Posts Tagged ‘daoism’

[Note: This blogpost was modified from my debate with Skepsikyma :]

Zhuang Zhou, better known by the title of Zhuangzi, was the second greatest philosopher of the Daoist school, after the founder Laozi. Greatly revered by generations of followers of the Daoist tradition, Zhuang Zhou’s philosphy has inspired numerous works of art, including a piece by Song Dynasty guqin master Mao Minzhong, Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dream.

The piece itself is a peaceful reverie, which is evident to the listener from the first handful of notes, which set the tone and mood of the piece. The piece picks up after a couple of glissandi, yet remains tranquil in mood throughout. On occasion, one can hear traces of emotional intensity, yet this is always followed by a subsequent, gradual return to peace.

I shall, however, refrain from over-interpreting the piece with my own views, and instead present to the reader only the information necessary to understand it fully. Therefore, I will post here the passage from Zhuangzi on which the piece was based:


Although written in Classical Chinese, the passage is not difficult to understand. Here is my translation:

In the past, Zhuang Zhou dreamt that he was a butterfly, a lively butterfly. He told himself that he was happy, and had not a worry in the world. He knew no Zhuang Zhou. Abruptly he awoke, and suddenly, he was Zhuang Zhou again. Yet was it Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt of being a butterfly, or is it now a butterfly who is dreaming of being Zhuang Zhou? Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly, there must be one thing that separates them: It is transformation.

This paragraph is the last of the second chapter of Zhuangzi, Qiwu Lun, or On the Sameness of Things, which posits that all things are one. It concludes the concept very well. All things are one; what separates one thing from the other is transformation. A rational person might point out that it was Zhuangzi who turned into a butterfly in his dreams, and not vice versa, but how do we know exactly? When Zhuangzi turned into a butterfly in his dreams and knew no Zhuang Zhou, was he also a butterfly?

According to Daoist thought, it is only the most spiritually developed man who can see through the barrier between dream and reality, regard all things as one, and forget what we call ‘self’. In one world, he was a butterfly; in the other world, he was Zhuang Zhou. The butterfly was joyous, without a worry in the world, and belonged to the realm of spirituality; Zhuang Zhou was human, had to deal with worldly affairs, and belonged to the realm of man.

In the words of Moni Tianhong, one of the foremost guqin masters of our times, to master this piece, one must be able to ‘[…] Ride on the winds across the massive void, to transform in the same rhythm as the heavens and the earth, and to be one with all things.’ This is demonstrated in the video, by an anonymous performer whose work we are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy through YouTube.


In The Shadows of the Dark Dream, a collection of essays from the Qing Dynasty, writer Zhang Chao wrote that Zhuang Zhou becoming a butterfly was a blessing for Zhuang Zhou, but the butterfly becoming Zhuang Zhou was a curse for the butterfly. This is sadly true. Transforming into a butterfly rid Zhuang Zhou of all his worldly worries, but transforming into Zhuang Zhou robbed the butterfly of its peace and tranquility. So, too, was the butterfly who wrote this piece robbed of his piece and tranquility. After dedicated his life to performing, collecting and composing guqin works, Mao Minzhong went to Beijing for a place in government, the greatest honour for any scholar in Imperial China. He failed, and passed away in Beijing. One can hope that in his eternal rest, he will again transform into a butterfly, and roam the realm of spirituality forever.