ZHUANGZI: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, 164 pp., $19.50 (paper).

Zhuangzi (369-286 B.C.), along with Laozi, author of the founding tracts of Daoism, argued against Confucius, upheld the freedom of the individual as opposed to a socially circumscribed potential, and averred that efforts to improve the world are not only useless but even harmful.

This attractive figure has appealed now for some 2,500 years and the collected fragments of his work, here in a superb newly revised translation, have found whole generations of grateful readers, thankful that a human solution has been found to a human problem.

As the translator, Burton Watson, has phrased it: “Essentially, all the philosophers of ancient China addressed themselves to the same problem: how is man to live in a world dominated by chaos, suffering, and absurdity?”

Most of them offered some plan of action designed to reform the individual, reform society, reform the world. The Confucians, the Mohists, the Legalists all sought for social, political, or ethical reforms. Zhuangzi’s answer was much more radical. His was simply: free yourself of the world.

To do this you free yourself from judgmental thought. Death, disease, poverty, injustice — they are all there but they are ills only because we recognize them as such. If we just stop labeling things good or bad, then the bad products mankind himself produces would not be seen as such, and the more natural ills would be seen as an inevitable part of life.

Man then is author of his own suffering and consequent bondage. “Your life has a limit but knowledge has none,” writes Zhuangzi. And in another part of the fragments he says: “The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve got the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the word.” And he adds, typically, humanly: “Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

The paradoxes inherent in our forgetting the world have remained piquant for two millennia, and if most of us have heard of Zhuangzi at all, it is because of the attractive contradiction contained in his celebrated account of an instructive dream.

“Once Zhang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around happy with himself and doing as pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou.”

The essentially subjective nature of reality, and hence our ability to control its appearance, offers unlimited possibility, unfetters the imagination, leads to a true freedom that allows us to distinguish. This is what the sleepy Zhuangzi discovered when he used a skull for a pillow.

In the middle of the night the skull said: “Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth.”

This Zhuangzi found difficult to believe, and he said if the skull could have his body back and go home, wouldn’t he really want that? “The skull frowned severely, wrinkling up its brow. ‘Why would I throw away more happiness . . . and take on the troubles of a human being again?’ “

One of the reasons that Zhuangzi is still comfortingly with us is not only his radical message but also the way in which he delivers it — through jolting non sequiturs, paradoxical anecdotes, and arguments that sound logical but really subvert grammar and meaning itself.

In his introduction Watson says Zhuangzi is a writer difficult to translate, and so he must be. Yet Watson elegantly does so by using the methods of his author. The language is colloquial, slang is intelligently used, just as it is by Zhuangzi, and there is no attempt made to elevate language because words are, after all, only words.

In addition, this 1964 translation was revised in 1996 to replace the older system of romanization of Chinese with the current Pinyin system.

Watson knows his field as do few others, having already authored the finest editions of Xunzi, Han Feizi, and Mozi — three other classic philosophers. He can thus give in his introduction the single finest essay on the early Chinese philosophers that I have read, and at the same time do full justice to the extreme speculations of Zhuangzi while assisting him in turning the cold shower on our indulgent ambitions.

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