Human condition distilled from ancient Chinese fables

BY YIN YUSHAN | 01-24-2019
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In the Taoist classic Zhuangzi, the peng is a giant legendary bird that transforms from a kun, a giant fish in Chinese mythology. Photo: SOHO


It is an old tradition in Chinese literature to convey a moral or illustrate a particular philosophy through fables with anthropomorphic animals. There are three “storytellers” best known for their funny fables with explicit moral significance—Zhuangzi (369–286 BCE), Han Feizi (280–233 BCE) and Fu Lang. It is said that Fu Lang imitated the genre and thought of the foundational text of Taoism, the Zhuangzi, in his book, the Fuzi. However, people seldom pay attention to the differences between these two texts.

The Zhuangzi clearly divides animals into the “noble class” and the “vulgar class.” The kun (an enormous legendary fish), peng (a huge legendary bird that is changed from a kun), yuan chu (a phoenix-like bird in ancient legends) and phoenix fall into the noble class while chi yan (quail), chi xiao (owl), tiao (cicada) and xue jiu (turtledove) are considered of the vulgar class. The noble class is characterized by nobility, dignity, a long-term perspective and a broad mind, which represent the virtues that Zhuangzi valued. Zhuangzi’s disdain for the vulgar class is shown between the lines as well.

The Fuzi classifies animals into the same groups as that of the Zhuangzi. The noble class features the da ao (a giant legendary turtle) and a golden-winged bird, while pigs, donkeys, ants and lice represent the vulgar class. Different from Zhuangzi, Fu Lang didn’t despise the vulgar class for being small and humble. He thought these tiny creatures were very human. What he disagreed with was that the vulgar class would rather swallow unendurable filth to drag out a pathetic existence than die with dignity. He also opposed the noble class who tried to achieve an unrealistic life, which might have made them  short-lived.

Being low, small, humble and human constitutes the core personalities of the characters in the Fuzi. In this text, most of the characters are eager to seek the truth of life and carefully examine their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. These characters endow the Fuzi with a sense of warmth and humor, revealing Fu Lang’s philosophy and aesthetic standards.


Pig’s second chance 
In a fable named “Dashi Hua Sheng” (dashi refers to pigs), King Zhao of Yan (335–279 BCE) keeps a huge pig for 65 years. The pig feeds on stool and is as big as a tomb and weighs more than 15 tons. Its legs can barely bear its own weight. People think that this pig is useless, even though it is enormous and long-lived. Therefore, under the suggestion of the prime minister, the pig is killed and eaten. After death, the pig is reborn as a water deity and shows up in the prime minister’s dream. He presents the prime minister with gifts in gratitude for ending his miserable past life.

In this fable, the supposedly useless pig, which lives on the filthiest things in the world, cannot find a way to pleasure except through death. Being cooked as food probably is its only value. From Zhuangzi’s perspective, the pig’s life is a tragedy because only death could make it worthy. However, Fu Lang did not think so. He believed that death was a form of relief for the pig, providing it with a second chance to live and eat like human beings. Therefore, the prime minister of the Yan, whose suggestion causes the death of the pig, is rewarded with treasures in the story.

Like many fables in the Fuzi, this one smacks of exaggeration. Living in washrooms and eating stool indicates the harsh and filthy living conditions of the pig. The exaggeration of its longevity and obesity conjures a sense of humor, contrasting sharply with its tragic life.

Another noticeable detail of the fable is that people believe that keeping the pig alive is a mercy, while in fact, the pig considers death as a relief. This is an indirect refutation of an empathy paradox of Zhuangzi, who insisted that people always had the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others.

The fable seems to have a happy ending, but the truth behind it is terrifying. The pig can think and feel, but it cannot change its fate through its own effort.


Ants and giant turtle
The fable begins with a description of a huge turtle in the East China Sea. It carries the Penglai Fairy Mountain on its head, floating and swimming in the great sea. Attracted by the turtle’s feat, a group of ants come to the seashore and wait for months to have a look at the turtle. They run into the giant creature on their way home. On seeing its magnificent appearance, these ants feel disappointed because they see no difference between themselves and the turtle, except their size.

The fable is often compared with another one in the Zhuangzi, “Wandering in Absolute Freedom.” The cicada and turtledove often deride the peng, an enormous legendary bird, whose back covers thousands of li (traditional Chinese unit of distance with a standardized length of a half-kilometer) with wings spreading like clouds when rising in flight. The peng has to soar to a height of 90,000 li to get a current of wind that is strong enough to bear its large wings and support its southward journey, but the cicada and turtledove see no sense in soaring to the top of the sky. Zhuangzi describes the peng as a recluse who wanders beyond the realm of the recognizable, in contrast to the tiny creatures that can not understand what lies so utterly beyond the confines of their mundane experience. He tries to urge people to go beyond restricted small points of view.

Different from Zhuangzi, Fu Lang didn’t look down upon the small creatures, which is shown in the words of the ants—“It’s just a matter of size. Each of us has a role to play.” Fu Lang uses the standpoints of humans and ants to describe the big turtle. The shocking image of the turtle that the ants hear of before they see it is based on a human standpoint. When they see the turtle, they find that it is just big. In their opinion, the turtle’s moves between the sky and the sea are no more significant than the ants moving around everyday—“Why, what’s the difference between its carrying a high mountain on its head and our carrying grains on ours? We crawl along the anthill leisurely and freely and return to our hole to rest (just like the turtle).” For Fu Lang, it seemed that the standpoints of humans and of ants were of the same value.


Golden-winged birds
In the Fuzi, there is a kind of golden-winged bird named Yuhao (gorgeous feather, literally). These birds eat and drink nothing but dragon’s lung and phoenix’s blood. Since these two things are quite rare, the golden-winged birds often face starvation and thirst, and they usually die young.

The golden-winged birds live a life similar to that of the birds named yuan chu in the Zhuangzi. The Zhuangzi states that yuan chu stops only on the parasol tree, eat only the bamboo fruit and drink only the sweet water from the spring. Both the stories describe the process of the pursuit of an ideal life. However, Fu Lang gives the story a tragic ending—the short life of the golden-winged birds—because he considers it an unrealistic expectation about life. Fu Lang thought about ideals versus reality from a new perspective and attacked Zhuangzi’s unrealistic fantasies of the ideal life through this story.

Fu Lang lived in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420), a chaotic period in Chinese history when the political order of northern China fractured into a series of short-lived sovereign states, leading to fierce conflicts and social instability. Although following the style of the Zhuangzi, Fu Lang insisted in his own way to understand life and the world. He tried to avoid idealism and find a way to survive tough times. He wanted to neither drag out a degrading existence nor die a sage. He focused on his belief of the importance of the tiny creatures that he mused about.


Yin Yushan is from the School of Liberal Arts at Nanning Normal University.

(edited by REN GUANGHONG)