Texts of Taoism
Chuang Tzu

Introductory Notes


'Horses' and 'Hoofs' are the first two characters of the Text, standing there in the relation of regent and regimen. The account of the teaching of the Book given by Lin Hsî-kung is so concise that I will avail myself of it. He says:—

'Governing men is like governing horses. They may be governed in such a way as shall be injurious to them, just as Po-lâo governed the horse;—contrary to its true nature. His method was not different from that of the (first) potter and carpenter in dealing with clay and wood;—contrary to the nature of those substances. Notwithstanding this, one age after another has celebrated the skill of those parties;—not knowing what it is that constitutes the good and skilful government of men. Such government simply requires that men be made to fulfil their regular constant nature,—the qualities which they all possess in common, with which they are constituted by Heaven, and then be left to themselves. It was this which constituted the age of perfect virtue; but when the sages insisted on the practice of benevolence, righteousness, ceremonies, and music, then the people began to be without that perfect virtue. Not that they were in themselves different from what they had been, but those practices do not really belong to their regular nature; they arose from their neglecting the characteristics of the Tâo, and abandoning their natural constitution; it was the case of the skilful artisan cutting and hacking his raw materials in order to form vessels from them. There is no ground for doubting that Po-lâo's management of horses gave them that knowledge with which they went on to play the part of thieves, or that it was the sages' government of the people which made them devote themselves to the pursuit of gain;—it is impossible to deny the error of those sages.

'There is but one idea in the Book from the beginning to the end;—it is an amplification of the expression in the preceding Book that "all men have their regular and constant constitution," and is the most easily construed of all Kwang-dze's compositions. In consequence, however, of the wonderful touches of his pencil in describing the sympathy between men and other creatures in their primal state, some have imagined that there is a waste and embellishment of language, and doubted whether the Book is really his own, but thought it was written by some one in imitation of his style. I apprehend that no other hand would easily have attained to such a mastery of that style.'

There is no possibility of adjudicating definitely on the suspicion of the genuineness of the Book thus expressed in Hsî-kung's concluding remarks. The same suspicion arose in my own mind in the process of translation. My surprise continues that our author did not perceive the absurdity of his notions of the primal state of men, and of his condemnation of the sages.

Book IX
Part II Section II

Ma Thi, or 'Horses's Hoofs1.'

1. Horses can with their hoofs tread on the hoarfrost and snow, and with their hair withstand the wind and cold; they feed on the grass and drink water; they prance with their legs and leap:—this is the true nature of horses. Though there were made for them grand towers2 and large dormitories, they would prefer not to use them. But when Po-lao3 (arose and) said, 'I know well how to manage horses,' (men proceeded)4 to singe and mark them, to clip their hair, to pare their hoofs, to halter their heads, to bridle them and hobble them, and to confine them in stables and corrals. (When subjected to this treatment), two or three in every ten of them died. (Men proceeded further) to subject them to hunger and thirst, to gallop them and race them, and to make them go together in regular order. In front were the evils of the bit and ornamented breast-bands, and behind were the terrors of the whip and switch. (When so treated), more than half of them died.

The (first) potter said, 'I know well how to deal with clay;' and (men proceeded) to mould it into circles as exact as if made by the compass, and into squares as exact as if formed by the measuring square. The (first) carpenter said, 'I know well how to deal with wood;' and (men proceeded) to make it bent as if by the application of the hook, and straight as if by the application of the plumb-line. But is it the nature of clay and wood to require the application of the compass and square, of the hook and line? And yet age after age men have praised Po-lao, saying, 'He knew well how to manage horses,' and also the (first) potter and carpenter, saying, 'They knew well how to deal with clay and wood.' This is just the error committed by the governors of the world.

2. According to my idea, those who knew well to govern mankind would not act so. The people had their regular and constant nature5:—they wove and made themselves clothes; they tilled the ground and got food6. This was their common faculty. They were all one in this, and did not form themselves into separate classes; so were they constituted and left to their natural tendencies7. Therefore in the age of perfect virtue men walked along with slow and grave step, and with their looks steadily directed forwards. At that time, on the hills there were no foot-paths, nor excavated passages; on the lakes there were no boats nor dams; all creatures lived in companies; and the places of their settlement were made close to one another. Birds and beasts multiplied to flocks and herds; the grass and trees grew luxuriant and long. In this condition the birds and beasts might be led about without feeling the constraint; the nest of the magpie might be climbed to, and peeped into. Yes, in the age of perfect virtue, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family;—how could they know among themselves the distinctions of superior men and small men? Equally without knowledge, they did not leave (the path of) their natural virtue; equally free from desires, they were in the state of pure simplicity. In that state of pure simplicity, the nature of the people was what it ought to be. But when the sagely men appeared, limping and wheeling about in (the exercise of) benevolence, pressing along and standing on tiptoe in the doing of righteousness, then men universally began to be perplexed. (Those sages also) went to excess in their performances of music, and in their gesticulations in the practice of ceremonies, and then men began to be separated from one another. If the raw materials had not been cut and hacked, who could have made a sacrificial vase from them? If the natural jade had not been broken and injured, who could have made the handles for the libation-cups from it? If the attributes of the Tao had not been disallowed, how should they have preferred benevolence and righteousness? If the instincts of the nature had not been departed from, how should ceremonies and music have come into use? If the five colours had not been confused, how should the ornamental figures have been formed? If the five notes had not been confused, how should they have supplemented them by the musical accords? The cutting and hacking of the raw materials to form vessels was the crime of the skilful workman; the injury done to the characteristics of the Tao in order to the practice of benevolence and righteousness was the error of the sagely men.

3. Horses, when living in the open country, eat the grass, and drink water; when pleased, they intertwine their necks and rub one another; when enraged, they turn back to back and kick one another;—this is all that they know to do. But if we put the yoke on their necks, with the moonlike frontlet displayed on all their foreheads, then they know to look slily askance, to curve their necks, to rush viciously, trying to get the bit out of their mouths, and to filch the reins (from their driver);—this knowledge of the horse and its ability thus to act the part of a thief is the crime of Po-lao. In the time of (the Ti) Ho-hsu8, the people occupied their dwellings without knowing what they were doing, and walked out without knowing where they were going. They filled their mouths with food and were glad; they slapped their stomachs to express their satisfaction. This was all the ability which they possessed. But when the sagely men appeared, with their bendings and stoppings in ceremonies and music to adjust the persons of all, and hanging up their benevolence and righteousness to excite the endeavours of all to reach them, in order to comfort their minds, then the people began to stump and limp about in their love of knowledge, and strove with one another in their pursuit of gain, so that there was no stopping them:—this was the error of those sagely men.


back 1 See pp. 140, 141.

back 2 Literally, 'righteous towers;' but ### is very variously applied, and there are other readings. Compare the name of ling thai, given by the people to the tower built by king Wan; Shih, III, i, 8.

back 3 A mythical being, the first tamer of horses. The name is given to a star, where he is supposed to have his seat as superintendent of the horses of heaven. It became a designation of Sun Yang, a famous charioteer of the later period of the Kau dynasty, but it could not be he whom Chuang Tzu had in view.

back 4 Po-lao set the example of dealing with horses as now described; but the supplement which I have introduced seems to bring out better our author's meaning.

back 5 Compare the same language in the previous Book, par. 3.

back 6 But the weaver's or agriculturist's art has no more title to be called primitive than the potter's or carpenter's.

back 7 A difficult expression; but the translation, probably, gives its {footnote p. 278} true significance. I Heaven' here is synonymous with 'the Tao;' but its use shows how readily the minds, even of Lao and Kwang, had recourse to the earliest term by which the Chinese fathers had expressed their recognition of a Supreme and Controlling Power and Government.

back 8 An ancient sovereign; but nothing more definite can be said about him. Most of the critics identify him with Shan-nang, the {footnote p. 280} Father of Husbandry, who occupies the place in chronological tables after Fu-hsi, between him and Hwang-Ti. In the Tables of the Dynastic Histories, published in 817, he is placed seventh in the list of fifteen reigns, which are placed without any specification of their length between Fu-hsi and Shan-nang. The name is written as ### and ###.