From Metempsychosis to the Changing of things: The Butterfly Dream Re-interpreted
Jason O’ Donnell
In this paper I will discuss both, Herbert A. Giles’s and Hans-Georg Moller’s translations of the famous Daoist allegory, “The butterfly dream”. I will pay particular attention to Moeller’s claim that Giles’s translation is completely inaccurate. I will begin by presenting Herbert. A, Giles 1886 translation. I will then go on to present Moller’s central thesis which presents a counter translation to that of Giles. I will discuss the five Western motifs that Moeller claims influenced Giles’s misappropriation of the original Chinese text. The first of these that I will discuss is the concept of Metempsychosis. I will briefly describe the meaning of this term and explain how Moeller believes it obscures Giles ability to understand the allegory as it is intended from the Daoist perspective. The second Motif that I will discuss is the concept of “I”. I wil explain how the concept of “I, is linked to the concept of Metempsychosis in regard to Giles Translation. The third motif I will discuss is the concept of doubt and its relationship to the previous two; I will then present the final two motifs that Moeller uses in his argument against Giles translation, namely: the concept of transcendence and the concept of the relativity of the world of experience.
I will then go on to present Moller’s translation of the butterfly dream based on Guo Xiang’s commentary and compare and contrast both in relation to the points raised by Moller in regard to Giles translation. I will also include several excerpts from The Dao De Ching to assist what I hope will be a clearer understanding of the butterfly allegory and a more transparent and objective account of the argument presented by Moeller.
It is important to note, that it is not my intention to present an argument of my own. Rather, the primary purpose of this essay is to attempt to clearly define the main points of Moeller’s argument concerning his claims surrounding the accuracy of Giles’s translation.
Furthermore, when I am referring to the dreamer in either translation, be it Moeller’s or Giles’s, I will use the name exactly as it appears in the respective narratives. For example, when referring to the dreamer in Giles’s translation, I will use the name Zhuangzi, and when referring to the dreamer in Moeller’s translation, I will use the name Zhuang Zhou.
Moeller argues that, “Herbert A. Giles’s translation of the famous allegory of the butterfly dream in the Zhuangzi is beautiful, but unfortunately, as [he] believes, entirely wrong” (44). So, perhaps the best place to begin is with Giles’s 1886 translation:
Once upon a time, I Zhuangzi dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and tither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier. The transition is called Metempsychosis.
As mentioned above, Moller contends that this translation is entirely inaccurate. He attributes this mistake to the influence on Giles of “Standard” Western Philosophical thought. He goes on to present several Western philosophical motifs in order to support this claim, and then relates each one to the corresponding aspects of Giles translation which he believes were inspired by these motifs. In criticism of Giles’s translation, Moeller asserts that“the story revolves around a central act of consciousness;” when Zhuangzi awakes he remembers [his] dream, and then begins to doubt and reflect on his own being and the problems of truth and appearance”. (Moeller 44)
Moeller, further contends, that in Giles rendering, Zhuangzi “gains insight into the immortality of the soul, or the souls continuance after death. Furthermore, he claims that the use of the term Metempsychosis in Giles translation is uncannily similar to the The Myth of Er in Plato’s republic. Subsequently the notion of remembrance in Giles translation is, according to Moeller problematic, as it demands that the dreamer engages in a reflective process of doubt concerning whether he is now awake remembering the butterfly in his dream, or whether he is now the butterfly dreaming he is the dreamer. At the end of Giles’s translation Zhuangzi arrives at a conclusion. He asserts that the barrier between man and butterfly, or if you like, the world of the dream and that of the waking state can be transcended by a transitional process called Metempsychosis.
In order to understand Moeller’s argument, it is essential to discuss the Western motifs that he claims influenced Giles’s translation, and further; what impact he believes this had on Giles’s rendering of this famous Daoist allegory. The five motifs that Moeller refers to are:
- The concept of Metempsychosis
- The concept of “I”.
- The concept of Doubt.
- The concept of Transition of a Barrier, or Transcendence.
- The concept of the Relativity of the World of Experience.
The Concept of Metempsychosis
Metempsychosis is a philosophical term relating to the transmigration of souls and in particular the soul’s re-incarnation into a new body after death. Moeller believes that the significance of Metempsychosis in regard to its use in Giles 1886 translation is due, at least in part, to Plato’s incorporation of the term into some of his most influential works, and in particular, a story that arises in the last book of the “Republic”: “The Myth of Er”. In short, The myth of Er, tells the story of the son of Armenius who died but returned to life after twelve days. On his return he told of his visit to the underworld and how he observed the souls congregating in a place of judgement where they would choose new lives. Before they could inhabit their new existences they had to cross the plain of Lethe, which erased all memory of both the life they led before and the journey they made to the underworld. There are various interpretations of the myth, but it seems clear that Plato was asserting that the number of souls was fixed; therefore physical birth was merely the transmigration of an existing soul rather than the creation of a new one. According to Moeller, it is this use of the term Metempsychosis, or, “the transmigration of the soul”, that constitutes a fundamental flaw in Giles translation of the original Chinese text. It is important to keep in mind this concept of Metempsychosis regarding Giles interpretation; it is inextricably linked to the other four motifs that Moeller refers to, the next of which is the concept of “I”.
The Concept of “I”
In Giles translation the awoken dreamer is telling a story about himself; “I Zhuangzi dreamt I was a butterfly”. It is clear that the dreamer is remembering his dream and relaying the story. It seems equally clear that the story teller, (the awakened Zhuangzi), is now reflecting on himself and his dream. It appears that the I that is conscious of itself as Zhuangzi, is the same I that was conscious of itself as the butterfly in the dream. However, even though the I that experiences itself as a butterfly in the dream and the one that experiences itself as Zhuangzi remembering its experiences as a butterfly are one and the same I, on remembering the dream Zhuangzi is now confused about what he actually is. Is he the dreamer remembering being a butterfly in the dream, or is he a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi? Moeller contends, that, “Giles’s text is from the beginning to end about the I and its reflection on its own being”. Like the concept of Metempsychosis previously discussed, the idea of the dreamer remembering his dream is vital to understanding the crux of Moeller’s argument. Similarly, the concept of “I”, that is, the I that is Zhuangzi remembering his dream, is directly related to the third Motif highlighted by Moeller: The concept of doubt.
The concept of doubt
Obviously, if the dreamer is reflecting on his own being then, as noted in the previous paragraph, he is doubtful as to what he actually is. Correspondingly and also as previously noted, Giles inclusion of the concept of doubt is intrinsically tied up with the concept of I and the concept of Metempsychosis. It could hardly be argued, that Standard Western Philosophy does indeed conduct itself largely through the process of doubt. Moeller suggests that “at least after Descartes, Western philosophers are often seen as experts in doubting” (46). In fairness to Moeller, it is difficult to imagine that, as a Western intellectual the philosophical motif of doubt did not play a significant role in shaping Herbert A. Giles’s worldview. Moeller seems to suggest that Zhuangzi’s doubt about the nature of his own existence is a by-product of Giles western conditioning and further claims that the concept of doubt is nowhere to be found in the original Chinese text. Similarly, he contests that there is no substantial “I” in the original text either, whereas there are ten in Giles translation
The structure of the narrative in Giles translation seems to be as follows: The concept of I, relates to the dreamer when he awoke, which in turn sponsors the concept of doubt when he remembers his dream and begins to question his existence (Am I Zhuangzi dreaming I am a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I am Zhuangzi). This introspection evoked by the arousal of doubt due to the remembrance of his dream leads Zhuangzi towards the realization that there is essentially a barrier between the dream state and the waking state. At the end of Giles translation the narrative infers that the transition of this barrier is contingent on the dreamer/Zhuangzi, undergoing the process of metempsychosis. As previously stated, Moeller believes that this concept of the transition of a barrier or transcendence is purely Western in origin, and “contradicts the traditional interpretation of the text in China” (44).
The concept of the transition of a barrier, or Transcendence
In Giles’s translation Zhuangzi realizes that “between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier”. As noted above Zhuangzi perceives that there is a distinction between the dream state and the waking state. Equally, he realizes that there is a way to transcend this barrier; or as Moeller puts it to: “overstep the border between dreaming and being awake, between appearance and truth” (44). Again, Moller argues that “this motif alludes to the Western – and especially Judaeo Christian distinction between immanence and transcendence”(46). It is clear that Moeller wants to reiterate his point that Giles interpretation has been inspired by Western ideas that he believes are ingrained into the collective Western psyche, and as such have served to corrupt the original Chinese text.
The concept of the relativity of the world of experience.
Again, Moeller takes issue with this notion of transformation that Giles’s account seems to imply. On realizing that there is a distinction between the dream and the dreamer, Zhuangzi perceives that his dreams can only be a relative or partial reflection of reality: The reality of Zhuangzi when he is awake is afforded far greater status than the reality experienced when he is dreaming. Moeller suggests that “Giles’s story seems to indicate the relativity of the dream world of temporal phenomena, and the original text highlights the equivalent reality of all experience”(47). The decisive turning point from Giles’s perspective is when Zhuangzi remembers his dream, goes on to reflect on both the dream state and waking state and arrives at a point of ultimate seeing: The relativity of the world of experience. From here he can “look down on his earlier unenlightened state” (47). In Giles translation, one is led to infer that Zhuangzi’s enlightenment was a result of him remembering his dream after he awoke and his subsequent reflection on it. It is the initiation of this self- inquiry that results in the transition or transcendence of the barrier between Zhuangzi and the Butterfly and therefore, his Metempsychosis. According to Giles then, Zhuangzi, has consciously experienced the transmigration of the soul. As it turns out, Giles decisive turning point and the one offered by Moeller via the commentary of Guo Xiang could not be more in conflict with each other.
Up to this point I have discussed the core elements of Moeller’s argument in regard to Herbert A. Giles’s 1886 translation of “The dream of the Butterfly” in the Zhuangzi. Moeller’s central claim is based on his belief that Giles uses several distinctly Western Philosophical motifs in his rendering of this famous Chinese allegory, resulting in a corruption of the original as well as a misrepresentation of its philosophical meaning from the Daoist perspective. In contrast to Giles Moeller offers a counter translation – based on Guo Xiang’s commentary on the Zhuangzi – which he believes supports his misgivings about Giles translation, whilst at the same time, offering an interpretation which he claims is accurately placed with the context of traditional Daoist thought:
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt – and then he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly, self-content and in accord with its intentions. The butterfly did not know about Zhou. Suddenly, it awoke – and then it was fully and completely Zhou. One does not know whether there is a Zhou becoming a butterfly in a dream or whether there is a butterfly becoming a Zhou in a dream. There is a Zhou and there is a butterfly, so there is necessarily a distinction between them. This is called: the changing of things.
It is instantly clear that Moeller’s account and that of Herbert A. Giles are quite different and the contradiction between both becomes apparent. In Giles’s account the dreamer remembers his dream, whereas in the translation offered by Moeller, no such remembrance occurs. According to Moeller’s account Zhuang Zhou is simply Zhuang Zhou while he is awake, and the butterfly is simply a butterfly in the dream: “a fluttering butterfly, self-content and in accord with its intentions”. In Moeller’s account, one has no knowledge whatsoever of the other’s existence whereas in Giles’s translation, Zhuangzi remembers his dream and begins to reflect on whether he is a man or a butterfly. Clearly this does not happen in Moeller’s account; on the contrary, the latter narrative “indicates that because of this mutual ignorance, there are no grounds for devaluating one phase of existence. Both phases are equally authentic or real because each does not remember the other. (48).
Moeller is asserting that the fact that Zhunag Zhou does not remember his dream is in accordance with traditional Daoist thought. To more clearly understand what Moeller is getting at, it is important to compare and contrast, both the notion of Metempsychosis as it is applied in Giles’s translation and that of, ‘the changing of things’ as it is intended in Moeller’s. As previously discussed, metempsychosis is a philosophical term that refers to the souls journey once it has vacated the body after death. As mentioned, Moeller believes that Giles’s inclusion of “metempsychosis” is due to the influence of Western Philosophical ideas, and in particular the Platonic motif of the transmigration of souls. As it is clear from Giles translation that Zhuangzi undergoes this metempsychosis, then it must equally follow that he has experienced several phases in this transition, resulting in his arrival at the point of ultimate seeing referred to previously. It is this very process that requires several phases that Moeller is asserting is in contradiction with the true Daoist meaning of the story. Furthermore, whilst supported and sustained by the five western motifs discussed, the main power of Moeller’s claim lies in either Giles complete unawareness or complete misunderstanding of the Daoist meaning of the term “The Changing of Things. At the end of Moller’s translation, Giles’s “Metempsychosis is replaced by, “The changing of Things”. In Daoism Explained, Moeller provides us with another Daoist parable that provides a simple though powerful point of reference form which to understand the Daoist meaning of the “changing of things, as well as providing a helpful guide to assist recognition and understanding of the fundamental flaw in Giles translation. For these reasons, it is worth including this story in its entirety:
Once duke Niue was suffering from the illness of change. After seven days the change took place and he turned into a tiger. When his elder brother who looked after him come into his chamber to cover the corpse, the tiger caught the elder brother and killed him. A cultivated person had become a predator, claws and teeth transformed. Emotions and the heart had changed. Spirit and form had changed. The one who earlier was a man knew nothing about the one who now is a tiger. The two have replaced each other and changed into and opposite. Both were enjoying completeness of form
Moeller informs us, that “The transformation of Duke Niuai into a tiger corresponds to Zhuang Zhou’s transformation into a butterfly. In both transformations there is total ignorance of the respective phases of existence.” (52). The story of Duke Niuai, which is of course, the story of death – “the illness of change,” culminates with the duke turning into a tiger after seven days. The tiger has no knowledge of having existed as the duke, just the same as Zhuang Zhou has no knowledge of being a butterfly in Moeller’s translation of the butterfly dream. This of course is not the case in the account offered by Giles. To reiterate: Giles story explicitly states, that on awakening Zhuangzi has knowledge of the existence of the butterfly, hence the notion of Metempsychosis. On the other hand, like the seamless transition that occurs in the parable of Duke Niuai and the illness of Change, Moeller’s translation of the Butterfly allegory, depicts “an on-going process”, that is dependent on its opposite to exist. Furthermore, and more importantly, the existence of these opposites is contingent on “the mutual ignorance” of each other”; otherwise there is a constant swinging to and fro between each existence and as such neither one can become fully oneself. Due to the greater importance apportioned to one over the other the implication is that Giles’s butterfly can never be fully a butterfly, and Zhuangzi can never be fully Zhuangzi. If Moeller is correct in charging that Giles’s translation is, as he puts it, “entirely wrong”, then Giles’s fundamental error resides not so much in his use of Western Motifs as it does in his complete misunderstanding of the Daoist meaning of “the changing of things”. So, what do the Daoists mean, by “the changing of things”, and what does Moeller mean when he claims that, Herbert. A Giles’s must never have heard of it?
In the Zhuangzi, the relationship between life and death is often compared to the dream state and the waking state. The Butterfly dream allegory is but one example of this. Essentially then, “the changing of things”, relates to the relationship between life and death. Equally, Giles’s translation of the butterfly dream is also an enquiry into life and death and the hereafter. So, what’s the problem? The problem for Moeller is that there is essentially no hereafter in Daoist Philosophy, To the Daoists life and death are two sides of the same coin; neither one is either good or bad, but rather, complimentary opposites in a continuous series of seamless change. Indeed to the Daoists, the only constant there is is change itself. The story of Duke Niuai and the illness of change is a perfect example of this process of seamless continuance. Whereas before the duke is the duke and nothing but the duke, afterwards, there is the tiger and nothing but the tiger. Unlike Giles Metempsychosis, “where the reader is left with the nonauthenticity of dreams and asked to be ready for a transition of the immanence of life and death”(Moeller 51), in Moeller’s translation there is no place of judgement where the duke chooses to return to life as a tiger. There is no punctuated intermittence where one is travelling through the otherworld in a transmigration of one’s soul.
In Daoism explained, Moeller tells us that: “The perspective of Zhuang – zi or Master Zhuang, the narrator, is the perspective of the Daoist sage” (53). In the Dao De Ching the sage is deemed to be at the centre of the wheel. The spokes of the wheel in the Dao De Ching are representative of the world of form, that is, the world of phenomenal existence. The sage therefore is not identified with the world of form, that is, not emotionally or psychologically attached to the things of the world, and therefore does not seek a sense self in them. To the sage everything in the world of form is transient, and subject to constant change. The only thing that does not change is the centre of the wheel. From the centre everything evolves in a constant seamless flow of movement from the formless, (the centre of the wheel), to form, (the spokes of the wheel). The Centre of the wheel remains still, yet it is the centre from which the spokes are connected and because of it that they are able to move. This is explained further in Chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing, and reiterated in Chapter 37:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the centre hole
that makes the wagon move.
The Dao never does anything
yet through it all things are done
The butterfly allegory is not just an enquiry into the nature of life and death; it also explains the nature of the physical world around us. The sage does not value one particular manifestation of form over another, therefore to the sage life and death are equally valid as they are necessary opposites in a constant process of change. To the Zhuangzi in Giles’s translation, life and death, the dream state and the waking state, are not afforded equal status. Giles’s suggests that the dream state or death is of lesser importance than the waking state, and to free oneself form the cycle of life and death one must transcend the barrier between the two. This is a contradiction of the Daoist philosophy that perceives death as an integral part of life, with neither one state proclaiming a higher level of reality over the other. As noted, to the sage, both life and death are necessary conditions for the constant ebb and flow of the world of form. In this way there is nothing to transcend or transgress. As Moeller puts it, “the Daoist sage does not represent an insight into the relativity of life and death, but rather the affirmation [of] their equal and full authenticity. (54)
In Giles’s translation this seamless process is interfered with. By reflecting on himself after awakening form his dream, Zhoung Zhou, is engaged in thinking. That is, he is identified with the world of form. However, it is only through complete acceptance of the conditions of the present moment in whichever way they are configured that one understands the Daoist meaning of “the changing of things” and similarly, what it means to be in harmony with the Dao. This is made clearer in the following lines of chapter 16 in the Dao De Jing:
If you don’t realize the source
You stumble in confusion and sorrow
Empty your minds of all thoughts
Let your heart be at peace
In Giles’s translation, the awakened Zhuangzi is stumbling in confusion and sorrow. Far from empting his mind, he is in fact filling it completely with thoughts designed to figure out who or what he is. He does not realize the source of all things; he is instead, consumed by the motion of the spokes of the wheel and subsequently does not even recognise the centre from which all movement is made possible. He is motivated by the need or desire to find out who he is and therefore completely loses himself in the process. Again, this notion is reflected in the first chapter of the Dao De Jing:
Free from desire you realize the mystery
Caught in desire you see only the manifestations.
The Zhuangzi of Giles Translation of the butterfly dream sees only the manifestations, whereas, the Zhuang Zhou of Moller’s translation is in perfect harmony with the Dao. Where the former rejects one reality over another, the latter accepts things as they are now. Moller’s Zhuang- Zhou is completely and fully himself. He is content and at peace because he not reflecting on anything, therefore he is centred in the Dao. On the other hand, Giles’s Zhuangzi, is confused and therefore in conflict. He is attempting to gain clarity through a process of thinking and reflection and so is condemned to ignorance without realizing the source. In his book freedom form the known, Jiddu krisnamurti explains that it is only through negation of the self that we can realize oneness. Similarly, In Daoism explained, Moeller also refers to “the negation of one’s old identity, of one’s individuality” (154). By reflecting on himself the Zhuangzi of Giles’s translation, could be considered, to be engaged in a somewhat narcissistic endeavour; and like the unfortunate narcissus, Giles’s Zhuangzi is swallowed up in the turbulent waters of his own incessant thinking. Both Krishnamurti and Moeller seem to suggest that if Giles’s Zhuangzi had negated or diss-identified form the idea of himself as an individual, then he would be comfortable with everything as it is right now and therefore he would be aligned and in harmony with the Dao. In Moeller’s translation, this is exactly what Zhuang Zhou does. He is not concerned with who or what he is because effectively there is no him. That is to say, he is not identified with an idea or image of himself as an individual, but rather is content to allow things to be as they are and as such is free form the need to reflect or think about the nature of this or that. “This negation enables one to take on the zero –perspective and leads to an unrestricted affirmation of the world as it is”. (Moeller 154)
As discussed earlier in this paper, Moeller’s argument regarding Giles’s translation of the “butterfly dream” centres around the claim that Giles western conditioning plays a crucial role in diminishing his ability to interpret the allegory as it is meant from the Daoist perspective. There seems little doubt that Giles did indeed misinterpret this ancient Chinese text, and it seems equally valid to suggest that the reason for this was largely due the indoctrination of Western philosophical motifs and in particular, those discussed in this paper. However, it is also quite possible that Herbert A. Giles misrepresentation of the Butterfly dream was unintended. I believe he most probably did the best he could with the awareness and understanding that was available to him at the time. Nevertheless, his rendering of the butterfly dream allegory played quite a significant part in influencing the Western perception of Daoist Philosophy; unfortunately though, as Moeller quite rightly informs us, this perception is an inaccurate one.
There seems little doubt then that Herbert A. Giles did in fact get his wires crossed when it came to translating the “The Butterfly Dream” in the Zhuangzi. The influence of Western philosophical motifs served to cloud his judgement and lead him to either completely overlook or utterly misunderstand the “changing of things”, from the Daoist perspective. In replacing a hugely significant Daoist motif (The Changing of things), for what he believed was its Western equivalent, (Metempsychosis), he effectively rendered the original null and void for anyone encountering it for the first time. This fundamental error resulted in a Westernization of the allegory and so constitutes a corruption of its original meaning as it was transcribed and commented on by Guo Xiang in the Zhuangzi.
The further inclusion of Western motifs, namely, the concept of, doubt, the concept of “I”, and those of, transcendence, and the relativity of the world of experience, all serve to compound Giles misunderstanding of Daoist Philosophy. The fact that none of the above named motifs have corresponding equivalents in the Chinese language leaves Herbert, A Giles’s in a questionable position to say the least. However, a point of far greater import lies in the fact that rather than confront the notion that these Western ideas travelled with him to China, Giles appears to have not considered that they may cause him to misunderstand and therefore misrepresent that which he intended to bring back to the west. As Moller has shown, this is certainly true, in the case of “The Butterfly Dream”.
The difference between Moeller’s translation of “The Butterfly Dream” and that of Herbert Giles’s, could not be greater; although at first glance they could be mistaken as appearing to be quite similar. Giles’s translation is a call to transcend, to question the reality of the here and now, to view one particular phenomenon as more real or more preferable to another. Moeller’s translation on the other hand, demands that the present is not violated or transgressed in any way; life and death are equal and necessary expressions of the underlying order that governs all phenomena. I think it is fair to say, that in many ways Herbert Giles was on the right track regarding the butterfly dream. However, his inability to dislodge an ingrained belief system saturated in western motifs, probably meant that he was never really going to see things form zero-perspective. As Moeller, suggests, “The butterfly dream allegory speaks to both the sage and the non-sage”. Not everyone can easily relinquish their identification with the world of form. Thankfully, to accept things as they are right now and to act accordingly is enough to be completely oneself and therefore completely content, at peace and in harmony with the Dao.
Tzu, Chuang. Mystic, moralist and social reformer. Translated form the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. London: Bernard and Quaritch. 1889. Print
Moeller, Hans-Georg. Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet allegory. Open Court. 2004. Print
Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. Harper & Row. 1988. Print
Krishnamurti, J. Freedom from the known. Ebury Publishing. 2010. Print
 Guo Xiang (312 C.E) Credited with the first and most important revision of the Zhuangzi. The Zhuangzi and the Daodejing form the textual and philosophical basis of the Daoist School of thought.
 Born in India, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986) was a leading spiritual and philosophical thinker. He was not affiliated with any particular tradition nor did he advocate any particular philosophy.