Zhuangzi’s brain

I have been reading Wilt Idema The Resurrected Skeleton: From Zhuangzi to Lu XunThe book is a translation of various versions of the story of Zhuangzi and the skull, ranging from the original text to Lu Xun. Idema has been collecting these stories for a long time, and this is the only English language book I know of that traces one set of stories through 5,000 years of Chinese literature. This is the perfect book if you want a tour of Chinese literature with Zhuangzi and Wilt Idema as your guides.

You can read the original story here. Originally it was about Zhuangzi having a conversation with a skull and getting a lecture on the pointlessness of most of the things humans worry about.

This story was of course re-worked many times. The skull grew into a skeleton, and the Quanzhen Daoists used pictures of it as a visual aid as they evangelized.

Skeleton, O skeleton, your face is oh so ugly.

All because in life you loved women and wine.

Cunningly smiling you took your fill of meats and furs.

So your blood and flesh gradually melted away.

Gradually wasted away—but still you continued to lust.

Lusting for riches, spending your semen you reaped no rewards.

Your desires were without limit but your life had its term.

And now today you have become this skeleton.

The story also eventually gained some add-on stories that became associated with it, one of which is the story of Fanning the Grave. This first appears in the Ming in Feng Menglong‘s collection of stories. Here Zhuangzi meets a woman who is fanning a grave mound, and finds out that she is hurrying to dry her husband’s grave so that she can re-marry. This of course is a naughty thing to want to do, but Zhuangzi uses his magic powers (he is more capable of magic stuff than he was in the oldest versions) to quickly dry the grave and takes the fan back to his wife. She reviles the widow and tears up the fan. Zhuangzi promptly dies, and as soon as he is safely in his coffin a handsome young prince shows up who had been hoping to study with the master. Zhuangzi’s wife falls in love/lust with him, but then the prince falls ill and it turns out that only the brain of a living or newly dead person can save him. The widow takes an ax and opens Zhuangzi’s coffin, only to have him sit up an announce that he is alive and that the prince and his servant are in fact Zhuangzi. His widow is so ashamed she hangs herself, and Zhuangzi bangs on a pot and sings a song about the importance of not getting attached to life.

Fanning the grave is sort of a disappointing add-on for a modern reader, since Zhuangzi is the only classical philosopher I can think of who even has a wife. Fanning the Grave is clearly based on this. In the original, when Zhuangzi is drumming on a pan and singing after his wife died Huizi upbraids him ‘You lived with her she raised your children, and you grew old together” (與人居長子,老身死,不哭亦足矣,又鼓盆而歌,不亦甚乎.) This is literally the only example of talking about affection between husband and wife that I can think of in a classical philosopher. To turn it into a misogynist story about the evils of women is kind of a bummer.

The Feng Menglong version, which Idema only summarizes, is actually more interesting than that. In the Ming version this is actually Zhuangzi’s third wife, (one died and one he divorces for an undisclosed misdemeanor) and she upbraids him for this. “Women of moral rectitude are superior to men.” Zuangzi himself comes off as more of a companionate marriage husband in the Ming version than you might think. The widow uses the prince’s servant as a go-between as she tries to arrange a match with the prince, and the servant (i.e. Zhuangzi) gets paralytically drunk after she charges him with arranging a match. Maybe he was actually disappointed by her behavior? Rather than just seeing it as a confirmation of the evil of women? After the whole thing happens he burns the house down and never marries again, and the event causes him to finally achieve the Dao as he leaves all of human existence behind. It not impossible to read this as a story of a love marriage gone wrong.

Leaving aside what I think of the Feng Menglong story, Idema gives us a great collection of texts that show late imperial ideas of filial piety. Fanning the Grave was a very popular story, and we get a Manchu version of it in a text for bannermen and a Precious Scroll that Daoists used not only to tell stories about the pointlessness of life, but also to rant about the importance of filial piety. This may seem an odd thing to put into a Daoist text, but here it is, from a planchette writing. This bit is describing to a wife how she is in fact the daughter of the family she has married into, and thus she should not be loyal to her uterine family. This is a common theme in lots of discussions of Chinese families, but this is one of the most undergraduate-friendly readings to use for this.

You have always been
The bride of the son
Of your parents-in-law
But were temporarily
Lodged at your mother’s place
To grow up into an adult woman,
And only after your marriage
Did you come home
To the place to which you belong:
Your parents-in-law
Actually are
The two parents that gave you life.
In offering tea
And presenting presents, (part of courtship ritual)
They incurred many expenditures;
In inviting matchmakers
And entertaining guests,
They undertook much hard work.
They love their son
And love his wife
Without any distinction in kind
Since they hope that you,
Husband and wife,
Will provide for them in old age.
So how is it possible
That a good lad,
Who originally was a filial son,
Will not care at all
For his father and mother
Once he has been married to you?
Even though you
May not sow dissension
Between flesh and blood with your words,
It will be because
He dotes on you
And so damages his ambition and energy.
You should therefore
Speak to your husband
And explain to him in clearest terms,
‘If my parents-in-law
Brought me here
To assist and support you, my master,
That was first of all
Because they wanted me
To help you in serving your parents,
So how can you,
Because of me,
Be remiss in feelings of filial piety?’
This is the way
In which women
Should try to speak to their husbands;
This is the way
To love your husband
And help him fulfill his filial duties.
How can you
Flaunt your power
And treat everyone without respect?
You don’t pay
Any attention to your parents-in-law!
Any money
That their son
Will make, you will hide at your place
To buy clothes
And have food
While keeping that couple in the dark.
Concerned about appearances,
You are obsessed
By the clothes and jewels you’ll have,
So when you have cash,
You only make plans
For the profit of your own little family,
Or you have your mother
Or younger brother and sister
Lend the money out to gain interest,
Afraid that when your parents-in-law
Get their hands on it,
His brothers will all divide it evenly.
You say that it was you,
Your diligent spinning and weaving,
Together with your colorful embroidery But
who could know
That by hiding this money
You’re a witch that calls down disaster!
You are unwilling to lend
Your parents-in-law
A single yarn, half a grain of rice;
Among sisters-in-law
These trifling matters
Fill your eyes with a furious hatred.
Abusing your husband,
You’re ‘a chicken that crows at dawn,’
A woman who wants to be the boss,
And when all matters
Mostly go wrong,
It is all because of your meddling.
Just have a look
In the temple
At the hell for pulling out tongues:
The majority there
Are all women
Who suffer those atrocious tortures!
And then there are
Those foul-mouthed women
Who loudly commandeer their men,
Each day causing
Their parents-in-law
To have no moment of peaceful rest.
If her parents-in-law
Revile her but once,
She returns to them their curses tenfold;
If they beat her once,
She immediately threatens
To wet her pants, hanging from a rope!
This kind of person
Seeks her own
Punishments in the underworld courts,
And if she doesn’t die,
She definitely will be
Struck dead by thunder and lightning!
So I urge you,
Women in the inner apartments,
To listen to your parents and obey them

Idema does not get into all the movies that were made based on these stories in the 20th century, but the book is still a wonderful tour of all the many things this set of stories has been used for.

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