In the Zhuangzi, how can we interpret the end of 4.7 part?


"With a crippled body, he's still able to look after himself and finish out the years Heaven gave him. How much better, then, if he had crippled virtue!" (Burton Watson's translation)

"And if physical deformity was thus enough to preserve his body until the end of his days, how much more should moral and mental deformity avail!" (Lin Yutang's translation)

I can understand that deformity of body still may make one live together with Dao, but deformity of De? Looks like a paradox to me! And not one of those intended paradoxes we see many times in the second part.

  • I'm not sure why you assume the paradox is unintentional... Jul 7, 2017 at 18:57

4 Answers 4


My take on this verse is very different from the earlier answers.

First thing about Chinese philosophy is that you have to read it in its historical context. It was the Warring States Period during Zhuangzi's time, and at that time, many people committed gross atrocities (murder etc.). And these people were usually the nobles, or people with high social status.

In this verse, Zhuangzi is actually mocking at these people, using a story of a crippled person. To survive in a chaotic time, it is best to be a crippled person, rather than a healthy and successful person. Similarly, Zhuangzi argued that it is also best to have crippled virtue, rather than honest. He was being sarcastic.

  • historical context is huuuugge here. +self preservation being a fundamental emphasis throughout the Zhuangzi, I read the sarcasm the same way Kyoma does. +1 best answer Oct 3, 2017 at 8:55

I can understand that deformity of body still may make one live together with Dao, but deformity of De? Looks like a paradox to me! And not one of those intended paradoxes we see many times in the second part.

I am not sure why you are referring to Dao or the person De. This part is talking about a person called 支離疏 ( zhī lí shū ). Not a paradox, as I made my translation below, thanks to his deformity, he is lucky enough to finish out his life. That is my answer.

FYI:Translation by me ( whole part )

There is a person called 支離疏 ( zhī lí shū ). His backbone is bent and his chin is so long that it almost reaches his navel, his shoulder is so high that it is even above his head, his curled hair so high that it is pointing to the heaven. His armpit is like his thigh ( what?? by me ), his internal organs ( are so fat? ) so that they are above his head. If such a deformed person's job is sawing, washing, threshing, he is worth 10 people. The reason is, even if a war started, he can evade the conscription by his lord because of his deformity, can evade the duty of engineering works, so that he can relax while other 10 people must be engaged in war. Furthermore, he can receive 3鍾 ( Chinese measure ) of chestnuts and 10 bundle of woods as a mercy from his lord for poor folks and these deformed. Thanks to his deformation, he can live his life in peace, ( this part is my guess ), (even if his heart ( mind ) is different too) or ( even if a person's mind other than he is different ) ( I am not sure which is correct ), he is so lucky to finish his life ( in peace )!


I translated personally from Japanese one, so better way for you might be to go to Chinese site or Japanese ( a probable secondary source ) site for the meaning.

  • Thank you always Keelan. By the way, I read the English translation. They are translating sentence by sentence. I think the translator understand the original meaning, but I personally was perplexed. Since Chapter 4.7 consists not by sentence by sentence but it is the sentence. I think the book which translates entire part is a better choice, I guess.
    – user13955
    Jun 28, 2015 at 14:18
  • The chinese pronunciation is zhī lí shū (twwiki.com/wiki/%E6%94%AF%E9%9B%A2%E7%96%8F). I've amended your translation accordingly.
    – virmaior
    Jun 28, 2015 at 15:00
  • For the original chinese, look here: ctext.org/zhuangzi/…
    – virmaior
    Jun 28, 2015 at 15:03
  • @virmaior Thank you for your editing. I guess you need to master both Chinese and Japanese? Uhm. Sorry for that. Now my question is, as I asked at another thread, not ridiculing the questioner, but am I allowed to smile when I read this story or is it better for me to take this story seriously ( how? )...........
    – user13955
    Jun 28, 2015 at 15:58
  • Since, Chinese books have full of this kind of stuff, I doubted at the end of his learning, so-called European people are likely to say, "We've got similar story in our history man......."...............
    – user13955
    Jun 28, 2015 at 16:14

Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) was a philosopher of paradox; with a generally skeptical viewpoint, like Socrates, Diogenes or Hume in the West. Much of his work questions or playfully parodies the dogmatism of Kongzi (Confucius) and his disciples. His work is distinguished from his contemporaries by his sharp and mischievous sense of humor.

Just as the Tao Te Ching has passages praising emptiness and nothingness, Zhuangzi repeatedly praises things that are devalued or that seem useless or worthless. In this case, he praises a person with severe birth defects as being fortunate in avoiding the disaster of compulsory military service.

The punchline is that he suggests that being morally deformed would be even more desirable than being physically deformed. This is a direct dig at the Confucian ideal of perfecting virtue as the pathway to all good things. (Also compare and contrast his parable of the thieves which centers around a converse paradox of Confucian virtue --that it arguably makes a bad person worse.)

  • Thank you! But what do you call "mysticism" in Lao Tzu? Intuition?
    – Rodrigo
    Jul 7, 2017 at 20:35
  • I see Chuang Tsu as sharing the same view of Reality as Lao Tsu and saying exactly the same things about it, albeit often more humorously. The 'mysticism' in Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu is the claim that their knowledge of Reality is acquired in direct experience and that this is the only way to acquire it. Standard stuff for the Perennial philosophy, as are Chuang Tsu's pronouncements about the world underneath the humour. .
    – user20253
    Jul 8, 2017 at 11:12
  • 1
    @PeterJ I agree that Zhuanzi was much more in tune with Laozi than with Kongzi, but crediting them with "exactly the same" views seems to go much too far. // That can, in general, be the problem with the Perennialist approach, while doing a good job at uncovering the deeper, more important similarities, it can also gloss over real and significant differences. Jul 8, 2017 at 13:15
  • @Chris Sunami - True enough, differences should not be glossed over. But I don't see any differences. Chuang Tsu makes it clear that he shares Lao Tsu's world-view. I cannot defend this view in the comments section here but it's not an unusual one. It would seem perverse to interpret two people who claim to know the truth as saying different things about it unless it's necessary to do so. I've never seen an issue on which they disagree. Their view is easy to spot for its paradoxical appearance. They are bound to share the same view if they both knew the truth, as I believe they did.
    – user20253
    Jul 9, 2017 at 10:11
  • @PeterJ While this is an interesting and worthwhile side discussion, I don't think it affects the core substance of my answer. However, given that, I have edited to remove the extraneous material. Jul 10, 2017 at 15:08

From the James Legge translation:-

221:1 The deficiency of their faculties--here mental faculties--would assimilate them to the useless trees in the last two paragraphs, whose uselessness only proved useful to them.

Seems straightforward enough, given the preceding text:

  1. Nan-po Dze-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! Dze-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). ...'
  • I can get the meaning when it's a body deformity. But since De and Dao are so related to each other, since the Dao De Jing, I don't see how a deformed De could help to achieve a better relation with Dao. Maybe it's really more of a sarcasm, or something like that...
    – Rodrigo
    Jul 11, 2017 at 17:36
  • @Rodrigo - I think it is advocating against being too sharply virtuous or clever. Another passage that come to mind is: "If the rules of the sages were entirely set aside in the world, a beginning might be made of reasoning with the people. ... --as it is said, 'The greatest art is like stupidity.' If conduct such as that of Zäng and Shih were discarded, the mouths of Yang and Mo gagged, and benevolence and righteousness seized and thrown aside, the virtue of all men would begin to display its mysterious excellence." Chuang Tzu, Book X Part II.iii Khü Khieh, or 'Cutting open Satchels' Feb 16, 2018 at 13:23
  • But the "virtue of all men" seems much more related to De than the "wisdom of the sages", usually criticized as zhi (智). But maybe you're right, and he was using De in a different connotation.
    – Rodrigo
    Apr 4 at 0:22

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