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Of Peace and Strife 3.

– After Chuang Tzu.

From Then and Now

Third in a Series.

Illustration by Alan Dixon.

“…what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good… One of the surest signs of danger is the number of people who share [a] view, not so much because unanimity tends to degenerate into uniformity as because of the probability – inherent in great numbers – that noble sentiment is being faked… By the same token, the best defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even – if you will – eccentricity… Something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated … not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity, it always goes for big numbers, for ideological purity, for drilled armies.”

– Joseph Brodsky, A Commencement Address


The Duke of Ch’i sat quietly reading
The fables of Chuang Tzu.
His wheelwright asked him why – “Succeeding
Is something which we do

Cannot be learned from books,” he declared…
The wheelwright was clearly proud
Of his skills. The learned Duke concurred
In part – and read aloud:

“What use are words? One butcher’s knife
Stays sharp because he cuts.
Another’s is notched: he lives his life
By hacking. Ifs and buts

Can neither explain nor teach the art
Of cutting. Description confuses
Mere words with things they fail to impart.

And yet – words have their uses.”


A logic chopper mocked Chuang Tzu:
“A big and useless tree –
A gnarled ailanthus stump-sprout – too
Twisted for carpentry –

Has grown in my garden. Big vague words,
Likewise, are good for nothing.”
Chuang Tzu smiled back: “All kinds of birds
Can rest with pleasure, or sing

In the shade of so high and broad a tree.
Men rest beneath it – even
Choppers of logic. Which is why
They call it ‘tree-of-heaven’.

No one will cut it down for its wood.
Why should it come to grief?
It’s neither bad nor very good.
Nothing will shorten its life.”


From his superior point of view
An oak condoled with a reed:

My dear, why don’t you try to grow
Closer to me? My shade

Would help you to withstand the sun,
My strength the wildest storm…

A great gale split the oak’s thick trunk,
But the reed regained her form.


The King of Sung, being slow to master
The Way, set off – alone –
For help with learning better, faster.
Chuang Tzu sat still as a stone:

“Why bring so many people – who
Are they?” The King looked round
In amazement. “They are and are not you,
Your Highness. To free the bound

(For a king can also be the slave
Of events – or ‘human history’),
We must rethink, retell, outbrave
Our own / their / her / his story.”

The King went home. To rule he required
Another sort of adviser –
Regretful that one who understood
So much should leave him no wiser.


When once again the village chanced
To be embroiled in a war,
The villagers worked – sang – played – and danced,
If anything, more than before.

The Mayor was, frankly, baffled – and, worried,
Publicly blamed Chuang Tzu,
Who (always polite, always unflurried)
Asked, “What would you like them to do?”


Chuang Tzu’s new followers, Yü and Ssu,
Were taught by Masters Li and Lai
That all a Master has to do
Is be content – to live, to die…

When Farmer Ssu’s white horse ran off,
His neighbours blamed it on bad luck.
But the horse returned with three wild mares:
Ssu thought, “What’s bad? What’s good?”

While breaking in the mares, Yü’s son
Fell and injured his back.
But imperial army recruiters took
His neighbours’ sons: “Good? Bad?”

Yü’s son lay helpless on his bed.
Enemy soldiers came
And burnt the village. Now Yü wept,
Even if all luck is the same,

For his only son… “But who can own
The stars, which take and give?
Things merely happen. Man alone
Must make them die or live…”

– Suddenly Master Li fell ill.
His body, twisting in a knot,
Grew crippled. Unconcerned and still,
Li smiled on this and smiled on that.

When Farmer Ssu inquired if he
Was content with crawling on the ground,
Li wrote in the dust: “To let life be” –
And he laughed – “is Freeing-the-Bound.”

The next to ail was Master Lai,
Writhing and wheezing at death’s door.
His wife and children raised a cry.
But Lai praised Less like praising More.

When Yü – still mourning – asked if he
Was content to draw his final breath,
Lai smiled: “Life’s not at fault. To free
The bound, I praise my death – ”


An angry child ran round and round
Trying to chase away
His shadow. Even the clacking sound
Of his clogs made him cry.

A snake hissed, Come, dear boy – relax,
And be still in the tranquil shade
Of this tree-of-heaven. No shadow, no clacks.
And no reason to be afraid.


A monkey trainer, handing out
The monkeys’ acorns, told them:
“Three in the morning, four at night.”
They yelled and squabbled. To scold them
Would only cause more trouble: “All right –
It’s risking my job, but let’s say
Four in the morning, three at night.”

– The monkeys shouted Hurray!


A rich young prince’s carriage-driver,
Wishing to impress his master,
Displayed his horse-drawn skills – out-rivalled
His fellows, wheeling faster

And faster, racing straight ahead
And back. Chuang Tzu cried, “Bid
Him stop, sire. Or they’ll drop down dead.”
But he didn’t – and they did.

“How did you know?” the Prince inquired.
– “The horses’ strength was gone.
The driver feared as much, but aspired
To excel. And lashed them on.”

The same young prince went hunting: a crowd
Of monkeys hid their faces.
Not so their leader – who, loud and proud,
Put on rude airs, crude graces.

He caught the arrows which the Prince
Let fly – snapped each in two.
Ten bowmen aimed and shot.  The mince
Made them a right royal stew.


Chu’i the draughtsman’s mind was easy.
Easy is right. Start right
And you are easy. By going easy,
You forget what’s easy, what’s right.

When your shoes fit you forget your feet;
When your belt fits, your waist.
Chu’i drew circles freehand – complete
And faultless. No effort. No waste.


A swallowtail settled, and Chuang Tzu dreamed
He was the butterfly,
So pleased to be free! When he woke, he seemed
(Without yet knowing why)

To be the fluttering butterfly still,
Dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.
So what was the difference?… Needing to fill
Its belly, a fat toad knew.


Chuang Tzu was fishing. The King of Sung
Sent two high-ranking lords
To employ the sharpness of his tongue,
The wisdom of his words.

A turtle dragged its tail in the mud
Of the deep slow river. Another –
Bejewelled, polished, sacred, but dead –
Worshipped, but wired together

With gold – was kept by the King in a heavy
Glass case: “What’s bad? What’s good?
My lords – decide for yourselves. And leave me
To drag my tail in the mud.”


Most of the poems in ‘Of Peace and Strife 3’ have been adapted from the writings of the Chinese Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. According to his translator Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu (Master Chuang) lived from about 369 to 286 BC. He is unusual among philosophers in having the style and stylishness of a poet. He may also have been the first Chinese writer to formulate and elaborate on the Taoist way of thinking. He seems to have been born in the state of Sung, which was never an important state and “led a precarious existence, constantly invaded or threatened by more powerful neighbours”, with its weakness much aggravated by internal strife. The political and social oppression and insecurity which resulted may help to account for the scepticism and mystical detachment of Chuang Tzu, his concentration on the inner freedom of the individual from “a world dominated by chaos, suffering and absurdity” (Watson)… For Westerners (and no doubt many modern Chinese), Chuang Tzu’s writing is not easy. One reason for this is the precise (or imprecise) meaning of certain key terms, such as the Way, Mind, Knowledge, Truth. Moreover, one of his favourite games is to question the use and/or validity of words – in general and in particular… This and his fondness for irony can make it difficult to know quite how to take him. Another reason for Chuang Tzu’s difficulty is that, unlike the Buddha, he has no interest in explaining how one is to achieve the enlightened states of mind of which he speaks (he was addressing a “spiritual élite”, Watson says, whose main aim was to refine their already high level of understanding). He states his conclusions, in other words, rather than how he arrived at them. In some respects, the stories or parables which are scattered throughout his writings (and which resemble Aesop’s fables in more ways than one, not least in their humour) are the most approachable sections of them, and it is on these that this part of the series concentrates.

Chuang Tzu dreamed / He was the butterfly:

The narrator of one of Borges’s most labyrinthine stories, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), is Chinese, and his story involves a story – rescued from oblivion by a Taoist monk – the key to whose chaotic structure is the nature of time. In A New Refutation of Time (1944-1947), Borges discusses Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream in the process of showing that if space does not exist (as Berkeley and other idealist philosophers have argued), then time does not exist either. “And yet, and yet…” he concludes: “Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations… Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.” Chuang Tzu’s answer to this would presumably have been that it depends on how you take it. When it comes to butterflies and toads, however, who would not endorse Borges’ “unfortunately”?

W.D. JACKSON’s five books and a pamphlet are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. This column is also a part of that work.  His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018)was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019.  A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’).  A new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon) is due from Shoestring in 2022, and Opus 1 is projected for 2023. The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.

ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s.  Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013.  An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017. 

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