Taoist teachings from the book of Lieh Tzŭ/Book 5
The Questions of T'ang
T'ang of Yin questioned Hsia Ko, saying: 'In the beginnings of antiquity, did individual things exist?'
'If things did not exist then,' replied Hsia Ko, 'how could they be in existence now? Or will the men of future ages be right in denying the existence of things at the present time?'
'Things in that case,' pursued T'ang, 'have no before nor after?'
Hsia Ko replied: 'To the beginning and end of things there is no precise limit. Beginning may be end, and end may be beginning. How can we conceive of any fixed period to either? But when it comes to something outside matter in space, or anterior to events in time, our knowledge fails us.'
'Then upwards and downwards and in every direction space is a finite quantity?'
Ko replied: 'I do not know.'
T'ang asked the question again with more insistence, and Ko said: 'If there is nothing in space, then it is infinite; if there is something, then that something must have limits. How can I tell which is true? But beyond infinity there must again exist non-infinity, and within the unlimited again that which is not unlimited. It is this consideration — that infinity must be succeeded by non-infinity, and the unlimited by the not-unlimited — that enables me to apprehend the infinity and unlimited extent of space, but does not allow me to conceive of its being finite and limited.'
T'ang continued his inquiries, saying: 'What is there beyond the Four Seas?'
Ko replied: 'Just what there is here in the province of Ch'i.'
'How can you prove that?' asked T'ang.
'When travelling eastwards,' said Ko, 'I came to the land of Ying, where the inhabitants were nowise different from those in this part of the country. I inquired about the countries east of Ying, and found that they, too, were similar to their neighbour. Travelling westwards, I came to Pin, where the inhabitants were similar to our own countrymen. I inquired about the countries west of Pin, and found that they were again similar to Pin. That is how I know that the regions within the Four Seas, the Four Wildernesses and the Four Uttermost Ends of the Earth are nowise different from the country we ourselves inhabit. Thus, the lesser is always enclosed by a greater, without ever reaching an end. Heaven and earth, which enclose the myriad objects of creation, are themselves enclosed in some outer shell. Enclosing heaven and earth and the myriad objects within them, this outer shell is infinite and immeasurable. How do we know but that there is some mightier universe in existence outside our own? That is a question to which we can give no answer.
'Heaven and earth, then, are themselves only material objects, and therefore imperfect. Hence it is that Kua of old fashioned many-coloured blocks of stone to repair the defective parts. He cut off the legs of the Ao and used them to support the four corners of the heavens. Later on, Kung Kung fought with Chuan Hsŭ for the throne, and, blundering in his rage against Mount Pu-chou, he snapped the pillar which connects Heaven and earth. That is why Heaven dips downwards to the north-west, so that sun, moon and stars travel towards that quarter. The earth, on the other hand, is now not large enough to fill up the south-east, so that all rivers and streams roll in that direction.'
The two mountains T'ai-hsing and Wang-wu, which cover an area of 700 square li, and rise to an enormous altitude, originally stood in the south of the Chi district and north of Ho-yang. The Simpleton of the North Mountain, an old man of ninety, dwelt opposite these mountains, and was vexed in spirit because their northern flanks blocked the way to travellers, who had to go all the way round. So he called his family together, and broached a plan. 'Let us,' he said, 'put forth our utmost strength to clear away this obstacle, and cut right through the mountains until we come to Han-yin. What say you?' They all assented except his wife, who made objections and said: 'My goodman has not the strength to sweep away a dunghill, let alone two such mountains as T'ai-hsing and Wang-wu. Besides, where will you put all the earth and stones that you dig up?' The others replied that they would throw them on the promontory of P'o-hai. So the old man, followed by his son and grandson, sallied forth with their pickaxes, and the three of them began hewing away at the rocks, and cutting up the soil, and carting it away in baskets to the promontory of P'o-hai. A widowed woman who lived near had a little boy who, though he was only just shedding his milk teeth, came skipping along to give them what help he could. Engrossed in their toil, they never went home except once at the turn of the season.
The Wise Old Man of the River-bend burst out laughing and urged them to stop. 'Great indeed is your witlessness!' he said. 'With the poor remaining strength of your declining years you will not succeed in removing a hair's breadth of the mountain, much less the whole vast mass of rock and soil.' With a sigh, the Simpleton of the North Mountain replied: 'Surely it is you who are narrow-minded and unreasonable. You are not to be compared with the widow's son, despite his puny strength. Though I myself must die, I shall leave a son behind me, and through him a grandson. That grandson will beget sons in his turn, and those soils will also have sons and grandsons. With all this posterity, my line will not die out, while on the other hand the mountain will receive no increment or addition. Why then should I despair of levelling it to the ground at last?' The Wise Old Man of the River-bend had nothing to say in reply.
One of the serpent-brandishing deities heard of the undertaking and, fearing that it might never be finished, went and told God Almighty, who was touched by the old man's simple faith, and commanded the two sons of K'ua O to transport the mountains, one to the extreme north-east, the other to the southern comer of Yung.
Ever since then, the region lying between Chi in the north and Han in the south has been an unbroken plain.
Kung-hu of Lu and Ch'i-ying of Chao both fell ill at the same time, and called in the aid of the great Pien-ch'iao. Pien-ch'iao cured them both, and when they were well again he told them that the malady they had been suffering from was one that attacked the internal organs from without, and for that reason was curable by the application of vegetable and mineral drugs. 'But,' he added, 'each of you is also the victim of a congenital disease, which has grown along with the body itself. Would you like me now to grapple with this?' They said, 'Yes'; but asked to hear his diagnosis first. Pien-ch'iao turned to Kung-hu. 'Your mental powers,' he said, 'are strong, but your willpower is weak. Hence, though fruitful in plans, you are lacking in decision. Ch'i-ying's mental powers, on the other hand, are weak, while his will-power is strong. Hence there is want of forethought, and he is placed at a disadvantage by the narrowness of his aim. Now, if I can effect an exchange of hearts between you, the good will be equally balanced in both.'
So saying, Pien-ch'iao administered to each of them a potion of medicated wine, which threw them into a death-like trance lasting three days. Then, making an incision in their breasts, he took out each man's heart and placed it in the other's body, poulticing the wounds with herbs of marvellous efficacy.
When the two men regained consciousness, they looked exactly the same as before; and, taking their leave, they returned home. Only it was Kung-hu who went to Ch'i-ying's house, where Ch'i-ying's wife and children naturally did not recognize him, while Ch'i-ying went to Kung-hu's house and was not recognized either. This led to a lawsuit between the two families, and Pien-ch'iao was called in as arbitrator. On his explaining how the matter stood, peace was once more restored.
King Mu of Chou made a tour of inspection in the west. He crossed the K'un-lun range, but turned back before he reached the Yen mountains. On his return journey, before arriving in China, a certain artificer was presented to him, by name Yen Shih. King Mu received him in audience, and asked what he could do. 'I will do anything,' replied Yen Shih, 'that your Majesty may please to command. But there is a piece of work, already finished, that I should like to submit first to your Majesty's inspection.' 'Bring it with you to-morrow.' said the King, 'and we will look at it together.' So Yen Shih called again the next day, and was duly admitted to the royal presence. 'Who is that man accompanying you?' asked the King. 'That, Sire, is my own handiwork. He can sing and he can act.' The King stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that any one would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it started posturing, keeping perfect time. It went through any number of movements that fancy might happen to dictate. The King, looking on with his favourite concubine and the other inmates of his harem, could hardly persuade himself that it was not real.
As the performance was drawing to an end, the automaton winked his eye and made sundry advances to the ladies in attendance on the King. This, however, threw the King into a passion, and he would have put Yen Shih to death on the spot had not the latter, in mortal terror, instantly pulled the automaton to pieces to let him see what it really was. And lo! it turned out to be merely a conglomeration of leather, wood, glue and paint, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the King found all the internal organs complete — liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines — and, over these, again, muscles and bones and limbs with their joints, skin and teeth and hair, all of them artificial. Not a part but was fashioned with the utmost nicety and skill; and when it was put together again, the figure presented the same appearance as when first brought in. The King tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth would no longer utter a sound; he took away the liver, and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys, and the legs lost their power of locomotion.
Now the King was delighted. Drawing a deep breath, he exclaimed: 'Can it be that human skill is really on a par with that of the Creator?' And forthwith he gave an order for two extra chariots, in which he took home with him the artificer and his handiwork.
Now, Pan Shu, with his cloud-scaling ladder, and Mo Ti, with his flying kite, thought that they had reached the limits of human achievement. But when Yen Shih's wonderful piece of work had been brought to their knowledge, the two philosophers never again ventured to boast of their mechanical skill, and ceased to busy themselves so frequently with the square and compasses.
Hei Luan of Wei had a secret grudge against Ch'iu Ping-chang, for which he slew him; and Lai Tan, the son of Ch'iu Ping-chang, plotted vengeance against his father's enemy. Lai Tan's spirit was very fierce, but his body was very slight. You could count the grains of rice that he ate, and he was at the mercy of every gust of wind. For all the anger in his heart, he was not strong enough to take his revenge in open fight, and he was ashamed to seek help from others. So he swore that, sword in hand, he would cut Hei Luan's throat unawares. This Hei Luan was the most ferocious character of his day, and in brute strength he was a match for a hundred men. His bones and sinews, skin and flesh were cast in superhuman mould. He would stretch out his neck to the blade or bare his breast to the arrow, but the sharp steel would bend or break, and his body show no scar from the Impact. Trusting to his native strength, he looked disdainfully upon Lai Tan as a mere fledgling.
Lai Tan had a friend Shên T'o, who said to him: 'You have a bitter feud against Hei Luan, and Hei Luan treats you with sovereign contempt. What is your plan of action?' Shedding tears, Lai Tan besought his friend's counsel. 'Well,' said Shên T'o, 'I am told that K'ung Chou of Wei has inherited, through an ancestor, a sword formerly possessed by the Yin Emperors, of such magical power that a mere boy wielding it can put to flight the embattled hosts of an entire army. Why not sue for the loan of this sword?' Acting on this advice, Lai Tan betook himself to Wei and had an interview with K'ung Chou. Following the usage of supplicants, he first went through the ceremony of handing over his wife and children, and then stated his request. 'I have three swords,' replied K'ung Chou, 'but with none of them can you kill a man. You may choose which you like. First, however, let me describe their qualities. The first sword is called "Light-absorber". It is invisible to the eye, and when you swing it you cannot tell that there is anything there. Things struck by it retain an unbroken surface, and it will pass through a man's body without his knowing it. The second is called "Shadow-receiver". If you face north and examine it at the point of dawn, when darkness melts into light, or in the evening, when day gives way to dusk, it appears misty and dim, as though there were something there, the shape of which is not discernible. Things struck by it give out a low sound, and it passes through men's bodies without causing them any pain. The third is called "Night-tempered", because in broad daylight you only see its outline and not the brightness of its blade, while at night you see not the sword itself but the dazzling light which it emits. The objects which it strikes are cleft through with a sibilant sound, but the line of cleavage closes up immediately. Pain is felt, but no blood remains on the blade.
'These three precious heirlooms have been handed down for thirteen generations, but have never been in actual use. They lie stored away in a box, the seals of which have never been broken.' 'In spite of what you tell me,' said Lai Tan, 'I should like to borrow the third sword.' K'ung Chou then returned his wife and children to him, and they fasted together for seven days. On the seventh day, in the dusk of evening, he knelt down and presented the third sword to Lai Tan, who received it with two low obeisances and went home again.
Grasping his new weapon, Lai Tan now sought out his enemy, and found him lying in a drunken stupor at his window. He cut clean through his body in three places between the neck and the navel, but Hei Luan was quite unconscious of it. Thinking he was dead, Lai Tan made off as fast as he could, and happening to meet Hei Luan's son at the door, he struck at him three times with his sword. But it was like hitting the empty air. Hei Luan's son laughed and said: 'Why are you motioning to me in that silly way with your hand?'
Realizing at last that the sword had no power to kill a man, Lai Tan heaved a sigh and returned home.
When Hei Luan recovered from the effects of his debauch, he was angry with his wife: 'What do you mean by letting me lie exposed to a draught?' he growled; 'it has given me a sore throat and aching pains in the small of my back.' 'Why,' said his son, 'I am also feeling a pain in my body, and a stiffness in my limbs. Lai Tan, you know, was here a little time ago and, meeting me at the door, made three gestures, which seem somehow to have been the cause of it. How he hates us, to be sure!'
- 'He suspected that there was only Chaos, and nothing more.
- 'That which we call an end at the present moment may be the beginning of a new thing, and that which we call a beginning may, contrariwise, be the end of something. End and beginning succeed one another until at last they cannot be distinguished.'
- 'It was not so much that he did not know as that it is unknowable.'
- Lieh Tzu means that in this universe of relativity there must be contraries, even to a negative. We are only brought back, however, to our starting-point, for, as the commentator points out, that which is not infinite and not unlimited really stands for that which is finite and limited.
- That is, the inhabited world as known to the Chinese.
- 'That which contains heaven and earth is the Great Void.'
- 'Nü Kua, being a divine man, was able to refine and extract the essence of the five constituents of matter!
- This Chinese 'Atlas' was a gigantic sea-turtle.
- At the north-western comer.
- An ingenious theory to account for the apparent westward revolution of the heavenly bodies, as also for the easterly trend of the great Chinese rivers.
- In the south-west. That is, as far apart as possible. K'ua O was apparently a god of strength.
- Roughly, the modern province of Honan.
- A famous physician of the fifth century B.C.
- That is, Kung-hu, who has the weaker character, will get weaker brain-power to match, while Ch'i-ying, with the stronger will, receives a stronger mind to direct it. Though it may be that Ch'i-ying has the best of the bargain, each man, under the new arrangement, will at any rate be perfectly well balanced. The heart, as we have seen, was regarded as the seat of the mental faculties.
- A striking proof of the knowledge and practical application of anæsthetics at a very early date.
- 'The place where the sun sets.'
- 'Pan Shu made a cloud-ladder by which he could mount to the sky and assail the heights of heaven; Mo Ti made a wooden kite which would fly for three days without coming down.'
- 'Alluding to its reflecting power.'
- 'He chose the third of the swords because it could be both handled and seen.'
- It will be remembered that the sword was invisible in daylight.
- Thus, the improper use of divine weapons only leads to discomfiture. In this allegory, Lieh Tzŭ is satirizing the blood-feud, which must have been a terrible feature of the lawless times in which he lived. The powerlessness of the magic sword to kill may symbolically represent the essential futility of the vendetta which perpetuates itself from father to son.