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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most prized book I own!, April 23, 2008
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This review is from: The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Hardcover)
The Chuang Tzu (rendered Zhuangzi in pinyin, which is becoming the standard transliteration these days) is second only to Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching in its popularity and veneration in the Taoist world. If you've not heard of or read this book before, you're in for a real treat! The first time I read the Inner Chapters of the Chuang Tzu was like a revelation--the thoughts and ideas expressed in these passages still resonate today for their acuity, humor, satire, stabbing profundity, and life-changing potential. Indeed, after better understanding the thought this book expresses, I felt like so many loose ideas and insights I'd gleaned from other philosophy, literature, music, and poetry had been tied up together and formulated into a concise and elegant package that is urgently relevant to every day life--pretty amazing for a text that is well over 2000 years old!

I recently completed reading the last of three complete translations of the Chuang Tzu, and I decided to wait until I read all of them before reviewing any of the three. Since this text is written in ancient Chinese, a language that was reserved for the intellectual and cultural elite two thousand years ago and has been considered effectively "dead" (like Latin) for quite a while, even understanding what the author(s) were trying to say is difficult, let alone translating the words from Chinese to English. So I figured reading a few different translations is probably the best way to get a broad and deep understanding of the text, and the cumulative effect would make up for each translation's weaknesses. This proved a good strategy--the other translations I chose were Victor Mair's Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu and A.C. Graham's The Inner Chapters. All three were rewarding and worthwhile reads (I mean, it IS the Chuang Tzu!), but I still come back to Burton Watson's Complete Works as my favorite. For the rest of this review, I'll try and explain why, and try to be helpful in pointing different types of readers to a translation that suits their individual needs. I won't go into depth about what the Chuang Tzu says, since the writing in the text is so eloquent and vivid that any description won't do it justice, and because I would probably ramble on forever about either the academic issues and questions regarding the text's authorship, historicity, and philosophy, or about how mind-blowingly intellectually stimulating it is!

In a nutshell (I'll be writing complete reviews for both), A.C. Graham's translation of the Chuang Tzu is the most philosophically rigorous translation and commentary of the Chuang Tzu I've read, but more often than not the actual text of the translation is very awkward and difficult to read. Victor Mair's goal in translating was to create the most philologically accurate translation possible (i.e. directly from Chinese to English, with as few alterations or ornamentations as possible), but it occasionally reads a bit flat and can be confusing because it contains no footnotes whatsoever regarding the philosophical nuances of the text. In my opinion, Burton Watson best captures the spirit and feel of Chuang Tzu's thought and character in the actual text of the translation. His translations seem to bring more laughs out of the humorous passages, and more oomph into the hard-hitting and breathtaking wisdom of the most philosophical sections. The predominate attitude of the most famous and moving passages in this text is a mystical one--the author's goal is to attempt to convey the powerful, ineffable feeling of contemplating and experiencing the Tao (that is, the way existence--the universe, life, and the patterns and very fabric of their being--works). Watson doesn't attempt to gut the effortless beauty of the Chuang Tzu by picking apart the ideas piece by piece or getting overtechnical with the terminology. His translation exudes the type of intuitive easy flow that Chuang Tzu is always arguing for in the anecdotes the text relays. Although he doesn't spell it out explicitly, Watson's wording has it all--when you contemplate the ideas to the point that they click, you'll find out just how good of a job Watson did.

Of course, the Chuang Tzu is what it is--a very uneven text composed by different authors and including very different philosophy in some places. Watson offers some helpful footnotes in the Outer and Miscellaneous chapters, which are generally not as sparkling as the Inner chapters, though there are always flashes of brilliance. If you're brand new to the Chuang Tzu, I highly recommend you start with Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson and including all of the Inner chapters and highlights from the rest of the book. It's the same translations you find here, but packs a more direct punch without the confusion and diluted quality of some of the other chapters. If you're already very familiar with the Chuang Tzu and haven't read it, go for A.C. Graham's translation--his introduction and chapter prefaces are some of the most illuminating commentaries I've read on this text (if only I could get Watson's translation with Graham's commentaries!). I'd only really recommend Mair's translation if you're interested in getting a slightly different perspective on the text and have read it numerous times. By the way, this book is a hearty hardcover with a gorgeous binding (it's more maroon than Amazon's picture lets on). They're selling it for cheaper now than when I bought it, and a good hardcover version of this text is an investment that will last a lifetime--I'm sure I'll still be awed by it for decades to come.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 24, 2011 4:33:11 PM PDT
M. Zveris says:
Elliot thank you for this fantastic review. Do you happen to have a favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 25, 2011 11:42:55 AM PDT
Elliot Knapp says:
Thanks for the kind words! I haven't studied the Tao Te Ching quite as extensively as I have the Chuang Tzu--and it's a much more difficult-to-translate and poetic/vague work to begin with--but from the editions I've read I've enjoyed Victor Mair's translation the most, and definitely more than I enjoy his Chuang Tzu translation. Do you have any recommendations?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2011 9:15:21 AM PDT
M. Zveris says:
No I sure don't! I'm sort of discovering Taoism as part of a spiritual journey and since you had such a great review I wanted to pick your brain a bit. Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 14, 2014 4:36:29 AM PDT
Ryokan says:
As an obsessed fan of Chuang Tzu and one who compares every English translation available, I highly recommend the translation by Brook Ziporyn. It strikes an almost perfect balance between the fine scholarship and literary qualities of the text.
I guess it's kind of a middle way between the rigorous scholarly edition of Angus Graham and the more poetic and literary nuanced ones of Burton Watson and Victor Mair.
For any fan of Chuang Tzu I also recommend 'The Butterfly As Companion' by Kuang-Ming Wu. It is absolute mandatory reading and the most comprehensive analysis of Chuang Tzu in the English language.
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