge in no alternative to preserve you from harm
on either side. This is the utmost you can do. What need for considering
your obligations? Better leave all to Destiny, difficult as this
may be.' Yen Ho was about to become tutor to the eldest son of
Duke Ling of the Wei State. Accordingly he observed to Chü
'Here is a man whose disposition is naturally
of a low order. To let him take his own unprincipled way is to
endanger the State. To try to restrain him is to endanger one's
personal safety. He has just wit enough to see faults in others,
but not to see his own. I am consequently at a loss what to do.'
'A good question indeed', replied Chü Poh
Yü, 'You must be careful, and begin by self-reformation.
Outwardly you may adapt yourself, but inwardly you must keep up
to your own standard. In this there are two points to be guarded
against. You must not let the outward adaptation penetrate within,
nor the inward standard manifest itself without. In the former
case, you will fall, you will be obliterated, you will collapse,
you lie prostrate. In the latter case, you will be a sound, a
name, a bogie, an uncanny thing. If he would play the child, do
you play the child too. If he cast aside all sense of decorum,
do you do so too. As far as he goes, do you go also. Thus you
will reach him without offending him.
'Don't you know the story of the praying mantis?
In its rage it stretched out its arms to prevent a chariot from
passing, unaware that this was beyond its strength, so admirable
was its energy! Be cautious. If you are always offending others
by your superiority, you will probably come to grief.
'Do you not know that those who keep tigers do
not venture to give them live animals as food, for fear of exciting
their fury when killing the prey? Also, that whole animals are
not given, for fear of exciting the tigers' fury when rending
them? The periods of hunger and repletion are carefully watched
in order to prevent such outbursts. The tiger is of a different
species from man; but the latter too is manageable if properly
managed, unmanageable if excited to fury.
'Those who are fond of horses surround them with
various conveniences. Sometimes mosquitoes or flies trouble them;
and then, unexpectly to the animal, a groom will brush them off,
the result being that the horse breaks his bridle, and hurts his
head and chest. The intention is good, but there is a want of
real care for the horse. Against this you must be on your guard.'
A certain artisan was traveling to the Ch'i State.
On reaching Ch'ü-yüan, he saw a sacred li tree, large
enough to hide an ox behind it, a hundred spans in girth, towering
up ten cubits over the hill top, and carrying behind it branches,
many tens of the smallest of which were of a size for boats. Crowds
stood gazing at it, but our artisan took no notice, and went on
his way without even casting a look behind. His apprentice however
gazed his fill, and when he caught up his master, said, 'Ever
since I have handled an adze in your service, I have never seen
such a splendid piece of timber as that. How was it that you,
sir, did not care to stop and look at it?'
'It's not worth talking about', replied his master.
'It's good for nothing. Make a boat of it, ‹ 'twould sink.
A coffin, 'twould rot. Furniture, 'twould be worm-eaten. It is
wood of no quality, and of no use. That is why it has attained
its present age.'
When the artisan reached home, he dreamt that
the tree appeared to him in a dream and spoke as follows: 'What
is it that you compare me with? Is it with the more elegant trees?
‹ The cherry-apple, the pear, the orange, the pumelo, and
other fruit-bearers, as soon as their fruit ripens are stripped
and treated with indignity. The great boughs are snapped off,
the small ones scattered abroad. Thus do these trees by their
own value injure their own lives. They cannot fulfil their allotted
span of years, but perish prematurely in mid-career from their
entanglement with the world around them. Thus it is with all things.
For a long period my aim was to be useless. Many times I was in
danger, but at length I succeeded, and so became useful as I am
today. But had I then been of use, I should not now be of the
great use I am. Moreover, you and I belong both to the same category
of things. Have done then with this criticism of others. Is a
good-for-nothing fellow whose dangers are not yet passed a fit
person to talk of a good-for-nothing tree?'
When the artisan awaked and told his dream, his
apprentice said, 'If the tree aimed at uselessness, how was it
that it became a sacred tree?'
'What you don't understand', replied his master,
'don't talk about. That was merely to escape from the attacks
of its enemies. Had it not become sacred, how many would have
wanted to cut it down! The means of safety adopted were different
from ordinary means, and to test these by ordinary canons leaves
one far wide of the mark,'
Tzu Ch'i of Nan-poh was travelling on the Shang
mountain when he saw a large tree which astonished him very much.
A thousand chariot teams could have found shelter under its shade.
'What tree is this?' cried Tzu Ch'io. 'Surely
it must have unusually fine timber.' Then looking up, he saw that
its branches were too crooked for rafters; while as to the trunk
he saw that its irregular grain made it valueless for coffins.
He tasted a leaf, but it took the skin off his lips; and its odour
was so strong that it would make a man as it were drunk for three
'Ah!' cried Tzu Ch'i. 'This tree is good for
nothing, and that is how it has attained this size. A wise man
might well follow its example.'
In the State of Sung there is a place called
Ching-shih, where thrive the beech, the cedar, and the mulberry.
Such as are of a one-handed span or so in girth are cut down for
monkey-cages. Those of two or three two-handed spans are cut down
for the beams of fine houses. Those of seven or eight such spans
are cut down for the solid sides of rich men's coffins. Thus they
do not fulfil their allotted span of years, but perish in mid-career
beneath the axe. Such is the misfortune which overtakes worth.
For the sacrifices to the River god, neither
bulls with white cheeks, nor pigs with large snouts, nor men suffering
from piles, were allowed to be used. This had been revealed to
the soothsayers, and these characteristics were consequently regarded
as inauspicious. The wise, however, would regard them as extremely
There was a hunchback named Su. His jaws touched
his navel. His shoulders were higher than his head. His hair knot
looked up to the sky. His viscera were upside down. His buttocks
were where his ribs should have been. By tailoring, or washing,
he was easily able to earn his living. By sifting rice he could
make enough to support a family of ten. When orders came down
for a conscription, the hunchback stood unconcerned among the
crowd. And similarly, in matters of public works, his deformity
shielded him from being employed.
On the other hand, when it came to donations
of grain, the huncback received as much as three chung, and of
firewood, ten faggots. And if physical deformity was thus enough
to preserve his body until its allotted end, how much more would
not moral and mental deformity avail!
When Confucius was in the Ch'u State, the eccentric
Chieh Yü passed his door, saying, 'O phoenix, O phoenix,
how has thy virtue fallen! unable to wait for the coming years
or to go back into the past. If Tao prevails on earth, prophets
will fulfil their mission. If Tao does not prevail, they will
but preserve themselves. At the present day they will but just
'The honours of this world are light as feathers,
yet none estimate them at their true value. The misfortunes of
this life are weighty as the earth itself, yet none can keep out
of their reach. No more, no more, seek to influence by virtue.
Beware, beware, move cautiously on! O ferns, O ferns, wound not
my steps! Through my tortuous journey would not my feet! Hills
suffer from the trees they produce. Fat burns by its own combustibility.
Cinnamon trees furnish food: therefore they are cut down. The
lacquer tree is felled for use. All men know the use of useful
things; but they do not know the use of useless things.'
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Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition,
1889; second edition, 1923.