Zhuangzi 莊子, ‘Boyi: a matter of perspective’

In the ‘Autumn Waters’ chapter of Zhuangzi, that fame of Boyi is put into context.

The time of the autumn floods came and the hundred streams poured into the Yellow River. Its racing current swelled to such proportions that, looking from bank to bank or island to island, it was impossible to distinguish a horse from a cow. Then the Lord of the River was beside himself with joy, believing that all the beauty in the world belonged to him alone. Following the current, he journeyed east until at last he reached the North Sea. Looking east, he could see no end to the water. 秋水時至,百川灌河,涇流之大,兩涘渚崖之間,不辯牛馬。於是焉河伯欣然自喜,以天下之美盡在己。順流而東行,至於北海;東面而視,不見水端。

The Lord of the River began to wag his head and roll his eyes. Peering far off in the direction of Jo, he sighed and said, ‘The common saying has it, “He has heard the Way a mere hundred times but he thinks he’s better than anyone else.” It applies to me. In the past, I heard men belittling the learning of Confucius and making light of the righteousness of Po Yi, though I never believed them. Now, however, I have seen your unfathomable vastness. If I hadn’t come to your gate, I would have been in danger. I would forever have been laughed at by the masters of the Great Method!’ 於是焉河伯始旋其面目,望洋向若而嘆曰:「野語有之曰,‘聞道百,以為莫己若’者,我之謂也。且夫我嘗聞少仲尼之聞而輕伯夷之義者,始吾弗信;今我睹子之難窮也,吾非至於子之門則殆矣,吾長見笑於大方之家。」

Jo of the North Sea said, ‘You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog — he’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect – he’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar — he’s shackled by his doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea — so you realize your own pettiness. From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle. 北海若曰:「井蛙不可以語於海者,拘於虛也;夏蟲不可以語於冰者,篤於時也;曲士不可以語於道者,束於教也。今爾出於崖涘,觀於大海,乃知爾醜,爾將可與語大理矣。

‘Of all the waters of the world, none is as great as the sea. Ten thousand streams flow into it — I have never heard of a time when they stopped – and yet it is never full. The water leaks away at Wei-lu — I have never heard of a time when it didn’t — and yet the sea is never empty. Spring or autumn, it never changes. Flood or drought, it takes no notice. It is so much greater than the streams of the Yangtze or the Yellow River that it is impossible to measure the difference. But I have never for this reason prided myself on it. I take my place with heaven and earth and receive breath from the yin and yang. I sit here between heaven and earth as a little stone or a little tree sits on a huge mountain. Since I can see my own smallness, what reason would I have to pride myself? 天下之水,莫大於海。萬川歸之,不知何時止而不盈;尾閭洩之,不知何時已而不虛。春秋不變,水旱不知。此其過江河之流,不可為量數。而吾未嘗以此自多者,自以比形於天地而受氣於陰陽,吾在於天地之間,猶小石小木之在大山也,方存乎見少,又奚以自多?

‘Compare the area within the four seas with all that is between heaven and earth — is it not like one little anthill in a vast marsh? Compare the Middle Kingdom with the area within the four seas — is it not like one tiny grain in a great storehouse? When we refer to the things of creation, we speak of them as numbering ten thousand — and man is only one of them. We talk of the Nine Provinces where men are most numerous, and yet of the whole area where grain and foods are grown and where boats and carts pass back and forth, man occupies only one fraction. Compared to the ten thousand things, is he not like one little hair on the body of a horse? What the Five Emperors passed along, what the Three Kings fought over, what the benevolent man grieves about, what the responsible man labors over — all is no more than this! Po Yi gained a reputation by giving it up; Confucius passed himself off as learned because he talked about it. But in priding themselves in this way, were they not like you a moment ago priding yourself on your flood waters? 計四海之在天地之間也,不似礨空之在大澤乎?計中國之在海內,不似稊米之在太倉乎?號物之數謂之萬,人處一焉;人卒九州,谷食之所生,舟車之所通,人處一焉。此其比萬物也,不似毫末之在馬體乎?五帝之所連,三王之所爭,仁人之所憂,任士之所勞,盡此矣。伯夷辭之以為名,仲尼語之以為博,此其自多也,不似爾向之自多於水乎?」


Zhuangzi, ‘Autumn Floods’《莊子》秋水, from Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang-tzu, online at: http://terebess.hu/english/chuangtzu1.html#17. The romanisation of the original translation has been retained.