Chuang Tzu. Chapter 1. Argument: Space
infinite. Time infinite. Relativity of magnitudes, physical and
moral. The magnitude absolute. Usefulness as a test of value.
The usefulness of the useless.*
In the northern ocean there is a fish, called the Leviathan,
many thousand li in size. This leviathan changes into a bird,
called the Rukh, whose back is many thousand li in breadth. With
a mighty effort it rises, and its wings obscure the sky like clouds.
At the equinox, this bird prepares to start for the southern
ocean, the Celestial Lake. And in the Record of Marvels we read
that when the rukh flies southwards, the water is smitten for
a space of three thousand li around, while the bird itself mounts
upon a typhoon to a height of ninety thousand li, for a flight
of six months' duration.
Just so are the motes in a sunbeam, blown aloft by God. For whether
the blue of the sky is its real colour, or only the result of
distance without end, the effect to the bird looking down would
be just the same as to the motes.
If there is not sufficient depth, water will not float large
ships. Upset a cupful into a small hole, and a mustard-seed will
be your boat. Try to float the cup, and it will stick, from the
disproportion between water and vessel.
So with air. If there is not a sufficient depth, it cannot support
large birds. And for this bird a depth of ninety thousand li is
necessary; and then, with nothing save the clear sky above, and
no obstacle in the way, it starts upon its journey to the south.
A cicada laughed, and said to a young dove, 'Now, when I fly
with all my might, 'tis as much as I can do to get from tree to
tree. And sometimes I do not reach, but fall to the ground midway.
What then can be the use of going up ninety thousand li in order
to start for the south?'
He who goes to Mang-ts'ang, taking three meals with him, comes
back with his stomach as full as when he started. But he who travels
a hundred li must grind flour enough for a night's halt. And he
who travels a thousand li must supply himself with provisions
for three months. Those two little creatures, what should they
know? Small knowledge has not the compass of great knowledge any
more than a short year has the length of a long year.
How can we tell that this is so? The mushroom of a morning knows
not the alternation of day and night. The chrysalis knows not
the alternation of spring and autumn. Theirs are short years.
But in the State of Ch'u there is a tortoise whose spring and
autumn are each of five hundred years' duration. And in former
days there was a large tree which had a spring and autumn each
of eight thousand years' duration. Yet, P'eng Tsu is still, alas!
an object of envy to all.
It was on this very subject that the Emperor T'ang spoke to Chi,
as follows: 'At the barren north there is a great sea, the Celestial
Lake. In it there is a fish, several thousand li in breadth, and
I know not how many in length. It is called the Leviathan. There
is also a bird, called the Rukh, with a back like Mount T'ai,
and wings like clouds across the sky. Upon a typhoon it soars
up to a height of ninety thousand li, beyond the clouds and atmosphere,
with only the clear sky above it. And then it directs its flight
towards the south pole.
'A quail laughed, and said: Pray, what may that creature be going
to do? I rise but a few yards in the air, and settle again after
flying around among the reeds. That is the most I can manage.
Now, where ever can this creature be going to?'
Such, indeed, is the difference between small and great. Take,
for instance, a man who creditably fills some office, or who is
a pattern of virtue in his neighbourhood, or who influences his
prince to right government of the State, his opinion of himself
will be much the same as that quail's. The philosopher Yung laughs
at such a one. He, if the whole world flattered him, would not
be affected thereby, nor if the whole world blamed him would he
lose his faith in himself. For Yung can distinguish between the
intrinsic and the extrinsic, between honour and shame, ‹
and such men are rare in their generation. But even he has not
There was Lieh Tzu again. He could ride upon the wind, and travel
whithersoever he wished, staying away as long as fifteen days.
Among mortals who attain happiness, such a man is rare. Yet although
Lieh Tzu was able to dispense with walking, he was still dependent
upon something. But had he been charioted upon the eternal fitness
of Heaven and Earth, driving before him the elements as his team
while roaming through the realms of For-Ever, upon what, then,
would he have had to depend?
Thus it has been said, 'The perfect man ignores self; the divine
man ignores action; the true Sage ignores reputation.'
The Emperor Yao wished to abdicate in favour of Hsü Yu,
saying, 'If, when the sun and moon are shining, you persist in
lighting a torch, is not that a misapplication of fire? If, when
the rainy season is at its height, you still continue to water
the ground, is not this a waste of labour? Now, sir, do you assume
the reins of government, and the empire will be at peace. I am
but a dead body, conscious of my own deficieny. I beg you will
ascend the throne.'
'Ever since you, sire, have directed the administration', replied
Hsü Yu, 'the empire has enjoyed tranquillity. Supposing,
therefore, that I were to take your place now, should I gain any
reputation thereby? Besides, reputation is but the shadow of reality;
and should I trouble myself about the shadow? The tit, building
its nest in the mighty forest, occupies but a single twig. The
tapir slakes its thirst from the river, but drinks enough only
to fill its belly. To you sire, belongs the reputation: the empire
has no need for me. If a cook is unable to dress his funeral sacrifices,
the boy who impersonates the corpse may not step over the wines
and meats and do it for him.'
Chien Wu said to Lien Shu, 'I heard Chieh Yu utter something
unjustifiably extravagant and without either rhyme or reason.
I was greatly startled at what he said, for it seemed to me boundless
as the Milky Way, though very improbable and removed from the
experiences of mortals.'
'What was it?' asked Lien Shu.
'He declared', replied Chien Wu, 'that on the Miao-ku-she mountain
there lives a divine man whose flesh is like ice or snow, whose
demeanour is that of a virgin, who eats no fruit of the earth,
but lives on air and dew, and who, riding on clouds with flying
dragons for his team, roams beyond the limits of mortality. This
being is absolutely inert. Yet he wards off corruption from all
things, and causes the crops to thrive. Now I call that nonsense,
and do not believe it.'
'Well.' answered Lien Shu, 'you don't ask a blind man's opinion
of a picture, nor do you invite a deaf man to a concert. And blindness
and deafness are not physical only. There is blindness and deafness
of the mind, diseases from which I fear you yourself are suffering.
The good influence of that man fills all creation. Yet because
a paltry generation cries for reform, you would have him condescend
to the details of an empire!
'Objective existences cannot harm him. In a flood which reached
to the sky, he would not be drowned. In a drought, though metals
ran liquid and mountains were scorched up, he would not be hot.
Out of his very dust and sifting you might fashion two such men
as Yao and Shun. And you would have him occupy himself with adjectives!'
A man of the Sung State carried some sacrificial caps into the
Yüeh State, for sale. But the men of Yüeh used to cut
off their hair and paint their bodies, so that they had no use
for such things. And so, when the Emperor Yao, the ruler of all
under heaven and pacificator of all within the shores of ocean,
paid a visit to the four sages of the Miao-ku-she mountain, on
returning to his capital at Fen-yang, the empire existed for him
Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, 'The Prince of Wei gave me a seed
of a large-sized kind of gourd. I planted it, and it bore a fruit
as big as a five-bushel measure. Now had I used this for holding
liquids, it would have been too heavy to life; and had I cut it
in half for ladles, the ladles would have been ill adapted for
such purpose. It was uselessly large, so I broke it up.'
'Sir', replied Chuang Tzu, 'it was rather you who did not know
how to use large things. There was a man of Sung who had a recipe
for salve for chapped hands, his family having been silk-washers
for generations. Well, a stranger who had heard of it came and
offered him 100 oz. of silver for this recipe; whereupon he called
together his clansmen and said, "We have never made much
money by silk-washing. Now, we can make 100 oz. in a single day.
Let the stranger have the recipe."
'So the stranger got it, and went and informed the Prince of
Wu who was just then at war with the Yüeh State. Accordingly,
the Prince used it in a naval battle fought at the beginning of
winter with the Yüeh State, the result being that the latter
was totally defeated. The stranger was rewarded with territory
and a title. Thus, while the efficacy of salve to cure chapped
hands was in both cases the same, its application was different.
Here, it secured a title; there, a capacity for washing silk.
'Now as to your five-bushel gourd, why did you not make a boat
of it, and float about over river and lake? You could not then
have complained of its not holding anything! But I fear you are
rather wooly inside.'
Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, 'Sir, I have a large tree, of a worthless
kind. Its trunk is so irregular and knotty that it cannot be measured
out for planks; while its branches are so twisted as to admit
of no geometrical subdivision whatever. It stands by the roadside,
but no carpenter will look at it. And your words, sir, are like
that tree ‹ big and useless, not wanted by anybody.'
'Sir', rejoined Chuang Tzu, 'have you never seen a wild cat,
crouching down in wait for its prey? Right and left it springs
from bough to bough, high and low alike, ‹ until perchance
it gets caught in a trap or dies in a snare.
On the other hand, there is the yak with its great huge body.
It is big enough in all conscience, but it cannot catch mice.
'Now if you have a big tree and are at a loss what to do with
it, why not plant it in the domain of non-existence, whither you
might betake yourself to inaction by its side, to blissful repose
beneath its shade? There it would be safe from the axe and from
all other injury; for being of no use to others, itself would
be free from harm.'
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* Translated from the Chinese
by Herbert A. Giles. First edition, 1889; second edition, 1923.