Chuci Chapter 11, “On the Owl”

by Jia Yi, June 174 BCE
Considered to be one of the finest expressions of early Han Daoism
Translated by Burton Watson

The owl breathed a sigh
Raised its head, and beat its wings.
Its beak could utter no word,
But let me tell you what it sought to say:
All things alter and change;
Never a moment of ceasing.
Revolving, whirling, rolling away;
Driven far off and returning again;
Form and breath passing onward,
Like the mutations of a cicada.
Profound, subtle, and illimitable,
Who can finish describing it?
Good luck must be followed by bad;
Bad in turn to bow to good.
Sorrow and joy throng the gate;
Weal and woe in the same land.
Fortune and disaster
Entwine like the strands of a rope.
Fate cannot be told of,
For who shall know its ending?
Water, troubled, runs wild;
The arrow, quick-sped, flies far.
All things, whirling and driving,
Compelling and pushing each other, roll on.
The clouds rise up, the rains come down,
In confusion inextricably joined.
The Great Potter fashions all creatures,
Infinite, boundless, limit unknown.
There is no reckoning Heaven,
Nor divining beforehand the Dao.

The span of life is fated;
How can you guess its ending?
Heaven and Earth are the furnace,
The workman, the Creator;
His coal is the yin and the yang,
His copper, all things of creation.
Joining, scattering, ebbing and flowing,
Where is the persistence of rule?
A thousand, ten thousand mutations,
Lacking an end’s beginning.
Suddenly the form a man:
How is this worth taking thought of?
They are transformed again in death:
Should this perplex you?
The witless take pride in his being.
Scorning others, a lover of self.
The man of wisdom sees vastly
And knows that things will do.
The covetous run after riches,
The impassioned pursue a fair name;
The proud die struggling for power,
While the people long only to live.
Each drawn and driven onward,
They hurry east and west.
the great man is without bent;
A million changes are as one to him.
The stupid man is chained by custom.
Suffers like a prisoner bound.
The sage abandons things
And joins himself to the Dao alone,
While the multitudes in delusion
With desire and hate load in the hearts.
Limpid and still, the true man
Finds his peace in the Dao alone.
Discarding wisdom, forgetful of form,
Transcendent, destroying self,
Vast and empty, swift and wild,
He soars on the wings of the Dao.
Borne on the flood he sails forth;
He rests on the river islets.
Freeing his body to Fate,
Unpartaking of self,
His life is a floating,
His death a rest.
In stillness like the stillness of deep springs,
Like an unmoored boat drifting aimlessly,
Valuing not the breathe of life,
He embraces and drifts with Nothing.
Comprehending Fate and free of sorrow,
The man of virtue heeds no bonds.
Petty matters, weeds and thorns-
what are they to me?

Jia Yi, a Zhuangzian ruist proponent of Shen Buhai administrative method who served as Grand Tutor to king Wu Chan of Changsha, which at the time was an epicenter of early Han Daoism and the cultural traditions of the metropolis of Ying, the former capital of Chu.  While serving in Changsha, Jia Yi would quite likely have known the occupant in tomb 3 at Mawangdui who, according to Constance Cook, seems to have functioned in an administrative capacity similar to Li Sao author Qu Yuan, as well as Zhao Tuo, the Chu administrator found at Baoshan; both of whom suffered under the reign of King Huai of Chu. Jia Yi’s trip to the market, and his encounter there with the Daoist physician and diviner Sima Jizhu, is one of my favorite historical anecdotes in early Chinese history.

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