At the end of his new article, “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?,” David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist and public intellectual, writes: "Years ago, when I taught at Yale, I would sometimes assign a reading containing a famous Taoist story. I offered an automatic “A” to any student who could tell me why the last line made sense. (None ever succeeded.)" The story as Graeber quotes it:
Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling on a bridge over the River Hao, when the former observed, “See how the minnows dart between the rocks! Such is the happiness of fishes.”
“You not being a fish,” said Huizi, “how can you possibly know what makes fish happy?”
“And you not being I,” said Zhuangzi, “how can you know that I don’t know what makes fish happy?”
“If I, not being you, cannot know what you know,” replied Huizi, “does it not follow from that very fact that you, not being a fish, cannot know what makes fish happy?”
“Let us go back,” said Zhuangzi, “to your original question. You asked me how I knew what makes fish happy. The very fact you asked shows that you knew I knew—as I did know, from my own feelings on this bridge.”
Graeber admits, in a manner of speaking, that he would have had a hard time earning the “automatic ‘A’” himself. “After thinking about the story for years,” though, he concludes that Zhuangzi shows “himself to be defeated by his logician friend” as a form of play—“arguing about the fish, we are doing exactly what the fish are doing: having fun, doing something we do well for the sheer pleasure of doing it.”
Graeber’s is a compelling answer, but it’s not quite right.
And though I never took a class with Graeber when I was at Yale (I did organize for the union for which Graeber’s support led to his contract not being renewed), I will say that he won’t arrive at the right answer with the translation he cites.
He’s not the only one to come to a forced reading of the end of the parable based on an inaccurate translation. In Allegoresis, Zhang Longxi 張隆溪 says that the last statement “asserts the relative validity of knowledge, that ‘all knowing is relative to viewpoint’”; this, too, is compelling, but the translation he provides doesn’t quite make sense. Interestingly, Zhang quotes A. C. Graham here, but from Disputers of the Tao, not Graham’s translation of Chuang-tzŭ: The Inner Chapters. Instead, he gives his own translation, which reads, “When you said ‘how do you know about fish’s happiness?’ you asked me because you already knew that I knew it. I knew it above the Hao River.”
Graeber doesn’t credit the translator for the translation he provides (an anarchist who has written brilliantly on work, Graeber nevertheless reiterates capitalist commodity fetishism and an ideological faith in language as a fungible good when he denies the translator a name in his writing), nor could I find the version he’s working from in my internet searches.
The only translation I know of in which the logic of the last line in classical Chinese is successfully brought into English is A. C. Graham’s. Here’s the full text in Chinese:
The key point is Huizi’s phrasing of the question as 安知魚之樂？The translation Graeber quotes has this as, “how can you possibly know what makes fish happy?” Zhang’s is “How do you know about fish’s happiness?” Burton Watson, likewise: “how do you know what fish enjoy?” And James Legge: “how do you know what constitutes the enjoyment of fishes?” Similarly, every modern Chinese edition I’ve consulted glosses this in like manner, with 安 read as 怎麼, “how?”
Only A. C. Graham’s seems to get that 安, pronounced ān in modern Mandarin, not only means “how” in classical Chinese, but “where?” Graham’s translation: ‘Whence do you know that the fish are happy?’ And the final line: ‘Let’s go back to where we started. When you said “Whence do you know that the fish are happy?”, you asked me the question already knowing that knowing that I knew. I knew it from up above the Hao.’
Graham walks this back a bit in a footnote, saying, “Chuang-tzŭ’s own final stroke of wit is more than a mere trick with the idiom An chih [ān zhī in pinyin] ‘Whence do you know …?’, one of the standard ways of saying ‘How do you know …?’ What he is saying is: ‘Whatever you affirm is as relative to standpoint as how I see the fish while I stand up here on the bridge.’
And so Graham ends up agreeing with Zhang Longxi (citing Graham), after all. But not for the same reasons. While Zhuangzi’s stroke of wit may be more than a mere trick, it is, at root, word play. Graeber could have incorporated that into his argument, and been none the worse for it.
Graham’s translation has the virtue of being accurate, but it might read a bit stiff. There’s mock formalism to his version that might replay the mock formality of Zhuangzi, but it’s hard for me to tell if it’s making fun of being stodgy, or if it’s just plain stodgy. I would have gone with something more contemporary and colloquial, like, “Where do you get that, that the fish are happy?”
Graeber’s use of Zhuangzi makes some other philological errors. He asks, “why did Zhuangzi, who wrote it down, show himself to be defeated by his logician friend?” The passage in question comes from Zhuangzi’s Outer Chapters 莊子外篇, which consensus says were not written by Zhuangzi himself but rather by followers centuries later, playing at being Zhuangzi, and enjoying some of his happiness without being him.
But it’s this issue of translation, and how something that made pretty plain sense to its initial readers, thousands of years ago, makes such little sense to us now in the wrong translation, that seems to matter most. Think how many students it’s kept from getting an automatic “A”!