Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Equalizing Things I: Qiwulun

Scott Bradley


The Zhuangzi, like wine, improves with age. How so? Since ambiguity is one of its principle intentions, and that intention is itself embedded in the medium, the further removed we are from the actual context of its creation the more ambiguity it contains, and thus the more its purposes are served. The less we 'understand' it, the better.

We might ask if Zhuangzi's contemporaries understood his writing any better than we. Since a great deal of our present inability to be sure of meanings is a consequence of not knowing for sure the meanings of words, we might assume that his contemporaries did not at least suffer this problem to the same extent. Still, judging from the final chapter, possibly written one to two hundred years after the Inner Chapters, where it is declared "Vague! Ambiguous!", understanding the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi must have always been a challenge.

Moreover, even when we are reasonably sure we have understood what Zhuangzi meant in a certain passage, we still cannot be sure that he really meant it! I recently read a scholarly work that quoted a certain passage to make a point which, though possibly correct, seemed oblivious to the fact that Zhuangzi himself offered the passage as something to question.

All of this is simply to remind us that Zhuangzi's mission was not to provide us with yet another "contending voice" vying for our intellectual assent, but rather to jar us out of our propensity to look for just that. It's an invitation to begin our own exploratory adventure.

With this introduction, we now come to the title of the second chapter of the Zhuangzi, Qiwulun. What does it mean? Who wrote it? And since we don't know the answer to the second question, what difference does the answer to the first make? Though we cannot know, it seems highly unlikely that Zhuangzi gave titles to his chapters, or that he had chapters at all. More likely, a later editor gathered together collected fragments, forged them into chapters, and gave these chapters names. Was he also divinely inspired? Since Zhuangzi himself was not, what difference does it make? This present exercise is simply a personal head-smacking intended to jar me into remembering that there is nothing in the Zhuangzi worth knowing since its central message is that the most ‘spiritually’ helpful knowing is not-knowing.

Brook Ziporyn offers several possible translations of the three words Qi wu lun. It’s largely a question of word order, though there is some debate even about the meaning of the words themselves. Lun is “theories”, “assessments”. Wu is “things”, but can be understood as “everything”, including ideas. Qi is “equalize” or “equalizing”. Are things equalized, or are theories equalized? It’s all a bit ambiguous, but as we begin to partake of the spirit of the chapter itself, we discover that it’s all of the above, and, of course, ultimately none of the above.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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