The Dream of Zhuang Zhou

For this issue of the Tang Spirit Newsletter we are pleased to present a new translation of The Dream of Zhuang Zhou, which is one of the most important passages in classical Chinese literature.  Although these verses are well-known and have been translated many times before, we have found it highly instructive to grapple with them on our own and we hope you find this issue likewise of interest.

For those of you who don’t know about him, Zhuang Zhou is a great Daoist sage.  He is thought to have lived in the 4th century BC, which would make him a contemporary and most likely a direct disciple of Lao Tze.  Zhuang is credited as the primary author of the Zhuangzi, which (along with the better known Dao De Jing) is one of Daoism’s two foundational scriptures. 

The Dream of Zhuang Zhou is found at the end of the second chapter of the Zhuangzi, part of what is sometimes referred to as the Inner Books.  These Inner Books present the translator with considerable bafflement and challenge.  Composed in the form of short anecdotes and linked verses, filled with abrupt transitions and odd juxtapositions, the language of the Zhuangzi is spare and simple and yet the significance is wonderfully abstruse.  The passage set forth below is a prime example of this, beginning as it does with a strange philosophical dialog between a shadow and an object.  

A shadow once
Asked an object thus:
One moment you’re advancing
But suddenly you stop
A moment later you’re seated
But soon again you stand up
How is it you lack all
Focus and self-control?


To which
The object replied:
I too have dependencies
Demonic or otherwise
And what I have been shaped by
Likewise depends on
Other forces as well
Transforming all the time
Just as the snake sheds its skin
And the cicada its wing
Uncertain why
Uncertain why not



And so Zhuang Zhou
Long ago dreamed
Of being a butterfly
So vivid and true
His wings fluttered
And out of his very own head
Two antenna grew


Awakening suddenly
To delight in the discovery
That he now possessed
A great sage’s frame
Yet unknowing still
Whether it was Zhou who had
Dreamed of being a butterfly
Or the butterfly who now
Dreamed of being Zhou

Between Zhou
And the butterfly
There thus remains
This bit of difference
Which is what we call
The Transformation of Things


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Dream of Zhuang Zhou

The Dream of Zhuang Zhou by Christine Shields

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Translator’s note:  It’s worth noting that I have deviated from the customary approach taken in translating the dialog above.  For instance, in one semi-official state sponsored translation, published as part of The Library of Chinese Classics by the Hunan People’s Publishing House, this passage is presented as a discourse between a shadow and a penumbra.  (A similar approach is taken in a number of recent American translations as well.) Frankly, with all due respect to the HPPH and their followers, theirs may be a permissible reading but it makes absolutely no sense to me.  Penumbra is a word of fairly recent vintage in English, according to the OED; it’s a term of New Latin that was coined by Johannes Kepler to refer to precise observations made regarding shadows on the surface of the moon presumably while using a telescope.  In other words, it’s simply not possible that a penumbra is what Zhuang Zhou had in mind when he sat down to compose his verses.  A good translation must maintain some sense of temporal accuracy!  (I will readily admit to taking my own liberties with the original text but any such liberties as I have taken are solely for the purpose of better conveying what I believe are the passage’s deeper meanings as discussed further below.)

    Indeed, this passage becomes somewhat less murky if it is understood as a dialog about dependency between a shadow (as a dependent object) and the seemingly independent object on which the shadow’s very existence depends.  As with many obscure Chinese texts, I think the parallelism provides very important clues for us to ponder.  The parallelism here (as I read it) is between a shadow and its source object and Zhuang Zhou and his dream-embodiment as a butterfly.  In other words, our view of things is just as provisional and na´ve as is the shadow’s.  Or said differently, we are nothing but a shadow of our own manifestations in the dream world – this is just as much the case for us as it was for Zhuang Zhou.  Reading the passage this way points us in the direction of Daoism’s deepest mysteries, by calling our attention to the continuing interplay between the forces of transformation and correspondence at work in the world, whether between shadows and objects or people and their dreams.

    At first it may not be easy for us westerners (raised and educated in a more rationalist tradition) to appreciate the full significance of this passage and the enormous role it has played in shaping much of the great Chinese and Japanese spiritual tradition that follows -- giving a distinctive spin to Daoism which in turn profoundly influences the development of Chan Buddhism and Tang poetry which later still evolves into Zen Koans and Haiku and so on.  This is a very important origin story indeed.   It’s fair to think of it as akin in cultural importance to Plato’s allegory of shadows on the wall of the cave, except in the case of Zhuang Zhou’s dream the path of discovery seems to lead us deeper into the recesses of the cave instead of up and out into the Athenian sunlight. 

    For me, the essential pleasure and challenge of reading these classic Daoist scriptures is that they extend us an opportunity to partake directly in the Transformation of Things in our own right.  The thrust of the Zhuangzi and Dao De Jing is unlike anything I’ve encountered elsewhere – as they strive to impart an esoteric understanding through relatively commonplace language and imagery.  Reading and translating these wonderful texts provides each of us a way to practice and refine our own transformational skills, as we linger over these phrases, reread them once again and puzzle over the profoundest meanings that seem to lie just beyond the reach of words themselves.

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    Speaking of the Transformation of Things, I’d like to close out this issue of the Tang Spirit Newsletter with one of my own poems, written several years ago, when I first began studying the Zhuangzi.   I have come to consider Zhuang a major source of inspiration.  Under his tutelage, as I have grown more adept at tracing the shadows cast by others, I also underwent a transformation myself, morphing from translator to poet, and thus ventured to cast a few shadows of my own across the blank page. 

An Ode to Zhuang Zhou

Doing my stretching
One rep at a time
When one eye falls
On the reflection
Of my shadow
There at the mirror’s edge
Doing its own stretching too

What my shadow sees
When it stands by the mirror
Is standing next to me
A most peculiar thing
Only a few steps in between
I wonder what it thinks
Looking at me

Friend of my friend
Blurry doppelganger at the gym
The reflection of my shadow
Now giving me attitude
With its own feminine side too

Or is it an even bigger
Cubs’ fan than me
A burly shaggier beast
Prone to dozing intermittently
Falling deeply asleep and then
Arousing itself with a shudder
And suddenly scurrying
To catch up with me

As the correspondence
Between waking and dreaming
May feel all the greater
While appearing less distinct
So I find things stand
With me and my shadow’s reflection
As each of us keeps stretching
For a part of ourself that
Remains out of reach

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Many thanks to Christine Shields for bringing the Dream of Zhuang Zhou fully to life with her wonderful illustration.

Best wishes to all of you in the Tang Spirit. 

Joe Lamport (formerly known as Lan Hua)
October 7, 2014
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