President Xi Jinping used to talk a lot about the “China dream”. Many observers think it sounded a bit like “the American dream”. But Chinese don’t talk about dreaming in the same way as Westerners. Or rather, as some linguists have pointed out, the Chinese language delineates the states of waking and sleeping very differently from those in Indo-European languages, say, English. While discussing the famous butterfly dream of the Zhuangzi , Perry Link, the well-known sinologist, makes an interesting criticism of the standard translation of the dream. Though perfectly justifiable in English, it may have missed a fundamental difference about the “directionality” of dreaming/sleeping/waking in the two languages. Hong Kong children have been sacrificing their future for nothing In Chinese, Link observes in An Anatomy of Chinese , the states are described horizontally as crossing a boundary and back. In English, however, the movement is one of moving up and down, or of falling from a higher to a lower level. So, you fall asleep, doze off, drop off (into sleep) or sink into a coma. But you wake up and get up. In Chinese, though, Link points out, “wake” has the sense of “wake across” and faint is literally “swoon across”; it’s “wake come(s)” in Chinese, rather than “wake up”. Let’s look at the standard translation of the butterfly dream by Burton Watson: “Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.” Covid-19 insomnia, and why it needs nipping in the bud But Link argues Zhuangzi didn’t actually wake “up”. “Up” was not part of what Zhuangzi thought had happened to him, he wrote. “In Zhuangzi’s Chinese, the slide back and forth from dreaming to waking seems somehow easier than up and down suggest in modern English. “This difference may arise because up and down [as conceptual metaphors] connote so much else in modern English – more or less of something, higher or lower status or moral standing, and so on. Zhuangzi’s puzzle feels more elegantly simple – and therefore more puzzling – in his ancient Chinese.” This is quite intriguing to me. In Zhuangzi’s ancient Chinese, there is no sense in which waking is better than sleeping or superior to it. But there definitely is in European languages, culture and philosophy. Nor does Zhuangzi or the butterfly have a preference for being himself/itself or the other. Covid-19’s most annoying phrase: ‘Hope this email finds you well’ For example, as Immanuel Kant wrote of the beginning of his enlightenment, “it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber”. In up/down metaphors, sleep often equates to death, depth, unconsciousness and ignorance, while being awake is the opposite. As I wrote in my previous column, Zhuangzi’s dream is often thematically compared with Plato’s allegory of the cave and Rene Descartes’ demon, but in their languages, feelings and tones, they are actually poles apart. “A speaker (and dreamer) of modern English might also have come up with this puzzle, but perhaps not as readily,” Link wrote. “One wonders how much the wide differences between the Chinese and European philosophical traditions lie less in their different answers to questions than in the different questions that they are induced to ask and, moreover, how much the matter of ‘what questions are asked’ is rooted in differences of language systems.” Elsewhere in the book, sounding positively Wittgensteinian, he wrote: “Western philosophers have long wrestled with what we mean by terms like ‘the good’, ‘mind’, ‘reality’, and ‘existence’. These are nouns and we might ask how much of Western puzzlement over them has had to do with trying to figure out what ‘things’ they are. Are we butterflies or computer games? “In Chinese, it is extremely awkward to translate the good as a noun; reality and existence as nouns are marginally more possible, but still are more easily discussed using verbs or other parts of speech. The Western mind-body problem somehow feels less problematic in Chinese; nouns like xin (heart/mind) and shen (body) are available but their use in grammatical context does not easily conjure the sort of radical mutual separateness of conceptual category that preoccupied Descartes. “I began to wonder if Chinese grammar might help with Western philosophical problems – not by solving them so much as suggesting ways they needn’t be seen as problems in the first place.” Oh wow! The great Hegel thinks Chinese philosophy doesn’t even count as such because it never achieved the same depths as Western metaphysics. But here’s an alternative interpretation: those Western metaphysical questions don’t pose such pressing problems when filtered through Chinese grammar. I certainly think Link is more right than Hegel.