How the Chinese Explained Dreams

June 8, 2015 Updated: June 10, 2015

The famous theoretical essay “On the Equality of Things,” by ancient Daoist master and philosopher Zhuang Zi, ends with a cryptic passage in which the sage recounts a dream—he is a butterfly, “conscious only of its own happiness” as such.

Upon waking, Zhuang Zi puts forth the following dilemma: Was he dreaming of a butterfly, or is the butterfly, now asleep, dreaming of him?

Millennia of Interpretation

Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss pioneer of analytical psychology, held that “Nature is often obscure, but she is not, like man, deceitful. The dream itself wants nothing: it is a self-evident content, a plain natural fact.”

Since at least the Shang Dynasty about 4,000 years ago, the ancient Chinese placed great value on dreams as a means of exploring the world of spirits. The Shang court and aristocracy employed officials who specialized in this field and acted as dream interpreters, as it was believed that dreams reflect good or bad fortune.

The “Rites of Zhou,” a Confucian classic compiled during the Warring States Period (475–221 B.C.), divides dreams into six distinct categories; in another text written in the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220), this list was expanded to ten. “The Lofty Principles of Dream Divination,” a 16th-century work, gave nine categories. Dreams were interpreted differently depending on the medical or religious context.

Dreams as Lessons

Masters in the Daoist school of spiritual cultivation were known for their indirect methods of instruction. Inspiring enlightenment in disciples naturally, as opposed to through a rigid body of dogma, the dream is commonly seen in Chinese folklore and legends as an allegory for the human condition in the “real world.”

“A Story in a Pillow,” written in 719 during the Tang Dynasty by Li Mi, describes such a dream. In it, a young man, frustrated after failing to pass the imperial exams, meets an old Daoist. Taking a magical pillow provided by the sage, the young man dreams an entire lifetime full of success and fortune.

Eighty years pass in his dream, yet he awakes to face the same old Daoist and thereby the truth that status and wealth experienced in sleep are no different from “real world” rewards gained through material pursuit. Enlightened, the young scholar dedicates himself to a life of spiritual advancement over worldly gain.

Also written by a Tang-era author, Li Gongzuo, “The Governor of Nanke” concerns a man named Chun Yufen who undergoes a similar experience. Having had one drink too many, Chun falls asleep to see two purple-clad divinities (purple being a sagely color in Chinese folk belief) take him onto their carriage.

The deities drive Chun into a world contained in the hollow of a tree, wherein he is given a life of bliss, power, and comfort—he becomes an official and marries a princess. Chun’s auspicious start, however, soon darkens as he meets defeat in battle against foreign invaders, and as his wife succumbs to illness. Finally, disfavored by the court, Chun resigns and decides to return “home.”

Boarding the deities’ carriage, he is transported back to our waking, mortal realm, and upon examining the hollow tree, he finds that the world he dreamed of inhabiting was no more than a hive of ants. A lifetime of fortunes and sorrows had passed in the course of an afternoon nap. Seeing the ups and downs of the human realm to be no more significant than the happenings of an ant hill, Chun leaves his village to live in meditative seclusion as a Daoist.

Many Dreams, Many Realities

As hinted at in the ending of “The Governor of Nanke,” the Chinese took dreams not to be mere figments of the subconscious, but as complete worlds beyond our own. Given these full realms of existence, a key theme in the Chinese treatment of dreams is the ultimately interchangeable nature of dreams and reality—in the vein of Zhuang Zi’s musings, life itself may be a reflection of a greater world, beyond the reach of our conscious minds.

Over two thousand years of Buddhism in China intertwines with the concept of reincarnation—one is born into this world based on his deeds in previous lives. This world is just one of many, equally real ones, and dreams are conduits to them.


Equality of Matter

“When we sleep, the soul communicates,” Zhuang Zi says in “On the Equality of Things.” In a world of constant change, dreams become real and reality fades into dreams. A civilization is an ant hill, a night’s rest may contain a lifetime of experiences. Beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain; even life and death amalgamate into a great continuum of ever-shifting existence.

In a dream featuring his debate with a talking skull, Zhuang Zi the traveler is surprised to hear the skull’s description of death as royal bliss, allowing it to “take the longevity of Heaven and Earth” as its own. Zhuang, after asking the skull if it would like to return to life as a human, receives only the grimaced answer:

“How could I abandon the joys of a monarch and return to the toils of the human realm?”