Get to the Point
The ancient Daoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu, was one of the most brilliantly witty thinkers of his day, and his work still is influential. He was one of the most important figures of early Daoism, with only Laozi, the founder that religion, consistently ranked above him. Chuang Tzu’s insight into the world we live in will leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads his work, but some particulars about his writing may cause a stray giggle here and there; the names of the characters in his stories can be very peculiar. This article uses the version of Chuang Tzu’s work translated by Burton Watson. Whether Chuang Tzu’s names are a result of the English translation, or a tool to convey meaning, is unclear, but the latter is the likeliest option. Here are seven of Chuang Tzu’s strangest names, starting with the most tame and ending with the most bizarre.
- Crippled Shu
The character, Crippled Shu, was introduced by Chuang Tzu to help explain one of the Daoist themes: the use of the useless. Therefore, Crippled Shu was written to be completely and utterly useless by normal standards. Chuang Tzu wrote: “There’s Crippled Shu—chin stuck down in his navel, shoulders up above his head, pigtail pointing at the sky, his five organs on the top, his two thighs pressing his ribs” (Watson 62). The moral of Shu’s story is that his abundance of deformity is what makes him truly lucky. Chuang Tzu believed that the most important thing a man could do was to live all the years of life that heaven provided. By being crippled, Shu was never drafted into military service and never was expected to contribute to dangerous construction projects. By being himself, Crippled Shu could fulfill his highest duty: survival, for which Chuang Tzu would claim him to be virtuous.
- Woman Crookback
Woman Crookback was one of many characters that attempted to explain “The Way” of Daoism. She was able to teach “the Way of the sage” to an acquaintance who had “the talent of a sage.” After learning the Way of the sage, Woman Crookback’s acquaintance, Pu-liang Yi, was able to separate himself from objects, the world, past and present, life and death, and finally contemplate the Dao’s singularity (Watson 79).
- Shu-Shan No-Toes
No-Toes was another character that illustrated a path to the Way of Daoism. Commenting on his name, No-toes stated: “I just didn’t understand my duty and was too careless with my body, and so I lost a foot. But I’ve come now because I still have something that is worth more than a foot and I want to try to hold on to it. There is nothing that heaven doesn’t cover, nothing that earth doesn’t bear up” (Watson 67). In the story of Shu-Shan No-Toes, Chuang Tzu reinforced the Daoist idea of the Dao being an all-encompassing singularity. Before he concluded the story, he took a small jab at his rival, Confucius. No-Toes’ friend commented, “Confucius certainly hasn’t reached the stage of a perfect man, has he” (Watson 68).
- Uncle Lame-Gait
Chuang Tzu used this character to express his view of the harmony between life and death. During his travels around China, Uncle Lame-Gait made a stop to view the resting place of the Yellow Emperor. All of a sudden, a willow tree began to grow from his elbow. Instead of complaining and mourning over the event, Uncle Lame-Gait simply accepted the situation, realizing when a person has withdrawn all of the years allotted to them by heaven, then death becomes the equal of life.
- Uncle Lack-Limb
Uncle Lack-Limb was the traveling companion of Uncle Lame-Gait when the tree-from-elbow event occurred. “Do you resent it,” asked Uncle Lack-Limb, to which Uncle Lame-Gait responded, “Life and death are day and night. You and I came to watch the process of change, and now change has caught up with me. Why would I have anything to resent” (Watson 114).
- Mr. Pitcher-Sized-Wen
This character’s story is one of the many examples used by Chuang Tzu to define virtue as the simple act of being yourself. Even if you are shaped like a pitcher, as is Mr. Pitcher-Sized-Wen, the virtue of being yourself to the fullest would garner you enormous respect. Chuang Tzu wrote, “Mr. Pitcher-Sized-Wen talked to Duke Huan of Ch’i, and Duke Huan was so pleased with him that when he looked at normal men, he thought their necks looked too lean and skinny. Therefore, if virtue is preeminent, the body will be forgotten” (Watson 71).
- Mr. Lame-Hunchback-No-Lips
Mr. Lame-Hunchback-No-Lips was another abnormal-looking man who appeared before Duke Huan of Ch’i. Again, as with Pitcher-Sized Wen, the duke was so impressed by the man that he began to think other people should look more like Lame-Hunchback-No-Lips. The stories of Mr. Lame-Hunchback-No-Lips and Mr. Pitcher-Sized Wen both support Chuang Tzu’s theme that virtue is being yourself. These unfortunately-shaped men can still be perceived as virtuous and be respected by their duke. Chuang Tzu explains why Mr. Lame-Hunchback-No-Lips should feel perfectly at ease with being himself: “The Way gave him a face; Heaven gave him a form. He doesn’t let likes or dislikes get in and do him harm…. Heaven picked out a body for you” (Watson 72).
Do Names Matter?
Are these long and hyphenated names the result of translating old Chinese into modern English, or is this style of naming actually what Chuang Tzu intended in his original writings. It is very likely that the names of these characters were meant to trigger a clear mental image of what these people would look like. Chuang Tzu quickly provides the reader with all of the information that is needed to understand the character in one hyphenated name. Perhaps, Chuang Tzu’s rationale behind his peculiar style of naming can be found in this statement from his work: “Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him” (Watson 140). The names of these characters do not matter, only the teachings their stories convey.
Written by C. Keith Hansley (originally published May 4, 2016, but it has been edited and reformatted since then).
Picture Attribution: (7 sages of the bamboo grove Wittig collection painting 16, c. prior to the 19th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Chuang Tzu. Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.