Transformations of Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream: Reception History as a Critical Method
The classic Zhuangzi, a collection of sayings and anecdotes attributed to Master Zhuang Zhou (fl. 4th BCE), contains a vignette that has deeply influenced cultural life in East Asia and beyond. The story oftentimes referred to with the title “Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly” narrates the continuous transformations of Master Zhuang into a butterfly and vice versa. This key text in East Asian religious and literary history, which is routinely cited in discussions of ethical living in the context of Chinese philosophy, triggered the composition of more than 500 commentaries and a vast corpus of literary and artistic reworkings over the last two millennia. However, scholars in the English-speaking world have largely ignored these cultural products. Instead they read the Zhuangzi’s famous anecdote almost exclusively through the lens of philosophy to excavate its “original” meaning. It argues that epistemology and philosophy of language, two staples of the vignette’s contemporary interpretation, played only a minor role during the “Butterfly Dream’s” premodern reception. With the help of three examples by Guo Xiang (d. 312 CE), Li Bo (773-831), and Su Shi (1037-1101), the talk showcases that premodern Chinese audiences interpreted the short anecdote as an illustration of the relationship between life and death, the ups and downs of officialdom, or the practice of painting as a transformative process, among others. Hence, my talk points towards the multivocality and mutability of the classic and, at the same time, offers a chance to reflect upon the assumptions that guide modern Sinological readers.
Tobias Benedikt ZÜRN is a postdoctoral teaching fellow in East Asian religions at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned his Ph.D. in premodern Chinese religions and thought from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in Chinese Philosophy from the University of Munich. His first monograph, titled The Power of Presence: The Huainanzi’s Construction as an Embodiment of the Way, explores how Liu An and his erudite courtiers fashioned the Huainanzi as an efficacious, wuwei-performing scripture that can order all under Heaven by its mere presence. His second major project investigates the multidisciplinary and multimedia reception history of the Daoist classic Zhuangzi. He has recently published articles in the Journal of Asian Studies, the flagship journal of Asian area studies, and Early China, the flagship journal of the study of early China.