Introduction and Notes for a Complete Translation of the Chuang Tzu

by Victor H. Mair

My complete translation of the Chuang Tzu was published by Bantam Books in the late summer of 1994. Because of the nature of that publication, it was impossible for me to include all of the notes and commentary that I had prepared during the course of my work on the text. As with my edition of the Tao Te Ching (Bantam, 1990), however, I promised in the Chuang Tzu (p. liv) that I would issue in Sino-Platonic Papers a separate set of materials designed for those individuals who would like more detailed information on specific points. That is the genesis of this particular volume.

In the Bantam Chuang Tzu, I was not able to give any annotations on textual and other types of philological matters. Here, on the other hand, there are hundreds of notes explaining the basis of my readings of difficult passages. Yet, inasmuch as I had originally designed even these notes for the general reader, they are neither as technical nor as complete as I would have made them if they had been meant from the very beginning for a purely scholarly (viz., sinological) audience.

The contents of this volume are essentially as I drew them up for submission to Bantam. When I did so, I was fully aware that a protracted process of negotiation with my editors there would result in something quite different. Those who have examined the Bantam edition can see for themselves just how dissimilar that book is from this volume. The only significant changes from the original manuscript that I have made here are in the addition of page numbers and key words to the annotations. It should be mentioned that I had originally designated the various sections of the chapters by letters (A, B, C..., etc.), but my editors at Bantam insisted that these be changed to numbers. Therefore, what I had once referred to as 24K, for example, has now become 24.11. Finally, I had originally designed the book to have numbered footnotes at the bottom of the page. The footnote numbers still exist at the beginning of each note herein, but I have had to add identifying tags in bold, e.g., K'un (3), where the number in parentheses is the page number of the translation published by Bantam. The tag words in bold usually constitute the items that are being explicated, but sometimes they serve merely to locate the section of the text that is relevant to a more general note.

The Chuang Tzu is far and away my favorite Chinese book. Although this fascinating collection of essays, tales, and anecdotes presents many difficult problems of interpretation, for two decades it has been the work that I wanted more than any other to render into English. To prepare myself for the task, I gathered together scores of traditional commentaries and modern exegeses. Although I have consulted them closely and carefully during the course of my research, I seldom refer to them directly in the notes to the translation. The main reason for this is that I view the Chuang Tzu primarily as a work of literature rather than as a work of philosophy and wish to present it to the reading public unencumbered by technical arcana that would distract from the pleasure of encountering one of the most playful and witty books in the world.

There have been a few previous translations of the Chuang Tzu into English, French, German, Mandarin, Japanese, and other languages (including several complete ones) although nothing like the hundreds that have been done for the Tao Te Ching, that other well-known Taoist classic. Some of these renditions are quite competent, but I believe that none of them has succeeded in capturing the quintessential spirit of the book. Both the style and the thought of the Chuang Tzu are extraordinary. If we try to approach them by conventional means, we will surely fail. Therefore, in making my translation, I have not been afraid to experiment with new modes of expression to simulate the odd quality of writing in the Chuang Tzu. If my rendering has any other aim than philological accuracy, it is to present Chuang Tzu as a preeminent literary stylist and to rescue him from the clutches of those who would make of him no more than a waffling philosoph or a maudlin minister of the Taoist faith.

Before proceeding further, I should be kind enough to explain what the name of the book means and how it should be pronounced. "Chuang" is the surname of the supposed author of this marvelous work and "Tzu" simply implies "master" in the sense of the leader of a given school of thought in ancient China. Hence, we may render "Chuang Tzu" as "Master Chuang." While the pronunciation of the title is not such an easy matter as its meaning, I would console my poor reader who is afraid to attempt it by saying that speakers of Sinitic languages themselves have pronounced (and still do pronounce) the two sinographs used to write it in widely varying ways. For example, a Cantonese would read them, more or less, as tshuhng tzyy and a resident of the Chinese capital 2,600 years ago would have pronounced them roughly as tsyang tsyehg or tsryangh tsyehgh. Therefore, it does not really matter that much how each of us says the title of the book in his or her own idiolect. For those who are fastidious, however, the "correct" pronunciation in Modern Standard Mandarin may be approximated as follows. The "Chu" part of Chuang sounds like the "ju" of juice or jute, except that the "u" functions as a glide to the succeeding vowel and thus comes out as a "w"; the "a" must be long, as in Ma and Pa; the "ng" is the same as in English. Perhaps the best way to approximate Tzu is to lop off the initial part of words such as adze, fads, and so forth, striving to enunciate only the I'd" and the voiced sibilant that comes after it. To end this little lesson in Mandarin phonology, then, we may transcribe Chuang Tzu phonetically as jwawng dz or jwahng dzuh. For the meaning and pronunciation of crucial technical terms such as Tao (the Way or the Track) and ch'i ("vital breath") that recur in the Chuang Tzu, see the Afterword to my translation of the Tao Te Ching, pp. 130-140.

Ideally, all proper nouns should be given in the reconstructed form that is appropriate for the time when and place where they were current. Unfortunately, our reconstructions of ancient and archaic Sinitic languages, topolects, and dialects are still grossly inadequate and so we must resort to the makeshift of citing them in Modern Standard Mandarin. This is often deceiving, especially when the phonetic quality of a word is operative in what an author is trying to express. In my translation, I have regularly given the archaic pronunciation of the names of two southern states to indicate that they were originally inhabited by speakers of non-Sinitic languages.

For the information of sinologists and other scholars who may need to know, the basic text that I have relied upon in making my translation is that of CH'EN Kuying, although I do not always follow his recommendations for emendations and excisions. Therefore, those who may wish to compare my translation with the original Chinese should also consult the standard edition as presented in the fIrst section of the Harvard-Yenching Concordance. The latter, incidentally, has been my most important tool in producing my rendition. When deciding upon the best English equivalent of a given word or expression in the Chuang Tzu, I have constantly checked its occurrences elsewhere in the text. Without the Concordance, this would have been a maddening, virtually impossible, task.

The next most important research work that I have relied upon are the splendid scholarly tomes in Japanese by AKA TSUKA Kiyoshi. There are two primary reasons for this. First, Akatsuka points out those portions of the Chuang Tzu which are in verse. This is not evident from the format of the original, since ancient Chinese texts consisted wholly of unpunctuated strings of sinographs. To determine whether or not a given passage is in verse, one must analyze the rhymes at the ends of clauses and sentences. Because the phonology of archaic Sinitic and Modern Standard Mandarin is so very different, this is no mean task. The second great contribution of Akatsuka lies in interpreting the semantic content of the names of the fictional figures who people the pages of the Chuang Tzu. This, too, requires formidable learning because many of the names are disguised by the device of employing homophonous sinographs to write them. Few commentators, interpreters, and translators pay any attention to these two tremendously vital aspects of the Chuang Tzu. Consequently, in my estimation, they do not succeed in conveying to their readers the unique literary qualities of the work. Both in identifying portions of the text that were originally composed in verse and in construing the names of characters who appear in it, I have gone beyond Akatsuka, but his superb contributions in these areas have lightened my burden considerably. His generous accounts of the historical background for events and persons mentioned in the Chuang Tzu have also been highly appreciated. Michael Carr has written two articles (see bibliography) which came into my hands after my book was already in press. In them, he studies the meanings of the names in certain stories of the Chuang Tzu, suggesting plausibly that some of them are transcriptions of Austro-Tai words.

Among the dozens of other commentaries that I have examined during the course of my translation and annotation, the most useful are listed in the bibliography. All of them suggest various revisions. I have tried to make the best of the text as it stands, resorting to only the most limited changes, in spite of the fact that it is obviously corrupt in some places. My aim throughout has been to duplicate as closely as possible in English the experience that a trained student of Classical Chinese would have when he or she reads the Chuang Tzu. I should mention that an obscure, ancient work such as the Chuang Tzu has always been inaccessible to all but a minute percentage of the Chinese Population who possessed special preparation in grappling with its enormously refractory and artificial language. It is "artificial" in the sense that it is book language only, a dead language that may never have lived or lived only Partially in the mouths of priest, seers, and bards, and that for more than two thousand years has not been capable of being understood when read aloud unless the auditor had previously memorized the passage in question. The monumentally difficult nature of Classical Chinese has become even more accentuated in this century with the demise of the imperial institutions that fostered and sustained this "unspeakable" language as a mechanism of control through the powerful literati -- officials who had spent decades in mastering it. Today, speakers of modern Sinitic languages are at least as far removed from the language of the Chuang Tzu as modern speakers of English are from Beowulf, or as modern speakers of Greek are from Plato's Republic --in my estimation, they are actually much further removed because of the extremely abbreviated, Partially code-like quality of Classical Chinese.

Classical Chinese (also sometimes referred to as literary Sinitic) is by its very nature problematic in that it has been dramatically divorced from spoken language for no less than two millennia and may always have been so because of the fact that it was written in a script that was only partially phonetic. The language of the Chuang Tzu is even more peculiar in that it purposely distorts and impishly tampers with the conventions of Classical Chinese itself. To render faithfully such an unusual text as this into a living language like English or Mandarin requires a stupendous act of transformation, not merely a mechanical translation. Against this need for a creative response to the Chuang Tzu's linguistic mischief is the duty of the conscientious philologist to be as consistent and accurate as possible. The Chuang Tzu, to say the least, is full of exciting challenges!

So as not to interfere with the reader's appreciation of this inimitable work itself, I have refrained from excessive annotation and commentary. In general, I have provided only those notes which I felt were essential for comprehending unfamiliar material and for bringing to the attention of readers interesting parallels with other texts and traditions. Upon occasion, I have mentioned in the notes instances of the types of problems that constantly arise in dealing with the text and have shown how it is necessary to add many syntactic elements in English that are simply ignored in Chinese. Classical Chinese is extremely terse and highly eliptic, forcing the translator to supply grammatical or morphemic components that are required in English. The notes offer only illustrative examples of the types of additions that are necessary to make sense in English. They should by no means be considered to constitute an exhaustive listing of such additions. The reader may be assured that I have throughout endeavored to the utmost of my ability to keep these augmentations as few as possible. I have not pointed them out in every case because such repetitive annotations would soon become tedious and annoying, and because I wished to avoid unwelcome padding of an already large volume. Likewise, the Introduction is intentionally brief. There I offer only minimal historical data relating to the Chuang Tzu and a glance at some of the interpretive schemes that have been applied to it.

I have found it convenient to invent one new word to match an ubiquitous Chinese technical term, namely, "tricent" (three hundred [paces]) for li (one third ofa mile), on the model of the word "mile" which literally means "a thousand [paces]" (see also chapter 1, note 1). This was necessary to avoid confusion because the syllable li may also be employed to indicate so many other important concepts in Chinese (e.g., "principle," "ritual/ceremony/etiquette," "benefit/profit/gain," "one third of a millimeter," etc.) which are also often cited by sinologists in their romanized form.

It has been my practice to translate (rather than simply to transcribe) the names of characters who appear to be fundamentally the product of the author's (or, more precisely, the authors' [as we shall see in the Introduction]) imagination. Often these names constitute puns or are otherwise intimately operative in the unfolding of a given tale; to ignore them would be to eviscerate a key feature of the diction. Soubriquets and other types of pseudonyms are also often translated if their meaning is sufficiently transparent, even for historical figures, since they were often chosen by individuals to express an aspect of their personality that they wished to emphasize.

A substantial proportion of this work was completed during the year (1991-1992) when I was a fellow at the National Humanities Center. The entire staff of the Center was unfailingly helpful to me in facilitating the research that went into the making of this book. I wish particularly to express my gratitude to Karen Carroll and Linda Morgan for typing the entire manuscript from a messy handwritten first draft. Linda Morgan also went far beyond the call of duty to prepare the final typed version of these notes two years after I departed from the National Humanities Center. I am enormously thankful to her for this extra assistance. Leave at the National Humanities Center was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the Mellon Foundation. I am grateful to both of these organizations for their generous assistance.

I also wish to express my appreciation to Denis Mair and Jing Wang for reading over the complete translation against the original Chinese text to ensure that nothing was inadvertently omitted. In the complicated process of repeated electronic editing that is now an essential part of American book publishing, it is easy for words, lines, and even whole paragraphs to become deleted or changed in bizarre ways. Thus, while electronic text processing makes publishing easier for typesetters, editors, and even authors (in some ways), it also requires constant checking of entire drafts to prevent things from disappearing or being transformed beyond recognition. I can only hope that such has not been the case with my translation of the Chuang Tzu and these notes!