Chuang Tzu


(translated by Herbert Giles)

[See the copyright notice at the bottom of this web page.]

Chuang Chou, usually known as Chuang Tzu (approximately 390-365 B.C.), was one of the great philosophers of the Chou period in china . He was born in the Sung feudal state and received an excellent education.   Unlike most educated men, however, Chuang Tzu did not seek public office or political power.  Influenced by Taoist philosophy, he believed that individuals should transcend their desire for success and wealth, as well as their fear of failure and poverty.  True freedom, he maintained, came from escaping the distractions of worldly affairs.  Chuang Tzu's writings have been particularly praised for their combination of humor and wisdom.  His parables and stories are classics of Chinese literature.

Chuang Tzu was one day fishing, when the Prince of Ch'u sent two high officials to interview him, saying that his Highness would be glad of Chuang Tzu's assistance in the administration of his government. The latter quietly fished on, and without looking round, replied, "I have heard that in the State of Ch'u there is a sacred tortoise, which has been dead three thousand years, and which the prince keeps packed up in a box on the altar in his ancestral shrine.  Now do you think that tortoise would rather be dead and have its remains thus honoured, or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?"  The two officials answered that no doubt it would rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud; whereupon Chuang Tzu cried out "Begone!  I too elect to remain wagging my tail in the mud."


  1. What part of this story is the exposition?  How many sentences does Chuang Tzu use to set up the dramatic situation?
  2. Why does the protagonist change the subject and mention the sacred tortoise?  Why doesn't he answer the request directly and immediately?  Does it serve any purpose that Chuang Tzu makes the officials answer a question to which he knows the answer?
  3. What does this story tell us about the protagonist Chuang Tzu's philosophy?

Additional Questions

  1. The editors' introduction to the story gives a summary representation of the philosopher Chuang Tzu's philosophy.  Does the story communicate all of these features of the philosopher's outlook on life to us, or does only part of this outlook come through in the story?  That is:  if we had only the story, and knew nothing else of Chuang Tzu, would it be possible to interpret this narrative as indicating something quite different about the protagonist's philosophy?
  2. Suppose the facts of the story were different.  What if the Prince of Ch'u were known to have mounted up above his ancestral altar the stuffed remains of a sacred falcon, dead some three thousand years.  Chuang Tzu might then have responded to the emissaries' request by pointing to this fact, and asking "Do you think that falcon would rather be dead and have its remains thus honoured, or be alive and wheeling around in the heavens, and swooping to capture its prey?"  The officials would answer that no doubt it would rather be alive and wheeling around in the heavens, and swooping to capture its prey.  The philosopher would then cry out, "Begone!  I too elect to remain wheeling around in the heavens, and swooping to capture my prey."  Obviously, there would be some respects in which this story would be equivalent to the original.  But in how many ways would the ultimate effect and/or meaning of such a story be subtly (and perhaps fundamentally) different from that of the story we have here?  Which would you regard as more effective?  Can you explain why?
  3. Suppose the facts of the story we have were changed in a different way.  Suppose there were no sacred tortoise beneath the ancestral altar of the Prince of Ch'u, but that the prince was known to keep the remains of favorite childhood pet (a tortoise, as it happens) in a box under his bed.  Would the philosopher Chuang Tzu, when approached by the emissaries with the same request, have been able to make as effective a point as he does on the basis of the facts of the story as we have it?
  4. Suppose the facts of the story were exactly the same as we have them at the outset, except that its conclusion was "...whereupon Chuang Tzu smiled and said, "You may return, my good sirs.  I too elect to remain wagging my tail in the mud."  How would the portrait of the philosopher be altered?  Would that portrait be consistent, or inconsistent, with the outlook on life we attribute to him on the basis of the original?  with the outlook on life described by the editors in their headnote to the piece?
  5. Suppose the translator or editors had outfitted the story with the title "Self-indulgence" instead of "Independence."  Or how about "Seize the Day"?  Would the overall effect of our experience with the story be changed in any way that is important?
  6. What do you notice in common about the sequence of moves made in each of the five questions you've just worked through?  What seems to be the point of that sequence of moves?
  7. Let's consider some structural features of the narrative here.  Note that this story actually consists of two stories, one embedded within the other.  
  8. Let's close by returning to the frame story itself, and asking a question not about something within it but about its relation to things outside itself.  We've already seen, with the embedded story, that it is possible for a narrative to be simultaneously realistic and parabolic.  

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   The eight questions immediately above are copyright 2001 by Lyman A. Baker.  Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved. 

   The material above those five questions -- the introductory note, the text of the poem, and the questions following it -- are taken from X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, eds., An Introduction to Literature, 7th Edition (N.Y.:  Longman, 1999), pp. 8-9).  They are copyright 1999 by Kennedy and Gioia, and are reproduced here under fair use doctrine for use in English 320 only.

  This page last updated 19 August 2001 .