Introduction to the Chuang-tzu

Lin Yutang's Introduction to Chuangtse: Mystic and Humorist

Jesus was followed by St. Paul, Socrates by Plato, Confucius by Mencius, and Laotse by Chuangtse. In all four cases, the first was the real teacher and either wrote no books or wrote very little, and the second began to develop the doctrines and wrote long and profound discourses. Chuangtse, who died about 275 B.C., was separated from Laotse's death by not quite two hundred years, and was strictly a contemporary of Mencius. Yet the most curious thing is that although both these writers mentioned the other philosophers of the time, neither was mentioned by the other in his works.

On the whole, Chuangtse must be considered the greatest prose writer of the Chou Dynasty, as Ch'u: Yu:an must be considered the greatest poet. His claim to this position rests both upon the brilliance of his style and the depth of his thought. That explains the fact that although he was probably the greatest slanderer of Confucius, and with Motse, the greatest antagonist of Confucian ideas, no Confucian scholar has not openly or secretly admired him. People who would not openly agree with his ideas would nevertheless read him as literature.

Nor can it be said truly that a pure-blooded Chinese could ever quite disagree with Chuangtse's ideas. Taoism is not a school of thought in China, it is a deep, fundamental trait of Chinese thinking, and of the Chinese attitude toward life and toward society. It has depth, while Confucianism has only a practical sense of proportions; it enriches Chinese poetry and imagination in an immeasurable manner, and it gives a philosophic sanction to whatever is in the idle, freedom-loving, poetic, vagabond Chinese soul. It provides the only safe, romantic release from the severe Confucian classic restraint, and humanizes the very humanists themselves; therefore when a Chinese succeeds, he is always a Confucianist, and when he fails, he is always a Taoist. As more people fail than succeed in this world, and as all who succeed know that they succeed but in a lame and halting manner when they examine themselves in the dark hours of the night, I believe Taoist ideas are more often at work than Confucianism. Even a Confucianist succeeds only when he knows he never really succeeds, that is, by following Taoist wisdom. Tseng Kuofan, the great Confucian general who suppressed the Taiping Rebellion, had failed in his early campaign and began to succeed only one morning when he realized with true Taoist humility that he was "no good," and gave power to his assistant generals.

Chuangtse is therefore important as the first one who fully developed the Taoistic thesis of the rhythm of life, contained in the epigrams of Laotse. Unlike other Chinese philosophers principally occupied with practical questions of government and personal morality, he gives the only metaphysics existing in Chinese literature before the coming of Buddhism. I am sure his mysticism will charm some readers and repel others. Certain traits in it, like weeding out the idea of the ego and quiet contemplation and "seeing the Solitary" explain how these native Chinese ideas were back of the development of the Ch'an (Japanese Zen) Buddhism. Any branch of human knowledge, even the study of the rocks of the earth and the cosmic rays of heaven, strikes mysticism when is reaches any depth at all, and it seems Chinese Taoism skipped the scientific study of nature to reach the same intuitive conclusion by insight alone. Therefore it is not surprising that Albert Einstein and Chuangtse agree, as agree they must, on the relativity of all standards. The only difference is that Einstein takes on the more difficult and, to a Chinese, more stupid work of mathematical proof, while Chuangtse furnishes the philosophic import of this theory of relativity, which must be sooner or later developed by Western philosophers in the next decades.

A word must be added about Chuangtse's attitude toward Confucius. It will be evident to any reader that he was one of the greatest romanticizers of history, and that any of the anecdotes he tells about Confucius, or Laotse or the Yellow Emperor must be accepted on a par with those anecdotes he tells about the conversation of General Clouds and Great Nebulous, or between the Spirit of the River and the Spirit of the Ocean. It must be also plainly understood that he was a humorist with a wild and rather luxuriant fantasy, with an American love for exaggeration and for the big. One should therefore read him as one would a humorist writer knowing that he is frivolous when he is profound and profound when he is frivolous.

The extant text of Chuangtse consists of thirty-three chapters, all of them a mixture of philosophic disquisition and anecdotes or parables. The chapters containing the most virulent attacks on Confucianism (not included here) have been considered forgery, and a few Chinese "textual critics" have even considered all of them forgery except the first seven chapters. This is easy to understand because it is the modern Chinese fashion to talk of forgery. One can rest assured that these "textual critics" are unscientific because very little of it is philological criticism, but consists of opinions as to style and whether Chuangtse had or had not enough culture to attack Confucius only in a mild and polished manner. (See samples of this type of "criticism" in my long introduction to The Book of History.) Only one or two anachronisms are pointed out, which could be due to later interpolations and the rest is a subjective assertion of opinion. Even the evaluations of style are faulty, and at least a distinction should be made between interpolations and wholesale forgery. Some of the best pieces of Chuangtse are decidedly outside the first seven chapters, and it has not even occurred to the critics to provide an answer as to who else could have written them. There is no reason to be sure that even the most eloquent exposition of the thieves' philosophy, regarded by most as forgery, was not the work of Chuangtse, who had so little to do with the "gentlemen." On the other hand, I believe various anecdotes have been freely added by later generations into the extremely loose structure of the chapters.

I have chosen here eleven chapters, including all but one of the first best seven chapters. With one minor exception, these chapters are translated complete. The philosophically most important are the chapters on "Levelling All Things" and "Autumn Floods." The chapters, "Joined Toes," "Horses' Hooves," "Opening Trunks" and "Tolerance" belong in one group with the main theme of protest against civilization. The most eloquent protest is contained in "Opening Trunks," while the most characteristically Taoistic is the chapter on "Tolerance." The most mystic and deeply religious piece is "The Great Supreme." The most beautifully written is "Autumn Floods." The queerest is the chapter on "Deformities" (a typically "romanticist" theme). The most delightful is probably "Horses' Hooves," and the most fantastic is the first chapter, "A Happy Excursion." Some of Chuangtse's parables in the other chapters will be found under "Parables of Ancient Philosophers" elsewhere in this volume.

I have based my translation on that of Herbert A. Giles. It soon became apparent in my work that Giles was free in his translation where exactness was easy and possible, and that he had a glib, colloquial style which might be considered a blemish. The result is that hardly a line has been left untouched, and I have had to make my own translation, taking advantage of whatever is good in his English rendering. But still I owe a great debt to my predecessor, and he has notably succeeded in this difficult task in many passages. Where his rendering is good, I have not chosen to be different. In this sense, the translation may be regarded as my own.

It should be noted that throughout the text, Giles translates "Heaven" as "God" where it means God. On the other hand, the term "Creator" is an exact rendering of chao-wu, or "he who creates things." I will not go into details of translation of other philosophic terms here.

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