Chuang Tzu: Helping the Big Thief steal our baggage and government

by Bob Schwartz

Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi (c. 369-286 BCE) is identified as author of one of the great texts of Taoism. While scholars believe that Lao Tzu, reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, never actually existed, Chuang Tzu was likely an historical figure, though he certainly did not write all of the chapters attributed to him. No matter. His always entertaining and insightful creativity has been vastly influential, not only on Taoism but on much of eastern and more recently western thought.

Chapter 10, variously entitled in English Broken Suitcases or Baggage Gets Stolen, makes a point relevant to current events: the more you devise complex technologies or complex governments, the more possible it will be for the Big Thief to steal them and use them against us. Just as the Big Thief, faced with fancy locks on a suitcase, will simply haul the locked suitcase away. Or steal the government. Pertinent insight for someone writing over 2,000 years ago, not to mention in China. (As an aside, any educational curriculum that in 2019 does not include study of Chuang Tzu, Tao Te Ching and I Ching is less than half baked.)

From The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer:


Broken Suitcases

To guard yourself against thieves who slash open suitcases, rifle through bags and smash open boxes, one should strap the bags and lock them. The world at large knows that this shows wisdom. However, when a master thief comes, he simply picks up the suitcase, lifts the bag, carries off the box and runs away with them, his only concern being whether the straps and locks will hold! In such an instance, what seemed like wisdom on the part of the owner surely turns out to have been of use only to the master thief!…

Long ago in the state of Chi, all the little towns could see each other and the cockerels and dogs called to each other. Nets were cast and the land ploughed over an area of two thousand square miles. Within its four borders, ancestral temples were built and maintained and shrines to the land and the crops were built. Its villages and towns were well governed and everything was under the guidance of the sage. However, one morning Lord Tien Cheng killed the ruler and took his country. But was it just his country he took? He also took the wisdom of the laws of the state, created by the sages. So Lord Tien Cheng earned the title of thief and robber, but he was able to live out his days as secure as Yao or Shun had done. The smaller states dared not criticize him and the larger states did not dare attack. So for twelve generations his family ruled the state of Chi. Is this not an example of someone stealing the state of Chi and also taking the laws arising from the wisdom of the sages and using them to protect himself, although he was both robber and thief?

If those in authority search for knowledge, but without the Tao, everything under Heaven will be in terrible confusion. How do I know about all this? A great deal of knowledge is needed to make bows, crossbows, nets, arrows and so forth, but the result is that the birds fly higher in distress. A great deal of knowledge is needed to make fishing lines, traps, baits and hooks, but the result is that the fish disperse in distress in the water. A great deal of knowledge is needed to make traps, snares and nets, but the result is that the animals are disturbed and seek refuge in marshy lands. In the same way, the versatility needed to produce rhetoric, to plot and scheme, spread rumors and debate pointlessly, to dust off arguments and seek apparent agreement, is also considerable, but the result is that the people are confused. So everything under Heaven is in a state of distress, all because of the pursuit of knowledge.

Everything in the world knows how to seek for knowledge that they do not have, but do not know how to find what they already know. Everything in the world knows how to condemn what they dislike, but do not know how to condemn what they have which is wrong. This is what causes such immense confusion. It is as if the brightness of the sun and moon had been eclipsed above, while down below the hills and streams have lost their power, as though the natural flow of the four seasons had been broken. There is no humble insect, not even any plant, that has not lost its innate nature. This is the consequence for the world of seeking after knowledge. From the Three Dynasties down to the present day it has been like this. The good and honest people are ignored, while spineless flatterers are advanced. The quiet and calm of actionless action is cast aside and pleasure is taken in argument. It is this nonsense which has caused such confusion for everything under Heaven.

(emphasis added)