Zhuangzi and Huizi

The Happiness of Fish – 魚之樂 – A Taoist Tale

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”

Huizi said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said, “You’re not me, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

Huizi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here on the bridge of the River Hao.”

This is a story told by Chang Tzu, aka Zhuang Zhao, aka Zhuangzi – a Chinese Taoist master who lived about seventeen hundred years ago. He is also the author of the famous butterfly story; Zhuangzi and the Butterfly Dream, retold elsewhere in this website.

Huizi, aka Hui Shi, was a representative of the ‘School of Names’ a famous group of sophists and dialecticians. He and Zhuangzi were great friends who debated and discussed many matters. When Huizi died Zhuangzi lamented that he no longer had anyone with whom to discuss philosophical matters.

Now, the story above is not about fish, please remember. Nor does it have a message about the superiority of the Tao above science and traditional philosophy.

It is simply a snapshot of a time when masters and rationallists wandered together and discussed the meaning of existence. When neither pulled rank or claimed to win the argument, or tried to censor the other. A very civilised, enlightened time when even Kings and Emperors listened to masters and bowed to superior understanding.

Understanding means standing under existence, bowing down to it, and appreciating it for what it is, rather than standing over it and trying to impose a human logic on it.

In the end Zhuangzi can’t explain how he knows, he just knows, standing there by the water’s edge, feeling the warm sunlight and the joy of existence flowing through him as he walks with his friend, he understands the energy which flows through us, and the fish, when we are young and healthy, and also after that, though not quite so much.

In the Butterfly Dream the opposite is the case, Zhuangzi does not know. He doesn’t know if he is a butterfly or a man. He knows how a fish feels, in the present story, but that morning he wasn’t sure if he was a butterfly or human.

Zhuangzi is a mystical, whimsical man it seems, observing the world and laughing along with it, poking fun at rationalists and enjoying the life of the independent thinker, fulfilled by his own transcendence, imparting his wisdom freely, totally unaware that thousands of years later we would still be talking about him and his mildly crazy ideas.

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