Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

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


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