Harmony in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi (莊子)

The Zhuangzi is divided into 3 sections – the Inner Chapters, the Outer Chapters, and the Miscellaneous Chapters. Scholars say that the Inner Chapter was written either by the original author – Zhuangzi aka Zhuang Zhou – or by his textual community (his original group of disciples who wrote out his words). The Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters were written much later and are not the product of the original author or community. For this reason, I will be focusing primarily on the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi. (Anyway, the Zhuangzi as a whole is a really fun read – it’s worth reading from cover to cover!)

Harmony appears in seven passages within the Inner Chapters.

(A) 南 郭子綦隱几而坐,仰天而噓,嗒焉似喪其耦。顏成子游立侍乎前,曰:「何居乎?形固可使如槁木,而心固可使如死灰乎?今之隱几者,非昔之隱几者也。」子綦 曰:「偃,不亦善乎而問之也!今者吾喪我,汝知之乎?女聞人籟而未聞地籟,女聞地籟而未聞天籟夫!」子游曰:「敢問其方。」子綦曰:「夫大塊噫氣,其名為 風。是唯无作,作則萬竅怒呺。而獨不聞之翏翏乎?山林之畏佳,大木百圍之竅穴,似鼻,似口,似耳,似枅,似圈,似臼,似洼者,似污者;激者,謞者,叱者, 吸者,叫者,譹者,宎者,咬者,前者唱于而隨者唱喁。泠風則小和,飄風則大和,厲風濟則眾竅為虛。而獨不見之調調、之刁刁乎?」子游曰:「地籟則眾竅是 已,人籟則比竹是已。敢問天籟。」子綦曰:「夫吹萬不同,而使其自已也,咸其自取,怒者其誰邪!」

Ziqi of the Southern Wall was reclining against a low table on the ground, releasing his breath into Heaven above, all in a scatter, as if loosed from a partner.

Yancheng Ziyou stood in attendance before him. “What has happened here?” he said. “Can the body really be made like dried wood, the mind like dead ashed? What reclines against this table now is not what reclined against it before.”

Ziqi said, “A good question, Yan! What has happened here is simply that I have lost me. Do you understand? You hear the piping of man but not yet the piping of the earth. You hear the piping of the earth but not yet the piping of Heaven.”

Ziyou said, “Please tell me more.”

Ziqi replied, “When the Great Clump belches forth its vital breath, we call it the wind. As soon as it arises, raging cries emerge from all the ten thousand hollows. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard how long the rustling continues, on and on! The towering trees of the forest, a hundred spans around, are riddled with indentations and holes – like noses, mouths, ears; like sockets, enclosures, mortars; like ponds, like pudddles. Roarers and whizzers, scolders and sighers, shouters, wailers, boomers, growlers! One leads with a yeee! Another answers with a yuuu! A light breeze brings a small harmony, while a powerful gale makes for a harmony vast and grand. And once the sharp wind has passed, all these holes return to their silent emptiness. Have you never seen all the tempered attunements, all the cunning contentions?”

Ziyou said, “So the piping of the earth means just the sound of these hollows. And the piping of man would be the sound of bamboo panpipes. What, then, is the piping of Heaven?”

Ziqi said, “It gusts through all the ten thousand differences, allowing each to go its own way. But since each one selects out its own, what identity can there be for their rouser? [translator’s note: OR “It blows forth in ten thousand different ways, allowing each to go as it will. Each takes what it chooses for itself – but then who could it be that activates them all?” OR Gusting through this multitude, every one of them different, it yet allows each to go its own way. The taking up of something is dome by themselves, so what rouser could there be?]
(Zhuangzi, 2:1-5, trans. Brook Ziporyn)

What’s interesting about this passage is the references made to the pitch-pipes (律 ). As I have mentioned in an earlier post (See Musical Harmony and its Historical Context in Ancient China), pitch-pipes were primarily pitch tuners rather than musical instruments. They were used to set the five tones (do re mi so la) of a melody’s scale. Once a particular pentatonic scale is chosen, certain pitches will not fit the chosen scale and the presence of those unchosen tones in that musical piece will be discordant and render disharmony in the music.

Here, we have references to three types of pitch-pipes – the pitch-pipes of Heaven, of earth, and of man. The pitch-pipes of man refer to the bamboo pipes used to regulate music (and indirectly, society).

The pitch-pipes of earth, here, refer to the ten thousand (the myriad) hollows of earth – the natural hollows made by the trees, mountains, and all the other natural terrain and features. When the wind blows through these hollows, it creates sounds. No matter how big or small the wind may be, i.e. no matter how many sounds the wind generates as it blows through the earthly hollows, these sounds are always in harmony with one another as they are the harmonious pitches selected for the earthly melodic scale. (“泠風則小和,飄風則大和,厲風濟則眾竅為虛。A light breeze brings a small harmony, while a powerful gale makes for a harmony vast and grand.”) Unlike the pentatonic scale of human music where do-re-mi-so-la are in harmony with each other, the earthly music allows for more than just the five tones: every sound (or tone) in nature is in harmony with the other sounds/tones of nature. Earthly harmony is more vast and accommodating. The pitch-pipes of earth allows for a wide range of sounds as its chosen scale. The greater the wind blows, the broader the spectrum of harmonious sounds for the earthly melody of nature, so to speak.

The pitch-pipes of Heaven, on the other hand, is far greater than the pitch-pipes of earth, for the ten thousand differences (the myriad differences, i.e. the infinite number of differences) are the very pitch-pipes themselves. And the Heavenly wind blows through all of them, thereby setting all of them as the selected pitches chosen for this special scale in this Heavenly melody. Because the heavenly melodic scale is so vast, everything is, in actual fact, in harmony with everything else. For this reason, Heaven allows every being to go their own way; it does not try to stop people since there is nothing that is not in harmony with this vast melodic scale.

Ziqi tells Ziyou: “You hear the piping of man but not yet the piping of the earth. You hear the piping of the earth but not yet the piping of Heaven.”

We start off learning about the pipings of man. We start off determining what kinds of sounds count as harmonious music, and what counts as noise. The person who understands the pitch-pipes of earth soon comes to realise that all the sounds of the earth make up the harmonious music of earth – there is no distinction between music and noise. However, such a person will see that his way of judging things (of seeing things) is the one and only correct way that brings harmony in the world – i.e. there are certain ways of doing things that creates disharmony in society. When he comes to hear and realise the pitch-pipes of Heaven, such a person will soon discover that all the different ways (of judging, of perceiving) are actually in harmony with each other.

At this point, I know some people will be quick to dismiss this as relativism and therefore, irrational and/or wrong. How is it possible for the multiplicity of ways and standards be in harmony with one another? If one is right, everything else is wrong, isn’t it?

This is precisely the issue that the Zhuangzi is addressing. Something is right to you because your standards, your context, makes it appear right. Something is wrong to you because your standards, your context, makes it appear wrong. If people agree with you, that’s because those people share similar standards and a similar context to see things the same (or similar) way as you.

Even if you’d like to invoke religion as a justification for absolute truth or absolute morality, the problem still persists – there are groups within the same religion who will see things one way, and others who see things the other way. That’s why people tend to describe themselves as conservative/liberal, traditional/modern, in addition to the religion they profess (e.g. “I am a conservative, traditional Christian” versus “I am a liberal, modern Christian”). While they may agree on certain things, they will disagree on other issues because each side sees things differently, with different standards of evaluation, from different contexts. This is inevitable.

Zhuangzi doesn’t wish to say that one is right or wrong, or that both are right or wrong. Rather, these differences exist and they can, in fact, be harmonised. It’s possible for all of us to adopt these differences in standards and judgements because Heaven permits them all in its heavenly song.

(B) 以指喻指之非指,不若以非指喻指之非指也;以馬喻馬之非馬,不若以非馬喻馬之非馬也。天地,一指也;萬物,一馬也。可乎可,不可乎不可。道行之而成,物謂 之而然。惡乎然?然於然。惡乎不然?不然於不然。物固有所然,物固有所可。無物不然,無物不可。故為是舉莛與楹,厲與西施,恢恑憰怪,道通為一。

其 分也,成也;其成也,毀也。凡物無成與毀,復通為一。唯達者知通為一,為是不用而寓諸庸。庸也者,用也;用也者,通也;通也者,得也。適得而幾矣。因是 已。已而不知其然,謂之道。勞神明為一,而不知其同也,謂之朝三。何謂朝三?曰狙公賦芧,曰:「朝三而莫四。」眾狙皆怒。曰:「然則朝四而莫三。」眾狙皆 悅。名實未虧,而喜怒為用,亦因是也。是以聖人和之以是非,而休乎天鈞,是之謂兩行。

To use this finger to show how a finger is not a finger is no match for using not-this-finger to show how a finger is not a finger. To use this horse to show that a horse is not a horse is no match for using not-this-horse to show that a horse is not a horse. Heaven and earth are one finger. All things are one horse.

Something is affirmative because someone affirms it. Something is negative because someone negates it. Courses are formed by someone walking them. Things are so by being called so. Whence thus and so? From thus and so being affirmed fo them. Whence not thus and so? From thus and so being negated of them. Each thing necessarily has some place from which it can be affirmed as thus and so, and some place from which it can be affirmed as acceptable.

So no thing is not right, no thing is not acceptable. For whatever we may define as a beam as opposed to a pillar, as a leper as opposed the great beauty Xishi, or whatever might be [from some persepctive] strange, grotesque, uncanny, or deceptive, there is some course that opens them into one another, connecting them to form a oneness. Whenever fragmentation is going on, formation, completion, is also going on. Whenever formation is going on, destruction is also going on.

Hence, all things are neither formed nor destroyed, for these two also open into each other, connecting to form a oneness. It is only someone who really gets all the way through them that can see how the two sides open into each other to form a oneness. Such a person would not define rightness in any one particular way but would instead entrust it to the everyday function [of each being]. Their everyday function is what works for them, and “working” just means this opening up into each other, their way of connecting. Opening to form a connection just means getting what you get: go as far as whatever you happen to get to, and leave it at that. It is all just a matter of going by the rightness of the present “this.” To be doing this without knowing it, and not because you have defined it as right, is called “the Course.” [my note: i.e. The Way]

But to labour your spirit trying to make all things one, without realising that it is all the same [whether you do so or not], is called “Three in the Morning.”

What is this Three in the Morning? a monkey trainer was distributing chestnuts. He said, “I’ll give you three in the morning and four in the evening.” The monkeys were furious. “Well then,” he said, “I’ll give you four in the morning and three in the evening.” The monkeys were delighted. This change of description and arrangement caused no loss, but in one case it brought anger and in another delight. He just went by the rightness of their present “this.” Thus, the Sage uses various rights and wrongs to harmonise with others and yet remains at rest in the middle of Heaven the Potter’s Wheel. [translator’s note: OR the Heavenly Potter’s wheel OR the Potter’s Wheel of the Heavenly or the Potter’s Wheel of Heaven] This is called “Walking Two Roads.”
(Zhuangzi, 2:18-24, trans. Brook Ziporyn)

This passage might seem rather confusing. Essentially, what it is saying is that what we judge as right/wrong, good/bad, this/that, so/not-so is heavily context dependent. It is dependent on our own standards (Ways 道s – plural) of judgement. But how do we even know if our standards of judgements are right? To judge it right/wrong requires yet another standard of evaluation. If I use my own standards to judge my standard of judgement, of course everything about it will be right. If I rely on someone else, and he agrees with me, he’s using a standard similar to mine. If that person disagrees, he’s using a standard different from mine. But how do we determine if that person’s standards of evaluation is correct? Shall we rely on another party? Again, we have the same problem!

But here’s where it gets interesting. Like the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi recognises that opposites co-exist. ‘This’ and ‘that’ co-exist like two sides of a coin. Let’s assume a scenario where we disagree with each other. Your ‘this’ is not the same as my ‘this.’ What’s interesting is that my ‘this’ is a subset of your ‘that’ and your ‘this’ is a subset of my ‘that.’ (You’ll probably need to read this a few times to get it)

“It is only someone who really gets all the way through them that can see how the two sides open into each other to form a oneness.”

I think the Zhuangzi goes one step further than the Daodejing. Not only are opposites in harmony with each other because they are like two sides of a coin. In fact, even opposing views and standards co-exist in our own views and standards about the world – they exist as a subset of what we regard as wrong/bad/that/other. All the various positions belong to a single oneness, and what we do is simply cut them up into various parts (as distinctions between one from another). They’re all part of the same Heavenly melodic scale.

The key part of this passage is this:  “是以聖人和之以是非,而休乎天鈞,是之謂兩行。Thus, the Sage uses various rights and wrongs to harmonise with others and yet remains at rest in the middle of Heaven the Potter’s Wheel. This is called ‘Walking Two Roads.'”

Knowing this, therefore, the Sage is able to walk along two roads (兩行), in the sense that he is able to play two different melodies at the same time. While it seems like he’s someone who’s compromising his own standards for the sake of others, or someone who holds double standards, the reality is that there really is only one standard. The Sage knows that the one standard is the scale set by the pitch-pipes of Heaven. Though he plays two melodies, these two melodies belong to the same “melodic” scale and are in harmony with each other regardless of what he does (thanks to the broadness of the Heavenly scale).