The Romanian Journal

of Chinese Studies

Volume 1 Number 1 March 2001

Index Romanian Pages Home Romanian Page of Chinese Linguistics Sempre Publishers

Irina Ivașcu (Radio Bucharest)

From the Butterfly's Dream to the Ascension to the Realm of Eternal Wandering: A Parallel between Liezi and Zhuangzi

The aim of this study is to provide a parallel between the parts of the Zhuangzi and the Liezi in which there appears the theme of dreaming and free wandering, pointing out the development and the new elements that the Liezi brings to these major themes. We will begin by setting the passages in the larger context of Daoist ontology.

From the point of view of Daoist ontology, the Dao, the prime principle, gives birth to the world through its manifestation in the existent (you). Although from the point of view of its essence the Dao belongs to the domain of the non-existent (wu), through its manifestation in the existent it produces the myriad things (wanwu). The Dao passes from one level to another, breaks the original unity and enters multiplicity, and thus it determines the perpetual transformation of the phenomenal world for which it is the basis. The principle of organization which the foundation - the Dao produces through its emergence from the non-existent, from the mystery of the obscure origin, is a binary one, i.e. the well-known complementary model of the yin and yang principles, the matrix of the phenomenal world and simultaneously an expression of the paradoxical coexistence of the existent and the non-existent.

In Zhuangzi's philosophy, the happy excursion appears as a means of connection of the two poles of being, the existent and the non-existent, as a way of balancing the movement of arrival and going, of identification with the stream of transformations, aiming at transgressing dependence upon changes to which it leads us. As to dreaming, it becomes a way of illustrating the uncertainty in which this dependence sinks us, the relativity of things, their equality, and the necessity of transgressing one-sided vision. Later on, in the Liezi, dreaming and free wandering become equivalent. Dreaming itself comes to be, through the exercise of imagination realized in spirit, a way of transgression. Thus we may obtain all-embracing knowledge, a superior kind of deep spiritual knowledge, which is not anymore the mere expression of the changing and dynamic character of the principle manifested in the phenomenal. Moreover, in a vision that grants major value to other negative aspects, dreaming and the happy excursion are elevated to the rank of a superior way of knowledge and are projected in the vision of death as "realm of the eternal excursion/wandering."

The passages in which the theme of dreaming appears in the Zhuangzi are few. Free wandering, on the other hand, is an original and essential concept in Zhuangzi's thought, conceived of as a stage toward perfection and the attainment of the communion with The Great Whole (the universe thought of as a harmonious and coherent whole). But just like the theme of dreaming, it is not separately developed as an independent subject, but is only mentioned in several passages in which Zhuangzi talks about the modality of existence which the Sage has to follow. The Zhuangzi contains a chapter entitled Xiao yao you (The Happy Excursion), but the chapter mainly aims at demonstrating the relativity of the myriad things, and the necessity of each one to recognize the validity of the other forms of existence.

Although none of the two themes is explicitly developed in the Zhuangzi, they do offer the foundation on which Liezi builds up these themes. He develops and enriches them and dedicates a whole chapter to them. The interpretation may be built upon the theory of knowledge and self-cultivation that Zhuangzi offers us, without neglecting in the meantime, the originality that Liezi brings.

In a passage in the chapter Qi wu lun (On the Equality of things) in the Zhuangzi that speaks about knowledge, the theme of dreaming is present,. aiming not at illustrating the illusory character of life, but the relativity of common knowledge and of all things:

How do I know that he who is afraid of death is not like a man who was away from his home when young and therefore has no intention to return? [...] How do I know that the dead will not repent of their former yearning for life? Those who dream of a banquet at night may wail and weep the next morning. Those who dream of wailing and weeping may go out to hunt in the morning. When they dream, they do not know that they are dreaming. In the dream they may even interpret dreams. Only when they are awake do they begin to know that they have dreamed. By and by comes the great awakening, and then we shall find out that life is a great dream. All the while, fools think that they are awake, that they know. [...] Confucius and you are both in a dream. When I say you are in a dream, I am also in a dream. (Tr. Fung, 1989, 53)

The theme of dreaming is used, however, in order to demonstrate the relativity of common knowledge. Zhuangzi questions the truth of his own conclusions, showing them to be nothing more than a dream which denounces the illusory character of the dreams of others. The technique to which Zhuangzi thus resorts is only a trick which aims at consolidating the assertions that come to support this theory of relativity. Zhuangzi, as he himself recognizes, ends in a paradox. But the modality of existence of the Dao is also paradoxical, and it is thus precisely the fact of their being paradoxical that makes these assertions and this kind of knowledge relevant. To denounce the illusory character of words, acts, or even human life itself is not to reduce them to nil, or to revoke their significance. If so, Zhuangzi's speech itself would become nonsense, as the representatives of some other rival philosophical schools tried to demonstrate.

Illusion is not equivalent to non-being, to the absolute void, it is merely a distinctive sign of transformation and of the relativity which it implies; that is also why it is pre-eminently applied to the level of form, and consequently to the positive knowledge of life. Life becomes manifest by the entering of the vital breath (qi) in the cycle of transformations, through its materialization. In the Liezi there is a passage (3.3) in the chapter called King Mu of Zhou, which develops the idea that dreaming, as a superior way of knowledge, is defined as a form of wandering of the spirit, while concrete acts are the result of the contact with form:

The spirit reveals itself in dreaming, form attracts action.

In the same passage Liezi speaks about the two ways of knowledge and perception of the world which Zhuangzi mentions in the Qi wu lun, namely "The great awakening" (da jue) - for Liezi, "The true awakening" (xin jue) - and "The great dream" (da meng) - for Liezi, "The most profound dreams" (xin meng):

That is why, when someone's spirit is concentrated, all the dreams and thoughts disappear by themselves. We cannot express in words [the experience] of true awakening, [our thought] cannot penetrate the most profound dreams, they are the result of the arrival and passing of the transformation of things. (3.3, Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 80)

Dreaming and awakening, as well as life and death, are to be regarded as equal in rank. Both modalities of existence have to be lived at their utmost. This implies either spiritual intensity (through self-forgetting or dreaming), in the case of spiritual perfection and retreat from the world, or concrete intensity, such as in the hedonistic philosophy of Yang Zhu.

If we should try to analyze the dream-wakefulness/reality, life-death relationships, we could establish an analogy according to the adopted perspective. First of all (as a result of Buddhist influence), we would have the analogy between life and dream, on the one hand, and death and wakefulness, on the other; and second, we could regard life as wakefulness, a state in which we act surrounded and stimulated by the "real", concrete world, and death as a deep dream, a domain of manifestation of the spirit, an exercise of imagination which allows us access to the world which lays beyond form and concrete images, as well as the purification of spirit.

The free way in which the two terms alternately change their matching not only demonstrates the impossibility of making delimitations and distinctions, but also their equality in rank. Moreover, the positive evaluation of the one term which, from the common perspective, is either neglected or considered to be inferior or insignificant, dream and respectively death, is quite significant. It is interesting to see how the image of dreaming is first used in order to diminish the prestige which one of the two positive terms of the "equation" enjoys - namely life. Life is first reduced to the rank of dream in order to spotlight the positive part of death, which thus replaces life as a "standard", as a term of evaluation of reality and righteousness, of the validity of things and acts. After attaining the inversion of the two terms, dreaming regains its value, and its function of superior form of knowledge is thus illustrated. It is than associated to death, itself elevated to superior rank.

In this complementary structure we may recognize the yin-yang binary model, the model of complementarity in which the two terms equal in rank complete and perfect one another, produce through their alternation the cycle of transformations. Unlike Buddhism, in Daoism this perpetual transformation must not be transgressed. The solution is not attained by putting an end to the cycle of transformation, by breaking the illusion which life creates (in Buddhism explicitly negative by itself, because it imprisons us). It can only be attained through maintaining the balance, by emulation, by letting oneself go with the flow. This is exactly the superior reality which man can attain through dreaming, and even through free wandering in spirit. In spite of the effort of revealing the equal significance of both terms, we may distinguish a higher evaluation of the "negative" aspect, just as in all the Daoist works beginning with the Laozi - maybe only as an attempt to point out, grant value and validity to the neglected aspect, in the detriment of the one term anyway recognized and accepted by everybody.

With respect to the relationship between life and death, illustrated in a free match by the relationship between dreaming and wakefulness, there are some passages in the Zhuangzi and the Liezi in which various characters meet death in the shape of a skull (Liezi, 1.4, Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 32). Confronted with it, they come up with a question: which one, life or death, is better? Is it possible to know the answer to this question? Liezi concludes, talking to the disciples:

Only he and I know that we are neither living, neither dead. Is he really sad, and am I really happy?

As Zhuangzi shows, according to the common, limited point of view, everybody regards the world and the other things from his own point of view. But he himself is conditioned by his own particular features and the limitations they imply. Additionally, his perspective is determined by circumstances, the situation in which he finds himself the very moment when he makes a judgment. This perspective is nothing more than a mobile point in the middle of a stream which flows eternally. The foundation of the universe and the basic principle on ground of which it functions is plunged in the middle of a process of transformation, of passing from one level of existence to another, from the existent to the non-existent, from life to death.

From the limited point of view of life, we cannot put forward any judgement referring to what lies beyond it. A relevant judgment can thus only be made regarding things from somewhere above, from a superior, unifying point of view, which recognizes the validity and value of each single thing and state. To consider death as being inferior to life or to consider its occurrence unfortunate can only proceed form ignorance.

Liezi takes relativization to its utmost. He not only grants alternatives equal rank, but eventually comes to abolish them, showing that our essence, our eternal component (chang) cannot be identified with either one of the states which succeed each other on the axis of transformation (bian), no matter how major or general they may be. Thus, to the extent we have attained the Dao, we are in life or in death, but in the meantime we are beyond them. The negation is a very strong one, we are neither one, neither the other; "we are neither alive, nor dead."

Another passage in which dreaming appears as a symbol of the perpetual transformation characteristic of the phenomenal world and the relativity of knowledge is the well-known story in the Qi wu lun in which Zhuangzi dreams that he is a butterfly. Afterwards, when he wakes up, he does not know if he is Zhuangzi who has dreamed that he is a butterfly or a butterfly who is dreaming that he is Zhuangzi. The fundamental idea of this story is the same as that of the anterior passage of the Zhuangzi, but it is highly relevant by the force of suggestion of the image.

The image of the butterfly by itself is illustrative of the idea of life as a dream and the superior way of assuming life, even if the explicit interpretation in this direction appears only in the Liezi. First of all, it leads us to the idea of transformation through the metamorphosis which it implies. The butterfly is the result of transformation, and its life is ephemeral. Liezi also uses this image in a passage dedicated to the demonstration of the equality between life and death, as different stages in the process of transformation (1.4, Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 32). Another suggestion which we may gather from the image of the butterfly is that of floating, floating on the wings of imagination, or free floating through the world, according to the principle of free wandering. Just like the butterfly follows the currents of air, man should follow the interior principle of the world, passing with serenity from one stage to another, from wakefulness to dream, from life to death, without claiming to make judgments from the one-sided perspective of one of the two states. The image of the butterfly also suggests the aesthetic component of life - life seen as a work of art. Thus, by its force of suggestion, the passage becomes by itself a sample of the superior form of knowledge by images, it becomes itself an open gesture of life assumed as a work of art which invites to participation.

As for the attitude of the sage towards life as a state of consciousness and towards death as forgetting, Zhuangzi states:

The true man of old knew neither to love life, nor to hate death. Living he felt no elation, dying, he offered no resistance. Unconsciously he came; that was all. He did not try consciously to forget what his beginning had been, or seek what his end would be. He received with delight anything that came to him, and left without consciousness anything that he had forgotten. He did not prefer the conscious mind to the Dao or to supplement nature with man. (Tr. Fung, 1989, 92)

In this passage Zhuangzi realizes a portrait of the sage who adopts the superior point of view. In a state of detachment he treats all the things he meets equally, he relates himself equally to all the things that happen to him or to others. Purified of feelings and emotions, his mind is like a mirror. Thus, he does not feel attachment to life and fear of death. He embraces them all with spontaneity, with a sort of fatalism which is in fact nothing more than the understanding of the internal principle of things. And this internal principle is the one that helps him harmonize himself with the world and grants him continuity and eternity.

Another significant development which Liezi brings to the theme of dreaming but which is already entirely grounded in the Zhuangzi, though not explicitly mentioned, is that of forgetting, using dreaming as a modality of evasion from the phenomenal world. Day-dreaming as a form of forgetting determines the main character of one of the stories in the chapter King Mu of Zhou from the Liezi to live in a permanent state of forgetting. He constantly dedicates himself to internal wandering. In such a kind of wandering, according to Zhuangzi, the spirit follows the course of transformation and identifies itself with the universe, and thus does not depend on circumstances anymore. In this state of emulation, it may be said to follow the principle mentioned by Zhuangzi, according to which:

If you store the universe in the universe there will be no room left for it to be lost. [...] The sage makes excursion into that which cannot be lost, and together with it he remains. (Tr. Fung,, 1989)

Thus, hidden in the very heart of transformation, he seems, from the point of view of the commoners that surround him, to have the appearance of a sick, mentally disturbed man, just like the Daoist sage seems to be clumsy in the eyes of common people. This happens because he follows the principle of non-action (wuwei) and spontaneity (ziran), in which actions lack a determined finality. They are genuine acts of offering. That is why, the man in the story above: "When on his way, he forgot where he was going". After the alleged recovery, which in fact represents a degradation, the character confesses:

Before I had plunged in forgetting, and in that indistinct state of floating, I did not know if Heaven and Earth were real or not. [...] From now on existence and destruction, gain and loss, misfortune and happiness, good and wrong will trouble my mind in the same way as before. Will I ever be able to regain the forgetting which I enjoyed for a while? (3.7, Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 84)

In the Zhuangzi, contemplative forgetting (zuo wang) or forgetting of knowledge represent a form of inner cultivation, of attainment of wisdom. This implies full knowledge, a way of reaching beyond the phenomenal, a transgression, not just void, empty, opaque space, lacking significance. This passage refers to a double forgetting, the forgetting of forgetting, the forgetting as a form of self-dedication, of mirroring the universe. This is the self-forgetting equivalent to dreaming, which overcomes the character of this history. From this perspective, awakening acquires a double sense, just as dreaming. First comes the awakening from sleep or from dreaming, the awakening from illusion; the other one, a negative one, is the awakening from forgetting. The later one represents a decline on the spiritual level. We may notice here a double inversion, as awakening in this case represents in fact a form of falling asleep of the spirit. It is the awakening to actual, concrete reality, which is subject to transformation, and dominated by emotions and their negative consequences upon the mind (xin), which they trouble. As to dreaming, it appears in the first place as an illusion, a product of the troubled senses, the nocturnal dream of common people; in the second, it is dreaming as a spiritual exercise of dominating emotions, of detachment.

Another passage from the Liezi illustrates very well the above-mentioned idea:

For the "true men" of old, wakefulness was self-forgetting, their sleep was without dreams. (3.3, Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 80)

Here dreaming appears as something negative, a product of emotions that bring along with them a form of forgetting that troubles the mind, even if dreamless sleep is in this passage, just like self-forgetting, a paradoxical modality of living to the utmost, equal to death. In this way an identification between the individual with the hidden Dao is realized, a fusion of you - the existent (the person of the concrete individual) with wu - the non-existent (his spiritual state), in their point of maxim intensity.

When people wander they admire the things that appear before their sight, when I wander, I admire the change of the things I see. (Liezi, 4.7., Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 95)
He who wanders about in the exterior world seeks perfection in the [exterior] things; he who devotes himself to the interior contemplation attains perfection in himself. (Liezi, 4.7., Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 96)

He who has attained the essence of wandering does not know where his steps will lead him. He who has attained the essence of contemplation does not know what he is contemplating. Each thing is a good occasion of wandering, each thing deserves to be contemplated; this is what I call contemplation. (Liezi, 4.7., Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, p. 96)

In these passages, Liezi claims he has understood the essence of wandering because, beyond things, he pursues their permanent change. Wandering becomes thus an opportunity of dissipating the illusion of security and stability which men acquire by means of settling in a determined place. Wandering made from the perspective of returning to a determined place, whose immobility also overcomes the images and sights one comes across, causes the wanderer to have the same illusion of stability. Detached from this one-sided perspective and somehow free in his wandering, Liezi thinks to have reached a superior modality; it seems to him that he has integrated himself in the flow of transformation. Carried along by the external movement of sights, he forgets to turn upon himself: he lacks in-sight. But insight is the only thing that can realize the connection with the external world, it is what grants him stability and coherence. Only through the identification with each single thing, through participating to their internal modality of being, can he integrate himself in the current. Then, in the state of lack of intentionality, with the innocence which the emptiness obtained by giving up knowledge grants him, he can see everything with primeval astonishment, the time when differences had not yet been established.

In this story, Liezi's original attitude illustrates the first stage of learning in the praxis of free wandering, in which the "limited point of view" of our own space and time is surpassed. Nevertheless, in this way there occurs an alienation of all the things and times, because perfection cannot be found in external things. External wandering can thus only bring us anxiety, an anxiety dependent upon the arbitrary transformations of some things which lay beyond our capacity of control and emulation. The emulation can only be an internal one, through contemplation. External wandering comes thus to be useless, because the distancing it requires, as well as the conscience of unity of all things in their difference, have both been already attained. The danger of identifying oneself with "this", with a place, a time, a circumstance does not exist anymore. In this stage the only thing missing is the identification with the whole: "To hide the universe in the universe". You do not seek a place which can offer you shelter, you are not a point lost in the torrent of transformation anymore: it does not drag you along in life as well as in death anymore. You are not the spectator who contemplates the current from a certain distance anymore, you have become one with it. You can then experiment at the same time the two complementary aspects of the modality of manifestation of the Dao, life and death.

External wandering becomes useless, because the individual has already identified himself with the universe and can now find in the very core of his mind everything that the universe contains, or it becomes one in which any single thing may turn into an object of contemplation. No matter where the man who has attained this level of perfection goes, the only thing he does is to know and contemplate himself. Every single part becomes thus familiar and meaningful, as interpenetration is total. The astonishment with which he embraces everything that comes across his way, every transformation, does not proceed from the alterity induced by fragmentation, from the distancing between self and world or the discrepancy between interior and exterior, but simply from the innocence of forgetting. In fact, this is the "great awakening", living life to its utmost, the devotion which melts every moment in a mixture of life and death. Life is thus the becoming, the motor of transformation, and death, the eternization of every moment, like the ocean which in the meantime swallows and brings out each wave.

In the Yang sheng zhu chapter of his work, Zhuangzi says:

The fingers may not be able to supply all the fuel. But the fire is transmitted, and we know not when it will come to an end. (Tr. Fung, 1989, 62)

Jiao Hong comments:

Though the waves may cease to exist, the sea is still there. The sea has neither life nor death. In other parts of this chapter, Zhuangzi spoke of cultivating life. In this part he said that life and death are one. (Fung, 1989, 62).

Here the similarity with Buddhism becomes obvious, as Zhuangzi and later on his commentator resort to Buddhist-like images, regarding life and death from a holistic perspective. From this perspective, the image that Zhuangzi's commentator offers to us about death is the quiet ocean which is the place where the spirit finds repose in the middle of emptiness, in the tranquillity which lays beyond the boundaries of phenomenal things. Zhuangzi and later on Liezi regard life as alienation - it is thus compared to the departure of the son from the parental home, from the state of tranquillity, of emptiness, of non-manifestation; and death as return (gui). This is another way of expressing the movement of rehearsal of the Dao, the model of every transformation.

Death is the movement of reversal of the power (De) of the Dao. Thus the men of old called the dead "Those who return" (gui), and the living "Those who have set out". (Liezi, 1.9., Vișan and Ivașcu, 2000, 37)

Thus life is designated by the expression "to come out" (chu sheng), and death by "to enter" (ru si). For Liezi death becomes equivalent to "the realm of eternal wandering", the state in which internal wandering becomes the permanent means of existence, permitting thus a permanent union with the Dao. The term belongs to Liezi, but this idea has already appeared in the Zhuangzi:

They end and they begin without knowing either the beginning or the end. Unconsciously, they stroll beyond the dirty world and wander in the realm of nonaction. (Fung, 1989)

We may conclude that Zhuangzi's highly poetic texts are based upon the illusion of the paradox, in which the reader is challenged and then left in a state of expectation, of astonishment, without the satisfaction of a doubtless solution. On the other hand, in the Liezi, although the paradox and the interrogation are partly kept in many passages, the stories which illustrate a certain idea are explained by the characters themselves, who are challenged to answer questions; also, in the end the conclusion is often explicitly presented, as a sort of moral of the story, with a practical goal.

In the Liezi the texts are longer, more narrative, more explicit, more strongly affirmative, even in the attempt to grant value upon the negative. For instance when Liezi denies the existence of life and death, the negation is so strong that in fact it turns out to be an affirmation. Liezi affirms the inexistence of the distinction between life and death. Thus we may say that in the Zhuangzi the image speaks more through itself and it serves as a term in a reflexive demonstration, which speaks precisely through its interrogative character: it is a piece in the mosaic of images and metaphors of the text as a whole, in which it integrates itself and melts.

In the Liezi, the theme of dreaming becomes an independent, explicit theme, and different forms of dreaming are analyzed (3.3). Besides, under the influence of Buddhism, the theme of the illusion is strongly emphasized. From the text we can distinguish clearly enough the different functions of dreaming, among which the most pre-eminent is forgetting. We may as well point out the two opposed meanings which dreaming may acquire according to the situation (a product of emotions which troubles the mind, on the one hand, and a superior way of knowledge, obtained in the state of emptiness and contemplation, on the other).

With respect to the theme of the free wandering, Zhuangzi's whole work constitutes a model of free wandering, as a superior means of knowledge and existence, like the Dao which cannot be put into words, but is nevertheless entirely represented in every single thing. Liezi tries to put it into words, and dedicates extensive passages to the theme of mystical wandering. The image that Zhuangzi offers us in a passage in which he talks about the level of perfection attained by the Master Liezi and the way he masters the flow of transformation is relevant in this context:

Liezi could ride upon the wind and pursue his way, in a refreshing and good manner, returning after fifteen days. Among those who attained happiness, such a man is rare. Yet, he still had to depend upon something. But suppose there is one who chariots on the normality of the universe, rides on the transformation of the six elements, and thus makes excursion into the infinite: what has he to depend upon?

Liezi likes to give prescriptions, to discern the hidden meaning, to bring it down into form, in words. Nevertheless the value of the text, the developments and the innovation it brings are indisputable, just as the beauty and the force of suggestion of the images. In the text of Zhuangzi as well as in the text of Liezi, both dreaming and free wandering revert (gui) to death, as a coronation. Return, in the book of Liezi, is "the ascension to the realm of eternal wandering", a supreme evaluation of the negative, of dreaming as profound sleep, as forgetting and despising life as an illness of the senses.


FUNG, YU-LAN. 1989. Chuang-tzu: A Taoist Classic, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
LIU JIANGUO and GU BAOTIAN. 1993. Zhuangzi yizhu [A Commentary and Translation of the Zhuangzi]. Jilin: Jilin wenshi chubanshe.
VIȘAN, FLORENTINA and IVAȘCU IRINA, trans. 2000. Lie zi: Calea vidului desăvârșit. Bucuresti: Editura Polirom.
YAN BEIMING and YAN JIEZUAN, eds. 1995. Lie zi yi zhu [A Commentary and Translation of the Liezi]. Shanghai, Shanghai guji chubanshe.


© 2001, by Sempre Publishers