Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

A Certain Butcher?

The butcher Ding cuts up an ox with the grace of a ritual performer and in the process shows us how to take care of life—or so suggests Book 3 of the Zhuangzi. A fair number of scholars have taken this to be the text’s intended solution to the worries of Book 2. We may not be able to tell right from wrong in some ultimate sense, but we can achieve a kind of local certainty by taking care of life in the course of skilled activity.

But as with sagely gestures elsewhere in the Zhuangzi, there are reasons to hesitate. Foremost among them is the fact that in Book 2 itself we find comments about three skilled masters that seem to take up essentially the same worries that the butcher’s skilled activity supposedly solves.

The passage I am thinking about concerns three masters, Zhao the lute-player, the Kuang the conductor, and Hui the paradox-monger. The theme is completion and loss (or injury): somehow the masters’ skills give them a sort of completion that is also a loss.

Initially, completion and loss characterise the particular occasions on which they exercise their skills. Zhao plays his lute, and the tune that he plays becomes complete. But there is also loss, because in taking up that one tune he leaves all the others unplayed.

But of course there is a similar completion and loss in the mastery of a particular skill: Zhao has mastered the lute, but will never gain the same proficiency with paradoxes or oxen. Mastering a skill can take years of devotion, and there are limits to how many skills one can devote oneself to. Settling on one can then mean giving up on others.

The text suggests that this can constitute a loss because it closes one off not only from the other skills one might have mastered but also from other people. They want other people to understand their skill, but this proves impossible. Because of this, Hui engaged in pointless philosophising and Zhao was unable to teach his son to play the lute.

Is the butcher Ding closed off in the same way? Or is he somehow different from these three masters?

The references to Hui might suggest that there is a difference in the nature of the activities involved: Hui is logic-chopping while Ding is doing something practical; Hui is trying for knowledge-that, whereas Ding is exercising knowledge-how. But Hui is treated in exactly the same way as the two musicians, whose problem surely is not that they’ve mastered the wrong kind of activity. And at the heart of any Zhuangist suspicions of the sort of philosophy that Hui is supposed to have practised are suspicions of our ability to draw distinctions correctly—an ability that Ding depends on as much as does any philosopher (imagine the consequences if he lost his ability to distinguish ox from non-ox).

Here’s a thought. Book 2 tells us that the three masters differ from each other and from the rest of us only because of what they loved (hao 好). Presumably what they loved was their skill. But Ding also tells us what he loves, and it is is not his skill but is rather dao, which, he tells us, goes beyond skill. This seems to be what enables him to cut through an especially tricky joint: he must figure out how to do something he has not previously learned how to do, and that requires him to go beyond his existing skill. And perhaps this is a way in which he escapes, at least to an extent, the worries of Book 2: he is not limited by and to his existing skill in the way that the three masters are.

A line earlier in Book 2 may suggest a similar view. The Chinese is “自彼則不 見,自知則知之.” In an over-literal pseudo-translation it might read, “If from that/other then one does not see it, if from knowledge then one knows it.” I take it the point is that we can in a way understand how things are from perspectives we do not share, and thus that we have a way of going beyond our own perspectives, in knowledge if not in vision. (Maybe the anecdote of the monkey-keeper supplies an example: by understanding his monkeys’ preferences and not just his own, the monkey-keeper is able to reach an accommodation with them.)

Even if this is right, I don’t think it gives Ding the kind of certainty that you might expect to characterise sagehood. He’s not trapped, but he also couldn’t deal with just anything, and he remains vulnerable to Zhuangist worries about being useful. Still, I wonder what people make of this idea that the issue is not skill as such, but an ability to go beyond the skills we already have and the perspectives they define.

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March 4, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Zhuangzi


  1. Hey Dan; I’ve been meaning to get to this post because it very admirably takes an approach to the “skill” passages that tries to understand them with more nuance than usual.

    I’ve been thinking about your emphasis on how Ding loves dào and that it somehow goes beyond skill ( 技). As I understand your point, Ding might represent someone who has a kind of perceptual flexibility, or maybe a reflective flexibility, and that is what having dào is. On the other hand, having is insufficiently flexible (because it is more rote?). I have a question about this:

    技 connotes a kind of dexterity and in the cases of the Zhuangzi examples, very tricky dexterity that would take a while to master. But as I understand you, dào is also a kind of dexterity, but maybe a dexterity of vision or some suitable analog related not to seeing but “feeling” your way around with shen 神-powers. So, does dào go beyond because it’s some kind of “meta-dexterity”? The ability to jump from first-order dexterity to first-order dexterity? (sort of like the martial arts hero who can change styles of fighting effortlessly mid-fight?) If that’s what dào is in the Zhuangzi, is it a kind of power or ability on your reading?

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 8, 2011 | Reply

  2. I agree that the “skill stories” do not convey a solution, in any simple sense, to the anthology’s skepticism about values and practices. The various skillful characters explain their abilities in different ways, utilize different regimens, and are probably meant to embody multiple answers to questions about how to live well.

    I tend to think that we gain more by considering the stories independently than by grouping them together: in terms of content and implications, they align less with each other than with the anthology’s broader discourses about self-cultivation. To fully appreciate Cook Ding’s testimony, for instance, we would have to investigate the text’s investment in the psychology of spirit (神), which carries theological and even superstitious overtones. To interpret Woodcarver Qing’s mental state when he carves, we need to examine the text’s repeated denigration of human agency. In the face of many readers’ interpretive preference for dynamism and open-mindedness, the cicada-catcher embraces uncanny stillness through muscular control and deliberate fixation. Meanwhile there’s the dragon butcher who pointlessly squanders his family’s fortune learning a trade that doesn’t exist.

    Beyond this diversity, it may not even be helpful to consider “skillfulness” an ideal for these passages. Whenever the virtuosos are asked about their skills or techniques (技, 巧, 術), they either pointedly disclaim interest in such things or talk about something else. They have attained skill, but (mere) skill seems to be neither an end nor a means for them.

    The strong hold these stories have on readers’ imaginations probably stems not so much from the details of what the protagonists do and say, but rather from the basic shared premise: if you want to understand what it means to live well, consider what it’s like to become good at a challenging physical task. Any bodily activity requiring finesse, concentration, or prolonged training becomes an arena for reflection about knowledge and ethics. This focus is refreshing for modern Western readers, I think, because so much in our traditional philosophical ethos either ignores or denigrates the body; it may have been refreshing to Warring States readers mainly for its anti-elitist implications. (A lowly menial lectures his lord about dào!)

    Comment by Stephen C. Walker | March 9, 2011 | Reply

  3. Both Dan’s post and Manyul’s comment point to what I see as a core idea of Zhuangist thought: the crux of human agency and capacities, the crux of what we are, lies in something roughly like Manyul’s notion of second-order dexterity, a capacity for catching on to and continually extending and modifying world-guided patterns of activity. I see this capacity as providing the basis for the Zhuangist conception of “wandering” and the good life.

    So I think Dan’s post is right on target. In reply to Manyul, though, I wouldn’t interpret dao as an ability. I think Ding counts as explaining how to “nourish life” because he describes a way of building up and then extending a form of world-guided competence. He illustrates a way of extending and going beyond any existing way an agent has acquired so far. The whole process, including both the first-order and second-order ways, is the “dao” of which Ding speaks. (The corresponding ability is probably “de.”)

    At the heart of such a dao is a mysterious, uncanny process of creativity. This feature provides a plausible route to link Ding’s account of dao to the notion of a “cosmic” Dao that is the origin of things. (Dan proposes an intriguing account of such a link in a forthcoming paper called “‘It goes beyond skill’,” in Ethics in Early China, HKU Press). Perhaps Cook Ding’s dao and the cosmic dao can also be tied to a recent post of Stephen Walker’s: the cosmic dao is the dao by which the mysterious “ancestor” produces things.

    [Whoops, Stephen and I posted concurrently, so my post doesn’t respond to his.]

    Comment by Chris Fraser | March 9, 2011 | Reply

  4. Manyul—I’d agree that what you call meta-dexterity comes into the picture sometimes (maybe the pivot of dao?), but with Ding I think the issue is more the ability to extend your ability by adapting to new situations. Skill, or ji 技, would be something you’ve already mastered, and because of that would by itself only enable you to deal with situations just like the ones you’ve trained in. Real-life skilled behaviour requires more than that, it also requires the ability to adjust and adapt. I think that’s what Ding does when he gets to the hard parts, and that it’s central to what he’s calling dao. But maybe that kind of adaptiveness is inseparable from what you call meta-dexterity.

    Stephen—We agree on most of that, I think. On the literature on these questions (the 1996 Kjellberg/Ivanhoe collection has a few examples), it’s weirdly common to take the skill passages to be presenting a unified view that skill as such as the Zhuangist solution, maybe spelling this out with a know-that/know-how distinction. They’re much more interested in the question of what’s involved in really skilled behaviour than they are in advocating anything in particular, I think, and you’re right that in addressing that question they connect up in different ways with a variety of other Zhuangist themes.

    Chris—I hope you’re right that I’m right on target! I actually thought there’d be more disagreement. Maybe no one’s too worried about the three masters in QWL?

    Do folks like the reading I suggest of “自彼則不 見,自知則知之”? I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed anywhere, but I do like it.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 10, 2011 | Reply

  5. Hi Dan, That’s roughly the way I’ve always read “自彼則不見,自知則知之.” (Of course, some commentators suggest emending that line.)

    Comment by Chris Fraser | March 11, 2011 | Reply

    • Presumably this is something we talked about 15 years ago, then. To me it seems like the obvious way to read the line, once you’ve accepted a lot of other things I want to say about Zhuangzi 2 (e.g., the monkey keeper). And I think we agree about a fair bit of that. But I wonder how appealing the reading is to people who don’t start out agreeing about the other stuff.

      Comment by Dan Robins | March 11, 2011 | Reply

  6. My understanding of this story starts with the anti-elitism Stephen Walker notes, but I think it’s much more than a spicy bit of social reversal. The butcher has found Dao without any education or religious instruction, simply through his humility and openness as he pursued his true nature as a butcher. I see a strong statement against the need for education, and against any priests or sects who claim any sort of ownership of Dao.

    One could go further, and argue that, as Dao is irreducible to words and concepts, it is ONLY through the careful and egoless pursuit of one of the ten thousand activities that Dao can be apprehended. I’m not sure Zhuang Zi is going that far though.

    My sense is that here, Dao is the hidden method underlying all methods, and the wise pursuit of any tangible method might lead one to Dao itself, which then would guide them not only in previously unseen situations, but possibly in other endeavors altogether. And yet, part of the depth of Ding is that he does not pursue sagehood, or seem interested in it. He does his thing well, and finds the joy of Dao in it.

    The 3 (presumably educated) masters in chapter 2 also shared a common wisdom or understanding (“it was only in their methods that they differed from one another.” – Hinton translation) But they are enmeshed in the manifested world, so they bear their knowledge with pride and seek to enlighten people. Their “understanding” was “almost perfect,” but the butcher explains that it is only “When perception and understanding cease, [that] spirit moves freely.”

    Analyses of first and second order dexterity might be missing the passage’s point, which to me is, “find a way to find Dao, and let it guide you from there.” If you’ve found it, Dao will give you that flexibility to handle new situations, and you don’t need to analyze any of this further. If you haven’t, analysis won’t do you any good. That’s “using a finger to demonstrate that a finger is no-finger.”

    Forgive me if this is obvious or trite; I’m not a scholar, just a writer (with a dull pen).

    Comment by Mark Saltveit | March 21, 2011 | Reply

    • Welcome, Mark. Far from obvious or trite, what you say raises the central questions about dao, as I see them:

      Dao as Method: Is dao something “beyond skill” by being a further type or different level of skill? That would make it a method, perhaps hidden, perhaps not so much hidden as available to suprasensory attention (for example the spirit or the “daimonic” — shen).

      Dao as Receptivity: A different option is that dao is separate from any type of skill or method and is some other type of thing — an attitude of receptivity, maybe — that provides the sort of flexibility in skilled endeavors that we’ve been talking about. That would be an attainment of something that isn’t a method but a state.

      The advantage, it seems to me, of thinking about dao as receptivity, rather than as method, is that it makes sense of the clearly unskilled “heroes” of the Zhuangzi whose receptivity allows them to get through life unscathed. I’m thinking especially of the colorful figures in the Dechongfu chapter (“Signs of Complete Virtuosity”).

      Comment by Manyul Im | March 21, 2011 | Reply

      • The division you draw between “Dao as Method” and “Dao as Receptivity” is helpful and can, I think, be generalized further. Which aspects of dào are constant, and which change to fit the circumstance? On my continuing proposal that dào is always “the best, most appropriate, or most advisable way to act”, how much of that manner of acting can be scripted or plotted out in advance? Answers to this question constitute one of the biggest gulfs between Confucians and Mohists, on the one hand, and Daoists on the other; I tend to read the famous Daoist aversion to speaking as fundamentally an aversion to teaching.

        One characteristic Daoist move is to stress the inconstant and unpredictable features of appropriate behavior, and to teach a dào consisting in some fairly simple and abstract concept like “emptiness” (虛) or “relying” (因). As Kongzi says in ZZ4, “Take gathering emptiness alone as dào”. (唯道集虛, on an unorthodox reading) One thing that seems to be going on in many of the “skill stories” is that they offer minimalistic formulations of this sort about how you might go about reacting to your situation. Those formulations stress receptivity, but receptivity could itself be considered a “method”. The proportion of “method” vs. “receptivity” in a given dào will be a matter of explicit instruction and planning vs. absence thereof.

        Comment by Stephen C. Walker | March 21, 2011 | Reply

        • On further reflection, I’m not sure either method or receptivity is quite apt. I don’t think receptivity captures the essence of Dao, though it is certainly an aspect of it, and this chapter explicitly rejects the idea that Dao is method. Method and skill are one route to Dao, a crude approximation that might help you get close enough to find the real thing on your own, but they are also traps; the rewards and pride they bring pull you away from Dao.
          Method and skill are fishtraps and rabbit snares (ch. 26), or worse, training wheels on your bicycle. Sure, riding with training wheels presents the form of bike riding but until you remove them and risk crashing, you won’t find that balance, that push and pull against the bike and gravity, that is its essence. You never forget how to ride a bike because you’ve found its Dao, which is easy to perceive once you have it, but impossible to describe before you do. Riding without training wheels makes you more spontaneous, more receptive to situations you might say, but that’s not the essence of it.
          To me, Dao in this passage is a combination of understanding and action, or perhaps understanding through action. The Dao of each object or activity is its true and full inner nature, not reducible to words and concepts but perhaps something that can be directly apprehended. It’s the nature according to which it spontaneously unfolds in ziran/tzu-jan; metaphorically, its dance, and the way it dances along with the rest of the Universe.
          Ding grasps the Dao of butchery – Zhuangzi even says “like a sacred dance” — but not in any intellectual sense; he has worked and trained enough to “just do it” (as the philosopher Nike says) in its purest sense. Like a professional athlete who is “in the zone,” he joins this dance, and dances along. Were he not the creation of a gifted writer, he would probably have no words to explain his method.
          Zhuangzi seems to suggest that all particular Daos are mystically unified in the great Dao; thus, Ding’s Lord can learn Dao by observing him though of course he has no interest in dismembering oxen. In the same way, Zhuangzi understood the joy of fishes (ch. 17, in Thomas Merton’s version) by his own joy as he walked along the river, looking at them – they are connected through Dao. (I realize this is an atypical reading of that last line, but it rings truer to me than a simple pun on Hui Tzu’s question.)

          Comment by Mark Saltveit | March 22, 2011 | Reply

          • Argh! I shouldn’t have used the word “method” at the end of my 3rd paragraph there for obvious reasons; better “approach” or “butchery.” “no words to explain his butchery.”

            Comment by Mark Saltveit | March 22, 2011 | Reply

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