I’ve begun one of my periodic re-readings of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that coalesced during the late Warring States period (476-221 BCE). It’s an intricate text, the work of many voices representing many perspectives. Stylistically, it consists of parables, anecdotes, poems, arguments, and much else besides. It’s often impossible to tell whether a given story is a straightforward depiction of a great sage or simply an elaborate prank (or both). My aim with this reading is simply to move through it slowly, picking apart each anecdote and seeing what results. I have no axe to grind and no clear sense where I am going. I am writing about it here simply to force myself to elaborate and organize my thoughts. Should any other readers find what I write interesting or useful, that is an added bonus.
This post concerns the first fable in the Zhuangzi. Here is how it begins (all passages are from the Ziporyn 2009 translation):
There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion named Kun, and this Kun is quite huge, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Peng, and this Peng has quite a back on him, stretching who knows how many thousands of miles. When he rouses himself and soars into the air, his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens. The oceans start to churn, and this bird begins his journey toward the Southern Oblivion. The Southern Oblivion—that is the Pool of Heaven.Ziporyn 2009
Already in this paragraph, Zhuangzi confronts us with three of his central themes: perspectivism, transformation, and forgetting. I’ll take up each in turn.
The Zhuangzi delights in the variety of perspectives that the world offers. Were there a view from nowhere, I do not think Zhuangzi would see much value in it. Our first taste of this comes in the very name of the mysterious fish in the Northern Oblivion: Kun (鯤). The name literally means “fish roe.” The Kun is simultaneously unfathomably huge and extremely small. A later passage in the fable discusses how other animals perceive the Peng as it flies:
The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at [Peng], saying, “We scurry up into the air, leaping from the elm to the sandalwood tree, and when we don’t quite make it we just plummet to the ground. What’s all this about ascending ninety thousand miles and heading south?”Ziporyn 2009
Zhuangzi comments: “What do these two little creatures know? A small consciousness cannot keep up with a vast consciousness; short duration cannot keep up with long duration.” Here the emphasis is on the largeness of the Peng—its size makes it incomprehensible to smaller creatures. Yet in naming the fish Kun, Zhuangzi asks us to consider whether there is not some further perspective in which it plays the role of the small, uncomprehending creature. Even as he praises the lofty perspective of the Kun/Peng relative to the cramped laughter of the cicada and dove, he seems to be grinningly deflating any attempts to treat that perspective as ultimate.
This is further confirmed by Zhuangzi’s remarks on dependence in this passage. Zhuangzi notes that the Peng has to fly especially high to fly at all:
And if the wind is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support Peng’s enormous wings. That is why he needs to put ninety thousand miles of air beneath them. Only then can he ride the wind, bearing the blue of heaven on his back and unobstructed on all sides, and make his way south.Ziporyn 2009
Later, toward the end of the parable, Zhuangzi draws the moral more explicitly, when he discusses the cases of Song Rongzi and Liezi. Song Rongzi is admirable because he “clearly discerned where true honor and disgrace are to be found.” And yet he is not fully admirable: “there was still a sense in which he was not yet really firmly planted.” Paralleling the Peng even more closely, “Liezi rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful.” And yet, “there was still something he needed to depend on.” None of the three—not Song Rongzi, not Liezi, not Peng—have fully achieved independence. None are quite able to go “wandering far and unfettered” (the title of the chapter).
So how might one unfetter oneself? Here the second and third themes are relevant. If the Zhuangzi has any central message, it is that one should make peace with change. In particular, one should come to recognize even death itself as merely one more change. Thus, in a later parable, we see Zhuangzi being berated by a skull for thinking that life is obviously preferable to death. In another episode, presumably after the incident with the skull, we see Zhuangzi happily banging away on pots and pans after his wife has died. When his friend Hui Shi confronts him about this, he admits feeling sad at first, but then he remembered that death is merely one of the changes, and his sorrow left him.
It is striking, then, that the Zhuangzi opens with a drastic transformation: Kun becomes Peng. This is a total transformation: from one kind of creature to another, from one form of life to another, from one element (water) to another (air). What identity is preserved across this transformation? In what sense can we say that Kun and Peng are the same? It hardly seems there is any. And yet there is no lamentation, no sense of loss or regret. Kun simply transforms, and then, as Peng, goes on his journey. It is as if Peng has totally forgotten his former existence. And that brings us to the final theme: forgetting.
What is the significance of Peng’s journey? It is noteworthy that we are told little about the journey itself, beyond how it looks to an observer (“his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens”). What we are told is the journey’s endpoints: Peng travels from the Northern Oblivion to the Southern Oblivion. (The Southern Oblivion is identified with the “Pool of Heaven”, though later in the parable it is the Northern Oblivion that is so identified.) Oblivion indicates forgetfulness, the absence of memory, its total destruction. It is hard, at least for me, not to read this journey as a metaphor for life: from the oblivion before death to the oblivion after death. We have no experience of either state; we simply move from one to the other.
But oblivion is not limited to the periods before birth and after death. There is a case to be made that forgetting plays a central role in Zhuangzi’s conception of the sage: the sage is one who forgets. (On this point, I have learned a great deal from this interesting paper by Linna Liu and Sihao Chew.) I have already mentioned the story of Zhuangzi playing drums after his wife’s death: he has forgotten his sorrow. The third story in the Zhuangzi praises the great ruler Yao because, on seeing the “masters of distant Mt. Guye […], he forgot all about his kingdom.” The sage’s ability to forget appears to free them from their past. As the later commentator Wang Fuzhi glosses the chapter title: “’Unfettered’ means echoing beyond the dissolving tones—forgetting what has passed.”
The first parable of the Zhuangzi ends with a summary statement of its moral: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no one name.” I have long found it puzzling how this moral emerges from the stories that precede it, but now I think I see. Those stories show us a variety of perspectives, show us transformations between them, and counsels us to forget, at least to an extent, one’s past. It is not that this ideal person has no identity, no merit, or no name. Rather, their identities, merits, and names are inconstant and shifting. One forgets who one was and becomes someone else, and so wanders far and unfettered.
I want to end by drawing attention to one last feature of this parable. It overflows with laughter. Zhuangzi cites a (probably made up) text in his support; the name of this text is The Equalizing Jokebook (see my thoughts on this here). The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at Peng. In another version, a quail laughs at Peng. Song Rongzi “would burst out laughing” at a man “whose understanding is sufficient to fill some one post.” It seems that everyone, whether they are being held up as admirable or as limited (or both), is always laughing. This is one of the most endearing features of the Zhuangzi.
- Liu, Linna and Sihao Chew. 2019. “Dynamic Model of Emotions: The Process of Forgetting in the Zhuangzi.” Dao 18 (1):77-90. DOI: 10.1007/s11712-018-9642-6
- Ziporyn, Brook. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.