Day: October 1, 2022

庄子 The Writings of Master Zhuang, the Sage of Uncertainty

Zhuangzi is one of the Chinese classic texts and is considered one of the foundational texts of Daoism, also known as Taoism. Written sometime during the late Warring States period (fourth-third centuries B.C.E), it contains a collection of fables that upon casual glance seem to be nothing more than contradictory ramblings of a silly person. Upon a closer reading, however, you’ll start to pick up on some of the philosophical ideals of Daoism that the author was trying to convey through his wit and turn of phrase.

Of the fifty-five chapters thought to originally comprise Zhuangzi, only thirty-three managed to survive to the present day. And of these thirty-three surviving chapters, only the first seven (known as the “inner chapters”) are thought to have been penned by Zhuang Zhou, who is also known as Zhuangzi.

As I scoured the internet for more information about Zhuangzi and the tales within, I was met with a multitude of articles, videos, and podcasts which referred to the author of Zhuangzi, Master Zhuang, as the Sage of Uncertainly. I feel this title for Master Zhuang is fitting, and I’ll explain my reasoning to you with the following example from Zhuangzi: The Transformation of Things.

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

– Zhuangzi

Initially, the reader is told that Zhuang Zhou dreams of himself as a happy little butterfly, doing happy butterfly things (I felt some strong Bob Ross vibes in this sentence that brought on a little chuckle), and is unaware of the possibility of any other non-butterfly self. But once Zhou awakes from the dream, he recognizes his non-butterfly self, and ponders which reality, which self—the butterfly or the person—is the real self.

This short, little tale from Zhuangzi is a multi-layered mind trip. Kind of like an onion that can be peeled away, a layer at a time. In particular, one of these layers caught my attention: identity. I was able to identify the butterfly identity and the person identity. One of these, the butterfly, could be seen as the more content and carefree identity. The butterfly can do what it wants and go where it pleases. In contrast, the person could be assumed to have person-like responsibilities, such as familial obligations, financial worries, and etc. However, the existence of having these responsibilities does not necessarily mean the person is not content, but it could be construed in such a way to suggest that the person is burdened with the weight their responsibilities.

So which identity is dreaming of the other? Does the butterfly want to be a person? Does the person want to be a butterfly? What is it about the other identity that may be attractive to the butterfly or the person? I found these questions from the tale of the butterfly dream, also known as The Transformation of Things, to be very interesting to play around with in my head. Especially since if thought about philosophically, there might not be an answer, and in Daoism that’s OK.

Daoism is the study of “The Way”, and “The Way” is the natural state or current of everything in the universe. Things, …just are to a follower of Daoism. There’s an emphasis on self-cultivation, which stands in contrast to Confucianism and its emphasis on logic and order.

Does this give you a good idea of why I feel the Sage of Uncertainty is a fitting title for Master Zhuang? Seemingly, not much would actually end up bothering him and contradictions are just opportunities for thought experiments. Which, as most of us know from our introduction to philosophy classes, is a primary foundation of learning and understanding.

Works Cited

Zhuangzi. Trans Burton Watson. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Gen. ed. Martin Puchner. 4th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2018. 1382. Print.

Sandoval, James P. The Butterfly’s Dream. But a Jape, October 11, 2021. https://www.butajape.com/comic/the-butterflys-dream/ .