The Writings of Chuang Tzu

Book 4 (cont.): Man in the World, Associated with other Men

Chuang Tzu

Zan Kien Shih, or 'Man in the World, Associated with other Men.' (cont.)

6. A (master) mechanic, called Shih, on his way to Khî, came to Khü-yüan, where he saw an oak-tree, which was used as the altar for the spirits of the land. It was so large that an ox standing behind it could not be seen. It measured a hundred spans round, and rose up eighty cubits on the hill before it threw out any branches, after which there were ten or so, from each of which a boat could be hollowed out. People came to see it in crowds as in a market place, but the mechanic did not look round at it, but held on his way without stopping. One of his workmen, however, looked long and admiringly at it, and then ran on to his master, and said to him, 'Since I followed you with my axe and bill, I have never seen such a beautiful mass of timber as this. Why would you, Sir, not look round at it, but went on without stopping?' 'Have done,' said Mr. Shih, 'and do not speak about it. It is quite useless. A boat made from its wood would sink; a coffin or shell would quickly rot; an article of furniture would soon go to pieces; a door would be covered with the exuding sap; a pillar would be riddled by insects; the material of it is good for nothing, and hence it is that it has attained to so great an age.'

When Mr. Shih was returning, the altar-oak appeared to him in a dream, and said, 'What other tree will you compare with me? Will you compare me to one of your ornamental trees? There are hawthorns, pear-trees, orange-trees, pummelo-trees, gourds and other low fruit-bearing plants. When their fruits are ripe, they are knocked down from them, and thrown among the dirt. The large branches are broken, and the smaller are torn away. So it is that their productive ability makes their lives bitter to them; they do not complete their natural term of existence, but come to a premature end in the middle of their time, bringing on themselves the destructive treatment which they ordinarily receive. It is so with all things. I have sought to discover how it was that I was so useless;-- I had long done so, till (the effort) nearly caused my death; and now I have learned it:-- it has been of the greatest use to me. Suppose that I had possessed useful properties, should I have become of the great size that I am? And moreover you and I are both things;-- how should one thing thus pass its judgment on another? how is it that you a useless man know all this about me a useless tree?' When Mr. Shih awoke, he kept thinking about his dream, but the workman said, 'Being so taken with its uselessness, how is it that it yet acts here as the altar for the spirits of the land?' 'Be still,' was the master's reply, 'and do not say a word. It simply happened to grow here; and thus those who do not know it do not speak ill of it as an evil thing. If it were not used as the altar, would it be in danger of being cut down? Moreover, the reason of its being preserved is different from that of the preservation of things generally; is not your explaining it from the sentiment which you have expressed wide of the mark?'

7. Nan-po Tsze-khî in rambling about the Heights of Shang, saw a large and extraordinary tree. The teams of a thousand chariots might be sheltered under it, and its shade would cover them all! Tsze-khî said, 'What a tree is this! It must contain an extraordinary amount of timber! When he looked up, however, at its smaller branches, they were so twisted and crooked that they could not be made into rafters and beams; when he looked down to its root, its stem was divided into so many rounded portions that neither coffin nor shell could be made from them. He licked one of its leaves, and his mouth felt torn and wounded. The smell of it would make a man frantic, as if intoxicated, for more than three whole days together. 'This, indeed,' said he, 'is a tree good for nothing, and it is thus that it has attained to such a size. Ah! and spirit-like men acknowledge this worthlessness (and its result).'

In Sung there is the district of King-shih, in which catalpae, cypresses, and mulberry trees grow well. Those of them which are a span or two or rather more in circumference are cut down by persons who want to make posts to which to tie their monkeys; those which are three or four spans round are cut down by persons who want beams forr their lofty and famous houses; and those of seven or eight spans are cut down by noblemen and rich merchants who want single planks for the sides of their coffins. The trees in consequence do not complete their natural term of life, and come to a premature end in the middle of their growth under the axe and bill;-- this is the evil that befalls them from their supplying good timber.

In the same way the Kieh (book) specifies oxen that have white foreheads, pigs that have turned-up snouts, and men that are suffering from piles, and forbids their being sacrificed to the Ho. The wizards know them by these peculiarities and consider them to be inauspicious, but spirit-like men consider them on this account to be very fortunate.

8. There was the deformed object Shû. His chin seemed to hide his navel; his shoulders were higher than the crown of his head; the knot of his hair pointed to the sky; his five viscera were all compressed into the upper part of his body, and his two thigh bones were like ribs. By sharpening needles and washing clothes he was able to make a living. By sifting rice and cleaning it, he was able to support ten individuals. When the government was calling out soldiers, this poor Shû would bare his arms among the others; when it had any great service to be undertaken, because of his constant ailments, none of the work was assigned to him; when it was giving out grain to the sick, he received three kung, and ten bundles of firewood. If this poor man, so deformed in body, was still able to support himself, and complete his term of life, how much more may they do so, whose deformity is that of their faculties!

9. When Confucius went to Khû, Khieh-yû, the madman of Khû, as he was wandering about, passed by his door, and said, '0 Phoenix, 0 Phoenix, how is your virtue degenerated! The future is not to be waited for; the past is not to be sought again! When good order prevails in the world, the sage tries to accomplish all his service; when disorder prevails, he may preserve his life; at the present time, it is enough if he simply escape being punished. Happiness is lighter than a feather, but no one knows how to support it; calamity is heavier than the earth, and yet no one knows how to avoid it. Give over! give over approaching men with the lessons of your virtue! You are in peril! you are in peril, hurrying on where you have marked out the ground against your advance! I avoid publicity, I avoid publicity, that my path may not be injured. I pursue my course, now going backwards, now crookedly, that my feet may not be hurt.

'The mountain by its trees weakens itself. The grease which ministers to the fire fries itself. The cinnamon tree can be eaten, and therefore it is cut down. The varnish tree is useful, and therefore incisions are made in it. All men know the advantage of being useful, but no one knows the advantage of being useless.'