The Romanian Journal

of Chinese Studies

Volume 1 Number 1 March 2001

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Luminița Bălan (University of Bucharest)

Wandering in the World of Zhuangzi

Wandering is a central motif in Zhuangzi's work. Here, one can find different instances of wandering: there is wandering in the real world, which many of Zhuangzi's characters undertake and which is the pretext for new initiation experiences; but there is mostly that kind of wandering that defies temporal and spatial limits, i.e. spiritual wandering, a process of self-attainment and a result of meditation, through which the Daoist is integrated into the harmonious and coherent unity of the world and through which he can reconstruct his perspective both of himself and the universe. During this wandering, the Daoist goes on the way of self-attainment starting from existence (you), characterized by transformation, multiplication and persity, to non-existence (wu) - the transcendence where everything is eternal, is condensed and escapes transformation (hua). Here he gets to the origin of things and only here can he merge with the Dao.

Spiritual wandering implies different stages: there is the free wandering that only the sage is able to attain, entering the realm beyond the four seas, where he can reach non-existence; on the other hand, there is the free wandering of the spirit "of the kind that allows one to shift back and forth between various perspectives and opinions without the friction of conflict and emotional upset" (Crandell in Mair, 1983, 115). This kind of wandering is accessible to those who, following the Dao, can enjoy the freedom of the spirit.

The purpose of this article is not to make a complete investigation of the theme of spiritual wandering, but to see how this theme is approached in the first chapter which has the very title "Free and Easy Wandering" (Xiao yao you). This is one of the first seven chapters (nei pian) that exegetes believe to have been written by Zhuangzi himself.

The chapter can be pided into several paragraphs which Zhuangzi, using rhetorical strategies, builds into metaphors of wandering. Only when juxtaposed do these metaphors compose the meaning of this first chapter, which is meant to communicate the message of the whole book.

The first paragraph is a metaphor of the becoming of existence, symbolized by the transformation of the huge fish Kun, from the Northern Sea, into the huge bird Peng, which rises and starts its six-months-long wandering to the Southern Sea. The Kun is a symbol for the dark and passive principle yin, which is located in the obscure North and which transforms itself into the bright and strong principle yang, from the South, embodied here by the Peng. It rises from the ground and flies off gradually. First, the gale takes the bird above the world, from where what it sees look like "untamed horses, bits of dust, living things blowing each other about." The North, the matrix of transformation, is the very origin, the place in the embrionary stage where the cyclic transformation starts.

In the next paragraph, which resumes the story of the Peng, it is said that the Peng rises taken away by the whirlwind resembling the horn of a ram, and carries the sky on its back. The flight of the bird becomes more significant when Zhuangzi contrasts small beings, like the cicada or the little dove which, due to their petty experience and limited knowledge, despise the Peng and cannot understand its journey to the limitless. Zhuangzi draws the conclusion: "This is the difference between small and big."

I. Robinet (1986, 72) identifies similarities between the spiral-like ascent of the bird and the way the Daoist goes in his ecstatic journey.[1] The ascent of the Peng is not accidentally associated with the ecstatic journey of the Daoist, if we take into consideration the common perspective of the world. According to the meditation technique called "Superior Method to Send For the Void and Deeply Contemplate the Heaven," also known "Meditation on the Four Directions," the Daoist, engaged in a bi-directional movement - an inward-turning movement and a movement towards the outside - can visualize the world around as a sequence of film stills. The movement unfurls from what is nearest towards what is situated far away (I. Robinet, 1989, 166). Like the Peng, when looking downwards he sees untamed horses, bits of dust and living things blowing one another, but he can also admire the blue splendor of the sky. When seeing the vastness that it carries on its wings, the bird Peng wonders whether blue is the real color of the sky or of the infinite (wu suo zhi).

The journey of the bird starts under the sign of transformation (hua), just as it happens with the ecstatic journey, but with each stage the Daoist is physically and mentally freed from all the constraints of the world, while searching for the unity of the Dao.

Another way in which Zhuangzi seems to suggest this transition from the stage of continuous transformation to the condensation in the harmony of the transcendent is by making use of numerological significances. In the first paragraph it is said that the Peng rises up to ninety thousand li, where it carries the blue vastness on its wings. Trying to understand the significance of "ninety," we can notice that it is the result of the combination of nine (jiu) and ten thousand (wan). Nine is a multiple of three, and three means transformation, multiplication (Laozi 42: "One gives birth to two, two gives birth to three, three gives birth to ten thousand"). On the other hand, wan ("ten thousand") is a symbol for immortality in the Chinese numerical system. Thus, by combining "nine" and "ten thousand" we get "ninety thousand," which has a magical meaning, suggesting the ascent from the continuously changing existence to non-existence, the transcendent, detached from all sorts of transformations.

In the next paragraph, Zhuangzi, using the same game of contrasts, presents the stages of spiritual attainment. There are those who, content with their own wisdom, behavior and virtue are no different from the limited and self-sufficient quail. In opposition to these people, Master Rong from the state of Song is situated on a superior position, as he manages to distinguish the interior from the exterior, and to identify the limits between glory and shame. As far as the worldly affairs were concerned, says Zhuangzi, "He didn't fret and worry, but there was still ground he left unturned" (Watson, 1968, 32). For what was translated as "left unturned" by Watson, Zhuangzi uses the phrase wei shu, in which wei is a negation, and shu means "tree, to plant, to cultivate." By the vertical projection that the semantics of shu implies, Zhuangzi again leads us to the idea of ascent through meditation and spiritual elevation, which Master Rong did not know how to handle properly yet.

Using the technique of gradation, Zhuangzi situates Liezi on a superior level, much closer to the mysteries of Daoist search. At first sight, his journey seems to be the ideal of any Daoist sage: "He could ride the wind and go soaring around with cool and breezy skill, but after fifteen days he came back to earth. As far as the search for good fortune went, he didn't fret and worry" (Watson, 1968, 32). The image of Liezi riding the wind in a perfect harmony with everything around reminds us of the Daoist sage, whom Zhuangzi describes in other chapters as being the only one capable of enjoying complete freedom wandering beyond the boundaries of the world.

Yet, Liezi cannot embody this ideal either because, according to Zhuangzi, he had escaped the trouble of walking, but he still had to depend on something to get round. Therefore, even if Liezi practices those exercises of meditation which would allow him to go beyond the spatial and temporal limits, this journey, as in the case of Master Rong, is not the real one, because the traveler's freedom is still dependent on something.

The ideal is the Daoist sage, who is able to master the essence of Heaven and Earth and use the changes of the six breaths in order to wander through the boundless (wu qiong zhe). Then, Zhuangzi indicates the three categories of persons who can travel beyond the four corners of the world: the Perfect Man (zhi ren), who has no self (wu ji), the Holy Man (shen ren), who has no merit (wu de) and the Sage (sheng ren), who has no fame (wu ming). The lack of fame and merit comes from the Daoist's not being engaged in the worldly "fret and worry," but the lack of self is the result of meditation and sublimation in the unlimited union with the Dao.

In the next paragraph, Zhuangzi makes a complex portrait of the Holy Man whose skin is like ice or snow and who is gentle and shy like a young girl. He does not eat the five grain, but sucks the wind and drinks the dew. All these aspects allow the Holy Man to take a free journey to the Dao - the universal matrix. Having a free spirit, and detached from fretting and metaphysical restlessness, from the search for efficiency, fame and merit, the Daoist sage lives in perfect harmony with himself and the whole universe. Through these virtues he gains a cosmic dimension which permits his integration into a system in which any kind of limits are abolished. A result of meditation and ecstasy, his interior sentiment helps him unify the ten thousand things and at the same time sink into this unity. The mystical experience that he has cancels all the data imposed by bodily form. The idea is emphasized by Zhuangzi when he says that nothing can harm the sage - the great floods that pile up to the sky will not make him drown and he cannot be burnt by the great drought that melts metal and stone and scorches everything.

In the next paragraph, the legendary emperor Yao, governing the world, considers himself useless and wants to turn over the world to the recluse Xu You. Xu You thinks that he is not fit for that and therefore rejects his proposal and urges Yao to continue governing the world. But after Yao went to see the Four Masters on the far-away mountain of Gu She, he forgot his world. This journey represents the moment when Yao is enlightened, a good opportunity to start another journey - the mystical one. Forgetting, his mind becomes concentrated and detached from the surrounding world. He who has started this journey loses himself (sang), and leaves all his perceptions. Only in this way, freed from the conventional reference points of thought, prejudice and discrimination, can the Daoist reach the stage of "no self" (wu ji), where everything is as spontaneous as the natural world is. Now, the cosmic dimensions of the Daoist sage make the journey be really free xiao yao you, under the sign of forgetting.

Liberation is not achieved by relinquishment, but by non-action (wu wei) in the middle of the world. This is the only way meant to give human existence the same spontaneity and liberty as the ones enjoyed by the natural world. Meeting Xu You and especially the Four Masters changes Yao's perspective upon his own existence. At first, he urges Xu You to take over the governing of the world, as he sees himself useless. Therefore, he says, "When the sun and the moon have already come out, it's a waste of light to go on burning the torches, isn't it? When the seasonal rains are falling, it's a waste of water to go on irrigating the fields. If you took the throne, the world would be well ordered. I go on occupying it, but all I can see are my failings" (Watson, 1968, 32). Xu You's refusal, as well as the meeting with the Four Masters, make Yao understand how important it is abolishing the borders between useful and useless, proper and improper, big and small and how he should forget everything. The word sang, "to lose," suggests an instance of forgetting when one loses oneself, but also the world around, which represent a part of meditation and self-attainment which Zhuangzi calls generically " sit and forget" (zuo wang).

In the final paragraph, Zhuangzi, using the technique of dialogue, reveals his opinions concerning the dichotomy between the useful and the useless. His interlocutor is Huizi, who does not understand the use of the five dan[2] big gourd, which he obtained by planting some seeds. Not seeing its meaning, he smashes it. In the same way he cannot understand the meaning of the big tree, which is so gnarled and twisty that you cannot apply to it a measuring line or a compass. Again Zhuangzi's answer reveals his specific philosophical conception. Just like the yin and yang principles that contain each other, what is useless virtually contains the capacity to become useful. Zhuangzi asks Huizi why instead of being so preoccupied with cutting the gourd into a container or maybe dippers he did not think about making it into a great tub so that he could float about rivers and lakes. In a similar way, he suggests to Huizi not to bother any more about the usefulness of the big and gnarled tree and to plant it in the Not-Even-Anything Village or in the field of Broad-and-Boundless where anybody could "relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep by its side. Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it" (Watson, 1968, 35).

To free wandering, detached from any constraint as well as any purpose, Zhuangzi opposes the fret of the weasel that, looking for its prey, has a tragic end, being caught in a trap or in the net. By means of this analogy, we understand that he who is blinded by passion for fame, merit, or self-sufficiency will share the tragic destiny of the weasel. Thus, free wandering is the only way through which man has access to the Dao and enjoys genuine freedom.

The negation wu (also meaning "non-existent") used obsessively in the last paragraph (wuyong, "useless", wu ke you, "there is nothing", wu wei, "non-action", wu hai, "no harm", wu suo ke yong, "cannot be used") increases the persuasive force of the message addressed to the one who would get rid of his self in order to enter the infinite mystery of the universe, where there are no distinctions, limits, fret and worry, but only the harmonious unity.

Each paragraph of the first chapter is like an episode of a journey, but it is only when these paragraphs are combined like the pieces of a puzzle that everything becomes more coherent and the significance of the whole chapter is put into value. The theme of each paragraph is resumed and developed later, in other chapters, but the spiritual wandering is the central theme, around which there is a whole philosophical conception, full of profound significances.

This chapter can be read on another level, as a metaphor for the construction of the written text and a pleading for its message. When Zhuangzi writes, he seems conscious of the grandeur of his work. The first episode which refers to the transformation of the fish Kun into the bird Peng can be interpreted as a description of the genesis of the work. The North from which everything appears is the matrix, the place where the work is born. Like the Daoist who leaves the earth and worldly affairs during his meditation exercises, having his body spiritualized, the author is engaged in the process of creation like in an ecstatic journey. He knows how to retain his spiritual soul and make it travel in the boundless world of imagination, sustained by the force of inspiration, in the same way in which the wings of the Peng are sustained by the gale. Sinking in his meditation, in the sacred space of his meditation room, the Daoist travels through the world, rising into the sky to those regions full of numinous force from which he can absorb precious spiritual energies. In a similar way, the writer follows the way of ecstatic journey and rises above the world through his creation. Zhuangzi seems to know that in comparison to his work any other work shares the same spiritual narrow-mindedness and lack of significance as the cicada or the quail. When his work is set next to any other work, one can see clearly the opposition between big and small, the ephemeral and the eternal. Born out of the chaos suggested by the obscure North, the work of Zhuangzi is above all other creations, so that nothing can do any harm to it.

Zhuangzi depicts those who can really understand the message of his work. Using the technique of opposition and contrast, he identifies several categories of persons that try to understand his writing. There are those who, very confident in their wisdom, behavior and virtue, cannot understand but bits of his meaning, and their self-sufficiency make them really dazzled in front of the real work, very much like the quail in front of the free flight of the Peng. Master Rong is situated on a superior level of understanding since he can distinguish what is significant. Liezi represents the initiated reader capable of better understanding the meaning of Zhuangzi's work, without fretting about perfect happiness, but in a total harmony with himself and with the work. Although as far as the power of understanding is concerned, Liezi is above others ("He escaped the trouble of walking"), he still depends on something and has not reached that level of sublimation which permits transcending the words. Neither merit nor fame is important in this process. Gain brings ruin, fame destroys virtue and wisdom brings wrangling.

I. Robinet (1989, 166) considers that the visionary journey, which the Daoist takes beyond the borders of the world, can be associated with the journey of the emperor to the borders of his kingdom - an opportunity to assert his power. Thus, the Daoist is like the emperor of the whole world, and his body becomes the center of the universe, in the same way as the emperor is the center of his kingdom. According to this interpretation, Yao, who feels useless governing the world and wants the recluse Xu You to take over his job, can symbolize both the Daoist and the author - the sovereign in the world of his creation. Xu You urges Yao to remain on his position, therefore, the creator should maintain his position as a sovereign, because nobody can fulfil his mission better than he can. Xu You is very humble in admitting that he is incapable of accepting a job that exceeds his power and he uses metaphors that once again emphasize the distance between the creator and the ordinary men: "You govern the world and the world is well governed. Now if I take your place, will I be doing it for a name? But name is only the guest of reality - will I be doing it so I can play the part of a guest? When the tailor-bird builds her nest in the deep wood, she uses no more than one branch. When the mole drinks at the river, he takes no more than a bellyful. Go home and forget the matter, my lord. I have no use for the rulership of the world!" (Watson, 1968, 32.3).

The chapter "Free Wandering" can also be read on another level, as a message meant to persuade the reader to abandon his doubts and worries, not to bother about the pragmatic value of the text, but to forget himself and start wandering in the imaginary world of Zhuangzi. And if at the beginning the free wandering of the reader will depend on the text, in the same way as Liezi's wandering depended on the wind that raised him above the earth, Zhuangzi seems to suggest that once his reader enters the universe of his work, he will have to go beyond the material support - words - and thus he may enjoy the free wandering, understanding the infinite essence of the Dao.

In the last paragraph, Huizi, while telling Zhuangzi the story of the big gnarled tree, makes an analogy between the gourd and Zhuangzi's words: "Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them." Zhuangzi answers with the story of the weasel, which watching for its prey, falls into the trap or dies in the net. Thus, he suggests that as long as the reader stubbornly tries to get the meaning of his philosophy on the level of plain words, he will not be able to go beyond the words. Words are like a fishing net - once you have the meaning, you must forget the words, in the same way you forget the fishing net after you have the fish.[3]

In the end of the chapter we can identify the analogy which Zhuangzi builds between the big tree and his own philosophy which the reader is urged to put in a place where it does not exist and allow it to bear fruit, because that is where the spirit can wander freely. Zhuangzi seems to be sure about the value of his work and knows that by forgetting the words and himself, fret and worries, his reader will be able to approach the text and understand its meaning, setting off on a free journey in the boundless world of his imagination. Zhuangzi is convinced that only in this way any threat, symbolized by the ax, will perish, and his work, much like the tree, will survive over the centuries, continuously open to new interpretations and still fascinating eternal "travelers" after more than two thousand years.


CRANDELL, M. M. 1983. "On Walking without Touching the Ground: «Play» in the Inner Chapters of the Chuang-tzu." In Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu, ed. Victor H. Mair, pp. 101-124. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
GRAHAM, A. C. 1989. Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
FUNG, YU-LAN. 1983. A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. I, trans. by Derk Bodde. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
ROBINET, ISABELLE. 1986. "Chuang tzu et le taoïsme «religieux»." Journal of Chinese Religions: 59-104.
---. 1989. "Visionary and Ecstatic Flight in Shangqing Taoism." In Daoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, ed. Livia Kohn, pp. 159-191. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, Center For Chinese Studies.
WATSON, BURTON, trans. 1968. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press.


[1] The winding movement (hui feng) which takes the Daoist to his union with the Dao gave the name of a famous meditation exercise, practiced by the Daoist sect of Mao shan. Zhuangzi seems to have been one of those who knew very well the Daoist meditation exercise.
[2] One dan is about a hectoliter.
[3] Zhuangzi demonstrates that at the end of Chapter XXVI - External things.


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