The Use of the Useless — Zhuangzi

The Tower of Reading


This is the eighth selection from Zhuangzi in Studying Short Classical Chinese Texts by Zhong Shuhe 鐘叔河,念樓學短·莊子十篇之八》。Here we focus on the expression 無用 wú yòng, ‘useless, impractical, futile’ and the phrase 無用之用 wú yòng zhī yòng, ‘the use of the useless’.




The Tower of Reading is a series inspired by 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 this endeavour in China Heritage is simply The Tower of Reading.

Each chapter features a short Classical Chinese 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, both modern terms for such works that are 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. Often, they Zhong’s comments are whimsical reflections on his life.

The Tower of Reading in China Heritage 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.


Previously, we have encountered Zhuangzi 莊子 through his famous ‘butterfly dream’ and in the parable about the tortoise dragging its tail in the mud. See:

Here our theme is usefulness, uselessness, profit and the worthless. These are also themes in the Analects of Confucius where The Master famously observes that

An educated man is not a pot. 君子不器。

Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys), whose translation of the Analects features in The Tower of Reading, explains:

A pot, or a tool, has only limited capacity and a narrow, specialised use. The aim of education is to enable a person to become more fully human. Western humanism had the same aim. Remember Erasmus: “One is not born a man, one becomes a man.”

In the Chinese context, utility and uselessness have been matters of contention ever since. A famous Confucian child’s primer, for example, teaches that ‘If jade is not carved it can not be a pot’  玉不琢不成器, and the debate about ‘talented individuals’ 人才 is mirrored in the concerns of the state to train ‘useful individuals’ 人材。

Apart from their intrinsic value, the views in Zhuangzi also echo down the ages.

Here, as in the other chapters in this series devoted to Zhuangzi, we avail ourselves of the work by the translator-scholars Burton Watson (1925-2017) and A.C. Graham (1917-1991).

We introduce the present chapter with a personal observation by the Editor followed by a comment by Simon Leys on his Hall of Uselessness. Then we turn to the text selected by Zhong Shuhe and his comment on it.

Further material from Zhuangzi expands the discussion of ‘uselessness’ to which we append an excerpt from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, a work of philosophical fiction that is regarded as an existentialist classic. In the Coda we quote Jean Bottéro on his pursuit of Assyriology, a seemingly obscure and recondite field of scholarship, and his study of Sumero-Akkadian Cuneiform:

My consolation during all this was the conviction that I was never going to learn anything that would be useful or usable for anything else than the enrichment of my mind. And this knowledge precisely gained its value from this awareness. At least such a point of view encouraged me to set off on this unending journey.

The Tower of Reading is part of our own unending journey, one that is inspired by the spirit of New Sinology, a holistic study of the Chinese world. As I have noted elsewhere:

New Sinology engages equally with Official China via its bureaucracy, ideology, propaganda and culture, as well as with Other Chinas — those vibrant and often disheveled worlds of alterity, be they in the People’s Republic, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or around the globe.

My advocacy of the study and reading of literary Chinese and attention to modern Chinese culture is not merely a way of justifying support for underfunded academic programs. As I have repeatedly argued, when things with China ‘went south’ — that is as the systemic inertia of party-state autocracy continued to cast a pall over contemporary Chinese life, as I had no doubt that it would following the events of 1989 — students and scholars would always have recourse to the vast world of literature, history and thought that make a study of China also a study of human greatness, genius and potential.

[Note: For more on this, see Australia and China in the World: Whose Literacy?, 15 July 2011.]

The Tower of Reading is a useful exercise in uselessness.


My thanks, as ever, to the eagle eye of Reader #1, and to Lois Conner for permission to use her work, in particular the solitary tree at the Field of Countless Trees that she made during our research trip to the Imperial Hunting Lodge at Chengde in 2000, the first year of the ‘noughties’.

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


Other chapters in The Tower of Reading:

Further Reading:


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

‘Your life has a limit but knowledge has none.’

In the late 1970s, after years studying at late-Maoist universities in the People’s Republic, I moved to Hong Kong to take up a job in a publishing house that produced a monthly magazine and operated Cosmos Books, one of the colony’s most lively bookstores. Free to scour through the shelves of the bookstore day and night, I found myself drawn to the essays of Republican-era writers, a disparate group that flourished on the mainland from the 1910s to the late 1940s and on Taiwan thereafter.

In the People’s Republic the casual essay 小品文 xiǎopǐnwén, the only modern literary genre that evolved out of the tradition to find inspiration and sustenance in international literature, had been sidelined by the ‘motley essay’ 雜文 záwén, a caustic form of short prose used, as Lu Xun recommended in 1933, as ‘daggers and spears’ 是匕首,是投槍. Prose with pointed political purpose were ‘things that are able to hack out, along with their readers, a bloody path for survival’ 能和讀者一同殺出一條生存的血路的東. Rancour and resentment had long characterised a kind of prose that Lu Xun declared should also be enjoyable and entertaining. Having had my fill of the belligerent Maoist avatar version of Lu Xun that I had studied at universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang, and recalling the appeal of Lin Yutang, whose work I had encountered as a teenager, I was drawn to that other tradition of modern Chinese letters.

Lin Yutang had introduced me to the world of Zhuangzi, one that resonated with the rebellious temper of the 1960s, and I had read him more seriously during my undergraduate studies in Australia. Now in Hong Kong I explored the world of Chinese literature and history available to me on the shelves of the appropriately named Cosmos Books 天地圖書. Among the writers who contributed to what Susan Daruvala has called ‘an alternative Chinese response to modernity’, I was particularly drawn to Feng Zikai (豐子愷, 1898-1975).

Artist, essayist, translator and Buddhist, Feng’s life and work coincided with many of my own interests, so much so that they were the focus of my doctoral studies back in Australia under the tutelage of Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys), the man who first taught me Chinese.

One of the first essays that I read by Feng Zikai was written shortly after he and his large family had fled the invading Japanese in late 1938. In a long essay in which he bid farewell to their hometown and his beloved study, Yuanyuan Hall 緣緣堂, destroyed during a Japanese air raid, the artist paused to celebrate ‘uselessness’. Quoting an aphorism penned by Xiang Hongzuo (項鴻祚, 1798-1835), a poet in the Qing dynasty:


How should we spend our limited time,
if not in the pursuit of worthless things?

Feng went on to say:

I believe the sentiment summed up in this line, furthermore I’d offer a gloss on those words by quoting Zhuangzi, for whom the concept of ‘benefit’ [益 ] is the same as that of ‘profit’ [利 ]. As he said:

‘Your life has a limit but the desire for profit has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for profit, you will be in danger for certain!’

That’s why I too say that to spend the limited days allotted to you in a meaningful way, you must also pursue things that have not benefit.


— 豐子愷,辭緣緣堂,1939年8月6日下午3時脫稿於廣西

Since the shelves of Cosmos were stocked with works of the pre-Qin thinkers, I was immediately able to check Feng’s words against the original in Zhuangzi. I was amused to find that he had reworked the classic to suit his purpose. The original in ‘The Secret of Caring for Life’, the third chapter of Zhuangzi, reads in Burton Watson’s translation:

Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger for certain! If you do good, stay away from fame. If you do evil, stay away from punishments. Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years.


‘The Secret of Caring for Life’, Zhuangzi, 《莊子·養生主》, trans. Burton Watson

And, as follows in A.C. Graham’s rendition:

My life flows between confines, but knowledge has no confines. If we use the confined to follow after the unconfined, there is danger that the flow will cease; and when it ceases, to exercise knowledge is purest danger.

Doer of good, stay clear of reputation.
Doer of ill, stay clear of punishment.
Trace the vein which is central and make it your standard.
You can protect the body, keep life whole,
nurture your parents, last out your years.

‘What matters in the nurture of life’, Chuang-tzŭ: the seven Inner Chapters, p.62

Studying at late-Maoist universities in China, I had long since learned that the Chairman was deft at misquoting or distorting classical texts for his own purposes. I now realised that ‘quotational politics’ was hardly limited to the great leader. Regardless, the words of Zhuangzi, Xia Hongzuo and Feng Zikai found a resonance in my own pursuit of the worthless.

The Field of Countless Trees, Imperial Mountain Lodge, Chengde, Hebei province 河北承德避暑山莊萬樹園. Photograph by Lois Conner, 2000


The Hall of Uselessness

Simon Leys

Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.

Zhuang Zi

Traditionally, Chinese scholars, men of letters, artists would give an inspiring name to their residences, hermitages, libraries and studios. Sometimes they did not actually possess residences, hermitages, libraries or studios—not even a roof over their heads—but the existence or non-existence of a material support for a Name never appeared to them a very relevant issue. And I wonder if one of the deepest seductions of Chinese culture is not related to this conjuring power with which it vests the Written Word. I am not dealing here with esoteric abstractions, but with a living reality. Let me give you just one modest example, which hit me long ago, when I was an ignorant young student.

In Singapore, I often patronised a small movie theatre which showed old films of Peking operas. The theatre itself was a flimsy open-air structure planted in a paddock by the side of the road (at that time, Singapore still had a countryside): a wooden fence enclosed two dozen rows of seats—long planks resting on trestles. In the rainy season, towards the end of the afternoon, there was always a short heavy downpour, and when the show started, just after dark, the planks often had not yet had time to dry; thus, at the box-office, with your ticket, you received a thick old newspaper to cushion your posterior against the humidity. Everything in the theatre was shoddy and ramshackle—everything except the signpost with the theatre’s name hanging above the entrance: two characters written in a huge and generous calligraphy, Wen Guang [文光]—which could be translated as “Light of Civilisation” or “Light of the Written-Word” (it is the same thing). However, later on in the show, sitting under the starry sky and watching on screen Ma Lianliang give his sublime interpretation of the part of the wisest minister of the Three Kingdoms (third century AD), you realised that—after all—this “Light of Civilisation” was no hollow boast.

Now, back to The Hall of Uselessness. It was a hut located in the heart of a refugee shantytown of Hong Kong (Kowloon side). To reach it at night, one needed an electric torch, for there were no lights and no roads only a dark maze of meandering paths across a chaos of tin and plywood shacks; there were open drains by the side of the paths, and fat rats ran under the feet of passers-by. For two years I enjoyed there the fraternal hospitality of a former schoolmate, whom I knew from Taiwan — he was an artist (calligrapher and seal-carver) sharing a place with two postgraduate students, a philologist and a historian. We slept on bunks in a single common room. This room was naturally a complete mess — anywhere else it would have resembled a dismal slum, but here all was redeemed by the work of my friend: one superb calligraphy (in seal-script style) hanging on the wall—Wu Yong Tang [無用堂], “The Hall of Uselessness.” If taken at face value, it had a touch of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation; in fact, it contained a very cheeky double-meaning. The words (chosen by our philologist companion, who was a fine scholar) alluded to a passage from The Book of Changes, the most ancient, most holy (and most obscure) of all the Chinese classics, which said that “in springtime the dragon is useless.” This, in turn, according to commentaries, meant that in their youth the talents of superior men (promised to a great future) must remain hidden.

‘The Hall of Uselessness’ 無用堂, imprint of a seal carved by Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys)

I spent two years in The Hall of Uselessness; these were intense and joyful years—when learning and living were one and the same thing. The best description of this sort of experience was given by John Henry Newman. In his classic The Idea of a University, he made an amazingly bold statement: he said that if he had to choose between two types of universities, one in which eminent professors teach students who come to the university only to attend lectures and sit for examinations, and the other where there are no professors, no lectures, no examinations and no degrees, but where the students live together for two or three years, he would choose the second type. He concluded, “How is this to be explained? When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic and observant as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought and distinct principles for judging and acting day by day.”

I hope I have remained faithful to the memory of The Hall of Uselessness—not in the meaning intended by my friends (for I am afraid I am not exactly of the dragon breed!), but at least in the more obvious meaning of Zhuang Zi, quoted above. Yet is this second aspiration more humble, or more ambitious? After all, this sort of “uselessness” is the very ground on which rest all the essential values of our common humanity.

Canberra, March 2011

the Foreword to Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 2011

‘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》


The Use of the Useless


Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “Your words are useless!”

Zhuangzi said, “A man has to understand the useless before you can talk to him about the useful. The earth is certainly vast and broad, though a man uses no more of it than the area he puts his feet on. If, however, you were to dig away all the earth from around his feet until you reached the Yellow Springs, then would the man still be able to make use of it?”

“No, it would be useless,” said Huizi.

“It is obvious, then,” said Zhuangzi, “that the useless has its use.”

‘External Things’, Zhuangzi, trans. Burton Watson



A Comment from The Tower of Reading

Under the entry for ‘Zhuangzi’ in the Ocean of Words, an authoritative lexicon, he is referred to as a ‘philosopher’. He is also widely referred to as such elsewhere. In ancient times, however, China did not have philosophers [哲學家] per se; the Japanese term was only introduced into Chinese in the nineteenth century.

My brain is simply not made for philosophising and I’ve long had an aversion to studying the subject. When I was allocated to undertake intermediate study of socialist education [using the 1953 text On Building a Socialist Economy by V.I. Lenin and J. Stalin], not only did I have to study the philosophical works of [the Soviet theoreticians] Mark Mitin and Fyodor Konstantinov, as well as Stalin’s, I also had to write up my notes and make speeches in public about what I’d absorbed. To this day, I still shudder whenever I think about it.

Later, as part of the movement for ‘the whole nation to study philosophy’ [inspired by Party enthusiasts in Dengfeng County, Anhui province during the Great Leap Forward], our local street committee churned out reams of essays on philosophy. Reading them gave me a headache, but you had to read them. Unforgettable!

[Note: During the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, encouraged to ‘help the Party improve its work style’ by their leaders, Zhong Shuhe and his wife ended up being purged for expressing some modest criticisms. Zhong was put under the supervision of his local Street Committee, a group of Party stalwarts who were in cahoots with both the police and the militia. He was press-ganged into physical labour that was supposed to make him a productive member of society while transforming his ideological outlook. Through the National Movement to Study Philosophy 全民學哲學 the Communist Party required people throughout the country to study Marxist-Leninist texts, ideas and dogma. It continued in fits and spurts well into the 1970s.]

Then there is this passage from Zhuangzi, expressing an eternal truth with such a light touch. It’s a marvellous example of the best kind of casual essay, the genius of it is like a flash of light. Given the Chinese context, however, readers are justified in asking, can this also be regarded as philosophy?

The Japanese loan word 哲學 tetsugaku/ zhéxué come from the word ‘philosophy’, the meaning of which is ‘the love of wisdom’. In my view, that’s right and Zhuangzi was undoubtedly someone who loved wisdom.

Zhong Shuhe, trans. Geremie R. Barmé



  • Chapter Eight in Section Seven of Studying Short Classical Chinese Texts with The Master of The Tower of Reading 《念樓學短》,上冊,第140頁。

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 interpretive comment on the text.




  • 本文錄自《莊子·外物》。







日文「哲學」源出西文 philosophy,意為「愛智慧」,這才對了,莊子真愛智者也。



  • 鍾叔河著, 《念樓學短》,上冊,長沙:岳麓書社,2020年,《念樓學短》,上冊,第140-141頁。

Gaotian, Yangshuo, Guangxi 廣西陽朔高田, 1985. Photograph courtesy of the photographer, Lois Conner


Three Trees & a Gourd


Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a big tree of the kind men call shū [樗]. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!”

Zhuangzi said, “Maybe you’ve never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low—until it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there’s the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats. Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?”

惠子謂莊子曰:吾有大樹,人謂之樗。其大本臃腫而不中繩墨, 其小枝捲曲而不中規矩。立之塗,匠者不顧。今子之言,大而無用, 眾所同去也。莊子曰:子獨不見狸狌乎。卑身而伏,以候敖者; 東西跳梁,不避高下;中於機辟,死於罔罟。今夫嫠牛,其大若垂天之雲。此能為大矣,而不能執鼠。今子有大樹,患其無用,何不樹之於無何有之鄉,廣莫之野,徬徨乎無為其側,逍遙乎寢臥其下。不夭斤斧,物無害者,無所可用,安所困苦哉。

‘Free and Easy Wandering’, Zhuangzi 《莊子·逍遙遊》, trans. Burton Watson


Carpenter Shi went to Qi and, when he got to Crooked Shaft, he saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. It was broad enough to shelter several thousand oxen and measured a hundred spans around, towering above the hills. The lowest branches were eighty feet from the ground, and a dozen or so of them could have been made into boats. There were so many sightseers that the place looked like a fair, but the carpenter didn’t even glance around and went on his way without stopping. His apprentice stood staring for a long time and then ran after Carpenter Shi and said, “Since I first took up my ax and followed you, Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you don’t even bother to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?”

“Forget it — say no more!” said the carpenter. “It’s a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time; make vessels and they’d break at once. Use it for doors and it would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat them up. It’s not a timber tree — there’s nothing it can be used for. That’s how it got to be that old!”

After Carpenter Shi had returned home, the oak tree appeared to him in a dream and said, “What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs – as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves — the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it’s the same way with all other things.

“As for me, I’ve been trying a long time to be of no use, and though I almost died, I’ve finally got it. This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this — things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die — how do you know I’m a worthless tree?”

When Carpenter Shi woke up, he reported his dream. His apprentice said, “If it’s so intent on being of no use, what’s it doing there at the village shrine?”

“Shhh! Say no more! It’s only resting there. If we carp and criticize, it will merely conclude that we don’t understand it. Even if it weren’t at the shrine, do you suppose it would be cut down? It protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off!”


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


Zhuangzi was walking in the mountains when he saw a huge tree, its branches and leaves thick and lush. A woodcutter paused by its side but made no move to cut it down. When Zhuangzi asked the reason, he replied, “There’s nothing it could be used for!” Zhuangzi said, “Because of its worthlessness, this tree is able to live out the years Heaven gave it.”

Down from the mountain, the Master stopped for a night at the house of an old friend. The friend, delighted, ordered his son to kill a goose and prepare it. “One of the geese can cackle and the other can’t,” said the son.

“May I ask, please, which I should kill?”

“Kill the one that can’t cackle,” said the host.

The next day Zhuangzi’s disciples questioned him. “Yesterday there was a tree on the mountain that gets to live out the years Heaven gave it because of its worthlessness. Now there’s our host’s goose that gets killed because of its worthlessness. What position would you take in such a case, Master?”

Zhuangzi laughed and said, “I’d probably take a position halfway between worth and worthlessness. But halfway between worth and worthlessness, though it might seem to be a good place, really isn’t — you’ll never get away from trouble there. It would be very different, though, if you were to climb up on the Way and its Virtue and go drifting and wandering, neither praised nor damned, now a dragon, now a snake, shifting with the times, never willing to hold to one course only. Now up, now down, taking harmony for your measure, drifting and wandering with the ancestor of the ten thousand things, treating things as things but not letting them treat you as a thing – then how could you get into any trouble? This is the rule, the method of Shen Nong and the Yellow Emperor.

“But now, what with the forms of the ten thousand things and the codes of ethics handed down from man to man, matters don’t proceed in this fashion. Things join only to part, reach completion only to crumble. If sharp-edged, they are blunted; if high-stationed, they are overthrown; if ambitious, they are foiled. Wise, they are schemed against; stupid, they are swindled. What is there, then, that can be counted on? Only one thing, alas! — remember this, my students — only the realm of the Way and its Virtue! [道德之鄉]”


‘The Mountain Tree’《莊子·山木》, trans. Burton Watson

The Gourd

Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “The king of Wei gave me some seeds of a huge gourd. I planted them, and when they grew up, the fruit was big enough to hold five piculs. I tried using it for a water container, but it was so heavy I couldn’t lift it. I split it in half to make dippers, but they were so large and unwieldy that I couldn’t dip them into any thing. It’s not that the gourds weren’t fantastically big – but I decided they were no use and so I smashed them to pieces.”

Zhuangzi said, “You certainly are dense when it comes to using big things! In Sung there was a man who was skilled at making a salve to prevent chapped hands, and generation after generation his family made a living by bleaching silk in water. A traveler heard about the salve and offered to buy the prescription for a hundred measures of gold. The man called everyone to a family council. ‘For generations we’ve been bleaching silks and we’ve never made more than a few measures of gold,’ he said. ‘Now, if we sell our secret, we can make a hundred measures in one morning. Let’s let him have it!’ The traveler got the salve and introduced it to the king of Wu, who was having trouble with the state of Yue. The king put the man in charge of his troops, and that winter they fought a naval battle with the men of Yue and gave them a bad beating. A portion of the conquered territory was awarded to the man as a fief. The salve had the power to prevent chapped hands in either case; but one man used it to get a fief, while the other one never got beyond silk bleaching — because they used it in different ways. Now you had a gourd big enough to hold five piculs. Why didn’t you think of making it into a great tub so you could go floating around the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying because it was too big and unwieldy to dip into things! Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!”


‘Free and Easy Wandering’, Zhuangzi 《莊子·逍遙遊》, trans. Burton Watson

Confucius on Rotten Wood

Zai Yu was sleeping during the day. The Master said: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be troweled. What is the use of scolding him?”

The Master said: “There was a time when I used to listen to what people said and trusted that they would act accordingly, but now I listen to what they say and watch what they do. It is Zai Yu who made me change.”


— Analects 5.10,《論語·公冶長》, trans. Simon Leys


Knotty, inert, nameless

So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of ‘existence’. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. . . . We were a heap of living creatures, irritated, embarrassed at ourselves, we hadn’t the slightest reason to be there, none of us, each one, confused, vaguely alarmed, felt in the way in relation to the others. In the way : it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones. In vain I tried to count the chestnut trees, to locate them by their relationship to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, and overflowed. Of these relations (which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions) — I felt myself to be the arbitrator; they no longer had their teeth into things. In the way, the chestnut tree there, opposite me, a little to the left. In the way, the Velleda. And I — soft, weak, obscene, digesting, juggling with dismal thoughts — I, too, was In the way. Fortunately, I didn’t feel it, although I realized it, but I was uncomfortable because I was afraid of feeling it (even now I am afraid — afraid that it might catch me behind my head and lift me up like a wave). I dreamed vaguely of killing myself to wipe out at least one of these superfluous lives. But even my death would have been In the way. In the way , my corpse, my blood on these stones, between these plants, at the back of this smiling garden. And the decomposed flesh would have been In the way in the earth which would receive my bones, at last, cleaned, stripped, peeled, proper and clean as teeth, it would have been In the way: I was In the way for eternity. . . . Absurdity — the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence. A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explained by the rotation of a straight segment around one of its extremities. But neither does a circle exist. This root, on the other hand, existed in such a way that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, brought me back unceasingly to its own existence. In vain to repeat: ‘This is a root’ — it didn’t work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a breathing pump, to that, to this hard and compact skin of a sea lion, to this oily, callous, headstrong look. The function explained nothing: it allowed you to understand generally that it was a root, but not that one at all. This root, with its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was . . . below all explanation. . . . And all these existents which bustled about this tree came from nowhere and were going nowhere. Suddenly they existed, then suddenly they existed no longer: existence is without memory; of the vanished it retains nothing — not even a memory. . . . The trees floated. Gushing towards the sky? Or rather a collapse; at any instant I expected to see the tree-trunks shrivel like weary wands, crumple up, fall on the ground in a soft, folded, black heap. They did not want to exist, only they could not help themselves. . . . Tired and old, they kept on existing, against the grain, simply because they were too weak to die, because death could only come to them from the outside: strains of music alone can proudly carry their own death within themselves like an internal necessity: only they don’t exist. Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance. . . . It was there on the trunk of the chestnut tree … it was the chestnut tree. Things — you might have called them thoughts — which stopped halfway, which were forgotten, which forgot what they wanted to think and which stayed like that, hanging about with an odd little sense which was beyond them. That little sense annoyed me: I could not understand it, even if I could have stayed leaning against the gate for a century; I had learned all I could know about existence. I left, I went back to the hotel and I wrote.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, quoted in David A. Palmer, Sartre’s gnarly tree root and Zhuangzi’s useless tree, 2 February 2021


All that is useful is servile

The Study of Wretched Subjects by Otto Neugebauer is a short essay written in defense of his work on ancient astrology. Another work that is relevant to our discussion of ‘uselessness’ is ‘In Defence of a Useless Science’ a lecture presented by Jean Bottéro in 1982 and included as the first chapter in his Mesopotamia: Writing, Reason and the Gods:

When I entered the field of Assyriology—I am talking of a long time ago, as Rabelais said—I had just completed seven or eight years of study of the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. I had learned there a number of lessons that since then have been very useful to me.

Here are two or three of them, that can be used as a starting point.

The first lesson was that the highest nobility of mankind lies in knowledge, in knowing, and that man has it in his nature to want to know everything: everything about the order and the evolution of the universe. This pursuit is, at least, presented to us as an exalting and shining ideal, even if we can never attain its completion because of the vastness and the infinite character of its object.

Secondly, on all levels including that of knowledge, all that is useful is servile and in itself inferior to what it serves. There was one consolation when I engaged myself in the unending, arduous, and fatiguing study of that frightening cuneiform writing system; of those languages extinct for millennia, so far removed from us, so loaded with pitfalls; of these endless texts, too often gloomy and deprived of any spark, and that at best excite us very little; of the strange outmoded mentality, which is often inaccessible to our present-day minds. My consolation during all this was the conviction that I was never going to learn anything that would be useful or usable for anything else than the enrichment of my mind. And this knowledge precisely gained its value from this awareness. At least such a point of view encouraged me to set off on this unending journey. …

In this day and age, when so many people spend their lives by getting involved with other people’s affairs, by sticking their noses and their hands into their lives, by pestering them, by persecuting them or even worse, this is a great advantage at least for other people. The discipline to which I have devoted myself has made me especially incapable of intervening in the lives of my contemporaries, as I have turned all my attention to the past. I do not know what wise man once said that there are two large categories of scholars, one that speeds up the world and brings its end nearer by its discussions, its inventions, its experiments, and its teachings; the other that goes back in its curiosity to the origins of the world and as a result leaves the universe and its inhabitants in peace. Without doubt, Orientalists and Assyriologists fall into the second group. Their discipline acquires by that fact a negative usefulness, and how precious that is, especially in the present time! Perhaps you could even agree with me that it would be best for the proper development of the world if a number of our contemporaries would be converted and assigned to that discipline. Those people would then be able to spend their time without getting involved in that bickering, in that havoc, even in those massacres with which they are now so merrily involved—with the best intentions in the world, I am willing to believe if they say so, but to the greatest discomfort of all of us. I will not insist upon this generous, but unfortunately utopian, view on a possible use of Assyriology. I have to talk about a more realistic point of view which is clearly positive: the usefulness of Assyriology on the level of knowledge itself.…

In this regard, Assyriology takes its own irreplaceable position in the center of knowledge and learning that make up this university of sciences, a university which was the greatest and most noble ideal of the Middle Ages. As in Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, the medieval ideal also placed the dignity and the greatness of mankind before all else in the pursuit and the satisfaction of its hunger for knowing and understanding. And it thought that, just as we all have a brain in order to see, to perceive, to think, to prepare, and to direct properly the activity of our mouth, our arms, and our legs, all truly human society worthy of that name must have the capability of knowledge, of perception, of understanding, and of information that does not leave anything outside its field of vision, of research, and of study.

As this cannot be done by a single man, it must be undertaken by a group: by scholars gathered to secure and to promote the university, i.e. the totality of sciences that form a system where nothing can be left out without compromising the whole. We have inherited this magnanimous and magnificent belief. The existence and the fame of your own university, and the efforts you are making to preserve and to develop this ideal, show to what degree you still believe in it.

And this is apparently not without merit. Because in our countries for some time now a great hurricane of subversion has arisen, pushed forward by I do not know what vicious demons—and doubtless in accord with the life-style that we have made our own, unfortunately. This hurricane tries to reverse our traditional order of values, to throw out all that we put forward as being unselfish, gracious and open to the world, open to things and to others, all that is active in dilating our minds and our hearts. It wants to replace it by the single, brutal, arithmetic, and inhuman motivation of profit. Henceforth, all that counts, all that is to be considered and preserved, is what brings profit. The truly ideal aspects of knowledge will not be more valuable than those of interest rates and of financial laws. The only sciences that are to be encouraged are those that teach us how to exploit the earth and the people. Besides that, everything is useless.

That is an entirely different notion of useful and useless, entirely in opposition to the one I took as a starting point. Taken literally, it reduces mankind in the end to the depressing state of the dismal mechanics of classifying and calculating. But even if it contradicts all that I have just explained to you, it leaves intact the fundamental and explicit principle: all that is useful is subservient.

We will say only that in this new perspective all that is useful for profit is thus subservient to profit. And that brings us back very deviously to my first naive version of things which I have slightly adjusted, as I have told you, but which I have never decided to abandon. Thus I accept the verdict of these new standard-bearers and I urge you to accept it with me. Yes, the university of sciences is useless; for profit, yes, philosophy is useless, anthropology is useless, archeology, philology, and history are useless, oriental studies and Assyriology are useless, entirely useless. That is why we hold them in such high esteem!

from Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reason and the Gods, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995, pp. 15-17, 24-25

yòng, ‘use, function, application’, from a dictionary of calligraphy