While many people are familiar with the number one Taoist classic—the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, one of the most-translated books in the world—far fewer are aware of this classic. Like the Tao Te Ching, the work is attributed to an ancient Chinese sage, but most scholars agree that it is a compilation of works by different authors. Unlike the Tao Te Ching, though, the Chuang-Tzu is not a series of pithy but mysterious and short poetic statements, but a strikingly diverse selection of prose, “hard” philosophy, episodic wisdom and poetic allegory.
Despite the fact that the Chuang-Tzu is regarded as a compilation of numerous authors’ works, the philosophical and religious ideas contained in the book are remarkably cohesive—this is in part due to the skill of the original compilers of the text and in part because this abridgement represents only a portion of the chapters; known as the “Inner Chapters,” these have long been attributed (realistically or not) to Chuang-Tzu’s own hand. In any event, the writing vibrantly conveys the philosophy of the early Taoist sage, from rhapsodic attempts at describing the ineffable patterns and all-encompassing power of the Tao (roughly the “Way” the universe operates) to descriptions of sages whose understanding of the Tao affords them supernatural skill in their chosen fields to wistful ruminations on the nature of life and the most spiritually practical and spontaneous way to live it.
Readers unfamiliar with the Chinese language might be a little disoriented on first encountering the Chuang-Tzu, as the short episodes often include quite a few transliterated Chinese names, many of which appear to never reappear for the rest of the book. Additionally, the text is organized in the same way it has been for about 2000 years—although there are discrete chapters, each one contains numerous short passages which are often totally unrelated to each other. Despite the potential for confusion, it’s a relatively short book (around 120 pages) and the writing is relatively simple; repeated readings will reward you exponentially.
In fact, the genius of the Chuang-Tzu is often to be found in its writing style—even in translation, the authors’ literary skill shines through, bristling with puns, clever wordplay, comedy and poetically rich language. For example, Confucius appears a number of times throughout the course of the book—rather than directly trash on a rival philosophical school, Chuang-Tzu often puts his own decidedly non-Confucian philosophy in the mouth of his competitor, subverting the moral philosopher’s influence like a merry prankster. Throughout, Watson’s translation (even though it’s about 50 years old) manages the text’s intricacies with a natural voice, neither making the philosophy overly technical nor dumbing it down as other translators have done. Most importantly, Watson seems to intuitively understand the book’s ideas better than others, which is ultimately almost as important as word choice.
The Chuang-Tzu is not an easy book so sum up, idea-wise, but its carefree blend of anti-establishment individualism, humility, skepticism, common sense, mysticism and humor still remains fresh after millennia, waiting for you to discover it for the first time.