Sunday, May 8, 2011

I recently completed an Asian Thought class here at Goucher with Steve DeCaroli (by far one of my favorite classes. ever). The final assignment for the class was to write about the complicated, and often paradoxical, philosophy of Zhuangzi, a Taoist writer in the 4th century BC, in a way that would be accessible to children. The theory being Taoist thought should be spoken about in a simple, direct fashion. The short story I wrote, "Adventures with Mrs. Pu," uses tales from Zhuangzi's original text and places them within a contemporary story of a nanny and two children: Austin and Melody. An additional author's commentary for children is always included at the end. Enjoy! (NOTE: apologies for some of the spacing and indentation issues. blogger html is funky).

Adventures with Mrs. Pu: A Reinterpretation of Zhuangzi

By: Kelly Anne Graves

Goucher College

The doorbell rang, but Melody and Austin were too preoccupied throwing Austin’s two black marbles across the dining room floor to take notice.

It was their mother, flustered and hurrying toward the door, that got their attention. They realized that there was something unusual about the person on their front stoop. It was unlike the adult-head-hat-and-coat outline that typically appeared through the stain glass window when someone knocked. This time it was different.

“Oh well hello Mrs. Pu!” their mother said, opening the door. “It is so nice to see you again! Excuse me for keeping you waiting, we were just finishing packing. Please, please let me take your bag.”

First came mother. This was expected. Then came a bright red bag. This was less expected. And then, something neither of them anticipated, stepped the two tall legs of a large white crane.

“Hello there kids!” said the crane to Melody and Austin, who were frozen stiff with the sight of the large bird standing in their living room.

“Don’t be rude,” said mother.

Austin was the first to speak up “Hi,” he said blushing a bit. Melody backed further behind him. They had never met a talking bird before.

“This is Mrs. Pu. She recently moved into the neighborhood and will be your nanny while Dad and I are away.”

Their mother kissed them on the cheek, loaded the suitcases in the car and reminded Melody to water her sweet peas before the car zipped off into the distance.

“Well look at that,” said Mrs. Pu, “It is already noon. Time for cookies and tea!” Melody and Austin followed her out to the porch, where they were handed two crunchy white cookies and a glass of hot, green water.

“How come you are so tall?” Melody asked behind a mouthful of mashed cookie. “I’ve never seen someone so tall.”

“Plus!” said Austin, “You’re a bird! Birds can’t talked,” he accused.

“Ahh, I see,” said Mrs. Pu. “Let me tell you a story.”

“Once upon a time in China there lived a great King, known by his people as Royal Relativity.”

“Really-what?” said Austin.

“Relativity,” said Mrs. Pu. “I’ll give you an example of what it means. One day Gaptooth, the city peasant, was trying to learn the difference between right and wrong. So he ventured all the way to ask Royal Relativity what he thought. Royal Relativity replied ‘How could I know that? If people sleep in the damp, their backs hurt. But is that true for an eel?’”

Austin had recently learned about eels in science class, and giggled at the thought of an eel having a sore back.

“‘But if the eel lives in trees, they shudder with fear. Is this the same for the monkey? Of these three who knows the right place to live? People eat cattle, dear eat fodder, maggots eat snakes, and hawks enjoy mice. Of these four who knows the right taste?’

“So you see,” said Mrs. Pu, “it is for this reason I am big.”

“Because I am a monkey and you are an eel?” joked Austin.

“Exactly. It is a matter of perception” Said Mrs. Pu, “Now come, let’s go for a walk!”

The two children sat there for a moment confused by what had just transpired, but finished their cookies and followed Mrs. Pu.

“I have to water my sweet peas before we go!” said Melody.

“Can we go swimming?!” asked Austin.

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Pu. “Go grab your swim wear and I’ll help Melody water her flowers.”

“What a beautiful place!” exclaimed Mrs. Pu.

“Thanks,” said Melody, “Mom and I have been working on it since I was five. Last year I was so good at watering the tomato plants, Mom said I go grow something all by myself. I picked sweet peas because they are pretty and pink”

Melody maneuvered between a series of freshly laid manure and rows of green leaves budding up from the earth

“Here is my patch!” she said, pointing out the southernmost corner of the garden in the shade. “It is the best place in all the yard.”

“Oh, I see,” said Mrs. Pu, “It is really nice. But where are your flowers? I see only dirt.”

“They…well, they are just taking their time,” she said, “but I water them everyday so they’ll become big.”

Austin came whirling out of the house and into the garden, “Ready! Re-a-d-y! Let’s go swimming! C’mon Melody!”

The three of them walked down the stone path, up the hill, and to the woods. While they walked Mrs. Pu began to hum, and the three of them marched on looking at butterflies, toads, and leaves. Finally, after 20 whole minutes, they reached the water hole.

“Here we are!” said Mrs. Pu. But Austin and Melody didn’t respond. “What’s wrong? Why are you not getting in?”

Melody sat down on the rock. “You tell her Austin, I’m not going to.”

“What? Don’t you know how to swim?” asked Mrs. Pu.

“No.” they replied in unison.

“But we’ve read books about it!” said Austin.

“And Mom and Dad told us about swimming!” added Melody.

“So we figured we’d just…pick it up when we got here.”

Melody began to sob. Austin sat next to her to sulk.

“Oh I see.” Nodded Mrs. Pu, “Did I ever tell you the story about Wheelwright Slab and Duke Huan?”

“No, we just met you,” pouted Austin.

“Ahh, I see. Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time in China there was a skilled craftsman named Wheelwright Slab. He worked long hours and was always kind to whomever he met. One day while chiseling a wheel in the royal courtyard he noticed Duke Huan reading a book. He’d always wanted to talk to the Duke, because he respected him greatly, so Wheelwright Slab put down his work and approached the Duke.

‘Excuse me, what are you reading?’ he asked.

The Duke said ‘The words of the sages.”

Confused, Wheelwright Slab asked ‘But are the sages still around?’

The Duke said ‘They are dead,’ and went back to reading.

‘Then what M’Lord is reading is nothing more than leftovers from the ancients.’ The Duke got very mad at this comment. How dare a craftsman talk to him in such a way! He ordered an explanation, and if Wheelwright Slab had none, he would be killed”

Melody looked up from her hands. “Oh no!”

“But Wheelwright Slab said ‘Your servant looks at it from the point of view of his own business. When I chisel a wheel, if I hit it too softly, it slips and won’t bite. If I hit it too hard, it jams and won’t move. Neither too soft or too hard—

I get it in my hand and respond with my mind. But my mouth cannot put it into words. There is an art to it. I’ve done it this way seventy years and am growing old chiseling wheels. The ancients dies with what they could not pass down. So what M’Lord is reading can only be their leftovers.’”

“Like meatloaf?” asked Austin.

“How old is the meatloaf?” asked Mrs. Pu.

“Blah, always too old at grandma’s house,” said Melody.

“Then yes, exactly like meatloaf,’ said Mrs. Pu. “And this is the same reason why you can’t learn how to swim from reading a book. Or hearing about it from your parents. It is like eating old meatloaf and thinking it will help you learn how to float. You will surely sink. Now come, take off your shoes and I will teach you about water.”

For the next two hours Mrs. Pu taught Melody and Austin all that they needed to know about water. She floated them on their backs one at a time, and taught them that in order to swim, they must first forget about the water altogether. She taught them about how the streams would bend around sharp earth and big boulders to flow into the water hole, and that they, too, had to learn how to bend. Austin and Melody were very happy.

When the sun began to sink lower in the sky, the gathered their things are headed home. Being so excited about their first swimming lesson, Austin and Melody skipped and jumped off the fallen logs and rocks with glee. They all sang songs and ran through the woods. Mrs. Pu took out her large wings and flew in and out the branches with ease.

But soon the sky began to get darker, and they realized that a whole hour had gone by. “Shouldn’t we be home by now?” asked Melody.

“Hey, I don’t remember that big oak tree,” said Austin.

“Oh no!” they said together “We’re lost!”

“What will Mother think? If we’re lost, where will we get our mashed potatoes from? Who will feed us dinner?” asked Austin in horror.

“Who will take care of my sweet peas?” cried Melody.

“Now, now children. Come, we’ll find our way home. Don’t’ you fret.”

“But Mrs. Pu,” said Melody, “I am scared.”

“Well, have I ever told you the story about the man and his boat?

“No. You just met us.” said Austin.

“Ahh, well I see. Well listen up while we walk.

Once upon a time in China there was a very poor man. He only had a pocket full of seeds and an old boat that had been passed down form his father’ father’s father.”

“That is a long time!” said Melody.

“Yes. And the boat was the most precious thing in the all the world to this man. When he would sleep, he would dream about his boat, when he would wake he would check to make sure his boat was still there. His whole life he was afraid of losing his boat. But then one day…”

“Did he lose his boat?” interjected Austin.

“Not yet,” said Mrs. Pu, lifting the two children over a large log in the middle of the path. “One day the man hid his boat behind some brambles off the side of the lake. He picked some underbrush and laid it across the front of the boat so no one could see it. But as soon as he began to walk away he heard:

‘Well hello there friend!’ It was a butterfly. A large orange and black monarch.

‘What do you want insect?’ asked the man. ‘I am busy.’

The butterfly danced around his head and over to his boat, ‘You know, a strong man could come and take your boat away if you’re not careful.’

‘Why are you harassing me butterfly? What have I done to you? I have hidden my boat in the brambles and underbrush, no one will find my boat. I am the only one who knows exactly here it hides.’

‘Ahh,’ said the butterfly, ‘but don’t you see foolish man? I have been living in this forest for years. I have seen many things come and many things go. You can’t just hide your boat in some branches and expect it to be safe!”

“Well what do you want me to do? It is my only possession, I am a poor man!”

“Hide it in the world and then you have nothing to lose.’

‘The world?’ How do I do that?’

‘If you hide it in the world, you can never lose it. Even if someone comes at night and steals it. It is still always where you put it.’

“I don’t get it,” said Austin. “Wouldn’t that mean it would still be lost?”

“Well,” said Mrs. Pu, “If you hide your boat in the world, not just on the side of the lake, you can never lose it, it has simply changed location.”

“Just like us!” yelled Melody. “We are lost in the world!”

“Not anymore,” said Mrs. Pu, “we’ve found our way home.”

The children had been so engrossed in the story, they hadn’t even realized that they had walked all the way up the stone path and were standing in their backyard.

“How about some pie in the garden?” said Mrs. Pu.

The two children cheered and happily made their way to the backyard. The sun was setting and the whole world seemed soft. They sat and watched the colors turn from bright pink to a calm purple, and then, finally, to the first black of night.

Suddenly Melody jumped up. “I’ll be back,” she yelled.

A few minutes later Melody came back screaming: “They’ve come! They’ve come! My sweet peas have come!” Both Austin and Mrs. Pu ran down the path to Melody’s plot and saw the miracle. The seeds had finally sprouted. Small little stems surfaced above the dirt. They were all ecstatic and danced around Melody’s masterpiece.

“I knew it! I knew it! The sprouts where there the whole time!” yelled Melody.

“Yes, well what a beautiful surprise Melody. But it is getting late, let’s walk back to the house and wash our hands before bed. And while we do that, I want to tell you a story about those sprouts.

Once upon a time…”

“In China!?” yelled Austin.

“Yes, in China,” smiled Mrs. Pu.

“Once upon a time in China, there was a man named Zhuangzi. He was a curious man and decided to go for a walk near the Diaoling preserve.

Suddenly, a strange magpie hit him in the forehead and then crashed into a chestnut grove! Hitching up his robe and tiptoeing forward, Zhuangzi pursued it bow in hand. But on his way, he saw a cicada forgetting itself in a pretty bit of shade. A praying mantis took advantage of the cover to grab for it, forgetting its own body at the sight of gain. The strange magpie was right behind, eyeing the prize and forgetting the truth. Zhuangzi shuddered ‘Eeee! How things are entangled!’ He threw down his bow and ran all the way home.

Three days later, Zhuangzi finally came out of his house. When asked where he had been, he replied ‘I was guarding my body, but forgot about myself.’”

“Your stories are always so confusing,” said Austin.

“I thought this story was about my sweet pea sprouts!” whined Melody, still excited about her achievement.

“Oh, but it is about your sweet pea sprouts Melody,” said Mrs. Pu, “When Zhuangzi yelled that things where entangled, what did that mean?”

“Sometimes my hairs get all tangly,” said Melody.

“Yes, and when your hair is tangled what happens?”

“They get all tied together.”

“Yes, so similarly, Zhuangzi sees that the cicada, the praying mantis, the magpie and himself all tied together. They are connected.”

“I still don’t understand what this has to do with my sprouts,” said Melody in exasperation.

“What did your sprouts need in order to grow?”

“I don’t know, seeds maybe.” said Melody.

“But what about the water?”

“Oh, yes, that too.”

“And what about the sun?”

“I forgot about that.”

“And what about the dirt? And the worms? And the clouds?

“Yes, those too, I suppose.” said Melody.

“And what about you? Where would those sprouts be if you hand not planted them? And your Mom? Where would those sprouts be if she had not bought you a packet of seeds?”

Melody was quiet.

“Don’t you see Melody, your sweet peas are more beautiful than you thought. They are not sprouts that needed to be cultivated. They are a combination of everything around you! They are the whole world! Without everything else, those sprouts would not grow.”

And with that Melody and Austin slipped into the covers and began to dream about all of the adventures that had happened that day.


Author's Commentary


The “Adventures of Mrs. Pu” are based off an ancient text, written by a man who lived in China, named Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi was a writer and was most famous for his contribution to the religion known as Daoism. Unlike some religions that you may be familiar with, Daoism has no God, no moral laws, and no Sunday school! Instead, it can be viewed as way of living.

The world Daoism comes from the word “Dao.” Dao can be either a verb (an action) or a noun (a thing). But instead of being just one action like “run” or just one thing like “cat,” Dao is all actions and all things at the same time! That is the tricky part. Dao is like a big blanket that falls over the world, covering everything that it touches. It is similar to when you turn on a light in a dark room— everything that is illuminated by light is part of the Dao. This will become clearer as you read on, but for now, consider Dao to be the basis of all things, just like how the cells in your body are the basis for you. It is the substance that things are made from.

There is a very important name in this book, Mrs. Pu. The word “Pu,” is Chinese. When you write it in Chinese it looks something like this . It means: “uncarved wood.” Did you know that before your chairs and tables were in the shape of chairs and tables, they were once a tree? In order to make a chair and table from a tree, you must carve away wood. This turns it into the shape it is. The word pu refers to before the wood has been carved into these different shapes. This is a very important image in Daoism, because everything is made of the same substance, Dao, it is important not to look at things as objects separate from the rest of the world. Or in terms of tables and chairs, to see the tree behind their shapes.

This uncarved block is a symbol for what is known as pure potential. The amazing thing about an uncarved block in comparison to a chair or a table, is that you can make anything from it! It is like when you have a ball of clay before it is dry. You can bend it into any shape, big or small, long or short, bumpy or smooth. But as soon as you shape it and let it sit in the sun, it is stuck. You cannot change it into another shape without it breaking. In Daosim this state of uncarved wood is very important, because it symbolizes all of the different objects at the same time. A very famous man named Laozi once said “the greatest carving cuts nothing off” (Lau, 1982). When you carve very little away from the wood, the more potential there is inside of the block. Instead of looking at one thing at a time, like a table or a chair, in an uncarved block you can see it all at the same time. In Daoism, this is very much how the world works.

Mrs. Pu was named this because in the book she is a great teacher. She tells many stories about Daoism to Melody and Austin. Naming her “Mrs. Pu” represents her ability to see the world without prejudice, preconceptions or illusions. The commentary below will discuss some major themes seen in Mrs. Pu’s teachings and how they relate to Daoism.

Royal Relativity: Shifting Perspectives

In Daoism there are no ultimate truths, everything is relative to something else. Instead of something being big or small, bad or good, an extreme is only an extreme in comparison to other things. When Melody asks Mrs. Pu why she is so tall, Mrs. Pu tells her the story of Royal Relativity and how each animal eats, lives and behaves according to what they think is right. But upon comparison, it is clear to see that it is all a matter of perspective. Have you ever stood at the top of a very high building or been in an airplane? The world looks very different from up high than it does from down below. But the amazing thing is, everything stays the same size! It is you, your perspective, that changes.

This can be seen in the famous Daoist symbol, called a “yin yang.” A yin yang is a picture drawn in black and white, two opposite colors, that together form one object. If you look closer, there is a small white dot inside the black side of the symbol and a black dot inside the white side of the symbol. This represents that opposites may appear to be extremes, but really they are part of each other. Just like how Mrs. Pu is a tall crane and Melody and Austin are small children, they are really part of the greater whole.

Another famous example of relativity in Daoism is known as the “Butterfly Dream.” It goes like this: “One night, Zhuangzi dreamed of being a butterfly—a happy butterfly, showing off and doing as he pleased, unaware of being Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, drowsily, Zhuangzi again. And he could not tell whether it was Zhuangzi who had dreamt the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi” (224). In this story, everything is relative— whether he is a man or a butterfly, awake or asleep. In order for this to work, you have to be able to shift between two perspectives. The reason that relativity and shifting between different perspectives is important in Daoism, is because if everything is all part of the same thing, Dao, then everything is in relation to one another. They are all part of the greater whole, just like the black and white sides of the yin yang. If you want to see a picture of the “Butterfly Dream,” go to page 15 of your book. This is a famous painting of Zhuangzi dreaming.

Wheelwright Slab: Non-Conceptuality

Daoism has a very special relationship with words. Unlike what many teachers and parents will say, in Daoism words are only a tool. They are not as important as experience. In fact, words can actually keep you from really seeing the world around you! When Melody and Austin reveal that they cannot swim, but that they’ve read about it in books and heard about it from their elders, Mrs. Pu decides to tell them the story of Wheelwright Slab.

The conversation between Wheelwright Slab and Duke Huan casts Wheelwright Slab in a heroic light. He is a good worker. When he asks the Duke what he is doing and learns that the Duke is reading the words of the ancients, Wheelwright Slab is unhappy. He does not see the point in reading the words of people who have passed away. He calls these leftovers. He says that the ancients died with what they could not pass down.

This story is very important in Daoism, because it characterizes something known as “wu-wei. Wu-wei means “non-action.” When Wheelwright Slab tells the Duke of his occupation as a wheelwright, it is clear that Wheelwright Slab views it as a highly skilled art. It is something that “he cannot put into words” (235) And if he did, then the words he chose would not encompass the entire picture. It is something that is “non-conceptual.” Non-conceptual means without using words. Often times it is based in experience. When Wheelwright Slab works on his wheels he enters this realm of wu-wei, which is an effortless, non-conceptual action. This is why even if you’ve read a million books about how to swim, the only way to truly learn how to swim is to master it through experience. Words may teach you a lot about floating and different types of strokes, but it is not sufficient. This is why in Daoism in order to truly learn about the world you must experience it, not read about it in a book or do it because someone told you to. You’ve probably experienced this before, like learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time.

Once Melody and Austin realize this, Mrs. Pu teaches them how to swim by teaching them about how water works and letting them experience it. Water is a very important symbol in Daoism, because it is able to flow around objects with ease. This also is an example of wu-wei. The water does not try to flow in a certain direction, it simply follows its natural course.

Hiding Your Boat in the World: Formlessness

When Melody and Austin realize they are lost in the woods, they become very afraid. Austin points out that he does not recognize the oak tree up ahead, and they are not where they are supposed to be. Mrs. Pu, however, does not become afraid. Instead, she begins to tell the children a story about a poor man and a boat. This story is an example of the Daoist notion of formlessness. Formlessness means “without shape.”

In this story the man obsesses over his boat, the only thing he has ownership over. He can’t even sleep without thinking about his boat. One day, however, he hides his boat and while walking away, is approached by a butterfly. The butterfly is an allusion to the “Butterfly Dream” discussed earlier, and is supposed to be a symbol for Zhuangzi. The butterfly tells the man to not hide his boat in brambles, but to, instead, hide it in the world. If he does this, the boat can never be lost. The man is clinging so tightly to his boat, that he allows his life to be ruled by the fear of losing it. But what the man fails to realize, is that because everything is part of the Dao, it is all connected. He cannot shave off a slice of the world, his boat, and call it his own. It will inevitably disappear. By hiding his boat in the world, he embraces

this natural law, and his boat can never be lost, only moved from one part of the world to another. Similarly, Melody, Austin and Mrs. Pu cannot be truly ever lost, they are only in a different place than they expected.

Forgetting Yourself: Interconnectivity

The final story that Mrs. Pu tells when Melody’s sweet pea sprouts finally come up, is a reference to two things: 1. Another famous Chinese writer named Mencius and 2. The interconnectivity of the world. Mencius was a Confucian writer. He believed that everyone had “sprouts of goodness” inside them, making people naturally good people. In Mencius’ point of view, it is society’s role to cultivate these sprouts and let them flourish (Chan, 2002). Mrs Pu, being a Daoist, uses Mencius’ words and asks Melody what else the sweet peas needed in order to grow. Melody answers “the seeds.” This is a very Confucian answer. But Mrs. Pu points out that the seeds in the earth may naturally have the potential to grow, but that there were so many other things in the world that the sprouts depended on to grow. Rather than merely being a matter of cultivating seeds, like Mencius believed, in Daoism the world is connected— everything depends on something else. To view the seeds as individual entities capable of growing flowers would be a misnomer, because it overlooks the contribution of the soil, the sun, the clouds, the rain, Melody, her mother, and in one way or another, the entire world!

An example of this would be if you drew a circle on a page of white paper and labeled it “a seed.” In this example, the circle stands alone and is distinct from the rest of the page. But a Daoist drawing of the situation would be very different. Instead of being a circle alone on a page, it would be many circles with lines connecting them together. This is what the word interconnectivity means: that everything is entangled, just like the magpie, the cicada, the praying mantis and Zhuangzi. This is why in Mrs. Pu’s story they all “forget themselves,” because they realize that nothing is separate from the rest.


In this commentary you’ve learned several big words: relativity, non-conceptuality, formlessness, and interconnectivity. Despite how large these words may appear, don’t be intimidated! They all represent very basic themes of life. The goal of Daoism is to get in touch with the simple realities of the world around you. The more you think about the meanings of these words and the stories Mrs. Pu told, the more you’ll begin to see them in your everyday life. Have you every sat at the edge of a brook or by the ocean? Next time you do, think about the water and how it relates to formlessness. Next time you see a flower bloom, think about how many things contributed to its growth. And the next time you see something from a different point of view, think about how your perspective influences the way you interpret it. The more that you experiment with these ideas in your own life, the more you’ll be able to experience them for yourself.

Works Referenced

Chan, Alan K. L. (ed.), 2002, Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations, Honolulu:

University of Hawaii Press.

Hansen, Chad (1983), ‘A Tao of Tao in Chuang Tzu,’ in Experimental Essays on

Chuang Tzu. Ed Victor Mair. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Ivanhoe, P. (2001). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. In J. Ivanhoe & B.

Norden (ED,).

Lau, D.C. (1982), Chinese Classics Tao Tao Ching. Hong Kong: Chinese University