A Classic Taoist Tale of Swordplay

Duke Wen of Zhao was so fond of dueling that he kept three thousand swordplayers at his residence. Day and night, they competed against another to entertain the duke. Though more than a hundred were killed every year, the duke’s fondness for swordplay never faded. Three years went by and as the state of Zhao declined, other states plotted to attack it.

Li, the crown prince, was greatly worried. He consulted his officials, promising, “Whoever can persuade the duke to give up swordplay will be rewarded with one thousand pieces of gold.” The officials all agreed, “Only Zhuangzi can accomplish the mission.”

The crown prince immediately ordered an official to send one thousand pieces of gold to Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi, however, refused to accept it and went to see the prince instead. He asked the prince, “What do you want me to do for you? Why do you grant me such a generous gift?”

Prince Li, “I’ve heard that you are an able and wise master. The gift is for your disciples. Now that you have refused to accept it, I have nothing to say!”

Zhuangzi said, “I heard that you wished me to persuade the duke to abandon his indulgence in swordplay. If my attempt should displease the duke and disappoint you at the same time, then I would be punished and killed. What would be the use for me to accept such a generous gift? On the contrary, if I could persuade the duke and please you, too, nothing I ask for from the state of Zhao should be unattainable!”

The prince agreed, and expressed his reservations. “The fact is that the duke sees nobody but these swordsmen.”

Zhuangzi replied, “That is not a problem, for I’m also skilled in swordplay.”

The prince continued, “But the players that the duke favors to see have disheveled hair, hats hanging low, and hat ribbons thick and course. They all wear fighting attire and have a glaring look. They are inarticulate blowhards.  If you visit the duke in your scholar’s robes, things will end badly.”

Unperturbed, Zhuangzi said, “Please prepare the outfit of a swordsman.”

The Three Swords

For seven days the duke had his men compete with one another, during which time over sixty were killed or wounded. Finally, five were chosen and told to wait with their swords in front of the palace before Zhuangzi was called. The duke told him, “Today I’ll let you compete with these players.  What kind of sword will you use, long or short?”

Zhuangzi answered, “I have three swords from which you may choose. Please allow me to explain before starting the contest.”  The duke agreed.

Zhuangzi said, “The three swords are the sword of the king, the sword of the duke and the sword of the common man.”

The duke asked, “What’s the sword of the king like?”

Zhuangzi answered, “The sword of the king is made with Yanzi Gorge and Shicheng Hill as its point, Mount Tai as its blade, the states of Jin and Wei as its spine, the territory around the capital of Zhou and the state of Song as its ring, and the state of Han as its handle. It is wrapped with the uncivilized tribes and encircled with the four seasons, surrounded by the waters in the Bohai Sea, and ribboned with Mount Heng. It governs the world with the five elements and judges the right and the wrong with punishment and virtue. It initiates its power with energy of yin and yang, maintains its power with the warmth of spring and summer, and exercises its power with the force of autumn and winter. Nothing remains where the sword thrusts, whether straight forward, upward, downward, or sideward. When it pierces forward, it severs the clouds in heaven; when it swings downward, it cuts off the four corners of the earth. Once in use, it can rectify the dukes and subdue all. That is the sword of the king.”

Bewildered, Wen asked, “What is the sword of the duke?”

Zhuangzi replied, “The sword of the duke is made with men of courage and intellect at its point, men of honesty as its blade, men of capability and virtue as its spine, men of loyalty and wisdom as its ring, and men of valour as its handle. Similar to the power of the sword of the king, nothing remains wherever it goes, whether forward, upward, downward or sideward. Above, it obeys the order of the round heaven and follows the sun, the moon, and the stars. Below, it obeys the laws of the square earth and follows the four seasons. Between heaven and earth, it accords with the will of the public and achieves stability everywhere. When in use, it is as if the entire land within the borders was shaken by great thunder. No one refuses to obey its orders. That is the sword of the duke.”

The duke asked, “What about the sword of the common man?”

The reply was, “The sword of the common man is made for those with disheveled hair, hats hanging low, and hat ribbons thick and course. Its owners compete with one another and destroy themselves for show. As a result, they are either beheaded or disemboweled. In short, he who wields the sword of the common man is no different from the gamecock. Once he dies, he is no avail to the state. I say to myself that you, as the noble duke, should despise the sword of the common man you now favor.”

Duke Wen escorted Zhuangzi inside his palace, where the cook brought food. Feeling ashamed, the duke paced around the table three times. Zhuangzi said, “Your majesty, please sit down and calm yourself, for I have finished presenting my way of swordplay.”

From the Taoist classic book Zhuangzi


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