The Writings of Chuang Tzu

Book 31: The Old Fisherman

Chuang Tzu

Yü-fû, or 'The Old Fisherman.'

Confucius, rambling in the forest of Tsze-wei, stopped and sat down by the Apricot altar. The disciples began to read their books, while he proceeded to play on his lute, singing as he did so. He had not half finished his ditty when an old fisherman stepped down from his boat, and came towards them. His beard and eyebrows were turning white; his hair was all uncombed; and his sleeves hunc, idly down. He walked thus up from the bank, till he got to the dry ground, when he stopped, and, with his left hand holding one of his knees, and the right hand at his chin, listened. When the ditty was finished, he beckoned to Tsze-kung and Tsze-lû, who both responded and went to him. Pointing to Confucius, he said, 'Who is he?' Tsze-lû replied, 'He is the Superior Man of Lû.' 'And of what family is he?' 'He is of the Khung family.' 'And what is the occupation of this Mr. Khung?' To this question Tsze-lû gave no reply, but Tsze-kung replied, 'This scion of the Khung family devotes himself in his own nature to leal-heartedness and sincerity; in his conduct he manifests benevolence and righteousness; he cultivates the ornaments of ceremonies and music; he pays special attention to the relationships of society; above, he would promote loyalty to the hereditary lords; below, he seeks the transformation of all classes of the people; his object being to benefit the kingdom:-- this is what Mr. Khung devotes himself to.'

The stranger further asked, 'Is he a ruler possessed of territory?' 'No,' was Tsze-kung's reply. 'Is he the assistant of any prince or king?' 'No;' and on this the other began to laugh and to retrace his steps, saying as he went, 'Yes, benevolence is benevolence! But I am afraid he will not escape (the evils incident to humanity). By embittering his mind and toiling his body, he is imperilling his true (nature)! Alas! how far removed is he from the proper way (of life)!'

Tsze-kung returned, and reported (what the man had said) to Confucius, who pushed his lute aside, and arose, saying, 'Is he not a sage?' and down the slope he went in search of him. When he reached the edge of the lake, there was the fisherman with his pole, dragging the boat towards him. Turning round and seeing Confucius, he came back towards him and stood up. Confucius then drew back, bowed to him twice, and went forward. 'What do you want with me, Sir?' asked the stranger. The reply was, 'A little while ago, my Master, you broke off the thread of your remarks and went away. Inferior to you, I do not know what you wished to say, and have ventured here to wait for your instructions, fortunate if I may but hear the sound of your words to complete the assistance that you can give me!' 'Ah!' responded the stranger, 'how great is your love of learning!'

Confucius bowed twice, and then rose up, and said, 'Since I was young, I have cultivated learning till I am now sixty-nine years old; but I have not had an opportunity of hearing the perfect teaching; dare I but listen to you with a humble and unprejudiced mind?' The stranger replied, 'Like seeks to like, and (birds) of the same note respond to one another;-- this is a rule of Heaven. Allow me to explain what I am in possession of, and to pass over (from its standpoint) to the things which occupy you. What you occupy yourself with are the affairs of men. When the sovereign, the feudal lords, the great officers, and the common people, these four classes, do what is correct (in their several positions), we have the beauty of good order; and when they leave their proper duties, there ensues the greatest disorder. When the officials attend to their duties, and the common people are anxiously concerned about their business, there is no encroachment on one another's rights.

'Fields running to waste; leaking rooms; insufficiency of food and clothing; taxes unprovided for; want of harmony among wives and concubines; and want of order between old and young;-- these are the troubles of the common people.

'Incompetency for their charges; inattention to their official business; want of probity in conduct; carelessness and idleness in subordinates; failure of merit and excellence; and uncertainty of rank and emolument:-- these are the troubles of great officers.

'No loyal ministers at their courts; the clans in their states rebellious; want of skill in their mechanics; articles of tribute of bad quality; late appearances at court in spring and autumn; and the dissatisfaction of the sovereign:-- these are the troubles of the feudal lords.

'Want of harmony between the Yin and Yang; unseasonableness of cold and heat, affecting all things injuriously; oppression and disorder among the feudal princes, their presuming to plunder and attack one another, to the injury of the people; ceremonies and music ill-regulated; the resources for expenditure exhausted or deficient; the social relationships uncared for; and the people abandoned to licentious disorder:-- these are the troubles of the Son of Heaven and his ministers.

'Now, Sir, you have not the high rank of a ruler, a feudal lord, or a minister of the royal court, nor are you in the inferior position of a great minister, with his departments of business, and yet you take it on you to regulate ceremonies and music, and to give special attention to the relationships of society, with a view to transform the various classes of the people:-- is it not an excessive multiplication of your business?

'And moreover men are liable to eight defects, and (the conduct of) affairs to four evils; of which we must by all means take account.

'To take the management of affairs which do not concern him is called monopolising. To bring forward a subject which no one regards is called loquacity. To lead men on by speeches made to please them is called sycophancy. To praise men without regard to right or wrong is called flattery. To be fond of speaking of men's wickedness is called calumny. To part friends and separate relatives is called mischievousness. To praise a man deceitfully, or in the same way fix on him the character of being bad, is called depravity. Without reference to their being good or bad, to agree with men with double face, in order to steal a knowledge of what they wish, is called being dangerous. Those eight defects produce disorder among other men and injury to one's self. A superior man will not make a friend of one who has them, nor will an intelligent ruler make him his minister.

'To speak of what I called the four evils:-- To be fond of conducting great affairs, changing and altering what is of long-standing, to obtain for one's self the reputation of meritorious service, is called ambition; to claim all wisdom and intrude into affairs, encroaching on the work of others, and representing it as one's own, is called greediness; to see his errors without changing them, and to go on more resolutely in his own way when remonstrated with, is called obstinacy; when another agrees with himself, to approve of him, and, however good he may be, when he disagrees, to disapprove of him, is called boastful conceit. These are the four evils. When one can put away the eight defects, and allow no course to the four evils, he begins to be capable of being taught.'

[Editor's Note: This chapter continues next page.]