Arts & DesignEssays

One Thing Becoming Another

When Huizi the rationalist visited Zhuangzi to express his condolences for the recent passing of Zhuangzi’s wife, he was shocked to find the great Daoist sage sprawled on the ground happily beating out a rhythm on a tub and singing with gusto. Stop this scandal! Huizi demanded, outraged at his friend’s disregard of decorum.

Zhuangzi was unmoved. “You’re wrong,” he retorted. “When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else?”

“But,” he continued, “I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead.”

“It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.”[1] It’s just like the progression of the spider and fly: flight, web, dust.

This is a famous story, nearly twenty-five hundred years old, the subject of endless commentary. Daoist in detail but far-flung in sensibility, more familiar now but still hard to fully grasp. From substance to substance, from substance to body, from connection to affection to reflection to celebration, all substance, constantly unfolding, flight, web, dust, one thing becoming another “in a ceaseless adventure.” [2]

But even if death is not for mourning, even if it is part of life and therefore a source of joy, even if…. It nonetheless brings sorrow when it comes too close. Perhaps, Zhuangzi seems to be saying, there are two deaths in each one: grief and joy, mourning and celebration. The death in which a part of us dies too with every loss, and the death that is a death of cosmic transformation in which the world and the web are endlessly remade. [3]

The above is an excerpt from Insect Theatre by Hugh Raffles and Tim Edgar, Black Dog Publishing, 2013.  All photographs courtesy of the artist.


[1] Zhuangzi, Basic Writings, trans. by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 115.

[2] Roger T. Ames, “Death as Transformation in Classical Daoism,” in J.E. Malpas and Robert C. Solomon, eds., Death and Philosophy (Routledge: New York, 1998), 66.

[3] See, Amy Olberding, “Sorrow and the Sage: Grief in the Zhuangzi,” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy vol. 6, no. 4 (2007): 339-359.

Hugh Raffles

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