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Content created: 2011-10-04
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Zhuāngzǐ: The Joy of Fish



The following wee story comes from the writings attributed to Zhuāngzǐ 庄子 of the IVth century BC. It is probably not the most famous passage in that whole collection, but it is my favorite.

It is difficult to render this text into compelling English because the punch line depends upon a pun of the word ān , which means both "how" and "where." I have used the clumsy translation "from what" in order to try to keep the pun. The whimsically implausible expression "Joy of Fish" is just as silly in Chinese as it is in English, and also adds to the story's charm, so I have preferred to translate it very literally.

The usual interpretation is that lurking behind the silliness of the story is a more profound question about how we know what we know, and what the limits of rational inquiry are, a question that Zhuāngzǐ wisely sidesteps with his pun because he considers the answer to be unknowable. Surface silliness has therefore not kept the story from being an object of scholarly attention. For example, in 2015 a 336-page volume of essays about this little story was published by the University of Hawai'i Press (Roger T. Ames & Takahiro Nakajima, eds. 2015, Zhuangzi and the Happy Fish. ISBN: 978-082-484-6848).

Go to bilingual version.

1. Zhuāngzǐ 庄子 and Huìzǐ 惠子 were strolling on a bridge over the River Háo .

2. Zhuāngzǐ said: "The fish are out swimming about. That is the 'Joy of Fish.'"

3. Huìzǐ replied: "You are not a fish; from what do you know the joy of fish?"

4. Zhuāngzǐ said: "You are not I; from what do you know whether I know the joy of fish?"

5. Huìzǐ reposted: "I am not you, and so I can't know. It follows that since you are not a fish, you can't know the joy of fish. So there!"

6. Zhuāngzǐ answered him: "The thing is, when you asked, 'From what can you know the joy of fish?' you already knew that I knew this in order to ask me what I knew it from. I knew it from the bridge over the River Háo!"

Go to bilingual version.

A review quiz is available covering this item in combination with another short selection from Zhuāngzǐ, The Dào of Cow. (Quiz Link)

picture A visit to the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California, is always rewarding. When you inspect their Chinese garden, be sure to check out the little "Bridge of the Joy of Fish" (Yúlè Qiáo 鱼乐桥), commemorating this story from Zhuāngzǐ.

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