Chuang Tzu


(translated by Herbert Giles)

[See the copyright notice at the bottom of this web page.]

Chuang Chou, usually known as Chuang Tzu (approximately 390-365 B.C.), was one of the great philosophers of the Chou period in china . He was born in the Sung feudal state and received an excellent education.   Unlike most educated men, however, Chuang Tzu did not seek public office or political power.  Influenced by Taoist philosophy, he believed that individuals should transcend their desire for success and wealth, as well as their fear of failure and poverty.  True freedom, he maintained, came from escaping the distractions of worldly affairs.  Chuang Tzu's writings have been particularly praised for their combination of humor and wisdom.  His parables and stories are classics of Chinese literature.

Chuang Tzu was one day fishing, when the Prince of Ch'u sent two high officials to interview him, saying that his Highness would be glad of Chuang Tzu's assistance in the administration of his government. The latter quietly fished on, and without looking round, replied, "I have heard that in the State of Ch'u there is a sacred tortoise, which has been dead three thousand years, and which the prince keeps packed up in a box on the altar in his ancestral shrine.  Now do you think that tortoise would rather be dead and have its remains thus honoured, or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?"  The two officials answered that no doubt it would rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud; whereupon Chuang Tzu cried out "Begone!  I too elect to remain wagging my tail in the mud."


  1. What part of this story is the exposition?  How many sentences does Chuang Tzu use to set up the dramatic situation?
  2. Why does the protagonist change the subject and mention the sacred tortoise?  Why doesn't he answer the request directly and immediately?  Does it serve any purpose that Chuang Tzu makes the officials answer a question to which he knows the answer?
  3. What does this story tell us about the protagonist Chuang Tzu's philosophy?

There is a Study Guide to this story, in addition to the three questions above.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to .

   The materials above  -- the introductory note, the text of the parable, and the 3 questions following it -- are taken from X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, eds., An Introduction to Literature, 7th Edition (N.Y.:  Longman, 1999), pp. 8-9).  They are copyright 1999 by Kennedy and Gioia, and are reproduced here under fair use doctrine for use in English 320 only.  The introductory note and the translation by Herbert Giles may also be found in Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn, eds., The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction:  Stories and Authors in Context,  (N.Y.:  Longman, 2001), pp. 17-18), copyright 2001by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn.

  This page last updated 15 January 2003 .