A Butterfly Dream

Vivi Dai October 21, 2021
Retold Fairy Tales
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“Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 2 (Watson translation)

About two thousand years ago, a little boy named Zhuang Zhou lived in a remote town in northern China. Because he had always been ignored by people around him, Zhuang Zhou felt terribly lonely and began to ask himself a question: Am I important? He thought and thought but couldn’t find the answer, so he decided to ask his family.
When his father came home from work, Zhuang Zhou greeted him and asked timidly, “Father, do you think I’m important?”
The father was a local grassroots official. His boss had just flared up at him during work, and he still felt a sting of humiliation. So, when hearing his son ask such a question, he finally exploded: “Listen carefully, in this world, only powerful people are important! I have been telling you to study hard so you can gain status in society and avoid being bullied in the future. But you don’t listen to me. You only waste your time on foolish things!”
After being rebuked by his father, Zheng Zhou sneaked out to the kitchen and asked his mother, “Mother, do you think I am important?”
His mother was busy preparing dinner for her big family, so she didn’t even notice Zhuang Zhou talking to her from behind.
When Zhuang Zhou raised his voice and asked again, his mother finally heard him. Then turning her head slightly, she said in an exhausted tone, “I’m busy right now. Go outside and play.”
Zhuang Zhou had no choice but to ask his grandparents. They had just heard Zhuang Zhou being scolded by his father. The moment Zhuang Zhou entered their room, they began to harp on him, saying things like “Don’t upset your father” and “The future of our family all depends on you” without giving Zhuang Zhou a chance to speak.
Not getting answers from his family, Zhuang Zhou was sad, but he was a persistent child and refused to give up, so he ran to a nearby market at full speed.
There was a fish stall near the entrance of the market. Zhuang Zhou panted heavily and asked the white bearded fisherman, “Hello, do you think I’m important?”
The fisherman was busy changing water for some dying chubs and replied impatiently, “I think my fish are important!”
Zhuang Zhou walked to a dim sum stall next door and asked the young seller, “Hello, do you think I’m important?”
The seller looked bewildered, “What kind of question is that! Are you playing with me?”
“No, I just want to know whether I’m important.”
The seller laughed out loud, “How should I know? I don’t know you at all.”
At this moment, a teenage girl happened to come by with a bamboo yoke on her shoulder. At both ends of the yoke were two heavy buckets of Tofu that she needed to sell before evening. Zhuang Zhou ran to her and asked, “Hello, do you think I’m important?”
The girl put down the yoke, wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve, and looked at Zhuang Zhou, sighing: “You’d better stop asking such questions.”
“Why?”
“Because people will laugh at you.”
That night, Zhuang Zhou tossed and turned, and there was a long time before he could fall asleep. When he woke up, he was surprised to see he was no longer a little boy. He had turned into a beautiful white butterfly! He was confused and didn’t know what had happened to him, but he just followed his instincts to flap his wings and flew out from a window to dance in the purple sage bushes. Within moments, a large flock of butterflies came from a distance and surrounded him.
“Who are you?” The butterflies asked when they first saw this new fellow.
“My name is Zhuang Zhou.”
“Come and play with us!” The butterflies invited him with big smiles.
“Hmmm… do you think I’m important?” Zhuang Zhou stuttered with a red face.
“Of course, of course, you are important!” The butterflies replied lightheartedly, then scattering among the sage flowers to suck up the sweet nectar.
Only one butterfly did not leave. She looked curiously at Zhuang Zhou and asked, “Why did you ask that question?”
“Because I feel like nobody cares about me.” Zhuang Zhou told the story of what had happened to him when he was a little boy and sighed. “I want to become important. Do you know what I can do to become important?”
“That is so silly.” After hearing Zhuang Zhou’s distress, the butterfly said squarely. “Only humans would waste time on such a question. We butterflies are born knowing that we are important and never need to ask others.”
“But how do you know that?”
“Because we are all unique creatures of nature. Every single one of us is irreplaceable.”
“Am I too?”
“Of course. Can you find another butterfly in the world exactly like you?”
Zhuang Zhou’s eyes lit up, shining like the stars in the night sky with the brightness of a mind enlightened in the moment.
He was so happy that he flapped his wings, flitting and fluttering around in the sky. He swept through the green farmland and flew over the magnificent mountains. The rushing river rapids splashed his wings, and the pale desert wind blew his antennae. Ah, this little butterfly named Zhuang Zhou could not believe his eyes. The world was so vast and colorful, even a tiny flower or a grain of sand was unique and distinctive!
When it became dark, Zhuang Zhou was tired. He folded his wings and gently rested on a golden chrysanthemum by a small river. The waves were sparkling, the moon was bright, and the lights of the fishing boats flickered like candles. Zhuang Zhou yawned broadly and sank into a sweet sleep.
When he woke up again, he turned back into a little boy, but the scene in the dream was still vivid. He jumped off the bed and ran barefoot to his parents, eager to tell them what had happened.
“The butterfly said I was important because I was unique in the world!”
“He must have had a daydream.” His parents glanced at each other, not bothering to listen to him.
Zhuang Zhou ran to the marketplace and told the fisherman, the seller and the girl about his dream, “The butterfly said I am important because there is only one of me in the world!”
Everyone shook their heads, wondering if he had lost his mind.
Zhuang Zhou went home in great disappointment. He crawled into his bed, sulking and eventually off to sleep. When he woke up, he became a butterfly again, flying freely in the clear blue sky. He met a tortoise trailing its tail in the mud, a mole drinking at the stream, and a mantis strolling on the tree branch. Everyone greeted him with a warm smile. Zhuang Zhou had never felt so important before.
However, by the time he fell asleep and woke up, he was once again a little boy. His father rebuked him, his mother was perfunctory to him, his grandparents nagged him, the people in the market found him strange and turned their backs to him.
As a butterfly, Zhuang Zhou was happy and full of energy. But as a boy, Zhuang Zhou was sad and depressed. He changed back and forth between the butterfly and the boy and gradually became confused about which one was real.
“If I am important only when I am a butterfly, then I would rather be a butterfly forever.” One night, he murmured to himself as he lay on a white zephyr flower.
“Don’t be silly.” The butterfly who talked to him before glided silently through the night fog and stopped beside him. “Whether it’s a butterfly or a boy, you are important.”
Zhuang Zhou shook his head, “Only when I’m a butterfly, I can get attention.”
The butterfly wiggled her antennae, “Why do you care so much about whether people pay attention to you or not? You are who you are. It’s important to truly be yourself to live fully, and that’s what mother nature creates us for.”
“But I don’t know who I am. Can you tell me who I am?”
“If you need to live in the eyes of others, you will never know who you are and until you do, you can be neither a real butterfly nor a real boy.”
“Then what am I exactly, a butterfly or a boy?”
“It’s up to you to decide.”
After saying that, the butterfly flapped her wings and faded into the night fog just as quietly as she had come.
Zhuang Zhou was disappointed. Until this moment, he had never made any decision on his own. He was used to following the advice of his parents, his grandparents and other authorities, trying his best not to let them down, but he couldn’t ask them whether he should live as a butterfly or a boy. People would think he was crazy.
Hence, Zhuang Zhou thought and thought and thought, from midnight to dawn. Finally, when the first reddish haze appeared in the sky, he made his decision. He wanted to be a boy. He had seen the world as a butterfly but had never seen it through the eyes of a boy. He had a genuine curiosity and was eager to see the world in a variety of different ways.
After making up his mind, he was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep. When he woke up, he had turned back into a little boy. From then on, he never dreamed of being a butterfly again. People still took no notice of him as before, but he was no longer troubled by that. He simply settled into ordinary life with a true free spirit.

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