A Slacker Sage: The Metaphysics of Mediocrity in the Zhuangzi

Daniel Dooghan

“A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.”

Paul Valéry

The Zhuangzi is a textbook for failure, and it leads by example. It offers no contemplative or hortatory bromides; unlike Elizabeth Bishop and Samuel Beckett, the Zhuangzi laughs at its failures. Simultaneously mystical and practical, lucid and gnomic, the text delights in paradox and challenges its readers to embrace contradiction rather than overcome it. Beloved in both the original Chinese and translation, the Zhuangzi has held fast to its reputation for literary brilliance as well as its notoriety for obscurity. As such it has remained one of the most enduring works of classical Chinese literature, forming with the Daodejing the core of the Daoist canon.

Yet even in its endurance the Zhuangzi embodies failure. Ostensibly the product of the hundred schools of thought, a period of exceptional creative activity around the fourth century BCE, the Zhuangzi as part of the Daoist tradition receded to the background of Chinese intellectual and political life behind first Legalism under the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) and then Confucianism under the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and its successors. However, despite its second-place status politically, Daoism and the Zhuangzi survived when so many contemporary and competing schools perished. In fact, the Zhuangzi was the object of revision and expansion until at least the second century BCE, with the extant recension dating to around 300 CE. The dating of the text’s various sections is contested, though nearly all sources ascribe special significance to the first seven “inner” chapters as the work of a single hand, perhaps the quasi-historical philosopher for whom the text is named. Authorities debate the provenance, both philosophical and historical, of the remaining chapters, but tend to agree on the work’s overall anthology-like quality. What we know for certain is that the extant version of thirty-three chapters is redacted from an earlier fifty-two chapter edition (Ban). Against this history of pseudepigrapha, textual loss, and political irrelevance the Zhuangzi has persisted and even thrived. Its failures of authenticity, integrity, and ambition are perhaps responsible for its survival.

Characteristically paradoxical, the Zhuangzi is a testament the triumph of failure. Criminals, fools, and losers inhabit the work and survive both despite and due to their inadequacies, illustrating the folly of various received wisdoms. To read the Zhuangzi as a paean to the suboptimal, though, would be too reductive. Its examples are rarely reproducible, nor does the text hold them up as models for behavior. Besides, to do so would make them failures as failures. The frequency of these examples suggests that we might read them as a literary device. Robert Allinson takes the trope of failure as a means of bootstrapping the reader’s consciousness (7). The text’s long history of providing readers with epistemological revelations is evidence of this, and can be seen in the reaction of first-time readers to the parable of the butterfly: “Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering about joyfully just as a butterfly would. He followed his whims exactly as he liked and knew nothing about Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and there he was, the startled Zhuang Zhou in the flesh. He did not know if Zhou had been dreaming he was a butterfly, or if a butterfly was now dreaming it was Zhou” (Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings [ZEW] 21). The text’s position in the Daoist canon also gestures toward its physically transformative potential (cf. Mair 376). Nevertheless, if self-improvement is the goal, the text itself offers scant evidence. Those who are failures when introduced remain so when they depart.

Despite its explicit commentary on the contingency of perspective, the many epistemological failures illustrated in the text gesture toward a more fundamental commentary on metaphysics. The failures of the Zhuangzi are the failures of teleology. Here we take teleology less in the Hegelian sense of historical destiny than in the Kantian sense of purpose or metaphysical essence. This is in keeping with a core concept of Daoism: wuwei, or purposeless action (alternative translations abound). Glossing the term is difficult given its oxymoronic quality; however, given dao as the organizing principle of the universe, wuwei suggests that we go with the flow of things rather than actively try to ascribe strict definitions to the world. This is not to say that some fundamental order to the universe exists, even if beyond the perception of humans, and that not actively looking for it will mystically reveal it. Rather, the assumption of a cosmic order represents a failure of philosophy. The first lines of the Daodejing comment enigmatically but instructively on this: “Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making/And naming (ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming” (77). The text discourages attempts to see order in the world: wuwei. To do so dooms any project to failure before beginning.

The Zhuangzi offers an alternative conception of teleology that satisfies the Daodejing’s interdiction on systematic ordering: radical contingency. Every action has meaning only in an infinitesimal moment, and so the text regularly features those whose actions are either spontaneous or are interpreted off the cuff by a canny observer. So much of the text focuses on examples of spontaneity (ziran) that it has been called a primary theme of the text (Graham 6-8). Of course, to act spontaneously without regard for custom or ethics tends to put one in opposition to the established order. In the case of the Zhuangzi, this order usually belongs to one of the contemporary philosophical schools.

Yet failure in the eyes of these schools is not a recipe for success in the Zhuangzi. The examples of failures given are usually not reproducible; moreover, to strive to reproduce them would be to impose a new teleological order on the world. Often a target for ridicule in the text due to his adherence to a prescriptive system, the philosopher Confucius is made in one example to voice the folly of privileging one ritual order over another. When confronted by a disciple’s report of singing at a funeral—a grave failure of propriety in the Confucian order—Confucius could only explain the behavior as belonging to an incommensurable moral order: “These are men who roam outside the lines. I, on the other hand, do my roaming inside the lines. The twain can never meet. It was vulgar of me to send you to mourn for such a person” (ZEW 46). He neither abandons his own position nor denounces the other; in this he is a failure as a moralist. However, Confucius acknowledges his failure and does not seek to overcome it. He gestures to a more spontaneous—to him “freakish”—way of living but rejects this for himself, reflecting, “They are freakish to humans but normal to Heaven. So it is said, he who to Heaven is a petty man is to the people an exemplary man, while he who to Heaven is an exemplary man is to the people a petty man” (ZEW 47). Given Heaven’s indifference to human distinctions (Daodejing 84), we might dismiss Confucius’ oracular pronouncement. Yet even if we do, we affirm his point: failure cannot be avoided.

Failure’s inevitability in the Zhuangzi should not be lamented. It rather gestures to the radical contingency of right action. In this the Zhuangzi differs from the Daodejing because the latter suggests the possibility of overcoming failure: “Knowing that one does not know is knowing at its best, but not knowing that one knows is suffering from a disease. Thus, the reason the sages are free of disease is because they recognize the disease as a disease. This is why they are not afflicted” (189). This gnōthi seauton indicates that the sage can overcome epistemological failures and achieve an understanding of the world in harmony with dao and that permits one to act in the manner of wuwei, which is consistent with interpretations of the Daodejing as a manual for statecraft (Watson 159).

The Zhuangzi by contrast is sanguine in its failures. Any advice comes without guarantee or insistence. Yet rarely is failure devastating to those it befalls. Many of the failures are cast as comical—even a fatal one. Failure is the norm rather than a deviation from it in the text. By exploring how the text engages failure through bemusement, humor, and even celebration we may see how it challenges teleology not to support a kind of nihilism—the text is quite pragmatic in places—but to promote the virtues of insouciance. Goals both practical and metaphysical appear throughout the Zhuangzi, but those striving for them tend to come up short. When they inevitably do, the text laughs and simply asks, “So what?”


Although imposing categories on the Zhuangzi is itself an exercise in failure, as the text’s slipperiness resists and even challenges classification, we might productively—if provisionally—adopt a few lenses to investigate its examples of failure. Although their boundaries are necessarily fluid, two types of failures predominate in the text: those of action and those of imagination. Describing those who suffer the former as losers may be uncharitable, but is not without justification. In the most basic sense, these characters have lost something tangible, be they appendages, produce, or careers. However, in keeping with the metaphysical thrust of the text, these characters’ tangible losses are the result of their inability to measure up to a social standard. Descriptors such as misfit or outcast certainly apply, but their sterility lacks the disdain connoted by the playground taunt.

In chapter five we encounter three criminals, all with amputated or mutilated feet. In the eyes of the Confucians, such disfigurement constitutes a grave breach of propriety. The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety sets preservation of one’s physical self as one of the most important duties and in so doing establishes a metaphysical hierarchy: “Our bodies—to every hair and bit of skin—are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them. This is the beginning of filial piety” (“Xiao Jing”). For their crimes against the state, which the text does not specify, these characters suffer disfigurement. However, while their crimes and punishments are singular events, they bear the signifiers of their criminality for life. This marks them not just as ex-convicts, but also as moral inferiors. The character of Confucius in the Zhuangzi underscores the metaphysical stain of this disfigurement: “There was an ex-con in Lu, named Toeless Shushan, whose feet had been mutilated as a punishment. He heeled his way over to see Confucius, who said to him, ‘You were careless in your past behavior and thus have ended up in this condition. Isn’t it a little late to come to me now?’” (35). A loser once seems to be a loser for life.

Of course the Zhuangzi does not let this stand. These criminals invariably find their disabilities to be signifiers of metaphysical liberation rather than inferiority. Toeless Shushan rebukes Confucius for his adherence to a moral teleology, saying, “I just didn’t understand my duties, and so I now lack a foot, but I come to you with something worth more than a foot still intact. Heaven covers all things. Earth supports all things” (35). He draws a distinction between his fleeting social failure and the grand scope of the cosmos, in which his mangled foot is no longer a signifier of inferiority but of liberation. Late Ming (1368-1644) commentator Lu Xixing notes, “Toeless Shushan knew he still had something worth more than a foot, which he sought to keep intact. With that intact, he could look on the loss of his foot as the casting off of useless soil […] One becomes fettered and cuffed through the restrictions of one’s own ideas about the differences between one being and another” (qtd. in ZEW 181). The loss of his toes is liberating in that since his failure has already occurred, he no longer has any toes to preserve. He embraces his failure rather than wallowing in it.

However, this produces no change in Confucius’ worldview. He instead cleaves to his teleological morality: “Learn from this my disciples! For Toeless is a one-footed ex-convict, but he still endeavors to learn, so as to make up for the ugliness of his past behavior. How much more should you do so, you whose Virtuosity is still intact!” (35). Toeless’ revelation appears here still in terms of his failure, indicating that Confucius failed to grasp the import of the encounter. What is more, Toeless suggests that Confucius cannot move beyond his position, attributing it to the workings of Heaven, which “itself has inflicted this punishment on him—how can he be released?” (35).

In this the text gestures toward the insurmountability of failure. The traditional commentary suggests that Confucius’ failure to change derives from his commitment to ordering things in the world, and that a departure from these practices could change him (Zhuangzi Jishi [ZJ] 206). Even Toeless’ interlocutor here, Lao Dan, the semi-mythical author of the Daodejing, believes that with the proper instruction Confucius could change. But he doesn’t. Moreover, by suggesting that Confucius should change is to fall victim to the same construction of metaphysical hierarchies that marks Toeless as a loser. What he calls Confucius’ “punishment” from Heaven, 刑 xing (ZJ 205), is the same word used to describe corporal punishments such as Toeless himself suffered (Sima Qian 138). Toeless is as much the moralist as Confucius, and each offends under the other’s metaphysical hierarchy.

Though Confucius makes for an easy target throughout the Zhuangzi, the text also skewers those friendly with its eponymous hero. The most common victim of these jibes is Huizi, a rival philosopher from the also-ran School of Names (名家 mingjia). His work is no longer extant, save for quotations in the Zhuangzi, but he and his school appear to have been invested in questions of logic and rhetoric, with some faint resonances with Zeno and his paradoxes (ZEW 124). Throughout the work we encounter sparring matches between Zhuangzi and Huizi. These invariably end with Zhuangzi beating Huizi at his own game, but always in a spirit of friendship. Donald Blakely and Chad Hansen identify this as in the context of “activities of analytic disputation” and “philosophical partnership” respectively (Blakely 333n1; Hansen “Relatively” 146). This is undoubtedly correct, but Zhuangzi’s comment on passing Huizi’s grave suggests a closer relationship than that of collaborating colleagues: “Since Huizi died, I too have had no material to work on. There is no longer anyone I can really talk to” (ZEW 104). This comment echoes the story of Boya and Zhong Ziqi, whose musical collaboration was a metaphor for intense friendship (Liu Xiang). Zhuangzi’s friendly ribbing emphasizes the provisional, playful nature of any accusation of failure.

The accusations do come, though. In the first chapter Huizi recounts to Zhuangzi the story of an agricultural experiment: “The King of Wei gave me the seed of a great gourd. I planted it, and when it matured it weighed over a hundred pounds. I filled it with liquid, but it was not firm enough to lift. I cut it in half to make a dipper, but it was too large to scoop anything. It was big and all, but because it was so useless, I finally just smashed it to pieces” (ZEW 7). Having squandered both magic bean and its fruit, Huizi receives some abuse from Zhuangzi: “I guess our esteemed master here still has a lot of tangled weeds clogging up his mind!” (ZEW 8). Expectedly, Zhuangzi chalks up Huizi’s loss to a lack of vision. He compares his friend to a tradesman who cheaply sells a secret recipe that is his birthright to another who parlays the secret into lasting fortune, suggesting not just faulty thinking, but lost opportunity (ZEW 7-8). Zhuangzi’s choice of analogy indicates an uncharacteristic (for him) investment in material success. Still, Zhuangzi’s story argues that missing out on security and prosperity makes one a bit of a loser.

Zhuangzi’s solution, however, suggests that he cannot yet quit his day job as a philosopher. He asks Huizi, “How is it that you never thought of making it into an enormous vessel for yourself and floating through the lakes and rivers in it?” (ZEW 8). Amusing as floating around in a giant pumpkin may be, and as in keeping with the text’s praise of spontaneity (自然 ziran) and purposeless rambling (逍遙遊 xiaoyaoyou), this chiding advice hardly matches the promise of the analogy. Zhuangzi creates a standard of success to illustrate Huizi’s failure, but ultimately chastises him for his failure at being aimless. Huizi’s pedestrian destruction of the gourd, while pointless, is ultimately unproductive because Huizi gains nothing from the experience in terms of broadening his horizons.

Given that magic beans are a rare commodity, the reproducibility of this scenario is likely nil; Zhuangzi is gloating, not advising. What would Huizi have gained had he not been hemmed in by assumptions about the proper utility of gourds? Moreover, we cannot say with certainty that Zhuangzi’s proposal is the best; perhaps the gourd would make an excellent parachute. However, Zhuangzi’s proposal establishes the metaphysical priority of wandering over Huizi’s destructive tendencies: doing nothing in particular is preferable to precluding future action.

David B. Wong argues that we may be limited in our ability to entertain more than a few perspectives without abandoning pretensions of metaphysical priority:

Zhuangzi points out uses for the huge gourd shells to which Huizi had been blinded by his narrow preconceptions. Our experience of the world always overflows our perspectives on them precisely because the function of these perspectives is to make experience manageable by deeming most of it irrelevant for our purposes. But this means that on the most basic level experience is an inexhaustible resource for new perspectives if only we let go of the obsession with being right once and for all. (98)

Zhuangzi’s gloating attitude, then, means that he too fails to comprehend the illimitability of potential experience. His standards seem as artificial as those of the arch-moralist Confucius.

He knows this, and smiles: the Zhuangzi does not spare its purported author, because its purported author doesn’t shrink from failure. In fact, his embrace of it potentially explains his hypocritical position earlier. The examples so far have been drawn from the first seven chapters of the Zhuangzi as they are nearly uniformly accepted as a coherent whole. This example, however, comes from chapter seventeen; despite being from what is generally agreed to be from later hands, both A. C. Graham and Liu Xiaogan argue persuasively for its intellectual consistency with the inner chapters (Graham 115, 143-4; Liu 88). Here we see Zhuangzi himself as a loser.

The ostensible goal of the various philosophers during this era was to sell their ideas to the lords of the states that emerged during the long collapse of the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 BCE). Chad Hansen notes that their motivations were not abstruse but practical: “These partisan movements vied for political influence in a feudal and then in an imperial hierarchy. Their dominant concerns, from the beginning, were the issues of proper social organization and motivation. Philosophy emerged from something more like our policy think-tanks than from legal and scientific debates” (Daoist 53). In the imperial era, this mercenary aspect becomes quite prominent, and emerges as the primary means for achieving wealth and social status. Imperial era works regularly portray a position in the imperial bureaucracy as the only desirable career for men, capable of resolving even supernatural entanglements (cf. Pu Songling). The rigid formalization and corruption of the bureaucracy, however, also made it a target of satire, as in the major Qing dynasty (1644-1911) novel Rulin waishi [The Scholars].

Yet some 2000 years earlier the Zhuangzi already skewered the bureaucratic ambitions of the literate class. In so doing, though, the character of Zhuangzi marks himself as a loser for rejecting what was supposedly his goal as a philosopher. Upon learning that the King of Chu, a major state in southern China, has selected Zhuangzi to administer his territories, the philosopher responds with the parable of the dead turtle. Zhuangzi remarks, “I have heard there is a sacred turtle in Chu, already dead for three thousand years, which the king keeps in a bamboo chest high in his shrine. Do you think this turtle would prefer to be dead and having his carcass exalted or alive and dragging his backside through the mud?” (ZEW 75). The king’s messengers come to the obvious answer, and Zhuangzi shouts, “Get out of here! I too will drag my backside through the mud!” (ZEW 75). The setting of the passage, Zhuangzi fishing by a river, emphasizes the base physicality of his rejection.

This rejection is not just of the King of Chu’s offer, but also of the social values undergirding it. Passing on the opportunity to take up the reins of state indicates his deviation from the expected path of the philosopher. A subsequent exchange between Zhuangzi and Huizi—already serving in government—illustrates the latter’s tenacious commitment to this path in contrast to the former’s indifference (ZEW 76). Moreover, the physicality of Zhuangzi’s preferred activity, fishing, stands in remarkable distinction from the rarefied intellectual air of ritual and statecraft that appertains to this sort of leadership. His refusal is thus not just of career expectations, but of social mobility generally.

Finally, the Chinese text uses the perhaps less colorful 尾 wei rather than “backside,” which though entirely legitimate fails to capture the depth of Zhuangzi’s self-debasement. The character denotes tail in addition to the broader backside, underscoring the theriomorphism of the analogy; Zhuangzi does not just liken himself to the turtle, but metaphorically ascribes its animal properties to himself as well. His desire to wallow in mud after the turtle signifies a radical rejection of social expectations, transgressing even the boundaries of human form by adopting the animal as his model. We find similar rejections in the fabular quality of many of the Zhuangzi’s stories. Still, even in his radical departure from social standards, he still takes a position, privileging—if through inaction—one metaphysics over another.

Zhuangzi may be too canny to be flanked into making an affirmative argument. Kim-chong Chong argues, “we should not see Zhuangzi as stating propositions and thereby trying to establish the truth of any position. Instead, his words have a certain metaphorical structure that enables him to resist being pinned down to any position” (375). In this parable, as in the story of Huizi and the gourd, Zhuangzi does appear to advocate a position, but he does this in both cases through analogy rather than affirmation. Chong notes that this and other rhetorical strategies “enable Zhuangzi to hint at certain things (e.g. ‘clarity’) but at the same time without his being forced (logically) to assert or to adhere to anything” (382). His circumlocutions fail to argue for anything, and merely suggest possible actions. His rejection of the King of Chu’s offer is thus not intended to be normative, and instead gestures to an embrace of comfortable mediocrity rather than the inevitable failure resulting from an office predicated on making positive claims about proper action. He makes no proposition, as that would lead to failure; instead he cuts to the chase and begins with failure.

Although Confucius, Toeless Shushan, Huizi, and Zhuangzi himself all fall short of someone’s expectations, they suffer no real consequences. Confucius is unenlightened, but remains a sage; Toeless keeps his enlightenment, but that doesn’t grant him the power to teach others or regrow his foot; Huizi loses his gourd, but only suffers the jibes of his friend; and Zhuangzi both fails to articulate a coherent position from which to argue and fails to answer when opportunity knocks, but he doesn’t care. His position in the mud may not be ideal, and in fact marks him as a loser by the standards of his interlocutors, but it is good enough. In these examples rigidly teleological worldviews produce distress and contradiction for their holders, but the text illustrates that no great harm comes from failing to substantiate those views.


Those in the second category of failures do not suffer the rejection or raillery of the losers. This is not to say that they avoid mockery, but that they are chastised through their somewhat comical presentations rather than through direct dialogue. Their failures lie in their inability to imagine a world that is different from their own. Moreover, they see themselves as supreme in these limited worlds, passing judgment on those around them. Their arrogant epistemological positions reveal a fundamental metaphysical failure in that what they see as the way things are inscribes a limited teleology on the world: their view is way things ought to be. The variety and feasibility of their positions gesture toward the paradoxical need for and inevitable failure of teleologies, but their insistence on their correctness marks them as fools, doubling down on failure.

The first story in the Zhuangzi introduces a pair of fools and sets the general pattern for their appearance. It recounts the myth of the massive Kun fish that metamorphoses into the prodigious Peng bird, whose “wings are like clouds draped across the heavens,” and when he flies “he ascends ninety thousand miles and continues his journey without rest for half a year” (ZEW 3). The distance and duration are orders of magnitude beyond the human scale, but the Peng bird has a mythico-scientific reason for his great flight: “if the wind is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support Peng’s enormous wings” (ZEW 4). What is beyond the scope of the human is a physical necessity for the Peng bird.

Rather than find the Kantian sublimity in what is numerically beyond comprehension, the fools in this tale reject it out of hand as being superfluous. A cicada and a dove define the world and the correct ends for action in it according to their size. For them, the Peng bird is an object of mockery: “The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at him, saying, ‘We scurry up into the air, leaping from the elm to the sandalwood tree, and when we don’t quite make it we just plummet to the ground. What’s all this about ascending ninety thousand miles and heading south?’” (ZEW 4). These two trees are the horizons of their world, and their purpose is to flit between them. They express comprehension of the Peng bird’s range, but cannot essay its purpose. They interrogate the reason for the Peng bird’s actions because such a reason cannot exist within the limited metaphysics supporting their worldview.

Slightly later the story appears again, with a quail alone as the fool. He similarly draws a contrast between what he sees as his purposeful flight and the Peng bird’s aimlessness: “My twittering and fluttering between the bushes and branches is the utmost form of flying! So where does he think he’s going?” (ZEW 4). Here flight receives an explicitly teleological definition: in its “utmost form” it is to get from bush to branch. Whatever the Peng bird does is not flight according to the quail; he cannot even envision a destination for such activity, expressing instead incredulity at the apparent aimlessness of the Peng’s motion. Given that the Peng bird manages to fly and reach his destination, the pointed interrogatives of the cicada, dove, and quail are markers of arrogance and foolishness. Through their commitment to a certain limited definition of the world, they fail to grasp the insignificance of their positions within it.

We never see what the Peng bird feels about the dove and cicada. The text glosses the quail’s diatribe by commenting, “Such is the difference between large and small” (ZEW 4), suggesting by analogy with the views of the small, the Peng bird would likely not see the point of their short flights on account of his size. To do so would be to fail to grasp the totality of the world just like the quail; however, the text does not give voice to any retort from the Peng. Either this means that he does not even acknowledge the existence of such puny creatures, or that he does not worry about defining the world and what flight truly constitutes within it. Nor are these possibilities mutually exclusive. Were they to coincide, as seems possible given the text’s gloss, the Peng would still be a failure through his inability to see beyond his size, but not a fool because of his disinterest in predicating purpose on it.

The final story of the inner chapters features another pair of fools, though these are better intentioned than the judgmental critters of the previous example. These characters appear as primeval deities, though not part of any systematic mythology: “The emperor of the southern sea was called Swoosh [shu]. The emperor of the northern sea was called Oblivion [hu]” (ZEW 54). Song dynasty (960-1279) commentator Lü Huiqing glosses these semi-onomatopoetic figures in existential, cosmological terms: “The yang of the south is an image for manifest existence. The yin of the north is an image for unseen nonexistence” (qtd. in ZEW 211). The equation with the mutually productive yet distinct forces of traditional Chinese cosmology, as well as being and nothingness marks these figures as already engaged in a metaphysics of order. Their links to presence and absence establish boundaries between beings, and the invocation of yin and yang enables teleological readings. Whether seeking Daoist balance or Confucian hierarchy, the arrangement of yin and yang means something across the philosophical spectrum (Zhang 83-94). Thus whatever these figures do is invested with purpose and inscribes that purpose on the world.

They are not alone, however, in their orderly universe. They are joined by a third, even more primordial figure: “The emperor of the middle was called Chaos. Swoosh and Oblivion would sometimes meet in the territory of Chaos, who always attended to them quite well” (ZEW 54). Chaos, or hundun, represents an ur-state of existence. This is not quite a wholly undifferentiated stuff from which springs all creation. Rather, it consists of the totality of the world’s things prior to any arrangement: a pre-teleological instantiation of the world (Graham 99). Norman Girardot treats this topic at length in Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism. Unlike the teleological, world defining resonances of Swoosh and Oblivion, Chaos, in the traditional commentary, “is neither north nor south, thus is neither being nor non-being” (ZJ 309). He accommodates definition but does not impose his own. Similarly, he does not represent pure potentiality, because the representatives of both being and nothingness can be at home in his domain. Beings exist in him but without definition, so, following Lü Huiqing again, “Although the manifest and unseen may differ from Chaos, Chaos itself never considers them different from itself, never excludes them. This is why it is said to ‘attend to them quite well’” (qtd. in ZEW 211).

Like the Peng bird, Chaos never speaks for himself. Befitting his status as neither being nor nothingness, he has no mouth with which to announce his position or pass judgment on the world. Unfortunately, his friends Swoosh and Oblivion see this—as befits their natures as being and nothingness—as a defect: “All men have seven holes in them, by means of which they see, hear, eat, and breathe […] But this one alone has none. Let’s drill him some” (ZEW 54). Swoosh and Oblivion insist on imposing purpose on the inherently purposeless Chaos. In so doing, they privilege a metaphysical order favoring sharp distinctions between beings, in which each has a specific purpose. Unfortunately, Chaos in no longer Chaos after being reshaped in the image of teleology: “So each day they drilled another hole. After seven days, Chaos was dead” (54). The morbid humor of the laconic narrative underscores how ill-considered their actions were.

Through their arrogant belief in the necessity of their metaphysics, they foolishly destroyed their friend. They failed to see the alternative metaphysics embodied by Chaos. However, Chaos does not represent a pre-metaphysical worldview, and is as susceptible to sympathetic teleologies as much as destructive ones. Though Chaos does not speak, the text speaks for him by describing his death. Certainly he undergoes a Spinozist change of state, but death may be metaphorical rather than literal; the traditional commentary favors metaphorical readings of the various characters, so why not of drilling and death as well. Guo Xiang, the Jin dynasty (265-420) commentator and compiler of the extant Zhuangzi, glosses Chaos’ death as defeat (敗 bai), which (ZJ 310) allows for the possibility of his continued existence, though in a different form: likely one that fits the neat dualisms of Swoosh and Oblivion.

By asserting that they killed Chaos, the text passes judgment on their action. This judgment suggests that Chaos’ metaphysical ambivalence may be an end in itself. Ming commentator Shi Deqing says as much when he claims that “all these obstructions to far-reaching and unfettered wandering are the result of clever understanding and calculating skill. They are all holes drilled in Chaos, destroying him, so that the Heavenly genuineness is lost” (qtd. in ZEW 212). Here Chaos represents an authentic mode of experience that is to be sought in contradistinction to the sharp distinctions of the “clever” and “calculating.” Moreover, Shi argues for Chaos’ ongoing defeat, and thus the desirability for a return to a prelapsarian, Chaotic metaphysics: “In fact, from ancient times down to the present, in all times and places, from Yao and Shun on down, there is not one person who is not the driller of holes in Chaos, constantly destroying him (212). This lamentation for the loss of “Heavenly genuineness” hinges on taking Swoosh and Oblivion’s failure of imagination as antithetical to another teleological metaphysics.

Yet Chaos never protests. He says nothing while under the drill, presumably including the time after a mouth was created—unless that was the last hole. Nor does he say anything during the extended afterlife ascribed to him by Shi Deqing. Others speak for him, but in doing so they suffer the same failure as do the fools: their metaphysics must be correct. Were Chaos to be taken as the metaphysical standard and the boundaries between beings were to evaporate, what would become of Swoosh and Oblivion? The text notes that they were able to dwell together in Chaos’ domain, and while the ontology in the traditional commentary can get somewhat baroque on this point, we can say for certain only that he “attended to them well.” “Attend” here is 待 dai, which signifies reliance on and engagement with, in addition to the attention translated above (ZEW 213-4). This suggests that rather than impose his will on his guests, as they fatally do on him, on account of his nature between being and non-being, they can find unity in his presence (ZJ 310). He does this non-coercively, as they come to him, and we see no indication that he has any strong commitment to his intermediate role.

By not expressing a foolhardy confidence in the supremacy of his metaphysics, he is able to interact with those of a different metaphysical orientation. His “death,” though a failure to preserve his metaphysical system, is as humorous as it is sad, and passes without complaint. The afterlife he experiences in the traditional commentary indicates that even this supposedly extreme failure might not be the end. By contrast, the foolish arrogance of Swoosh and Oblivion accomplishes nothing but the death of their friend. Those who aim for great success invariably seem to fail in the Zhuangzi; those who don’t also seem to end up the same way, though usually without serving as much as the targets of ridicule.


At least one character in the Zhuangzi stands apart in his ability to succeed where everyone else has failed: Cook Ding. In his task of butchering oxen for King Hui of Liang, he demonstrates a preternatural gift: “A good cook changes his blade once a year: he slices. An ordinary cook changes his blade once a month: he hacks. I have been using this same blade for nineteen years, cutting up thousands of oxen, and yet it is still as sharp as the day it came off the whetstone” (ZEW 22). Cook Ding’s story comes from chapter three, one of the “skill” chapters, in which attunement with the dao enables characters to achieve similarly impressive feats (Graham 62). This attunement, though, is easier said than done. Based on the many examples of failure in the text, both those explicitly failing and those criticizing them, a concerted effort to attune oneself to the dao will inevitably result in failure.

Cook Ding takes a different approach. Rather than striving for success in his task, he relaxes and resists the impulse to impose a metaphysical system. He recounts his apprenticeship, noting, “When I first started cutting up oxen, all I looked at for three years was oxen, and yet still I was unable to see all there was to see in an ox” (ZEW 22). This is the triumph of teleology: he saw an ox as what he believed an ox to be. However, this was his imposition on the object before him, and as a result he failed to perceive its plenitude, just like the cicada and dove, or Swoosh and Oblivion. Realizing the limits of his assumptions, he changed his method: “But now I encounter it with the spirit rather than scrutinizing it with the eyes. My understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow” (ZEW 22). Here Cook Ding acknowledges the limits of teleology, rejecting its “specific purposes.” His alternative, though, is not a mystical reliance on a guiding force, despite the suggestion in this passage.

He instead describes an acceptance of the possibility of failure. The suspension of “understanding consciousness” must be taken as metaphorical, because he can still recognize problems: “Nonetheless, whenever I come to a clustered tangle, realizing it is difficult to do anything about it, I instead restrain myself as if terrified, until my seeing comes to a complete halt” (ZEW 23). The difficulties of his task worry him at first; he even admits its near-futility. This admission reveals that he has not entirely relinquished his investment in teleology: there is a right way to butcher an ox, thus failure is possible. However, his restraint is “as if terrified,” signifying insouciance. Failure is an option, but so what? The sight that ceases here is less physical than metaphysical. On abandoning teleology and the fear of failure, his “activity slows, and the blade moves ever so slightly. Then all at once, I find the ox already dismembered at my feet like clumps of soil scattered on the ground” (ZEW 23). The closing simile is not gratuitous; it rather reflects his cultivated inability to see the ox as what he believes an ox ought to be; it represents his embrace of failure and his victory over teleology.

Such victory is short-lived. For all of his metaphysical liberation, Cook Ding is not above glorying in his handiwork: “I retract the blade and stand there gazing at my work arrayed all around me, dawdling over it with satisfaction” (ZEW 23). His pleasure suggests that he sees the task at hand as a job to be done. He does not wander in a realm of complete metaphysical liberation, but is bound to the demands of quotidian life—teleology included—like everyone else. That the entire episode is occasioned by a comment from his superior, the King of Liang, is further evidence of this. Still, Cook Ding is able to achieve, however briefly, a consciousness beyond that conditioned by simple perception: less worry makes for more success.

Despite Cook Ding’s remarkable success at his task, we ought not to take his method as representing a foolproof solution to the apparent inevitability of failure in the text. We have no evidence that the meat is tasty or that serving the King of Liang is an enviable position; both assumptions are in line with what the text questions elsewhere: “If someone were to present such experiences as embodying some privileged access to the world, Zhuangzi would skeptically interrogate that claim, but that would not prevent him from recommending such experiences to us as supremely satisfying” (Wong 105). The text does not ask these questions here because they do not matter. Cook Ding makes no normative claims about how the world should be, choosing instead only to describe his experiences. Provided we can take Cook Ding as a reliable reporter of his experiences—and the text offers us no reason to do otherwise—he appears to enjoy his work, and were his knife suddenly to turn dull in its twentieth year of use, we might imagine that he would take the failure with equanimity.


The failures in the Zhuangzi try too hard. Cook Ding achieves his greatest successes when not worrying about them, whereas the losers and fools fail due to their striving for or assumptions of rectitude. From some perspective, any sort of goal setting will appear incorrect, or at best trivial. Unlike Hans-Georg Moeller in The Moral Fool, this is not an endorsement of amoralism. Zhuangzi is not one who “simply does not understand why ethics are necessarily good,” or “if the moral perspective is good at all” (5). Both Zhuangzi and the Zhuangzi regularly make ethical judgments, or more accurately ethical comments informed by metaphysical positions. These positions are fluid throughout, and none can entirely claim primacy; however, they remain. They point not to the failure of teleology, but through their failures indicate the limitations of any one metaphysical position. As much as teleologies appear to be arbitrary and unnecessary in the text, they are inescapable, as are their failures. All of the Zhuangzi’s characters live in the human world, bound by our epistemological limitations; their moments of metaphysical liberation are only temporary.

The Zhuangzi succeeds because it does not try to be anything. Reading the text as if it does will inevitably lead to failure. Bryan W. Van Norden argues that Zhuangzi “uses skeptical arguments to make us doubt many of our commonsense beliefs. But his goal is not merely to leave us in a state of doubt; his goal is to use doubt to make us more receptive to different convictions. He disorients us so he can reorient us” (258). This suggestion of a skeptical method in the text presupposes a focus for this reorientation. The examples discussed above confirm Van Norden’s thesis that the text exposes the shortcomings of our beliefs; however, those that emerge as their intended replacements suffer from the same investments in teleology. They may be more advantageous in the moment—Zhuangzi’s suggestion of the gourd-boat over the gourd detritus—but they do not offer any rationale for their superiority other than some cutting snark. These skeptical reorientations are, as demonstrated, also susceptible to further skepticism, ad infinitum.

This opens the text to a relativistic interpretation. This is an attractive alternative as it allows the competing positions in the various stories to be equally right (or wrong). Chad Hansen observes,

Zhuangzi’s style signals his status as the premier philosopher of perspective. His staging of fantasy dialogues releases him from trying to make any transperspectival conclusions and yet allows him to philosophize freely. He challenges us to realize that in reading him, we so do from different conceptual perspectives. Working with the text becomes an object lesson in the message of the text. (Daoist 266)

Hansen’s reading is consonant with the repeated illustration of the failure of particular teleologies in the text. Indeed, we might take the example of the Peng bird and the quail as a caution against investing in any particular perspective. However, this ignores that the text consistently does take positions and identifies the perspectives under discussion, provisional as they may be. Zhuangzi does reject the job offer, Cook Ding can skillfully carve an ox, and Huizi does smash his gourd. The text passes judgment on these actions either through dialogue or ironic juxtaposition. That those judgments are themselves limited and bound for failure does not, however, negate them. To posit relativism as the philosophical perspective of the text is to impose teleology on it. If the Zhuangzi argues for the equality of all positions, then its constant challenges of specific purposes seem misguided. To accept the relativist position would be to divorce the contents of the Zhuangzi from the Zhuangzi as a complete work. Moreover, this position would affirm the pursuit of relativism as an end in itself, which even when provided with a superlative manual like the Zhuangzi, would still result in failure due to our finitude. Not even the talented Cook Ding could overcome his investment in perspective for more than a few moments at a time after nineteen years of practice.

Rather than reading the text as an argument for a radical relativism or skepticism, which the implicit positions of various so-called skeptical characters in the text belie, we might instead take the text to be a meditation on coming to terms with inevitable failure. In his critique of skeptical approaches to the Zhuangzi, David B. Wong argues for a similar notion of entertaining possibilities in the face of established positions: “Zhuangzi’s skepticism is not a skepticism bounded by a privileged kind of knowing, nor is it mere therapeutic device to induce a sensible fallibilism. It is a continuous willingness to be surprised, an openness to being jolted, even an enjoyment in being jolted, that is the thread underlying this process” (99). An openness to and enjoyment of “being jolted” prescribes the anticipation or even embrace of seeing the limitations of one’s positions. Those characters in the Zhuangzi who worry least about their failures, like Zhuangzi and Cook Ding through their indifference, still fail but suffer the least because they are least invested in the teleologies under which they appear as unsuccessful.

The text encourages us to question our received notions about how the world is, but all answers will be provisional and thus failures. Wong goes so far as to suggest that to see the text otherwise is to fall into the same trap as its exemplary characters: “Previous readings of the Zhuangzi fundamentally misread the text as containing some final doctrine that is either predominantly skeptical or predominantly engaged in prescribing a way of life. Rather, the Zhuangzi enacts a search that has no end but leaves it up to the audience to see what might come of it” (103). This search is thus doomed to failure—it “has no end”—but this lack rehearses the retreat from teleology. Our finite reading time, like that of the text’s many previous commentators, will inscribe the Zhuangzi with a limited interpretation. Indeed, to proclaim the triumph of failure is an abandonment of the endless search in favor of a convenient teleological understanding of the text. Our hermeneutic failure notwithstanding, the slacker Zhuangzi reminds us not to worry about it.*

*I would like to thank my research assistant, Lauren Richey, for her invaluable help, as well as support from David Delo and Dana grants from the University of Tampa.


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