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Content created: 160819
File last modified: 161030

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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?

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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. 昔者庄周梦为胡蝶。 栩栩然胡蝶也。 自喻适志与。 不知周也。
Xīzhě Zhuāng Zhōu mèng wèi húdié, xǔxǔrán húdié yě, zì yùshìzhì yǔ. Bùzhī Zhōu yě.
昔者莊周夢為胡蝶。 栩栩然胡蝶也。 自喻適志與。 不知周也。
2. But suddenly I awakened, astonished to be Zhuāng Zhōu. 俄然觉则蘧蘧然周也。
Érán jué, zé qúqú rán Zhōu yě.
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. 不知周之梦为胡蝶与。 胡蝶之梦为周与。
Bùzhī Zhōu zhi mèng wèi húdié yǔ, húdié zhī mèng wèi Zhōu yǔ.
不知周之夢為胡蝶與。 胡蝶之夢為周與。
4. There ought to be a difference between Zhuāng Zhōu and a butterfly, but this is called the transformation of things. 周与胡蝶则必有分矣。 此之谓物化。
Zhōu yǔ húdié, zé bì yǒu fèn yǐ. Cǐ zhi wèi wùhuà.
周與胡蝶則必有分矣。 此之謂物化。
5. Source: Zhuāngzǐ, “The Equivalence of Things” 齐物论, chapter 14, lines 94-95. (http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/zhs) 《齐物论》14: 94-95.
“Qíwù Lùn”14: 94-95.
《齊物論》14: 94-95.

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