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  • Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings trans by Brook Ziporyn
  • Guo Chen (bio)
Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings. Translated by Brook Ziporyn. Cambridge: Ha ckett Publishing Company, Inc., 2020. Pp. xxxvii + 302. Paperback $28.00, ISBN 978-1-62466-855-5.

The Zhuangzi is perhaps the one and only work in classical Chinese philosophy that never fails to blow one's mind with its exquisite intertwining of high frivolousness, literary power, ambiguity, ambivalence, profundity and provocativeness all at once. There is urgent need of a translation able to transmit this paradoxical reading experiences as it is. Happily, all of these qualities, with the possible exception of ambiguity, are revealed in Brook Ziporyn's Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings, with both poetry and precision. Through a hermeneutical approach that inter-contextualizes each line and each word of the thirty-three chapters, especially many controversial places, he makes the chaotic and unsystematic text more complexly harmonious--a many in one and one in many harmony--through his undoubtedly unique, innovative, perspectival and very "Ziporyn" interpretation. It's always dangerous for a translation to say more than the original text, but I'm glad that Ziporyn expresses his own interpretation more explicitly and boldly, and with such precision. It's not a mere translation, but a monumental scholarly achievement, an expression of the translator's painstaking efforts of many years' working on Zhuangzian philosophy. I personally believe it will be another classic in history after Burton Watson's elegance and A. C. Graham's philosophical precision, especially a classical reader-friendly textbook for those interested in ancient Chinese philosophy, or at least a phenomenal matrix for future philosophical discussions in academia.

The present volume contains, besides a complete translation of the Inner, Outer and Miscellaneous chapters, an "Introduction," "Notes on the Translation," a "Glossary of Essential Terms," a "Bibliography" that includes modern and contemporary works on Zhuangzi from Chinese and English-speaking countries and an "Index." Ziporyn compares translation to "an art like architecture," and writes that the translator must make sure "a thousand aesthetic and compositional decisions cohere around its substructure of precision in a way that brings into focus the life, style, and rhythm of the source text" (p. xxix), which is the principle he implements throughout his translation. He makes full use of the endnotes after each chapter both to provide other possible ways of understanding and to explain explicitly and extensively why and how he made his [End Page 1] own choice (e.g. six and a half pages, nearly 5,000 words, just for Chapter 2). Ziporyn does not simply expand on his 2009 selective translation, but has revised carefully and thoroughly, sometimes opening a whole new dimension of interpretation based on textual studies.

Structurally speaking, in the earlier translation Ziporyn seems to have aimed more at reconstructing an authentic and textually coherent Zhuangzian philosophy in its cultural matrix and reception history by including selected passages even if regarded as merely "attributed to Zhuangzi" (Zhuangzi Essential Writings1, p. viii) as well as abundant traditional commentaries with varying opinions. He thus provided readers with numerous alternate ways of connecting unrelated passages; the commentaries are essential to this vision. In the 2020 version, Ziporyn aims at a bigger picture. He's not merely reconstructing a historically authentic picture of the many alternate Zhuangzian philosophies available in the cultural record, but also the Zhuangzi as a living and changing body discoverable through textual hermeneutics, thus also opening the possibility, among others, of viewing all the controversies identified with different strains of thought "as wildly contradictory and unresolved aspect of one man's thinking," like "Nietzsche's middle-period hodgepodge aphoristic style" (p. x). Instead of the traditional commentaries, Ziporyn focuses on the whole book as a densely interwoven symphony or concerto.

Textually speaking, Ziporyn drills down into details, and takes extreme care in his treatment of key terms, lines, and passages to reduce ambiguity, thus making it a good textbook for students of Chinese philosophy. "Wuhua 物化," an essential term in the famous butterfly story, is usually translated as "the transformation of things," Ziporyn previously translated it as "transformation of one thing into another" (Zhuangzi Essential Writings, p. 21). That concretizes "wu...


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