The Zhuangzi is one of the most famous early Chinese texts and a basic text of the Daoist tradition, but the story about Cao Shang 曹商 that I’m going to talk about here doesn’t seem to be among the most popular passages, possibly because it’s located in the penultimate chapter, i.e. chapter 32 of the widely used Guo Xiang 郭象 recension of the Zhuangzi. Scholars believe this chapter belongs to the group of heterogeneous collections of fragments that partly overlap with the content of the “Inner Chapters” presumably authored by Master Zhuang himself. More importantly, the penultimate chapter of any philosophical text is a point that I often find too far away to reach, so I can understand why it isn’t that well-known.
I came across this Zhuangzi story when I started to consider studying classical Chinese seriously and tried to work through Wang Li’s 王力 (1900-1986) famous four-volume textbook. I remember how it made me laugh. About a decade later, when I got the opportunity to teach undergraduates classical Chinese in London, I decided to share this joy with the young students who were about the same age as myself when this story first made me laugh. I’m not a Zhuangzi expert or enthusiast, and it doesn’t matter that this story might just be a fantasy recorded by anonymous hands much later than Master Zhuang. To me, it is more important to feel the pleasure of reading and one’s pride in having devoted some time to learning this ancient language.
Now let me try to tell this story in a different way, a way that allows me to put the miscellaneous things in my head together. As I have enjoyed animation and manga since my childhood, I often imagine things in an anime-ish way, with images, music, sound effects, etc. My current animation techniques are of course primitive and only enable me to do a simplified version of the ideal animation in my mind... But well, one must start somewhere!
PS: As this was the first time for a lot of things, I imagined there would be some problems along the way. But I didn’t expect that I spent quite some time trying to find out what kind of shoes Zhuangzi might have worn! Ju 屨 here is often interpreted as shoes made of hemp. They are simple, but not necessarily “sandals.” I’m perhaps taking too much liberty in my animation, but well, who knows Master Zhuang didn’t wear sandals? So I have tried to model his shoes on two Eastern Han figurines wearing sandals.
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