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As Happy as a Fish in Water!

A Chinese legend and an ancient text from the Zhuangzi
Retold and reimagined with a bit of literary license by Heidi Muijen and translated by Greg Suffanti
Dubble Koi, symbol of happiness ― Chinese brush painting Caroline Young

The ancient Zhuangzi text below contains a conversation between the philosophers Zhuangzi and Huizi ….

Zhuangzi and Huizi had not seen each other for quite some time. They were happy to meet again and resume their previous conversation that had culminated in a passionate, good natured altercation about “le”, happiness, and what it actually consists of and how to know it.

While the two were walking along the meandering Hao river, Zhuangzi said he would like to approach the subject of happiness from a different angle and therefore he proposed to cross the river and walk upstream. Huizi shrugged in agreement and silently followed his friend.

On top of a bridge, midway across the river, Zhuangzi stopped and looked down at the flowing water. While resting his eyes on the fish swimming underneath the bridge, he asked Huizi to pause for a moment, gesturing at the captivating scene below. Huizi looked questioningly around, especially when he saw his companion staring down at the water. He wondered if he heard the splash of the waterfall, or was it Zhuangzi, who was murmuring?…:

“See those little fishes there? What more do we need than what they show us?… As happy as a fish in the water….”

While Huizi demonstratively looked up toward the white cumulus clouds floating away from the bridge toward the valley, Zhuangzi continued:

“That gentle swimming back and forth is the happiness of the little white fish.”

Huizi sharply replied:

“You are not a fish, how would you know about the happiness of fish?”

Zhuangzi took a moment before answering, turning his gaze farther down the river, to where a glacier, mountains and clouds converged into an erratic play of shadows:

“You are not me, how would you know if I do not know about the happiness of the fish?”

Huizi, who was well cut from the tongue, had his response ready:

“I am not you, and therefore I do not know you. But you are definitely not a fish. It is therefore certain that you do not know the happiness of fish!”

Zhuangzi replied smoothly:

“Please follow me back to the beginning. You asked me how I knew the happiness of fish. That means you already knew I knew it when you asked your question. Well, the answer is that I know it here above the Hao River.”

An amused smile arose on Zhuangzi’s face as he answered Huizi, noting the play on words in Huizi’s witty question, “how”/”where”, he could know about the happiness of the fish.
Stunned by his own rigid thinking and the simplicity and humor of it all, Huizi silently followed Zhuangzi, who crossed over the bridge and continued walking along the river toward the mountains.

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