Zhuangzi is a collection of parables and philosophical dialogues on Daoist themes, dating to the third or fourth century BCE, and attributed to a writer named Zhuang or Zhuangzi or Chuang Tzu. Much of the material is satirical or fantastical, using wild imagery, odd turns of phrase, and absurdity to crack conventional and complacent ways of thinking. It mocks the Confucian impulse to reform the world as well as the logician’s claims to pure reason (even though it often puts its arguments in the mouth of Confucius and other traditional sages). It argues for radical acceptance of the world, suggesting that we should give up complaining and striving, and instead seek to discover our oneness with the mysterious forces that make and move the world.
Zhuangzi likes to find transcendent principles in humble places, and many of the stories talk about the special skills of servants and artisans. I find these passages particularly relevant to the creative practice, though of course they are metaphors that can lend their meaning to many aspects of life. In this post, I’ve selected four parables of craft from the Zhuangzi. These excerpts are from Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, Columbia University Press, 1964, translated by Burton Watson, a version both scholarly and literary, rollicking and lucid.
Woodworker Ch’ing carved a piece of wood and made a bell stand, and when it was finished, everyone who saw it marveled, for it seemed to be the work of gods or spirits. When the marquis of Lu saw it, he asked, “What art is it you have?”
Ch’ing replied, “I am only a craftsman – how would I have any art? There is one thing, however. When I am going to make a bell stand, I never let it wear out my energy. I always fast in order to still my mind. When I have fasted for three days, I no longer have any thought of congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends. When I have fasted for five days, I no longer have any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness. And when I have fasted for seven days, I am so still that I forget I have four limbs and a form and body. By that time, the ruler and his court no longer exist for me. My skill is concentrated and all outside distractions fade away. After that, I go into the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees. If I find one of superlative form, and I can see a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not, I let it go. This way I am simply matching up ‘Heaven’ with ‘Heaven.’ That’s probably the reason that people wonder if the results were not made by spirits.”
Yen Yüan said to Confucius, “I once crossed the gulf at Goblet Deeps and the ferryman handled the boat with supernatural skill. I asked him, ‘Can a person learn how to handle a boat?’ and he replied, ‘Certainly. A good swimmer has acquired his ability through repeated practice. And, if a man can swim under water, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it!’ I asked him what he meant by that, but he wouldn’t tell me. May I venture to ask you what it means?”
Confucius said, “A good swimmer has acquired his ability through repeated practice – that means he’s forgotten the water. If a man can swim under water, he may never have seen a boat before and still he’ll know how to handle it – that’s because he sees the water as so much dry land, and regards the capsizing of a boat as he would the overturning of a cart. The ten thousand things may all be capsizing and turning over at the same time right in front of him and it can’t get at him and affect what’s inside – so where could he go and not be at ease?
“When you’re betting for tiles in an archery contest, you shoot with skill. When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim. And when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck. Your skill is the same in all three cases – but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind. He who looks too hard at the outside gets clumsy on the inside.”
T’ien K’ai-chih said, “I have heard the Master say, ‘He who is good at nourishing life is like a herder of sheep – he watches for stragglers and whips them up.’ ”
“What does that mean?” asked Duke Wei.
T’ien K’ai-chih said, “In Lu there was Shan Pao – he lived among the cliffs, drank only water, and didn’t go after gain like other people. He went along like that for seventy years and still had the complexion of a little child. Unfortunately, he met a hungry tiger who killed him and ate him up. Then there was Chang Yi – there wasn’t one of the great families and fancy mansions that he didn’t rush off to visit. He went along like that for forty years, and then he developed an internal fever, fell ill, and died. Shan Pao looked after what was on the inside and the tiger ate up his outside. Chang Yi looked after what was on the outside and the sickness attacked him from the inside. Both these men failed to give a lash to the stragglers.”
Confucius has said, “Don’t go in and hide; don’t come out and shine; stand stock-still in the middle.” He who can follow these three rules is sure to be called the finest. When people are worried about the safety of the roads, if they hear that one traveler in a party of ten has been murdered, then fathers and sons, elder and younger brothers will warn each other to be careful and will not venture out until they have a large escort of armed men. That’s wise of them, isn’t it? But when it comes to what people really ought to be worried about – the time when they are lying in bed or sitting around eating and drinking – then they don’t have sense enough to take warning. That’s a mistake!”
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
“A good cook changes his knife once a year – because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month – because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife really has no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”
Illustrations for this post are all ink brush on paper, 18” x 24” (46 x 61 cm).
An earlier Drawing Life post, “A Useless Tree”, is based on another tale from Zhuangzi.
Note: There are several editions of Burton Watson’s Complete Works of Chuang Tzu and Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. The latter is basically a selection of chapters from the former. A newer edition of Basic Writings has been amended to use the pinyin transliteration of the Chinese names (i.e. Zhuangzi replaces Chuang Tzu) in the title as well as in the text. Zhuang has inspired many writers, and besides the various academic translations there are selections of his stories retold by Christian mystic Thomas Merton and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.