Zhuangzi and the Skull

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The story of Zhuangzi and the roadside skull is consistently popular with Western readers as a classic example of the strange and humorous insight that is the hallmark of the stories of the Zhuangzi.

莊子之楚,見空髑髏,髐然有形,撽以馬捶,因而問之曰:夫子貪生失理,而為此乎。將子有亡國之事,斧鉞之誅,而為此乎。將子有不善之行,愧遺父母妻子之醜,而為此乎。將子有凍餒之患,而為此乎。將子之春秋故及此乎。於是語卒,援髑髏枕而臥。

When Zhuangzi went to Chu, he saw an old skull, all dry and parched. He poked it with his carriage whip and then asked, “Sir, were you greedy for life and forgetful of reason, and so came to this? Was your state overthrown and did you bow beneath the ax, and so came to this? Did you do some evil deed and were you ashamed to bring disgrace upon your parents and family, and so came to this? Was it through the pangs of cold and hunger that you came to this? Or did your springs and autumns pile up until they brought you to this?” When he had finished speaking, he dragged the skull over and, using it for a pillow, lay down to sleep.

夜半,髑髏見夢曰:子之談者似辯士。視子所言,皆生人之累也,死則無此矣。子欲聞死之說乎。莊子曰:然。

In the middle of the night, the skull came to him in a dream and said, “You chatter like a rhetorician and all your words betray the entanglements of a living man. The dead know nothing of these! Would you like to hear a lecture on the dead?” Zhuangzi said, “Indeed.”

髑髏曰:死,無君於上,無臣於下,亦無四時之事,從然以天地為春秋,雖南面王樂,不能過也。莊子不信,曰:吾使司命復生子形,為子骨肉肌膚,反子父母妻子、閭里、知識,子欲之乎。髑髏深矉蹙頞曰:吾安能棄南面王樂而復為人間之勞乎。

The skull said, “Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!” Zhuangzi couldn’t believe this and said, “If I got the Arbiter of Fate to give you a body again, make you some bones and flesh, return you to your parents and family and your old home and friends, you would want that, wouldn’t you?” The skull frowned severely, wrinkling up its brow. “Why would I throw away more happiness than that of a king on a throne and take on the troubles of a human being again?” it said.

— Zhuangzi, chapter 18 (Watson translation)

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