Written and Illustrated by Koo Hao Wei
The term “perfect words” is specific only to the Outer Chapters of Zhuangzi. It is first introduced in Heaven and Earth, then appeared in Tian Zifang and Knowledge Wandered North, although not much is explained about its meaning. There are no scholarly works in the English community that deal with the concept of “perfect words” thus far, at least not directly. These are motivating reasons to make sense of the term “perfect words” in the Zhuangzi. Firstly, because “perfect words” self-explanatorily refers to a way of language use, part II of this paper will introduce Daoism’s understanding of how language is limited and derives at the hypothesis that “perfect words” refers to the use of language to realize the limits of language. Secondly, because the three modes of discourse (goblet, imputed and repeated words), specifically “goblet words”, are more commonly associated to Zhuangzi’s philosophy and stance on language, part III of this paper considers them and finds that the “goblet words” most crucially reflect Zhuangzi’s philosophy and stance on language. Subsequently, because there exists a contextual gap between the Miscellaneous Chapter’s Imputed Words use of “goblet words” and other chapters, in that the other chapters do not address “goblet words” as “goblet words”, and one is unsure which term in these chapters refer to “goblet words”, the three important characteristics of “goblet words” are used as criteria in assessing if “perfect words” is “goblet words”. This leads, thirdly, to the analysis in part IV of this paper to consider “perfect words” and “goblet words” as related, in that an analysis of “perfect words” in the context of chapters Heaven and Earth, Tian Zifang, and Knowledge Wandered North reveals that “perfect words” corresponds to the three assessment criteria, which implies that it reflects Zhuangzi’s philosophy and stance toward language like the “goblet words”. The conclusion of this paper is that “perfect words” is a form or variation of “goblet words”.
II. Perfect words and the limits of language
“Perfect words” is made up of two Chinese letters, 至言 zhi yan. 至 zhi is synonymous to perfection having reached the extreme/utmost, while 言 yan refers to verbal and written language. “Perfect words” self-explanatorily refers to the use of language such that words may be at its perfection having reached the extreme/utmost. What is this perfection of having reached the extreme/utmost that Zhuangzi has in mind for “perfect words”? Perhaps the answer can be found by examining Daoism’s attitude toward language in comparison to its counterparts. From a historical context, language was the locus of philosophical activities during and before Zhuangzi’s time (Tanaka, p. 192). This is because language was thought to be instrumental to society’s harmony (Tanaka, p. 192). The Daoist lineage of philosophers, namely Shendao, Laozi and Zhuangzi, similarly disagreed about their contemporaries’ view of language.
Shendao, predecessor of Laozi and Zhuangzi, saw that there is a limit to language, in that “[t]here is a gap between what discourse […] can do and what actually happens” (Tanaka, p.196). That is, language cannot adequately represent or communicate reality. Laozi, building upon Shendao, employs language to realise what cannot be adequately represented or communicated in reality, such that even his own use of language must be abandoned (Tanaka, p.200). For example, to put into words the nothingness that comes before being, known as 无 wu in Chinese, is to bring nothingness into being, or aptly expressed in Chinese as “有” 无 you wu, which literally means that “there is nothingness”. This use of language to bring into being nothingness is such that upon one’s understanding, the essence of nothingness, even the putting into words of nothingness, must be abandoned. This is because the expression that “there is nothingness” makes it such that there cannot be nothingness before being since, at bare minimum, there is nothingness itself.
Zhuangzi, on the other hand, realises the paradoxical approach of Laozi: the language that guides us to realise the limits of language is one that cannot guide us (Tanaka, p.200). That is, language functions dichotomously as what is limited and what enables us to realise its limits simultaneously. For instance, as a continuation of the above example about the expression of nothingness: although the expression that “there is nothingness” makes it such that there cannot be nothingness, it is also this initial expression that simultaneously allows us to realise an inexpressible nothingness. Arguably, then, one cannot do away the attempt of expressing the inexpressible nothingness. This is because cutting off any preceding form of verbal or written communication about such inexpressible nothingness does not imply exactly this inexpressible nothingness, but an ambiguity that could mean anything. The implication, and Zhuangzi’s stance then, is that if we aim to realise the limits of language, in that language cannot adequately represent or communicate reality, then we must keep using language to undermine itself circularly. In contrast to Shendao and Laozi then, Zhuangzi’s discourse does not aim to go beyond the limits of language, nor does it want us to transit to what is beyond the limits of language. Instead, using language, Zhuangzi “demonstrates [and] practice the paradox of the limits of language” (Tanaka, p.200). One can now perform a hypothetical association of what Zhuangzi means by “perfect words” in relation to his stance about the limits of language: “perfect words” do not go beyond the limits of language and into the ineffable realm of reality. Instead, “perfect words” are “perfect” simply because it demonstrates the paradox of the limits of language, or it is the use of language to realize the limits of language. However, the above hypothesis remains to be verified as we consider “goblet words”, a concept more commonly associated to Zhuangzi’s use of language.
III. “Goblet words” from the Imputed Words and its contextual gap
How does Zhuangzi, using language, demonstrate and practice the paradox of the limits of language? The Miscellaneous Chapter, Imputed Words, proposes three modes of discourse commonly associated with Zhuangzi’s use of language: “imputed”, “weighted” and “goblet” words (Watson, 1968, p.303). “Imputed” or “lodging” words, 寓言 yu yan, literally mean “[y]ou borrow a standpoint to sort the matter out” (Watson, 1983, p.201). That is, it refers to the function of making use of things that are not directly related to an issue at hand to make a point. “Weighted” words, 重言 chong/zhong yan, refers to an authoritative saying “backed by depth of experience [and] not merely the respect due to old age” (Watson, 1983, p.201). Watson prefers the interpretation of 重言 chong yan as heavy or weighted, or words that have significant value. An alternative reading to 重言 chong yan is that it refers to words that repeats, or that it repeats something. “Goblet words”, which this paper will be focusing on, according to Watson’s translation, are what one “[u]se[s] […] to go by and let the stream find its own channels, [which] is the way to last out [one’s] years” (Watson, 1983, p.201). The translation refers to “goblet words” as an instrument to a certain naturalness Zhuangzi has in mind, which then allows the “stream [to] find its own channels” and ensures sustenance. These three modes of discourse, according to Wang Shumin and Shuen-fu Lin, as stated in Wang Youru’s (2004) paper, were interrelated such that “imputed” and “repeated” words can be subsumed under “goblet words”, while “goblet words” are to be characteristic of “Zhuangzi’s general stance toward […] use of language [and the] philosophical aspect of [Zhuangzi’s] theory of language” (p.196). I will take for granted “imputed” and “repeated” words, and focus more on “goblet words” since it appears more closely related to Zhuangzi’s stance on language.
The term “goblet” suggests that words function like a goblet that tips when full and rights itself when empty” (Wang, 2004, p.147). Watson (1968) says that “goblet words” reflect Zhuangzi’s philosophy of “adapt[ing] to and follow[ing] along with the fluctuating nature of the world” (p.303). We can see a correspondence between what Wang says about the function of goblet and Watson’s words: the function of goblet as a dynamic motion of filling and emptying its content under a natural frequency is the fluctuating nature of the world. To adapt and follow this fluctuating nature of the world, then, is to observe and allow the goblet’s function of filling and emptying naturally. If we relate this correspondence with Zhuangzi’s understanding of the paradox of limits of language, it makes a lot of sense. This is because, as mentioned in part I, the language that guides us to realize the limits of language is what cannot guide us, just as how the goblet’s filling leading to its own emptying is not what fills per se. The converse is also the case: language as what cannot guide us, in guiding us to realize the limits of language, cannot not guide us, just as how the goblet’s emptying leading to its own filling again is not what empties per se. Is language as what cannot guide us privileged over language as what guides us, vice versa, in such a paradox? Is the goblet’s emptying preferred over its filling, vice versa, in such a paradox? In the Inner Chapter, Discussing on Making All Things Equal provided the answer – no:
“Right is not right; so is not so. If right were really right, it would differ so clearly from not right that there would be no need for argument. If so were really so, it would differ so clearly from not so that there would be no need for argument. […] forget the distinctions.” (Watson, 1968, p.48-9)
The above quote explains by reductio ad absurdum that the very fact that we had to argue over distinctions, such as what is right and not right (wrong) about a subject matter, does not imply that there is an absolute distinction of either right or not right (wrong) for us to assert. Instead, the dispute only further reveals the inextricability of distinctions. That is, an argument over what is right or wrong occurs not because there is an objective demarcation of right and wrong, but because demarcations are drawn on a grey area that seemingly forms a continuum between right and wrong. Consequently, Zhuangzi tells us to forget the distinctions. The heart of Zhuangzi’s philosophy then, which Wang rightly pointed out, is that,
“There is no legitimacy for any fixation on a particular view or […] privileged binary distinction. Everything inherently possesses [what one] may affirm or deny[,] and can be viewed from different […] perspectives. […] [E]verything exists in a relational web [that] constantly undergoes a transformation that strips it of any self-identity.” (Wang, 2004, p.198)
Based on the above quote, we can see a trilateral relationship between goblet words, Zhuangzi’s philosophy, and his stance on language. More importantly, we now have a better understanding of how Zhuangzi uses language, specifically “goblet words”, to demonstrate and practice the paradox of the limits of language:
(i.) Zhuangzi’s discourse does not aim to assert a particular position.
(ii.) Instead, he moves about positions, like the dynamic motion of the goblet’s filling and emptying, without privileging or preferring one over the other.
(iii.) Every position has its areas of affirmation and denial that is analogous to the paradoxical filling and emptying of the goblet.
Although “goblet words” are more commonly associated to Zhuangzi’s use of language, it does not appear in other chapters besides Imputed Words. This leaves behind a glaring contextual gap between “goblet words” in Imputed Words and other chapters. If “goblet words” are not referred as such in the context of other chapters, what then do these chapters call the equivalent of “goblet words”? The first impression that comes to mind is that “perfect words” is a potential equivalent of “goblet words”. Conveniently, (i), (ii) and (iii) can serve as assessing criteria to see if “perfect words” is indeed a potential equivalent of “goblet words” in the context of other chapters.
IV. “Perfect words” in the three chapters
“Perfect words” first appeared in the Outer Chapter, Heaven and Earth: “Superior [or perfect] words gain no hearing because vulgar words are in the majority” (Watson, 1968, p.140). What is “perfect words” that is in relation to the “vulgar words” that are in the majority? The chapter provides an indirect answer by defining “vulgar words”:
“When a filial son does not fawn on his parents [he is] the finest of sons [by popular opinion]. He who agrees with everything his parents say and approves of everything they do is regarded by popular opinion as an unworthy son […]. But in other cases men do not realise that the same principle should apply. If a man agrees with everything popular opinion says and regards as good everything that popular opinion regards as good, he is not, as you might expect, called a sycophant and a flatterer. Are we to assume, then, that popular opinion commands more authority than one’s parents […]?” (Watson, 1968, p.139)
“Vulgar words”, employed by the common people, are words that (a) assert a position, (b) stay put in the position it asserts, and (c) establishes its supporting position as the absolute without acknowledging its possible limitations, while rejecting any opposing positions in its entirety without seeing their due merits. More importantly, “vulgar words” reflect the utterer or writer’s failure to realise that the content of his words, the position of which the content supports, is not privileged nor absolute above other positions. It is reasonable to say here that the reason why common people “gain no hearing” of “perfect words” is because the above stated lack of self-realisation, resulting in the utterance or expression of “vulgar words”, have obstructed them from doing so. Incidentally, (a), (b) and (c) are clearly symmetrical opposites of (i), (ii) and (iii) that characterise “goblet words”. Does it mean that because (a), (b) and (c) are symmetrically opposite to (i), (ii) and (iii), we can then say that “perfect words” is “goblet words”? The answer is possibly yes. Firstly, if “vulgar words” embodies (a), (b) and (c) which are symmetrical opposites of (i), (ii) and (iii), and it also obstructs “perfect words”, then this logically implies an intimate association between “perfect words” and “goblet words”, in that the “perfect words” that “vulgar words” obstructs is an operational equivalent of “goblet words” that fulfils (i), (ii) and (iii).
Secondly, shortly after the chapter claims that “perfect words” cannot be heard because of “vulgar words”, it proceeds to “perfect words” own meta-undermining, which eliminates the residue position that “vulgar words” obstructing people’s hearing of “perfect words” is bad, while “perfect words” is good: “With all the confusion in the world these days [because of “vulgar words”], no matter how often I point the way [to “perfect words”], what good does it do? And if I know it does no good and still make myself do it, this too is a kind of confusion. So it is best to leave things alone and not force them.” (Watson, 1968, p.140). The meta-undermining of “perfect words” itself aligns with (i) in that Zhuangzi, or his advocacy of “perfect words”, does not aim to assert a particular position. “Perfect words” elimination of “vulgar words” and then proceeding to its own undermining corresponds to (ii), in that “perfect words” is a moving about of positions to show that no singly positions are more privileged than the others. The realisation that forcing one’s way to advocate “perfect words” may be bad reflects (iii), in that no asserted positions can be absolutely good or bad, but that each has its own areas of affirmation and denial according to situations.
Thirdly, “perfect words” own meta-undermining is reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s paradox of the limits of language: just as the language that guides us, in realising the limits of language, is one that cannot guide us when employed, the “perfect words” that is good, from which the confused world can benefit when realised, is one that does no good when forced upon the world.
The next chapter that “perfect words” appears is the Outer Chapter, Tian Zifang, when Confucius, upon receiving the verbal teachings of Lao Dan (Laozi), said: “Your virtue, Sir, is the very counterpart of Heaven and earth, and yet even you must employ these perfect teachings […] to cultivate your mind.” (Watson, 1968, p.226). “Perfect teaching” is the translation of Chinese words 至言 zhi yan that “perfect words” share synonymously, and its synonymy will be taken for granted in this paper. Upon hearing what Confucius says in the above, Lao Dan disagrees with Confucius that his own teaching or the words he says are perfect in that they should be retained for cultivation of the mind: “Not so!” says Lao Dan, “The murmuring of the water is its natural talent, not something that it does deliberately.”” (Watson, 1968, p.226). This is a direct refutation against Confucius’s idea that “perfect words”, or “perfect teaching”, is what must be intentionally held onto and deemed best. Instead, Lao Dan offers the idea of “perfect words” or “perfect teaching” as a certain naturalness, which is closely related to the definition of “goblet words” provided by Watson, and the correspondence between the functioning of a goblet and Watson’s words on adapting and following the fluctuating nature of the world, which was discussed in part III of this paper. Lao Dan’s refutation against Confucius reflects the conception of “perfect words”, using the analogy of murmuring water, as what cannot be asserted from a position, and that there can be no holding onto of words, or teachings, which closely corresponds to (i).
Immediately after his reply to Confucius, Lao Dan gives a treatment of what he means by “natural talent” of murmuring water, or “perfect words”: “The Perfect Man stands in the same relationship in virtue. Without cultivating it, he possesses it to such an extent that things cannot draw away from him. […] What is there to be cultivated?” (Watson, 1968, p.226). That is, contrary to Confucius’s understanding that the perfection of an individual is achieved by cultivation, Lao Dan now claims that the perfection of an individual is achieved with no cultivation. The opposing views of Confucius and Lao Dan can be observed from another perspective which value adds to the original: Confucius believes that cultivation is necessary because the difference between a perfect or imperfect individual lies in the distinction of whether there is lacking/not lacking, while Lao Dan’s claim can be seen as dismissing such distinction because the imperfect man, “without cultivating”, already possesses the same thing as what makes a perfected man. However, Lao Dan’s reply above is contrary to his former reply when Confucius asks him how to achieve the “wander[ing] in the Beginning of things” (Watson, 1968, p.225): “It means to attain […]. He who attains […] may be called the Perfect Man.” (Watson, 1968, p.225). In Lao Dan’s treatment of “natural talent” of murmuring water, or “perfect words”, we observe that when he says that “[t]he Perfect Man stands in the same relationship in virtue”, it was contrasting Confucius’s understanding of Lao Dan’s virtue as “the very counterpart of Heaven and Earth”. A similar notion appears for a second time in Lao Dan’s treatment of the “natural talent” of murmuring water, or “perfect words”, but this time it contrasts his own initial statement between Perfect Man as one who “attains” and one who needs neither cultivation nor attaining. In two of Lao Dan’s sequential replies to Confucius, one observes a transition from one position to the other, regarding the status of Perfect Man that exists dichotomously. Is Lao Dan rejecting his initial stance, while favouring the current position he is at? No. According to his initial, cryptic instruction to “wandering in the Beginning of things”, Lao Dan says that:
“Beasts that feed on grass do not fret over a change of pasture […]. They accept the minor shift as long as the all-important constant is not lost. […] if you can find that One and become identical with it, […] life and death, beginning and end will be mere day and night, and nothing […] can confound you – certainly not the trifles of gain and loss […].” (Watson, 1968, p. 225-6).
What this means is that binary (or more) distinctions that exist contradicting, i.e. life and death, are integral aspects of the “change of pasture”. This “change of pasture” seems to correlate to the notion of “goblet” in “goblet words” and Watson’s words about the adapting and following of the fluctuating nature of the world. This is because the “minor shift[s]” of this “change of pasture” involves the natural following of distinctions such as life and death, beginning and end, and day and night. One can in fact say that this “change of pasture” is the natural filling and emptying of the goblet and the adapting and following of the fluctuating nature of the world. Firstly, this acknowledgement of distinctions as necessary aspects of nature’s change corresponds to the correspondence made between the notion of goblet in “goblet words” and Watson’s words in part III of this paper. It is also equivalent to asserting no singly positions, which in this case corresponds to (i). Secondly, because Lao Dan moves from one contradicting position to another without favouring one or rejecting the other, it corresponds to (ii). Thirdly, by acknowledging distinctions, such as life and gain which are commonly thought to be good, and death and loss which were thought to be bad, as necessary aspects of nature’s change. It is to see these distinctions as having their own rightful affirmations and denials, and so it corresponds to (iii). We also have a clearer picture of what Lao Dan means when he says that the “natural talent” of the murmuring water, or “perfect words”, was to be “not cultivating”: Because cultivating and not cultivating, like all other distinctions such as gain and loss, life and death, are part of the “One”, or the “change of pasture”. Since the finding of that “One” and becoming identical with it, or the observing of the “change of pasture”, achieves (i), (ii) and (iii), we can posit that the “One”, or the “change of pasture”, refers to the paradox that Zhuangzi realizes in the limits of language. In this case, the “natural talent” of the murmuring water, or “perfect words”, like “goblet words”, reflects Zhuangzi’s stance on language.
The last chapter “perfect words” appears is in the Outer Chapter, Knowledge Wandered North: “Perfect words eliminate all words […].” (Ziporyn, p.92). Here is what the chapter explained for the motivation of such saying, but indirectly:
“[…] men of this world […] know the things they happen to encounter, but not those that they have never encountered. They know how to do things they can do, but they can’t do the things they don’t know how to do. Not to know, not to be able to do – from these mankind can never escape. And yet there are those who struggle to escape from the inescapable […].” (Watson, 1968, p.147).
What this quote means is that men only remember the distinction between what they know and not know, but forgets that the nature of both are paradoxically inextricable, as is with all other distinctions: the knowing of things as encountered is always preceded by the not knowing of those things as unencountered, while the not knowing of things as unencountered is always succeeded by the knowing of those things eventually as the encountered. Clearly, in this case, the precession and succession between knowing/not knowing, and the encountered/unencountered, are not just knowing/not knowing and the encountered/ unencountered only. As with all other distinctions, they are seemingly like a continuum that always come together and that it is impossible to take one from the other and identify them separately. The transition between knowing and not knowing, and encountered and unencountered is such that knowing is also not knowing, and the encountered is also the unencountered, vice versa. In this case, the implication is that no singly positions, based on distinctions, such as knowing/not knowing, and the encountered/unencountered can be asserted. This corresponds to (i) and (iii). The point from this which corresponds to (ii), is that because distinctions such as knowing/not knowing and the encountered/unencountered are integral to our nature in that we cannot “escape” them, instead of struggling to “escape from the inescapable”, we should adapt and follow them, which implies the transition from position to position without privileging or favouring one over the other. “Perfect words” that “eliminates all words” is, at heart, a reverberation of Zhuangzi’s understanding of the paradox of the limits of language, but said in the context of men struggling to escape the inescapability of not knowing, men who indefinitely accumulates knowing. Conversely, if “perfect words” is said in the context of language sceptics like Cratylus, instead of eliminating words, “perfect words” will be the “accumulation of words”.
By far, the illustration of “perfect words” from these three chapters demonstrates that they fulfil the three assessment criteria from part III of this paper. Although coming from different chapters, these illustrations of “perfect words” seemingly, concertedly, exemplifies Zhuangzi’s philosophy and his stance on language. From these illustrations, we can conclude that “Perfect words” is a form or variation of “goblet words”, but differs in that it clearly serves different contextual purpose(s) in chapters Heaven and Earth, Tian Zifang, and Knowledge Wandered North. As a final concluding remark, the self-explanatory understanding of “perfect words” laid out in part II of this paper is a definition that is noncontradictory to the analyses of this paper. What this paper did was to single out the ambiguity of “perfect” in “perfect words” and attempted to provide a better understanding of it by a close association to the “goblet words”, which was found to be possible. We can be quite sure that the initial hypothesis about the definition of “perfect” in “perfect words”, as what demonstrates the paradox of the limits of language or the using of language to realize the limits of language, is well supported by the following analyses in part III and IV of this paper.
 In Plato’s dialogue, Cratylus rejects the use of language, because words would not be able to reflect a world of flux for him.