Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine


A collection of notes on the topics of classical Chinese, medicine, and traditional culture.

Zhuangzi 莊子: Mountain Tree 山木

Mountain Tree 山木

Section One





1) Zhuangzi was walking in the middle of the mountains when he saw a large tree with abundant branches and flourishing foliage.

2) A logger had stopped by its side but had not chosen it [for logging].

3) When asked for the reason he said, “It does not have any usable aspect.”

4) Zhuangzi said: “Due to the fact that it is not timber,[1] this tree is able to live out its natural life [instead of getting cut down].

Section Two





1) The master[2] left the mountain to stay at an old friend’s home.

2) The old friend was pleased and ordered a servant boy to kill a goose and cook it [for dinner].

3) The servant boy asked: “Between the one that is able to honk and the one that is unable to honk, please tell me, which one should I kill?”

4) The host said: “Kill the one that is unable to honk.”  

Section Three                       





1) On the next day, a disciple asked Zhuangzi:

2) “Yesterday [you said] about that tree in the mountain that it was able to live out its natural lifespan because of the fact that it is useless as timber. Now our host’s goose died because of its uselessness.[3] Please, Master, whose place would you rather be in?”

3) Zhuangzi laughed and replied: “I, Zhou, would like to be in the place between being timber and not being timber.

4) Now this place in between being timber and not being timber, it seems to be an impossibility. Therefore I have not yet been able to avoid trouble.

Section Four







1) If, on the other hand, I could ride the Dao and De and float and roam about, this would not be the case.

2) Without praise, without slander, now a dragon now a snake, all transforming in accordance with the time, and not willing to engage in intentional action for a specific purpose. Now above and now below, taking harmony as my measure, floating and roaming about with the ancestor of the ten thousand things.

3) To treat things as things and yet not be treated as a thing by things, then how could I contract trouble! This is the method of Huangdi and Shennong.

4) If, by contrast, you serve the interest of the ten thousand things and become infected by human relationships, it will not be like this.

5) Union is followed by separation, accomplishment by destruction, a square corner by the file, veneration by criticism, possession by loss, virtue by scheming, low self-esteem by bullying, how could you obtain this and yet have certainty?

6) How tragic indeed! Disciples! Set your intention on this: Only make your home in Dao and De.



[1]cai: The character is a combination of 才 cai (talent, ability, genius, any special skill, clearly a desirable characteristic in “normal” human thinking) and 木 mu (“wood”). Here, it very literally means the particular characteristic of wood that makes it special and usable, hence, “timber.” The play on words with this concept is the core of this story, which simply can’t be expressed in a translation.

[2]I.e., Zhuangzi.

[3]Lit. “because of not being timber.” Note that with regard to the goose, the character 材 is used not in the literal sense but in the metaphorical sense of being a material that has a use, a concrete application.

Sabine WilmsComment