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Content created: 2016-08-19
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Zhuāngzǐ: The Butterfly Dream



At least in the World Civ courses of Anglophone universities, no mention of Daoism is ever complete without a discussion of Zhuāngzǐ’s dreaming of being a butterfly, usually interpreted as illustrating that (1) all things are relative and (2) Zhuāngzǐ should be regarded as charming.

The famous butterfly passage occupies the last couple of lines (depending on how you count) of his chapter on the “Equivalence of Things” (if the characters 齐物 are pronounced qíwù) or the “Limitations of Things” (if they are pronounced jìwù). The chapter consists of questions about how we know what we know, and how we classify things. For example:

An interesting question we might pose today might be: Would the world be better off if more people dreamt they were butterflies? At least if they thought about it?

Go to bilingual version.

1. Once upon a time I, Zhuāng Zhōu (庄周 = Zhuāngzǐ), dreamt I was a butterfly. Flapping my wings in true butterfly fashion, I was happy as could be, and I knew nothing of any person named Zhuāng Zhōu.

2. But suddenly I awakened, astonished to be Zhuāng Zhōu.

3. I still don’t know whether as Zhuāng Zhōu I was dreaming I was a butterfly or whether as a butterfly I was dreaming I was Zhuāng Zhōu.

4. There ought to be a difference between Zhuāng Zhōu and a butterfly, but this is called the transformation of things.

5. Source: Zhuāngzǐ, “The Equivalence of Things”齐物论, chapter 14, lines 94-95. (http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/zhs)

Go to bilingual version.

A review quiz is available covering this item. (Quiz Link)

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