The Texts of Taoism
Chuang Tzu
13:01 h Tao
The Zhuangzi (Mandarin: [ʈʂwáŋ.tsɹ̩̀]; historically romanized Chuang Tzŭ) is an ancient Chinese text from the late Warring States period (476–221 BC) which contains stories and anecdotes that exemplify the carefree nature of the ideal Taoist sage. Named for its traditional author, "Master Zhuang" (Zhuangzi), the Zhuangzi is one of the two foundational texts of Taoism, along with the Tao Te Ching.

The Texts of Taoism

Translated by James Legge


In the Preface to the third volume of these ‘Sacred Books of the East’ (1879), I stated that I proposed giving in due course, in order to exhibit the System of Tâoism, translations of the Tâo Teh King by Lâo-Dze (sixth century bc), the Writings of Kwang-dze (between the middle of the fourth and third centuries B.C.), and the Treatise of ‘Actions and their Retributions’ (of our eleventh century); and perhaps also of one or more of the other characteristic Productions of the System.

The two volumes now submitted to the reader are a fulfilment of the promise made so long ago. They contain versions of the Three Works which were specified, and, in addition, as Appendixes, four other shorter Treatises of Tâoism; Analyses of several of the Books of Kwang-dze by Lin Hsî-kung; a list of the stories which form so important a part of those Books; two Essays by two of the greatest Scholars of China, written the one in A.D. 586 and illustrating the Tâoistic beliefs of that age, and the other in ad 1078 and dealing with the four Books of Kwang-dze, whose genuineness is frequently called in question. The concluding Index is confined very much to Proper Names. For Subjects the reader is referred to the Tables of Contents, the Introduction to the Books of Kwang-dze (vol. xxxix, pp. 127-163), and the Introductory Notes to the various Appendixes.

The Treatise of Actions and their Retributions exhibits to us the Tâoism of the eleventh century in its moral or ethical aspects; in the two earlier Works we see it rather as a philosophical speculation than as a religion in the ordinary sense of that term. It was not till after the introduction of Buddhism into China in our first century that Tâoism began to organise itself as a Religion, having its monasteries and nunneries, its images and rituals. While it did so, it maintained the superstitions peculiar to itself: some, like the cultivation of the Tâo as a rule of life favourable to longevity, come down from the earliest times, and others which grew up during the decay of the Kâu dynasty, and subsequently blossomed; now in Mystical Speculation; now in the pursuits of Alchemy; now in the search for the pills of Immortality and the Elixir vitae; now in Astrological fancies; now in visions of Spirits and in Magical arts to control them; and finally in the terrors of its Purgatory and everlasting Hell. Its phases have been continually changing, and at present it attracts our notice more as a degraded adjunct of Buddhism than as a development of the speculations of Lâo-dze and Kwang-dze. Up to its contact with Buddhism, it subsisted as an opposition to the Confucian system, which, while admitting the existence and rule of the Supreme Being, bases its teachings on the study of man’s nature and the enforcement of the duties binding on all men from the moral and social principles of their constitution.

It is only during the present century that the Texts of Tâoism have begun to receive the attention which they deserve. Christianity was introduced into China by Nestorian missionaries in the seventh century; and from the Hsî-an monument, which was erected by their successors in 781, nearly 150 years after their first entrance, we perceive that they were as familiar with the books of Lâo-dze and Kwang-dze as with the Confucian literature of the empire, but that monument is the only memorial of them that remains. In the thirteenth century the Roman Catholic Church sent its earliest missionaries to China, but we hardly know anything of their literary labours.

The great Romish missions which continue to the present day began towards the end of the sixteenth century; and there exists now in the India Office a translation of the Tâo Teh King in Latin, which was brought to England by a Mr. Matthew Raper, and presented by him to the Royal Society, of which he was a Fellow, on January 10th, 1788. The manuscript is in excellent preservation, but we do not know by whom the version was made. It was presented, as stated in the Introduction, p. 12, to Mr. Raper by P. de Grammont, ‘Missionarius Apostolicus, ex-Jesuita.’ The chief object of the translator or translators was to show that ‘the Mysteries of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Incarnate God were anciently known to the Chinese nation.’ The version as a whole is of little value. The reader will find, on pp. 115, 116, its explanation of Lâo’s seventy-second chapter; the first morsel of it that has appeared in print.

Protestant missions to China commenced in 1807; but it was not till 1868 that the Rev. Dr. Chalmers, a member of one of them, published his ‘Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “The Old Philosopher,” Lao-Tsze.’ Meanwhile, Abel Rémusat had aroused the curiosity of scholars throughout Europe, in 1823, by his ‘Memoir on the Life and Opinions of Lâo-Tseu, a Chinese Philosopher of the sixth century before our era, who professed the opinions commonly attributed to Pythagoras, to Plato, and to their disciples.’ Rémusat was followed by one who had received from him his first lessons in Chinese, and had become a truly great Chinese scholar, the late Stanislas Julien. He published in 1842 ‘a complete translation for the first time of this memorable Work, which is regarded with reason as the most profound, the most abstract, and the most difficult of all Chinese Literature.’ Dr. Chalmers’s translation was also complete, but his comments, whether original or from Chinese sources, were much fewer than those supplied by Julien. Two years later, two German versions of the Treatise were published at Leipzig; by Reinhold von Plänckner and Victor von Strauss, differing much from each other, but both marked by originality and ability.

I undertook myself, as stated above, in 1879 to translate for ‘The Sacred Books of the East’ the Texts of Tâoism which appear in these volumes; and, as I could find time from my labours on ‘The Texts of Confucianism,’ I had written out more than one version of Lâo’s work by the end of 1880. Though not satisfied with the result, I felt justified in exhibiting my general views of it in an article in the British Quarterly Review of July, 1883.

In 1884 Mr. F. H. Balfour published at Shanghai a version of ‘Taoist Texts, Ethical, Political, and Speculative.’ His Texts were ten in all, the Tâo Teh King being the first and longest of them. His version of this differed in many points from all previous versions; and Mr. H. A. Giles, of H. M.’s Consular Service in China, vehemently assailed it and also Dr. Chalmers’s translation, in the China Review for March and April, 1886. Mr. Giles, indeed, occasionally launched a shaft also at Julien and myself; but his main object in his article was to discredit the genuineness and authenticity of the Tâo Teh King itself. ‘The work,’ he says, ‘is undoubtedly a forgery. It contains, indeed, much that Lâo Tzû did say, but more that he did not.’ I replied, so far as was necessary, to Mr. Giles in the same Review for January and February, 1888; and a brief summary of my reply is given in the second chapter of the Introduction in this volume. My confidence has never been shaken for a moment in the Tâo Teh King as a genuine relic of Lâo-dze, one of the most original minds of the Chinese race.

In preparing the version now published, I have used:

First, ‘The Complete Works of the Ten Philosophers;’ a Sû-kâu reprint in 1804 of the best editions of the Philosophers, nearly all belonging more or less to the Tâoist school, included in it. It is a fine specimen of Chinese printing, clear and accurate. The Treatise of Lâo-dze of course occupies the first place, as edited by Kwei Yû-kwang (better known as Kwei Kăn-shan) of the Ming dynasty. The Text and Commentary are those of Ho-shang Kung (Introd., p. 7), along with the division of the whole into Parts and eighty-one chapters, and the titles of the several chapters, all attributed to him. Along the top of the page, there is a large collection of notes from celebrated commentators and writers down to the editor himself.

Second, the Text and Commentary of Wang (called also Fû-sze), who died A.D. 249, at the early age of twenty-four. See Introduction, p. 8.

Third, ‘Helps (lit. Wings) to Lâo-dze;’ by Ziâo Hung (called also Zâo-hâu), and prefaced by him in 1587. This is what Julien calls ‘the most extensive and most important contribution to the understanding of Lâo-dze, which we yet possess.’ Its contents are selected from the ablest writings on the Treatise from Han Fei (Introd., p. 5) downwards, closing in many chapters with the notes made by the compiler himself in the course of his studies. Altogether the book sets before us the substance of the views of sixty-four writers on our short King. Julien took the trouble to analyse the list of them, and found it composed of three emperors, twenty professed Tâoists, seven Buddhists, and thirty-four Confucianists or members of the Literati. He says, ‘These last constantly explain Lâo-dze according to the ideas peculiar to the School of Confucius, at the risk of misrepresenting him, and with the express intention of throttling his system;’ then adding, ‘The commentaries written in such a spirit have no interest for persons who wish to enter fully into the thought of Lâo-dze, and obtain a just idea of his doctrine. I have thought it useless, therefore, to specify the names of such commentaries and their authors.’

I have quoted these sentences of Julien, because of a charge brought by Mr. Balfour, in a prefatory note to his own version of the Tâo Teh King, against him and other translators. ‘One prime defect,’ he says, though with some hesitation, ‘lies at the root of every translation that has been published hitherto; and this is, that not one seems to have been based solely and entirely on commentaries furnished by members of the Tâoist school. The Confucian element enters largely into all; and here, I think, an injustice has been done to Lâo-dze. To a Confucianist the Tâoist system is in every sense of the word a heresy, and a commentator holding this opinion is surely not the best expositor. It is as a Grammarian rather than as a Philosopher that a member of the Chiâ deals with the Tâo Teh King; he gives the sense of a passage according to the syntactical construction rather than according to the genius of the philosophy itself; and in attempting to explain the text by his own canons, instead of by the canons of Tâoism, he mistakes the superficial and apparently obvious meaning for the hidden and esoteric interpretation.’

Mr. Balfour will hardly repeat his charge of imperfect or erroneous interpretation against Julien; and I believe that it is equally undeserved by most, if not all, of the other translators against whom it is directed. He himself adopted as his guide the ‘Explanations of the Tâo Teh King,’ current as the work of Yen (called also Zû, Tung-pin, and Khun-yang), a Tâoist of the eighth century. Through Mr. Balfour's kindness I have had an opportunity of examining this edition of Lâo’s Treatise; and I am compelled to agree with the very unfavourable judgment on it pronounced by Mr. Giles as both ‘spurious’ and ‘ridiculous.’ All that we are told of Yen is very suspicious; much of it evidently false. The editions of our little book ascribed to him are many. I have for more than twenty years possessed one with the title of ‘The Meaning of the Tâo Teh King Explained by the TRUE Man of Khun-yang,’ being a reprint of 1690, and as different as possible from the work patronised by Mr. Balfour.

Fourth, the Thâi Shang Hwun Hsüan Tâo Teh Kăn King, a work of the present dynasty, published at Shanghai, but when produced I do not know. It is certainly of the type, and is worth purchasing as one of the finest specimens of block-printing. It professes to be the production of ‘The Immortals of the Eight Grottoes,’ each of whom is styled ‘a Divine Ruler (Tî Kün).’ The eighty-one chapters are equally divided for commentary among them, excepting that ‘the Divine Ruler, the Universal Refiner,’ has the last eleven assigned to him. The Text is everywhere broken up into short clauses, which are explained in a very few characters by ‘God, the True Helper,’ the same, I suppose, who is also styled, ‘The Divine Ruler, the True Helper,’ and comments at length on chapters 31 to 40. I mention these particulars as an illustration of how the ancient Tâoism has become polytheistic and absurd. The name ‘God, the True Helper,’ is a title, I imagine, given to Zü. With all this nonsense, the composite commentary is a good one, the work, evidently, of one hand. One of several recommendatory Prefaces is ascribed to Wân Khang, the god of Literature; and he specially praises the work, as ‘explaining the meaning by examination of the Text.’

Fifth, a ‘Collection of the Most Important Treatises of the Tâoist Fathers (Tâo Kän Kwan Yâo).’ This was reprinted in 1877 at Khang-kâu in Kiang-sû; beginning with the Tâo Teh King, and ending with the Kan Ying Phien. Between these there are fourteen other Treatises, mostly short, five of them being among Mr. Balfour’s ‘Tâoist Texts.’ The Collection was edited by a Yü; and the Commentary selected by him, in all but the last Treatise, was by a Hsî-yüeh, who appears to have been a recluse in a monastery on a mountain in the department of Pâo-ning, Sze-khwan, if, indeed, what is said of him be not entirely fabulous.

Sixth, the Commentary on the Tâo Teh King, by Khăng (A.D. 1249-1333) of Lin Khwan. This has been of the highest service to me. Khăng was the greatest of the Yüan scholars. He is one of the Literati quoted from occasionally by Ziâo Hung in his ‘Wings;’ but by no means so extensively as Julien supposes (Observations Détachées, p. xli). My own copy of his work is in the 12th Section of the large Collection of the ‘Yüeh-yâ Hall,’ published in 1853. Writing of Khăng in 1865 (Proleg. to the Shû, p. 36), I said that he was ‘a bold thinker and a daring critic, handling his text with a freedom which I had not seen in any other Chinese scholar.’ The subsequent study of his writings has confirmed me in this opinion of him. Perhaps he might be characterised as an independent, rather than as a bold, thinker, and the daring of his criticism must not be supposed to be without caution. (See Introd., p. 9.)

The Writings of Kwang-dze have been studied by foreigners still less than the Treatise of Lâo-dze. When I undertook in 1879 to translate them, no version of them had been published. In 1881, however, there appeared at Shanghai Mr. Balfour’s ‘The Divine Classic of Nan-hua (Introd., pp. 11, 12), being the Works of Chuang Tsze, Tâoist Philosopher.’ It was a ‘bold’ undertaking in Mr. Balfour thus to commence his translations of Chinese Books with one of the most difficult of them. I fancy that he was himself convinced of this, and that his undertaking had been ‘too bold,’ by the criticism to which his work was subjected in the China Review by Mr. Giles. Nevertheless, it was no small achievement to be the first to endeavour to lift up the veil from Kwang-dze. Even a first translation, though imperfect, is not without benefit to others who come after, and are able to do better. In preparing the draft of my own version, which draft was finished in April, 1887, I made frequent reference to the volume of Mr. Balfour.

Having exposed the errors of Mr. Balfour, Mr. Giles proceeded to make a version of his own, which was published last year in London, with the title of ‘Chuang Tzŭ, Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer.’ It was not, however, till I was well through with the revision of my draft version, that I supplied myself with a copy of his volume. I did not doubt that Mr. Giles’s translation would be well and tersely done, and I preferred to do my own work independently and without the help which he would have afforded me. In carrying my sheets through the press, I have often paused over my rendering of a passage to compare it with his; and I have pleasure in acknowledging the merits of his version. The careful and competent reader will see and form his own judgment on passages and points where we differ.

Before describing the editions of Kwang-dze which I have consulted, I must not omit to mention Professor Gabelentz’s ‘Treatise on the Speech or Style of Kwang-dze,’ as ‘a Contribution to Chinese Grammar,’ published at Leipzig in 1888. It has been a satisfaction to me to find myself on almost every point of usage in agreement with the views of so able a Chinese scholar.

The works which I employed in preparing my version have been:

First, ‘The True King of Nan-hwâ,’ in ‘The Complete Works of the Ten Philosophers,’ which has been described above. The Commentary which it supplies is that of Kwo Hsiang (Introd., pp. 9, 10), with ‘The Sounds and Meanings of the Characters’ from Teh Ming’s ‘Explanations of the Terms and Phrases of the Classics,’ of our seventh century. As in the case of the Tâo Teh King, the Ming editor has introduced at the top of his pages a selection of comments and notes from a great variety of scholars down to his own time.