An Interview with Zhuang Zhou - Believer Magazine

An Interview with Zhuang Zhou

“Do you know about the sacred tortoise?”
Some questions to consider, regarding the utility of philosophy:
Are philosophers better people?
Are philosophers more fun to be around?
Are philosophers longer lived?
Are philosophers wealthier?
Are philosophers happier?

An Interview with Zhuang Zhou

“Do you know about the sacred tortoise?”
Some questions to consider, regarding the utility of philosophy:
Are philosophers better people?
Are philosophers more fun to be around?
Are philosophers longer lived?
Are philosophers wealthier?
Are philosophers happier?

An Interview with Zhuang Zhou

Alan Levinovitz
11 Snaps

Zhuang Zhou (pronounced “Jwong Joe”) was a Chinese philosopher said to have lived from 369 to 286 BCE. His self-titled magnum opus, the Zhuangzi, is a canonical Daoist text and one of China’s great philosophical classics. Revered as a brilliant deconstruction of everything from Confucianism to the possibility of truth, the book synthesizes philosophy, paradox, and anecdote in an inimitable style, and it continues to exert a powerful influence on thinkers across the globe.

But writing about Master Zhuang’s thought is a tricky business. In its current form, the Zhuangzi reflects centuries of additions and edits, so many that no one can know for certain which words are truly Zhuang’s, or what any missing words might have added. On top of that, there’s the problem identified by translator Burton Watson: “Whenever I sit down and try to write seriously about Master Zhuang, I seem, somewhere in the back of my head, to hear him cackling away at the presumption of such an endeavor.”

The solution? Working from the original Chinese, with the aid of Brook Ziporyn’s recent Zhuangzi translation, I here reconstruct an exclusive interview with the cantankerous genius. Do I put words in his mouth? I do, just as he did with Confucius. Do I stretch the truth? Mix fact with fiction? On occasion, but only to earn his sympathy. After all, as Master Zhuang’s favorite book states so eloquently, “Imitation is the most profound form of agreement.”[1]

In this way, though I still hear him cackling, I think he is cackling with me, not at me.

—Alan Levinovitz


THE BELIEVER: What’s your earliest memory?

ZHUANG ZHOU: A funny question. Why my earliest memory? Wouldn’t you rather hear my most interesting one?

BLVR: Sure. It’s just something I like to ask people.

ZZ: My most interesting memory is of my first real dream. I was a caterpillar, wriggling around in the earth, just the way a caterpillar would. Following my caterpillar whims, completely unaware of anyone named Zhuang Zhou. And then? Hua! I woke up! Zhou, in the flesh, on my bamboo mattress. Was I Zhou, I thought to myself, who had been dreaming he was a caterpillar, or a caterpillar dreaming he was Zhou?

BLVR: What do you think it meant?

ZZ: I’m not the one to ask about that. If you want to know the meaning of a dream, better go to the city and pay a yarrow-stalk reader. I hear Crippled Shu is good, the hunchback with his chin stuck down in his navel and his pigtail pointing up at the sky. He’ll know whether caterpillars are inauspicious. Pay him enough and he might even tell you which ancestor was upset or pleased with me at the time.

BLVR: That’s not exactly what I was asking. I mean what did you learn from it?

ZZ: Learn from a dream? Like a schoolbook lesson? I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of learning this or that. Trying to pin down a dream is a fine way to kill it.

BLVR: Really? If I’d dreamed that I would have thought, Hmm, it probably says something about my personal frustrations. Do I think I’m a caterpillar because I’m insecure? Is it because of my mother?

ZZ: So anxious! You might prefer the version in my book, where I dreamed about being a butterfly, not a caterpillar.

BLVR: Why did you change the caterpillar to a butterfly?

ZZ: Because it doesn’t matter. Both versions are true to what happens. Caterpillars become butterflies every day. I was a caterpillar-dreamer and then the caterpillar became a butterfly. Hua! I was a butterfly-dreamer. I was a young boy, I was a man. Hua! I am an old man. Tonight what will I become? During the night, very old men sometimes become nothing at all. [Laughs] All the same story.

BLVR: Some philosophers use dreams as evidence that our senses can deceive us.

ZZ: What do they know? When you’re dreaming, you don’t know it’s a dream. You might even interpret a dream in your dream—and then wake up and realize it was all a dream. Perhaps a great awakening will reveal this to be a dream as well. Only fools imagine they are already awake. How clearly they understand everything! How easily they distinguish this deception from that reality!


BLVR: In his book Treatise on Sitting and Forgetting, the scholar Sima Chengzhen takes themes from your writing and applies them to meditation practice. Do you meditate?

ZZ: When I was young I meditated, breath-centered meditation.

BLVR: How does that work, and where did you learn?

ZZ: I learned from my parents, who learned it from their parents, and so on. In daily life, they said, breath is ragged. Sometimes long, sometimes short. Without realizing it, we gulp our breath like a hungry man gobbles food. This, I was told, could make you sick. With practice and focus I learned to breathe deeply and easily, all the way into my heels.

BLVR: Is it about longevity? Physical health? Mental health?

ZZ: That depends on what you want. Old people use it to live longer or die more easily. Politicians try to see patterns. And young men like myself…

BLVR: What did you do?

ZZ: We prolonged our sexual abilities indefinitely. If you regulate your breath, eventually you learn the ability to regulate everything that enters and leaves your body. You can conserve your essence, and when essence is perfectly conserved there is no end to your stamina. [Laughs] That’s certainly not what our teachers wanted us to be doing, so we tried to keep it secret.

BLVR: You said you meditated when you were young. Why did you stop?

ZZ: Because it became boring. And what was the point? Once I met a butcher more enlightened than any meditation master, even the best ones, who could make their bodies into dead trees and sit in place for nine days without eating. They sat still, but they didn’t get anywhere. That butcher, though, he got somewhere! He butchered like he was dancing, and he kept dancing after the knife was back on his belt. Meeting him, I learned there is no single secret to caring for life.

BLVR: So what do you do now?

ZZ: I do nothing. Or I don’t do anything in particular. I suppose that’s a form of meditation, so in a sense I am doing something.

BLVR: Judging from your health, it seems like a good way to go. I would do nothing every day to live so long.

ZZ: If you want long life, why imitate me? In Southern Chu there is a tree called Mingling, which counts five hundred years as a single spring, and another five hundred years as a single autumn. Long ago there was even one massive tree whose spring and autumn were each eight thousand years. But nowadays people look to books and meditation masters for guidance on longevity. Pathetic, isn’t it?


BLVR: At one point you were asked by the Chinese government to serve as an official, but you turned down the position. Some people have criticized your lack of involvement in public affairs. What would you say to them?

ZZ: Serving in government is dangerous. Even the best, most well-intentioned advisers can meet with trouble. The same has been true since ancient times. Guanglong Feng and Wangzi Biqian both died at the hands of the emperor. They were devoted to righteousness and the people, but they came to a bad end. Better just letting it be.

BLVR: I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with your apoliticism. Are we supposed sit back and leave bad laws the way they are?

ZZ: The best laws get corrupted. Wise people make good regulations, and these are inevitably appropriated by notso-wise people. Wise becomes not-so-wise and nothing can be done about it. If I work for a good government, helping develop good regulations, I am also employed by a future government of fools. What if I designed the laws that are twisted to justify my own execution? A sad way to go.

BLVR: Putting government aside, why did you leave the education system? You were at a legendary think tank, Jixia, working with some of the best minds in China. But you quit, and many regret your absence from teaching and publication. Why not become a professor?

ZZ: And prepare students for the world? Useless. The more students a teacher has, the worse he must be.

BLVR: I’m a professor. I teach students. Is that a waste of time? Should I leave it all and go live on a mountain with my wife and children?

ZZ: Do you know about the sacred tortoise the government keeps in a bamboo chest in the official shrine?

BLVR: No. I didn’t even know there was an official shrine in China.

ZZ: There is. And inside the shrine is the sacred tortoise, trapped in a tub and all dressed up. On special occasions they whip him out for everyone to pay their respects. Now, would the tortoise prefer to be exalted in the shrine or drag his backside through the mud?

BLVR: Being exalted doesn’t seem so bad. Why would it be better to drag your tail in the mud? Or live alone by the river like you do?

ZZ: Surrounded by people, the tortoise is lonely at the shrine. At home in the mud, there are no other tortoises, but he manages to feel complete. Cities can be lonely places; a walk with oneself can mean excellent company. Loneliness and solitude are different.

BLVR: I like my city, and my university. I don’t want to be alone.

ZZ: Do what you want. Who am I to tell what way is right? Teach students who desire a high position in society. Prepare manuscripts for publication so you can keep afloat. I’m comfortable here. I write when and what I want. Look at you, scribbling away, worried you’ll lose something. Not how I enjoy recording my thoughts.

BLVR: How do you like to record them?

ZZ: With homemade pine-soot ink, because it is the blackest. When the time is right, I collect my book, brush, block, and ink, and sit under that giant ugly tree outside. I unroll the bamboo strips and write, sometimes carelessly, sometimes with great care. And then after a few days, or maybe immediately, I scrape the strips clean with my book knife, and the words are forgotten so I can begin again another time.

BLVR: That sounds incredibly inconvenient and timeconsuming.

ZZ: You could say the same of being exalted.


BLVR: In his short biography of you, former Grand Historian Sima Qian doesn’t write much about your early life. But he does mention you worked as an official in a lacquertree garden. That sounds like a peaceful way to make a living, just overseeing a garden. Did the environment contribute to your philosophical outlook?

ZZ: It did, but not in a peaceful way. Lacquer-tree gardens are not gardens. They are a type of farm, high in the mountains, where lacquer trees are grown to collect their sap. And if you have never farmed lacquer, you are lucky. It is awful. The sap gets all over your clothes and even a hint of it attracts terrible mountain insects. During the harvest your hands turn black, and they are not easily washed. Not only that, the sap is incredibly toxic. We were all constantly breaking into rashes, swelling up, feeling dizzy, pissing painfully, seeing spots, going crazy. The only thing worse than the symptoms was the cure, which I refused.

BLVR: What’s the cure?

ZZ: First you have to spit and say, “Tch, lacquer” three times. Not so easy when your throat is dry and swollen shut. Then you say, “The Thearch of heaven sent you down to lacquer bows and arrows, but now you’re causing scabs and sores for people down below.” And then you smear the lacquer rashes with pig feces, swallow some, and slap yourself all over with the sole of a shoe. [2]

BLVR: Disgusting. Is that a traditional Chinese cure? I’m sure there’s another way to deal with lacquer problems.

ZZ: Maybe, but the best doctors I knew didn’t offer any alternatives. You can understand why I refused treatment.

BLVR: Did the symptoms go away after you stopped working there?

ZZ: Mostly. I still feel dizzy in the mornings, so I tend to sleep in and get out of bed slowly.

BLVR: You’re famous for writing joyously about illness and deformity. There’s your character Hunchback Limpleg, and group of friends who get excited about developing deformities and growing tumors. Were these figures a way of coping with pain, by imagining people who found their own physical suffering delightful?

ZZ: I don’t think that would work. Do you? Try telling stories about imaginary sages to a sick man: “Sir, your lacquer rash must hurt terribly, but have you heard of Ziyu? He simply lived in the Dao, and he was happy! What a man! Ziyu just looked at himself and said, ‘Ai-o! God’s really gone and messed me up. What fun! Maybe tomorrow my spine will look like the Anpozi Bridge. Maybe the boils on my ass will grow into wheels.’” If sick people heard about Ziyu, they would just feel worse. My book is not a self-help manual.

BLVR: What is it?

ZZ: It’s garbage, like all books! Garbage from the brush of a man who spent entirely too much time in a lacquer-tree garden.


BLVR: Most contemporary thinkers view your work as skeptical, a satire against traditional philosophy and traditional living. But your closest friend for many years was a logician, Hui Shi. How were you able to get along so well with someone whose perspective was so different from your own?

ZZ: Can I tell you a story? There was once a plasterer from the city of Ying who was friends with a carpenter, and they always worked together. The plasterer found carpentry incredibly dull and constantly made fun of the carpenter for having chosen such a wretched profession. But the two men were capable of an astonishing act. Sometimes a bit of plaster no thicker than a fly’s wing would get smeared on the tip of the plasterer’s nose. When that happened he would call out to his friend, and with a whoosh of his ax the carpenter sliced it off, removing every bit of plaster without harming the nose, leaving the plasterer standing there utterly unmoved. One day the plasterer died, and the carpenter was no longer able to perform the act. The mayor of Ying even asked him to perform for some visiting dignitaries. The carpenter refused, and said, “It is true that I was once able to slice like that. But my material died not long ago. I’m sorry.” When Hui Shi died, I lost my material. My act ended.

BLVR: He was a useful conversation partner.

ZZ: His philosophy was useless. Nothing but academic jabber.

BLVR: Did you tell him that?

ZZ: Of course. He was flattered! “Zhou,” he said to me, “there’s no higher compliment than being told I am useless. Think about trees in Jingshi: catalpas, cypresses, mulberries. The tall ones are chopped down to make monkey perches. The thick ones are chopped down to make pillars for mansions. The thickest ones become coffins. They die before their time under axes and saws, precisely because they have value. So thank you for calling my words useless. They will be immortal!”

BLVR: Isn’t that just saying his words really are useful?

ZZ: Shi thought everything was useful from some perspective. Take the girl who was kidnapped by a wealthy man. At first she was upset. She cried and planned her escape. But then she began to notice her kidnapper was handsome. The food he gave her was better than anything she’d tasted at home. He was kinder than her father, who had beaten her. Soon she no longer wanted to leave. That, said Shi, is how things change. It’s a nice story, and I stole it for my book. But it doesn’t redeem his endless, pointless arguments.

BLVR: Is all philosophy useless?

ZZ: Are philosophers better people? More fun to be around? Longer-lived? Wealthier? Happier? I don’t think so. They spend all their time slumped at their desks, reciting boring arguments.

BLVR: If that’s true, then philosophers shouldn’t be paid for their work. But if no one had funded Jixia, your book might never have been published.

ZZ: I didn’t want it published. It was originally written for Shi, but he convinced me to make it public. As a joke, he said. So I took what I had and added all sorts of things, passages written by students, by other people at Jixia, stories by Shi, and mashed it together so nothing made sense. But no one got the joke. Now Shi’s words are dead, just like he is. Meanwhile I’m still alive and foreigners are debating my jokes. Do they pay you to study me, where you come from?

BLVR: Not very much.

ZZ: Good. I’d hate to see people waste money on something so ridiculous.

BLVR: Are you being serious?

ZZ: What does it matter? I was joking in my book. Maybe I’m joking now. If you want a person’s wisdom, look at his life, not what he says or writes. The important part of my act with Shi wasn’t the garbage I wrote down. Shi and I together, enjoying ourselves—that was the act. That was Dao. And no one will ever see it again.


BLVR: I’ve always wanted to ask an old person about death. In your book you talk about death like it isn’t a big deal: your wife’s, your own, anybody’s. But I don’t trust your book anymore. How do you actually feel now that the end is close?

ZZ: Let me tell you first about my wife’s death. She died before her time, when we were on a walk together. The day was particularly nice—a gentle breeze, warm sun, fresh air. We stopped to look at each other and then, hua!, a huge, rotting tree branch snapped and crushed her head.

BLVR: My god, that’s awful. I’m so sorry.

ZZ: For what? At first I felt a flash of grief, a moment of shock. But then I moved on. There she was, brained on the ground. What an extraordinary scene! Beautiful reds and browns mixing with the leaves and dirt; shattered bones at unusual angles.[3] And what a comic death! Have you heard of such a thing? I even made up a song to celebrate her change of state. Would you like to hear it?

BLVR: Yes, I would.

ZZ: [Clapping loudly]

Hey, wife, hey, wife!

Come on back, why don’t you?

Hey, wife, hey, wife!

Come on back, why don’t you?

Oh, you’ve gone back to what we are,

and I’m still human, hey, hooray! [4]

BLVR: Does that mean you’re not scared to die either? Do you believe in an afterlife?

ZZ: The Great Clump burdens me with a body, labors me with life, eases me with age, and rests me with death. That I find my life good is the reason I also find my death good. How could it be otherwise? If a master baker were mixing flour and the flour jumped up and said, “I insist on being a cake forever,” the baker would throw it away. So if I, having chanced on human form, were to say, “Nothing but a human, nothing but a human,” that which makes and changes us would surely have nothing to do with me. I see heaven and earth as a giant oven, and the Great Clump as a cosmic baker—how could I object to where I’m going? All at once I’m asleep. With a start I’m awake. Do you feel better now?


  1. The book is called the Qixie, and Master Zhuang cites it in his opening chapter. The title is difficult to translate. Burton Watson renders it as Universal Harmony, while Ziporyn has The Equalizing Jokebook.
  2. I had to verify this for myself. Turns out Master Zhuang wasn’t kidding: University of Chicago sinologist Donald Harper documents the same cure in his Early Chinese Medical Literature.
  3. For those disturbed by this anecdote, see Stanford scholar Lee Yearley’s discussion of it in Experimental Essays on the Chuang-Tzu [Zhuangzi].
  4. I should note that in the Zhuangzi this same song is placed in the mouth of a fictional character, and there’s an anecdote about Master Zhuang playing a drum at his wife’s funeral. It seemed like a potentially touchy subject, so I didn’t press the discrepancy.


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