Ambling, shambling, rambling, wandering, wondering: the spirit of Master Zhuang / Chuang

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All the talk of moseying and ambling propelled me into a customary mode of mind.  Those who have taken classes with me know that, though I may start at a certain point in my lectures, it is difficult to predict how we will get to our intended destination, though we are certain to pass through many interesting and edifying scenes and scenarios along the way.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, my favorite Chinese work of all time is the Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu 莊子 (ca. 3rd c. BC).  The English title of my translation is Wandering on the Way.  The publisher wanted something more evocative than "Master Zhuang / Chuang" or "Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu", so I spent a couple of days coming up with about sixty possible titles, and they picked the one that I myself preferred, "Wandering on the Way", which is based on the first chapter of the book:  "Xiāoyáo yóu 逍遙遊" ("Carefree wandering").

Now, when we dive deep into the spirit of xiāoyáo 逍遙 ("carefreeness; being free and easy"), we find that it gets to the very soul of Master Zhuang.


A reduplicative ideophonic word, originally meaning “to walk leisurely”. As a concept in Chinese philosophy, xiaoyao was featured prominently in the ancient text of Zhuangzi. Compare the similar reduplicative formations of:

  • 招搖 (OC *tjew lew, “to walk freely > to act pretentiously”)
  • 優游 (OC *qu lu, “at leisure”)
  • 夭紹 (OC *qrow djewʔ), 要紹 (OC *qew djewʔ, “lithe; relaxed”)


(Zhengzhang): /*sew  lew/


Examining the construction of the sinographs used to write these four words in characters — xiāoyáo 逍遙 ("carefreeness; being free and easy") plus the three words in the indented section just above — it is clear that the discrepant semantophores are largely irrelevant.  What matters are the phonemes that constitute these kindred expressions.  As is true with most ancient disyllabic morphemes, the radicals / classifiers / semantophores were added later in the evolution of the Sinographic forms.

Xiāoyáo 逍遙 ("carefreeness; being free and easy") ended up with Kangxi radical 162 — chuò 辵 (⻌、⻍、⻎), which means "walk" — nicely compatible with the notion of "wandering".

There's an ancient Sinitic disyllabic word — wēiyí 委蛇 / 逶迤 (and there are many other different graphic representations [I think that I once counted a dozen variants]) — that means "meandering; winding; sinuous".  Neither of the syllables by itself means anything germane to this expression.  It's one of those disyllabic morphemes, of which there are plenty in Sinitic: qílín 麒麟 ("kirin" [not "unicorn"] — see "Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions" [12/23/18]), fènghuáng 鳳凰 (so-called "phoenix"), pípá 琵琶 ("biwa; lute"), pútáo 葡萄 ("grape"),  zhīzhū 蜘蛛 ("spider"), shānhú 珊瑚 ("coral"), qiūyǐn 蚯蚓 ("earthworm"), xīshuài 蟋蟀 ("cricket"), gūlù 轂轆 ("wheel"; cf. "Archeological and linguistic evidence for the wheel in East Asia" [3/11/20]), húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly" — of mythical proportions, deftly dissected by George Kennedy (1901-1960), the brilliant Yale professor), and so forth.  See "'Butterfly' words as a source of etymological confusion" (1/28/16).  Most of these expressions are ancient and have more than one Sinographic form, and several of them have Iranian or other foreign antecedents.  All of them provide powerful evidence of the priority of sound over written Sinographic form.  One such disyllabic morpheme that has a special place in my heart is 尴尬 (simpl.) 尷尬 (trad.) / 尲尬 (the Hanyu Pinyin romanization of this word for Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM] is gāngà).  A decidedly colloquial expression, it has at least 10 different Sinographic forms known to me.

I believe that a detailed study of the historical phonology of all of these expressions would handsomely repay whomever undertook it.

Finally, a brief look at the last (the third) Sinograph of the title of the first chapter of the Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu, viz., yóu 遊 ("travel, tour; wander, roam; play; walk; move freely").

From Sino-Tibetan. Cognate with Tibetan རྒྱུ་ (rgyu, to go; to walk; to move; to wander), Lepcha (), Rawang (to flow) (Schuessler, 2007).

Same word as (OC *lu, “to swim”).


When we replace the radical 162 ("walk") of yóu 遊 ("travel, tour; wander, roam; play; walk; move freely") with the radical 85 ("three dots water"), this results in yóu 游 ("swim").  Bearing in mind the rule of the late attachment of radicals / classifiers / semantophores, one realizes that with yóu 遊 ("walk; roam; play", etc.) and yóu 游 ("swim"), we are dealing with a single etymon, one that conveys the notions of leisurely roaming, swimming (flowing-floating along with a current), and playing.  That's the excursive ludic propensity of my alter ego, Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu.


Selected readings

  • "Mosey" (7/19/21)
  • "GA" (8/6/17) — for GANGA ("awkward; embarrassed")
  • "Goblet word" (5/30/20)
  • "Horses, soma, riddles, magi, and animal style art in southern China" (11/11/19)
  • Graham, A. C. "Chuang-tzu and the Rambling Mode."  In T. C. Lai, ed., The Art and Profession of Translation:  Hong Kong:  Hong Kong Translation Society, 1976. Pp. 61-77.
  • Mair, Victor H., tr. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998; first ed. New York:  Bantam, 1994); also available as Zhuangzi Bilingual Edition, translated by Victor H. Mair (English) and Minci Li (Modern Chinese) (Columbus:  The Ohio State University Foreign Language Publications, production of the National East Asian Languages Resource Center, OSU, 2019) — this is actually a trilingual edition, since the 736 pages volume also includes the original Classical Chinese version.


[Thanks to all of my students who join me in my playful wandering / wondering]


  1. Chris Button said,

    July 21, 2021 @ 6:16 am

    You can bring in 㐬 (the child being born in the oracle-bone forms of 毓) and related words here too. The right component of 游 is a reduced 旒 after all.

    I have a theory that the 子 for 㐬 in 游 is representing the same concept in 好. So, despite the clear 子 rather than 㐬 in its oracle-bone form of 好, that 子 is really playing a phonetic role (so much for the huiyi analysis)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2021 @ 8:54 pm

    There is a reduplicative Hawaiian parallel for xiāoyáo 逍遙:

    holoholo₁ [holo·holo] vi. to go for a walk, ride, or sail; to go out for pleasure, stroll, promenade.

    See for holoholo.

    [h.t. Michael Carr]

  3. Scott Barnwell said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 12:59 pm

    Tiandan 恬淡 is another one of these disyllabic words. It is found in the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, Chuci, Yan Zun's Laozi Zhigui and Wang Chong's Lunheng (when he discussed Laozi in chapters 24 and 80). Variants include 恬澹, 恬惔 and 恬倓. Tian was also combined with other words but resulting in similar ideas, such as Tianmo 恬漠, Tianyu 恬愉. Danbo 淡泊 is a more modern word which means to be free from worldly desires and concerns. Tiandan seems to refer to a state of mind in which one is as lucid as calm, clean water; a tranquil and rarefied state of consciousness, which is characteristic of meditation, reverie and trance. It is often found near other concepts familiar to early Daoist texts, such as Xu 虛, Jing 靜, Wuwei 無為, Dao 道, De 德 and Wuyu 無欲.

  4. Phil H said,

    July 23, 2021 @ 10:50 am

    This whole post makes me think of a joke:
    An Irishman is asked if there are any words in the Irish language that could translate the Spanish "manyana." "Oh, sure," he replies, "though none of them carry quite the same sense of urgency."
    I thought of it because even moseying would be a little too goal-oriented for Zhuangzi. Wandering, certainly; ambling and rambling, sure. But I think he'd feel exhausted by the idea of a mosey.
    I'm sure it's been flagged on on LL before, but Tsai Chih-Chung and Brian Bruya's cartoon translations of Zhuangzi are lovely. Both my kids have been entranced:

  5. Thomas Van Hoey said,

    July 26, 2021 @ 7:36 am

    I am thrilled that Language Log is devoting more attention to Chinese ideophones. As an addendum to this blog I would suggest starting with the Chinese Ideophone Database ( and its freely accessible app version (
    Or you are welcome to read my dissertation (2020) on it, which devotes considerable attention to diachrony of light ideophones (

    For the phonological issues raised here, perhaps work by Sun Jingtao 孫景濤 (early 2000s) or Mok (2001) for contemporary ideophones and onomatopoeia would be a good place to start.

  6. jack morava said,

    July 27, 2021 @ 2:09 pm

    I have always assumed that this (IMO great) film

    refers ironically to Chuang Tzu; does anyone know better?

  7. jack morava said,

    July 27, 2021 @ 2:11 pm

    I have always assumed that this (IMO great) film

    refers ironically to Chuang Tzu; does anyone know better?

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