Texts of Taoism
Chuang Tzu

Introductory Notes


We need not suppose that anything ever occurred in Kwang-dze's experience such as is described here. The whole narrative is metaphorical; and that he himself is made to play the part in it which he describes, only shows how the style of writing in which he indulged was ingrained into the texture of his mind. We do not know that there ever was a ruler of Kâo who indulged in the love of the sword-fight, and kept about him a crowd of vulgar bravoes such as the story describes. We may be assured that our author never wore the bravo's dress or girt on him the bravo's sword. The whole is a metaphorical representation of the way in which a besotted ruler might be brought to a feeling of his degradation, and recalled to a sense of his duty and the way in which he might fulfil it. The narrative is full of interest and force. I do not feel any great difficulty in accepting it as the genuine composition of Kwang-dze. Who but himself could have composed it? Was it a good-humoured caricature of him by an able Confucian writer to repay him for the ridicule he was fond of casting on the sage?

Book XXX
Part III Section VIII

Yüeh Kien, or 'Delight in the Sword-fight1.'

Formerly, king Wän of Kâo2 delighted in the sword-fight. More than three thousand men, masters of the weapon, appeared as his guests, lining the way on either side of his gate, and fighting together before him day and night. Over a hundred of them would die or be (severely) wounded in the course of a year, but he was never weary of looking on (at their engagements), so fond was he of them. The thing continued for three years, when the kingdom began to decay, and other states to plan measures against it.

The crown-prince Khwei3 was distressed, and laid the case before his attendants, saying, 'If any one can persuade the king, and put an end to these swordsmen, I will give him a thousand ounces of silver.' His attendants said, '(Only) Kwang-dze is able to do this.' Thereupon the prince sent men with a thousand ounces of silver to offer to Kwang-dze, who, however, would not accept them, but went with the messengers. When he saw the prince, he said, 'O prince, what have you to say to Kâu, and why would you give me the silver?' The prince replied, 'I have heard that you, master, are sagacious and sage. I sent you respectfully the thousand ounces of silver, as a prelude to the silks and other gifts4. But as you decline to receive them, how dare I now tell you (what I wished from you)?' Kwang-dze rejoined, 'I have heard, O prince, that what you wanted me for was to wean the king from what is his delight. Suppose that in trying to persuade his Majesty I should offend him, and not fulfil your expectation, I shall be punished with death;—and could I then enjoy this silver? Or suppose that I shall succeed in persuading his Majesty, and accomplish what you desire, what is there in the kingdom of Kâo that I might ask for which I would not get?'

The crown-prince said, 'Yes; but my (father), the king, will see none but swordsmen.' Kwang-dze replied, 'I know; but I am expert in the use of the sword.' 'That is well,' observed the prince; 'but the swordsmen whom his Majesty sees all have their hair in a tangle, with whiskers projecting out. They wear slouching caps with coarse and unornamented tassels, and their coats are cut short behind. They have staring eyes, and talk about the hazards of their game. The king is delighted with all this; but now you are sure to present yourself to him in your scholar's dress, and this will stand greatly in the way of your success.'

Kwang-dze said, 'I will then, with your leave, get me a swordsman's dress.' This was ready in three days, and when he appeared in it before the prince, the latter went with him to introduce him to the king, who then drew his sword from its scabbard and waited for him. When Kwang-dze entered the door of the hall, he did not hurry forward, nor, when he saw the king, did he bow. The king asked him, 'What do you want to teach me, Sir, that you have got the prince to mention you beforehand?' The reply was, 'I have heard that your Majesty is fond of the sword-fight, and therefore I have sought an interview with you on the ground of (my skill in the use of) the sword.' 'What can you do with your sword against an opponent?' 'Let me meet with an opponent every ten paces, my sword would deal with him, so that I should not be stopped in a march of a thousand lî.' The king was delighted with him, and said, 'You have not your match in the kingdom.' Kwang-dze replied, 'A good swordsman first makes a feint (against his opponent), then seems to give him an advantage, and finally gives his thrust, reaching him before he can return the blow. I should like to have an opportunity to show you my skill.' The king said, 'Stop (for a little), Master. Go to your lodging, and wait for my orders. I will make arrangements for the play, and then call you.'

The king accordingly made trial of his swordsmen for seven days, till more than sixty of them were killed, or (severely) wounded. He then selected five or six men, and made them bring their swords and take their places beneath the hall, after which he called Kwang-dze, and said to him, 'To-day I am going to make (you and) these men show what you can do with your swords.' 'I have long been looking for the opportunity,' replied Kwang-dze. The king then asked him what would be the length of the sword which he would use; and he said, 'Any length will suit me, but I have three swords, any one of which I will use, as may please your Majesty. Let me first tell you of them, and then go to the arena.' 'I should like to hear about the three swords,' said the king; and Kwang-dze went on, 'There is the sword of the Son of Heaven; the sword of a feudal prince; and the sword of a common man.'

'What about the sword of the Son of Heaven?'

'This sword has Yen-khî5 and Shih-khang6 for its point; Khî and (Mount) Tâi7 for its edge; Zin and Wei for its back; Kâu and Sung for its hilt; Han and Wei for its sheath. It is embraced by the wild tribes all around; it is wrapped up in the four seasons; it is bound round by the Sea of Po8; and its girdle is the enduring hills. It is regulated by the five elements; its wielding is by means of Punishments and Kindness; its unsheathing is like that of the Yin and Yang; it is held fast in the spring and summer; it is put in action in the autumn and winter. When it is thrust forward, there is nothing in front of it; when lifted up, there is nothing above it; when laid down, there is nothing below it; when wheeled round, there is nothing left on any side of it; above, it cleaves the floating clouds; and below, it penetrates to every division of the earth. Let this sword be once used, and the princes are all reformed, and the whole kingdom submits. This is the sword of the Son of Heaven9.'

King Wän looked lost in amazement, and said again, 'And what about the sword of a feudal lord?' (Kwang-dze) replied, 'This sword has wise and brave officers for its point; pure and disinterested officers for its edge; able and honourable officers for its back; loyal and sage officers for its hilt; valiant and eminent officers for its sheath. When this sword is thrust directly forward, as in the former case, there is nothing in front of it; when directed upwards, there is nothing above it; when laid down, there is nothing below it; when wheeled round, there is nothing on any side of it. Above, its law is taken from the round heaven, and is in accordance with the three luminaries; below, its law is taken from the square earth, and is in accordance with the four seasons; between, it is in harmony with the minds of the people, and in all the parts of the state there is peace. Let this sword be once used, and you seem to hear the crash of the thunder-peal. Within the four borders there are none who do not respectfully submit, and obey the orders of the ruler. This is the sword of the feudal lord.'

'And what about the sword of the common man?' asked the king (once more). (Kwang-dze) replied, 'The sword of the common man (is wielded by) those who have their hair in a tangle, with whiskers projecting out; who wear slouching caps with coarse and unornamented tassels, and have their coats cut short behind; who have staring eyes, and talk (only) about the hazards (of their game). They hit at one another before you. Above, the sword slashes through the neck; and below, it scoops out the liver and lungs. This is the sword of the common man. (The users of it) are not different from fighting cocks; any morning their lives are brought to an end; they are of no use in the affairs of the state. Your Majesty occupies the seat of the Son of Heaven, and that you should be so fond of the swordsmanship of such common men, is unworthy, as I venture to think, of your Majesty.'

On this the king drew Kwang-dze with him, and went up to the top of the hall, where the cook set forth a meal, which the king walked round three times (unable to sit down to it). Kwang-dze said to him, 'Sit down quietly, Great King, and calm yourself. I have said all I wished to say about swords.' King Wän, thereafter, did not quit the palace for three months, and the swordsmen all killed themselves in their own rooms10.




back 1 See vol. xxxix, pp. 158, 159.

back 2 Probably king Hui-wän (B.C. 298-265) of Kâo, one of the states into which the great state of Zin was subdivided, and which afterwards all claimed the sovereignty of the kingdom. In this Book Kwang-dze appears as a contemporary of king Wän, which makes the 'formerly' with which the paragraph commences seem strange.

back 3 Sze-mâ Khien says nothing of king Wän's love of the sword-fight, nor of this son Khwei. He says that in 265 Wän was succeeded by his son Tan (###), who appears to have been quite young.

back 4 This, I think, is the meaning. It may possibly mean 'for presents to your followers in attendance on you.'

back 5 Some noted place in the state of Yen, the capital of which was near the site of the present Peking.

back 6 A wall, north of Yen, built as a barrier of defence against the northern tribes.

back 7 Mount Thâi.

back 8 A region lying along the present gulf of Kih-lî, between the Pei-ho and the Khing-ho in Shan-tung.

back 9 By this sword Kwang-dze evidently means the power of the sovereign, supported by the strength of the kingdom, and directed by good government.

back 10 Kwang-dze's parables had had their intended effect. It was not in his mind to do anything for the swordsmen. The commentators say:—'Indignant at not being treated as they had been before, they all killed themselves.'