‘I’ll drag my tail in the mud’ — Zhuangzi

The Tower of Reading


This chapter in The Tower of Reading focuses on a text in Zhuangzi selected by Zhong Shuhe 鐘叔河 for Studying Short Classical Chinese Texts 《念樓學短·莊子十篇之三》。The title of Zhong’s selection of ten excerpts from the Zhuangzi is 曳尾塗中 yè wěi tú zhōng, ‘drag one’s tail in the mud’, which is also the name of this chapter.




The Tower of Reading is a series published by China Heritage focussed on the work of Zhong Shuhe (鐘叔河, 1931-), one of the most influential editors and publishers in post-Mao China and a writer celebrated in his own right both as a prose stylist and as an interpreter of classical Chinese texts.

The full title of the series — ‘Studying Short Classical Chinese Texts with The Master of The Tower of Reading’ — is our interpretive translation of 念樓學短 niàn lóu xué duǎn, the enticingly lapidary name under which Zhong Shuhe published over five hundred newspaper columns over three decades (see 念樓學短2002年 and 念樓學短2020年). The short title for the endeavour in China Heritage is simply The Tower of Reading.

Each chapter features a short text of under 100 characters which Zhong translates into modern Chinese. To these Zhong appends ‘A Comment from the Master of the Tower of Reading’ 念樓曰 niàn lóu yuē, ‘casual essays’ — 小品文 xiǎopǐnwén or 雜文 záwén, modern terms for such works, akin to the traditional terms 筆記 bǐ jì, ‘jottings’ or 劄記 zhá jì, ‘miscellaneous literary notes’ — that expanded on the theme of the chosen text, or a particular historical figure or a particular incident.

The Tower of Reading offers translations of the classical texts and of Zhong Shuhe’s interpretive essays along with the original Chinese versions of both.

For more on the background to this project, see Introducing The Tower of Reading.


The seventh section of Studying Short Classical Texts with The Master of the Tower of Reading consists of ten selections from Zhuangzi 莊子. Previously, in Am I a Butterfly?, we offered two observations about Zhuangzi, both the historical figure and the book, made by the translators Burton Watson (1925-2017) and A.C. Graham (1917-1991). We introduce the present chapter with a comment by A.C. Graham on the topic of spontaneity from Chuang-tzŭ: the seven Inner Chapters (1981), an important work on the ancient Chinese thinker. This is followed by two translated versions of a famous anecdote Zhong Shuhe selected from Zhuangzi that he titled ‘Choosing Freedom’. After this we include another passage from Zhuangzi on ‘The Art of the Way’ which discusses 道 dào — the path, way, technique — a word-concept that lies at the heart of discussions about nature, the world, politics, the individual, religion in both the Chinese tradition and today. This in turn acts as a preface to Zhong’s Shuhe’s comment on Diogenes, Zhuangzi and freedom. We bring this section of the chapter to a conclusion with ‘Roaming Freely in the Cage’, A.C. Graham’s observations on the perennial question of service to the state vs. personal independence.

An appendix, which follows on from the Chinese text of ‘Choosing Freedom’, is a charming piece inspired by Diogenes, the Greek thinker discussed by Zhong Shuhe, and on the theme of time — be it saved, stolen or wasted. Liang Shiqiu (梁實秋, 1903-1987), the author of this essay, was a writer long condemned by his emotionally constipated literary foes, chief among them being Lu Xun, for his whimsy and humanist views. Liang is regarded as a master of modern Chinese belle-lettres, or美文 měiwén, a genre that combines aspects of Japanese, French and English writing with a transmogrified form of traditional prose. Delighting in literary and historical references, more self-indulgent champions of this can be overly mannered and cloying. As we noted in the above, the casual essays 小品文 xiǎopǐnwén of writers like Zhong Shuhe are more restrained and unaffected, both in texture and in tone.


‘I’ll drag my tail in the mud’ featured in the first installment in our series Other People’s Thoughts, published in February 2017. It also reflects the credo of this website as expressed in On Heritage 遺.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 February 2024

Other chapters in The Tower of Reading:


Hanyu Pinyin is used for the romanisation of Chinese names, words and terms, including in quoted material.


A.C. Graham


Although it is not easy to offer a definition of Taoism, thinkers classed as philosophical Taoists do share one basic insight — that, while all other things move spontaneously on the course proper to them, man has stunted and maimed his spontaneous aptitude by the habit of distinguishing alternatives, the right and the wrong, benefit and harm, self and others, and reasoning in order to judge between them. To recover and educate his knack he must learn to reflect his situation with the unclouded clarity of a mirror, and respond to it with the immediacy of an echo to a sound or shadow to a shape. For Zhuangzi the fundamental error is to suppose that life presents us with issues which must be formulated in words so that we can envisage alternatives and find reasons for preferring one to the other. People who really know what they are doing, such as a cook carving an ox, or a carpenter or an angler, do not precede each move by weighing the arguments for different alternatives. They spread attention over the whole situation, let its focus roam freely, forget themselves in their total absorption in the object, and then the trained hand reacts spontaneously with a confidence and precision impossible to anyone who is applying rules and thinking out moves. ‘When I chisel a wheel,’ says the carpenter to Duke Huan, ‘if the stroke is too slow it slides and does not grip, if too fast it jams and catches in the wood. Not too slow, not too fast; I feel it in the hand and respond from the heart, the tongue cannot put it into words, there is a knack in it somewhere which I cannot convey to my son and which my son cannot learn from me.’

In another tale a swimmer is asked how he stays afloat in a whirlpool, and answers: I enter with the inflow and emerge with the outflow. I follow the Way of the water and do not impose my selfishness on it … That it is so without me knowing why it is so is destiny.’ Such stories about special knacks were popular in the school of Zhuangzi; only one of them, the tale of Cook Ting carving the ox, belongs to the Inner chapters which can be confidently ascribed to Zhuangzi himself, but as concrete illustrations of the Taoist approach they are as instructive to the modern reader as they evidently were to ancient apprentices of the school.

In responding immediately and with unsullied clarity of vision one hits in any particular situation on that single course which fits no rules but is the inevitable one (Zhuangzi is fond of the term ‘inevitable’ [不得已], which he uses rather as when we speak of the inevitability of an artist’s casually drawn line). This course, which meanders, shifting direction with varying conditions like water finding its own channel, is the Tao [道 dào], the ‘Way’, from which Taoism takes its name; it is what patterns the seeming disorder of change and multiplicity, and all things unerringly follow where it tends except that inveterate analyser and wordmonger man, who misses it by sticking rigidly to the verbally formulated codes which other philosophical schools present as the ‘Way of the sage’ or ‘Way of the former kings’. The spontaneous aptitude is the [德], the ‘Power’, the inherent capacity of a thing to perform its specific functions successfully. (As an English equivalent of many translators prefer ‘virtue’, to be understood however as in ‘The virtue of cyanide is to poison’ rather than as in ‘Virtue is its own reward’). Like the Way, it belongs to man no more or less than to other things; we read in one Zhuangzi story that the training of a fighting cock ends when its is complete. In ancient Chinese thinking, which has no dichotomy of mind and body, the ‘Power’ even in man includes not only the full potentialities of the sage but such physical powers as eyesight and hearing, and Zhuangzi sees it as a difficulty requiring explanation that perfection of Power does not ensure that the body will grow up strong and beautiful. The concepts of Tao and  make a pair, as in the alternative title of Laozi, the Tao te ching [道德經 dàodéjīng], ‘Classic of the Way and of Power’.

[Editor’s Note: The story about the fighting cock goes as follows:


How am I to train the Power in me so that I am prompted to act without the aid of reasons, ends, moral and prudential principles?

By cultivating the spontaneous energies, which Zhuangzi conceives in terms of the physiological ideas current in his time. He assumes that the organ of thought is not the brain but the heart, and also that everything in motion in the universe is activated by qì [氣], ‘breath, energy’, conceived as a fluid which in its purest state is the breath which vitalises us. Inside the body the  alternates between phases of activity, as the ‘Yang’, and of passivity, as the ‘Yin’, as in breathing out and in. He shares such assumptions of Chinese medicine as that birth and growth are Yang and ageing is Yin, that illness is an imbalance of the two, and that changes of mood from exhilaration to depression are the Yang energies climaxing and reverting to the Yin phase. In the main tradition of Chinese cosmology (already represented in the Outer chapters of Zhuangzi) all energies not only in the body but throughout the cosmos are classed as Yin or Yang, accounting for the alternations of dark and light and of all other opposites.

Zhuangzi himself, however, seems to follow an older scheme of ‘Six Energies’, Yin and Yang, wind and rain, dark and light. Thinking in terms of the traditional physiology, he recommends us to educate the spontaneous energies rather than use the heart to think, name, categorise and conceive ends and principles of action. (But the only specific technique which he mentions, and that only casually, is controlled breathing.) Then we shall respond anew to the totality of every new situation, as the swimmer adapts to the varying pulls and pressures of the whirlpool, aware that it would not help but harm him to pause and ask himself ‘How shall I escape?’, even entertain the thought about himself ‘I want to escape’.

With the abandonment of fixed goals, the dissolution of rigid categories, the focus of attention roams freely over the endlessly changing panorama, and responses spring directly from the energies inside us. For Zhuangzi this is an immense liberation, a launching out of the confines of self into a realm without limits. A word which regularly quickens the rhythm of his writing is yóu [遊], roam, travel’, used rather like the ‘trip’ of psychedelic slang in the 1960s. In his first chapter, ‘Going rambling without a destination’ [逍遙遊], he begins by imagining the flight of a giant bird and asking how the air can carry its weight, and proceeds to the flight, which does not depend even on the air, of the sage who ‘rides a true course between heaven and earth, with the changes of the Six Energies as his chariot, to travel into the infinite’. But he is not thinking only of ecstatic experience; even a diplomat on a difficult mission is advised to consider only the objective conditions and ‘let the heart roam with other things as its chariot, and trust yourself to the inevitable in order to nurture the centre of you’.

A.C. Graham, Chuang-tzŭ: the seven Inner Chapters and other writings:
from the book Chuang-tzŭ
, pp.6-8

‘To Be a Butterfly or Not: Ten Excerpts from Zhuangzi‘, illustration and calligraphy by The Master of the Tower of Reading. Source: 《念樓學短·莊子十篇》


Choosing Freedom
two translations

Chapter Three in Section Seven of

Studying Short Classical Chinese Texts with
The Master of The Tower of Reading



莊子釣於濮水。楚王使大夫二人往先焉,曰:願以境內累矣。 莊子持竿不顧。曰:吾聞楚有神龜。死已三千歲矣。王巾笥而藏之廟堂之上。此龜者,寧其死為留骨而貴乎。寧其生而曳尾於塗中乎。二大夫曰:寧生而曳尾塗中。莊子曰:往矣。吾將曳尾於塗中。

Version I

Once, when Zhuangzi was fishing in the Pu River, the king of Chu sent two officials to go and announce to him: ‘I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.’

Zhuangzi held on to the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, ‘I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Chu that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?’

‘It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,’ said the two officials.

Zhuangzi said, ‘Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!’

from ‘Autumn Floods’, Zhuangzi 《莊子·秋水》, translated by Burton Watson

Version II

Zhuangzi was fishing in Pu River. The King of Chu sent two grandees to approach him with the message:

‘I have a gift to tie you, my whole state.’

Zhuangzi, intent on the fishing-rod, did not turn his head.

‘I hear that in Chu there is a sacred tortoise’, he said, ‘which has been dead for three thousand years. His Majesty keeps it wrapped up in a box at the top of the hall in the shrine of his ancestors. Would this tortoise rather be dead, to be honoured as preserved bones? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?’

‘It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud.’

‘Away with you! I shall drag my tail in the mud.’

from ‘Stories about Chuang-tzŭ’, in Chuang-tzŭ: the seven Inner Chapters,
trans. A.C. Graham, p.122

The Art of the Way


‘Blank, boundless, and without form; transforming, changing, never constant: are we dead? are we alive? do we stand side by side with Heaven and earth? do we move in the company of spiritual brightness? absent-minded, where are we going? forgetful, where are we headed for? The ten thousand things ranged all around us, not one of them is worthy to be singled out as our destination — there were those in ancient times who believed that the “art of the Way” lay in these things. Zhuang Zhou heard of their views and delighted in them. He expounded them in odd and outlandish terms, in brash and bombastic language, in unbound and unbordered phrases, abandoning himself to the times without partisanship, not looking at things from one angle only. He believed that the world was drowned in turbidness and that it was impossible to address it in sober language. So he used “goblet words” [卮言] to pour out endless changes, “repeated words” [重言] to give a ring of truth, and “imputed words” [寓言] to impart greater breadth. [Ed.: For more on language in Zhuangzi, see Graham, Chuang-tzŭ, pp.25-26.] He came and went alone with the pure spirit of Heaven and earth, yet he did not view the ten thousand things with arrogant eyes. He did not scold over “right” and “wrong,” but lived with the age and its vulgarity. Though his writings are a string of queer beads and baubles, they roll and rattle and do no one any harm. Though his words seem to be at sixes and sevens, yet among the sham and waggery there are things worth observing, for they are crammed with truths that never come to an end.’

芴漠無形,變化無常,死與。生與。天地並與。神明往與。芒乎何之。忽乎何適。萬物畢羅,莫足以歸。古之道術有在於是者,莊周聞 其風而悅之。以謬悠之說,荒唐之言,無端崖之辭,時恣縱而不儻, 不奇見之也。以天下為沈濁,不可與莊語。以卮言為曼衍,以重言為 真,以寓言為廣。獨與天地精神往來,而不敖倪於萬物。不譴是非, 以與世俗處。其書雖瓌瑋,而連犿無傷也。其辭雖參差,而諔詭可觀 。彼其充實,不可以已。上與造物者游,而下與外死生、無終始者為 友。其於本也,弘大而辟,深閎而肆;其於宗也,可謂稠適而上遂矣 。雖然,其應於化而解於物也,其理不竭,其來不蛻,芒乎昧乎,未之盡者。

from ‘The World’, Zhuangzi, 《莊子·天下》, trans. Burton Watson

Comment from The Tower of Reading

Diogenes, a Greek thinker who lived in a wooden tub and was roughly a contemporary of Zhuangzi over 2,300 years ago, was similarly contemptuous of the need for a state to be ‘peaceful, prosperous, respected and resplendent’ [安富尊榮].[1] In the winter, he would sit in the sun outside his tub. One day, Alexander the Great, a man who had conquered the known world, took it upon himself to visit the philosopher. When he  asked if there was anything he could do for him, Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, don’t block the sunlight.'[2]

In their encounters with the powerful, both Diogenes and Zhuangzi chose freedom.

For Confucians the ideal life was one devoted to ‘excelling in one’s studies so as to serve the state’. It was also a duty; naturally, they were critical of Zhuangzi. For thinkers in ancient Greece, however, learning did not necessarily mean that one had to serve the state. A knowledgeable man could survive on gifts people gave him for lecturing or acting as an advocate on behalf of others (as in the case of Diogenes). It’s how they maintained their independence. Although Zhuangzi also chose freedom, it’s unlikely that he could survive on his catch from the Pu River. Even though he didn’t seek high office, it is said that he worked as a minor functionary in the Lacquer Garden. [Ed.: This was according to the biography of Zhuangzi in Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian 司馬遷著《史記》.]

If, on that particular occasion, Zhuangzi had been approached by the First Emperor of the Qin instead of the Lord of Chu. Then, if his offer of employment was similarly dismissed out of hand, just imagine what might have happened. It certainly is an entertaining thought.

Zhong Shuhe, trans. Geremie R. Barmé


Translator’s Notes:

[1] The expression ‘peaceful, prosperous, respected and resplendent’ 安富尊榮 ān fú zūn róng, occurs in Mencius:

Gongsun Chou said: “The Book of Odes gives the line:

He would not eat the bread of idleness!

“Why is it then, that the gentleman does not plough the fields but nonetheless eats?”

Mencius replied: “If, when living in a particular state, the gentleman finds employment with the ruler, and he serves to make that state peaceful, prosperous, respected, and resplendent, and young men of the state take tuition under him, becoming thereby filial, dutiful, loyal, and trustworthy, then what greater way is there to live true to that line from the Book of Odes?”



— Mencius, XIII.xxxii 《孟子·盡心上》, trans. Duncan Campbell.

[2] Plutarch’s account of the encounter between Alexander and Diogenes records that:

‘It is said that Alexander was so struck by this, and admired so much the haughtiness and grandeur of the man who had nothing but scorn for him, that he said to his followers, who were laughing and jesting about the philosopher as they went away, “But truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.” ’]

Roaming Freely Inside the Cage


How does Zhuangzi reconcile in practice the rejection of all prudential and moral rules with the need to live in a highly regulated society? The sage as he conceives him is both selfless and amoral, and refuses to distinguish and judge between either benefit and harm or right and wrong. However, the carpenter or angler is at his most dexterous in spontaneous rather than deliberated moves, and similarly it is the act without either selfish or altruistic premeditation which he believes to be both in one’s own best interests (‘You can protect your body, keep life whole, nurture your parents, last out your years’) and in the best interests of all (‘The benefits of his bounty extend to a myriad ages, but he is not deemed to love mankind’). As for social conventions, Zhuangzi is alert to the dangers of colliding with them, but sees them as deserving only an outward conformity. But in ‘Worldly business among men’ [人間世] one notices with some surprise that Zhuangzi does accept two kinds of convention without reserve. One is the service of parents, which is rooted in a love which cannot be dispelled from the heart’, and is therefore to be accepted as part of our destiny. Here, unlikely as it may seem in the twentieth century, there is a perfect accord between social custom and the informed spontaneous impulse. The other is the service of minister to ruler. The minister has to accept his duties as belonging to the ‘inevitable’, to the unalterable facts of his situation, and learn to ‘roam free inside the cage’ [入遊其樊]. He can try to improve his ruler, but not like a Confucian by prating to him about moral principles; he must identify the growing point of Power in the ruler and deftly guide him towards the Way. But even in ‘Worldly business among men’ Zhuangzi seems to be looking on from outside at unfortunates trapped in office or rash idealists venturing into court in the hope of reforming the ruler. As far as he is concerned, the sensible man stays as far away as he can from official life and its duties.

A.C. Graham, Chuang-tzŭ: the seven Inner Chapters, p.13

‘Now I will tell you. You may go and play in his bird cage, but never be moved by fame. If he listens, then sing; if not, keep still. Have no gate, no opening, but make oneness your house and live with what cannot be avoided. Then you will be close to success.

‘It is easy to keep from walking; the hard thing is to walk without touching the ground. It is easy to cheat when you work for men, but hard to cheat when you work for Heaven. You have heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You have heard of the knowledge that knows, but you have never heard of the knowledge that does not know. Look into that closed room, the empty chamber where brightness is born! Fortune and blessing gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still — this is what is called sitting but racing around. Let your ears and eyes communicate with what is inside, and put mind and knowledge on the outside. Then even gods and spirits will come to dwell, not to speak of men! This is the changing of the ten thousand things, the bond of Yu and Shun, the constant practice of [the sage emperors] Fu Xi and Ji Qu. How much more should it be a rule for lesser men!’


from ‘In the World of Men’, Zhuangzi, 《莊子·人間世》, trans. Burton Watson

Original Chinese Text

學其短:The selected Classical Chinese text, with a note on the source;
念樓讀:Zhong Shuhe’s translation into Modern Chinese; and,
念樓曰:Zhong Shuhe’s comment.


曳尾塗中 《莊子》

莊子釣於濮水。楚王使大夫二人往先焉,曰:願以境內累矣。 莊子持竿不顧。曰:吾聞楚有神龜。死已三千歲矣。王巾笥而藏之廟堂之上。此龜者,寧其死為留骨而貴乎。寧其生而曳尾於塗中乎。二大夫曰:寧生而曳尾塗中。莊子曰:往矣。吾將曳尾於塗中。


  • 本文錄自《莊子·秋水》。

【念樓讀】 莊子在濮水上釣魚,楚王派了兩位大夫先來,代表國王表示:「希望將楚國的事情煩累先生。」要莊子去做官。




【念楼曰】 與莊子同生活于二千三百多年前的古希腊智者第歐根尼,亦鄙視安富尊榮,居木桶中,冬日坐桶外曬太陽。征服世界的亞歷山大大帝屈尊步行前去看他問:「想要我為您做點什麼嗎?」他答道:「想請你走開,別遮了我身上的陽光。」


儒家以「學而優則仕」為理想和責任,每批評莊子消極。古希臘智者則學而優不必仕,講學當辯護士靠施捨(如D氏)均可維持物質的生活,以保持精神的自由。莊子選擇自由,釣於濮水卻未必能養生,不做大官仍不得不做漆園吏。如果到濮水上來的不是楚大夫而是秦皇帝,頂撞他 (秦皇帝)又會有怎樣的後果?想想也是很有趣的。



  • 鍾叔河著, 《念樓學短》,上冊,長沙:岳麓書社,2020年,第130-131頁。

Appendix: On Time

Liang Shiqiu


The Greek philosopher Diogenes often slept in a clay urn. One day, Alexander the Great went to see him, and, in his usual imperial tone, asked, “Is there anything you want me to do for you?” The irreverent philosopher rolled his eyes and said, “ I just want you to step aside a bit and stop blocking the sunlight.”

The significance of this well-known little anecdote is perhaps a matter of individual interpretation, and different people have come to different conclusions. It has usually been taken to suggest that Diogenes viewed honor and respect as no more valuable than some discarded shoe, and wealth as nothing but a passing cloud. He regarded even the emperor as no different from any other man: not only was there nothing that he hoped to gain, he also saw no need to treat the emperor in any special way. Dr. Johnson, however, had a different interpretation, asserting that one should focus on the sunlight in the story. Sunlight is not an emperor’s to bestow, and Diogenes’ request was that Alexander not take away something that was beyond his power to give. This request is hardly excessive, but its implications are profound. In his discussion of the story, Dr. Johnson thus proceeded from a consideration of “light” to one of “time.” Extremely precious as time is, we may not realize how often it is snatched away by others.

[Editor’s note: Liang is referring to Samuel Johnson’s essay The Robbery of Time in The Idler, 15 July 1758. Johnson surmises that Alexander was wasting Diogenes’s time and comments that:

‘It is well known, that time once passed never returns; and that the moment which is lost, is lost for ever. Time therefore ought, above all other kinds of property, to be free from invasion; and yet there is no man who does not claim the power of wasting that time which is the right of others.’]

The saying that “human life does not exceed a hundred years” is not far from the truth. Of course, some people are so old that it almost seems as if they will never die, but the average mortal cannot expect to live beyond a century. Even then, sleep occupies a very large part of the many summers and winters that make up our lives. Though Su Shi (1037-1101) might have exaggerated somewhat when he said it takes up half a lifetime, it certainly amounts to about one-third. As for childhood, however we might choose to describe it — as guilelessly innocent or bumbling and benighted — we spend it obliviously and unthinkingly. Then, once we reach advanced age, our wits grow dim and our senses dull, even to the point that “a man cannot avail himself of the company of a beautiful woman.” At that point, with only a breath of air separating us from death, there is not much joy in life to speak of. The beginning and ending having thus been snipped away, very little of life is left. And, even in the short span that remains, time is not necessarily ours to control. To be sure, the uninvited guests that Dr. Johnson complained about, who come to the door on the slightest pretext and make themselves at home regardless of how busy their host might be, leave one not knowing whether to laugh or cry. In my view, however, they don’t really amount to serious “time-thieves”; it’s just that they have collected a small tax on our limited capital. We still have ourselves to blame, I am afraid, for the largest drain on our time.

Some people assert that “time is life,” while others say that “time is money.” Both have a point, since there are people who equate money with life. On closer consideration, however, it becomes clear that we cannot have money without life. After all, when life is no more, what use is money? To be sure, many people choose money over life, but parting with money instead of life is still the wiser course. That is why it is said in the Han Taoist classic Huainanzi [淮南子] that, “the sage does not value a foot of jade but rather an inch of time, because time is hard to come by, but all too easy to lose.” Who among us as children did not write compositions with titles like “Valuing Time”? How many of us, though, were able early on to comprehend that time “is hard to come by but all too easy to lose”? When I was young, our family engaged a private tutor. My elder sister and I often took advantage of our tutor’s inattention to turn the clock on the study desk ahead half an hour in order to get out of class early. After a while, our teacher found us out. He then marked a spot on the paper window pane in red ink and would not dismiss class until the sunlight reached it. It took this to put an end to our schemes for playing hooky.

Time flows on unceasingly, and no one can detain it for even a moment. Just as Confucius said, “It passes swiftly by, mindless of day and night.” [Ed.: see Everything flows like this’.] Every day, we tear a page from the calendar, which grows ever thinner. When we have almost reached the last page, we are inevitably started to find the end of the year again approaching. If we were to bind all of these calendars into a single volume, it could serve to symbolize our entire life. If we then went on to rip out page after page, I wonder how we would feel inside. Truly, as Shelley said, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” But how many times can any person witness the passing of winter and coming of spring?

Just let go what you cannot detain. The problem remains however, how to spend the time that has not yet fled and is still within our grasp. What the noted scholar-statesman Liang Qichao (1873-1929) most detested was to hear the word diversion, asserting that only those who are tired of life have the heart to “kill time.” In his view there was never enough time to do all the things a person needed to do: how, then, could there still be room for diversions? Everyone has his own way of using time, however. When emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty was on a tour of the south, he saw boats busily coming and going on the Grand Canal and asked the people around him, “What are they so busy bustling about for?” His favorite attendant He Shen happened to be standing next to him and intoned, “Either for fame or for profit.” This answer was very much on the mark, and shouldn’t be dismissed because the person who made this statement was of questionable character. What I fear, though, is that, since the Golden Age of the Three Dynasties,[1] people have cared little about reputation. Of fame and profit, profit has probably counted more. “People die for money just as birds die for food,” and the notion that time is money still rings true. The poet worlds-worth had this to say:

The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

This is why some people would rather retire to the mountains to live an upright, reclusive life, enjoying the fresh breezes and the bright moon, and “keeping company with fish and shrimp and befriending does and bucks.” Keats delighted in spending long hours watching a flower to see its petals slowly unfold, deeming this one of the great joys in life. Ji Kang (223-262) enjoyed wielding a hammer to fashion metal artifacts under a big shady tree, now and then “taking a sip of wine and playing a tune on the zither.” His contemporary Liu Ling was likewise carefree, uninhabited, “keeping a jug of wine by him when he was idle, and carrying a wine pot when up and about.” Each of these eccentrics embodies a unique way of whiling away one’s time. The most extreme example of transcendent living is found in the Buddhist collection of anecdotes and sayings, The Record of Passing the Lamp:

Monk Nanquan asked Lu Heng, “How do you spend your days?”
Lu replied, “Not wearing a shred on my body.”

By this Lu meant that he was free of all attachments. As the Sixth Chan Master Huineng said, “Since there is nothing to begin with, whereon for the dust to settle?” This state of understanding is lofty indeed: one could say it is like “ treating the whole universe as one morning, and a million years as a single moment.” For all of these men, time was never a problem.

Indeed, as the Persian poet Omar Khayam said, we cannot know from whence we came or where we are going. We neither will our coming to this world, nor are we consulted when we leave it. As we stumble through our sojourn in life, should we surrender our hearts to the demands of our bodies in the time allotted to us? Should we try to attain immortality through virtue, actions, and words? Should we investigate the meaning of life and death, and then transcend the three realms?[2]


[1] The Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties.
[2] The realms of sensuous desire, form, and the spirit. These are matters for each of us to decide.

translated by King-fai Tam


















, ‘to drag, tow, be unrestrained’, in Seal Script 篆書