- Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, with Selections from Traditional Commentaries
Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, with Selections from Traditional Commentaries is an excellent new translation of the Zhuangzi. Brook Ziporyn has produced an abridged and annotated edition of the classic for Hackett's growing series of translations on early Chinese intellectual history. The closest competitors to this new edition are the translations by Watson (1968), Graham (1981), and Mair (1994). Ziporyn's work succeeds in part because he manages to do both less and more than the others. With judicious abridgement (sixteen full chapters, including all seven "Inner" chapters, plus selections from six more—about two-thirds of the entire work) and valuable added commentary, this book is a great choice for the undergraduate classroom. Scholars will also find this a valuable addition to their shelves. The translation often provides a fresh perspective to old problems, and the selection of commentary delivers a focus and accessibility that engages—and encourages us to re-engage—the considerable commentarial tradition.
There are four parts to this text to be considered: the brief introduction, the four online explanatory essays, the translation, and the selections from traditional commentaries.
The twelve-page Introduction begins with the historical, ends with the philosophical, and finally points the reader to the online essays. The closing section of the [End Page 402] Introduction, "Multiple Perspectives of the Inner Chapters," rather than attempting to "sum up" the Zhuangzi, instead describes a variety of points of view that Zhuangzi the author seems to take. The apparent contradictions are resolved in the longest of the online essays, "Zhuangzi as Philosopher," where Ziporyn gives us an insightful analysis of the problem: the Zhuangzi is justifiably notable not only for pointing out (ontological and psychological) dependence and relativity, but also for embracing and celebrating the transformations between (necessarily limited) perspectives. It is precisely here that the famous phrase from chapter 1, "the Consummate Person has no fixed identity" (至人無己) (p. 6), finds its meaning.
The remaining three online essays are shorter and deal with translation issues, the categorization of the text's chapters by A. C. Graham and Liu Xiaogan, and the use of the term dao 道 in the Laozi, which Ziporyn situates between earlier (Confucian and Mohist) and later (Zhuangzian) uses. This last brief essay, introducing the counterintuitive and "ironic" use of the term dao, would be a useful assignment for students before reading either text.
Ziporyn's translation stands up well against those of his predecessors. Sometimes it is more colloquial, as with "The Equalizing Jokebook" for Qi xie 齊諧 (p. 3), and "this Peng has quite a back on him" (p. 3). The latter example does not translate anything in the Chinese, and such additions are usually for clarification, but in rare instances I found them slightly puzzling, as with the addition of "or anything in a man" in "Is human life always this bewildering, or am I the only bewildered one? Is there actually any man, or anything in a man, that is not bewildered?"1 (p. 11). Sometimes the translation seems a little idiosyncratic. Dao, for example, is rendered as "course," a compromise between Chad Hansen's "guiding discourse" and the standard "way." I think this works better in theory than in practice, however, because "course" sounds odd in some sentences, for example when Confucius says to the cicada catcher, "How skillful you are! Or do you have a course?" (p. 78). And the logic behind the inconsistent use of the uppercase for words like C/course, H/heaven, and S/sage was not always obvious to me from the context, and might prove distracting to undergraduates, even after being reminded that Chinese has no such distinctions.
But these are small matters. Much more often, the translation is a delight. Ziporyn's lucid prose is often a marked improvement over his predecessors:
Since he receives his sustenance from Heaven, what use would he have for the human? He has the physical form of a human being, but not the characteristic inclinations of a human being...