Amateur Translations – Zhuangzi: The Fish Story

I recently read somewhere – some Chinese philosophy blog – that putting Zhuangzi into the Chinese Classics was like putting Monty Python next to the Plato’s Republic or something like that. It probably wasn’t to say that you shouldn’t take it seriously (although, actually that was probably one of the goals of the Zhuangzi though in a different sense from why we don’t take Monty Python seriously) – but that the style was crafted in a completely different way from something like the Tao Te Ching or the Analects.

Anyway I’m randomly picking up Classical Chinese, and I saw the excerpt for the famous fish story in the open source course I was doing. The course is over here – it uses texts from Chinese Classics and explains the grammar in each one. Of course, it would really help to be able to understand normal Chinese before you take the course here.

Classical Chinese is a beast of a language that’s different from a number of other ancient languages. I’ve heard that Sanskrit and Latin both use crazy precise grammar rules which accounts for their difficulty – but Chinese is the other way round. It’s difficulty comes from the fact that, even more so than Japanese, its meanings are derived entirely from context, and the language itself is built up from making links to the older classics, so the best way to learn is to start from the base works of Chinese Literature.

Because of how ambiguous it is, it’s stripped down to the point whereby a mere 6 characters can mean whole long sentences – as exemplified by the famous opening of the Tao Te Ching


“The Dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao”

For those who don’t know much about Taoism – Tao is said as Tao but actually it can also be read as Road or Way or Path. It’s an esoteric concept that bears a lot of different meanings in different texts. In Taoism it’s esoteric, but a Confucianist could use it to describe the proper path the government should take to uphold virtue, and a Legalist could use it to describe the proper path the government should take to maintain stability. It can be used in war manuals as to proper conduct to war, and even sex manuals as the proper path to intercourse.

Anyone who knows a bit of Chinese should be able to know what this says, but the usages are different from Modern Chinese because in this case every character has a specific meaning. 可 is the modal indicating what is possible. So the first道 probably establishes the topic, and the second道, which is linked to the可 means the possible – as in what is possible in this realm.

非 is an indicator of negation, while 常 means constant/eternal. So broken down, the characters are roughly “Dao: possible Dao – not constant Dao” – which opens up into “The Dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao”.

This is problematic in the translation of Classical Chinese overall, because there is no way you cannot add words to the text. This problem goes over to the Zhuangzi because the text is leaner than it is usually translated – and if you read it out loud some part are written like a Chinese philosophic sketch comedy.

The fish story is a philosophical argument, but when said out loud it sounds like one of those fanciful wordplay moments in Alice in Wonderland, or one of those repetitious dialogues in a play by Beckett.

So when Huizi questions Zhuangzi 子非魚,安知魚之樂 – Zhuangzi simply repeats the structure almost, changing 魚 to 我 and adds 我不知 to the reply.

Then Huizi starts his reply the same style, with 我非子 – and continues on.

The ending is like a great punchline, and it sounds more like blatant trolling in the terse Classical Chinese, and less like the lengthy rhetoric that’s used in this English translation:

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to the starting point. You said, ‘Whence do you know the happiness of fish?’ Since your question was premised on your knowing that I know it, I must have known it from here, up above the Hao River.”

So I tried to make a translation that was more rhyme-y and whimsical than other translations out there. I cut out the name of the place they were at to make the translation tighter.

Incidentally, 遊 is used to describe both travel and the fish swimming. Some have analyzed this to be indicating of a deeper kind of metaphysical equivalence between the two strollers on the bridge and the fishes swimming.

Anyway, without further ado:


Zhuangzi and Huizi were moving on a bridge.
Zhuangzi said: “The fishes are moving at ease,
And this is the happiness of being a fish.”
Huizi said: “You are not a fish. From where do you know the fish’s ease?”
Zhuangzi said: “You are not me. From where do you know I do not know the fish’s ease?”
Huizi said: “I am not you, certainly I do not know you.
But I certainly know you are not a fish, and all I know is you don’t know the fish’s ease.”
Zhuangzi said: “Back to the start, you asked from where I know the fish’s ease
Already knowing that you know me.
Where I know the fish’s ease, is where I am standing, on the bridge.”