Tag Archives: Chinese Philosophy

Its name is Kun

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.

Works cited

  • 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.

The Equalizing Jokebook

One of the curious features of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that emerged during the Warring States period (476-221 BCE), is its apparent citations of other texts. For example, the book opens with a parable about a fish named Kun that transforms into a bird named Peng and undertakes a long journey. Immediately after describing this, the text continues:

The Equalizing Jokebook, a record of many wonders, reports: “When Peng journeys to the Southern Oblivion, the waters ripple for three thousand miles. Spiraling aloft, he ascends ninety thousand miles and continues his journey without rest for half a year.

(Ziporyn 2009, p. 3)

This alleged quotation adds little information to what comes before it. So why is it there? One hypothesis, defended by A. C. Graham (1981), is that these quotations are the product of scribal errors. Some later commentator noted a parallel between the Zhuangzi and some later text, and these comments were eventually copied into the Zhuangzi itself. A more traditional hypothesis is offered by the commentator Lin Xiyi (1193-1270?):

This doesn’t mean such a book really exists, necessarily. Zhuangzi invents a story and then cites this book as his own verification. This another example of his playful theatrics.

(Ziporyn 2009, p. 130)

On this view, Zhuangzi’s invented citations satirize the Confucians, who sought to support their claims with references to various authorities. For my part, I do not know that evidence will ever resolve this dispute. Nor need it. The Zhuangzi is unquestionably a polyvocal text, with contributions from authors separated in both time and thought. Zhuang Zhou himself lurks as an elusive presence within it, ostensibly the author of its first seven chapters (the so-called “inner” chapters), though none of it can be definitively attributed to him. The book contains a cacophony of perspectives—a state of which Zhuangzi himself would surely have approved. Ultimately, there is only the text as we have received it, shaped by many hands with many and clashing intentions. In this regard, I think it best to treat these citations as proper parts of the text, and see how they contribute to its overall effect. (Henceforth, I will speak of Zhuangzi as “the” author of the text. This should be understood as referring to the whole conglomerate of authors, not merely the historical Zhuangzi.)

Seen in this light, I can only take Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook as itself a rather clever joke. Looking at the Zhuangzi as a whole, two features especially stand out. First, the book is very funny. Wittgenstein famously said that a work of philosophy could be written consisting entirely of jokes; he was apparently unaware that this had already been done more than 2000 years ago. The authors of the Zhuangzi are constantly pulling the reader’s leg, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. (Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio have written a very good book, Genuine Pretending, that takes seriously the Zhuangzi’s status as a “jokebook.”) Second, insofar as the book does have a central philosophical aim, “equalizing” captures it fairly well. The second chapter is called “Equalizing Assessment of Things”, and the book constantly works to upset our attempts to draw conceptual divisions, one side of which can be viewed as good/desirable and the other as bad/undesirable. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the word 諧 (xié)—translated by Ziporyn as “joke”—can also mean “harmony”, a meaning that Zhuangzi is surely exploiting.

My proposal, then, is that Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook is in fact a humorous citation of the Zhuangzi itself. Were it not customary to name such books after their alleged authors, I doubt one could find a better name for the Zhuangzi. One advantage of this proposal is that the citation is not merely made up. After all, by including the citation within the text, the quotation does indeed become a part of the text. Such a self-validating self-reference would, I think, have appealed to Zhuangzi. It’s his kind of humor.

Even more important, however, is the way that this view allows us to expand on Lin Xiyi’s commentary. There is a serious philosophical point hidden in Zhuangzi’s “playful theatrics.” It is, as suggested above, a parody of the Confucian practice of supporting their claims with references to certain authoritative texts. What I want to suggest is that treating the citation as self-referential helps to sharpen this satire, in a way that merely citing a made-up text would not. The reason for this concerns Zhuangzi’s comments on independence in this parable.

I will post a more detailed interpretation of the whole parable at some later point. For now, however, I simply want to focus on a passage toward the end of the parable, as Zhuangzi starts to home in on his central moral. There, he discusses the example of Liezi, a central figure in Daoist thought. For Zhuangzi, however, Liezi is admirable but imperfect. Though he “rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful,” and though “he did not involve himself in anxious calculations,” nonetheless “there was still something he needed to depend on” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 5). That dependence on something external is Liezi’s key flaw. It opens Liezi up to being hindered. Zhuangzi goes on to paint an image of one who escapes even this last vestige of dependence, such that “your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 6).

It is in this context that self-citation matters. For authentication of the story of the Kun/Peng, there is nothing outside the Zhuangzi on which one can rely—not even a fictional text. The text rests on itself, validates itself. Yes, Zhuangzi is mocking Confucian epistemology. But he is also exemplifying his own.

Works Cited

  • Graham, Angus C. (trans). 2001. Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Moeller, Hans-Georg and Paul J. D’Ambrosio. 2017. Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Ziporyn, Brook (trans). 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, with selections from traditional commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett.