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From Zhangzi to Today: Dào道

This article is excerpt from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7.

Here is an English translation of The Zhuangzi, 2.19:

Confucius was touring Lüliang, where the water falls from a height of thirty fathoms and churns for forty li in rapids that no fish or water creature can swim. He saw a man dive into the water and, taking him for one whom despair had driven to suicide, he ordered his disciples to line the bank and pull the man out. But after the man had swum a few hundred paces, he emerged from the water with his hair streaming down and strolled beneath the cliffs singing. Confucius rushed to question him. “I took you for a ghost, but now I see you’re a man. May I ask if you have some special dao of staying afloat in the water?”

“No,” replied the swimmer. “I have no dao. I began with my original endowment, grew up with my nature, and let things come to completion with fate. I go under with the whirlpools and emerge where the water spouts up, following the Dao of the water and never thinking about myself. That’s how I go my way.”

As a character created by Zhuangzi – for his own mischievous purposes – this “Confucius” is stunned by what he sees: a man diving into rapids where “no fish or water creature can swim.” He wonders whether the diver has a “special dao” allowing him to stay afloat in the water – that dao (with a small “d”) which might correspond to a learned skill. But Zhuangzi’s swimmer is responding to something bigger, the Dao with a capital “D”: one which corresponds to the flow of forces into which he submerges and emerges, embodying the way that one engages with the cosmos, not through one’s own skill but by submitting oneself completely to its propensities.

What this Dao (道) implies may be construed by examining its two graphic elements one at a time: on the right a sign for head, with a prominent place for the eyes. From this first element, we might at first think that Dao signifies using one’s head by using one’s eyes: something like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “I become a transparent eyeball.” Emerson’s thought (from Nature) reads as follows: “Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”But thinking in this way simply translates Dao into Western terms: seeing as a form of knowing. To move out of that world, one must turn to the left and lower sides of the character, which signal walking or moving about. Together, the two evoke moving around using one’s head – or, perhaps more precisely, of using one’s head by moving about. Now we are engaging with a Chinese view: one gains perspective on the world by actively participating in it.

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