Listening Ridiculously and the Oddity of the Zhuangzi

This is going to be a ridiculous post. Try to also read it ridiculously.

I have always had a hard time understanding the Zhuangzi.  In addition to this being due to my Confucian sensibilities (perhaps), it’s also due to the sheer strangeness of the Zhuangzi.  Both from a stylistic and a philosophical standpoint, the Zhuangzi is radically different from other philosophical texts of its day (assuming it’s a primarily Warring States text).  Strange stories and cryptic sayings blend (almost seamlessly) with more formal arguments and discussions.  Jokes and wisecracks are interspersed with apparently serious exhortations and analyses.  This, as many who have tried to interpret the Zhuangzi can attest, makes for difficult interpretation.  It is never quite clear whether a certain passage is meant in jest or as something we’re supposed to take seriously, and sometimes we simply have to resort to what amounts to interpretive guesswork to decide one way or the other.

I’d like to suggest one possible way of approaching this strange text, based on a passage in the Qiwulun chapter (ch. 2), and a couple of related passages elsewhere in the inner chapters.  Part of the problem, perhaps, is that we sometimes read the Zhuangzi similarly to the ways we read the Analects, Mozi, or Mencius (or perhaps even Daodejing).  That is, we use the same interpretive tools of consistency, charity, historical context, opposition to rival views, etc. that we use when we read these other texts.  Perhaps part of the message of ch. 2 (and others) is that we should apply Zhuangist deconstructive methods not only with respect to our concepts, identity, and values, but also to the very way we read the text.

What started me on this line of thought was my latest reading of Qiwulun, in which we hear the character Chang Wuzi utter the line: “I will now try to ridiculously explain something to you, and you try also to listen ridiculously.”  What, I wondered, does it mean to “listen ridiculously?”  The suggestion seems to be that we should hear and think about the Zhuangzi’s words in a very different way than the way we listen to and hear the words of other, more systematic and direct texts (such as Xunzi, Mengzi, or Mozi).  But how exactly?  Perhaps, following some other examples in the Zhuangzi (fasting of the mind in ch. 4, Ding going beyond skill in ch. 3), he means to say that we should listen without synthesizing or attempting to system-build based on what we hear.  We tend, when reading a text, to see a passage and then contextualize it, connecting it with similar passages, and then we explain how these passages fit together to ultimately express a particular position, theme, etc.  Thus, we read in the Analects a line like “turning away from the self and toward ritual is ren” (Analects 12.1), and we consider the concept of ren, connect this to other passages in which Confucius talks about ren, and derive an interpretation of Confucius’ view of ren and how this connects to ritual and the self, based on these passages, which we then take to be themes of the Analects.

Alternatively, when we “listen ridiculously,” we stop reading a text as systematic or explicitly exhortative, and see it as something akin to a philosophically sophisticated Zen koan.  We can play philosophical games, but our solutions get us into more problems, and even the solution of rejecting the game is itself a problem.

There is an interesting link here between this idea and a consideration Dan offered in a previous post.  He suggests that perhaps the difference between Cook Ding and the skilled counterparts in ch. 1 is that Cook Ding doesn’t rely on skill but goes beyond skill in responding immediately to the present features of a situation.  One way of saying this is that he doesn’t take one ox as relevantly similar to any other ox and apply some skilled way of cutting them based on similarity.  Could the Zhuangzi be suggesting that we do the same concerning understanding the disjointed passages and chapters of this strange text?

“You must fast!”

This exhortation in ch. 4 to undergo “fasting of the mind” enjoins us to get rid of the preconceived notions that come with construction of identity and our evaluation of experience based on limited agendas and perspectives.  My experience of being a butterfly in a dream, that is, should not be taken as less valuable than the experience of myself as a human when I wake.  Part of what leads me to take the human experience as more valuable is my imposing of an order on experience through deciding that those experiences consistent with my constructed identity as a person are valuable and “real” (in some sense), while those inconsistent with this identity are to be explained away or otherwise devalued.  Fasting of the mind, then, is a deconstruction of this identity, such that I can respond effectively across experiences.  I can act as a butterfly and appreciate the world as a butterfly does when I’m a butterfly, and as a human when I am so (I take it the message of the first story of ch. 1 is somewhat similar).

Perhaps part of what happens when we fast in this way is that we stop seeing the Zhuangzi itself as something that must have a unified theme or message, as something that expresses Zhuangist positions or concepts, and take it as miscellaneous unsolved difficulties and considerations attended to on one’s wandering way through the world.

But why would anyone bother writing a text like this?  What would be the difference between this and mere blabbering?  There has to be a difference…. doesn’t there?  Perhaps we should take statements and questions like these on their face, as just presenting the questions, without suggesting that there are or aren’t answers.  Perhaps that is part of what we shed when we undergo fasting of the mind.  In this sense, Zhuangzi would be akin to the Pyrrhonians and the Zen Buddhists, in that his words are meant in part to indirectly cause a shift in our way viewing the world.  I see the words without most (but not all?) of my interpretive tools, and then I simply play the game with Zhuangzi, having fun with language and delighting in the transformation of things without taking his words to offer us any clear answer to the problems he raises.  Although another paradox lurks even here—isn’t this itself an answer to the interpretive question of the meaning of the Zhuangzi?

Perhaps we should conclude that this particular paradox is intentional.  We might ask of the Zhuangzi a question Donald MacKenzie once asked of one of William Shakespeare’s strangest plays, Cymbeline: “does the play have any commanding centre or pattern that can bring—even juggle—its discordant multiplicity into coherence?”  Is the answer, for Zhuangzi (and possibly for Shakespeare’s play as well!) that the discordant multiplicity is the point?

Or maybe Zhuangzi is a skeptic who is also skeptical about his skepticism.  And that is pretty ridiculous.


This post is the second (and longer) part of a two-part reflection on the strangeness of the Zhuangzi.  The first part is posted at my blog, Unpolished Jade

3 thoughts on “Listening Ridiculously and the Oddity of the Zhuangzi

  1. Thanks, Alexus, for an interesting and enjoyable post. I particularly liked the many allusions to the original text.

    Is multiplicity the point? I’d say yes, it’s part of it, as the “pipes of Nature” metaphor suggests. But we needn’t see the multiplicity as (always) discordant—as again the piping metaphor illustrates. Perhaps it’s more like free jazz.

    It might be helpful to distinguish two types of multiplicity in your post. One is multiplicity of texts and voices. The Zhuangzi isn’t a unified “text” so much as a collection of several hundred texts, which may take up different issues, present different positions, and sometimes disagree with each other. The other is the multiplicity of daos, perspectives, and contexts. The various texts, and sometimes a single short text, present different ways of life, contexts we might find ourselves in, or standpoints we might take up. They explore what these presuppose, how things look from them, and how agents in them might act more or less effectively. Often this exploration or discussion concludes without any explicit endorsement of one or the other way or standpoint as the “right” one.

    Zhuangist skepticism about unique, universally applicable right answers may help to explain some of the rhetorical features of the texts. If two ways of looking at something are each viable, yet neither is ultimately correct, why not try to show this by presenting both and highlighting their grounds and their limitations? It may be the case, too, that some Zhuangist writers and editors aimed to disorient readers, thus undermining their fixed habits of drawing value distinctions and bringing them to see things in the Zhuangist way—that is, as a heterogenous multiplicity constantly subject to transformation. So the point of some Zhuangist texts is not theoretical explication or argumentative persuasion, but something more subtle, akin to a gestalt shift or religious conversion.

    A further point is that probably most Zhuangist writings do not imply that a single way of life is suitable for everyone. Perhaps here we can draw a useful comparison with Nietzsche, who thought that different people have different characters and thus are likely to have different ethical views and find different ways of life appropriate. When a Zhuangzi passage depicts the “ultimate person” 至人, it need not be implying that you and I should strive to become such people. (Perhaps we just can’t, in the same way that we can’t be NBA players.) It may instead be aiming to bring us to understand the perspective of such a person and thus to better understand, and perhaps modify, our own. We may be among those who wander “within the realm” rather than beyond it. But understanding how things look to an “ultimate person” may help us better comprehend and cope with the conditions of our own wandering.

  2. Hi Chris-

    thanks for your comments! I share your view on much of this. The view that some of the Zhuangist texts are meant to occasion something like religious conversion rather than agreement through argumentative persuasion is very close to the way I currently read much of the Zhuangzi (I’ve not really had a consistent line on the ZZ in recent years, which is why I say the way I “currently” read it).

    I’m particularly intrigued by your last comments. They seem to suggest that there could be both a normative and descriptive function of some (most?) of the Zhuangist texts, where the description of the 至人 might also have some indirect effect on our ability to thrive. If this is what’s going on, there are some interesting questions to be asked about just how such descriptions can benefit imperfect persons.

    I’m currently working on a paper that offers an interpretation of Wang Chong’s response to an anti-Confucian argument from Han Feizi (Eric Hutton’s paper “Han Feizi’s Criticism of Confucianism and Its Implications for Virtue Ethics” lays out this argument well). Basically, the challenge is similar to a version of the application problem for virtue ethics (in many situations the non-virtuous person has reason not to imitate the actions of the virtuous). Wang’s response involves distinguishing between cultivating the virtues of the sages (which the non-virtuous person might not succeed in doing by imitating sagely action) and the indirect benefits of imitation of the sages, which the non-virtuous person can presumably attain through such imitation, even if they fail to become virtuous.

    The reason I bring this up here is that the “imitation” question will arise for the Zhuangist here as well—do these parts of the ZZ suggest that we should try to be like the 至人, even though it’s impossible (I think many of the Confucians do accept something like this concerning the 聖人), or do they instead hold that it is fruitless and ultimately dangerous for us to try to be like them, and that simply understanding them will benefit our lives in some way?

    Some of the stuff in Qiwulun (especially the Confucius-Yan Hui exchange that ends with the “fasting of the mind” bit) might suggest that one who is lacking in some way shouldn’t try to be like the 至人, because failure to completely purify oneself of preconceived notions and commitment to particular values (in that good old Confucian way) will inevitably lead to disaster. Perhaps this is why the Zhuangist version of Confucius continues to chide Yan Hui through that passage, even when Yan Hui offers more and more acceptable reformulations of his initial desire to “convert” the ruler of Wei. The only option Yan Hui has that won’t lead to execution or something else horrible, Confucius seems to suggest, is to act only after undergoing fasting of the mind, such that Yan Hui’s very identity is undermined (I’m also working on a paper surrounding this exchange).

    But if this is so, how exactly can those of us who are not 至人 benefit even minimally from the description (?) given in Qiwulun? In some situations imitating those whose skills or virtues we will never match can be useful–so for example imitating the routines of NBA players might improve my game even though I’ll never be as good as an NBA player—but this exchange in Qiwulun suggests that any attempt to do what the 至人 can do without being a 至人 will result in unmitigated disaster.

    And the “indirect effects” response like the one Wang Chong offers on behalf of Confucians won’t work here, because there’s no way these positive effects can outweigh the complete disaster (execution, for example) that results from acting without perfection. Wang’s response relies on his argument that imitation of the sages, pace Han Fei, does not always end in disaster even though it may not end in the ideal situation either. The exchange in Qiwulun bars this possibility if the Zhuangist Confucius’ instructions to Yan Hui are properly read in the way I suggest.

    Hmm… This has given me lots to think about-thanks!

  3. I think what Michael LaFargue has to say about aphorisms (in the Laozi) is relevant.

    “The point an aphorism makes resides not in the contents of what is said, but in the implicit choice made to bring up this image rather than another. This choice in turn conveys the attitude of the speaker. When someone is deciding whether to take a risk, I might choose say “Better safe than sorry” or I might choose to say “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” The crucial issue behind this choice is not which saying is objectively more true, but which saying I think puts this particular situation in the right perspective. A child who says “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is not explaining an objective truth but is “posturing” – assuming a certain posture or attitude toward a situation, insisting on seeing it in a certain perspective. Everyone saying an aphorism is “posturing” – assuming a certain posture or attitude toward the situation and inviting his or her addressee to share this attitude. In bringing up a particular aphorism, one is not primarily conveying information; one is primarily expressing an attitude. The ultimate basis on which an aphorism hopes to persuade is not the objective truth it directly states, but the attractiveness of the attitude or perspective it “acts out” toward the situation it addresses.”

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