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T h e 1'ao th at ca n b e to ld is not th e in v a r ia n t Tao

t h e n am es th at c a n b e n am ed are n o t t h e in v a ria n t N am es.

N a m e le ss it is th e s o u rc e o f th e th o u s a n d s o f things
n a m e d , it is 'M o th e r ' o f th e th o u san d s o f th in g s.

A lw ays: being d csire le ss,
o n e secs the h id d e n essen tials.
A lw ays: having d esires,
o n e sees only w h a t is sought.

1 'h e se two lines are a b o u t T h e M erging

it is w hen things d e v e lo p and em erge fr o m th is
th a t th e different n a m e s appear.

T h e M erging is s o m e th in g m ysterious
m y sterio u s, and m o re m ysterio u s
th e abod e of all th e h id d e n essences.
The Tao o f the
Tao Te Ching
SU N Y Series in Chinese Philosophy a n d Culture
David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, editors
The Tao o f the
Tao Te Ching

A Translation and Commentary

Michael LaFargue

State University of New York Press

The excerpt on page 209 from THE FIRST TIME EVER I SAW YOUR FACE,
by Ewan MacColl, is reprinted by permission o f STORMKING MUSIC
INC., Copyright 1962 (renewed) by STORMKING MUSIC INC. All
Rights Reserved.
An excerpt from T h e Man with the Blue Guitar* is reprinted by permis
sion of Random House and Faber and Faber Ltd. from C ollected Poem s by
Wallace Stevens.
Calligraphy for chapters 1 and 81 from the Tao Te Ching is reprinted from
Tao Te thing A New Translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, Vintage
Books, 1972 Gia-fu Feng and Jane English.
Cover illustration courtesy of The Gichner Foundation for Cultural Studies.

Published by
State University of New York Press, Albany

1992 Michael LaFargue

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

No part of this book may be used or reproduced

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For i nformation, address State University of New York
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication D ata

[Tao te ching. English]
The tao of the Tao te ching : a translation and commentary /
Michael LaFargue.
p. cm. (SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture)
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-7914-0986-4 (alk. paper)
I. LaFargue, Michael. II. Title. III. Series.
BL1900.L26ES 1992
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
T his Book is D edicated
to My Students

How to Read This Book ix

Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction xv

Translation and C om m entary

1. Excellence T h at Is Not Outstanding 3

2. Stillness and Contentment 39
3. Self-Cultivation 53
4. Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching 87
5. Majesty T h at Is Not Awesome 109
6. The Soft W ay 143
7. Against D isquieting "Improvements" 165
Additional Textual N otes 179

A Reasoned Approach to Interpreting th e Tao Te Ching

Social Background 190

The Composition o f th e T ao Te Ching:
What Kind o f W riting Is It? 196
Analyzing Laoist Sayings:
Nonliteral Interpretation 200
T h e Laoist "System" 213

Th e Tao of the Tao Te Ching

A Note on Translation 214

Topical Glossary 217
Notes 255
References 263
List o f Chapters in th e Traditional Order 269
How to Read This Book

This book can be read in several ways.

The reader m ay simply want to read th e text of the T ao Te
Ching itself, p rin ted throughout on th e left-hand pages o f th is
book. For an exp lan ation of a few C hinese words left untranslated in
the text, such as T ao and Te, consult the alphabetically arranged
"Topical Glossary" at th e end of the book.
The reader interested in a brief accou n t of my interpretation
can read the first paragraph at the top o f the right-hand pages,
where I im personate an ancient Taoist paraphrasing the te x t in
modern terms, and suggest the relevance o f the Tao Te C hing for
Other features o f th is book are designed to aid the reader
interested in a m o re careful study o f th e T a o Te Ching. T h is
requires understanding a few more facts about how this bo o k is
arranged and printed:
The traditional te x t o f the Tao Te C hing consists of eighty-one
very brief, numbered "chapters, arranged in no readily apparent
order. As an aid to th e m odern reader, / h av e rearranged the chapters
o f the Tao Te C h in g in a topical order and given each chapter a co r
responding additional new number, enclosing the old number in
brackets. For exam ple, 1(24] indicates C hapter 24 in the tradition
al arrangement, w h ic h is Chapter 1 in m y new arrangem ent.
Readers wishing to read th e chapters in th eir traditional ordering
will find on the last page of this book a list of chapters in th is
order, matched w ith m y new numbers and with page num bers
where they are fou nd in th is translation.
In my reconstruction, each "chapter" is made up primarily of
sayings that originally were independent o f each other, each say
ing part of the oral tradition o f a small a n cie n t Taoist community
which I refer to as the "Laoist School (see p. 195). These sayings
were artfully arranged in "sayings collages" by Taoist teachers

T h e Tao of the Tao Te Ching

w hom I refer to as th e composers of th e ch ap ters. Sayings I holie\ e

t o stem from th is o ral tradition are p rin ted in plain print in the
I believe th at so m etim es the com posers alter these oral sayings
or add to them , a n d I in dicate this by p rin tin g suspected a lte r
a tio n s and a d d itio n s in italics. F in ally , I th in k the co m p o sers
som etim es use sayings borrowed from o u tsid e their own co m m u
n ity ; I indicate th is b y en closing such say in g s in double quotes.
T h e first part o f th e com m entary o n e a ch chapter consists o f a
paraphrase representing m y view o f h o w a Taoist would p resen t
th e message of this ch a p te r in modern term s.
The second part o f th e com m entary o n e a ch chapter is m ore
analytical. It is also designed to be used as a study guide. It g ives
cross references to o th e r passages in th e T a o Te Ching that shed
lig h t on the passage b e in g commented on. >4/7 in this an aly t-
ical commentary in d ic a te words or ideas exp lain ed more fully in
th e Topical Glossary lo cated at the end o f th is book. Topics in th is
G lossary are listed alphabetically.
The translation divides each chapter in to several sections, and
each section is given a n u m ber (placed in braces in the right m ar
g in ), so that the co m m e n ta ry can refer to sectio n s by num ber.
References to other ch ap ters use square b rack ets and colons: For
exam ple, 28[16] refers to Chapter 16 in th e traditional arrange
m e n t, which is C h a p te r 2 8 in my n ew rea rra n g em en t, a n d
2 8 [1 6 ]:1 refers to th e first section of this ch a p te r. (28[16]
12 refers
to th e second line o f th e first section.)
A chapter on "H e rm e n e u tic s " fo llo w in g th e tra n sla tio n
sketches the approach to interpretation fo llo w ed here, including
an ou tline o f the sociohistorical background o f th e Tao Te C hing,
m y hypothesis about its com position, and som e thoughts on h ow
to interpret the en ig m atic sayings in it. T h e T o p ical Glossary fo l
low ing this gives my interpretation of variou s key Laoist th em es
in m ore synthetic form , an d also serves as an in d e x , giving all th e
passages on a given th e m e .
Som etim es in d iscu ssio n s I find it h e lp fu l to give C h in ese
words along with th eir E n glish equivalents. In d oin g this I h av e
adopted a modified v e rsio n o f a format n ow b e in g used by so m e
sinologists:1 The C h in ese word is placed first, follow ed by a slash
an d th en an English equ iv alen t. Where it is h elp fu l to give two o r
m o r e English e q u iv a le n ts, these are s e p a ra te d b y colon s. F or
exam p le, /wi^o/small:insignificant includes first th e Chinese word
h s ia o , then two English equivalents sm all a n d im ign ifican t, sepa-

How to Read This Book

rated by a colon . W h ere an English p h ra se is being used to tran s

late a Chinese w ord o r phrase, I m ark th e boundaries o f th e
English phrase b y enclosing the whole phrase in quotation marks
following the slash, as in wu 7"not d o in g .

The Tao Te C hing stems from the early formative period of

Chinese thought (c. 5 0 0 -2 0 0 b.c.). It is o n e among a small num
ber of books from this period that have a place in Chinese tradi
tion roughly sim ilar to that of the Greek classics, the Bible, and
the Koran in th e Judeo-Christian and Islam ic traditions, and to
the Upanishads and th e Pali Canon in th e Hindu and Buddhist
traditions. In this century, the Tao Te Ching has become im m ense
ly popular in W estern countries as well, reputedly having been
translated more th an any otherbookin the world except th e Bible
and the Bhagavad Gita.^
The approach o f this book to interpreting the Tao Te C hing
differs in many respects from its predecessors. If there is any m erit
in these differences, this derives primarily neither from new spiri
tual or philosophical insights, nor from new historical or linguis
tic research. It com es rather from an attem pt to develop and apply
some facets of m odern "hermeneutics" th e theory and practice
o f trying to reco v er th e original m ean in g of written t e x ts .2
Hermeneutics has been th e subject o f in ten se discussion in areas
such as biblical studies, but only recently has begun to be dis
cussed in an explicit and extensive fashion among Western in ter
preters3 of the C h in ese classics. Despite its origin in scriptural
study, modern herm eneutics in its best m om ents has striven to
overcome many ten dencies ordinarily associated with the interpre
tation of //scripturar, writings. One resultant principle, of special
importance in the present study, is that the ideas we find in scrip
tural writings did n o t fall from the sky. They grew out of hum an
experienceso fte n extraordinary exp erien ces, to be sure, bu t
experiences that are n o t radically different from experiences we
ourselves might have or imagine ourselves having.4 One of the
main reasons th a t writings like the Tao Te C hing are so interesting
is that they stand at the origin of a tradition, and reflect the origi-

T h e Tao of the Tao Te Ching

n a tin g human e x p erien ces that underlie ideas that later b e ca m e

d o g m a s and d o c tr in e s separated fro m e x p e rie n tia l ro ots. T o
understand the words in such writings, we m u st try to enter v icar
io u sly into the h isto rica l world, and th e w ay o f experiencing th at
w orld, that the w ords reflect. An im portant key to doing this is to
try to find analogies in our own experience and extrapolate from
th e m . A further o u tlin e o f th e herm eneutic principles underlying
th is approach to th e T a o Te Ching w ill be fou nd in th e e ssa y
"H erm eneutics" t h a t follow s the translation a n d com m entary.
T h e Tao Te C h in g has the reputation o f bein g a vague an d
am biguous book, c o n ta in in g almost as m an y m eanings as th ere
are readers. I believe, on th e contrary, th at th e book had a q u ite
d e fin ite meaning to its original authors a n d audience, th a t th is
m ean in g is worth try in g to recover, and th a t careful attention to
interpretive m ethod c a n h e lp us get closer to it though all s u ch
attem p ts will be rough approxim ations b ased o n educated guesses.
Translation and Commentary

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Translation and C om m entary


"A person on tiptoe is n o t firmly planted {1}

a person in a rush will n o t go far."

O n e who shows o ff w ill n o t shine {2}

o n e who promotes h im se lf w on't becom e fam o u s
o n e who boasts of h im se lf w ill get no credit
o n e who glorifies h im self will not becom e lead er.

In T a o (3}
this is called 'stuffing o n e s e lf/ 'overdoing i t /

Th in gs seem to detest th is,

so th e ambitious m an does n o t dwell here.

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

(Paraphrase:)1 Som e people try to m anufacture increased p u blic

stature for themselves by deliberate attention-getting tactics {2}.1 This
is like a simpleton who is on tiptoe because she12 thinks that standing
higher must necessarily be standing better {1}. Such a manufactured
image, like standing on tiptoe, is precarious, an "excess" {3} added
above and beyond any solid grounding in reality. Such a person can
not have any genuine success. It is as though her pretentious claims
are detested by "th in g s," by reality itself {4}.

(Analysis:) Saying { l } 1 looks like a com m on proverb against overex

tending oneself. Saying {2} is a Laoist saying*4 countering3 the ten
dency of shihM toward self-promotion*,4 by posing the image3 of the
person whose deliberate efforts to impress only turn people off and
inhibit his success. Saying {4} is a Laoist saying that could apply to
many areas of life, depending on the context in which it is said.
Sections {1} and {3} implicitly characterize the "showing off" of {2}
as an wexcess.wT h is im plies a background view of reality in w hich
there is a "norm al" am ount of importance and recognition given to
each individual, based o n true substantive worth and the part each
plays in an organic social whole. The self-promoting person is "exces
sive" in trying to get more for himself above and beyond this. The
rejection of the show -off by wthings*,/4 {4} is related to this same idea:
Things here refers to normative reality as seen from a Laoist perspec
tive, that is, reality as an organically*4 ordered whole. This is the reali
ty that wdetestswthe show-off who violates this organic order by delib-
erate attempts to wstan d out.wCompare th e occurrence of {4} in
67[31]:2.! "Things detest weapons of war, and so the soldier out for
personal glory by killing others wcannot achieve his purposes in the
worldw(67[31]:6). This has a quasi-superstitious*4 basis. In the Laoist
view, people in various ways put themselves out of joint with reality,
and reality in turn turns against them. Tao*4 in {3:1} has an adjectival
sense here, referring to th e specifically Laoist way of looking at things.

1. For the arrangem ent, numbering system, and typographical conventions fol-
lowed in the translation an d commentary, see How to Read This Book, pp. ix -x .
2. Paraphrases are partly intended to indirectly suggest the modern relevance
o f the Tao Te Ching, so I freely use she in the paraphrases (to counterbalance he in
the analysis). So far as I know it is unlikely that m em bers of the Laoist school
included women.
3. Terms like counter, criticize, directed against, e tc. indicate that the saying
being commented o n is a Laoist polemic aphorism. The target of the aphorism is
being countered by wposing an im ag e/ On these elem ents of the meaning-struc
ture of aphorisms, see pp. 2 0 1 -0 5 .
4. Asterisks mark topics explained and discussed further in the Topical Glos-
sary, where the key words so marked are listed in alphabetica order.

Translation and Com m entary


In filling, if you keep o n and on

b etter to have stopped.
In sharpening, if you keep trying
th e edge won't last long.
W h en gold and jade fill the halls,
no one can guard it all.
Rich, famousand co n ceited :
leading to a downfall self-caused.

Achieve successes,
w in the fame,
remove yourself:
Heaven's Way.
Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

A person who gets caught up in the quest for wealth and fame is like
a person who keeps pouring after the jar is full, or who keeps filing
after the blade is sharp {1}. Such a person is fooled by the momentum
of her attraction, pursuing what is attractive beyond the point where
it is still really useful. So likewise, when you distinguish yourself in
public service, dont avidly capitalize on th is for self-promotion. The
highest Way is to do a great job and quietly move on (2).

Saying {1} is a rhymed saying presenting both accumulated wealth

and pride in o n e s success, as a kind of "excess" that is precarious
(similar to the G reek concept of hubris. Compare 1[24]). Saying (2)
counters the tendency toward self-promotion* by posing the image o f
the shih* who quits his government post just when he is becoming
successful. The contrast between the two sayings has a specific basis
in Laoist thought: Real worth is typically hidden worth, whereas
those qualities th at win public recognition typically are less solid and
genuine. A person who tries to capitalize on the attention-getting
aspect of his accomplishments to further his career {2} is relying on
the less solid part o f w hat he has done. The person who gets his self
esteem from being rich and famous (1) is a more extreme example o f
this same tendency and so puts himself in an even more precarious
The first three chapters in this Section 1 (1[24], 2[9], 3[67]) all
have to do with precarious "excess." (See also 19[44 :2,62[29]:4).
Translation and C om m entary

3 [6 7 ]

Everyone in the w orld says o f me:

'greatbut d o e sn 't seem norm al/
It's just 'greatness'
that's why it does n o t seem normal.
If I were normal,
Td have been of little w orth for a long tim e n ow .

I have three treasures,

I p rotect and keep h o ld o f them.
T h e first is called "gentleness*
the second is called 'frugality'
the third is called 'n o t presum ing to act
like leader o f th e w o rld /

G entle, so able to be bold

frugal, so able to be lavish
n o t presuming to act like leader o f the world,
so able to become h ead o f a government.

To be bold without b ein g gentle
to be lavish without b ein g frugal
to a ct like leader w ithou t putting oneself last:
This is death.

Yes, gentleness:
A ttack with it and you w ill win
defend with it and you w ill stand firm/1

W hen Heaven wants to rescue someone,

it surrounds him with a w all o f gentleness.
Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

There are loud and outgoing qualities (being bold, lavish, self-
assertive), and there are quiet and retiring ones (being gentle, frugal,
self-effacing). W h en outgoing qualities exist by themselves, they are
typically the result o f artificial effort, and so lack grounding in reality.
An identity founded o n this is precarious, insecure, wdeathwinviting.
But the outgoing qualities are not wrong in themselves. One whose
basic identity resides in the quiet virtues has a safe and solid basis for
herself. Such a o n e can be bold and lavish o n occasion, or occupy th e
highest social positions, without danger {2}. Quiet virtues like gentle
ness have a quality about them that acts as a magical protection,
whatever situation o n e is in {3-4}.
Quiet virtues intensely cultivated"taken to an extreme" by nor
mal standards make one appear not only quiet but odd {1}. But it is
normal standards th a t are at fault in this: "Extremism in the service
of what is truly good is th e right way. There is reason to worry if one
is nota little odd.

Saying is related to sayings countering the tendency to admire

only impressive appearances*. The uVr is anonymous, but the image
o f the "great but not norm al perscxi probably has primary reference
to teachers* in th e Laoist school, held up as models for others (com
pare 45[70]:2-3). Saying {2} is a saying against the tendencies o f the
upper classes toward assertiveness, conspicuous consumption, and
self-promotion*. "D eath " is hyperbole, portraying the "dangerous"
precariousness of this. There seems no practical basis for the implica
tion that the quieter virtues give one's life a wsafewfoundation. The
most likely basis is rather the one suggested in 1[24] Loud self-asser
tion is precarious because it lacks a firm basis in (normative) reality.
In juxtaposing {1} and {2}, the composer draws on the Laoist asso
ciation between personal qualities that attract little notice at all {2}
and qualities that make one appear positively odd or disreputable {1}
(see 4[22]). Saying {3:2-3} looks like it could be a common saying
applicable to a variety o f things. In their thrust, both {3} and the
composer's addition in {4} function as celebratory sayings th at por
tray the marvelous benefits of the quality ^gentleness/' which Laoists
cultivate. (See "Benefits*" for further notes on this genre of sayings.)

Translation and C om m entary


"B e n tthen m atu re/7

Compromisedth en u pright (2)

Empty~~then solid
old and sp en t~ th en you n g and sprightly.

A littlethen a gain (3)

a lo t then confusing.

And so the Wise Person: {4J

Embraces The One T h in g ,
and becomes the Shep herd o f the World.

He does not show off, so h e shines {5J

he does not promote h im self, so he becom es fam ous
he does not boast o f h im self, so he gets th e cre d it
he does not glorify h im self, so he becomes leader.

He just does not con tend {6)

and so no one can co n te n d with him.

W h a t the ancients sa id : wb en tthen m ature/7 {7 j

is this an empty saying?
T his is true maturity, turn b a c k to it

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

There are two parts to human goodness: The part that makes a good
impression in the social world, and the part that is simply good. The
part that makes a good impression is easily counterfeited. So th e
"purest image of goodness is found in those persons who are good
but do not appear so: A person who has great integrity but who
appears compromised, a person of substance who appears wem pty//
and so on {1-2 and 7}. One who rests in this kind of goodness does
not join the social competition for high status (5-6). She realizes, for
example, that a little bit of knowledge deeply understood may not
impress others, but is actually more valuable than simply memorizing
a lot of information {3}. Quantity impresses, but what one needs is
only to turn back to the One Simple Thing, a certain quality of m ind
embodying pure but hidden goodness th is is the Center o f the
World {4}.

I believe {1} is a folk proverb to the effect that the negative, "ben t
appearance of old people is a sign of something positive, their maturi
ty. Saying {2} is a Laoist saying against admiring only impressive
appearances*, posing the counterimage of fine qualities that appear
negative on the surface. (Some of th e wording, such as ^compro-
mised/upright," recalls similar sayings in 5 [4 5 :l-2 , see com m ents
there). Confusing in {3} suggests that, despite the parallelism with {2},
this saying is on a different topic. It criticizes the view that gaining
understanding* consists in widespread study or information gather
ing, posing the counterim age of the person whose m ultifarious
knowledge only confuses him (compare 41[47]:2). Saying {4} cele
brates the cosm ic* importance of Laoist self-cultivation, described
here as "embracing* the One* Thing." (Shepherd of tiie World" is a
traditional designation o f the Emperor*.) Sayings (5) and {6} are say
ings against self-promotion*. Saying {5} (a version of 1[24]:2) evokes
the image of the person whose self-effacing manner elicits the admi
ration of others and wins influence. Saying {6} (= 55[66]:4) expresses
the Laoist view th at the ideal person, by refusing to compete (con
tend*) for social status, becomes in fact superior to all.
The image evoked in {2}, of great qualities hidden under negative
appearances, expresses in more extreme fashion the advocacy of a
self-effacing attitude in {5} and {6}. wThe One Things that Laoists cul
tivate in themselves was felt by them to be something conventionally
looked down upon (see 14[23]:3, 35[39]:2), and this association con
nects {2} and {4}. A connection between embracing this One Thing (wa
little,/)/ on the one hand, and having a multifarious store of impres
sive knowledge on the other {3} also may be intended. The composer
frames* the chapter with a reference to the same traditional saying in
{1} and {7}.

Translation and Com m entary

5 [45]

T h e greatest perfection w ill seem lacking in som ething

but its usefulness n ever ends.
T h e greatest solidity will seem Empty
but its usefulness is inexhaustible.

T h e greatest uprightness will seem com prom ised

th e greatest ability w ill seem clumsy
th e greatest eloquence will seem tongue-tied.

Agitation overcomes cold

Stillness overcomes h e a t/'

Purity and Stillness are th e Norm of the W orld.

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Cultivating personal qualities that im press others takes co n stan t

effort, and so is m entally tiring. And in th e absence of an audience,
what good are th ey really? ^ook^within for qualities of mind that are
inherently satisfying to yourself, and cultivate these instead. These
qualities will always appear in the conventional world as som ething
worthless or not quite right {1-2}. But they sustain themselves, and so
will be an inexhaustible source of real satisfaction to you (1). In them
your mind can find rest and stillnessthat Stillness which is the C en
ter of the world (4).

Sayings (1} and (2} cou nter the tendency to admire only impressive
appearances*, posing contrasting images o f a kind of true in tern al
greatness that, however, has a negative external appearance. Perfection
in {1} is more literally "completeness," that is, a personal character
"broughtto com pletion" (see 10[7]:3, 44[41]:4, 65[51]:1:4, 71[63]:5).
Solidity* is more literally /,fullnessw: I take it to describe a person whose
presence seems " s u b s ta n tia l, in contrast to someone who appears
worthless, Empty* (see 6 [15]:2 and 4). The Laoist contrast to th e
showiness of fine appearances is "usefulness," which probably refers to
a concrete sense of personal satisfaction in one's own being. (Compare
the image of in ex h au stib ly useful Em ptiness in 16[5]:2, the useful
Nothingness in 1 5 [1 1 ]# and the fruit/flow er image in 1 1 [3 8 ]:7 ).
Upright/compromised in (2) is more literally wstraight/bent,wbut th e
Mewcius1 uses these same words to describe moral integrity and moral
compromise, respectively. Saying (3} is a celebratory* saying borrowed
from contemporary speculation about the "conquest cycle/' concern-
ing which physical/psychic energy "overcom es" ("conquers") which
other. Here a two-line saying is quoted from th is speculation, of which
o n ly the second lin e about how the energy Stillness* conquers its
opposite, agitation* is relevant to Laoist thought (see "Conquest*").
Saying is celebratory, celebrating Stillness as a cosmic* norm.
The composer's associations between {1-2} and (3-4} here probably
depend on the fact th at achieving an impressive appearance requires
"working*" (see l l [ 3 8 ] :2 - 3 ) , that is, a mind stirred into activity, as
opposed to the deep m ental Stillness Laoists associate with a more "n at
ural*" (but less impressive) way of being. This same association under-
lies the juxtaposition of sayings in 6[15]:2-3.
Three chapters grouped together here (4[22], 5[45], and 6[15])
urge cultivation o f good personal qualities th a t appear negative or
Empty*/worthless from a conventional point of view.


Translation and Com m entary


The Excellent sh ih o f an cien t times (1)

penetrated into th e m o st obscure,
the marvelous, the mysterious.
They had a depth b ey o n d understanding.

They were simply b e y o n d understanding. (2)

the appearance o f th eir forceful presence:
Cautious, like one crossing a stream in w in ter
tim id, like one w h o fears the surrounding neighbors
reserved, like guests
yielding, like ice about to melt
unspecified, like the Uncarved Block
a ll vacant space, like th e Valley
everything mixed together, like muddy water.

W h o is able, as m uddy water, {3}

by Stilling to slowly become clear?
W h o is able, at rest,
by long drawn-out m ovem ent to slowly co m e to life?

W hoever holds o nto th is Tao {4}

does not yearn for solidity.

H e simply lacks solidity, a n d so {5}

w h a t he is capable of:
Remaining concealed, accom plishing nothing new .

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Cultivating mental depth {1} means fostering a deep Stillness {3}, and
com ingto exist at a level of mind that, from a conventional perspec
tive, seems to have no existence {4-5}. It appears vacant, unspecific
un-definite {2 :7 -9 }. The person who has it has a magically forceful
presence, which however typically presents an appearance o f hesi-
tance and timidity {2:3 -6 }. Her great achievement is to blend in per
fectly, to do nothing th at appears strikingly new and different {5}.

Saying {1} reflects one o f the ideals of Laoist shih * To become a per
son who understands* things Hin depth/' w hich for them meant pri
marily cultivating th e depths of one's own mind (see 43[1]:5). Here
this ideal is p ro jected onto an idealized ancient* time, w hen
immensely wdeepw sh ih advised the legendary great emperors. Saying
{2:3-6} is related to sayings against self-promotion*, countering the
common admiration o f an aggressive and forceful presence by posing
somewhat exaggerated images of the opposite kind of person. Lines
{2:7-9} are probably added by the composer. (They interrupt a rhyme
scheme, and they switch from describing external appearances to
describing an in tern al state and from everyday metaphors to th e
more technical Laoist terms, Uncarved* Block and Valley*. Line {2:9}
may be a connective* link to {3}. My translation of ch'iang wei [lit.
"strong working"] as "forceful presence" in {2:2} [and in 39[25]:2:3] is
new. Others translate a [l will] cMang/Uy to wei/render their appear
ance.../') Saying {3} is meditation* instruction: One first brings the
mind from a state o f busy-ness to Stillness*, and then gradually
returns to being m entally active (see comments on 33[SS]:2.) Saying
{4} (a version of 31[4]:1) is an instructional saying giving a norm a
tive* description of what one is like who embodies Laoist Tao* he
will not yearn for a ,/solid*M(lit. HfuIIM
) social presence.
The juxtapositions here suggest th at "n o lid Min {4} is a
description of the person o f shy and retiring presence described in {2}
and the person who remains unnoticed in {5}. Concealed also seems
connected with th e im age of the ancient sh ih in (1}, whose minds
existed on such a mysterious and deep level that no one could under
stand them. This is the state of mind and hidden/Empty way of being
aimed at by one who cultivates Stillness {3-4}. The sayings in this
chapter connect the internal state of the ideal person {1, 3, 4, 5} to a
certain kind of external appearance {2:3-6}.

Translation and C om m entary


The highest Excellence is like water.

Water, Excellent at being of benefit
to the thousands of things,
does not contend
it settles in places everyone else avoids.
Yes, it is just about Tao.

Excellence in a hou se: th e ground

"'Excellence in a m in d: depth
Excellence in com p an ions: Goodness
Excellence in speaking: sincerity
Excellence in setting th in g s right: good m an ag em en t
Excellence on the jo b : ability
Excellence in making a move: good tim in g .w

Simply do not con tend

then there will be n o fault.
Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

What makes for a good house is not what gives it a striking appear
ance, but the solidity o f the unseen foundation. Look out for this in
other areas of life as well: For example, sincerity in speech and depth
of mind do not get as much attention as eloquence and brilliance, but
they are more solid {2}. Cultivating truly solid qualities means forgo
ing social competition and a willingness to accept the lowest rung on
the social ladder. But these also are the qualities o f most actual benefit
to others. Cultivating these should be the main business of anyone
truly devoted to helping others in public service, rather than just mak
ing a name for herself {1}.

Saying {1} is a saying against self-promotion*, using a nature image as

an extended m etaphor*. The fact that water flows downward and
nourishes plants serves as an image illustrating the Laoist ideals o f (a)
not contending* with others for high social status, (b) willingness to
accept being in a low* and unnoticed position (which all others
avoid;/), and (c) devoting oneself to public service ("benefiting the
thousands of things;;) as a shih* in government office. To act like this
is to identify with the role of Tao* in the world. Saying (2:2-6), in its
idealization of /en/Goodness,1 sincerity, and "good timing,"12 reads
best as a rhymed saying from some school with a Confucian* bent.
Saying {3} is a saying using an oracle* formula to present not-con-
tending* as a lucky" way to act.
Because the first line o f {2} alone is metaphorical, and because
it does not rhym e w ith th e rest, I mark it a connective* addition
b y the composer. T h e ,<lownessHo f the house's foundation c o n
nects this saying to the theme of lowness (water flowing down
ward) implicit in {1}. (Compare the low foundation im age in
35[39]:2). The com poser probably sees th e virtues praised in {2} as
examples of good qualities that are relatively unimpressive exter
nally (as in the paraphrase). This is why he associates this saying
with the Laoist p o lem ic against contending for high social stand
ing (1 and 3), and w ith th e advice to accept a social position low
and unnoticed {1}. He ,<baptizesHthis C onfucian saying by relat
ing it to the Laoist th em e o f wlowness*,wan association facilitated
by th e occurrence of "d ep th in {2:2}.
The same associations apparent in this chaptercriticism o f fine
appearances, devotion to public service, and "n o t contendingalso
link sayings in the next chapter, 8[81],

1. Words printed in this form at represent a Chinese word and an English
equivalent (wGoodnessw). For further explanation see pp. x -x i.
2. See Menciws SB/1,S.

Translation and C om m entary

8 [ 81 ]

Sincere words are n o t elegant

elegant words are n o t sincere.
Excellence is n ot w in n in g arguments
winning arguments is n o t being Excellent.
Understanding is n ot wide learning
wide learning is n o t understanding.

The Wise Person does n o t store up for h im self.

By working for o th ers

he increases what h e him self possesses.
By giving to others
he gets increase fo r h im self more and m ore.

"Heaven's Way: to b en efit and not to h a rm ."

T h e Way o f the W ise Person: to work an d n o t contend.
Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

People pretend to be striving for Excellence when ttiey are really just
egotistically trying to store up points for themselves by impressing
others. These are the people who value elegance over sincerity in
speech, and prefer impressive learning to real understanding {1-2}.
But ttie real route to personal worth is not storing up points for one
self in social com petition. It lies in selflessly trying to be of service to
the people {3-5}.

Saying {1} is a saying against admiring only impressive appearances*,

countering this tendency with a series o f contrasting images: good
qualities that are n o t impressive on the o n e hand, and impressive
qualities that are em pty show on the other. (Saying (1:5-6} is also
related to sayings about true understanding*.) Sayings {2} and {3} are
sayings against self-promotion*, countering the tendency o f shih*
toward a self-centered focus on their own personal ambitions. The
contrasting image posed in {3} is that of the shih who perfects his
own being by selfless service to his society. (The first line of {4} looks
like a common saying: Its sentiment is not specifically Laoist, and the
parallelism with the last line is very rough.)
In the composer's final line, wei/work* is an elliptical reference to
"working for others" in {3} (compare the similar ellipsis in 51[75]:2]).
And "not contending*" is a reference back to the polemic against
impressive qualities in {1}. As in 7[8]:1, the contrast is between culti
vating impressive qualities with the intention of self-promotion, on
the one hand, and self-effacing public service, on the other.

Translation and Com m entary


"W hen great h ostilities are smoothed over

there is always som e h o st ty le ft"
H ow could this b e con sidered good?

A n d so the Wise Person:

"Keeps hold of th e left-hand contract tally,
and doesn't make dem ands on others/'

One who has Te is concerned with fu lfilling h is contract

one who does n ot have Te concerns h im se lf
with collecting his due.

Heaven's Way:
Not to have personal favorites,
but to be invariably good to all.
Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Even when people make up after a fight, hurt and hostile feelings
remain. How can the cycle of hurting be broken? The person co n
cerned about her self-importance will always insist on her rights. The
person secure in herself can afford to be generous all the time care
ful of her responsibilities, but willing to overlook what others owe
her. So she can be an agent of peace.

Saying {1}, and possibly {2}, appear to be common sayings, used by

the composer as take-off* points for more specifically Laoist ideas.
Commentators generally interpret "holding the left-hand tally" to
mean being m indful o f ones own obligation. (Contracts in ancient
China were sometimes sealed by breaking a tally, each partner keep
ing one half.) Saying {3} is a normative* description of what one is
like who has Te*/virtue:charisma/l related to sayings against self-pro-
motion*. The tendency to insist on one's own rights is countered by
the image of the ideal person whose behavior expresses the Te he has
inside. Te is associated with self-forgetting generosity with no
thought of reciprocation also in 60[49]:2 and 71[63]:3, This idea
seems to be the connecting thread throughout for the composer here
as well. (Most other translators understand t i m hengyiishan jen in {4}
to mean something like ^Heaven is always yti/with the sh a n /g o o d
man.MI understand yil in the sense of MbestowMand yii shan jen as
wbestow kindness on [all] others/ 1 connecting this line to sh an /g ood
in {1:3} and the them e o f unreciprocated generosity to all in {2-3}.)
Three chapters are grouped here (8[81], 9[79], 10[7]) that share
the theme of selflessness.

1. Words printed in this form at represent a Chinese word before the slash, fol-
lowed by two or more English equivalents, separated by colons. See pp. x-xi.

Translation and Com m entary

l [7]

Heaven is lasting, Earth endures.

W hat enables H eaven and Earth to last and endure?
Because they do n o t live for themselves
so it is that they ca n live so long.

A nd so, the Wise P erson:

Puts himself last, an d so finds himself in fro n t.
Puts himself in th e out group, and so m a in ta in s his place.

The personal does n o t exist for him

isn 't this how he can perfect
what for him is m ost personal?
Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

A person focused on furthering her own interests has to do it all her

self, with constant effort. This produces a sense of precariousness if
she rests, everything will fall down. The person who can be u ncon
cerned about w hether she is ^getting herswcan also realize the natural
goodness in her being {3}. And she can rest secure in something that
is just there, lasting all by itself, like the earth and the sky (1). Give up
trying to be recognized, and others will recognize it (2 ).

Saying {1} is a saying using a metaphorical* nature image. "Heaven*

and Earthwsometimes serve as quasi-divine cosmic powers in the Tao
Te Ching, but here the image may well mean to evoke also a concrete
sense of the still permanence of the physical sky and the ground
underneath us. In con tent all three sayings are aphorisms against self-
centeredness and self-promotion*. ^Perfect what for him is [most]
personar probably describes perfecting one's character through self-
cultivation (see 5[45]:1). For Laoists, to achieve the kind o f selfless
ness described in {2 } is to perfect one's character.
Saying {2:3} reads literally "outs his 5 /ien/self but s/ien/self pre
serves." In the co n tex t, this seems to n^ean that he preserves his
soda] siaD^ding^y, paradoxically, being willing to be considered
someone in the MoutMgroup. The use o f shen here to refer to a per
son's social standing is the basis for my similar interpretation o f
shen/self in 18[13]:3. Note that, as in the case of many other words,
shen has no uniform meaning consistently adhered to in the Tao Te
Ching. For exam ple, in 19[44]:1 and 2 3 [2 6 ]:2 shen has a positive
("Yangist*") sense, referring to ones own basic being as something to
which one ought to pay primary atten tion, in contrast to fam e,
wealth, and exciting things in the world. But 18[13]:3 and 28[16]:6
speak of losing one's shen/se\f as something positivein these latter
passages shen seems to refer to one;s ^sense of self# as a socially
acknowledged particip an t in the ongoing life of the world. This
"inconsistent" use o f terms is a common characteristic of everyday
conversational speech, in contrast to the more specialized and tech ni
cal use of language by philosophers in tent on grasping reality by
means of a comprehensive and consistent conceptual system. See fur
ther comments under ^Naming*/*

Translation and Com m entary

11 [38]

T h e finest Te is n o t Te-like, so it is Te (1}

th e poorest Te n ev er leaves off being T e-lik e,
so it is n ot T e.

T h e finest Te: n o w orking at it, no goal in m in d {2}

th e poorest Te: people work at it, with a g o al in mind.

T h e finest G oodness: People work at it, {3 }

but with no goal in mind
th e finest Morality: People work at it,
with a goal in m in d
th e finest Etiquette: People work at it,
and, when n o n e pay attention,
they roll up th e ir sleeves and go o n th e attack.

Yes: {4)
Losing Tao, next c o m es T e
losin g Te, next com es Goodness
losing Goodness, n e x t com es Morality
losing Morality, n e x t com es Etiquette.

A n d now Etiquette is loyalty and sincerity spread th in {5}

and the first sign o f disorders.

Foreknowledge is th e flow er of Tao {6 }

and the beginning of folly.

A n d so the great m a n {7}

R esides with the su b stan ce
d oes not stay with w h a t is thin.
R esides with the fruit
d o es not stay with th e flow er.

Yes: 18}
He leaves that aside and attends to 'th is.'

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Some human qualities are like flowers: They are striking and attract a
lot of attention, but they are thin on substance and so bring no real
satisfaction to th e one who has them {7}. They are really pseudo
virtues, just the product of conscious efforts to impress other people
{2-6}. Other qualities are like fruit, dull and uninteresting in appear
ance, but deeply nourishing to the possessor. These need to be cultivat-
ed for ttieir own sake, with no hope to wget something out of itM{2-3}.

Saying {1} is a saying against impressive appearances*. Saying {2} is

about cultivating Te*/virtue in oneself and contrasts the spirit of
Laoist self-cultivation with the spirit of other shih* schools who also
cultivated Te. Sayings {3-5} are sayings against schools of a Confu-
cian* bent. (Sayings {2} and {3} are separate sayings; ttiere is no impli
cation that ^poorest TeM is equal in rank to ^finest morality.M) That
the goal others wworkMat is public impressiveness comes out in (3:7},
an exaggerated image of the person who does not get the recognition
from others he wants and so turns nasty. wNot working,/ describes the
spirit of Laoist self-cultivationgetting in touch with and drawing
out one's own inherent wnatnral*wgoodness, rather than wworkingM
according to conscious ideals. Saying {4} denigrates Confucian virtues
by presenting them as the result of the progressive decline from an
ancient* Utopia (compare 12[18]). In { 6 } ^foreknowledge^ refers to
extraordinary powers to see into the future, a result of intensive m en
tal self-cultivation . 1 The saying recognizes that this might happen,
but criticizes the tendency to make much of it. Saying {8} (= 21[12]:3
and 53[72] 4) advocates attending to the quality of one's own being
(W thisw), in contrast to a concern for the external impression one
makes on others ("that"), (See "This*.")
The composer's comments in {7} pick up the words thin and flow
er from {5} and (6 ). The association flower/thin and fruit/substance is
important because it suggests the positive basis of Laoist thought
about good-but-unimpressive qualities: Showy qualities ("flowers")
are associated with lack of substance (wth in H), whereas substantive
worth (wfruitw) lies in w hat does not attract much attention. The
"fruit" image probably also means to evoke the "usefulness"that is,
the satisfying qualityof unimpressive virtues, mentioned also in
5[45] and 15[11]. Showy-but-thin qualities must be wworkedH at,
whereas the useful-but-unimpressive ones are associated with wnot
working." This is in accord with the underlying Laoist assumption
that the "natural*" goodness organic to one's being is more real and
substantial, whereas virtues imposed by a planning mind out of
touch with this organic* goodness are less real and wthin.w

1. Compare Doctrine o f the Mean 24.

Translation and Com m entary


W hen Great Tao van ish ed {1}

we got 'Goodness and M orality/

W hen ^Wisdom a n d K now -how ' arose

w e got the Great S ham s.

W hen the six fam ily relationships fell in to disharm ony

we got 'Respect and C arin g/

W hen the states and th e great families

became all b en ighted and disordered
we got 'Loyal Subjects'.

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Some people try to be virtuous only because they sense the need to
have some qualities that will gain the respect o f others, qualities that
they now lack. But instead of turning back to the neglected goodness
inherent in their being, they try to go forward, to make progress" in
applying th eir know-how to developing qualities that everyone
admires. This w ill succeed only in producing artificial substitutes of
no real worth. So w h en people start talking a lot about wGoodness;w
you know som ething is wrong. Run the other way.

Couplets 1; 3, and 4 here criticize Confucian* self-cultivation, which

focused on the virtues mentioned in the second line of the first,
third, and fourth couplets. As in 11[38]:4, these sayings evoke the
image of an ideal ancient* Golden Age w hen everyone was "natural
ly*" good. (The "six [main] relationships" are father/son, husband/
wife, elder-brother/younger-brother. "Respect" and "caring" are the
virtues proper to children and parents respectively.)
Because of the lack of parallelism, I Selieve that the second cou
plet was added by the composer: The virtues Confucians cultivate are
a product of calculating reason (know-how") pressed into the service
of self-interest in impressing others and hence are "Shams," artificial
ly created to cover up for the lack of the more real and natural, "origi-
rial" state of being Laoists cultivate.
This is one of three chapters criticizing Confucianism, grouped
together here (11[38], 12[18], 13[20]).

Translation and C om m entary


Break with Learning, an d there will be n o trouble. {1}

'Y eah ' and 'yes sir# {2}

is there a big d ifferen ce between them ?
/Excellent, and 'd esp icab le'
w h ats the real d ifferen ce between th em ?

"W h a t others h old in respect, we c a n 't fail to re s p e c t, {3}

Craziness, Aren't w e o v er this yet?

rtAll the others are b e a m in g and beam ing {4}

like people en joying a great ceremonial feast,
like people clim bing an overlook tower in th e spring.
I am alone still
n o indications at all yet
like an infant who h a s n 't yet even smiled.
So sad. Like som eone w ith no place to go h o m e to.

All the others have a superabundance

I alone seem to have m issed out.
O h my simpleton's m in d ! So confused.

Ordinary men are so brig h t

I alone am so dull.
Ordinary men are so sharp
I alone am so stupid.
Churned up like the o cean ,
blow n about, like som eo n e with no place to rest.

All the others all have th eir function

I alone am thick-headed,
like someone from th e back country.I

I a m alone, different from others {5}

treasuring the nourishing Mother.

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

There is an ongoing vibrancy to the social life that everyone wants to

be a part of. But it is sustained by the constant effort of everyone to be
#,upwand outgoing {4} and to show off th eir refined manners {1-3}.
One who cultivates the hidden substance of goodness inside has to
accept often appearing and feeling wout of it.wBut there exists a nour
ishing and sustaining internal presence one can feel inside, that substi
tutes for the loss of a feeling of social support {5}.

Sayings {1} and {2} criticize Confucian* self-cultivation. Saying {1}

uses an oracle* formula to picture the abandonment of Confucian
Learning as a very luckywthing to do. Saying {2} refers to one of the
main objects of such Learning, knowing proper /f/Etiquettehow to
distinguish proper from improper conduct and when to use formal or
informal ways to say //yes.wSaying {3:1} is probably a Confucian say
ing advising respect for accepted social conventions. (Compare the
similar saying in the G reat Learning,1 rtWhat ten eyes behold, what ten
hands point to, is to be regarded with reverence/') The composer fol
lows it here with a sarcastic rejection. Section {4} is uncharacteristical
ly lyrical. I suspect it is from a non-Laoist source, perhaps a popular
song, or a lament like those found in a roughly contemporary book
called the Ch'u Tz'u,12 Laoists like it because it mirrors an important
aspect of their own experiencefeeling wleft outwof normal life
because the quality o f being which they value most highly seems like
"nothing" from a conventional point of view. It is "left out" of the
conventional world, as the next chapter 1 4 [2 3 ]2 describes it. (This in
contrast to the Confucians, whose Etiquette seems to Laoists to be
itself part of conventional society. Hence the connection between the
first and last parts of this chapter.) Note the important twist in the
composers line at the end, showing that in his mind the lam ent is
not a real lament. It only pictures the social alienation that typically
accompanies som ething very positive, the Laoist way of being in
which one develops a satisfying relation to "the nourishing M oth-
er*w the hypostatized* quality of mind one cultivates, felt as a sus
taining internal presence that substitutes for the lack of external
social support.
This chapter shows well the Laoist feeling of alienation, in co n
trast to the much less alienated Confucians. This I believe is the pri
mary reason why Laoists developed and stressed a relation to a world-
transcending Tao/M other. (Not, as some suppose, because unlike
Confucians, Laoists were interested in cosmological/metaphysical

1. Comm. 6,3.
2. Hawkes 1985.

Translation and C om m entary


Speaking little is w h a t is natural. {i}

Yes: {2 }
A whirlwind does n ot blow a whole m o rn in g
a downpour does n o t fall a whole day.
And who causes th ese things?Heaven a n d Earth.
If even Heaven and Earth cannot make th in g s last very long,
how much less can m an .

Yes: {3}
O ne devoted to Tao:
Is a Tao man, merges w ith Tao
is a Te man, merges w ith Te
is a man left out, m erges with What Is Left O u t

O n e who merges w ith T ao , Tao welcomes h im

o n e who merges w ith Te, Te welcomes h im
o n e who merges w ith W h a t Is Left Out,
W h a t Is Left (5ut w elcom es him.

W h en sincerity does n ot suffice, {4 }

it was not sincerity.

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Some try to be out there all the time, talking {1}, impressing {4}. But
even nature ca n n o t force a wind to blow forever {2}. People need to
mentally drop o u t sometime^ drop into the space that by its nature
can never look like anything important in th e world. Pay attention,
and there exists a presence that will welcome an d sustain you there {3}.

Saying {1} is related to a group of sayings against excitement and agi

tation*prolonged talking takes effort and wears one out (16[5]:3)
and so, from a Laoist perspective, is not "natural*." Saying {2} is also
related to sayings against m entally agitating* activity. It uses
metaphorical* nature images as negative examples to make a com m on
Laoist pointthat intense human activity exhausts one's energy and
is shortlived (see also 69[30]:5, 29[52]:4; 22[50]:2). This contrasts
with Laoist advice to conserve one's energy in order to "last* long."
Saying {3} celebrates the wonderful benefits* of the internal quality
cultivated by Laoists. We see here several uses o f Tao*: (a) adjectival
one who cultivates (Laoist) Tao has a Tao quality to his being (tao
che/"[is a] Tao-man ^ );1 (b) as an hypostatized*, entitylike quality with
which one can wm ergew; (c) as a supportive presence one feels inside,
"welcoming" one (compare the "nourishing" Mother* in 13[20]:5,
and the wsupporting/completingwTao in 44[41]:4). Tao and Te are
equivalent nam es for the same presence, here called also th e
5hih/wLeft-Out [O ne]/' because it generally goes unrecognized in the
world (compare 13[20]:5, 35[39]:l-2). Saying {4} is related to sayings
against impressive appearances*. Like 8[81]:1, it means to emphasize
sincerity rather than eloquence in speech, correcting the tendency to
think that sincerity alone will not suffice to convince an audience.
Laoists are confident th at real sincerity has a subtle power th at will
surely be felt.12
The composer^ associations in this chapter are probably as fol
lows: Whirlwinds and downpours {2} are metaphors for in ten se
human activity o f which lengthy talking {1} to impress others {4} is
an example. Such talking is also a form o f very active participation in
the ongoing life o f th e world. But, as in 13[20]:4-5 and 29[52]:3,
Laoist self-cultivation is often accompanied by a sense of losing this
normally vital social connection. Hence the connection with wmerg-
ing with What Is Left Out" in {3}. (My new understanding of sincerity
in speech as the reference in {4} has the advantage of relating {4} to (1),
framing* the chapter as a whole. Saying {4} also occurs in 54[17]:2,
immediately followed by a saying praising reticence in speech.)

1. Karlgrens translation. Compare mo che/ttM o

m a n = a disciple of Mo Ti),
Mencius 3A/5.1.
2. Compare Mencius 4A /12,3.

Translation and C om m entary

15[ 11]

Thirty spokes u nite in o n e hollow hub

in this 'nothing' lies th e wheel's usefulness.

Knead clay to m ake a jar

in its 'nothing lies th e jar's usefulness.

C ut out doors and w indow s in making a h ou s

in their 'nothing' lies th e house's usefulness.

'Being' makes for p rofit
^Nothing' makes for usefulness.
Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Social adm iration gives certain qualities a feeling of solidity, and

makes others feel like wnothing.w But th in k o f all the caseswheel
centers, pots, windows, and doors~in which some "nothing makes
the thing functionally worth something {1}. If you axe not looking for
social ^profit/' bu t for what iSLof genuine worth and brings real satis
faction {2 ), pay attention to those parts of your being that seem like

Stylistically {1} is related to sayings u sin g metaphorical* nature

images. In content, th e images celebrate* th e great wusefulnessMof the
Nothingness* Laoists cultivate. (Compare 16[5]:2 and the sim ilar
^useful Emptiness*^ in 5[45]:1.) The Being/Nothing contrast in {2) is
not philosophical b u t concrete, equ iv alen t to the co n trast
solid/Empty*; th a t is, Being refers to those aspects of one's personal
being that feel tangible ike the tangible sides of a jar) because they
are socially admired (hence ///profitable, a negative ta:m here, as it is
in 78[19]:1. It is an especially negative term in the Mencius,1 too. The
term /i/profit figures prominently in the utilitarian social thought of
the Mohists*12). Nothing, like Emptiness, refers to those aspects that
feel intangible because they make no impression on others.
In this interpretation, Nothing in this chapter is related to the
Emptiness celebrated in the next chapter, 16[5], and to the social
alienation implied in the previous two chaptersthe socially wlostw
person in 13[20]; and the person cu ltivating wleft-outMT ao/T e in
14[23]. Chapter 17[28], the last one in this Section 1, is a clim ax,
advocating the cultivation of qualities that appear ^disgracefur" and
relating this them e to the central Laoist concept of the wUncarved*
Block.M(See com m ents on dimaxes at 39[25].)

1. lA/l;l-6.
2. Graham 1989: 3 7 -4 1 .

Translation and Com m entary


"Heaven and Earth are n o t Good (i)

they treat the th ou san d s of things like straw dogs.
T h e Wise Person is n o t Good
h e treats the h un d red clan s like straw d o g s.w

T h e space between h eaven and earth {2 }

isn 't it like a bellows?
Empty, but not shrivelled up,
set it in motion a n d always more com es o u t.

M uch talking, quickly exhausted. {3}

It can 't compare to w atching over what is in sid e. {4}

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

Why do we spend so much time talking {3}? Is it not because this

gives us a tangible sense of our identity, confirmed by being part of
social life? Sometimes this also is the motivation of the self-important
person in authority, anxious to appear to her people as som eone
wGoodw{1}. By contrast, if we are just looking into ourselves, by our
selves {4}, we easily lose a tangible sense o f our own existence. Our
being seems evanescent and empty. But this Emptiness is worth hold
ing onto. Attended to and cultivated {5}, it is a potential source of
endless energy (2 ).

Saying {1} is a saying against Confucian* yew/Goodness as an ideal for

the ruler.1 It mocks the Confucian emphasis that the upper classes
should have a strong sense of social responsibility, making fun of
Confucian seriousness by posing an exaggerated image of the oppo
site attitude having no concern whatsoever for the people and
appealing to nature's indifference in support o f this. ("Straw dogs" is
a reference to a religious ceremony described in the Chuang* Tzu,12 in
which dogs made o f straw were first given a place of honor, then later
discarded and trampled.) But this saying has no parallel elsewhere in
the Tao Te Ching, and Laoists ekewhere advocate selfless devotion to
the good of society (8[81]:2-4, 7[8]:1, 9[7 9 ]:2 -4 , 75[78]:4). So,
although many commentators focus on {1} as central to Laoist teach
ing, I doubt that this is a Laoist saying. The composer of this chapter
likes it because it mocks the sense of self-importance he thinks m oti
vates the C on fu cian sense of /,responsibility./, But he con trasts
"Goodness," not with indifference, but with tGe "Emptiness" o f {2}.
Saying {2} is a saying celebrating the wonderful benefits* of this
"Emptiness*" Laoists cultivatethe fact that this Empty state o f mind
is a source of boundless energy. (It is thus related also to sayings
against mentally agitating* excitement, which is "exhausting. The
metaphorical* nature image employed seems to envision the "em pty"
physical space around us as continuously and endlessly producing all
the living things that fill it up. Saying {3} is a saying against stimulat
ing and mentally agitating* activity (talking-as-exhausting suggests
excited or prolonged talking). Saying {4} celebrates* the importance
of self-cultivation (internally "watching* over" qualities one wants to
develop.) The composers probable associations are described in the

1. Compare Menc/us 1A /7,1-24.

2. Watson, 1968: 159.

Translation and C om m entary

17 [28]

Be familiar with M ascu linity {1}

b u t watch over F e m in in ity
and become the V alley o f the World.
Being the Valley o f the World,
invariant Te will n o t leave you.
Turn back to being an infant.

Be familiar with w h at is pure and white

bu t watch over w h at is dark and black
and become the P attern for the World.
Being the Pattern for the World,
your invariant Te will be constant.
Turn back to being lim itless.

Be familiar with w hat is praiseworthy

but watch over w hat is disgraceful
and become the Valley o f the World.
Being the Valley of th e World,
your invariant Te will be sufficient.
Turn back to being an Uncarved Block.

W hen the Uncarved B lo c k is cutup { 2}

then it becomes a govern m en t tool.
W hen the Wise Person instead uses it
then it becomes h ead o f th e government.

Yes: {3 }
A great carver does n o cutting,
a great ruler makes no rules.

Excellence That Is Not Outstanding

There is a conflict between what our being tends to be if left to itself

and the direction of growth it takes under the influence of social
competition. The desire to be Hpraisew orthy,; causes an artificial
emphasis on som e particular qualities and the repression o f others
that we become ashamed of. This does n o t result in a genuinely bet
ter personality, but in a loss of wholeness, a lessening of being and
true worth. In practice, recovery of our own full and unique being
requires that we find and cultivate the goodness in those parts of our
selves the conventional world ignores or looks down on. Such a fully
recovered being is the center of the world.

Saying {1} is related to sayings against admiring impressive appear

ances*. But it also celebrates the way that Laoist self-cultivation gives a
person the spiritual status of cosmic* norm . (The capitalized special
terms describing these results are explained in the Topical Glossary.)
Femininity* and d ark an d black both refer to qualities that would be
looked down upon by contemporaries, as is evident from the parallel
with "disgraceful. The negative connotations are important, as part
o f the thrust o f this passage is to shock, and to emphasize the reversal
of conventional values. In {3} I have used two lines where the text has
one, to capture the play on words: The word translated "carver also
means Hruler.wThe basic implied image is the woodcarver, who brings
out the beautiful form already inherent in a piece of wood, doing as
little cutting as possible. This is a metaphor* for the ideal ruler, who
imposes as few explicit rules as possible on his society, drawing out
instead its in trin sic goodness. (See "N am ing* and "Strict*.") Here
Hthe great rulerwprobably refers to the ideal person generally.
In the composer's comments in {2}f the Uncarved* Block serves as
an image of a personality before it is ^carved upwinto standardized,
socially desirable qualities (compare 6 3 [3 2 ]: 1-3). Recovering an
Huncarvedwpersonality is described as wusing*w the Uncarved Block,
whose great status is described in political metaphors: Tool describes a
minor officialan Hinstrumentwused by his superiorsin contrast to
the exalted status of ^prime minister.wReading {1} as aphoristic*, cor
rective wisdom, one would say that for Laoists, what it takes to recover
Hwholenesswis n ot (as in later yin*/yang Taoism) equal attention to
both Masculinity and Femininity. One should rather cultivate Femi
ninity. (One could see the difference as more apparent than real,
however; because the universal tendency of everything is to
"embrace* yang" [36[42]:2], Masculinity takes care of itself.)


Stillness and Contentment

Translation and Com m entary


"Favor and disgrace: this means being u p set

high rank does great damage to your s e lf."

W hat does it m ean ,

"favor and disgrace: th is means being u p set"?
Favor is degrading:
Gaining it you w ill b e upset
losing it you will b e upset.
This is w hat it m ean s,
"favor and disgrace: this means being u p set."

W hat does it m ean,

"high rank does great damage to your self"?
W hat is the source o f the great damage don e m e?
It is because I have a self.
I f I had no self, w h a t dam age could b e d on e m e?
This is M^hat it m eans,
"high rank does great damage to your self."

A valuing of ones self
that regards the self the same as the w orld
this means one can be entrusted with the world.
A loving of ones self
that regards the self the same as the w orld
this means one can be given the world.
Stillness and Contentm ent

Being in the public eye disturbs your peace of mind. You m ight feel
fine during those times when youre well liked and successful. But as
long as your identity is wrapped up in your success there will be some
underlying anxiety {2}. The answer is not to withdraw from public
life. It is rather to cease to identify yourself with your public image
{3}. A person who doesnt insist on being treated as someone special,
is after all the best kind of person to have in charge (4).

The text of this chapter is difficult and translations vary widely. My

understanding is new in many places and more than usually conjec
tural. (See wAdditional Textual Notes.w) I believe that {1} is a saying
from a hedonist" thinker like Yang* Chiu The original saying advises
shih* not to seek public office, because this disturbs one's peace of
mind.1 Saying (4) is related to sayings against self-promotion.* It cele
brates* the supremely high status of spiritual wEmperor*wthat a self-
effacing person deserves (the meaning of wcan be entrusted with the
world/') In {4:3 and 7), I take i shen wei Vim foifl/^treat self as world"
to mean: Attribute no special status to your self over against the rest
of the world.
Sections {2-3} are "interpretations" of the Yangist saying by the
Laoist composer. Section (2) captures fairly well the sense of the origi
nal: It is not only disgrace that is upsetting. Even if you are currently
Hin favor/' you will be anxious about losing favor. (Compare the sim
ilarly worded 19[44]:1, which implies that wgainingwfame, not losing
it, is the real cause of pain.) Section {3} however, turns the original
meaning of the Yangist saying completely around. The saying advo
cates entirely avoiding high rank. But Laoists aspire to public office,
and accordingly the composer^ "interpretation" says that what is
damaging" (upsetting) is not occupying high office but "having a
selfwthat is, being concerned with o n e^ public image or persona
(see comments on this meaning of 5/iew/self at 10[7]:2). The compos
er^ thought in {2} and {3} is related to the sayings against desire* for
status as something disturbing one's peace of mind. One who is not
preoccupied with maintaining a public reputation can m aintain
peace of mind while in public office, and in fact this attitude will
make one deserving of the highest leadership role (4).
Three chapters are grouped here (18[13], 19[44], 20[46]) th at
speak erf the way desire* for fame or wealth is mentally agitating* and
so damaging" to our being. (19[44] and 20[46] also share the theme
of content/discontent.)

1. Compare Mendus* 2A /2#1-

Translation and Com m entary


Your fame or y ou r self, which is d oser to y ou ? {1}

Your self or your possessions, which co u n ts for more?
Gaining or losing, w h ich brings the p ain ?

Indeed: {2}
Very fond, much expended
m uch hoarding, heavy loss.

Be content and th ere will be no disgrace. {3}

Know to stop and th ere will be no danger. {4}

And you can last very long. {5J

Stillness and Contentm ent

It might seem that, when you acquire more possessions or make a

name for yourself, you are "adding" to what you areall you need to
worry about is losing these things. But the real problem lies in gain
ing not in losing. In attaching so much importance to gaining these
things, you are really just expending energy and wearing yourself out
{2 }, making your existence anxious and precarious by staking so
much on w hat can easily be lost {1}. You should learn to stop this
flow of your energy outward and to rest content in your own being
{3-4}. This is the ultimate security {5}.

Saying {1} counters the desire* for wealth and fame by calling to
mind that loss o f these things is painful only because one first
became attached to gaining them. Saying {2} counters the same
desire* by calling to mind the cost in energy and resources and by
evoking the quasi-superstitious* feeling that the person who hoards
wealth is setting him self up for a downfall. Sayings {3} and { 4 } ( =
63[32]:3:4) use an oracle* formula. "Knowing to stop" in {4} refers to
"stopping the outward-directed mental activity of desiring fame and
possessions mentioned in {1} and {2 }, hence it has a meaning here
similar to resting content* in yourself {3} and to the recurrent term
turning* back. See further comments on the phrase knowing to stop in
The com poser's comment in (5} evokes the Laoist idea th at
remaining co n te n t within oneself conserves one#s energy and so
allows one to "last* long."

Translation and Com m entary


W hen the world has Tao, (1)

they have n o use for saddle horses,
using them to haul manure.
W hen the world has n o Tao,
they raise war horses on sacred grou n d.

Nothing is more crim e producing th an desirable things {2}

nothing is a worse m isfortune than n o t bein g content s
nothing makes for m ore guilt than desire for gain.

Yes: {3}
Be content with en ou g h , and there will alw ays be enough.

Stillness and Contentm ent

"Desirable th in g severyone wants them , but what do th ey do?

They ruin your peace of mind {2} and set you at greedy war with your
neighbors {1 :4 -5 }. Rather than paying attention to what everyone
considers "desirable," think of what is o f solid practical use {1:1-3}.
Contentment is an attitude, and the m ain key to being co n ten t is
finding contentm ent in what you already have .

Saying {1} is a normative* description o f a society imbued with the

spirit of T a o ' countering the desire* of Warring States rulers for terri
torial expansion and high living standards. It poses contrasting
images: On the one hand, the ruler whose greed for more territory
causes him to raise war horses wherever he can, even (sacrilegiously)
on saaed ground. On the other hand, an ideal state in which people
live simply and place no special value on luxury items like saddle
horses. ("'Hauling manure" is an extremely practical, wusefulwtask, in
contrast to the luxury of pleasure riding. Compare 76[80]. ^Sacred
ground" in {1:5} follows Waley's understanding o f chiao as a reference
to a saaed mound outside the capital city that figured in ancient C hi
nese ritual. Others translate chiao as wsuburb.w) Saying {2} also coun
ters the desire* for wealth. As in 79[3]:1, its three lines are comple-
mentary: "D esirable things" stir up "desire for gain," causing
discontent, leading to the misfortune o f crime and guilt N ote the
emphasis on th e damaging personal effects o f desirescrime and guilt
are added //misfortunesw for the discontented greedy person. Saying
{3} counters the desire* for more by suggesting that contentment is a
matter of one's state of mind, not how much one has.

Translation and Com m entary

21[ 12]

The five colors m ake people's eyes go b lin d

the five tones m ake people's ears go d eaf
the five flavors m ake people's m ouths tu rn sour.
Galloping and racing, hunting and ch asing ,
make people's m inds go mad.
Goods hard to com e by corrupt peoples ways.

And 5the W ise Person:

Goes by the belly, n o t by the eye.

He leaves #that' aside, and attends to 'th is '.
Stillness and Contentm ent

In the midst of ordinariness, stimulating things seem very attractive,

apparently promising to enrich our lives. But this is like foods that
excite the eye then pain the belly {2}. If you're looking for real enjoy
ment of the world, the most important thing is to preserve a healthy
state of mind {3}, capable of subtle pleasures and a deeply satisfying
relation to things and this is what constant stimulation destroys ( 1 ).

Saying {1} counters the desire of the Warring States upper classes for
an exciting and luxurious life Colorful clothes and decorations, fine
music and food, horse racing and hunting, collecting rare objects.
(Five is merely a conventional categorization, without special signifi
cance here. The colors: red, blue, yellow, white, black. The tones [of
the ancient Chinese scale] are C, D, E, G, A. The flavors are sweet,
sour, bitter, acrid, salty.) Note that the negative images posed in
(1:1-4} are not moralistic, but call to m ind the way overindulgence
agitates* and damages ones mind and senses, an obstacle to the deep
enjoyment and satisfaction in things possible to a Still* m ind and
healthy senses. (Rare goods corrupt people by arousing crim inal
desires; see 20[46]:2 and 79[3]:1. The parallelism implies that this cor
ruption too is seen as a kind of wdamagewto one's mind.) wThe bellyw
in {2 } is probably a metaphor for what is truly satisfying, as opposed
to what is eye-catching but also ultimately agitating*. I believe that
this in {3} originally referred to internal self-cultivation as opposed to
a concern for external effectiveness ("th a t"). (See discussion under
"This*".) The com poser of this chapter probably is stretching its
meaning here to refer to concern for one^s state of mind (maintaining
healthy senses), in contrast to concern for eye-catching but agitating*
things out there. This reading makes the contrast this/that very simi
lar to the contrast belly/eye.
This chapter and the next, 22[50]; are directed against the attrac
tion to a luxurious and exciting life.

Translation and Commentary


"Setting out to live is entering into d e a th ,"

"Thirteen are th e life givers

thirteen are th e d eath bringers."
The thirteen body p arts are also death spots
in peopled life a n d activity? Why?
Because they live life so lavishly.

So we hear:
One who Excels a t fostering life
"travels on land w ithou t meeting rh in o cero s or tiger
enters combat w ithou t armor or w eap o n /'

The rhinoceros finds no p lace to jab its horn

the tiger finds no p la c e to lay its claws
a weapon finds n o p la c e where its poin t can enter.
Because he has n o d eath spot.
Stillness and Contentm ent

Sometimes the marvelous health of the body sustains a person and

seems to make everything in life go right. Sometimes the body is
what makes us vulnerable to every passing disease and danger. The
difference? Som e people protect and foster their life energy. Some
people waste it in lavish living.

The wording of this chapter is difficult and has been variously trans
lated. My understanding is new and conjectural. I think {1} was origi
nally a pessimistic folk-saying to the effect that coming into the
world at birth is also the first step toward death. The original point of
{2 : 1 - 2 } was that the same thirteen body parts that sustain our life also
make us susceptible to death. (M The thirteenw are the four limbs and
the nine apertures o f the body mentioned in the Nei* Yeh.1) Lines
{2:3-5} are an addition by the composer. They reinterpret live in {1},
so that setting out into life" becomes setting out to live it upw (to
shengsheng chih hou/'Tive life's thickness/' compare the similar phrase
in 51[75]:1). T his ruins one's health and so is a first step toward
death. The composer also reinterprets the saying in {2:1-2} so that the
body parts are not by nature points of vulnerability (M death spotsw),
but become so because people wlive it up.wFostering life {3} probably
refers to a particular aspect of Laoist self-cultivation: Getting in touch
with one's life-energy and fostering it, perhaps through some kind of
meditation* (see further comments under Life*wand Yang* Chuw).
Here this is contrasted with "living life lavishly/' The marvelous ben
efits* ascribed to this in {3-4} indicate that Excel* has a strong m ean
ing here, referring to highly developed self-cultivation. (Saying
33[55]: 1 also pictures magical invulnerability as one result o f self-cul
tivation.) The composers thought here is related to Laoist criticism of
mentally agitating* excitement as exhausting and the contrasting
Laoist ideal of ^lasting* longwby conserving one's health and energy.
The connection of the "state of m indw Laoists cultivated with
physical health, evident here, is a point of connection between early
Taoism and later Taoist groups who made physical self-cultivation
much more cen tral, through the use o f diet, physical exercises,
breathing techniques, herbs and drugs, and so on .12

1. Quoted in W aley, 1958:48.

2. See Welch 1957: 1 0 1 -1 1 2 ; Maspero 1981: 4 4 5 -5 5 4 ; Kohn 1989 passim.

Translation and Commentary

23 [26]

Heaviness is th e root o f lightness

Stillness is the m aster of agitation.

And so the W ise P erson:

Travels all day, n o t departing from th e heavy baggage w agon
although there are grand sights, h e sits ca lm ly aloof.
Why is this?
A 10,000-chariot lord,
mindful o f his self, takes the world lightly.

Light, then lose th e R oot

agitated, then lose th e mastery.
Stillness and Contentm ent

A mind needing constant stimulation is a shallow mind a ligh t

weight mind. Stimulation is a shallow space. Deep Stillness is where
one's true worth lies. Even though it seems a heavy space, rest there.

Saying {1} probably borrows a formula from the speculation concern-

in g th e "co n q u e st*cy cle ,"to ce le b ra te th e su p e rio rity o fth e h e a v i-
ness/Stillness* th at Laoists cultivate over their opposites, lightness
and agitation*. The metaphorical* image in {2:2-3} is that of a gentle
man of very high status, traveling in a caravan. Where one m ight
expect him to be sightseeing with others along the way, he unexpect
edly plods along w ith the baggage wagonsomething one would
expect of the servants. The image serves as a metaphor for th e ideal
Laoist attitude resting in a Still^ieavy state of mind, in contrast to a
mind attracted to exciting things.
The com poser plays on several m eanings of heavy and light,
C/my/heavy also means "dignified. The heavy wagon is associated
with the lord's "heavy" dignity, which in turn is an image for the
value/dignity o f the shen/self cultivated for its own sake. (Compare
the contrast between shen/self and fame/possessions in 19[44]:1, and
further com m ents on shen at 10[7]:2.) O ne who gravitates toward
exciting but agitating* things loses the Stillness that is for Laoists the
Root of the s e ifs true dignity and its high status as chun/mastet {3}.
An excited person becomes a "light" person of little consequence, as
opposed to the person who learns to value his self and take the excit
ing external world lightly.
This chapter links the theme of m ental agitation*, the target of
the preceding chapters in Section 2, to the special recurrent term Still
ness*. Achieving m ental Stillness is one of the central goals of Laoist
self-cultivation the theme of Section 3 to follow. Stillness and con
tentment are especially central ideas in Chapters 28[16], 2 9 [5 2 ];
30[56]; and 31 [4].



Translation and Com m entary


One who understands others is clever {1}

one who understands himself has Clarity.
One who wins o u t over others has pow er
one who wins o u t ov er himself is strong.

One who is co n te n t is wealthy {2}

one strong in his practice is self-possessed.

O ne who does n o t leave his place is lastin g {3 }

one who dies and does not perish is tru ly lo n g lived.

S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

Occupying yourself with figuring out th e others and beating them,

you lose the centeredness in yourself {1}. Gaining self-possession and
contentment in yourself (2 }this takes practice, but brings real secu
rity (3). Make this your project

All three sayings here refer directly to self-cultivation. Saying (1}

advises shih* to give priority to self-cultivation over political achieve
ment (Compare 53[72]:4. ^^Understanding others;, probably refers to
the political skill of being a good judge of others.) Based on the use of
li hsing/uvig Tus practice^ in the Doctrine o f the Mean1 to describe
self-cultivation, I believe c/i,ia^toi^/wstrongpracticewin {2} is a ref
erence to persevering effort in self-cultivation, leading to self-posses
sion (yu chih, lit. possess m ind"). T h is gives one the in tern al
wealth" of a contented* mind. (This new interpretation gives {2} a
strong connection to {1}.) I take not leave [your] place in (3:1} to mean
something like stay centered in y o u rs e lf, in contrast to "losing
yourself" in external preoccupations (see remarks on "Dwelling*" andl
on know to sto p " at 63[32]:3). This conserves one's energy and leads
to wlasting*;, longer. Line {3:2} may be an indication that some Laoists
extrapolated from the enhanced vitality and deep sense of inner secu
rity self-cultivation brought them to an expectation of surviving
death. (This is not, of course, the same thing as saying Laoists under
took self-cultivation for the primary purpose a/* achieving immortality,
as Maspero2 suggests.)
The connections suggested here between being content {2}, not
leaving one's place, and lasting {3} are similar to the train of associa
tions in 19[44]. O ne might think from other passages that Laoists
advocated wbeing natural*/' in the sense of leaving one's own being
alone, not consciously trying to be any particular way. But the state
of mind they tried to achieve clearly was an extraordinary one, and
the phrase winning out over oneself in { 1 } shows that the process of
achieving Laoist naturalness" involved also some inner struggle with
Section 3 on self-cultivation opens with three chapters (24[33],
25[48], 26[59]) that speak primarily of the importance of self-cultiva
tion and the great benefits to be gained from it. After this follows four
chapters (27[10], 28[16], 29[52], 30[56]) that contain more instruc
tion in the practice of Laoist self-cultivation.

1. 20,10.
2. 1981: 416.

Translation and Commentary

25 [48]

"Doing Learning, o n e profits everyday." UJ

Doing Tao, one su ffers a loss everyday
loses, and loses som e m ore
and so arrives a t n o t doing anything.

Doing nothing, n o th in g will remain n o t d o n e. {2}

Taking over the world: only by not w orking. {3}

A person who sets to working, {4 }

doesn't have what it takes to take over th e world.


Confucians say that doing Learning brings one some benefit every
day. One could say, cultivating Tao makes one suffer a losssome
thing is subtracted from one^s being everyday. Subtract over and
over, and you will come to live in a space where there is no trying, no
doing. Rule from this space, and everything will take care of itself.
Only the Non W orker shows herself fit to be in charge of the world.

I think {1:1} is a Confucian* saying in praise of Learning, quoted as a

take-off* point for a tongue-in-cheek Laoist reply: Laoist practice con
sists partly in stripping away those qualities people develop to win
social admiration. There is probably an intended play on ,,doing*/,:
"Doing L earn in gDoing ao* .not doing [anything] th e fast
phrase describes a state of mind that is the goal of Laoist practice.
(7i/profit and sun/\oss in { 1 } are usually translated by more neutral
words like ad d and subtractj the meaning I give them in 36[42]:5. The
composers com m ents take advantage of this connotation of the
words. But two passages in the Confucian Analects1 use yi/sun in the
more evaluative sense of ^profit/loss/' and this is the basis for my
translation and interpretation here.) Sayings {2} {3) and {4} counter
the tendency of rulers to want to "w ork* onwsociety; that is, to
impose plans o n it from without (see 62[29], 72[64]). Sayings {2} and
{3} (a version of 77[57]:1:3) celebrate* th e marvelous benefits* that
come from ruling in a Mnot-doing*wspirit. The results of this are pic
tured in exaggerated utopian imagery: wTake over the worldwsuggests
that this leadership style will attract the allegiance of all, and enable
the "not-doing ruler to become the new Emperor*, reuniting the
Empire under his rule.

1. 16:4 and 1 5 :3 0 .

Translation and Com m entary


"W hen it comes to governing the peop le an d serving Heaven, {lj

there's no one like a farm er/'

Ju st being a farm er {2}

this means getting dressed early.
Getting dressed early m ean s increasing on e's store o fT e
increasing one's store o f T e , then nothing is im possible
nothing impossible, then no telling the lim it
no telling the limit, then one can possess th e state.

One who possesses th e Mother of the state {3}

can last a long tim e.

This means having deep roots and strong fou n dation s, (4 )

the Way of'lasting life, good eyesight into o ld age\

S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

Getting to that quality of mind is not a m atter of just thinking about

it. It is like farming_ a lot of hard work and very slow results. But the
results are solid; they put you in possession of the one thing neces
sary, the foundation o f the world. W ith it you can manage anything.

I think {1} was originally a paradoxical saying to the effect that a

(simple? hard-working?) peasant farmer would make the best ruler.
("Governing the people and serving Heaven*" is a conventional way
of describing the rulers task.) But in {2} the composer takes the
"farmer" as an image of someone working hard at self-cultivation,
"getting dressed earlywto store up Te*/charisma:power. (Mencius* also
speaks1 of "rising at cockcrow" to practice virtue.) Saying {2} cele
brates the marvelous benefits* of this accumulated Te, which trans
lates into irresistible political power (here described in idealized and
exaggerated terms. Further marvelous powers are ascribed to accumu
lated Te in 3 3 [55]:1.) Saying {3} celebrates the marvelous personal ben
efits* ("lasting* lo n g w) gained by "possessing the Mother* of the
State/' I take kuo chih mw/wState's M other" as equivalent to ^Mother
of the World" (29[52]:1): Both phrases refer to the ideal foundations
of Chinese society and culture. Laoists felt that the quality o f mind
they were cultivating was this foundation. I take {4:2} to be a conven
tional description of a ripe and healthy old age, that is, lasting* long
by conserving ones energy.

1. 7A/2S,1.

Translation and Commentary

2 7 [l

W hen 'carrying you r sou l/ em bracing th e O ne Thing,

can you be undivided?

W hen 'concentrating ch'if, bringing a b o u t Softness,

can you be like an in fan t?

W hen 'cleansing an d purifying the m ysteriou s m irror/

can you be w ithou t blem idi?

W hen Moving th e p e o p le an d caring fo r th e k in g d o m /

can you be w ithout knowledge?

W hen 'the Doors o f Heaven open and s h u t/

can you remain Fem inine?

W hen 'Clarity and bareness penetrate everyw here/

can you remain n o t doing?

Produce and nourish.

Produce but d o n 't possess
work but don't rely o n this
preside but d o n 't rule.
This is mysterious Te.
S elf-C u ltiv atio n

About meditation: At first you are nervous, your mind at odds with
your body energy. Give the energy all o f your attention. Think of
embracing it, "carrying" it with your mind. Slowly identify with it,
becoming less divided in yourself. Things will feel softer, infantlike,
womanlike, gentle. W ith softness gradually comes mental clarity,
things press less insistently. With long practice the mind becom es
fresh, a clear m irror for reality seen p lainly and without trouble.
Sometimes you will hear or see things, or travel in your mind like
passing through the gates of Heaven. W hat is important is to retain
the femininity o f your soft mind. W ith this you can manage all your
responsibilities well and selflessly {2 }.

Saying {1} is the most explicit and detailed instruction for meditation* in
tiie Tao Te Ching. M any of the terms are common ones: Embracing the
One* liiing, Softness*, Clarity*, Femininity*, not doing*, infanq^* (for with
out knowledge see comments on wUnderstanding*w). Unfortunately, there
also seem to be many esoteric phrases (placed in single quotation marks),
whose concrete reference is now lost to us. Groups of people who medi
tate regularly often develop a highly differentiated awareness of inner
states and movements and a special vocabulary to describe them, which
outsiders always will have difficulty understanding. The paraphrase gives
my best conjectures (based partly on attempts to practice what I think is
being said). I think the primary reference of words likep'o/soul is to con
crete internal self-perceptions, perhaps in this case to bodify energy con
cretely felt by someone in introspective meditation. (If this is so, ancient
Chinese theories about the pWbodily soulwand ^wn/wspiritual soulware
not important to the meaning in this context.) Chuan-cM rconctrittate
cM*n may refer to some special meditation technique, but it may mean
simply "[m entally concentrate ." 1 "H eavenGate" may reflect the
theme of the "spirit journey," a feeling of being mentally transported
through spiritual realms. This is common in shamanistic traditions, of
which some survivals reflected in the contemporary Chuang* Tzu123and
the Ch'u tz V mention passing through heavenly gates. Saying {2} (a ver
sion of 42[2]:5), 52[77]:3, and 65[51]:4) counters the desire of rulers to
capitalize on their achievements for self-promotion*. Laoist Te*/virtue
expresses itself instead in a self-effacing spirit.
The stanza in {1} beginning when Moving the people" is advice
for the ruler, so I believe it was not an original part of the meditation
instruction, but a connective* addition added by the same person
who added {2}. The purpose of both additions is to emphasize that
meditation is preparation for ruling (compare 26[59]:l-2, 37[14]:5).
1. See Mencius* (6A /9,3) where diuan-fein/wcon cen trate mindw describes th e
concentration of a chess player.
2. See Watson, 1968: 119, quoted on p. 2 3 4 -3 S .
3. Quoted in Maspero 1 9 8 1 :4 1 5 .

Translation and Commentary


Push Emptiness to th e limit,

watch over Stillness very firmly.

The thousands o f th ings all around are active

I give my a tte n tio n to Turning Back.
Things growing w ild as weeds
all turn back to th e Root.

To turn back to T h e R oot is called Stillness.

This is Reporting in*
'reporting in' is b eco m in g Steady.
Experiencing Steadiness is Clarity.

Not to experience Steadiness

is to be heedless in o n es actionsbad luck.

Experiencing Steadiness, then one is all-em bracing

all-embracing, th e n an impartial Prince
Prince, then King
King, then Heaven
Heaven, then T ao
Tao, then one lasts very long.

As to destroying th e self,
there will be n o th in g to fear.
S elf-C u ltiv atio n

Everything wants to be active. The mind is active, things are active

(2}. Caught up entirely in activity, they lose the Still center Still,
Empty, Steady, Clear {1, 3}. Turn back to this stillness and the world
around will also become still {2}. In gaining it, you will feel like you
are losing the self that is part of the active world (6 }. But activity pass
es. This is the enduring root of everything worthwhile, the center of
the world {5}.

Saying {1} is a b rief instruction* in self-cultivation. Saying {2} is

instruction in ^turning* back,wone description of what one does in
Laoist m editation* (compare 34[40]:1). Based on a passage in the
Chuang* Tzu1 I believe the saying pictures a shift* in the world as per
ceived, due to a shift in one;s own mental state: To a racing, agitated*
mind, the world seems full of nervous activity too. (Tso/active is the
negative opposite of Stillness in 81 [37]:3.) "fuming back" describes
Stilling* one's active mind, so that one perceives the agitated multi
plicity of the world as though it stems from a single Still origin (see
Origin*"). "Growing wild as weeds" [lit. "weedy weedy"] evokes a
sense of disordered multiplicity. Saying {3:4} (= 33[55]:3:2) celebrates
the way that Steadiness* is linked* to Clarity*. Saying {4} uses an ora
cle* formula to picture a life wout of controlwbecause it lacks Steadi
ness*. Saying {5} celebrates the cosmic* importance of Steadiness: One
who achieves it occupies the spiritual status of the Emperor*, and is
one with the cosm ic principles Heaven* and Tao*. Saying { 6 } also
occurs in 29[52] :3 in close conjunction w ith a saying about "turning*
back/' suggesting that Laoists sometimes experienced the movement
toward Stillness, away from external activity, as one threatening a
loss of shen/se\ft a loss of a tangible identity as part of the world
(compare 1 3 [2 0 ]:4 -5 , 14[23]:l-3 and comments on s h e n /s ^ lf at
10[7]:2). This saying (using an oracle* formula) is reassurance in the
face of this frightening experience.
Line {3:1} is a connective* addition by the composer, connecting
{2:4} to HStillnesswin {1:2}. In {3:2-3} ^reporting in;, translates fu ming,
a phrase sometimes used of a soldier or emissary reporting back to his
superior,12 suggesting that the Still quality of mind is a Hcom m and
post" to which one returns from "action in the field." Line {5:6}
departs from the images of the rest o f {5}, and so I think it is another
connective* addition by the composer. HLasting*;, refers to the securi
ty one finds in Tao, in contrast to Hlosing oneself;/ {6} which might
seem to threaten.

1. Watson 1968: 122, quoted p. 211.

2. See Legge 1891 ad loc. Compare fan-ming in Mencius* 3A/2, 3.

Translation and Commentary


The world has a Source, the Mother o f the W orld.

Once you get the M other

then you understand the children.
Once you understand th e children
turn back and w a tch over the Mother.

As to destroying the self,

there will be n o th in g to fear.

Close your eyes

shut your doors,
till the end of your life you will n o t get tired.
Open your eyes
carry on your business,
till the end of your life you will not be safe.

Keeping your eyes on the Small T h in g is called Clarity

watching over W eakness is called strength.

Engage with the flash in g things

turn back to Clarity
do not deliver y ou rself to disaster.

This is cultivating Steadiness.

S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

Being constantly outgoing, living on the surface, wears you out. And
you never truly understand the truth about things in the world. It is
not safe. W ithdraw sometimes, shut your door, go inside {4}. Find
that space where the truth of everything resides {2}. In contrast to the
active world, what is there will at first appear small and weak {5}, and
you will feel like you are losing your self being there {3}. But there
you will find a sustaining presence_ strength, Clarity, and Steadiness

Saying {2:1-2} celebrates the benefits* of te ww/wgetting [the] M oth

er*/* one description of the goal of Laoist self-cultivation. This puts
one in touch with the foundation of all meaning in the world, and
thus gives one an intuitive true understanding* of all worldly situa
tions (the M o th er^ wchildren.w Compare 43[1]:5). Saying {3} reas
sures one against the fear of losing oneself one might experience in
Laoist self-cultivation. (See comments on this saying at 28[16]:6.)
Saying {4} is instruction in Laoist self-cultivation, which sometimes
requires withdrawing from the world to Still* one's mind. It is close
ly related to sayings picturing excitement and agitation* as exhaust
ing. Saying {5} celebrates the way th at cultivating one quality of
mind is linked* to the achievement of other ideal qualities as well.
(The hsiarsma\\ things is the frail-feeling quality of mind cultivat
ed. Compare the /zsi<3 /small:insignificant:wof-no-accountw Tao in
63[32]:1 and 6 4 0 4 ]:4 .)
I think the origin* statement in {1} is the composer's lead into (2).
The composer^ warning in (2:3-4} goes against the original celebrato
ry point of the saying in {2:1-2}: Don't get too caught up in the wchil-
dren worldly affairs) and forget to turn* back to the [internal]
Mother. I think /"flashing [things] in { 6 } refers to lively events
in the world (compare the same word in 30[56]:3). Hence, this term
parallels "children in and "carrying on your business" in {3}).
Correspondingly, "turning* back to [internal] Clarity" parallels "turn-
ingback to the M other" in {2}.

Translation and Commentary


Those who u nd erstand are not talkers

talkers don't understand.

Close your eyes

shut your doors.

Dampen the passion

untie the tangles
make the flashing things harmonious
make the dust m erge together.
This is called the mysterious Merging.

You cannot get close
you cannot stay away
you cannot help It
you cannot harm It
you cannot treasure It
you cannot lo o k dow n on It.

It is the Treasure o f th e World.

Excited, talking away, the mind in tangles, the world all heated up
{1-2}. But there is something else, something always there whether
you are attending to it or not {4}. This something will untangle the
world. It is a place where everything merges together harmoniously
{3}. It is the world's treasure {5}.

Saying {1} criticizes admiring only impressive appearances* posing

the contrasting images of impressive but empty speech, on the one
hand, and silent wisdom, on the other. Saying { } is a fragment of the
saying in 29[52]:4, urging regular withdrawal from the world to Still*
the mind. Saying {3:1-4} (= 31[4]:3) functions here as m editation*
instruction. Tangles, flashing things, and dust describe the agitated and
confused state o f th e world as it appears to an agitated* state o f mind.
If one can bring about a shift to a calmer state of mind, this causes a
corresponding shift* in the character of the world as experienced.
Saying {4} is also about meditation*, criticizing the dom inating,
"doing*" attitude a meditator might take, thinking of the quality of
mind cultivated as something produced by one's own action. The
saying reflects instead the Laoist feeling that this hypostatized* quali
ty of mind (left unnamed here) has an autonomous existence, which
one tries to find within and identify with, rather than wproducew
(compare the criticism in 33[55]:4). In its genre this saying resembles
37[14 :3,4, 38[21]:2, 46[3S :3. Saying {5} (= 48[62 :7) celebrates the
cosmic* importance o f Tao.
As in 16[5]:3 and 14[23 :l-2 , the composer probably takes "talk
ing" in {1 } as an example of excited* and exhausting activity (some-
what contrary to the original intention of the saying). Sayings {3} and
{4} are important for showing the meaning o f t^n^/Merging*, used as
a special term here and in 43[l]:4-5. Line {3:4} uses tung as a verb,
umake th t dust merge together.^ The composer's connective* addition
then describes the resultant state of mind as hsuan mysterious
Merging," implying that when the "dust o f the world settles in our
experience, tlie internal forces of our mind also are "merged togeth
er" rather than in conflict, because we withdrew from the world and
quieted our strong feelings. But then, by his placement o f {4}, the
composer indicates (as in 43[1]:4-S) that lie takes "The Merging" also
to refer to the hypostatized* quality of mind Laoists cultivate, pic
tured in {4} as having an autonomous existence.

Translation and Commentary

31 [4]

Tao being Empty, {1}

it seems one who uses it will lack solidity.

An abyss, {2}
it seems som ething like the ancestor
of the thousands of things.

It dampens the passion {3}

it unties the tangles
it makes the flashing things harm onious
it makes the dust m erge together.

Deep, { 4}
it is perhaps like an enduring something.I

I don't know o f an ythin g whose offspring it m ig h t be {5 }

it appears to precede God.

S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

Some things are inspiring, stirring, exciting. They also heat up the
world and make it feel more tangled. Tao feels different subtle, hard
ly perceptible { 1 }, but deep and fundamental, more fundamental than
God {2, 4, 5}. Its subtle presence does not make the world more excit
ing and disturbing, but more quiet and filled with hannony (3).

Saying {1} gives a normative* description o f the way of being of one

who has Tao: Because Tao is very intangible (wEmpty*w), such a one
does not project a wsolid*wpresence in the world. (I follow Karlgren;s
construal of these lines, departing from most other translators; see
"Additional Textual Notes." See also com m ents on 6[15]:4, a version
of this same saying.) Saying {2} is about Tao as the origin* o f the
world. (wAncestorw in China not only referred literally to earlier pro
genitors of a noble family, these symbolized its idealized foundation
al spirit. So the unified spirit behind Laoist sayings can be called in
45[70]:2 wthe ancestorw of the words.) Saying {3} (= 30[56]:3) func
tions here as a celebration of the great benefits* of cultivating Tao.
(The same Chinese verbs can function as either indicatives or impera
tives, and this allows the same words to describe benefits here and
function as directives in 30[56]:3.)
By following {1-2} with {3}, the composer indicates that internal
ly cultivating the wEmptyw(subtle and very intangible) Tao produces
a shift* in the world as experienced, calming it down. He also em pha
sizes the association between Tao as som ething wdeep; w and the
image of Tao as primordial origin, "preceding God." I believe these
two ideas have the same basis in Laoist experience: What is experi
enced as W deeperw and foundational is expressed via the imagery of
chronological priority (see further under wOrigin*w). (Tf/God in (5) is
a pre-Chou name for the supreme deity. Chou usage favored the
name Heaven* instead, but ti continued to be used also, as here. In
this period some kings began to claim Ti as a title for themselves.1)
Note that the composer repeats words throughout this chapter that
emphasize tentativeness: Hwo/seems, ss/perhaps, ;o/rtsomething likew
"1 don't know"). This is probably associated with the elusive character
of the "Empty" Tao.
This chapter shares a saying, {3}, w ith the previous chapter,
30[56], Instead o f centering on instruction in self-cultivation like the
previous four chapters in this section, its intent is primarily celebrato
ry*, celebrating the cosmic* importance and wonderful benefits* that
flow from the hypostatized* quality of mind cultivated. It shares this
celebratory intent with the remaining chapters of this Section.1

1. Bodde 1981: 105.

Translation and Commentary


"The Valley Spirit is undying."

This is mysterious Femininity.

The Abode of m ysterious Femininity:

This is the Root o f Heaven and Earth.

It seems to endure on an d on. {3}

One who uses It never wears out.

S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

There is a m ental abode within that is like a valley: feminine, misty,

low lying, empty space. It is the foundation of the world, and an
inexhaustible source of energy for you.

Saying {2} celebrates the mental space ("abode") where Femininity*

resides as a cosmic* foundation and origin*. (wAbodeHtranslates men,
more usually translated as gate." See comments on "Dwell*," and on
43[1]:5 where men/abode also occurs. Because Femininity is an hypo-
statized* mental quality, there is no significant difference between
Femininity and the mental "space" that feels Feminine.) Saying {4}
celebrates one of the great benefits* of the mental quality Laoists cul
tivateinexhaustible energy, enabling one to last* long. (Compare
16[5]:2. This them e is related to sayings against agitated*, exhaust
ing" excitement.)
I believe that {1} was originally a folk saying about the spirit of a
certain valley (ancient Chinese believed in many such nature spirits).
But among those devoted to self-cultivation ,1 5he/spirit was also
used to refer to the mind or to a certain quality of mind (See also the
saying about spirits in 37[14]:1, applied there also to the quality of
mind Laoists cultivate.) And "Valley*" is associated in 6[15 :2 and
17[28]:1 with th e ideal Laoist state of mind (and see 44[41]:3). Hence
the composer reinterprets the popular saying to refer to the Valley
SpiritHthat Laoists cultivated internally, associating it with the quali
ty wFemininityw {2}. The wimmortalityw mentioned in the saying is
reinterpreted in {3-4} as reflecting the Laoist theme that the mental
quality they cultivate is a lasting*, inexhaustible source of energy.

1. Forexample, in th e N e i* Yeh (Rickett 1 9 6 5 :1 5 8 A); see Graham 1 9 8 9 :1 0 1 .

Translation and Commentary


One who has an abundance of Te

is like a newborn child:
Poisonous bugs w ill n ot bite it
fierce beasts w ill n o t snatch it
birds of prey w ill n o t attack it.

Its bones are Soft, its sinews Weak, (2 }

but its grip is firm .
It has not know n th e union of m an an d wom an,
but its organs get aroused:
Vital energy at its height.
It will scream all day without gettin g h oarse:
Harmony at its h eight.

To experience H arm ony is called bein g Steady (3}

to experience Steadiness is called Clarity.

'Increasing life": om inous (4}

'the mind co n trollin g the chT: forcing.

Things are vigorous, then grow old: (5}

A case of not-Tao.
Not-Tao, soon gone.

S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

How do you increase vitality? Not by forcing yourself to be up; this

will quickly fade {4-5}. Find the softness in which strength lives, the
energy that is self-generating. Learn steady smoothness in intense
activity {2}. T his makes you an in n o cen t in the world harmless,
attracting no harm { 1 }.

Saying {1} celeb rates the marvelous benefits* attributed to the

Te*/virtue Laoists cultivate. LaoistTe can be described partly as a kind
of fresh innocence th at radiates peace, conveyed here in the image of
the innocent ch ild safe from dangerous insects and wild anim als
(compare 22[50]:3). Saying {2} uses th e infant* image as an extended
metaphor*, illustrating several aspects o f th e quality of mind Laoists
cultivate: Softness*/W eakness# Harm ony*, and vital energy. The
arousal of sexual organs without sexual contact is probably an image
of ch\nglv\td\ energy" generated completely from within rather than
through extern al stimulation. (Ching/vita\ energyw occurs in
38[21]:2; and is also a focus of self-cultivation in the N ei* Y eh 1).
"Screaming all day without getting hoarse" is an important corrective
for the tendency to take Laoist mental Stillness* literally, as though it
signifies the simple absence of any vigorous activity. Here we have the
ideal of a very vigorous action that is yet smooth and Harmonious*
(not "agitated*"), because it arises out o f a different (unstimulated,
basically HStiir#) state of mind. (Compare 6[15]:3, which describes first
stilling the m ind and then slowly returning to being active.) Saying
{3} celebrates the link* between various qualities of mind Laoists culti_
vate ({3:2} = 28[16]:3:4). In {4}, I take "increasing she /life and "the
mind controlling the chT " as descriptions of the self-cultivation prac
tices of others, who attempt to increase their internal energy (chH)
directly, by will power. (Such practices also are criticized in th e Men
cius*,12 as attempts to artificially Mforce*##things.) ^Fostering 5/7en^/lifew
describes a Laoist goal, too (see "Life*"). But this must be the indirect
result of cu ltivatin g internal Softness and Stillness. Saying { 5 } ( =
69[30]:5) takes the seasonal flourishing and dying of plants as a nega
tive metaphorical* image of what happens in human life when things
are done in a pw-Tao*/"un Tao-[like]" spirit: One gets a short-lived
flash in the pan rather than a wslow burn/* the lasting* inexhaustible
energy associated with Tao (see 16[5]:2). (Saying {5} follows a criticism
of ,;forcing*## in 69[30] as well. In content it is related to sayings criti
cal of exhausting agitation* and excitem ent.) The composer's point
here is that a forcing* approach to self-cultivation will n ot produce
the kind of internal Softness/vital-energy/Harmony Laoists aim at.

1. Rickettl965: 158 A.
2. 2A/2, 9 -1 0 and 16.

Translation and Commentary


Turning Back is Tao movement {1}

being Weak is Tao practice.

"The thousands o f things in the world are born of Being" {2}

Being is bom o f N othing.


What is the essential practice? Reverse th e striving for strength, for

tangible Being. Turn back to what feels weak, Nothing. This space is
the essential source.

Saying {1} gives a normative* description o f Laoist self-cultivation. I

think wTao*whas an wadjectivar meaning here, referring to specifical
ly Laoist practice and goals. Read this way, wTao* practice^ (tao chih
yung, lit. ^Tao^s use*w) is a description of Laoist self-cultivationhere,
the cultivation of Weakness*. (Compare the connection o f wusing
TaoMwith being Empty* in 31[4]:1.) The parallel phrase ^Tao^s move-
mentwwould th en refer to the internal movement characteristic of
one engaged in Laoist practice Because "Being" plays no positive role
elsewhere, but is contrasted with "N othing*" in 42[2]:2 and 15 [11]:2,
I think that the first line of {2} is a bit o f non-Laoist speculation,
placed here only as a take-off* point for a Laoist line using origin*
imagery to celebrate the wpriorityw (the more foundational im por
tance) of th e wNothingness*wthey cultivate, pictured as a cosm ic*
force. I believe my understanding of both sections here is new.
If ww/Nothing in {2} is understood experientially, to refer to
scarcely tangible internal qualities, it is close in meaning to wWeak-
ness" in {1}. (Vyw yw/"No Being" is connected with Weakness also in
This chapter and the two to follow (35 [39], 36[42]) celebrate the
cosmic importance of the quality of mind Laoists cultivate by pictur
ing it as the origin* of the world.

Translation and Commentary

35 [39]

Those that o f o ld got The One T h in g :

The sky got T h e O n e Thing,
and by th is becam e clear.
The earth got T h e One Thing,
and by th is becam e steady.
The spirits got T h e One Thing,
and by th is obtained their pow ers.
The rivers g o t T h e One Thing,
and by th is becam e full.
The thousands o f things got The O n e Thing,
and by th is cam e to life.
The princes an d kings got The One T h in g ,
and by th is becam e the Standard fo r the World.
This is how th in g s came about.

The sky, w ith o u t w hat makes it clear,

is likely to crack.
The earth, w ith o u t what makes it steady,
is likely to quake.
The spirits, w ith o u t what gives them powers,
are likely to vanish.
The rivers, w ith o u t what makes th em fu ll
are likely to dry up.
The thousands o f things, without w h at gives them life,
are likely to perish.
The princes a n d kings,
without w h at makes them em in en t a n d noble,
are likely to fall.

Yes, the em inent takes the common a n d ignored as a root {2}

the noble takes th e lowly as a fou ndation.
And so, the princes a n d kings call them selves
'the orphan .../ 't h e p o o r .../ 'the d e s titu te ,./
is this not using the com m on and ignored a s a root?
Is it not so?

Yes, enumerate th e carriage parts still n o t a carriage. {3}

He doesn't wish to glitter and glitter like jade {4 }

he falls like a stone, falling into oblivion.


The one thing necessary is something that does not glitter in the
world. Cultivating it means being willing to go unrecognized, take
the low place. But this nothing is the foundation of the order o f the

Saying {1} is an origin* saying, picturing the present world order as

the result of everything at the beginning having ^gotten the One*
Thing.M(It is an order-from-chaos cosmogony, different from most
other Laoist origin sayings, which picture how things first came into
existence.) Te i/^get* [the] One [Thing]w is primarily a description of
the goal of Laoist self-cultivation (compare te mu/^get [the] Mother;/
in 29[52]:2). Saying (1) celebrates the cosmic* importance o f this pro
ject, picturing it as what gave rise to and sustains the order o f the cos
mos. (Note that here the earthly rulers of China take their place as
fundamental elem ents of the cosmic order, an important part of
Chou dynasty Em peror* ideology.) Saying {2:1-2} speaks against
impressive* appearances, posing the counterimage of the ruler who
gains true nobility and respect by his deferential and self-effacing
manner (see "Low *"). Lines {2:3-4} give a stock Laoist example o f this
idea, commented on at 36[42]:4. Saying {4} criticizes self-promotion*.
The last line reads literally "fall fall like stone." But /o/fall means also
"d ie, which I take metaphorically as the opposite of "glittering," that
is, falling out o f sight so far as the conventional world is concerned.
(This is connected also with wloww in {2}). The translation o f {3} (lit.
"count carriage n ot carriage") is very conjectural. I think th at the
point is this: W hat makes a carriage one unified thing is not identical
with the collection o f tangible carriage parts, but is something single
yet intangible "th e One Thing" of {1}. (Compare 45[70]:2, which
implies that a single but difficult to grasp principle constitutes the
unity behind th e multiplicity of Laoist sayings. The parts of a horse
are the basis for a similar image in the Chuang* Tzu.1 And see the very
similar use of the chariot image in the early Buddhist Questions o f
King Melinda.1 2)
In the final lines o f {1}, "'eminent and noblewinterrupt the paral
lelism with the first stanza and provide a connection with {2}. These
words are a connective* alteration by the composer, suggesting an
equation between adopting a wlowlyMstance in society, on the one
hand, and "gaining th e One Thing," on th e other. These are two
aspects of the quality of mind and way of being Laoists cultivate.

1, Watson 1968: 2 9 0 .
2. Stryk 1969: 9 0 -9 3 .

Translation and Commentary


Tao produced T h e One U>

The One prod uced Two
Two produced Three
Three produced th e thousands o f th in g s.

The thousands o f things: {2}

Turn their b ack s o n the quiet and dark
and embrace th e aggressive and b rig h t.

An Empty c h 'i brings Harmony. {3}

What people lo o k down upon: (4>

to be orphaned, p oor, destitute.
But the kings an d princes
make these nam es into titles.

Yes, things {5}

Sometimes you reduce them, and th ey are enlarged
sometimes you enlarge themand th e y are reduced.

What another h a s taught, I also teach: {6 }

"A violent m an will not reach his natural end."
I will make o f this the father o f my teaching.

S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

Man runs to escape what he has forgotten .1 All want to enlarge them
selvesto becom e strong, to win, to make a name. People flee from
what appears soft, weak, empty in themselves. But this is the founda
tion, the source of everything important. Turn back to it.

Saying (1) is an origin* saying, celebrating Tao as the single founda

tion of meaning in the world of distracting variety and multiplicity.
(Many commentators try to identify what "Two and "Three" stand
for, but no contemporary source I know o f gives any solid clue about
this.) Saying {2} describes the tendency of "things*" (people) to
embrace* the yfln^/aggressive:bright, socially desirable qualities, and
to shun the y/n*/quiet:dark onesan unfortunate tendency in Laoist
eyes. {Yin and yang, which became central to later Taoism are m en
tioned only here in the Tao Te Ching.) Saying {3} links* two qualities:
Cultivating an internal Empty* chV /en evgy also brings m ental Har
mony*. Saying (5) counters the desire of rulers to project an impres
sive* presence, posing contrasting images of the person whose defer-
ential (self-"reducing") manner enhances ("enlarges") people's respect
for him, and the person whose attempts to impress diminish this
respect. Section (4} refers to what was apparently a custom among
some Chinese nobility whereby a King Wu, for example, would refer
to himself self-deprecatingly as "the poor Wu." The composer here
(and in 35[39]:2) refers to \his custom as an example of how a self-
deprecating m anner gains one true respect. Saying (6:2) is introduced
as a non-Laoist saying, probably of popular origin (compare, "He who
lives by the sword will die by the sword.,f)
The com poser gives no direct hint of the connection he sees
between these various sayings, and so my reconstruction is more than
usually conjectural here. I think (2) is the pivotal saying that unites
the piece: The tendencies toward self-glorification and violence criti
cized in (4-6) count as ^embracing* yan g/9 the masculine aggressive
ness implicitly deplored in (2). Violence, as the extreme o f yang, here
represents yang qualities in general. This is why the composer can
claim that the popular saying against violence is the main principle
behind [the "father of) all Laoist teaching*. All this contrasts with
the yin Feminine Emptiness Laoists cultivate (3). To reverse the gener-
al gravitation toward yan , turning back to yfn, is also to identify with
the most fundamental cosmic reality, Tao as the source of all true
meaning in the world (1). This turning back to the yin Tao is a rever
sal, on a psychological level, of the original cosmogonic process
described in (1). (According to Girardot,12 just such a reversal played a
part in meditation practices in later esoteric Taoism.)
1. I owe this line to a student whose name I have forgotten.
2. 1983: 282- 292 .

Translation and Commentary


"Look for It, you w on't see It: It is called 'fleeting'

Listen for It, you w ont hear It: It is called 'th in .
Grasp at It, y ou c a n t get It: It is called 'subtle."

These three lines

are ab o u t som ethin g that evades scrutiny.
Yes, in it everything blends and b eco m es one.

Its top is n ot brig h t

Its underside is n o t dim.
Always u n n am eable, It turns back to nothingness.
This is the s h a p e o f something sh ap eless
the form o f a n othin g
this is elusive a n d evasive.

Encountering It, you wont see the fro n t

following It, y o u w ont see Its back.

Keep to the Tao o f the ancients

and so manage things happening today.

The ability to k now the ancient sources,

this is the m ain thread of Tao.
S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

When you;re sitting, trying to get in touch with the Softness, the One
important thing, it evades your grasp_ like a spirit that appears here,
then there, then is gone {1}. You think you see it, then it recedes into
nothing. This is the only way to describe th e presence that is formless
{3}. But in this practice we achieve a oneness {2}. And we come in
contact with th e deep sources of all things {4}, the ancient sources
that enable us to handle whatever comes to us today {5}.

Saying {1} is a version of a saying about spirits, quoted also in the

Doctrine o f the M ean.1 (Compare a similar use of a saying about a spirit
in 32[6]:1.) Sayings {3 and 4} describe the experience of trying to
grasp an elusive m ental quality one is cultivating in Laoist m edita
tion* (compare 3 8[21]:2, 46[35:3, 30[56]:4). Saying {5} describes a
benefit* of cultivating Laoist Tao, here pictured as the true Tao taught
in the ancient*, idealized Golden Age. This will enable shih* to han
dle any contem p orary problems they encounter as governm ent
administrator-advisers. Saying {6 } is a normative* description o f what
Laoist self-cultivation entails. As in 11[38]:6, Tao here probably is
short for "cultivating Tao." I take "know the ancient source(s)of
things to mean gaining an intuitive understanding* of the deep truth
about affairs. (As often, "ancient" serves to express what we more
commonly express by images of "depth." See furtiier under "Origin*.
Note that here Tao is not the name of the ancient source that one
knows, but of the practice by which one comes to know it.) Section
{2 } reads more literally: "these three, cannot be scrutinized, yes blend
and become o ne." It seems very unlikely that "these three" refers to
three different things mentioned in (1), w hich ''become o n e .w It
makes more sense to suppose that ''these threewrefers to the three-
line saying in ( 1 ), which is about a presence or mental quality inca
pable of being grasped through close mental scrutiny. In this mental
space everything is Merged*, ''blends and becomes one.wThis obser
vation is a partial basis for my solution to the puzzle about the m ean
ing of 43[1]:4:1, reading literally ''these two, merged.wThat is, it refers
to the previous two-line saying in 43[1]:3; which is (partly) about the
state of wnot desiring/' which 43[1]:4 identifies with a mentally Still*
state called tu n g /^ th e Merging*/' M encius 12 shows a similar use of
"these two." Compare also "these two and "these three in 80[65]:4
and 78[19]:2.

1. 16,2.
2. 4A/7(1.

Translation and Commentary


The impression made by m agn ificen t Te

comes only from Tao.

Tao is a som eth in g

but elusive, b u t evasive.
Evasive, elusive,
inside it lies the m inds true form .
Elusive, evasive,
inside it lies som ething substantial.
Shadowy, dim .
Inside it lies vital energy.
This energy is very strong
inside it lies true genuineness.

From ancient tim es until today

Its name has n o t been forgotten
allowing us to see the beginnings o f everything.

How do I recognize the fow l

o f the beginnings o f everything?
By this.

Sitting, trying to grasp it, it eludes your mind. But this elusive some
thing is also the m ost substantial and real thing there is. In it lies the
key to recovering the mind's true nature, vital energy at its best,
human genuineness in its perfection (2). If you want to radiate good
ness, this is where to be (1). Being there gives insight into the nature
of whatever you m eet {3}. What's the secret? Polish the mirror of your
pure mind, and look {4}.

Saying {1} celebrates a benefit* of Tao: One who has it radiates a sub
tle but powerful presence (Te*). Saying {2:3-10} describes the experi
ence of one at meditation*, trying to grasp an internal presence one
feels as elusive yet containing "in sid e" it the highest qu alities.
Chingluvita\ energy^ is an object o f internal cultivation in th e N ei*
Yeh1 and Laoist cultivation in 33[55] 2, illustrated there by the image
of the self-generating sexual energy of an infant. I tran slate
hsiang/foxm as wthe mind's true formw on the basis of the N ei* Yehfs
use12 of a similar term, hsinglform, to mean something like Hthe mind
in its prime condition.wSaying {3} celebrates a benefit* of cultivating
Tao: Tao's "n am e" (= its power) enables the mind to see the "begin
nings" of things; that is, to understand them "in depth, to under-
stand the foundations of their true meaning (compare 37[14] 6, and
further com m ents on origin*-sayings. 3 In I think "How do I
know...? By this" is a stock Laoist reply to demands to back up their
opinions with arguments: "By this" refers to the powers of one's own
mind, developed through self-cultivation. (See further under "This*."
The formula occurs also in 6l[54]:4 and 77 [57]:2.)
I mark {2:1-2} as a connective* alteration by the composer mainly
because of the repetition of WM/thing:substance in {2 :1} and (2 :6 ) (wa
something" and "something substantial, respectively). This addition
identifies the evasive something described in {2} as wTao/; and thus
connects {2} to {1}. The juxtaposition of {3} and {4} implies that intu
itions springing from the right state of mind (gained at meditation
{2}) are the same as intuitions springing from the power given by Tao.
This chapter and the previous one (37 [14]) picture Tao as a hypo-
statized* internal presence that eludes the grasp of one who tries to
grasp it introspectively. Both chapters end with the suggestion that
cultivating this elusive presence enables one to understand* the truth
about reality, seeing everything in relation to its source/foundation.

1. Rickettl965: 158 A.
2. For example, ibid.: 161 E, 167 N. See also th e Chuang* Tzu passage quoted
under Meditation*.
3. See pp. 2 1 0 -2 1 1 .

Translation and Commentary

39 [25]

There was a ch a o tic something, y e t lacking nothing

bom before H eav en and Earth,
Standing a lo n e, unchanging.
Revolving, endlessly.
It can be th ou g h t o f as Mother o f the W orld,

I do not kn ow its nam e,

one can call it ' T a o /
The name o f its pow erful presence:
One can call it "The Great O n e/

Great means going forth

going forth m eans going far away
going far away m eans turning back.

Tao is great
Heaven is great
Earth is great
(the king is also great
in the universe there are four great ones
and the king takes his place as one o f them ).

Earth gives th e rule for people

Heaven gives th e rule for Earth
Tao gives th e rule for Heaven
the rule for T ao: things as they are.
S e lf-C u ltiv a tio n

Sitting still, she saw something. Everything mixed together, but per
fect. Nothing else existed. It cirded around, forever. A vision of Tao,
the Mother of the World {1-2}. Its greatness overflowed, and the
world came to be. The present world has gone far from it, but every
thing secretly wants to return to Tao {3}, the ultimate cosmic norm.
Where do we find this norm? By looking at concrete things in their
naturalness {4}.

Saying {1} reads best as a description of a vision someone saw at med

itation* (perhaps in a ^spirit journey^ like that evoked in 27[10]:1). If
this is so, the cosmogonic, nonvisual comments (wborn before Heav
en and Earth...the Mother of the Worldw) are probably additions to
the original vision-description. "Chaotic" probably is associated with
idea of the "U n carved* Block. Saying {3} seems to encapsulate a basic
aspect of the Laoist vision of reality: Tao is the origin* and founda
tion of everything (everything has wgone outwfrom its greatness). But
the social atmosphere in which we now live represents an alienation
("going far") from that source, due to the development of superficial
social conventions. The true inner desire of everything is to "turn*
backMto Tao (the object of Laoist self-cultivation). Sayings {4:2-4 and
8-10) celebrates the status of Tao as supreme cosmic* norm, above
the principles of Heaven* and Earth conventionally thought to be
The lines about the wa^/Emperonking in {4:5-7} seem to stray
from the main point of the saying in {4}, going out of the way to reaf
firm the traditional Chinese belief that the Emperor is one of the pil
lars of the cosm ic order (see 35[39]:1). These lines may have been
added to please a royal patron who claimed the title of Emperor* ,1 or
perhaps to correct genuinely "an arch istic tendencies w ithin th e
Laoist school itself. The final line of {4} seems anticlimactic, and I sus
pect it was added by the composer of this chapter to make a point sim
ilar to that of 3 8 [2 1 ]:4 . After the mystical flight in {1}, he wants to
emphasize the very concrete, everyday character of Tao as it appears in
our experience: T ao is just the name fora quality we perceive in things
when they (and we) are in an ideal fzw-;aw/natural state of Stillness.
Placing this chapter last in this section reflects my view that cos
mic images are b est understood as rtclim axesw following on th e
'"build-up provided by the more mundane and practical aspects of
Laoist wisdom. This stands in contrast to traditional interpretations
of the Tao Te Ching that treat cosmic ideas first, as the wfoundationw
of Laoist thought and an essential basis for understanding the practi
cal wcondusionswdeduced from this foundation.

1. SeeBodde 1 9 8 1 :1 0 5 .


Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching

Translation and Commentary


Aware but n o t aware of it: a high t h i n g .

Not aware b u t a w a r e o f itsick o f this.
Simply sick o f th e sicknessand so n o longer sick.

The Wise Person's lack of this sickness:

He became sick o f being sick, and so h e s n o longer sick.
K n o w led g e, Learnings a n d T e a c h in g

Some say to have true awareness but to be unselfconsciously unaware

of this is a high achievement. One could also say: It is a great thing if
a person lacking true awareness is painfully aware of her lack. Is not
the pain at not having it, a sign that she actually does have it?

Lines {1:1-2} read literally: wKnow not know high / not know know
sickwI believe the puzzle as to their meaning is best solved if we
regard the first line as a saying quoted here only as a take-off* point
for the second line, which plays with th e same words to make a com
pletely different point. Line {1:1) is a saying in praise of the modest
person who has great understanding but is unpretentious about
thishe makes nothing of this and ignores it. Line {1:2} is about the
person who has come to realize that he lacks true understanding* and
is distressed by (wsick ofM) the lack. This line then leads in to a Laoist
saying in {1:3}, repeated in {2}. This saying suggests a cure for the
/'sicknessw(lack of true understanding) that afflicts us all: Recognition
that one's conventional views are defective, and distress at this, can
only spring from something in oneself that has in germ a different,
better way of seeing things. If this intuitive wisdom becomes strong
enough, it creates enough revulsion at defective views to throw them
off and replace them .
The first four chapters of Section 4 (40[71], 41[47], 42[2], 43[1])
deal with Laoist views about how one gains a true understanding* of
the world, and what such an understanding consists in.

Translation and Commentary

41 [47]

Understanding th e world {1}

without g o in g out the door.
Understanding Heavens Way
without lo o k in g out the window .

Traveling very widely, understanding very little. (2}

And so the W ise Person: (3}

Knows w ithout an y going
names w ithout an y looking
accomplishes w ith ou t any doing.

Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching

How is it that some people can travel the world and end up under
standing nothing of life {2}? They develop no depth of understand-
ing; they do not engage deeply with things they meet A person who
develops this depth can understand the true nature of things while
hardly stepping out of her door {1, 3}.

Sayings {1} and {2} counter the assumption that to be a knowledge

able shih* one m ust travel widely and learn about many different
things. Saying {2} poses the negative image of the person whose wide
travels have left him with a superficial understanding of things. Say
ing {1} evokes the exaggerated image of th e person who develops the
ability to intuitively understand* things in depth without ever leav
ing home; that is, by devoting himself to mental self-cultivation. For
an example of the view these sayings oppose, see the opening passage
of the/fswn Tzu.
The com poser's images in {3} are even more exaggerated. For
example, "nam ing*" things here probably means understanding the
truth about issues and events, which for Laoists is the same thing as
seeing them from the right perspective, in the right state of mind
(43[1]:1:2 also seems to use names to mean the real nature of things).
So "names w ithout looking" is hyperbole, expressing this ideal by
exaggerated contrast with the person who thinks that close inspec
tion of details will give him true understanding. In the final line
"accomplishes [knowledge] without any doing [close examining]"
the composer stretches the meaning of not doing to apply to this area
of life as well (see comments on 51 [75]:2).

Translation and Commentary


When everyone in th e world

recognizes th e elegant as e le g a n t.,,
then ugliness has ju st appeared.
When all reco g n ize goodness as g o o d ...
then the n o t-g o o d has just appeared.

Being' and 'n o th in g ' give birth o n e to th e other
'the difficult" and 'th e easy'
give full shap e to one another
'what excels" and V h a t falls short^ fo rm one another
the noble and th e lowly' give c o n te n t to one another
the music and the voice harm onize w ith o n e another
the back and th e front follow o n e a n o th e r.

And so the W ise Person:

Settles into his jo b o f Not Doing
carries on his te a ch in g done w ithout talking.

The thousands o f things arise and are a c t i v e ~

and he rejects n o n e o f them.

He is a doer b u t does not rely on th is

he achieves successes but does n o t dw ell in them.
He just does n o t dwell in them,
and so they ca n n o t be taken away.
K n o w le d g e , Learnings a n d T e a c h in g

wIf only we could teach everyone to label eluant only what is truly
elegant, they say. But what would really happen? A person would
learn to mark certain things off as outstandingly elegantand sud
denly her world also would be filled with many more ugly things
standing out by contrast {1}. Some things appear to "excel" only if
the world gets cut up into a few eye-catching things that wexcelwand
many rejects that appear to "fall short," Really, vstiat "excels" stands
on the shoulders o f what is rejected as "falling shortw{2}. Some things
then are unnecessarily rejected (4); and the world loses its fullness,
becoming less than it was. People come to dwell in these half-reali
ties, taking pride in their wnoblewactivities and their wexcellingwsta
tus {5}. The person who understands this teaches w ithout using
names like elegant and noble (3). She aims for success but does not
depend on appearing "successful" She never rests on her laurels, and
that is why no one can take them away {3} and {5}.

Sayings {1} and {2} are probably directed against "rectifying names*,"
the attempt to establish and enforce one correct way of using judg
mental names like good and bad. I believe that {1} twists a common
slogan favoring that program, which originally described a positive
result. The Laoist twist describes a negative result instead: Conscious
and pronounced evaluative labeling produces a negative shift* in the
way people experience the world. Both {1} and {2} have as their back
ground the Laoist idea of the Uncarved* Block: The ideal state of
mind is a state in which one experiences reality directly not over-
lain with conscious conventional judgmental concepts, not ^cutting
upwthe world and pigeonholing things (see 63[32]:l-3). In this state
one will see conventional good-bad opposites as parts of a whole,
complementing each other like voice and musical accompaniment.
Like the flexible Tao in 64[34 :2, one will not then "reject" those
things one finds annoying {4}. (Tso/arise:act is a negative term in
28[16]:2 and 8 1 [3 7 ]:2 :3 , so I believe {4} evokes an experience of
things in which they assert themselves annoyingly.) Saying {3} (a ver
sion of 47[43]:2) emphasizes the wwordlesswcharacter of Laoist teach
in g *^ contrast to the wnamingwcriticized in {1} and {2}. Saying {5} (a
version of 27[10]:2, 52[77]:3, 65[51]:4) counters the tendency toward
self-promotion*: The person who does n ot W dwell* inw (build his
identity on) his external successes is the one who truly deserves the
merit. One who relates to reality w ithout accentuating conscious
value judgments also will not focus on the public impression made
by his work.

Translation and Commentary


TheTao th a t ca n be told is n ot the in v arian t Tao

the names th a t ca n be named are n o t th e invariant N am es.

Nameless, it is th e source of th e th ou san d s o f things (2)

(named, it is ^Mother' o f the thousands o f things).

Yes: (3)
Always: bein g desireless,
one sees th e hidden essentials.
Always: having desires,
one sees o n ly w hat is sought.

These two lines a re a b o u t The Merging {4J

it is when things develop an d emerge fr o m this
that the differen t n am es appear.

The Merging is som ethin g mysterious {5}

mysterious, a n d m ore mysterious,
the abode o f a ll the hidden essences.

K n o w le d g e , Learning, a n d T e a c h in g

There is a place in the mind that is Still, desireless, where there are no
concepts, no separate perceptions, just engagement with reality as a
whole. There resides Tao, the source and norm of the world (1-2).
Residing here, one sees things the way they are {1, 5). But something
about the mind desires clear and separate things to see, labeled by
clear and definite concepts {1, 3}the beginning of life on th e sur
face. People who live on the surface o f their minds live on the surface
of the world. Out of touch with the depths of their mind, the depth
of things and events is hidden from them.

Saying (1) is directed against rectifying names*. Any Way that can be
spelled out in concepts is not the true (Laoist) T^o. Situations in the
world have a true nature ("name*"), but this needs to be understood
in direct experience rather than grasped through concepts ("nam es").
Saying (2:1) pictures the nameless Tao as the origin* of the world. The
interpretation of the rest of this chapter is very controversial and the
following interpretation is new. Saying (3) celebrates a benefit* of the
ideal wdesireless*Mstate Laoists cultivate. Being in this Still* state caus
es a shift* in th e way one experiences the world, allowing one to
understand* the true inner meaning (m!c?a/hidden essentials of
events and situations. One whose mind becomes active, stirred up by
desires and conceptual thinking, perceives only in categories that sat
isfy the seeking mind but cover up the real truth.
"Different names appear" in {4} refers back to the attempt in {1}
to name things correctly and give a conceptual definition o f Tao.
Hence (4) is essentially an account of the unfortunate process by
which conceptual naming arises out o f a superior m ental state
described as ^u ng/^lthe] Merging"' (compare 30[56):3), w hich the
composer identifies with the state of not desiring" mentioned in {3}.
(On the phrase ^these two lines/1see comments in 37[14]:2.) This is a
Still*, desireless and conceptless, m ental space (meM/dwelling*) in
which one knows Tao, the foundational source" of the world, which
is the same as knowing the true natures of things (see 38[21]:3)_
knowing their fte/invariant Names see Steady*"), which is the
same as knowing their miarh\dden essences^ (3, 5). (On m iao, see
49[27]:5; and compare 63[32]:3, which describes a similar unfortu
nate process of names" coming to be when one wcuts up" Tao as
norm, an originally nameless" Uncarved* Block.") The contrast
between named and nameless Tao in (2:2), which many make much
of, plays no part elsewhere. I believe (2:2) makes the relatively simple
point that Tao also has some wnames/' such as the name Mother.

Translation and Commentary


wWhen the b e st s h ih hears Tao, {1}

he puts o u t great effort to p ra ctice it.
When the average sh ih hears Tao,
he will keep it sometimes, and som etim es forget ab o u t it.
When the p o o rest shih hears Tao, h e ju s t has a big la u g h /'
I f he does n ot lau g h , it must not quite b e T ao.

Yes, the 'W ell-Founded Sayings h a s it: {2}

The bright T a o seem s dark
the Tao going forward seems to be g o in g backward
the smooth T ao seems rough.

The loftiest Te seems like a valley {3}

great purity seems sullied
abundant Te seems insufficient

Well-founded T e seems flimsy

what is pure and natural seems faded
the best square has n o comers

A great bronze takes long to finish

great music has a delicate sound
the Great Im age h a s n o shape.

Tao is sm iething concealed, nameless. (4)

It is just Tao,
good at sustaining a person an d com pletin g him.

Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching

The Tao and Te taught in our school don't lopk like very much at
first.ur Tao is a backward, dark, and rough road {2}. Its like natural
beauty th at looks to some only crude and faded, like subtle music
that appeals only to a delicate ear, like a square whose corners are
suggested rather than drawn in, like a great ceremonial bronze whose
beauty comes about so slowly {3}. Many who come think it;s laugh
able (1). But to one who makes the effort to cultivate it, this Tao is a
sustaining presence, fulfilling her best potential (4).

Shih* in {1} refers to men aspiring to careers as government officials or

advisors, w ho traveled to study w ith respected teachers in shih
schools. Saying {1:1-5} is about the varying aptitudes of students in
such schools for appreciating m oral and spiritual teaching. Other
schools also referred to their teaching as Tao*, so there is nothing
specifically Laoist about the saying before the final line. I think this is
added by the Laoist composer to make a point very different from the
original: It is in the nature of true (Laoist) Tao that it will appear
ridiculous to a conventional mind. Saying (2) describes the paradoxi
cal character of Laoist self-cultivation, playing on the meaning of Tao
as wroad.;; (It apparently quotes from a now-lost sayings collection.)
Saying {3} is related to the sayings against impressive appearances*. In
the background here is the idea that attempts to achieve strikingly
positive appearances always result in something rather artificial. Gen
uine, wnatural;; goodness typically will not be striking in its appear-
ance^ but subtle, even appearing negative at times. Lines {3:6-8} use
various metaphorical* images illustrating this idea, described in the
paraphrase. Because {3:9} is difficult to make sense of as a metaphor, I
think it is a connective* alteration written by the composer: As in
46[35]:1, wThe Great Imagewis Tao (called shapeless in 37[14]:3), and
so this line leads into {4}.
The composer's comment in {4} pictures Tao as an hypostatized*
inner presence, felt as elusive and "n am eless*, beyond one's mental
grasp, yet supportive of the one who cultivates it (see 14[23]:3,
13[20]:5). The chapter as a whole, then, is about the character of the
Tao/Te taught in the Laoist s/ii/i school not a doctrine but a subtle
way erf being anim ated by an intangible but sustaining inner presence.

Translation and Commentary

45 [70]

My words are very easy to understand,

very easy to practice.
No one in th e world can understand,
No one can p ractice them.

The words have an ancestor

the practice has a master.
They just do n ot understand
and so they do n o t understand me.
(So few understand m ea rare treasure indeed.)

And so the Wise Person:

Dressed in shabby clothes, jade under his shirt.
K n o w led g e, Learning, a n d T e a c h in g

The Tao that we teach: It's nothing strikingly unusual. It is found in

the middle o f ordinarinessin some ways the easiest thing to grasp,
in some ways th e hardest {1}. All our sayings and ways o f doing
things are expressions of only one thing, but this one thing cannot
be put into words {2}. A student has to sense itbut most do not. A
good teacher is like the Tao she teaches: precious jade under grubby
clothes (3).

Sayings (1) and (2:1-2) reflect on the nature of Laoist teaching*the

relation between the words used to teach and the spirit taught, which
can't be directly captured in words. Lines (2:3-5) and saying (3)
reflect on what it is like to be a teacher teaching the Laoist way (com
pare 3[67]:1).
The preceding chapter (44[41]) and the following four (46[35]f
47[43], 48[62], 49[27]) center on the teaching and learning that takes
place in the Laoist shih* school, including especially reflections on
what it is like to be a Laoist teacher* and the special style of teaching
that matches the character of the Tao being taught.

Translation and Commentary


Grasp the Great Im age and the w orld w ill come (i}
it will come and n o t be harmed
a great peace and evenness.

For music and cakes, passing strangers stop {2}

Tao flowing from th e lips
flat. No taste to it.

Look for it: you w ill n ot be satisfied lo o k in g {3}

listen for ityou will not be satisfied listen in g
put it into practice: you will not be s a tisfied stopping.

K n o w le d g e , Learning, a n d T e a c h in g

Music and pastry at a fair will catch people's attention. W hen some
one is teaching Tao it will appear as though nothing is going on {2}.
And yet, given time, it attracts everyone {1}. Practiced over time, it is
like a nourishing but unspiced meal it leaves you like you are, only
much better {1}. You will not want to stop {4}.

"Grasp the Great Image [=Tao]w in {1} describes an ideal ruler who
mentally keeps hold of Tao and lets it inform his leadership style. The
saying celebrates th e benefits* of this. "The world will come" refers to
the desire of each feudal prince in Warring States China to establish a
great social order that would attract people from all over C hina want
ing to be part of it.1 wNot harmed" is brought up because o f an
implied contrast with the "impressive*" ruler: Striking and inspiring
ideals stir people up but also whurt*wthem ; that is, cause them to feel
bad and guilty about the contrast between the ideal and their present
state. (Compare 55[66]:3, 81[37]:2:6-7.) But when one rules by the
spirit of Tao, one exercises a subtle rather than striking and winspir-
ingwinfluence. This spirit brings out the natural goodness already
present, rather th an confronting people with something they are not.
Saying {2} reflects on what it is like to be a Laoist teacher, teaching* a
subtle "tasteless" Tao. Saying {3:1-2} is a version of 37[14]:1, describ
ing what it is like to try to grasp Tao at meditation*.
The composer probably intends {1} here as a description n ot o f a
ruler but of the Laoist teacher, whose Tao attracts students from all
2 "You will not be satisfied stopping" is a new and conjectural
understanding o f {3:3}. I think this is probably a composer's twist
added to {3 :1 -2 }, celebrating one o f the benefits* of cu ltivatin g
{yung/usmg) Tao, subtle but deep satisfaction.

1. Compare Mencius* 1A /7,18.

2, Compare Mencius* 7A/20,4.

Translation and Commentary


The Softest th in g in the world {1}

rides right over th e Hardest things in th e world.
W hat-has-No-Being enters w hat-leaves-no-opening.
This makes m e realize the advantage o f N o t Doing.

Teaching don e by n o t talking {2}

the advantage g ain ed by Not Doing
few things in th e w orld can match this.

K n o w led g e, Learning, a n d T e a c h in g

Sometimes a student is very set in her ways, a hard nut to crack.

Closed up tight, words bounce off o f her. What will get through is
only the teaching that is not really in th e words, but exists between
the lines. D o n 't act as though teaching is a big project that needs a
lot of Hdoing.;, Appear as a nondoer. Present to her the subtle Noth
ing that will get through.

Saying {1} uses a metaphorical* nature image (water eroding rocks, or

perhaps penetrating and cracking them as ice) to celebrate the power
and benefits* of Softness* and Nothing*, mental qualities Laoists cul
tivate. (HRides over;, refers to riding down hunting prey, and evokes
the idea of sheng/overcom ing, a recurrent formula in the Tao Te Ching
borrowed from speculation about the "conquest*" cycle. Compare
I think that teaching* (2:1) is the main subject here for the com
poser: Laoist teaching is wSoft*w(nonconfrontational), and it feels like
HNothing*w that is, it has little definite surface content that can be
presented d irectly in words or Hn am es*;, (see 42[2]:3, 43[1]:1,
45[70]:1, 46[35]:2). This is why it can penetrate the "hard" surface of
the resistant student (compare 49[27] on the magical and irresistible
effectiveness o f imperceptible, "trackless" Laoist teaching). Note the
equivalence implied here between 5o/hiess' Wo-BefttX, no words, and
not doing*. All th ese have an equivalent experiential reference,
describing th e subtle presence of the Laoist teacher as felt by others.
This passage is important in showing that "nobeing" is not intended
literally or philosophically, but experientially, as hyperbole referring
to something experienced as relatively intangible.

Translation and Commentary

48 [62]

Tao is the h o n o re d center for th e th o u san d s o f things. {1}

The treasure o f th e good {2}

what protects th e n o t good.

Elegant words can buy and sell (3)

fine conduct g e ts people prom oted.

People who are n o t good, {4}

why are they rejected?

Yes: {5}
When they are en thron ing the Son o f Heaven
or installing th e Three Ministers
although th ey are presenting in trib u te
jade m ed allions out in front o f fou r-horse teams,
this cannot com pare to sitting and se ttin g forth this Tao.

W hat was the reason that the ancients treasu red this Tao? {6}
Is it not said:
"By it the seeker obtains
by it the guilty escapes/'

7e5 {7}
It is the Treasure o f th e World.

Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching

It's a difficult world. People ashamed of their lives, looking for some
thing, wanting to become what they should be (and rejected by some
teachers, who offer only elegant words that profit themselves {3-4}).
Tao is this world's secret desire, the thing that will get for the seeker
what she wants, that will turn around the life of the person gone
wrong {2, 6). One can do nothing in the world that is better than
teaching people this Tao {5}.

Sayings {1) and {7} (= 30[56]:5] celebrate the cosmic* importance of

Tao, as th a t w h ich all things instinctively cherish above all.
4o/"honored center refers to the religious shrine in a house for the
household gods; the central place of honor in the house.) Sayings (2)
and (6) celebrate Tao's great benefits*, its power to wsaveMby mere
contact those shih* who come to the Laoist school looking for some
thing better than their wayward or mediocre life. Saying {5} celebrates
the greatness o f teaching* Tao, by comparing the Tao taught to the
expensive gifts offered in tribute at grand court ceremonies. (Son of
Heaven^ is a title of the Emperor*.) On the basis of similar wording in
49[27]:3 and 4, I believe that {4} is directed against the practice of
some shih* teachers who refused to accept as students those they
judged unfit. (P u -shanrn ot goodMmay mean not immoral but inex
perienced in self-cultivation, as in 49[27]:4. To judge from 49[27], the
connection here is that Laoist Tao is so effective that it can penetrate
even the poorest student, hence rejection would be groundless. Men
cius* also is said1 not to have rejected even criminally inclined shih
who wanted to study with him.) Saying {3} counters the admiration
of fine appearances* by picturing eloquence and refined manners as
serving only the selfish and commercial interests of their possessors.
(I am guessing the composer intends a contrast between eloquence
and teaching tasteless" Tao [see 46[35]:2]. But this saying may have
crept in here by mistake. My understanding of it is new.)
This chapter is the one with the most religious" flavor, assuming
that there are guilty" people who need to be "saved" by Tao. I take
this as a measure of Laoist alienation: One cannot find m eaning by
participating in conventional social life, but finds it instead in the
Laoist shih school. The Tao that is the focus of community life there
takes the place of the Emperor* and the ceremonial surrounding him,
the traditional cultural center of meaning, now replaced by teaching
and learning self-cultivation which takes place in the Laoist school.

1. 7B/30,2

T ran slatio n a n d C o m m e n ta r y


Excellent traveling: no tracks or traces (i)

Excellent speaking: n o blemish or b la m e.

Excellent co u n tin g does not use c o u n tin g slips. (2)

Excellent lo ck in g : no bolt or bar,
but the d oor can n ot be opened.
Excellent tyin g: n o cord or rope,
but the k n o ts can n ot be u ndon e.

A n d so th e W i s e P e r s o n : (3)
Always Excels at rescuing people
and so does n o t turn anyone aw ay.
Always Excels a t resolving things
and so does n o t turn away fro m an yth in g.
T h is is c a lle d ' b e i n g c lo t h e d in C l a r i t y .'

The Excellent person (4)

is the teacher o f the person w h o is n o t Excellent.
The person w h o is n o t Excellent
is material for th e Excellent person.

N o t to tre a s u re o n e 's te a c h e r (5)

n o t to love o n e 's m a t e r ia l,
though 's m a r t / is a g r e a t m istak e.
T h is is a n i m p o r t a n t s e c r e t

Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching

Some teachers have something very definite and forceful to teach.

Some students accept it, but many resistthe teachers can do noth
ing with them. The Tao we teach is different. It gets into people sub
tly, without them knowing itlike a good hunter who can walk leav-
ing no tracks, like a magician who can tie up people using no ropes,
or fasten a door using no lock {1-2}. This is a Tao for all occasions
the one who teaches it needs to turn down no person and no prob
lem {3}. Teaching it requires an atmosphere in which students look
up to teachers who embody Tao, and teachers love th e students
whom they mold {4-5}.

Saying {3} celebrates the great powers and benefits* of teaching* done
by an accomplished Laoist teacher, enabling him to cope with any
student or problem. (Compare 48[62]:4. I take wu/things* in (3:4} to
mean "affairs, problemshence I translate cWw/rescue as "resolve in
this line.) The images of {1-2} here serve as analogies to the quasi-
magical influence, imperceptible but irresistible, of his style of teach
ing (compare 47[43].) Saying {4} is about the respective roles of teach
ers* and students in the Laoist school. 5/ian/Excellent* throughout
this chapter has a strong meaning, referring to people who are
"experts" in what they do, including especially (3~4j expert teachers
well advanced in Laoist self-cultivation (^clothed in Clarity*w {3:6}).
Hence I translate pu as "not Excellent"that is, a relative begin
neralthough the phrase also could mean wnot goodw(see 48[62]:4).
Sections {4-5} give the most direct indication in the Tao Te Ching
of sharply defined roles of teachers and students in the Laoist school.
Section {5} seems intended to correct some bad tendencies the com
poser sees among both students and teachers within the school. It
seems unlikely that the composer would direct general criticism at
teachers unless there was more than one, hence I take (5:2} as indirect
evidence that in fact there was more than one. "Secret in (5:4} is
miao, translated ^hidden essences/essentialsw in 43[1]:3 and 5. The
use of miao here shows that advice such as that given in {4-5} is the
kind of thing Laoists mean by "understanding the hidden essence" of

Majesty That Is Not Awesome
Translation and Commentary


If I had the least b it o f understanding {1)

I would walk o n th e great Way.

Only display w ill be dangerous. (2)

The great W ay is very smooth (3)

but people love bypaths.

The court is very well kept {4}

the fields are very weedy
the granaries very empty.

"Their clothes are fine and colorful (5)

on their belts are sharp swords,
they are filled with food and drinkw
a superabundance o f expensive goods.

This is robbers boasting, {6}

certainly not th e W ay.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

People admire the parties of the rich: the fine clothes, the abundance
of great food {5}. But what are they doing? They take great care o f the
court (for themselves), but neglect their responsibilities: they ignore
weedy fields, and fail to see that grain is stored against famine (4).
What are their parties really like? A gang of thieves showing off booty
stolen from th e people {6}.

Sayings {1} and {3} contrast the obvious importance of the "easy"
Tao*/Way w ith its neglect by the unthinking majority. Saying {2}
speaks against self-promotion*, using an oracle* formula. Saying {3}
criticizes contem porary rulers who give their attention to th e ele
gance of court life at the expense of their public responsibilities, like
managing agriculture and storing grain against famine (com pare
52[77]:1). Because lines {5:1-3) seem so glowing, I suspect they are a
quotation. Line {5:4} expresses the composer's disapproval of the ban
quet scene described.
The saying criticizing wdisplaywin {2} is connected with the criti
cism of conspicuous consumption in {5} and wboastingw in {6}. It is
placed near th e beginning to frame* some of the material, giving this
composition more unity. Section {6} further unifies the composition:
"Robbers boasting" characterizes the court's conspicuous consump-
tion in {4-5}, and "th e Way" refers back to {1} and |2}.
In {2) most translators emend 5/11/1/display toyiTgo astray/' yield
ing W [I would] only fear going astray/' which might seem to make
much better sense in the immediate context of talk about the wGreat
WayMand the wbypathsM(see Duyvendak). But (a) the catchy wei shih
shih wei/wonly display will be dangerousMmakes sense as an indepen
dent saying using an oracle* formula, and (b) the location of this say
ing at the beginning follows a unifying wframing*wtechnique visible
elsewhere. This is a good example of the way form and redaction crit
icism1 sometimes can provide solutions to textual puzzles without
resort to emendations.
This Section 5 begins with three chapters (50[53]f 51[75], 52[77])
expressing Laoist protest against the unjust distribution of wealth and
the luxury the upper classes enjoy at th e expense of the peasantry.

1. See pp. 196-199.

Translation and Commentary

51 [75]

The people are starving/ {1}

It is because th ose high up eat to o m u ch tax grain,
this is why th e y are starving.

'The people a r e h ard to govern/

It is because th ere is Working am on g th ose high up,
this is why they a re hard to govern.

T h e people take death lightly/

It is because th e y pursue a lavish life,
this is why th ey take death lightly.

Simply: {2}
Those who d o n o t W ork at living'
these are better m en than those who 'love l i f e /

M ajesty T hat Is N o t A w e so m e

People in office are always complaining, "the people are hard to gov
ern "the peop le are uncontrollable"; "th e people are s ta rv in g ,
Can#t they see that they themselves are the cause? If they tax the peo
ple so heavily, o f course the people will starve. If they themselves are
reckless in pursuit o f pleasure, do they think the people are not going
to be (1)? The poor farmers who do not waste all their efforts trying
to live it up are better than the all those officials who wlove lifew(2).

I think the first lines of the first three stanzas here are quotations of
common com plaints by rulers (compare 66[74]:1). The criticism of
wealth derived from burdensome taxation in (1:1-3) is similar to that
in 50[53]:4, 52[77]:1, and 53[72]:2. As to (1:7-9): 76[80] m entions, as
part of its description of an ideal society, that the people in this soci
ety wtake death seriously and do not travel far distances/' Hence the
opposite here "taking death lightly" probably means that the people
are reckless, or perhaps that they cant be controlled by fear of capital
punishment. (The criticism of capital punishment in 66[74]: 1 m en
tions people's lack of wfear of death./#) Hence the overall meaning
here is that rulers are responsible for the people's recklessness because
their own reckless quest for high living sets a bad tone for the society.
"Work" in {1:4-6} doesnt go well with the criticism o f luxury in
the other two stanzas. I take it to be the composer's addition. As in
8[81]:4, work is an elliptical reference, spelled out in (2): People are
hard to govern because those high up set a bad tone by wworlcing a t
that is, at living luxuriously, which they daim manifests their
"love of life ." (Compare the similar criticism of lavish living in
22[50]:2, where shen g shengchih houl^Wvt life's lavishnessw matches
chou sheng ch ih /iou/wpursue life's lavishnessMhere.) The com poser
here seems to be stretching the more usual meaning of the key Laoist
term working*, to cover wworkingw at luxurious living (see also
41[47]:3). Im guessing that "those who dont work at living it upware
peasant-farmers, objects of the complaints in (1).

T ran slatio n a n d C o m m e n ta ry


Heaven's W ay is like the stringing o f a bow: (1)

It pulls down w h at is high
it lifts up w h at is low
it takes away fro m what has an ab u n d an ce
to give to w h a t has n ot enough.

Heaven's W a y :
Take aw ay fr o m w h a t has an a b u n d a n ce
help along w h a t h a s n ot enough.
People's w ay is n ot like this:
Take away from w h a t has not enough
to offer it to w h a t h a s an abundance.

Who can have an abundance to offer th e world? (2)

Only the o n e w ho has Tao.

And so the W ise Person: {3j

Works but does not rely on this
achieves successes but does not dw ell in them
has no desire to sh ow o f f his worth.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Look at nature's leveling: High river banks get pulled down, low-lying
ravines get filled in. What do people do? Those who are on top get
lifted higher. Rulers demand that the lowest people in need feed the
coffers of those who already have more than enough {1}. The abun
dance they receive is a source of pride for them. But w hat is real
"abundance W hat is the "abundance" th at will benefit the people?
It is the Tao that one has inside, the spirit that enables a leader to
make a real contribution {2} without puffing herself up over it {3}.

Saying {1} uses a metaphorical* nature image, described in the para

phrase. In its criticism of wealth as imbalance, it is sim ilar to
51[75]:1, and 53[72]:2. Underlying these sayings is a feel
ing for the social whole that Laoist shih* wanted to promote among
contemporary leaders. When "the rich get richer/' this is bad because
it means that resources are diverted from those who need it most to
those who need it least, and that resources are spent on luxuries
rather than on w hat is most useful to the society (50[53]:4). Saying
(2} celebrates the benefits* one who has Tao* can confer on his soci
ety. Saying {3} criticizes the tendency toward self-promotion*, by pos
ing the image of the ideal shih* who is very competent and successful
in his managerial tasks, but does not rely on them for his sense of
self-worth, and so is not possessive of them and does not "dwell* in
(identify him self with) them. (Versions of this saying occur also at
42[2]:5, 65[51]:4; and 27[10]:2.)
In the second half of this chapter, the composer shifts the focus
away from wealth as imbalance, to a contrast between the implied
false abundance" of wealth {1} and the more real spiritual "abun
dance" of the sWh who possesses the spirit of Tao {2}, spreading this
spirit by the self-effacing style of his leadership (3) (see com m ents in

Translation and Commentary

53 [72]

When the p eo p le are not in awe o f you r majesty

then great m a je sty has been ach iev ed .

Do not restrict w h ere they can live

do not tire th em ou t by taxing w h a t th ey live on.
Simply do n o t tire them
and they w ill n o t tire of you.

And so, the W ise Person:

Knows h im self
does not m ake a show of himself.
Loves him self
does not exalt him self.

Yes, he leaves 'th a t' aside, and attends to "this.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Some mlers need to make their importance felt {1} by constant asser
tion of their privileges Staking out wroyal landswwhere the people
arent allowed to live, taxing heavily the farm produce the people live
on {2:1-2}. The people know this cioes n ot represent true "m ajesty."
Theyll soon tire o f such a person, and th at wiil be the end of his rule
{2:3-4}. Rulers indeed ought to know and love themselves better, pay
ing more atten tion to developing their own character {3 -4 }. Then
they could be easier on the people. Then true Hmajesty,/ will have
arrived {1}.

Saying {1} counters the desire of Warring States rulers to awe their
subjects with an impressive* and commanding presence. The image
of the nonawesome ruler it presents, evokes the Laoist idea that the
internal spirit he cultivates {3-4} fits a ruler for true greatness and
this spirit is not something that makes a striking external impression.
(Compare 54[17]:1. (The translation o f {1} here is new, based a pas
sage in the M encius*1 using the same words for awe and majesty in the
sense I give th em here.) Saying {2:3-4} counters the tendency o f these
rulers to impose burdens on their people, picturing not burdening
the people as the best way to keep their allegiance (a constant worry
of Warring States rulers). Saying {3} urges introspective concern for
the quality of one's own being, in contrast to self-promotion*. I think
that "this" in {4} refers also to concern for one's own being, as
opposed to concern for the external impression one makes on others
("that"). (See discussion under "This*." This saying also occurs in
ll[38]:8and 21[12]:3.)
The "burdensome" restrictions and taxation referred to in {2:1-2}
have not only a practical purpose, but are a means of imposing recog
nition of the ru lers special status and Mmajestyw{1}. (Compare the
criticisms of sim ilar practices in Mencius*.12) The composer redirects
the rulers attention to introspective care for and development o f his
own being {3-4} in contrast to a preoccupation with gaining public
recognition (compare 24[33]:1). His own inner spirit thus cultivated
will win more subtly, but more effectively, the respect and allegiance
of the people.
This chapter shares the social criticism of the previous three
chapters, but relates this also to the main theme of the following four
(54[1755[66], 56[61], 57[68 )Laoist opposition to the "impressive*"

1. lB/3,3.
2. For example, 1A/Sf3, 1B/2, lB/5,3.

Translation and Commentary


The greatest ruler: those under h im o n ly know he exists (1)

the next b e st k in d : they love and praise him
the next: th ey are in awe of him
the n ex t th ey despise him.

When sincerity does not suffice (2)

it was not sincerity.
("Reticent h e is sparing with w o rd s/')

He achieves successes {3}

he accomplishes his tasks
and the hundred clans all say: W e are ju st being natural.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Why do rulers want so much to impress their people? First the people
give them love and respect but this is only one step removed from
aweand awe is only one step removed from resentment and hatred.
The ruler who stands out is a burden {1}. Why ^ve impressive speech
es? Real sincerity will always be sufficient, even when it's not impres
sive {2}. The best turn of events: You work hard, but your work is
invisiblepeople think things are just going well naturally {3}.

Sayings {1} and (3} counter the ruler's desire to be impressive*to gain
the love and respect of his people, and to have them credit him with
the societys order and prosperity. The idea behind the progression in
{1} is that w h en th e ruler is so exalted in the peoples m ind this
"hurts*" them (SS[66]:3) and causes them to feel inferior (81[37 :2:6),
which eventually leads to resentment. The contrasting image is the
ideal Laoist ruler whose greatness consists in the intangible and unim
pressive spirit he cultivates, which expresses itself by keeping an
extremely low profile. Thus he actually works hard and com petently
at social organization {3:1-2} but calls so little attention to him self
that the people think social harmony came about spontaneously (3:3).
Saying {2:1-2} (= 14[23]:4) counters the feeling that speech will be
effective only when it is eloquent, sincerity will not suffice to co n
vince. I think {2:3} probably is a quotation about some great rtman of
few words/' (Its presence here is one reason that I think {2 :1 -2 } is
about sincere speech. See further com m ents at 14[23]:4.) For Laoists,
sincere speech counts as something relatively unimpressive in con
trast to elcxjuence (see 7[8]:2:4, 8[81]:1), hence the connection of this
saying with the idealization d the unimpressive ruler in {1} and (3).

Translation and Commentary


The Yang-tze an d th e ocean:

How are th e y able to be Kings o f th e hundred streams?
Because th ey excel at being low
this is how th e y are able to be Kings
of the hund red streams.

And so
Wishing to be high above the p eop le,
you m ust b y y ou r speech put y o u rself at the bo ttom .
Wishing to be out in front of th e p eo p le,
you m ust pu t your self in the la s t place.

And so, the W ise Person

Stands above, b u t the people are n o t w eighed down
stands exit in fro n t, but the people are n o t harmed
and so the w orld delights in praising h im ,
and does n o t tire.

Because o f h is n o t contending
no one in th e world can contend w ith h im .
Majesty That Is Not Awesome

With some leaders, every word they speak, every action they take,
says, "I am someone of great importance. You are my lowly subjects."
Such a person is an oppressive weight on the people, hurting them by
casting them always in a bad light, as "inferior. People will not
accept this. Weighed down, they weary of her. The people wearied,
she loses their support (3). She becomes just one more individual,
joining in society's quarrelsome com petition for honor and status.
(And she wonders why people become so contentious and quarrel
some with her {4}.) Look at the ocean and the Yang-tze, greatest of
rivers. Did they become great because of their talent for being impres
sive? No, their uniqueness among rivers lies in their surpassing low
ness, occupying the place toward which all the water naturally flows
(1). This is an image of the weightless authority of the one who occu
pies the Central place, but also the lowly place.

Sayings {1}, {2}, and {3:2-3) criticize the ideal of the impressive* ruler
The metaphorical* nature image in {1} represents the idea that the
quality Laoists cultivate gives a ruler true claim to Emperor* status
and will attract the spontaneous allegiance of all the people, but this
quality expresses itself partly in a deferential manner, a willingness
(as in {2 }) to adopt the stance characteristic of someone of low* social
standing in dealing with others. (See 3S[39]:2. Mencius*1 also uses
water's gravity flow as an image of the people's "natural" allegiance
for a true ruler, but without the emphasis on lowness. Not just any
kind of being low " is involved here: T h e ideal ruler has a greatness
all tiie more attractive because it expresses itself in a deferential man
ner in dealing with his people.) Saying (3:2-3) reflects the Laoist ideal
for the ruler, setting a high tone for the society, yet doing so in such
a way that his presence is not felt as overbearing or in any way hurt
ful* or accusatory (see also 8 1 [3 7 ]]:2 :6 .) Line {3:2} plays on
d?Mn /heavy, w hich also means dignified": The ideal ruler is one
whose great weight/dignity does not weigh on" the people (compare
53[72]:1, 54[17]:1). Saying {4} (= 4[22]:6) criticizes the tendency to
c/?^/contend*:quarrel with others for high social standing. ("Low-
ness" and "n o t contending" are connected also in 7 [ 8 ] :1 and
57[68 :1-2.) The noncontentious person "has no competition in the
contest for real worth.
Line {3:4} interrupts the parallelism of the previous two lines, it is
introduced by the standard introduction shih yilf,and so /' and its
point seems equivalent to the universal attractiveness theme of ( 1 )
this is why I think it is a connective* addition by the composer.

1. 4A/9,2.

T ran slatio n a n d C o m m e n ta r y


The great state is a low and easy

woman for th e world
the one th e w h o le world unites w ith .

Femininity alw ays overcomes M ascu lin ity, by Stillness, {2}

m Stillness it ta k e s the low place.

Yes: (3}
A great state,
by putting itself lower than th e sm aller state,
will win o u t over the smaller state.
A small state,
by putting itself lower than th e g reat state,
will win out over the great state.

Yes: {4}
One puts itself low er so it will win o u t,
if the other gets low er, then it will w in.

(A great state h a s n o further desire {5}

titan to em brace a n d protect other states.
A small state h a s n o further desire
than to enter a n d serve other states.
So both get w h a t they w ant)

The greatest should be the lowest. <6 )

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Some hope to m ake their state great by forming grand plans and
gaining a reputation for high ideals, thinking that in this way they
will attract people from all over. But w hat state will really attract the
world? The one that imitates the prostitute: Feminine, Still, low,
loose, and easy. In dealing with other states, diplomacy that plays the
lower part wins out in the long run over arrogance.

Several individual states were competing with each other in this peri
od, each w anting to restore unity to the Chinese empire under its
leadership. More powerful states regularly swallowed up their weaker
neighbors. A favorite strategy was for one ruler to try to attract the
allegiance o f a rival state's people. Saying {1} criticizes the ideal of the
strict* ruler, one who hopes to attract people and make his state great
by upholding the highest moral standards. The saying m eans to
shock by proposing the extreme opposite ideal: Attract the people's
allegiance by being like a prostitute w ho has no moral standards.
(Seeing a prostitute image underlying this passage is new. See "Addi
tional Textual N otes. positive Laoist ideal underlies the negative
prostitute metaphor*: The ideal ruler rules by a spirit that is just the
spirit of an ideal organic harmony already potentially present in the
society, needing just to be brought out (see 60[49]:1). This is why it
will be attractive to the people, but will not be experienced by them
as a moral norm imposed from without. Saying (2:1) borrows a for
mula from th o u g h t about the ''conquest* cycle/' to celebrate the
superiority o f th e FemininityVStillness* Laoists cultivate over the
Masculine spirit. (I take (2:2) to be th e composer's connective* addi
tion, linking {2 : 1 } to the theme of lowness, the leitm otif for this
chapter.) Saying {3} celebrates the power and benefits* of Laoist low
ness*, which here expresses itself in a deferential manner when con
ducting in terstate diplomacy (a com m on task of Warring States
shih*). Saying {6 } also advises deference, as especially suited to those
(people or states) w ith great power and status (compare our principle
of noblesse oblige).
Section {5} seems to be in conflict with (1-4). Sayings {1-4J sug
gest that even small states can win out in struggles with larger states
if their rulers cultivate Laoist Femininity/Stillness/lowness. Section (5)
only appears to uphold this idea, by a contorted interpretation of
"winning outw: A small state now "w ins out by "getting what it
wants/' and this turns out to be annexation by its larger neighbors!
Note also the way that the meaning of ta/great changes. In {1} it
means "great in stature," in {3-6} it means "large in size.wPerhaps {5}
was added as propaganda defending the ambitions of some large state
to take over its smaller neighbors.

Translation and Commentary


The best soldier is n o t warlike {1}

the best fig h ter shows no anger
the one best a t defeating the en em y does not engage h im
the one best a t m an agin g people p u ts h i m s e l f below them.

This is the T e o f n o t contending {2}

this is the p o w er to m anage people.
This is being th e Counterpart o f H eav en
equalling the very b e s t o f the ancients.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Managers should take a lesson from the soldier The good soldier puts
aside his personal stake in the fighting, doesn#t get angry or go look
ing for a fight. She does only what she has to do {1}. The best supervi
sor has no stake in being boss, but treats her people as though she is
there to serve them . The workers feel it {2}.

Saying {1:1-3} counters excessively aggressive tendencies among sol

ders, posing the opposite image of one who is more effective because
his judgment and actions are not distorted by anger, and he is willing
to use indirect tactics (the point of the exaggerated image in {1:3};
compare 5 8 73]:1, 6 8
The com poser uses the saying about soldiering to present a model
for being a good supervisor, the ambition of many shih*. The associa
tion is aided by the connotations o f chew^/conten^rquarrel, which
can refer to b o th physical fighting and the social struggle for status.
The ideal supervisor is not wcontentiousw in his desire to establish
himself as th e boss {2 : 1 }# but is able to treat those under him as
though he were their social inferior {1:4}, someone wlower*w than
they. ^Te*^ here has the meaning of subtle influence and power, ema
nating from the supervisor's wnoncontentiousMspirit. Such a one,
even if he is only a minor administrator, achieves the spirifwa/ status
of the idealized ancient* Emperors*, the "Counterparts of Heaven*"
in ruling the world {2:3-4}.

Translation and Commentary


wOne who show s bravery by bein g d arin g will get killed {1}
one who shows bravery by n o t b e in g daring will survive/'

But in both these ca ses: {2}

"Sometimes it helps, sometimes it h a rm s.w

wWhat Heaven picks to hatew ho k now s the reason?" (3)

And so the W ise Person: {4)

Treats things as difficult.

Heavens W ay: {5}

Not contending, but excels at o verco m in g
n ot speaking, b u t excels in getting answ ers
not summoning, bu t people com e of them selves
lax, but excels a t organization.

Heaven^ net is very wide {6 }

loosely woven,
but it lets nothing slip by.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Some rulers are at the people all the time, watching every move, sum
moning them , demanding answersas though at war with the peo
ple {5}. But th is isn't the way the world works. Consider fate. It
appears unpredictablenow taking a life, now sparing a life {1-3};
but in the end, justice prevails. The best ruler is like that, appearing
easy, planning and managing things quietly, so order is maintained
but she never has to play the policeman {5-6}.

Saying {1} speaks against aggressive soldiering, posing the opposite

image of a brave but smarter soldier. Sayings {2:2} and {3} look like
common proverbs about our inability to predict what brings good or
bad fortune. (Saying {3} invokes an idea common in ancient China that
bad fortune is a sign of Heaven's* hatred toward someone.) Saying {4} is
a fragment of the saying found in 71 [63]:7, advising caution rather
than carelessly making light of things. Saying {5:2-4} counters th e ideal
of the strict* and aggressive ruler, posing exaggerated images of the
opposing ideal: The low-key ruler who elicits cooperation and over
comes opposition by indirect means and the subtle power o f his Te*.
The com poser takes {1} not as an aphorism*, but a literal predic
tion of who will survive and who will die. He uses this as a take-off*
point for criticism of confidence in predictability, expressed in the
sayings about uncertainty in {2} and {3} (compare 59[58]:2, 62(291:3,
and comments on "Understanding*"). Saying {4} counters confidence
in simplistic predictive laws, advising that one treat the course of
events as difficult to understand*. Saying {6 } and the composer's addi
tion in {5:5} interpret the unpredictability of wHeavenM{1-3} as appar
ent laxity in enforcing justice, a laxity that is on/y apparent, however:
In the long run no one gets away with anything. (1 mark {5:5} a con
nective* addition because it interrupts the parallelism of the previous
lines and leads into the image of {6 }.) The chapter thus outlines a
"Way of Heaven" that is a model for the ideal ruler, who will often
appear easy and ''la x /' rather than a strict policeman. But th is is
because of his subtle style of ruling, flowing from the state of mind
and attitude he cultivates, a style that ultimately has the effect of
enforcing justice. This chapter makes it clear that the policy of being
"low and easy" advocated in 56[61], and the "nonintervention" some
other chapters might appear to recommend, are not to be taken liter
ally as a description of the ultimate goal and effect of the ideal Laoist
ruling style, which still aims at enforcing justice.

Translation and Commentary


When the ru ler is dull and in co m p eten t, {1}

the people are pure and simple.
When the ru ler is sharp and alert,
the people are a bad lo t

"Bad luck: good luck depends on it {2}

good luck: b ad luck hides in it.w
W ho knows w h ere this ends?
There is no norm .
W hat accords w ith the norm turns arou n d a n d becomes w eird
what is excellent turns around an d b e c o m es ominous.

"People's blind ness {3}

it has been g oin g on so long now ."

And so the W ise Person: {4}

Is square and h on est but does n ot cut
is pointed and ex act but does n o t h u rt
is straight and direct but not tactless
shines but d oes n o t dazzle.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Some rulers th in k they know exactly what's right and what's wrong,
which plans will succeed and which will come to ruin {2}. They keep
a sharp and constant watch {1 }, judging everyone and everything by
their sure knowledge. They try to dazzle their people {4} with the
inspiring high standards of their government, but their self-assurance
makes them abrasive {4}. This is a very old kind of blindness {3}. Bet
ter is the ruler who remains always aware of uncertainty and who
emphasizes tact, managing to uphold high standards without hurting
anyone's feelings {4}. She accepts the risk of appearing dull and
incompetent { 1 }this is so much better than a wdazzlingw ruler who
constantly makes the people feel lacking.

Sayings {1} and {4:2-4} counter the ideal of the strict* ruler. The
image of th e wdull and incompetentw ruler in {1} (Karigren's transla
tion) is an exaggerated self-caricature emphasizing the opposite Laoist
ideala ruler who actually stands for high standards, but who is not
dramatic and confrontational about this and so sometimes appears
not to know w hat is going on. The wsharpwruler provokes a rebellious
attitude in his people, whereas the wdullwLaoist noler fosters organic*
social harmony. Saying {4:2-4} poses the image of the person whose
interactions manage to combine honesty and uprightness with tact,
so as not to hurt* anyone. (It uses metaphors taken from measure
ments in carpentry: The word for wsquarewalso means h o n e s t/ ' the
word for //right-angledwalso means wscrupulous/ exacting/' etc.) Say
ing {2 : 1- 2 } looks like a folk proverb emphasizing uncertainty, coun
tering the hum an tendency to construe one piece of apparent good or
bad luck as a wtrendw(see comments on wUnderstanding*w). The say
ing that follows in (3} deplores this tendency as a manifestation of
all-to-common ignorance (compare 13[20]:3:2).
The com poser adds (2:3-6} emphasizing our inability to know
easily and name* correctly what is lucky or unlucky, good or bad.
Such knowledge would give a person in authority a good basis for
taking an uncompromising moral stance toward his subjects, hence
the connection to the criticism in (1} and (3). (Compare sim ilar
implied associations in 58[73] and 62[29].) Dazzle in the final line
refers to the striking moral impressiveness* some rulers strive for,
contrasted with the subtle shining of the tactful Laoist
This chapter belongs to a group of three chapters (58[73], 59[58],
60[49]) criticizing the ideal of the strict* ruler.

Translation and Commentary


The Wise Person is always a m an w ith o u t a mind

he takes th e m in d o f the hundred clans as his mind.

Those who are good, I am good to th em

those who are n o t good, I am also g ood to them
Te is good.

Those who are honest, I am hon est w ith them

those who are n o t honest, I am also h o n e st with them
Te is honest.

The Wise Person

lives in the w orld a ll drawn in
for the world's sake h e keeps his m in d m uddled.

The hundred clans

all strain their eyes and ears tow ard h im .
The Wise Person treats them all as his children.
Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Some officials have a very set mind regarding good and bad {1}. They
find it easy to recognize which people they meet are insincere and no
goodand they know that such people should be dealt with in kind
{2}. This attitude is hurtful. The best official is like someone who has
no mind o f her own. She takes the mind of the people as a guide to
policy {1}. In her respect for the people she shows unwavering good
ness to all, good and bad alike [2], like a loving parent {4}. She does
not inhabit the world like something with bristles all extended, con
stantly waiting to puncture those doing wrong in her eyes. Rather she
appears drawn in, "muddle minded" some might sayall so she will
not hurt the people {3}.

Saying (1} counters the ideal of the strict* ruler who thinks it is his
role to represent high mindedness in contrast to the people who are
lacking in this. It poses instead an exaggerated counterimage of a
man with no mind of his own at all. The ideal he holds up for the
society does not cowpont them as something coming from outside. It
is nothing but an idealized version of the organic* goodness already
inherent in the society ("the hundred clans"). Saying {2} counters the
tendency to respond to others in kind, giving a normative* descrip
tion of the way one acts who has Te*. Laoist Te expresses itself in a
selfless generosity to all, regardless of their deserts. (A similar quality
is ascribed to Te in 9[79] and 71[63]:3).
"Keeps his mind muddled" in {3} is an exaggerated image of the
ruler who keeps his mind free of sharply defined moral standards to
impose on his people. (This would "h u rt*" them [see 81 [37]:2:6],
hence the statem ent that he does this "for the world's [society's]
sake.") He also presents the appearance of someone "drawn in ,"
rather than aggressive (compare 6[15]:2). ("Muddled" and "drawn in"
follow Karlgren's understanding of the Chinese words involved.) In
(4} I take "strain th eir eyes...toward him^ to mean that people look to
him for moral guidance, and "treats them all as children" to signify a
protective attitude. The Chinese phrase could mean instead that he
"acts like a child."

Translation and Commentary


Excellently fo u n d ed : it will n o t b e uprooted

Excellently em braced and cared for: it will not slip away
so sons and grandsons
will nev er cease to offer the sacrifices.

Cultivate It in your person, its Te will b e pure

cultivate It in th e clan, its Te will b e abu nd an t
cultivate It in th e village, its Te w ill b e lasting
cultivate It in th e state, its Te will b e am ple
cultivate It in th e empire, its T e w ill b e all-embracing.

Judge a person taking that person as th e measure
judge a clan taking that clan as th e m easure
judge a village taking that village as th e measure
judge a state taking that state as th e m easure
judge the world taking the world as th e measure.

How do I know th e nature of th e w orld?

By this.
Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Like individuals, groups and societies also have a spirit that needs cul
tivation {2}. Some great families last and last because they are found
ed on a solid spirit {1}. How do you know what to cultivate? Pay
attention to th at inner something which is this group at its bestit
differs from group to group, and it cannot be known by any grand
plan {3}. How do you come to know it? Cultivate the right state of
mind, and look .

Large family clans were an im portant element in ancient Chinese

society, and { 1 } is about building up and maintaining the greatness of
the clan to w hich one belongs.1 The enduring greatness o f a clan is
made m anifest here in the fact that clan descendants continue to
offer sacrifices to clan ancestors for generation after generation. If this
is a Laoist saying, 5/ja/ExceIlently* refers to cultivating clan greatness
according to Laoist ideals, and the saying celebrates the wonderful
benefits* o f this. Saying {2} also celebrates the benefits* of cultivating
this spirit (here called simply It) at all levels of society. (Te* here prob
ably refers to the character of the social unit as it makes itself felt in
its reputation.12) Saying {3} reads, literally, wBy person examine per
son, by clan examine clan, etc.w My conjecture is that the target of
the saying is the tendency to judge smaller social units in the light of
larger ones all according to some normative scheme. Against this,
the saying advocates understanding* and judging each individual
unit on its own, and furthermore viewing each in its uniqueness
("measured by itself"), rather than according to some single norm
applied to all. This understanding makes it easy to connect this say
ing with {4}, which employs a recurrent Laoist formula found also in
38[21]:4 and 77[57]:2. I tfiink it is a stock answer to questions by
opponents about the source of Laoist views, by appealing to immedi
ate experiential intuition (rtthis*w), in the proper state of mind. The
connection then would be that {3} also recommends evaluating a per
son just by o n e#s direct experience of th at person without reference
to other, external criteria. TTie ultimate point is similar to th at in
60[49]:1 th at norms should be derived from characteristics already in
some sense inherent in social units, rather than from some scheme
external to them .
This chapter belongs to a group o f six (58[73], 59[58], 60[49],
61[54L 62[29], 63[32]) sharing a common opposition to tfie ruler who
wants to base his policies on sure conceptual knowledge of norms
and general laws governing social life.

1. C o m p are M e n c iu s * lB /1 4 ,3 -
2 . As in ib id . 2 B / 2 ,9 .

Translation and Commentary


When som eone wants to take over th e world

and do som e work on it,
I can see h e w o n t be able.
The world is a spirit-thing, it c a n 't be 'worked on.

One who works ruins

one who grasps loses,

Yes, things:
Sometimes th e y will go ahead, so m etim es follow after
sometimes th e y will be snorting w ild ly
sometimes breathing easily
sometimes th e y will be strong, som etim es weak
sometimes th e y will break, som etim es destroy.

And so the W ise Person:

Avoids excess, avoids extravagance, avoids being grandiose.
Majesty That Is Not Awesome

Some people have grand plans for reforming the world. They possess
the key to how the world really works, and they think #/If only I were
completely in charge/' But the social world is always beyond our
grasp and control, a sacred thing { 1 } with an unpredictable m ind of
its own {3}. People with the ambition to "work it over" stand out as
grossly superfluous on the face of the world {4}. Wherever they go
they ruin the irreplaceable goodness of the given (2 ).

Saying {1} counters the ambition o f some Warring States thinkers and
rulers to get control of the entire Chinese Empire (wthe worldw) and
make it over according to some grand design. The term shen-
ch'irspint th in g w probably means to evoke not only awe for some
thing sacred, but the common ancient Chinese fear of spirits the
/,superstitious*/, feeling that offending them could easily bring retalia
tion or bad luck. (Shen-cM could also mean wspirit vessel/' a sacred
vessel used in religious ceremony.) The phrase conveys a Laoist feel
ing for the world that underlies their polemic against ,#working*w:
The wworkerwtypically thinks his own plans and efforts are all impor
tant, considering what he is working on as mere raw m aterial. By
contrast, Laoists emphasize reverence and respect for the givenness of
things. Saying {2} (= 72[64]:4) criticizes the attitude of those who
want to control things by their own efforts, suggesting that what is
most valuable about things cannot be possessed by direct grasping
and typically is ruined by attempts to work* on or "im prove*" on
them. Saying {3} counters the confidence in our ability to predict and
control things in the world, posing as a counterimage the unpre
dictable behavior o f barnyard animals (indicated by wsnorting,/, etc.)
Saying {4} is probably related to those criticizing self-promotion* as
"excessive" (see 1[24] and 2[9]).
As in 58[73] and 59[58L the composer here associates emphasis
on uncertainty {3} with criticism of ruling with a strong hand {1-2}.
That is, this attitude on the part of a ruler typically results from self-
assurance that he understands* things perfectlya /,grandiose/, atti
tude. The emphasis on the unpredictability of events in the world is
part of the Laoist insistence that the world always eludes our concep
tual (^naming*) grasp. One who realizes this will not be so confident
that implementing his reforming plans will actually be successful and

Translation and Commentary


Tao will always b e nameless, an U ncarved Block {1}

although it is a th in g of no accou n t,
no one in th e w orld can make it his subject.

If the princes an d kings could w atch over It, {2}

the thousands o f things
would o n th e ir own be as d eferen tial as guests.
Heaven and Earth would join to g eth er to send sweet dew .
The people o n th e ir own would sh are equally
without an y o n e giving orders.

When you begin m akin g decisions a n d cutting it up, {3}

rules and n am es appear.
And once nam es appear, you should k n o w to stop.
Knowing to stop, you can be w ithout fear.

A comparison: [4]
Taos presence in th e world
is like th e relation of small river valleys
to the Yang-tze and the ojcean.

Majesty That Is Not Awesome

What is the Center of the Worldthe supreme thing which every

thing naturally wants to obey, the thing toward which all things nat
urally flow {4}# the thing that brings spontaneous peace to the world
{2}? It is som ething that by its nature will always appear small, of no
account in the world {1}. If those at the top could only cultivate and
maintain it in themselves, what a world this could be. But what do
they do instead? They feel it is too intangible. The Norm needs to be
named. They chop up this simple and natural thing into a thousand
pieces, relying on a thousand laws to keep people in line {3}. They've
lost it.

Saying {1} celebrates* the Tao* Laoists cultivate, something o f great

power and importance although it appears insignificant in the con
ventional world. Saying {2} celebrates the marvelous benefits*
brought to a society by a ruler who ''watches* ove^ Tao and lets it
animate his government. Saying {3:4} uses an oracle* form ula to
advocate ''knowing to stop.1' This phrase occurs in a similar context
in the iVei* h / i , 1 Life then thought, thought then knowledge,
knowledge th en stop.,# On the basis o f this, and the occurrence of
this saying in 1 9 [4 4 ]:4 ,1 believe this phrase has a meaning similar to
"turn* back." It is based on the image o f an "original1 Still* state of
mind that can become stirred up into various kinds of outward-look
ing mental ,,activity/# like conceptual (''naming*1*) thought or desire
for fame or possessions (as in 19[44]:l-2). When one becomes aware
of sudi negative mental "activity," one should "know to stop" it. Say
ing {4} uses the same metaphorical* image as 55[66]:1 to represent tlie
natural gravitation o f everyone toward the wlow*wTao.
''Cutting upf/ in {3:1-2} refers to the Uncarved Block o f {1} and is
directed against other contemporary shih* schools that advocated
explicit form ulation of moral and legal norms (see "N am in g*").
Chf/"cut up" also means "govern Explicit legal naming and "de
cisions" deprive the ruler of real authority by making destructive "in-
dsionswin the real Norm of the World, the Tao as Uncarved Block.
When instead the ruler governs by the spirit of the insignificant/
low/uncarved Tao, it exerts a subtle but powerful influence that
attracts the allegiance of all {4} and produces social harmony and
prosperity {2}. See 17[28]:2, wliere the Uncarved Block refers to one's
person as a whole, before it is wcut upwin to good and bad qualities.
(These are the same: For Laoists, Tao functions as a Norm through its
existence in the person of the ideal ruler.)

1. Rickett 1 9 6 5 :1 6 0 -1 6 1 D. My (more literal) translation.

Translation and Commentary


Great Tao drifts it can go right o r go left.

The thousands o f things depend on it fo r life,

it rejects nothing.

It achieves successes,
but does n o t hold tight to th e fam e.
It clothes a n d feeds the thousands o f things
but does n ot a c t th e ruler.

Desiring nothing, it can be called 'o f no acco u n t/
The thousands o f things turn back to it
but it d oes n ot a ct the ruler
it can be called 'G reat/

Because in th e end
it does not insist on its own greatness,
yes, it is able to achieve its full greatness.
Majesty That Is Not Awesome

The spirit th at rules the world is like the spirit that animates the best
ruler All-accepting, infinitely flexible {1-2}. Everything depends on
its loving care, everything obeysyet it acts like the lowest person
daring to desire nothing for itself or impose its will {3-4}. Is this not
its greatness {5}?

Saying {1} counters the ideal of the strict* ruler with a normative*
description of the flexible Tao* that informs the actions of the ideal
ruler, adhering to no fixed rules (see 56[61]:1; 60[49]:1), but able to
bring out th e best in every new and different circumstance, ^rejecting
nothing^ {2}. Sayings {3:1} and {5} (= 71[63]:5) speak against self-pro
The com poser's additions in {2}, {3 :3 -4 } and {4} take th e ideals
expressed in these sayings, originally ideals for the human ruler, and
project them onto Tao as cosmic rulerwhich in turn is a model for
the earthly ruler. As in 65[51], the net effect is to express the ultimate,
Hcosmic*wcharacter of Tao as the norm for a government. These addi
tions are a pastiche of motifs and phrases found elsewhere in Laoist
sayings. (For "rejecting nothing^ in {2} see 42[2]:4; for hszao/wsmall:of
no account^ in {4} see 63[32]:1; for rtnot acting the ruler^ in {3} and {4}
see 27[10]:2; for ^not desiring*win {4} see 72[64]:7; 77[57]:5; for wturn-
ing*back to Tao in {4} see 28[16]:2.) Note the association of "not
desiring^ w ith hsia !uo i no account'' in {4}. Hsiao means ^sm all/' but
also refers to a socially ^insignificant^ person. Hie underlying (con
ventional) assumption here seems to be then that wgreatwpeople can
legitimately im pose their desires on th e societyTao's lack o f such
desires is a sign of its smallness/insignificance.
This and the next chapter share the theme of Tao as cosmic ruler.
Chapter 63[32] is related to this picturing the cosmic importance of
the Tao that is an hypostatization* of the spirit animating the govern
ment of an ideal human ruler. As in the case of the final chapters of
Sections 1 and 3, placing these "cosm ic" chapters last in this section
r^lects my view that they are "climaxes^ of Laoist thought on this
topic rather than ''foundations'' (see comments on 39[25]).

Translation and Commentary


Tao produces th em
Te rears th em
events shape th em
talents com plete their developm ent.

And so:
Among th e thousands of things
there are n o n e that do n ot h o n o r Tao and treasure Te.
This honoring T a o an d treasuring Te
no one com m an ds it, it always h a p p en s naturally.

Tao produces them ,

Te rears th em
makes them grow, nurses them,
settles them , heals them,
sustains th em , protects them.

Produces but does n ot possess

works but does n o t rely on this
presides but d o e sn 't rule.
This is m ysterious Te.
Majesty That Is Not Awesome

The ruler who cultivates Tao and Te participates in the force that
rules the universe. It is a generating, sustaining, selflessly giving
force~which also animates her government. It is the secret sponta
neous desire and treasure of all the world.

Sayings (1} and (3} are origin* sayings, celebrating the foundational
importance of Tao* and Te* by picturing them as the cosmic source
and ideal cosmic ruler. The qualities of Te as a cosmic ruler in {3} are
a projection of paternalistic Chinese notions about the role of the
ruler as loving parent. Saying (4} (= 27[10]:2) speaks against self-pro-
motion*, picturing the way Laoist Te expresses itself in a self-effacing
attitude toward one's political accomplishments. Saying {2:2} cele
brates the cosm ic* importance of Tao as that which everything spon
taneously treasures (compare 48[62]:7).
Several Laoist feelings and assumptions are merged here. Tao is
that good toward which everything "naturally*" gravitates {2}. Hence,
on the Chinese assumption that people /,naturallywgive their alle
giance to som eone who truly merits being ruler, Tao is something
easily imagined as the wrulerwof the world. But Tao is also the name
of the spirit that animates the ideal human ruler, who is caring (3 )
and self-effacing (4); and who does n o t try to force allegiance (2).
Tao/Te as world ruler, "setting the tone" for the world as perceived by
Laoists, must have this same character.


The Soft Way

Translation and Commentary


The people are always lacking in th e fear of d eath ." (1)

Then why frighten them with d eath ?

Supposing th e p e o p le always h a d th e f e a r o f death, (2)

and we cou ld ca tch law breakers a n d kill them
who w ould dare?
There is alw ay s T h e Executioner h e does the killing.
Doing the killin g in The Executioners p lace,
this is like
"doing th e cu ttin g in the m aster carpenter's p la c e .
One who cuts in th e master carpen ter^ p la c e
seldom it is h e d oes not cut his han d.

The Soft Way

Some rulers com plain, wMy people are reckless, not even afraid of
death. I can do nothing with t h e m . And what solution do they
reach for? Executions, to scare th ese fearless people in to line by
threatening th em with death! {1} They don't realize the death of a
person is very serious. Taking it on oneself to kill is assuming a posi
tion above anyone^s reach. It will com e back on the person who does
it {2 }.

I believe {1:1} quotes a common com plaint on the part o f rulers

(quoted also in 51 [75]:1, see com m ents there), used as a take-off*
point for com m ents by the com poser. wThe Executioner^ {2:4} is
probably either a personification o f Death or a reference to the deity
Heaven*. This chapter reflects the quasi-superstitious* side o f Laoist
thought, th e sense that the ruler who becomes self-important and
high-handed enough to presume to take lives is showing hubris, and
this will som ehow come back on him . He is letting his position as
ruler go to his head and not showing enough respect for the given
ness of the social world in his charge, a ^spirit things (62[29):1) he
must stand in awe of. This quasi-superstitious feeling is especially evi-
dentin Laoist thought about violence.
Section 6 begins with four chapters (66(74], 67[31], 68[69],
69[30]) expressing Laoist views on capital punishment and war. Their
negative view o f violent confrontation is related to their positive
ideal of the " S o f t , delicate, and nonconfrontational style they think
ought to guide all a ruler's actions and policies. This positive ideal is
the subject of the remainder of the chapters in this section, after
these first four.

Translation and Commentary


'Fine weapons' are ill-omened instruments.

Things seem to detest them

so the am b itio u s man does n ot dw ell here.

The gentlem an at home favors th e left {3}

when at war he favors the rig h t.

W eapons are ill-om ened instrum ents (4)

not instruments fo r the gentlem an
he uses them w hen he has no choice.

What is calm and quiet is h ig h est. {5}

When victorious, he does n ot th in k this a fine th in g (6 )

because to th in k it fine is to delight in slaughtering p eo p le.
One w ho delights in slaughtering people
cannot achieve his purposes in th e world.

In fortunate tim es, prefer the left {7 }

in mourning, prefer the right/'
The lower o fficer takes his stand on th e left
the higher o fficer takes his stand on th e right.
This says: H e ta k es his stand as a t a mourning ceremony.

At the slaughter o f such masses o f m en, {8 }

he w eeps fo r them, mourning a n d lamenting.
When victorious in the battle
he takes his stan d as at a mourning cerem ony.

The Soft Way

Some glory in their fine weapons {1} and look for the day w hen they
can show th e ir strength in glorious battle. But what is this? It is
delight in slaughtering people {6 }. There sometimes comes a day
when battle cannot be avoided, but the superior person looks on this
as the m ost unfortunate of days (1 ,3 ,4 ). In the attack, tradition
assigns th e righ t flank of the army to the superior officer. Why?
Because this is also the place assigned when one is in mourning {7-8}.

Saying {1} counters the admiration of "fine weapons" by casting them

as wunlucky.wSaying (2) (= 1[24]:4) is a quasi-superstitious* Laoist say
ing that can apply to many ways in which people put themselves at
odds with reality ("things*"). Saying { 6 } counters b e admiration of
war, again on a quasi-superstitious* basis. I think (3) and {7:1-2} are
common sayings reflecting custom s as to how gentlem en of the
nobility should place themselves differently at gatherings during
peacetime and wartime normal times and mourning times.
The composer's main point is given in (7:5): He reinterprets the
traditional custom of placing the highest officer on the right in battle
({7:4}), to mean that the superior man should look upon battle even
victory in battle in an attitude of mourning (compare 68[69]:4). He
makes this point by conflating and reinterpreting three different cus
toms, related to differences in peacetime and wartime etiquette {3}, to
battlefield positions (7:3-4), and to mourning {7:2, 8:4}. (He is proba
bly reading new meanings into old customs here. Saying 75[78]:4 also
reads a new "hidden meaning into ancient custom, and this practice
is reflected in the Confucian Doctrine o f the Mean1as well.)
The arrangement of the sayings here leads many commentators
to suspect textual corruption of some kind. I think it shows many
techniques used by the composers elsewhere: The com poser here
frames* his material, by placing {3} at the beginning and picking it up
again in {7}. (Compare the placing of 50[53]:2, picked up in 50[53]:6).
He also makes use of many catchwords to connect the different say
ings: Section {4} repeats (1) and gentleman from {3} thus connecting
{1} and {3}. The contrast in {7:1-2} probably was originally "good for-
tune/ill fortune"the composer has changed will fortune;/ to wmourn-
ingwas a connective* alteration linking this saying to {7:5} and (8 )
(see ''Additional Textual Notesw). Section (8 ) picks up slaughter and
victorious from {6 }. I think the repetitions in this chapter express a
sense of pathos.
Shih* sometimes served as soldiers or military officers. This chap
ter and the following two seem partly addressed to shih considering
this possibility.

l. 19/6.

Translation and Commentary


Military m en h av e a saying:
"I do n o t presum e to act as m aster, I act as guest
I do not presum e to advance an in c h , I retreat a fo o t."

This is like
"going forw ard without going forw ard
rolling up th e sleeves but baring n o arm
attacking w ith o u t showing h o stility
drawing w ith n o sword.

Nothing brings greater disaster th an th e m otto:

wThe en em y is nothing.
Thinkings wth e enem y is nothingw:
close to losin g m y Treasure.

Yes, when th e y cross weapons and attack each other

the one in m ourning will win.
The Soft Way

Some soldiers take every occasion to show off how strong and fearless
they are, charging the enemy recklessly at the drop of a hat. But there
is a better way: Playing the submissive one {1}. Advancing in such a
way that they will think you are retreating. Attacking them in such a
way they will n ot even know they have an opponent {2}. The "fear
less" soldier likes to attack with the attitude, "The enemy is a noth-
ing!HW ith such bloated self-importance one loses the essential thing
one should never lose {3}. The best soldier is not the one who treats
the enemy as nothing, but who respects life and goes into battle
reluctantly and w ith great sadness {4}.

Saying {4} counters the attitude of glorying in war, posing the con
trasting ideal of the one whose great respect for human life makes
him approach battle in mourning (compare 67[31]:7-8).
I think {1} and {2} are sayings borrowed from contemporary mili
tary strategists, which recommend very indirect and deceptive tactics
as the way to succeed. I take it th a t the images in these sayings
describe how one's actions appear to the opponent; for example,
(/drawing w ith no swordHdescribes in concrete and highly exaggerat
ed terms the deceptive and confusing appearance of the general strat
egy involved. wM ottoHin {3:1} is n ot in the text I add it because I
take ww t!7"there is no enemy" in {3} as a motto, meant to convey
complete lack of fear of the enemy. (Compare Mencius's description 1
of the bravado of the shih* Po-kung Yu.) The interest of the composer
is not so m uch in military success through deceptive strategy as in
the connection between fighting style and attitude: Some soldiers take
fighting as a chance to prove their own personal superiority. (They
want to act the "master" rather than the deferential "guest.") This
kind of soldier will prefer direct and dramatic confrontations, allow
ing him to show off his strength and courage. He will also take the
attitude expressed in the motto w[For me] the enemy is nothing/'
Taking this attitude means that the person has lost what Laoists con
sider to be the essential wTreasurew {3:4}: the respect for others and
the non-self-assertive spirit they cultivate. (Compare the three non-
assertive virtues praised in 3[67]:2, which are also called there my
three treasures,) The person who maintains this spirit will also be one
who approaches war in the attitude of mourning {4}.

1. 2A /2,4.

Translation and Commentary


One who assists the people's rulers w ith Tao {1 }

does not use weapons to force ch an g es in the world.

"Such action usually backfires. {2 }

Where troop s cam p# thorns and bram bles grow. {3}

Excellence con sists in: (4)

Being resolute, th at is all
not venturing to take control by fo rce
being resolute, but not boastful
being resolute, but not overbearing
being resolute, but not arrogant
being resolute, when you have n o ch o ice
being resolute, but not forcing.

Things are vigorous, then grow old and weak: (5}

A case of 'n o t-T a o /
Not-Tao, soon gone.

The Soft Way

Some high counselors urge rulers to take over the world by force of
armsand th ey themselves lead troops into battle {1}. But violent
armies are a blot on the face of the world: Brambles grow where they
camp {3}. Forced success is always short lived {5}, and violence always
comes back to visit the violent {2}. This is not the right Way. The
excellent counselor must put aside masculine pride and boasting, and
simply stand steadfast, doing battle when drcumstances leave no
choice {4}.

Saying {1} is a normative* description of what one does who has Tao.
It counters the readiness of some s/7i*-advisers ("assisting rulers with
Taow) to advocate war or lead armies themselves, as a m eans of gain
ing p o litical objectives. (M encius 1 also criticizes such shih.)
ChHang/forcing* is often a negative term in the Laoist vocabulary. It is
one of the words elsewhere translated as whard,w the opposite of
Laoist ;ou-;o/Softness*-Weakness. Saying {2} looks like a com m on say
ing that m ight apply to many things. Saying {3} probably has a quasi-
superstitious* basis: Brambles growing where troops camp is an image
of the "unlucky" character of war. Saying {4} is related to sayings
against boastful self-promotion*, countering the boasting/forcing*
attitude of those who glory in war as an occasion for proving person
al prowess, posing instead the ideal attitude of the soldier who is just
resolute, fighting only when he must. In {5} the seasonal flourishing
and dying of vegetation serves as a negative metaphorical* image of
the short-lived nature of human actions that are wforced*.w(Original
ly this saying was probably related more to sayings against wexhaust-
ingwexcitement and agitation*. But it occurs following a criticism of
forcing also in 33[55]:5.)
The com posers point lies in the association between (a) boast
ful self-assertion {4}, (b) a "forcing*" attitude expressed in the readi-
ness to resort to violence {1}; and (c) the idea that such forcing can
have no lasting* good results {2-3, 5). On the connection between (a)
and (b), com pare the associations linking 71[63]:5 with the rest of
71 [63]. Underlying (c) is an insistence that human action should be
integrated into reality as given. Violence is the extreme case of some
thing extraneous imposed on given reality from without. (Because
{4:3} interrupts the parallelism and duplicates {4:8}, I believe it is a
connective* addition. The catchword forcing connects {4} to {1}.)

1. 7 B /4 ,1 .

Translation and Commentary


Governing a large state is like co o k in g a small fish. {1}

Rule the w orld by Tao {2}

then ghosts w ill not take to h au n tin g .

It is n ot th a t th e ghosts will not h a u n t {3|

their haunting w ill cause no hurt to hum ankind.
(Its not on ly th a t their haunting w ill n ot hurt hum ankind,
the W ise P erson also does not ca u se hu rt to them.
These two d o n o t hurt each other.)

Yes, Te unifies and restores. {4 )

The Soft Way

Some rulers th in k that a large state can endure rough handling. But
no matter how large, a society is a delicate thing, requiring a soft
touch {1}. Heavy-handed intrusion can throw everything out of bal
ance, stirring up even the ghosts of th e dead to roam around doing
mischief {2-3}. To avoid hurt of any kind, what is needed is rule by
subtle Tao, and by the gentle Te th at unites and restores everything
in the world to its natural harmony {4}.

Saying {1} counters the tendency of rulers toward heavy-handed intru

sion, calling to mind instead the delicacy needed to cook a small fish
as the appropriate attitude (compare 71 [63]). Saying {2} celebrates the
benefits* of ruling by Tao. It has a quasi-superstitious* basis: Andent
Chinese believed in ghosts of th e dead who if provoked m ight use
their supernatural power to hurt people. There was also a belief, appar
ently shared by Laoists, that the ruler has a powerful bu t invisible
effect on the structure and dynam ics of all parts of th e world: If he
rules wrongly, it can throw everything out of ldltersociety, nature,
and ghosts. Ruling by the subtle spirit of Tao, the ruler blends in with
the organic harmony of society and causes no disturbance in the order
of things. Saying {3} celebrates the powers and benefits* o f Te*.
Section {3} is difficult to make sense of. I tentatively take {3:4-5}
to mean th at the ruler does not "hurt" the ghosts by his bad rule, and
so they d on t hurt him either (personally? by hurting his people?).
Note the com posers implied equivalence between (a) ruling delicate
ly (1), (b) ruling by Tao (2), and (c) ruling by Te {3}.
For the effect of the ruler;s conduct on the world in general, see
the mention of ^phantom women com ing out after dark,f in the quo
tation cited under "Superstitious*/' and also theChuang Tzufs descrip
tion of a good king's reign, "gods and ghosts did no harm, the four
seasons were perfectly proportioned...all that lived escaped an
untimely death / ' 1 The king's effect on nature is also vividly drama
tized in the Yiteh Ling section of the L i Chi,12 which prescribes that, on
the day beginning each season, the king should enter a certain palace
with specially arranged rooms. He should ritually enter the proper
room, wear certain dothes, and eat certain foods appropriate to the
season just beginning. Doing the wrong thing will throw the seasons
out of kilter; for example, if he eats "winter food in summer, he
might cause summer snowstorms.
This ch apter begins a series of four chapters (7 0 [6 0 ]; 71 [63],
72[64], 73[36]) dealing with the Soft* delicate, careful, subtle, non-
confrontational_ style of ruling that Laoists advocate.

1. Quoted in Graham 1989: 305.

2. U gge 1885: 2 4 9 -3 1 0 .

Translation and Commentary


Be a Non D oer
work at N ot W orking
acquire a taste for th at which has n o taste.

Treat small th in g s as though th ey were great {2}

treat few th in g s as though they were many.

"Reward w h a t is injurious, w ith k in d T e. {3}

Plan difficult things focusing o n th e easy parts {4}

do great th in g s focusing on th e sm all details.
Difficult tasks in the world always beg in from w hat is e a sy
great tasks in th e world always begin from w hat is sm all.

And so the W ise Person: {5}

Does not "do great things'
and so is able to fulfill his greatness.

Yes: {6}
Light agreem ent is never very trustw orthy
considering everything easy makes everything difficult.

And so the W ise Person: (7}

Treats things as difficult,
and in th e end has no difficulty.

The Soft Way

People full o f themselves are always anxious to "do great things" {5}.
They th ink only the great and difficult result is worthy o f them ; they
are too im portant to be bothered w ith the ''easy1' details. W hat diffi
culties they will have {6}! The smart person is not full o f herself, as a
great "doer . She submits herself to the task developing a subtle
appreciation for the importance of what seems barely noticeable to
others {1}. She begins with th e m ost insignificant details and
approaches these with the care one gives to what is most difficult {2,
4}. She treats everything as almost beyond her and in the end brings
everything under control {7}.

Saying {1} is instruction* in Laoist self-cultivation. Note the connec-

tion between not doing* and developing an extremely subtle sensi-
tivity o p p o site the "doer,w ho is typically preoccupied with
putting his stamp on reality, rather than sensitive to the suStle partic
ularities of always-new situations. Sayings {2}, {6}, and {7} speak
against underestimating the difficulty o f tasks, and hence being care
less. 'Treat things as difficult1' means dealing with them carefully (see
also 5 8 [7 3]: 4). Saying {4:1-2} counters the tendency to focus atten
tion on the great results one hopes to attain, neglecting attention to
the small tasks necessary to get there (compare 72[64]:3). Saying {3} is
a common saying, quoted also in the Confucian Analects.1 (See the
similar association with Te* in 9[79] and 60[49]:2.) In {5} I take wei
taludo great things^ to suggest a person attracted to impressive pro
jects as a means of self-promotion*. The saying poses instead the ideal
of a self-completion associated with a self-effacing attitude. (Saying
{5} is a version of 64[34];5.)
By placing {5} with the other sayings here, the composer suggests
that the person who wants to focus only on wgreatwthings, neglect
ing small beginnings, does so because of his own sense of self-impor
tance. Like 72[64], this chapter is important in showing the particu-
lar, n on literal meaning of not doing. Doing here m eans doing
something obviously significant, something that stands out as great
over against the ordinary routine of things, allowing the doer also to
stand out. Conversely, not doing describes the attitude and style of
one who can take his eyes off of the outstanding results that will
bring him personal glory and submit himself entirely to the practical
demands o f the task, including especially subtle sensitivity {1} and
painstaking attention to its most insignificant details. (Compare the
idealization of the person willing to take on his state's "dirty work" in

1. 14/36.

Translation and Commentary


When sittin g still, they are easy to h o ld down {1}

no om ens y et, it is easy to plan
when fragile, th ey are easy to b reak
when sm all, th e y are easy to scatter.

Work on it w h en it isn't yet {2}

put it in order when it is n ot yet disordered.

A tree you can barely get your arm s around, {3}

grows fro m a tiny shoot
a nine-story tow er begins as a h eap o f earth
a thousand-m ile journey begins u n d er your feet

Working ru ins, grasping loses. {4}

And so the W ise Person: {5}

Does not work, so does not ruin
does not grasp, so does not lose.

"When the people are engaged in som e task, {6)

they are always o n the point of fin ish in g when they ruin it.w
Careful at the en d ju st as at the beginning
then there w ill b e no ruining o f the w ork.

And so the W ise Person: {7}

Desires to be desireless
does not prize goods hard to com e by
learns to b e un-Learned
turns back to the place all others have gone on from.

So as to help alon g the naturalness {8)

o f the thousands o f things
without p resu m in g to b e a Worker.

The Soft Way

A natural state of society is not achieved easily. People start being dis
ruptive, th in g s start going in the wrong direction, and soon the
organic harm ony of the world is gone. Something must be done. And
yet "working ruins"the solution can be as disruptive as the problem
(4-5). The answer is this: Pay careful attention all the tim e, as though
you were always at the beginning of something (6). Catch problems
in their smallest beginnings. Head off the difficulty before anything
seems really to have gone wrong {1-3}. Then you will never have to
be disruptive yourself. Acting in this way requires a certain state of
mind: A co n stan t returning to th at deep state before desires have
arisen, before the mind has become "Learned the place everyone
else has long since run away from {7}.

Note that (like 73[36]:1) {1} and {2} assume it sometimes is necessary
to take strongly intrusive measures against movements in the society
that the ruler judges to be harmful. Saying {3} (like 71[63]:4) counters
the tendency to focus on great goals, neglecting the necessary small
beginnings. Saying (6} looks like a com m on complaint among man
agers about the way woricers become careless toward the end of a job.
Saying {4} is the same as 62[29]2. Saying (5) celebrates the benefits*
of operating w ith a rtnot working*'' attitude. Saying {7} gives instruc
tion* in Laoist self-cultivation. The wplace all others have gone on
fromH is th e Still* state of mind before it has been stirred up by
desires* and becom e active in conceptual Learning* (see also com
ments on //Dwelling*, .
wWorking,# in this chapter describes the attitude of one who sees
things in terms of "my important work" versus inert things to be
worked on. Having no respect for things to be woriced on, such a per
son will tend to be inattentive to the subtleties of the issues he is
dealing with. wNot working" by contrast, describes not literal nonin
tervention, but the attitude of one strenuously attentive to th e small
est details, able to nip things in the bud and so avoid the kind of overt
and dram atically disruptive intervention necessary when things have
gotten very out of hand. This kind of intervention will ruin the tzu-
/aw/naturalness* {8} of the social world, the organic* harmony deeply
rooted in the given state of affairs. This /#naturar organic harmony is
an ideal state of things brought about by the extremely careful work
of a "not working" ruler. Saying {7} implies that this acute sensitivity
and subtle style o f intervention is possible only to one w ho has
"turned* back" to a deeper state which the conventional mind tries
always to get away from.

Translation and Commentary


When you w an t to shrink so m eth in g {1J

you m u st always enlarge it.
When you w an t to weaken so m eth in g
you m u st always strengthen it.
When you w an t to neglect so m eth in g
you m ust always involve y o u rself w ith it.
When you w ant to deprive so m eth in g
you m ust always give to it.
This is called 'Subtle Clarity/

Softness and Weakness overcome w h at is hard and stron g . {2}

"The fish m ust n ot leave the depths {3 j

the state's 'sharp weapons must n ot be shown to o th ers

The Soft Way

Confrontation is not the way. W hen something goes wrong, do not

oppose it directly. Build it up, let it overreach itself and come to its
own ruin {1}. This is the Soft Way {2} of the Clear-sighted {1:9}. (It
only works if they do not know you are doing it, {3}).

Saying {1} corrects the tendency to react to opposition by using the

most obvious and direct methods of attack. It relies on the strategy
expressed in our proverb, wGive them enough tope and they'll hang
themselves.;; Saying {2} celebrates the superiority of Softness*/Weak-
ness over its opposite, using a formula borrowed from speculation
about the "conquest* cycle." (Chfcm /hard also means "fo rcin g *, the
opposite of the "Soft" tactics advocated in {1}.) Because of the context
here, I take "sharp weapons" in {3} to be a metaphorical reference to
clever stratagems devised by a ruler or his counselors, such as that
described in {1}, which the saying says must be kept secret. (The same
phrase occurs in 77[57]:3.)
For the composer, the indirect strategy of {1} is an example of
how a Laoist ruler's SoftAVeak quality of mind expresses itself in deal
ing with opposition. wSoft/WeakMdescribes an indirect and noncon-
frontational style of acting, which m ight also be very intrusive how
ever and even ^destructive^ in th e results aimed at. (Compare
Japanese "ju d o," derived from the Chinese / M-*n?o/Soft Tao.w) I take
"subtle Clarity*" in {1:9} to refer to the intuitive insight the composer
sees manifest in {1} and (2). (Compare 49[27]:4.)

Translation and Commentary


People begin life Soft and W eak

when th ey are dead they are hard and firm.
Among th e thousands of things:
Grass and trees begin life Soft and tender
when th e y are dead they are w ithered and brittle.

Yes, strength and hardness accom p an y death

Softness and Weakness accom pany life.

And so:
With a battle axe too hardened, y o u can n ot win
when a tree becom es hard, then co m es the axe.

The strong and the great stand low est

the Soft and W eak stand highest.
The Soft Way

rtA great man is a strong man and a hard man. An unyielding man
who makes clear decisions and carries them out with an absolutely
firm will. A man who lets nothing get in his way.w
Or so some think. But consider infants, with fresh life in their
young bodies: Theyre Soft and Weak. The most "unyielding" kind of
body is the stiff corpse. Likewise with plantsthe young shoot most
full of life is also the most flexible and tender. Dead branches are
hard" and "strong" {1}. The "hardest" tree is the one that has died
and is ready for the axe. And axes the "hardest" axes just chip and
shatter when you try to use them {3}. To become really Alive, it's nec
essary also to cultivate what seems Soft and Weak in yourself (2).
Hard m en are dead inside.

Saying {1} uses some metaphorical* images to celebrate the felt char
acter of Softness* as an internal energy: Like fresh sheng/life* newly
begun. Saying {2} makes the same point as {1} only more briefly. Say
ing {3} uses two metaphorical* images to picture the negative charac
ter of a ^hard" state of mind: Brittle and short lived. (It reads literally:
Axe hard then not win, tree hard then a x e . Because of "win" in the
first line I think pin^/axe:weapon there refers to a metal w eap o n ^t
has been tempered incorrectly and so is too brittle and breaks in bat
tle. My understanding of both lines is new. For the short-lived charac
ter of w hat is ch^cJM^/hardforced* see 69[30]:4-5.) Saying {4} cele-
brates the superiority of Softness over hardness. The connection
between "strong" and great" in this saying provides a good sugges
tion as to the kind of person Laoists have in mind when they criticize
being "hard and strong."
This chapter and the next (75 [78]) celebrate directly the greatness
of the hypostatized* Softness/Weakness Laoists cultivate internally.
The four chapters immediately preceding them (70[60], 71 [63],
72[64], 7 3 [3 6 ]) give examples of how this internally cultivated
Soft/not-working state of mind expresses itself in the governing style
of the ideal ruler.

Translation and Commentary

75 [78]

Nothing in th e world {1}

is Softer or W eaker than water.
But when it attacks what is hard an d strong
none of th e m can win out,
because th ey have no way of a ffectin g it.

Softness overcom es what is hard (2)

Weakness overcom es what is unyielding.

Everyone in th e world understands it (3)

no one can practice it.

And so the W ise Person says: (4)

Taking on a states dirt makes o n e lord of its earth altars
taking on a state's misfortunes m akes one King o f th e world-

Right words seem the opposite. (5)

The Soft Way

Some present a rigid and unyielding front. But a stiff front is most
easily chipped at. The smart person is firm underneath, but complete
ly Soft and flexible on the surface. Being flexible means having no
fixed shape that others can hammer at {1}. Inside, everyone already
knows that this wWeakMway is the most effective waybut carrying
it out is another matter {3}.
W hat does it mean to cultivate this Weakness? It means also
learning to be the Weak one in the government, the one who has to
take on th e difficult and unglamorous jobs others do not want to
dirty their hands with. But while others are enjoying themselves, this
one is doing the job that fits her to be true ruler of the world (4).

Like 47[43]:1, (1) uses water as a metaphorical* image to celebrate the

powers and benefits* of Softness*/Weakness. The "W eakness of
water here seems to refer to its infinite flexibility: Because it identifies
itself with no fixed shape, neither can it be n^atively affected (yi, lit.
"changed") by piercing, breaking, bending, and so on. I take the
"hard and strong" things that water wins out over to be rocks on the
riverbank (compare 47[43]:1). Saying {2} celebrates the superiority of
Softness/Weakness over their opposites (using a formula borrowed
from speculation about the ^conquest* cyclew). Both {3} and (5) are
sayings about the paradoxical character of Laoist teaching*. (Saying
{3} is a version of 45[70]:1.) In the background of (4) is a Chinese
investiture ceremony at which the Emperor symbolically entrusted a
particular territory to a local feudal lord by giving him a clod of earth
from a special mound.1 ''Receiving this dirtMmade the recipient offi
cial master of the Earth altars set up to the god of the soil of that par
ticular territory. But tou/dirt also means "garbage, filth /' and this
allows the person who coined this saying to reinterpret the entire cer
emony: W h at makes one a true ruler is to take on oneself the
"garbage" o f the state; that is, its m ost "unlucky happenings, its
most difficult problems. (Compare the importance ascribed to hard
work at governmental tasks in 71[63] and 72[64].) This gives one the
spiritual status not only of feudal lord, but of Emperor*, King of the
world. (C om pare the reinterpretation of traditional custom s in
Both {1 -2 } and (4) are exam ples of paradoxical wisdom (5).
/ou/Soft and especially yo/Weak have negative connotations (greatness
is conventionally connected with overt strength, see 74[76]:4). This
may also be involved in the composer's association between being
"Soft/Weak" and lowering oneself to do a states dirty work.

1. See E. Chavannes 1910:452-453.

Against Disquieting "Improvements"
Translation and Commentary


Oh for a sm all country with few people! U1

Supposing th e re were m en (2)

w ith th e talents o f dozens a n d hundreds,
but no o n e employed th em .
Supposing th e people took d eath seriously,
and did n o t travel far d istances.

Although th ere exist boats a n d carriages, {3}

they h av e n o occasion to rid e in them .
Although there exist armor an d w eapons,
they h av e no occasion to show th em off.

Supposing p eo p le returned to k n o ttin g cords, {4}

and u sin g this as writing.

They find th e ir food savory {5}

they find th e ir clothes elegant
they are c o n te n t with their h om es
they are fond o f their folkways.

Neighboring states are in sight o f o n e another {6}

so they hear th e sounds of each o th ers/ dogs and ro o sters
but people reach old age and die
with no co m in gs and goings b etw een them.

Against Disquieting "Improvements

The dream o f some rulers is a large territory with a huge population;

the latest in carriages and boats and military gear; talented men arriv
ing by the hundreds from all over, wanting to serve in the govern-
ment; the whole state abuzz and ambitious for progress. But if you
want to dream, why not dream peace: A small country with a few
contented people (1). They m ight have talents and contrivances to
spare, b u t they like simplicity so m uch that they find little use for
them. Everything they want is in their backyardwhat need is there
to invent new things or travel to new places (2-6)?

This chapter counters the desire* o f Warring States rulers to encour

age ^progressive^ improvements*. Saying {1} is intended paradoxical
ly: In place o f the usual ambition to reign over large territories and
population,1 it suggests the ambition of ruling over "a small country,
few people/' Saying (3) criticizes the desire for better equipment for
travel and war (the sign of an wadvancedwstate), posing the counter
image of a society which has such things in abundance but ignores
them (com pare 2 0 [4 6 ]:l:l-3 ). Saying {2:1-3} counters the desire to
attract skilled people from all over,12 posing the same kind of counter
image as in (3). "'Traveling far distanceswin (2:5) describes a restless
and ambitious, mobile population, contrasted with the exaggerated
image in {6} o f people so content th ey never even visit the next vil
lage nearby. wTake death seriouslywin (2:4) probably describes a sober
rather than reckless people (see comments at 51[75]:1). According to
legend, "kn otting cords" {4} was a primitive recording device prior to
writing, h ence {4} poses an exaggerated counterimage of a people
deliberately becoming more "backward." Although there were some
literal "p rim itiv ists" in ancient C h in a,3 I doubt if this chapter
describes a literal program advocated by Laoists. For example, why
would there be modem contrivances in abundance in a primitive
society? This "unrealistic^ touch shows that the whole is an aphoris
tic*, exaggerated corrective image, not a literal description.
This chapter, presenting an idealized and exaggerated contrast to
"improvement" programs others advocated, is followed by four oth-
ers (77[57], 78[19]; 79[3]; 80[65]) criticizing specific programs Laoists
are opposed to, and proposing an ideal governing style th at runs
directly counter to these programs.

1. SeeMendu^* 7A /21,1.
2. See ibid. 1A /7,18.
3. See ibid. 3A /4, Graham 1989: 64-74.

Translation and Commentary


Rule th e kingdom by the n orm

wage war by th e unexpected."
Take over th e world by Not W orking.

How do I kn ow it is so?
By this.

In the world: T h e more rules and restrictions there are

the p o o rer th e people will be.
The people: The more sharp w eapons' they have,
the m ore disordered the state and the clans will be.
Men: The m ore clever and skillful th ey are,
the m ore weird things will start to happen.

The m ore you publicize rules and laws,

the more robbers and thieves you will have.

Yes, the W ise Person says

I Do N othing,
and th e people transform them selves.
I love Stillness,
and th e people bring themselves to correctness.
/ do No W ork,
and th e p e o p le enrich themselves.
I have no desires,
and th e people by themselves becom e Simple.
Against Disquieting "Improvements'

Rulers are becom ing more ambitious and clever. They have schemes
for making better laws. Schemes for improving job skills among the
people by education and encouragement {3}. They think such pro
grams will eventually make them King of the world {1}.
But all this ^oin g' is interference in the natural harmony of the
world. People are restrained on the one side, making them poor. Peo
ple are encouraged on the other side, making them overambitious
and unruly. Hemming them in with rules just makes them resentful
and rebellious {3-4}. What the society really needs is a nondoing ruler
who is most Still and content in herself, and who spreads her Still
spirit to all the people. Then the peopled natural goodness and ener
gy will come o u t and this will be fully sufficient to transform the
society and enrich the state {5}.

I believe {1 :1 -2 } is a common proverb contrasting tactics appropriate

for peacetime governance with tactics best suited to war. This is used
as a take-off* p o in t to introduce a Laoist motto about not doing* in
{1:3} (= 25[48]:3). Saying {2} is a stock reply of Laoists to the demand
for reasons for their views"by th is" means by intuitive insight (see
comments under #,This*w). Sayings {3:1-2} and (4} protest attempts to
improve* th e social order by publicizing written laws (see further
under wN am ing*,/). On lic h ^ r s h a r p weapons,wsee 73[36]:3. The pre
diction of ^weird^ things resulting from raising people's skill levels
{3:5-6} reflects a quasi-superstitious* sentiment: Attempts to introduce
fundamental changes will disrupt the established ("natural*") order of
things an d cause weird things to happen (ghostly apparitions,
deformed anim als, and so forth, see 70[60].) Saying {5} celebrates the
great benefits* that occur when the ruler sets the proper tone for the
society by ruling it in the right spirit "not doing*," "riot-desiringV
wStill*.w(PW Simplicity in the last line is elsewhere translated wUncar-
ved* Block." Because wu s/n7?/"not working" in {5:6} duplicates wu
wei/wnot doingwin {5:2} and repeats the wm shih in {1:3}, I think it is a
connective* addition by the composer of this chapter.)
As in 79[3] and 62[29]; the composer here diaracterizes various
social improvement programs {3-4} as a negative wdoingw (1, 5}. As in
71 [63] and 72 [64], cne can see that here means doing some
thing significant that stands out against the ordinary routine here,
doing som ething that introduces new "improvements^ in the soci
etyin contrast to a wnot doingwstyle of administration that actively
strives to preserve the "natural" organic* harmony of the given (see

Translation and Commentary


Discard W isd om throw away "Knowledge" {1}

the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Discard "G ood n ess," throw away M orality"
the people w ill turn back to resp ect and caring.

Discard "S k ill," throw away "P ro fit
robbers and thieves will disappear.

Taking th ese three lines as your text {2}

this is n ot sufficient
Give them som ethin g to fasten on to:
Pay atten tion to the Raw, em brace th e Uncarved
discount you r personal interests, m ake your desires few .

Against Disquieting "Improvements'

Everyone urges new government mottoes: "Be a Wise Person!" "Good-

ness and M orality!" "Calculate what is Profitable!" "Encourage Skill!"
But what does this do? Children and parents cultivate artificial Good
nessand lose the respect and caring th at comes naturally to them.
You begin looking for profit and encouraging skilland the people also
look for profit and become skillful thieves. Dropping all these programs
is the best th in g you can do for your state {1}. But th is is n o t really
enough. Give the people something concrete to hold on to: Cultivate
the subtle spirit that comes from getting rid of your desires and ambi
tions. Put wcivilizingwprojects out of your mind and show how much
you care for things in their raw state. Embrace the Uncarved Block {2}.

Saying {1} criticizes several m ovem ents Laoists lump together as

attempts to improve* the world according to some ideal plan. The
capitalized words designate mottoes that summarize programs advo
cated by others. Knowledge, Goodness, and Morality are keywords for
Mencius*,1 but Laoists lump these with ///profit, a key word in Mohist
utilitarian th in k in g ,12 which M enciu s also viewed negatively.3
Sheng/m sdom normally describes the Laoist ideal sheng )en /uV\Jist Per-
son" (an "inconsistency" in Laoist word use, see "N am ing*." Note
also that respect and caring represent artificial Confucian virtues in
12[18], b u t here represent "n atu ral" goodness.) Saying {2:4-5} is
instruction* in Laoist self-cultivation. The composer's introduction in
(2:1-3} is probably intended somewhat ironically and humorously
Following it, one expects a description of a very tangible basis for
social order th at the people can hold on to. Instead we get something
less tangible, the subtle internal spirit of the ruler who sets a tone for
society by cultivating the mental state called not-desiring* and Uncar-
ved* Block. (W en/text in (2:1} also m eans wculture,w allowing for the
alternate reading, "not sufficient to take as refined culture.")
Section {2} raises the question: Did Laoists expect rulers to engage
in self-cultivation? My conjecture about this is based on a passage4
which pictures Mencius as an indispensable guide5 for a king who
wants to practice ;ew/Good government, because Mencius has made a
project of cultivating Goodness, and the king has not. Mencius must
instruct the king o n policies6 that express an ideal Goodness that the
tong himself has only incipiently. If the analogy holds, Laoists did not
e?q)ect kings to practice self-cultivation, but advised them to implement
policies expressive of the state of mind which Laoist shih cultivated.
1. See for exam ple Mencius* 6A J6 J, 7A /21,4.
2. Graham 1989: 41.
3. lA /1,1-6, 6B /4,5.
4. 1A/7.
5. lA /7,19-20.
6. lA /7,22-24.

Translation and Commentary


Not p ro m otin g the wise and w o rth y (1)

brings it about that the p eo p le are not contentiou s.
Not prizing goods hard to com e by
brings it about that the p eo p le do not becom e th iev es.
Not paying attention to the desirable
brings it about that the p eo p le's minds
do n o t becom e disordered.

And so, the governm ent o f the W ise P erson: {2}

Empty th e ir m inds, fill their bellies
weaken th e ir ambitions, strengthen their bones.

Always bring it abou t that the p eo p le (3)

are w ith ou t knowledge an d w ithou t desires.
Bring it a b o u t th a t the clever ones
do not presu m e to set about doing.

Do Not D o in g (4)
and n othing w ill be left nn-govem ed.

Against Disquieting "Improvements'

"The way to build a great society is to provide incentives," they say.

Promote the learned and outstanding and you will encourage people
to excel in learning. They do n ot realize what they are doing. Provid
ing incentives" will turn people into social climbers, and quarrels will
start where once there was peace. They are stirring up the destructive
forces, neglecting the society's organic unity and harmony for the
sake of the grand plans of some thinkers (1 and 3}. The ruler must
have a Still, not-doing, not-desiring minda mind n o t active and
ambitious for change. She and those she appoints must be the Still
spirit of the contented society, and spread not ambition but Stillness
and contentm ent, by everything they do {3-4}.

Saying {1} opposes the tone set for society by a ruler who accords spe
cial recognition to what appears especially wdesirablew {1:5-6}espe
cially desirable goods (1:3-4), or especially desirable administrative
staff {1:1-2}. This promotes social disharmony by stirring up disorder
ly desires in the people, causing both thievery and a c/ie^/quarrel-
som e:contentious* spirit among those competing for government
appointments. Shang hsien/up r o m o t e wise and worthy [shih*Y is a
policy advocated by many contemporary shih,1 It is unlikely that
Laoists, who aspire to public office, are entirely opposed to promo
tion on the basis of merit. Line {1:1-2} is an aphoristic* corrective
warning, rather than a rejection of the entire policy. (Mencius explic
itly advocates promoting hsien, but he also12 warns against the same
negative side-effect mentioned here. Laoists may have regarded hsien
as a description of shih they disliked/isien/worth is used negatively
in 52[77]:3.) Saying (2) is directed against contemporary ''improve-
ment*wprograms encouraging an ambitious peasantry. It evokes the
exaggerated counterimage of a program fostering a healthy peasantry
whose contentm ent is not disturbed by such programs (see 76[80]).
Saying (4} is a version of 25[48]:2. (C/ii/i/govemed is a connective*
alteration, a link to chih/govemment in (2:1), which in turn is an
alteration o f the standard introduction wAnd so the Wise Person..
The composer's lines in {3} link previous themes: "No
desires*" corresponds to "empty their minds."weaken their ambi-
tions" in {2}. The "clever"' ones are the /isz_en/"wise and worthy" of
{1:1-2}, whom one should not put in positions where they can "do"
anything, a connection to "not doing*" in {4}. As in 7 7[S7], the last
lines here link criticism of social improvement* programs to the
recurrent theme of "not doing*."

1. See Mencius 2A/5,1 and Mo Tzu Sections 8 - 9 (Watson 1963: 1 8 -3 3 ).

2. l B / 7 #3 .

Translation and Commentary


Those E x cellen t at doing Tao in a n cien t times

it was n o t to enlighten the people, bu t to keep th em stupid.

The d ifficulty in governing the peop le (2}

because o f th e ir knowledge.

Yes: (3}
By "Know ledge!" govern the state
a crim e against the state.
By "Ign oran ce!" govern the state
a b o o n to th e state.

Always: T o understand these two lines, {4}

is also to understand the Ideal Pattern.
Always: T o understand the Ideal Pattern,
is to h av e mysterious Te.

Mysterious Te is deep, far-reaching' {5 }

in opposition to things
only afterw ard com es the Great H arm ony.

Against Disquieting Improvements

Some say, "Stop letting society run along the same old ruts. Take con
trol. Learn how to think and plan, to steer the society along new and
better paths. Teach your people to think and plan, to analyze every
thing in terms of ends and means. Make 'New Thinking' the motto of
your governm ent" {1-3}.
But thinkers are full of themselves and their plans, caring nothing
for the goodness already present in the actual and present society.
"Thinking" rulers ruin the society in their care. "T h inkin g" people
upset the order of things. One should say rather, make Not Thinking"
the m otto of your government {3}. Cultivate anot-thinking mind and
try to infuse society with this not-thinking spirit. Yes, this will bring
you into opposition with some strong tendencies taking root in soci
ety nowadays, but eventually you will restore the Great Harmony {5}.

Sayings {1}, {2}, and {3} are probably directed against programs such as
that of th e M oh ists*,1 who saw utilitarian rationality as a central
instrument of progressive improvement*. Saying {1} is a normative*
description of the policy of one who has Tao*. It poses a deliberately
shocking and exaggerated image in which idealized ancient* rulers, far
from encouraging the spread of rationality, had the policy of "keeping
the people stupid/' Saying {2} suggests that a rationalizing spirit will
make people begin calculating their own self-interest and so make
them uncooperative with their leaders. I think "Knowledge" in {3} is a
motto describing a governing philosophy centered on utilitarian ratio
nality, advocating both that governing officials calculate rational utili
ty in deciding public policy and that the people be taught to think
about th eir lives and tasks in the same fashion. For Laoists, rational
calculation is the enemy of the organic social harmony they prize so
highly (com pare 79[3]:3, and com m ents on "Understanding*" and
"Naming*"). Hence "Ignorance is suggested as an exaggerated coun
termotto. Saying {5:1} celebrates the greatness of LaoistTe*.
The composers comment in {4} presents {3} as an expression of the
fundamental principle behind Laoist political wisdom. (This should
not be pressed. Something similar is said of 36[42]:6:2.) To understand
this principle_ to see everything from this perspective_ is to have
(Laoist) Te. I take yiX wu fan/uopposition to things^ in {5:2-3} to refer to
the way this Te, as the spirit guiding the ideal ruler, runs counter to the
tendencies of people to develop in certain directions Laoists consider
negative here, the development toward increased rationality (com
pare 36[42]:2). wOnly afterward,/ is it able to restore ideal Harmony,
b^iw /harm ony also means "subm ission." In paternalistic Chinese
political thought, shared by Laoists, part o f "natura social harmony
is the submission of all to proper norms and authorities.1 2)
1. See Graham 1989 37-41.
2. See ibid.: 3 0 2 -3 0 3 .
Translation and Commentary


Tao invariably Does Nothing, and n othing remains n o t d one. (1)

If the princes and kings can w atch over it (2)

the thousands o f things will ch a n g e by themselves.
I f they change, an d become desirous an d active,
Iw ill restrain them with the N am eless One's Simplicity.
Restraining them with the N am eless One's Simplicity
will ca u se them no disgrace.
Not being disgraced, they will be StilL

The world w ill order itself. (3)

Against Disquieting "Improvements'

When self-assertion disrupts social contentment, something must be

done. But strict law enforcement and strong repression makes people
feel disgraced. Disgraced people are n ot at peace. The ideal ruler has
cultivated in her own spirit th e Sim ple Uncarved Block, which
remains w ithout names, without worded prescriptions. Such a person
alone can restrain disruption gently and without making anyone feel
humiliated. This brings about a real atmosphere of Stillness in the
society {1 -2 }. Under the care of this person^ Not-Doing spirit, the
world will put itself in order {3}.

Sayings {1} and {2:1-2} celebrate the benefits* of ruling by Tao. Saying
{1} pictures the Tao that animates the ideal government as identical
with the spirit of /#Not Doing*/# and celebrates its wonderful effective
ness in ensuring social order. (It is based on the saying in 25[48]:2.)
As in 7 7 [57]:5, hwo/change in {2:2} describes the utopian "conver
sion" of the society that results from ruling by Tao. Saying {3} coun-
ters the "doing*" attitude of self-important rulers, posing instead the
image of a society whose order arises organically from within (when
the ruler sets the proper tone).
The com poser's comment in {2:3-7} uses {2:1-2} as a take-off*
point. He reads hwo/change now as something negative, leading to
discordant "desire*" and "activity," which need to be restrained.
(Tso/activity is a negative opposite to "Stillness in 2 8 [1 6 ]:2 too.)
Such desire/activity poses a dilemma for Laoists: On the one hand,
they are against ruling with a strong hand. On the other hand, they
have a definite ideal of an organically harmonious society that the
ruler ought to foster. This must mean sometimes taking firm action
against disquieting movements in the society. The answer given here
draws on the state of mind that is the focus of Laoist self-cultivation,
here called T he Nameless One's Simplicity. (PWSimplicity elsewhere is
translated wUncarved Block*,w) Having cultivated this Simplicity, the
ruler can act in a tactful and nonconfrontational way that restrains
disruptive people without making them feel put down, which would
stir resentment leading to further social disorder. (See further under
"Hurt*.") His tactful treatment leads instead to a genuine Stillness*
pervading the society. Like 72[64], this chapter helps to define what it
means to engage in "Not Doing government, under whose subtle
influence the world will seem to order itself {3}.
This last chapter is a good climax to the earlier chapters in Sec
tion 7 (see comments concerning wclimaxeswin 39[25]). In the tradi
tional order, Chapter 37 is also the final chapter of the wfirst bookwof
the Tao Te Ching and the final chapter of the entire book in the
newly found Ma-wang-tui version.

Additional Textual Notes
Included h ere are notes concerning (a) my choice o f variants from
the various C hinese manuscripts o f th e Tao Te Chitig and (b) ways of
construing th e Chinese text that m ig h t be especially controversial.
A bbreviations and special term s used in these notes:
HSK = T h e Chinese text of th e T ao Te Ching used in th e com
m entary o f Ho Shang Kung (as printed in Ho Shih-chi's Ku pert
tao te ching h siao k fan).
Lectio dificilior = 'The more difficult rea d in g .A principle of
textual criticism I often have used in preferring M W T to WP,
according to which the textual variant that is more difficult to
make sense of, but still intelligible, is the one to be preferred.
The ratio n ale is that, over tim e, manuscript copyists are prone
to in trod u ce changes in th e text to make it read m ore smooth
ly, th u s th e more difficult readings often are likely to be more
original. This principle is especially appropriate to th e Tao Te
Ching, w h ich frequently uses very colorful language, paradox
es, deliberately shocking images, and so forth.
MWT = The Chinese text of the T ao Te Ching as printed in two
m anuscripts from the second century b .c ., recently discovered
in a cave at Ma-wang-tui in C hina. I rely on the edition of this
text p rin ted in Henricks (1 9 8 9 ). These are by far the oldest
extant manuscripts, but they also clearly are corrupt in many
places m an y more than the W ang Pi text, I believe and this
counts against their replacing W ang Pi as the standard text.
WP = The Chinese text of the T ao Te Ching used in the com
mentary o f W ang Pi, until recently accepted by all as th e stan
dard text. M y translation is based on WP (as printed in Ho
Sh ih -ch i's K u pen tao te ching h sia o k'an) except w hen there
seem s so m e positive reason fo r accepting th e read in g s of
MWT or HSK, in which case I always mention exp licitly in
these n otes that I am doing so.

1[24]. "Ambitious" (lit. "has desires") is MWT both in {3}

here and in 67[31]:2. This is th e lectio dificilior, and it is doubt

Translation and Commentary

ful th a t a mere copyist's error would b e repeated twice. WP

av o id s th e (seemingly un-Laoist) positive use o f wdesirew by
c h a n g in g to "has Tao

2 [9 ], wW in the fa m e #/ in {2} is the lectio d ific ilio r of HSK,

o m itte d in WP and M W T.

3 [6 7 ]. MWT's WI am g re a tw in {1} is the lectio dificilior. WP

avoids th e seeming arrogance with "My Tao is g r e a t ,

4 [2 2 ]. "Shepherd o f th e W orld" in {4} is M W T. WP has

"P a tte rn o f the World."

1 8 [13 ]. In {1:2 } I borrow from Waley the understanding of

/as you r rather than "lik e ." My understanding o f the line
before th is is new: I take c/^WT^/w/favor-disgrace as a phrase
referring to the ups and dow ns o f politics, b ein g n ow in favor,
now in disgrace (form ally sim ilar to phrases like p'm -fu/poov-
rich, referring to financial circum stances generally). And (with
W aley) I take ching/startle in a m ore general sense referring to
a state o f mental disturbance: "being upset" due to ups and
dow ns o f political fortune. I take jo in {1:1} as a quasi-copula,
,yis equ iv alen t to /; thou gh perhaps it also c o u ld be taken to
m ean your" (lit. "favor a n d disgrace [are] y o u r upsetness).
My understanding o f c h Ju n g w ei hsia in {2 } as wfav or is degrad-
in g w also is new. I think it is m eant to be a wsh o ck in g w oppo
site to t h e co m m on sen se v iew that wfavor ra is e s o n e up/;
{chfung w ei shang). A version o f {4} is found in th e C hu an g Tzu
(W atson 1968 : 116 ), w h ere how ever it is g iv e n a wYangistw
m eaning opposite the o n e I suppose here (attrib u te n o special
im portance to tiie world, tak e care of your self in stead ). In the
C huang Tzu there is a slig h t difference in th e w ord inga yu
follow ing shen that does n o t occur in WP: i sh e n yii w ei Vim
hsia. The omission o f yii in W P {4} produces th e fam iliar con
struction i X wei Y ^treat X as Y ,,r which allows for m y under'
stand in g of / shen wei t i e n h s ia wtreat you rself as [n o more
im p ortan t than] the [rest o f the] w o r ld .T h is in terp retation
makes the point of {4} accord with the point of (3).

2 [46]. {2:1} is a lectio d ificilior found in H SK an d MWT,

om itted entirely in WP.

2 7 [l). Wei CzW#/rem ain Fem inine^ in {1:10} is M W T. WP

has w u tz 'u r n o t Feminine/'

Additional Textual Notes

3 1 [4]. M ost translators punctuate {1} differently, yielding

som eth ing like wTao is em pty but useful. It never [needs to be]
filled. I follow Karlgrens basic understanding o f this line, in
w hich ywnx c/nV2/"use it" is equivalent to cfte/"one
w ho uses it / ' a n d r e f e r s to wusing*;, (practicing/internaliz-
ing) Tao, as in 46[35]:3.
3 6 [4 2 ]. Most translators take ch'ung chfi in {3} to mean
^blending the c h fi,s,/; th at is, blen d in g the yin cft^/energy and
the y an g cft^f/energy. But (a) although the character for ch'ung
here also can stand for a word m eaning ^blend/' ch'ung always
m eans wE m ptyw elsewhere in th e Too Te Ching. And (b) the
idea o f balan cin g yin and yang, central to later Taoism , is not
found anyw here else in th is book, which always advocates
cultivating yin qualities as opposed to yang ones.
42[2]. I take ch'en g/com plete in {2:4} to mean th a t the idea
"d ifficu lt" is given its full co n ten t only by contrast with the
idea "ea sy . I take the MWT reading yiVsg/hll in {5} and inter
pret it sim ilarly: The content o f the idea "noble" is fully filled
out" o n ly when one sees it in contrast with the idea "lo w ly .
The co n clu d in g particle hen g/alw ays at the end o f {2} is the
MWT reading. With MWT I om it "produces but doesn't pos
sess/' w hich WP places at the beginning of {5}.
4 3 [1]. ''Source o f the thousands o f 1hingsf, in {2:1} is MWT,
w hich has this same phrase in both lines of this saying. WP
has '"source o f Heaven and Earth*9 in {2:1). I think M W T rightly
m akes th e n am e M other the en tire point of the con trast
betw een the two lines. I also adopt the MWT reading of {3},
and H enricks's basic understanding of it. I believe that rtwhat
is sou ght" here is conceptual clarity. WP makes a very similar
point w ith different words: W here MWT has the phrase 5
ch iao / Ww hat is sought/' WP has the single word chiao, mean
ing h ere probably "b o u n d ary /' wouter edge;, th a t is, the
"o u te r su rfa ce" of things as opposed to th e ir "h id d en
essences. Line {4:1} reads literally "these two, m erged. I take
wthese tw ow as a reference to the partial subject o f the preced
ing tw o-line saying, wnot desiring/' See the further explanation
in 37[14]:2.
55[66]. I translate chiang/riwer as wYang-Tze;, because chiang
isth e n a m e a sso c ia te d w ith th e g re a tso u th e rn riv e ith e F fl?^ -
tze The great river in the north , the //or "Yellow

T ran slation and Commentary

R iv e r /' is not called c h ia n g but ho. This is o n e p ie c e of evidence

Erkes (1 9 3 5 ) cites for th e sou th ern origin o f th e T a o TeChing,
5 6 [6 1 ]. M ost tr a n s la to r s take th e p h ra s e h s i a liu (lit. Hlow
flo w in g 'O in (1) as a r iv e r im ag e tra n s la tin g it '"flow s down
w a r d /' o r ^low-lying riv e r/' and so on. But Iw is u sed in th e Men
ciu s (7 8 /3 7 ,1 1 ) to refer to co n d u ct follow ing customs^
in a n egative sense (as o p p o sed to th e p rin cip led co n d u ct of the
s u p e r io r m an ). H en ce t h e a d v ice in th e D o c t r in e o f th e Mean
(1 0 :5 ) to be "to /h a rm o n io u s but not "w m u s t m e a n something
lik e ''agreeable, but n o t w ishy-w ashy.wT h e p h ra s e h s ia liu itself
occurs tw ice in the A n alects (17:24:1 and 1 9 :2 0 ), w h e re it dearly
d escribes someone o f very low social status. T h e term clearly has
n e g a tiv e con notations, e ith e r o f weakness ( " f lo a t in g " or "drift
in g ") o r excessively " c o m m o n " ("cu rrent"), as o p p o se d to aristo-
cra tic/p rin cip le d m o ral c o n d u c t. In M W T (a d o p te d here) the
lin e a b o u t h sia liu is fo llo w e d im m e d ia te ly by th e phrase
"w o m a n fo r th e w o rld ." I t seem s th a t a n y o n e fa m ilia r with
th e se resonances o f h s ia liu w ou ld naturally see h e r e th e image
o f a p ro stitu te , w h ich p r o b a b ly is why t h e W P t e x t makes
"w o m a n o f the world" tfie th ird line o f this s a y in g rather than
th e second. But chiao wu n ite w ith win th e r e m a in in g lin e of the
saying is regularly used in th e A nalects o f frien d sh ip and intima
cy. Thus th is word, too, h elp s reinforce th e p ro s titu te im age.
6 0 [4 9 ]. WP transposes M W T ; s heng wu h s in /a c o n s t a n t l y no
m in d to vv hefts in /'n o c o n s ta n t m in d ." I a c c e p t M W T as
th e m ore ^shocking"' le c tio d ific ilio r. Som e t h in k t h a t Te in (2)
makes no sense in its usual m ea n in g and want to ta k e th e char
acter as standing for a n o th e r w o rd te, wto g e t, o b t a i n .w This is
u nn ecessary: As in 2 7 [1 0 ]
2 , th is saying d escrib es h o w th e Te*
cu ltiv ated by Laoists ty p ica lly expresses itself in c o n d u c t. Line
{4 :1 -2 ) is om itted in W P , b u t co n ta in e d in M W T a n d m any
other texts.
6 5 [5 1 ]. "Talents" in {1} is M W T , WP has " a b i l i t i e d v ^ s
translates w/thingsI th in k wu has a very g e n e ra l m eaning
in th e T ao Te Ching and ^even ts form them ^ m a k e s m o s t sense
here. See further under " T h i n g s '" p. 247.
6 7 [3 1 ]. "Mourning" in {7} is th e M W T read in g , W P h as "ill
fo rtu ne." WP may retain th e o rigin al wording o f th e oral say
ing, M W T's "mourning" b e in g a change by th e co m p o ser to
co n n ect th is saying to (7:5) a n d {8}.

Additional Textual Notes

6 8 [6 9 . "There is n o e n e m y ww rt) in {3} is the MWT

reading. W P has a phrase sim ilar in meaning, chin g ti, wmake
ligh t o f th e enemy/' MWT here has tiie lectio dificilior, which
still m akes sense if one regards it as a motto.
69[30], WP adds another lin e to {3}, not found in MWT
wIn th e afterm ath o f a great war, surely there will b e a bad
year.w I o m it this because it sounds like a rationalizing expla
n a tio n of th e more ,,su p erstitio u s*w sounding thorns-and-
bram bles saying.
7 0 [6 0 ]. My tentative understanding of 3 :4 -5 depends on
taking th e MWT reading, #,the W ise person does n o t hurt them
[i.e., th e ghosts]." WP has "n o t h u rt//people."
7 6 [80]. I follow Karlgrens understanding of the somewhat
d iffic u lt co n stru ctio n in { 2 :1 - 2 } . Others take it to mean
"[E n o u g h ] weapons for d ozens and hundreds o f m en."
(C h 'i/talen t also can mean ''utensil, weapon.,;)
8 0 [6 5 ]. In {3} WP has "n o t by knowledge." I take here the
M W T read in g "by n ot-kn ow in g translated h ere as "Igno
ran ce! because this fits better w itii tiie idea of "Knowledge/
Ignorance" as mottos, applying b o th to the ruler and his sub
jects. W P also has a different chih in (2} and {3} th a t could be
translated as (negative) "cleverness. This seems a attem pt to
tone down deliberately "sh o ck in g language th a t is part of
L aoist sty le . In (4} the first ^en^/always and th e second
cW ^/understand are in MWT, n o t in WP. In {5} win opposition
to th in g sw follows Karlgren's understanding, w hich seems to
me the m o st natural reading o f yii wu fan. Others avoid this
seem in g ly un-Taoist n o tio n b y translating, "It /iin/retu m s
yu/together-w ith ww/things.w
81 [37]. In {3} WP has " n o t desiring instead o f MVVTs
#,n ot disgraced.w I think the latter is the lectio dificilior here.
The idea is connected to the them e of "not hurting the peo
ple (see further under "Hurting*" p. 229. In {5} "order" trans-
lates M W T's cheng/noxm m a k e - c o n e c t . WP has tin g /settle:

A R eason ed A p p ro a c h to Interp reting th e
Tao Te Ching
In interpreting wscripturalMwritings, we must make a choice: (a) We
can use "m eaningful for us as th e m ain criterion for deciding on the
true m eaning o f the text. In this case, historical scholarship and criti
cal h erm en eu tics1 have nothing essential to offer. Arriving at inter
pretations wm ost meaningful fo r uswis something th a t m ight hap-
pen equally as well when an unscholarly person of great personal
wisdom free associates on separate lines of tiie text, (b) W e can try as
best we can to reconstruct w hat th e text meant to its initial authors
and au d ien ce. In this case h istorical scholarship and hermeneutic
reflection is essential. But also, in this case, we must abandon the tra
ditional claim of scriptural interpretation to be discovering authori
tative tru th valid for all time. Trying to derive authoritative norms
for ourselves directly from interpretation itself is always a distorting
influence on any attempt to really uncover original m eanings. The
best th a t can b e said for such scholarly interpretation is this: One
who uses "m eaningful for us as a criterion looks in a mirrorthe
text is a stimulus for arriving at insights he or she already was on the
verge o f having. By contrast, trying to recover the original meaning
most often m eans entering into a thought world very foreign to us
which is for th a t very reason a thought world liable to be a greater
challenge to our current way of thinking. We are still left with the
responsibility o f deciding how b est to respond to th is challenge.
Scriptural interpretation is no short cut to tmth.
This book takes the reconstruction of historical m eaning as its
main focus. I believe that the T ao Te Ching also has some impor
tant relevance for today. (Briefly, the ^civilizing'1 trends it protests
against have reached their apogee today, and further civilizing is
often d estru ctiv e. We need to "tu rn backwto recover im portant
things lo st in th e progress of civilization the things conservative
Laoists were trying to protect.) I do n o t deal directly with this issue
here, partly to lim it the scope of this book. Partly also this reflects
my co n v ictio n that historical-interpretive skill as such, my aca
demic specialty, gives one no privileged insight into issues con
cerning contem porary relevance. These issues are better dealt with
in dialogue, in which nonspecialists in the general public partici
pate as equal partners.

The Tao o f the Tao Te Ching

T h e interested reader w ill find further detailed discussions and

a rg u m e n ta tio n for the in te rp re tiv e m ethod a p p lied here, in a
lon ger v ersio n of this b o o k published in th e sam e series.2 This
essay w ill summarize th e results of this longer discussion, which
co n stitu te th e essential u nd erlying principles g u id in g th e interpre
tation presented here. These results fall into th ree m ain areas:
1. S ocial Background. An attem pt to reco n stru ct the nature
o f th e social group o u t o f w hich the T a o T e C hin g arose is
e s s e n tia l to u n d erstan d in g how the th o u g h ts in this book
relate to concrete life.
2. Composition o f th e B o o k . My thesis is th a t it consists of
sayings from the oral tra d itio n o f a small "L a o ist" community,
w h ich are artfully arranged into brief collages o f sayings, the
e ig h ty -o n e ^chapters'' o f th e T a o Te Ching.
3 . H o w Sayings M ean. Sayings in the T ao T e C hin g cannot
be tak en literally, but th is d o es n ot mean th a t th ey are vague
or am biguou s and m ig h t m e a n alm ost a n y th in g . They have
quite d efin ite meanings th a t can be spelled o u t if we are care
ful and subtle enough in our analysis of their form .

Social Background

A cen tral them e of th e p h ilo so p h er Ludwig W ittg en stein 3 is

that the m ean in g of thoughts an d words is n o t in d ep en d en t d
the role th ese thoughts and w ords play in the co n crete h um an life
of the speaker. The first question we must ask a b o u t any writing,
therefore, is n ot, W hat doctrines does it teach? but, How did these
words and thoughts insert th em selves into the co n crete lives of
the persons in whose lives th ey first arose? This above all is why it
is necessary to form some op inions, to make some ed u cated guess
es,4 about th e concrete origins o f th e Tao Te C hing. If it seems
most likely to have been written by a speculative th in k e r to teach
us some doctrines, we must in terp ret it accordingly. If it seems to
have grow n o u t of some o th e r h u m an p ro ject (so m e other
W ittgenstinian "form of life") th e n we must see its m ean in g in
relation to th a t project instead. W h a t follows here presents the
conjectures on this matter that underlie the present interpretation
of the T ao Te Ching. The co n jectu res are based p rim arily on an
exam ination o f internal evidence in th e work itself, m atch ed with

Social Background

the a n a ly s is o f an cien t C h in e s e s o cie ty by th e s o c ia l historian

C h o -y u n H su 5 an d a p ictu re g a th e r e d from a stu d y o f so m e writ
ings r o u g h ly co n te m p o ra ry w ith th e Tao Te Ching, p rim arily 6 a
book c a lle d t h e Mencius (see p . 2 3 5 ) . Although th e con ten t o f M en
cius's t e a c h i n g is in m an y re s p e c ts opposed to th a t o f th e Tao Te
Ching, I b e lie v e there are m a n y illu m in atin g fo rm a l sociological
parallels, as w ell as m an y sim ilarities in details su ch as vocabulary
and im a g e ry . In terpreting th e T a o Te Ching again st th e particular
setting I p ro p o se , so far as I k n o w , is relatively n e w . M o st com
m en tato rs e ith e r ignore e n tire ly th e question of c o n c r e te setting
or tre a t th e T a o Te Ching as th e w ork of a rather iso la te d philoso
pher or m y s tic .
M o s t c r i t i c a l sch olars n o w p la c e the Tao Te C h in a s origins
so m etim e la te in the W arrin g S tates period ( 4 6 3 - 2 2 2 B .c .) of Chi
nese h is to ry . C o n tem p o rary C h in e se believed stro n g ly in a hierar
chical, ^ p y ra m id " theory of so cial organization. T h e re w as a Chi-
nese E m p ire , presided over a t th e v ery top by a single Em peror,
"The O n e M a n ," representing in h is person the sy m b o lic N orm of
the W o rld . N e x t cam e a larger class of nobility w h o p resided in
feudal7 fa s h io n over the sm aller territories or "s ta te s " in to which
the E m p ire w as divided. The b ase o f the pyramid w as m ad e up
largely o f p e a s a n t farmers.
In p re v io u s tim es, social ran k w as relatively fixed by b irth , but
during t h e W a r r in g States p e rio d th e re was m u ch m o re m obility
both u p a n d d o w n the s o c ia l s c a l e .8 Social s ta tu s a n d pow er
in a e a s in g ly c a m e to depend n o t o n b irth but o n p e rs o n a l am bi
tion an d c o m p e titiv e struggle. T h e E m p ero r had lost e ffe ctiv e con
trol, a n d th e h e a d s of the variou s states engaged in larg e-scale war-
fare w ith e a c h o th er, each w an tin g to reunite the n o w fragm en ted
Empire u n d e r h is own leadership. N ob le families e n g a g e d in what
Hsu term s "cla ss suicide" by c o n s ta n t internecine stru g g les.9
O ut o f th is disorder arose a relativ ely new class o f m e n called
shih,10 d ra w n fro m downwardly m o b ile, dispossessed n o b ility , and
u p w ard ly m o b ile , am bitious p e a s a n try . T rad ition ally, sh ih had
served in re la tiv e ly m inor ro les as soldiers and as scrib es, book
keepers, m in o r adm inistrators, a n d forem en for state g o v e rn m e n ts
and feudal m a n o rs . As states grew larg er and more c o m p le x in this
period a n d as rulers were less an d less able to rely on fellow nobili
ty for s u p p o rt, th o se in power in creasin g ly came to re ly o n 5/nVi as
a cadre o f m e n w ith the specialized expertise n ecessary to foster
and m a in ta in th e good s o c io e c o n o m ic order th at fo rm e d each
rulers p o w er b a s e .11

The Tao of t h e Tao Te Ching

W ith in th is class of shih, th e r e w as a sm aller g ro u p p e rh a p s

best called s h ih idealists. I b eliev e a sm a ll group of s h ih id e a lis ts is
responsible fo r t h e Tao Te C h in g. T h e Mencius, a b o o k r o u g h ly
co n tem p o rary w ith the Tao Te C h in g , gives us a fairly d e ta ile d p ic
ture of su ch m e n 's con cep tion o f th e m se lv e s an d t h e le a d e rs h ip
role to w h ic h t h e y aspired. M y p ic tu r e o f th e g ro u p u n d e r ly in g
th e Tao T e C h in g is largely d raw n fro m w h at I th in k a re p arallels
between th e M en ciu s and th e Tao Te C h in g on this s c o re . W h a t th e
two groups h a v e in co m m o n c a n b e d escrib ed ro u g h ly as fo llo w s .
They w ere alienated idealists. B y alienated, I m ean t h a t t h e y d id
n o t look u p o n trad itio n al so cial life o r th e ex istin g p o l i t i c a l o rd e r
as a source o f au th o ritativ e n o rm s. N o r d id th ey look o n p a r tic ip a
tion in o rd in a ry sociopolitical life as so m e th in g su ffic ie n t in itse lf
to give m e a n in g t o o n e's life. T h e y w e re idealists in t h a t t h e q u e st
for n o rm s a n d s o u rc e s of m e a n in g s u p e rio r to t h o s e o f c o n v e n
tion al s o c ie ty w a s a very c e n t r a l p a r t o f th e ir liv es. N e w n o r m s
th e y d e v e lo p e d served as a basis f o r t h e i r claim to b e in stru cto rs of
those in a u th o r ity , deserving (in th e L a o ist case a t le a s t)12 t h e le a d
ership sta tu s o f n e w wE m p ero r/; sp iritu a l ^N orm of th e W o r l d / /
They h a d a very strong sense o f so cia l responsibility. T h e C h u a n g
T in puts th e fo llo w in g words in to t h e m o u th o f a sh ih id e a lis t ask
ing p erm ission fro m his teach er t o g o 4tc o n e d >l th e w a y s o f a fe u
dal lord:

I have h e a rd th a t th e ruler o f [th e state of| W ei is v e r y y o u n g .

H e in k s little of how h e ru les h is state, an d fails t o see h is
faults. It is n o th in g to him t o le a d h is people in to p e r i l .... His
people h a v e n ow h ere to tu rn . I h a v e h e a rd y o u sa y , M a s te r,
"Leave t h e s ta te th a t is w e ll-o rd e re d an d go t o t h e s t a t e in
ch ao s!" I w a n t to use th ese w o r d s as m y sta n d a rd , in h o p e s
that I c a n re s to re his state to h e a l t h .13

Even th o u g h s h ih idealists like th is o f te n have n o o fficia l p o s itio n

and often a re o f low er-class o rig in , th e y feel th a t t h e b u r d e n of
ensuring th e h e a lth of the e n tire E m p ire rests on th e ir s h o u ld e rs
alone. In th e ir e y es, th ose in official p o sitio n s of a u t h o r i t y (m a n y
of them u su rp e rs) for the m ost p a rt are com p letely i n a d e q u a t e to
this task. Shih id ealists often tra v e l fro m state to sta te , w h e r e v e r
th ey feel th e ir services are n eed ed a n d w h erever th e y h a v e s o m e
hope th a t t h e y c a n influence lo ca l g o v e rn m e n t, as e ith e r a d v is o rs
o r a d m in istrato rs in govern m en t s e rv ic e . In th is th e y rely p a rtly
o n an im p o r ta n t elem en t o f C h o u -d y n a s ty ( 1 1 2 2 - 2 2 2 b . c .) id e o lo
gyThe E m p e r o r m u s t have w ise c o u n s e lo r-^ te a c h e rs ^ w h o c o n

Social Background

stantly re m in d him of his m o ra l responsibilities a n d co rre ct him

when th e y see h im abusing h is o ffice o r setting a b a d to n e for the
p e o p le .14 F o rm e rly , h ow ever, su c h counselors w ere th e highest
ranking o fficia ls, drawn from th e E m p ero r's noble k in sm e n .
T hey a c cep ted fully the p resen t sociopolitical structure an d their
officially assig n ed place in i t U n lik e idealist political re fo rm e rs else
where, sh ih idealists did n o t a d v o c a te a change in th e hierarch ical
stru ctu re o f so ciety . And, e v e n th o u g h they reg ard ed them selves
as th e tru e lead ers o f C h in a, th e y d id n o t aspire t o to p p le those in
power a n d p erso n ally take th e ir p la c e . Politically, th e ir aspiration
was to wru le fro m th e m id d le /' in th eir capacity as ad visors and
a d m in istra to rs a t all levels o f g o v e rn m e n t, from th e lo w e st level of
in sp ecto r o f w ells and fields15 t o t h e h ighest level o f " p r im e minis
ter ju st b e lo w th e top feudal lo rd w h o was suprem e h ead o f state.
They o ffered a new foundation fo r Chinese culture an d politics, but
this fou n d ation enters public life prim arily in Ore p e rso n o f the ideal
shth. H e re a c o n tr a s t w ith J o h n L o ck e ( 1 6 3 2 - 1 7 0 4 ) is helpful.
Locke w a s a n English p h ilo s o p h e r w h o perhaps m o r e th a n any
o th er la id t h e fo u n d atio n s for m o d e r n secular d e m o c r a c y . The
fo u n d a tio n L o c k e offered for th is n e w kind o f s o c ie ty consisted
prim arily o f philosophical theories th eories about th e n a tu ra l free
dom o f h u m a n nature, th eo ries a b o u t the basis fo r so cia l organi
zation a n d g o v e rn m e n t, an d so o n . These th eories in tu rn were
based o n m o r e fu n d am en tal th e o rie s about the n a tu re o f reality
and h o w w e c o m e to know reality . T h e new fou n d ation L ock e had
to offer e n te r e d public life p rim a rily as theory as t h e o r y to be
tau gh t t o a n d accep ted by b o th g o v ern m en t officials a n d th e peo
ple th e y ru le, as th eo ry to be em b o d ied in a c o n stitu tio n , as theo
ry to b e fo llo w e d by judges in in terp retin g laws, a n d so forth. If
we ask o u r s e lv e s , How did L o c k e rs th ou gh ts an d w o rd s insert
th em selv es i n t o con crete life? th e an sw er is (a) his th o u g h ts were
the resu lt o f h is conscious a tte m p ts t o construct a r a tio n a lly based
p h ilo s o p h ic a l sy stem , and (b ) h e w a n te d his e n tir e s o c ie ty to
u n d e rsta n d a n d accep t these th o u g h ts as a n o r m a tiv e basis for
social a n d p o litic a l life.
Shih id e a lists also aspired to p ro v id e a new fo u n d a tio n for the
c ru m b lin g so c io p o litic a l o rd e r t h e y saw around t h e m . B u t the
fo u n d atio n th e y h ad to offer in se rte d itself into c o n c re te life in a
way fu n d a m e n ta lly different fro m th e way th at L o ck e 's philoso
phy did. T h e y relied prim arily o n tw o ideas cen tral t o traditional
C h o u -d y n a sty th o u g h t: (a) G o o d social organization d e p e n d s on
the ru le r g a in in g th e v o lu n ta ry r e s p e c t and c o o p e r a tio n o f the

The Tao o f th e Tao Te Ching

p eople. H e d o e s th is by his p e r s o n a l g o o d qualities a n d c h a r is m a

(fe16 in C h i n e s e ) a n d by s h o w in g g e n u i n e care, c o n c e r n , a n d c o m
p eten ce in l o o k i n g o u t for th e ir n e e d s , (b) The g o o d r u le r " s e ts th e
to n e " for h i s s o c ie ty . The m a n n e r in w h ich he c o n d u c t s h im s e lf
b o th p r iv a te ly a n d p u b licly e s ta b lis h e s a certain a t m o s p h e r e th a t
su b tly b u t p o w e r f u l l y in f lu e n c e s t h e w ay the p e o p l e c o n d u c t
th e m s e lv e s . It is p rim arily t h i s t o n e th e ruler sets, r a t h e r th a n
la w s, t e a c h i n g s , o r beliefs a u t h o r i t i e s te a c h t o p e o p l e , t h a t is
e x p e c te d t o p r o d u c e a good p e a s a n t-c itiz e n ry an d a n o r d e r l y s o ci
e ty . T h e s h i h id e a lis ts re fle c te d in t h e Mencius a n d t h e T a o Te
Ching re g a rd th e m s e lv e s as th e c h i e f to n e setters for s o c i e t y . T h e
new " f o u n d a t i o n " th ey h ave to o ffe r in se rts itself i n t o p u b lic life
p rim arily in t h e i r o w n person t h e n . In w h atev er o ffic e th e y h o ld ,
th e y s tr iv e t o s e t th e p ro p e r t o n e fo r th e social g r o u p in th e ir
c h a rg e , a n d i n t h i s th e y serv e a ls o as ex e m p la rs f o r t h e ru le rs
w h o m t h e y s e r v e . A nd w h e n t h e s e ru le rs ask fo r t h e i r a d v ic e
ab o u t p a r t i c u l a r p o litica l p ro b le m s , t h e y advise t h e m t o a d d re ss
th e s e p r o b le m s in a w ay th a t will a ls o set th e p rop er to n e fo r th e
larger s o c ie ty .
B ecau se th e p erson al character o f ruler-adm inistrators w a s s o p iv
otal, sh ih id e a lis ts p la ced an extraordin ary emphasis on c h a r a c te r for
m ation, ^ s e lf- c u lt iv a tio n /' P e r s o n a l c h a r a c t e r f o r m a t i o n , w h i c h
M e n ciu s c a l l s self-cu ltivation ,17 is t o th e shih w h at p h il o s o p h i c a l
th e o riz in g is t o J o h n Locke. It is t h e s o u r c e of h is a u t o n o m y , his
rig h t to f o l l o w n o r m s d erived f r o m w ith in himself, r a th e r t h a n be
b o u n d b y n o r m s g iv e n e x te rn a lly . A n d i t is the so u rce o f h is c r iti
c a l le v e ra g e o v e r a g a in st c o n v e n t i o n a l so cie ty and its ru le rs, th e
basis o n w h i c h h e criticizes c u r r e n t p r a c tic e and poses n e w n o r m s
to g u id e p u b l i c p o lic y . G ood p u b lic p o lic y in th e M encius a n d th e
T ao Te C h in g is d efin ed as th a t p o l i c y exp ressive of g o o d c h a r a c t e r
o r th e r i g h t s t a t e o f m in d o f t h e r u l e r . S e lf -c u ltiv a tio n d iffe rs
s o m e w h a t f r o m t h e W e ste rn d e v e lo p m e n t o f "v irtu o u s c h a r a c t e r ,
in its s t r o n g e m p h a s i s on c o m p l e t e in te rn a liz a tio n , so t h a t th e
p e r s o n a l q u a l i t i e s c u ltiv a te d b e c o m e p a rt o f o n e 's i n s t i n c t i v e
im p u ls e s ( n o t " c o n v i c t i o n s " o n e m u s t h o ld o n e se lf t o ) . T h is is
e x p re s s e d in a f a m o u s saying a ttr ib u te d t o C onfucius: wA t fifteen I
s e t m y h e a r t o n le a rn in g , at t h i r t y I a tta in e d a firm p o s i t i o n ...a t
s e v e n t y I f o l l o w e d m y heart's desire w ith o u t overstepping the lin e.>ns
P e rh a p s b e c a u s e th e shih id ealists as a class a c tu a lly w ere th e
g r o u p w i t h t h e b e s t c la im t o m o r a l r e s p e c ta b ility in W a r r i n g
S ta te s C h i n a / t h e y a p p a r e n tly g a i n e d c o n s id e ra b le p r e s t i g e
( t h o u g h p r o b a b l y th e ir actu a l i n f l u e n c e o n politics fell v e r y far

Social Background

sh ort o f th e ir am bitions). B e ca u se th e use of fo rce a n d political

m a n ip u la tio n increasin gly c a m e to replace h e re d ita ry title as a
source o f p o litic a l power, rulers n eed ed new so u rce s o f legitima
tio n . S o m e m a y have looked t o shih idealists as a s o u rc e of this
le g i t i m a t i o n , w an tin g to a p p e a r at least to be a s s o c ia te d with
th e m a n d liste n in g to th eir a d v ice , or at least s u p p o rtin g them .
(M en ciu s sp e a k s19 of a ruler w h o , although he rejects t h e advice of
a p a rtic u la r shih, gives him m a te ria l support a n y h o w , ''Because I
am a s h a m e d t o see him die o f w a n t in my territo ry .")
T h e v e ry high respect w ith w h ic h some in d ivid u al shih were
re g a rd e d , le d o th e r shih to g a t h e r arou n d th e m , to le a rn their
ideas a b o u t g o o d govern m en t a n d practice se lf-cu ltiv atio n under
their g u id a n c e , an d by asso cia tio n w ith them to gain credentials
th a t w o u l d g e t for th em th e g o v e r n m e n t a p p o i n t m e n t s they
desired. T h is led to the f o r m a tio n o f many sm all a n d inform al
$hih-schoo\st groups of m en g a th e re d around on e o r m o re teach
ers, liv in g w ith or near h im , a n d often traveling w ith h im as he
went fro m state to state tryin g to influence rulers w ith his advice.
This is th e k in d of group th a t g a th e re d around th e C o n fu cia n shih
te a c h e r M e n c iu s , and this is t h e k in d of g ro u p I b e lie v e also
resp on sib le fo r th e Tao Te C hing. T h is latter was o n e a m o n g sever
al g ro u p s s h a rin g a co m m o n w orld -view opposed t o C on fu cian
ism , g r o u p s t h a t cam e la te r t o b e ca lle d by th e g e n e r a l nam e
Taoist20 O t h e r roughly c o n te m p o ra ry Taoist groups a re k n o w n to
us fro m a n a n th o lo g y of w r itin g s th a t goes u n d e r t h e n am e
T zm . G ra h a m 21 recen tly suggested a new te rm , (after
Lao T zu, th e legen d ary au th o r o f th e Tao Te Ching) t o re fe r t o the
specific t h o u g h t of the Tao Te C h in g , in contrast t o th e som ew hat
different ( ,,C h u a n g is t,/) T aoism rep resen ted in th e C h u a n g Tzu.2Z I
use Laoist as a te rm of c o n v e n ie n ce th ro u g h o u t th is b o o k , t o make
it d e a r t h a t I a m here dealing o n ly w ith this brand o f T a o ism .
N o te t h a t m y aim in th is b o o k is n o t to p resen t a b r o a d and
b a la n c e d v ie w o f th e c u ltu ra l s i t u a t i o n in a n c ie n t C h in a , and
re co n stru ct wth e m ean in g,/ th e Tao T e Ching had in t h e stream of
h istory a n d in th e d e v e lo p m e n t o f C h in ese th o u g h t. M y aim is
u ltim a te ly n o t to wp lace,/ L ao ist th o u g h t in some b r o a d e r fram e
work, b u t t o see th e w orld as L a o is ts saw it. B ecau se t h is m ean s
co n sid erin g o n l y th o se aspects o f C h in e se culture re le v a n t to Lao-
ism a n d s e e in g th e m from a L a o is t persp ective, m y t r e a t m e n t of
a n cie n t C h i n e s e cu ltu re as s u c h is b o u n d to h ave a n a rro w and
lopsided c a s t. F o r broader in te lle c tu a l history th e r e a d e r sh ou ld
consult t h e tw o excellen t recen t b o o k s by Graham a n d S ch w a rtz .23

The Tao o f th e Tao Te Ching

T h e Composition o f the T ao Te C h in g :
W hat Kind o f W riting Is It?
W e o fte n a p p ro a c h a n c ie n t w ritin g s u n co n scio u sly u n d e r th e
sway o f b o o k -c e n te r e d in stitu tio n s c o m m o n in o u r o w n c u ltu re .
W e forget t h a t w ritin g books, p r i n t i n g b o o k s, re a d in g b o o k s , m a k
in g b ooks a v a ila b le in libraries a n d b o o k sto res, a n d s o f o r t h are
features v e r y p a rtic u la r t o o u r o w n c u ltu re , w hich w e re n o t alw a y s
p resen t. L ik e t h e Bible, th e Tao T e C h in g stem s from a tr a n s itio n
p eriod b e tw e e n a n oral cu ltu re a n d a cu ltu re ce n te re d o n w ritin g
and re a d in g . In t h e culture of late W arrin g -S ta te s C h in a o ra l c o m
m u n ic a tio n w a s still th e o v e rw h e lm in g ly co m m o n m e a n s o f c o m
m u n ic a tio n , e v e n a m o n g relativ ely e d u ca te d s/ii/i. In all p ro b a b ili-
ty , few to n o n e o f th e Classics t h a t h a v e c o m e d o w n t o u s fro m
th is p eriod a r e t h e p rod u ct of sin g le th in k e rs w ho d e lib e r a te ly sat
d ow n to " w r i t e a b o o k " to d is s e m in a te th e ir ideas_ th is d id n o t
b e c o m e a c o m m o n c u s to m in C h i n a u n til th e H a n d y n a s t y
(b eg in n in g 2 0 6 b . c .) . Alm ost all o f th e s e works are c o l l e c t i o n s of
m aterial p u t t o g e t h e r by o th ers.24
T h is b a c k g r o u n d exp lain s w e ll s o m e obvious f e a tu r e s o f t h e
Tao Te C h in g t h a t are n o t easy t o e x p l a i n on th e t r a d itio n a l v ie w
th a t this b o o k is t h e product o f a sin g le a u th o r w h o sat d o w n to
w rite a b o o k t o d issem in ate h is id e a s . T h e book co n sists o f e ig h ty -
o n e v ery b r ie f , n u m b e re d ^ c h a p t e r s /' trad itio n a lly d iv id e d in to
wtw o b o o k s '' (C h a p te r s 1 -3 7 a n d 3 8 - 8 1 ) , b u t arran ged in n o e v i
d e n t o rd e r.25 T h e ch a p te rs in tu r n ty p ic a lly co n sist o f t h r e e or
m o re sh o rt s a y in g s , each of w h ic h c o u l d easily stand o n its o w n .
O ften th e s a y in g s w ith in a given c h a p t e r h a v e n o o b v io u s r e la tio n
t o each o t h e r . T h e s e features g iv e t h e ch ap ters a d i s c o n t i n u o u s ,
so m ew h at jerk y a p p earan ce, in c o n t r a s t to th e rather s m o o t h c o n
tin u ity c h a r a c t e r i s t ic of co m p o s itio n s in w h ic h e v e ry th in g is w rit
te n to go t o g e t h e r . M ost m o d ern c r itic a l scholars a re a g r e e d t h a t
at least a g o o d d e a l o f th e m aterial in t h e ch ap ters c o n s is ts o f in d i
vidual say in g s t h a t on ce circu lated in d e p e n d e n tly of e a c h o t h e r as
oral tra d itio n .26
The in te r p r e ta tio n of th e Tao T e C h in g presented h e r e re s u lts
fro m a s y s t e m a t i c analysis of th e c o m p o s itio n of e a c h c h a p t e r ,
u s in g th e a n a l y s i s o f passages w h o s e c o m p o s itio n is r e l a t i v e l y
clear, to illu m in a te o th e r passages w h e r e traces of th e t e x t 's c o m
p o s itio n a l h i s t o r y are m ore a m b ig u o u s . In th is a n a ly s is I h a v e
m a d e use o f a n a p p ro a c h d ev elo p ed in b iblical studies t o a n a ly z e
s o m e w r itin g s (lik e th e G ospels) w h e r e sig n ifican t a m o u n t s o f

The Composition

m aterial fro m early C h ristian o ra l tradition appears to h a v e been

i n c o r p o r a te d i n to longer w r i t t e n co m p o sitio n s. T h is ap p roach
consists first o f ^form c ritic is m /' a n a n iy s is of t h e s ta n d a rd gen
res o r ^ f o r m s '' (stories, son gs, say in g s, an d so o n ) in w h ich oral
trad itio n is c a s t, an d an a tte m p t t o in terp ret each u n it o f oral tra
dition in t h e c o n te x t of so m e c o n c r e te life setting in w h ic h it was
o rigin ally u s e d . It consists s e c o n d ly of red actio n c ritic is m ," an
analysis o f th e techniques a n d in te n tio n s of those w h o w ove the
oral m a te r ia l in to longer c o m p o s itio n s .27
To s p e ll o u t m y h y p o th e sis in m o re detail: T h e sayin gs we
now h av e in th e Tao Te C h in g o n c e circulated in th e Laoist shih
school as o ra l trad ition . Oral tradition does n o t m e a n th e sayings
were m e m o r iz e d by students sp e cifica lly to keep aliv e th e authori
tative w o rd s o f a teach er. R a th e r, like com m on p ro v e rb s in any
cu ltu re, t h e y s tu c k in p eo p le's m in d s and were u se d frequently
because th e y m a d e som e useful p o in t about freq u en tly recurring
issues, a n d t h e y m ad e this p o in t in a witty or o th e rw is e m em o
rable m a n n e r (m a n y o f the say in g s are rhym ed). T h e c o n c re te sit
uations in w h ic h they w ere u se d w ere, first, co n v e rsa tio n s am ong
Laoist sh ih a n d betw een th ese sh ih a n d o th er visitors o r ru lers over
the p ro p e r w a y a leader sh o u ld c o n d u c t himself b o th in private
and p u b lic life. Sayings used in th e s e con texts are m o s tly proverb
like a p h o r is m s . I call th e m p o le m ic aphorisms, to e m p h a siz e the
way th a t m o s t o f them are d ire c te d im plicitly or e x p lic itly against
some v ie w s, assu m p tio n s, o r te n d e n c ie s Laoists o p p o se. A second
co n text fo r s a y in g s consisted o f co n v ersatio n s w ith in t h e Laoist
sch o o l c o n c e r n i n g th e p r a c t i c e o f s e lf-c u ltiv a tio n , in c lu d in g
in stru ctio n in self-cu ltiv atio n g iv e n b y teachers to s tu d e n ts . Most
of these s a y in g s are wceleb ratory/ w celeb ratin g the w o n d e rfu l char
acter o f t h e q u a lity of m in d L ao ists cu ltiv a te
All o f th e s e sayings are v e ry " c o n t e x t b o u n d ." Like sayings
such as " I t ta k e s tw o to ta n g o ," th e m ean in g of e a ch L a o ist saying
is essen tially co n n e c te d to a v ery sp e cific situation th a t it address
es. To m iss th is co n n ectio n is to m iss th e m eaning o f th e saying.
At o n e (^ f o r m critica lw) level, th e n , to interpret th e Tao Te Ching
correctly is to p la c e each in d ivid u al sayin g in som e o ra l c o n te x t in
con crete life a n d u n derstand th e p o in t it makes a b o u t th is situa
A s e c o n d (^red actio n c ritic a r;) lev el o f in terp retatio n is neces
sary, h o w e v e r. D espite the in itial ap p earan ce of s o m e ch ap ters, I
believe t h a t th e sayings are n o t th r o w n together r a n d o m ly . A clos
er look re v e a ls t h a t th e "c h a p te rs " o f th e Too Te C /iin j are in fact

The T ao o f t h e Tao Te Ching

artfully a r r a n g e d collages of sa y in g s, juxtaposed w ith s o m e delib

erate in t e n t i o n s an d asso ciatio n s in m in d , w h ich a re o fte n sug
gested b y b r ie f ad d itio n s a n d c o m m e n t s m a d e b y t h e p e rs o n
putting t h e c o lla g e togeth er.28 I c a ll s u c h persons t h e com posers of
th e c h a p te r-c o lla g e s . My b est c o n j e c t u r e is th a t th e s e c o m p o s e rs
were te a c h e r s in th e Laoist sh ih s c h o o l in the second o r t h i r d g e n
eration. A t th is stage, Laoist sh ih h a d begun re fle c tin g o n tra d i
tio n al o ral s a y in g s a s repositories o f g ro u p w isdom , a n d te a c h e rs
began c o m p o s in g sh ort collages o f sayin gs to give t o s tu d e n ts as
part of th e ir tra in in g in th e s c h o o l . F o r us, this m e a n s t h a t , in
ad d ition t o t h e c o n c re te oral s e t t i n g , the c h a p te rs th e m s e l v e s
form a s e c o n d , verbal co n text; a n d e a c h saying in a g i v e n c h a p te r
needs to b e u n d e rsto o d in s o m e r e la tio n to th is s e c o n d c o n t e x t of
w hich it is n o w a part.
My th e s is t h a t th e ch ap ters a re artfu lly co m p o se d u n i t i e s is
based on (a ) a s tu d y of standard te c h n iq u e s, visible in m a n y c h a p
ters, a im e d a t b rin g in g u n ity t o t h e v ario u s s a y in g s in a g iv e n
chapter; a n d (b ) a com p arison o f p assag es in w hich th e s a m e asso
ciations s e e m t o guide the ju x ta p o s itio n o f sayings (fo r e x a m p le ,
the sam e s a y in g follow s a criticism o f wfb rcin g Min b o th 3 3 [ 5 5 ] : 4 - 5
and 6 9 [ 3 0 ] :4 - 5 ) . C om p arison s b e tw e e n th e asso ciatio n s in v a rio u s
ch ap ters a re g iv e n in the c o m m e n t a r y . M y o b se rv a tio n s o n th e
standard te c h n iq u e s are given in t h e T op ical Glossary u n d e r C o n
nective* A lte ra tio n , Fram ing*, a n d Take-O ff*. D e te ctin g t h e c o m
poser's a d d itio n s t o oral sayings is a id e d by the fa c t t h a t L a o ist
oral sayin gs a re gen erally h ig h ly u n ifie d and fre q u e n tly e x h ib it
re c u rre n t p a t t e r n s , like p a r a lle l g ra m m a tic a l c o n s t r u c t i o n ,
rh yth m , a n d r h y m e .29 W ords o r lin e s th a t in terru p t p a ra lle lis m
(like 6 9 [ 3 0 ] :4 ) o r rh y m e s (like 7 [ 8 ] : 2 : 1 ) o r abruptly c h a n g e th e
subject (like 2 7 [ 1 0 ] : l : 7 - 8 , 5 7 [ 6 8 ] :1 :4 ) su ggest a lte ra tio n s o r a d d i
tions to o ra l s a y in g s . (See fu rth er u n d e r Fram ing*.)
I believe t h a t there is e v id e n c e o f deliberate c o m p o s i t i o n in
enough c h a p te r s t o w arrant th e su p p o sitio n th a t all c h a p t e r s are
deliberately c o m p o s e d , even t h o u g h if o n e considers s o m e c h a p
ters strictly b y th em selves, th ere is n o t enough e v id e n c e t o w a r
ran t th is c o n c l u s i o n . Careful stu d y o f t h e com p osers' te c h n iq u e s
and a s s o c ia tio n s gives som e c o n t r o l o v e r the "re a d in g b e tw e e n
th e lines w e h a v e to do to try t o u n d e rs ta n d their in te n tio n s .
Form a n d re d a c tio n a i t i c i s m a r e a tte m p ts to g r o u n d in te p r e -
tive p ractice in s o m e co n sisten t g e n e r a l th e o ry re g a rd in g th e for-
m al c h a r a c te r o f t h e te x t at h a n d , a c o rre c tiv e to th e t e n d e n c y to
decide b e tw e e n in tep retive ch o ice s m a in ly o n the basis o f s u b s ta n

T h e Com position

tive Ideas we tend to find more congenial. Still, It should perhaps

be em p hasized that this approach is necessarily conjectural at
many p oints. The Chinese text o f the Tao Te C hing contains no
quotation marks or other indications that it consists of various lay
ers of m aterial. My translation is printed In such a way (see p. x) as
to show th e reader how I reconstruct the com position of each
chapter. But I would invite the reader to Imagine different plausi*
ble ways o f construing the composition of each. If my hypothesis
is even plausible, this means th ere are no wsafeMapproaches to
interpreting the Tao Te Ching, nothing to take as the ^default" In
the ab sen ce o f certain and secure evidence to th e contrary. To
interpret the sayings outside o f any concrete life setting is to con
jecture th a t they are the particular kind of sayings th at can be
understood this way. To understand each chapter as the work of a
single writer or a collection of unrelated sayings is to con|ecture
that this is their character. These approaches arc ultimately based,
like the present one, on educated guesses.
In th e present view, the Tao Te Ching is probably an anthology
of once independent chapter-collages. I take this as partial justifi
cation for m y rearrangement of the chapters in an order I think
better suited to intrcduce the modern reader to Laoist thought, in
general th is rearrangement proceeds from the personal to the
political.30 Chapters grouped together in Sections 1 and 2 concern
two central facets of Laoist ideals, the cultivation of an unconven-
tional and often negative-appearing kind of goodness (Section 1)
and th e cu ltivatio n of what we would perhaps call wm ental or
physical h ealth " (Section 2). T he chapters in Section 3 are more
directly concerned with the practice of self-cultivation and the
mental qu alities cultivated. The chapters in Section 4 deal with
teacher-student relations in th e Laoist school and th e kind of
understanding of reality taught there. The chapters in Sections S-7
are about ruling. The chapters in Section S express th e principle
Laoist ideals concerning the person and general role o f the ruler-
administrator. The chapters in Section 6 concern more particularly
the wSoftwstyle of ruling Laoists advocate; and the chapters in Sec
tion 7 express Laoist ideals developed in opposition to contempo
rary social Nimprovementvv programs. Further explanations of the
rationale for the arrangement of chapters within each section will
be found in the last paragraphs of the commentaries on Chapten
2|91, 5[451 7|81, 9 791, 12|181, 1 5 [ l l j , 18|1 21|121, 23|26|.
24(331 31(4), 34(40). 37|14|f 39125J, 4 [71| 45(70|, 50(53], 53(72).
591581, 61 54 6434|, 66747060 74 767680 ,8 1 71.

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

A n a lyzin g Laoist Sayings: N onliteral Interpretation

T h e y said, wYou h a v e a b lu e guitar.

Y o u do n o t play th in g s as th e y are.w
T h e m an replied, ^ T h in g s as th ey are
A re changed upon th e b lu e gu itar.M
A n d they said th e n , " B u t p lay you m u st,
A tu n e beyond us, y e t ou rselves,
A tu n e n x m th e b lu e g u ita r,
O f th in g s exactly as t h e y a re .

n o th in g ch an g ed e x c e p t th e place
O f th in g s as th ey a re a n d o n ly th e p lace
As y o u play th e m , o n t h e blue guitar.

Wallace Stevens

T h e d a n g e r o f " o v e r a n a l y z i n g " a p ie ce o f w r i t i n g is w e ll
known. Y e t, w h e n w e are d ealin g w i t h w riting from a v e r y d is ta n t
era an d c u ltu r e , s o m e kind o f a n a ly s is takes place w h e t h e r w e like
it or n o t. W h a t w e need in th is c a s e is n o t to an a ly z e as little as
possible, b u t t o try to analyze m o s t carefu lly an d s e n s itiv e ly to
try to r e c o n s tr u c t and cap tu re in o u r analysis th e i m p l i c i t s tru c
tu re of th e w o rd s as they w ere h e a r d b y th eir o rig in a l a u d ie n c e .
Interpretive a n a ly s is should b e like W a lla c e S tevens's wB lu e G u i
t a r . T o a n a ly z e a sayin g is n o t to h e a r it as it w as o r ig in a lly h e a r d
a n d u n d e r s t o o d , w ith o u t a n a l y s i s in e v ita b ly , t h i n g s a re
ch a n g e d " w h e n an aly zed . B u t o u r a i m sh ou ld b e t h a t t h e 0 /7/y
ch a n g e is t h e f a c t o f an alysis, m a k i n g e x p licit e x a c t l y w h a t is
im p licitly u n d e r s t o o d by th e o r i g i n a l a u th o r o r a u d i e n c e . T h e
m e a n in g -s tr u c tu r e o f a say in g m e r e l y m ak es a t r a n s i t i o n f r o m
being im p licitly u n d ersto o d in t h e s a y in g to being e x p l i c i t l y c o n
ceptualized. tfA tu n e u p on th e b lu e g u ita r / Of th in g s e x a c t l y as
they a r e ...N o th in g ch an ged excep t t h e p la ce / Of th in g s as t h e y are
an d only th e p l a c e / '
The m a in d a n g e r in n o t b e in g c a r e f u l ab o u t an aly sis is t h a t w e
will u n c o n s c io u s ly te n d tow ard w h a t s e e m s th e " s im p le s t" k in d o f
an alysis t h a t is, w e will tr y t o u n d e r s t a n d e v e ry s t a t e m e n t as
th o u g h it w e r e tr y in g to give u s a n a c c u ra te , lite ra l p i c t u r e o f
objective r e a lity . F o r exam ple, w e w ill ta k e th e say in g wO n e w h o
knows d o es n o t s p e a k as th e a s s e r t i o n o f a fact o r " g e n e r a l la w "
a b o u t th e w o r l d , t h a t " k n o w l e d g e " a n d "s p e a k in g a r e n e v e r

found together. Siinllarly, will take the saying ^ p a o ) is Hk* ori*
gin of th e thousands of things,f as the assorHon of a factual pic*
ture: lK*ru is an o b jtic t,* T ;u V that at some thtie irt the i si
caused all the otheroi)j cts \n th e v^orld Income to btr*
In try in g t o cli?visu a e o n t r o i l t K l m e t h t x i f o r i m i ? n ) a U n g t h t
Taa T e Chtn^r ; u u l n o t s i t i i p i y g o b y m y o w n i n t u i t i o n s a b o u t its
n i e a n i n g , o n e o f th e th in g s I h a v e uWxl to d o is w o r k o u t s o n u
a n a l y t i c a l m o d e l s f o r i n t e r p r c U n g l , a o l s t s a y i n g s U i a t a r c m o r e in
accord w itli th e w ay tliey w e r e (in m y reco n stru ctio n ) prob u bly
used in th e L o o i s t c o m n u m i l y . T w o o f ?ny b a s i c p r e s u p p o s U i o n s
l u rre a r e th at ( a ) tlur m a n y p r o v c r b l i k o i i p h o r i s m ^ i n t l i c Too 7V
Chini{ h a v e t h e sam e form al m c ^ n i n g ^ tf u c t m e a s p ro v e rb s U\ o u r
ow n c u l t u r e , a iu l th at (h ) t h e r e H a iiirg c b o d y oi o i l n r r S iiyln ^s
t h a t h a v e a s ttu.*lr c o n c r e t e b a r k K f i > t u l t h e p r a c t i c e a i N rlt-ru U lv ii*
tion and e x p e r i e n c o s c o n n c c t t n l w i t h tl)is p r a c t i c e in ih v is!
co m m u n ity .

P o le m ic A p lio rism s

F i r s t , lirt m e o u t l i n e h e r e m y th esis about thv m u im in >

> s tn (c -
t u r e o f t i u p r o v o r b l l k e p o l e m i c iip h o r is n ^ , b ij^ed on a tarcfu l
a n a l y s i s o f t h e m ( ? a n i n ^ s t r u c t u r c o f p r o v t-r b s i m p l i c i t I n ( h <w a y
w o u s e t l ^ c m i n o u r o w n c u t t u f e . 1 * T h i s o u s i n i n ^ - s t r u c i u r e c o i ^ s ls ts
o f t h r e e c s s e r t t i a ! elcrmMMs, t h e t h e i m a j ; e ; i n d t h e
i cl U i e v n l u c ( H k r i U a U o n c U r t r i b < H !
follow s:

The i'ar^t*[. A p > h o r i s m s a r r y s s c n t i a l l y c m p e n s

t f y v ; l s J o m .
i'h c y a r e
i f v /a y < . d i r e c t e d a g a i n s t s o m e o j j p o s i n ^ i n i m a n t u n d o n c y ,
w h i c h t h e y m e a n t o c o r r e c t o r c o m p c r v - s a S c f o r. ^ S l o v / a n d ^5cuiv
w i n s t h e r a c e ^ is a c o m r n < m p r o v e r b alsh(.Hj;h il \s n o l r e lia b le as a
g e n e r a l la v / a b o u t v /h r a c e s . ' T h e ukc u ^ u a U y to the
s v / i f t " i s m o r e t r u e , b u t is n o t a p r o v e r b . W h y ? F i .* o p l c h . i v e a Et*n*
( l e n c y s o a s s u n u : t h f t t h e i n g s v / i f s is ) \5 5 w i n
r*ia*s anci "Slow arui 5k\i<!y the riK'i V shK

t e m k _ n c y j o w a k e p e o p k u p s o a c i i r . f e f d U p ( s b i l u y . T f i h k Us
p o i n t . B u t t h e r e U n o k n d v n c y U h U : sh;u w i l t m)s
w in . ^Tne r a c e g i*5 i t h e s v / i t c " h a s n o t h m g i c a u i p - i
n.vsSe to r .
A lE h aiig h ec es txiu , it h a s n o u sciin " p i m /r it\ e v e r y ^ y I v/ii!
c a ! l h i s o p p o d n g h im u u i s e n d c n c y t h e .n iK g i.r s g iv en a p h o
rism . V / h o ^ v c r do^ n s u n d e c . s t a n d ehi; oi a ^*iV ing dr^ EH.*!
u n c k T s c a n d it.'s r c u v i n i n g . rn\m k ^ k ^ lg n m riy iag
,Jtt t a k ^ E v / o s o G a n g o " v/U hots C u a d i T ! 5
i'sadirvyw > u u thl^ U
The Tao of th e Tao Te Ching

usually sa id to c o u n t e r a c t .) F u r t h e r , t h e m e a n in g o f a n y g i v e n
aphorism is e x h a u s te d in m ak in g a p o i n t again st its p a r tic u la r t a r
get. It is n o t a g e n e ra l truth to b e a p p lie d consisten tly t o all s itu a
tions w h a te v e r n o r d o es it n ecessarily h a v e an y ad d itio n a l re la tio n
to a f u r th e r b o d y o f tru th s o r p r i n c i p l e s . T he u n i t y o f L a o i s t
th ou gh t c o n s is ts p a rtly o f th e fa c t t h a t it is directed a g a in s t a re la
tively sm all n u m b e r o f ta rg e ts. P o s i t i v e L aoist id eals n e e d t o b e
und erstood b y c o n tr a s t to these ^ t a r g e t s /' These serve a s t h e m a in
basis for m y re a rra n g e m e n t o f c h a p te r s in top ical g r o u p s in S e c
tions 1 - 2 a n d 5 - 7 o f th e tran slatio n a n d co m m e n ta ry (s e e p . 1 9 9 ) ,
an d for g r o u p i n g sayin gs t o g e th e r f o r d iscu ssio n in t h e T o p i c a l
Glossary. (S ee t h e to p ics A gitation *, A p p earan ces*, C o n fu c ia n is m * ,
D esire*, I m p r e s s iv e * , Im p r o v e m e n ts * , S e lf-P ro m o tio n * , S t r i c t * ,
U n d erstan d in g *.)

T he Im age. A n a p h o ris m p r o p o s e s n o t a gen eral la w , b u t a n

image, A w a t c h e d p o t never b o ils d o e s n o t state a n a tu r a l law
about w h at a lw a y s happens w h e n o n e w a tch e s a pot. It m e a n s to
suggest to u s a n im a g e , th a t o f a p e r s o n an xiou sly w a tc h in g a p o t
and feeling like it will "n ever b o i l . T h e im ag e ev o k es a s e n s e d
co n n ectio n , w h ic h does not alw ay s o c c u r b u t so m e tim e s o c c u r s ,
between a n x io u s w aitin g an d th e fe e lin g th a t w hat is w a ite d fo r
will rtnever c o m e / / This feature o f a p h o rism s often c o n s id e ra b ly
narrow s th e m e a n i n g of th e term s u s e d . H ere, n o t just a n y w a t c h
ing is in te n d e d , b u t anxious w a tc h in g . A n d wnever b o ilin g ^ h a s a
p sych ological r a th e r th a n a p h ysical re fe re n c e (it seems to t h e a n x
ious w a tc h e r t h a t th e p o t w ill wn e v e r b o ilw). This m e a n s t h a t
aphorism s a r e n e v e r d ogm atic, b u t m e a n t o evoke a n i m a g e in
w h ich th e b a sis for co n n e ctin g tw o id e a s is clear to o u r m in d s . So,
to u n d e rs ta n d t h e Laoist say in g , wH e d o es n o t sh ow o f f so h e
sh in es/' w e m u s t t r y to con ju re u p s o m e im age in w h ic h t h e c o n
n ection b e tw e e n t h e tw o term s w o u ld b e clear, th a t is, w e m u s t
try to im ag in e s o m e kind of rtn o t s h o w in g offH th at c o u ld p la u s i
b ly be e x p e c te d in som e sense to c a u s e a p erson to sh in e. W e m u s t
resist th e t e m p ta tio n to reduce th e im a g e to a rule (" D o n t s h o w
off"), or to p u re ly p ractical a d v ice ( " I f y o u w an t t o s h i n e , n o t
show ing o ff is t h e best strategy t o u s e w). T h e purpose o f s u c h a
saying is to e n c o u r a g e people to tak e a ttra c tiv e s e lf-e ffa ce m e n t as
th e ir ideal, r a t h e r th a n aggressive s e lf-p ro m o tio n . T o p u t t h i s
a n o th e r w a y , " T h e Hve co lo rs m a k e p e o p le s e y e s g o b l i n d "
(2 1 [1 2 ]:1 ) d o e s n o t state d o g m atically t h a t colorful th in g s a lw a y s
dull o n e's s e n s e s a n d th e re fo re s h o u l d alw ays be a v o i d e d . It

Analyzing Laoist Sayings

means t o w a rn o n e about colorfu l o b je cts when and in sofar as they

dull th e sen ses. T he images offered b y an aphorism are o fte n com -
terimages, in te n d e d to correct so m e h u m a n ten d en cy (th e saying's
"ta rg et"), a n d fo r this reason im a g e s offered often (like th e one
about c o l o r s a b o v e ) are d e lib e ra te ly exaggerated , p a r a d o x ic a l,
p ro v o cativ e, "sh o ck in g ." This is p articu larly true o f L a o ist sayings,
know n f o r t h e i r colorfu ln ess. T h e i r in te n t is n o t t o p r e s e n t a
sober, a c c u r a te , properly qualified g e n e ra l truth, but t o ,#w ake peo
ple upw t o a p erspective o n th e s itu a tio n that th ey a re ign orin g.
This sh o u ld w a rn us against a literal-m in d ed u n d e rsta n d in g , but
neither s h o u ld w e regard h y p erb o le as a merely o r n a m e n ta l "fig
ure of s p e e c h ," W hoever co m p ares h is ideal ruler t o a p rostitu te
(5 6 [6 1 ]:1 ) is deliberately trying to s h o c k his m oralistic c o n te m p o
raries th is is p a r t of the m essage of such a passage. (N o te also
that, fo r th e sak e of su ccin ctn ess o r w it, aphorism s s o m e tim e s
depart c o n s id e ra b ly from logical o r gram m atical s tru c tu re , as in
A miss is as g o o d as a mile." This, ra th e r than textu al c o n u p tio n ,
may ex p la in s o m e passages in th e T a o Te Ching difficult t o make
sense of if o n e assum es norm al C h in e s e usage.) P art o f th e unity
of Laoist t h o u g h t consists in th e fa c t th a t several sayin gs d irected
against th e sa m e target present sim ila r images (these a re discussed
in the T o p ic a l Glossary, under th e to p ics listed at th e e n d of the
previous p a ra g ra p h ).

The attitude an d the value orientation motivating it. T h e p o in t an

aphorism m a k e s resides n o t in th e c o n te n ts of w hat is said , but in
th e im p licit choice made to bring u p th is image ra th e r th a n a n o th
er. This c h o ic e in turn conveys th e attitu d e of the sp eak er. W h en
som eone is d e c id in g w hether t o ta k e a risk, I m ig h t c h o o s e say
"'Better safe t h a n sorry;, or I m ig h t ch o o se to say ^ N o th in g ven
tured, n o th in g g a in e d /' The cru cial issu e behind th is c h o ic e is not
which sa y in g is objectively m o re tru e , but which sa y in g I th in k
puts this p a rtic u la r situation in th e rig h t perspective. A ch ild w ho
says ^Sticks a n d sto n es may b reak m y bones, but n a m e s w ill never
hurt m e " is n o t explaining an o b je c tiv e tru th bu t is " p o s tu r in g "
assuming a c e rta in posture o r a ttitu d e tow ard a situ ation , in sisting
on seeing it in a certain perspective. Everyon e saying an ap h o rism
is "p o stu rin g " assum ing a certain p o stu re or attitude to w a rd the
situation a n d in v itin g his or h e r ad d ressee to share th is a ttitu d e.
In b rin gin g up a particular ap h o rism , o n e is not p rim arily c o n v e y
ing in fo rm a tio n on e is prim arily exp ressin g an attitu d e . T h e ulti
mate basis o n w h ich an ap h o rism h o p es to persuade is n o t the

The Tao o f th e Tao Te Ching

objective t r u t h it d irectly states, b u t th e attractiv en ess o f th e a tti

tude o r p e r s p e c tiv e it wacts o u t ;, to w a r d th e situ ation it ad d resses-
Freq u en tly th is attractiv en ess lies in th e particular v a lu e o r ie n ta
tion u n d e rly in g t h e saying. In m y v iew , a relatively u n ifie d a tti
tude u n d e rlie s t h e en tire bod y o f L a o is t p o lem ic a p h o ris m s , m o ti-
v a te d b y a p a r tic u la r value o r ie n ta tio n . T h is attitu d e, c u l t i v a t e d as
a "state o r q u a l i t y o f m in d ," fs t h e L a o ist "T ao ," th e L a o is t W a y ,
th e Laoist " a p p r o a c h " to life (see p . 2 1 4 ) . T h is a ttitu d e is s o m e
th in g " a c te d o u t in a saying (" p e r f o r m e d by th e s a y in g , as J . L.
A ustin32 m i g h t s a y ), rather th a n e x p lic itly spoken a b o u t in th e say
ing. This is an im p o rta n t p art o f w h a t it m eans to sa y (4 3 [ 1 ] :1 )
th a t T a o c a n n o t b e n am ed. In th e p re s e n t view , t h i s p o i n t is
im m en sely i m p o r t a n t to u n d e rs ta n d in g th e Tao Te Ching. A p p ly
ing it to L a o i s t ap h o rism s rev eals t h e perspectival a n d v a lu e -la d e n
ch a ra cter o f L a o is t w isdom . L ao ists n e ith e r teach a re la tiv is t skep
ticism o f all v a l u e s 33 n o r is th e ir a d v ic e based on a c o m p le te ly
objective s e t o f tru th s . They tak e a d ecisiv e stand in f a v o r o f o n e
particular set o f v alu es an d a d v o c a te a d o p tin g an a ttitu d e to w a rd
all situ atio n s b a s e d o n this set of v a lu e s . Attitude is i m p o r t a n t also
w h en c o n s i d e r i n g th e p ro b le m o f " c o n s is te n c y in t h e Tfe
CWn . T h e " c o n s i s t e n c y o f L a o ist w is d o m is n ot based o n a s e t of
d octrines o r m o ral-sp iritu al p rin c ip le s , w h ich Laoists c o n s is te n tly
apply to all s itu a tio n s . W h a t is m o s t co n s is te n t in th e L a o is t "s y s
te m " (see p p . 2 1 3 - 2 1 4 ) is the a ttitu d e th e aphorism s " p e r f o r m . In
un-Laoist fa s h io n I have a tte m p te d t o give an exp licit a c c o u n t of
th e basic v a lu e o rie n ta tio n m o tiv a tin g th e Laoist a ttitu d e , see p.
2 3 9 u n d er " O r g a n ic * h a rm o n y .
N ote t h a t n o rm a lly , none o f t h e th re e elem ents o u tlin e d h ere
is m e n tio n e d e x p l i c i t l y in a g iv e n p r o v e r b . A nd y e t in e v e r y
p roverb t h e s e t h r e e elem en ts a r e essen tia l to its m e a n i n g , a n d
highly specific; t o guess w ron gly a b o u t o n e o f th em is to m isu n -
derstand th e p r o v e r b . In trying t o u n d e rs ta n d a d ifficu lt p ro v e rb
in the T e C /ifn j, it will n o t d o t o sta re a t the w ords a n d tr y to
read d ire ctly o f f o f th em th e m e a n in g o f th e proverb . W h a t w e
m ust do is m a k e ed u ca te d guesses w ith th e help o f b a c k g ro u n d
in fo rm atio n a n d p arallel sayings in t h e Tao Te Ching a b o u t th e
three essen tial m e a n in g elem ents o u tlin e d earlier.
The k in d o f an alysis of Laoist a p h o ris m s this leads to c a n be
illustrated b y u s in g th e fam ous e x a m p le : O n e who sp eak s d o e s
n o t u n d e rs ta n d ^ (3 0 [ 5 6 ] :1 ) . It is i n c o r r e c t to take th is t o m e a n
th a t lite ra lly a n y o n e w h o ever s a y s a n y th in g m u st la c k u n d e r
standing. O n e c o u l d paraphrase its m e a n i n g rather as fo llo w s:

Analyzing Laoist Sayings

1 . Y o u m ig h t ten d t o b e e a s ily im p ressed b y skillful

sp e e ch a n d so assume th a t th e e lo q u e n t speaker is a p e rs o n of
g reat u n d e rsta n d in g (this is th e say in g 's "target .
2 . T o c o u n t e r th is, I w a n t to c a ll your a t t e n t i o n t o th e
im age o f em p ty -h ead ed e lo q u e n ce in which y o u c a n see a c o n
n e c tio n b e tw e e n skillful s p e e c h a n d lack of real k n o w le d g e .

3 . A s a reaso n for a c c e p tin g th is point, I in v ite y o u to

a d o p t a v a lu e orientation a n d attitu d e in w hich su b sta n ce is
a ll-im p o rta n t even w hen n o t im p ressive and im p ressive show
is o f little im p o rtan ce (this is th e attitu d e o r rtp o s tu re w th e say
ing e x p re s s e s ).

I th in k re fle c tio n on our n o rm a l w ay s of m aking d ecision s in

life w ou ld s h o w th a t our p rocesses ap p roxim ate th e "a p h o ris tic "
way of th in k in g illustrated here m u c h m ore closely th a n th e y do
the " lo g ic a l d e d u c tio n s from c o n s i s t e n t prin cip les w e u su ally
assume as a n o fficial ideal. In m y v iew , attention to th e m e a n in g -
structure o f ap h o rism s is the single m o s t im portant key to a prop
er u n d e rsta n d in g o f the Tao Te C hing.

Sayings a n d Self-C ultivation

Besides th e p o lem ic aphorism s, th e re is another large g ro u p of

sayings a lre a d y m en tion ed , m o re d ire ctly related t o se lf-cu ltiv a
tion, su ch as #,T h e Abode of M y sterio u s Femininity is th e R o o t of
the W o rld ." As w ith polemic ap h o rism s, the co m m o n m ista k e is
to take s u c h say in g s in the "s im p le s t" way, that is, in th e m o s t lit
eral-m inded w ay, as teaching us s o m e d octrines ab ou t co s m o g o n y
or m etap h y sics. B u t th e first th in g w e m u s t ask about s u c h sayings
is not, W h a t tru th s do th ey te a c h u s? but, How did th e s e words
insert th e m s e lv e s in to the c o n c re te lives of those w h o first spoke
th em ? D o c trin a l speculation a n d te a c h in g dcxtrines o f c o u rs e rep
resent on e k in d of concrete h u m a n activ ity co n n e cte d w ith the
use of w ord s, b u t it is n o t the on ly k in d .
My h y p o th e s is o n th e issue o f th e co n crete life s e ttin g fo r say
ings like th e o n e ju st quoted is b a s e d o n paying carefu l a tte n tio n
first, n o t t o t h e c o n te n t of th e s a y in g s involved, b u t t o th e ir
"form as th is te rm is used in an in terp retiv e approach ca lle d /brm
criticism (se e p p . 1 9 6 - 1 9 8 ) . Form h e r e refers n o t d ire c tly t o style,
but to th o s e featu res of oral sayings reflective of their c o n c r e te life
settin g. ( F o r e x a m p le , s u c c in c tn e s s is a n o rm al f e a t u r e of th e
"form o f p ro v e rb s , reflecting th e f a c t th a t they need t o b e in serted

The Tao o f the Tao Te Ching

into c o n v e r s a t i o n w ith o u t i n t e r r u p t i n g its flow .) D o c t r i n a l te a c h

ing a ris e s o u t o f s p e c u la tiv e d o c t r i n a l th in k in g , a n d d o c t r i n a l
th in k in g in t u r n ty p ically e x p re s s e s itse lf in a c e r ta in fo rm o f dis
course t h e k in d we find in th e w ritin g s o f A ristotle a n d K a n t, for
ex a m p le, o r re lig io u s c a te c h is m s . If w e look ca re fu lly a t w h a t the
fo rm s o f e x p r e s s i o n used in t h e T a o Te Ching s u g g e s t a b o u t th e
b ack g ro u n d , t h e h u m a n a c tiv ity , o u t o f w h ich th e y a r is e , w h a t we
find m a k e s it u n lik e ly th a t th e y a r o s e ou t of sp e cu la tiv e th o u g h t.
The p re v a le n t g e n r e s of sayin gs w e fin d instead are fo r e x a m p le , (a)
in stru ctio n s in m e d ita tio n a n d se lf-cu ltiv a tio n , (b) s a y in g s d escrib
ing w h a t it fe e ls like to try to g r a s p m e n ta lly an e lu s iv e in te rn a l
p re s e n c e ( s e e p p . 2 3 2 a n d 2 3 4 u n d e r In s tru c tio n * a n d M e d ita
tion*), a n d ( 3 ) a large n u m b er o f s a y in g s celebrating th e g re a t b e n e
fits th a t c o m e t o one w ho has in te rn a liz e d certain q u a litie s called
Stillness, F em in in ity , Em ptiness, a n d so o n (see p. 2 2 1 , B e n e fits * ).
These g e n re s a re sim ilar to th e g e n r e s o f sayings we f in d in a n o th e r
early w r itin g c a lle d th e N e i Yeh. (See p. 2 3 8 ) Both th e n a tu r e o f the
genres a n d th e c o n te x t in w h ic h th e y occu r in th e Nei Yeh su ggest a
co n crete b a c k g r o u n d of se lf-cu ltiv a tio n (including h ere in tro s p e c
tive m e d ita tio n ), rath er th an in te lle c tu a l speculation.
In th is v ie w , for exam p le, " F e m i n i n it ^ was a m o n g th e q u ali
ties of m in d L a o is t s /h7i cu ltiv ated in themselves. The s a y in g "T h e
[m e n ta l] A b o d e o f M y ste rio u s F e m in in ity is th e R o o t o f th e
W o rld w w a s u s e d p rim a rily a m o n g th o se w ho w e r e f a m i l i a r
already w ith t h is quality, "F e m in in ity , a n d had e x p e rie n c e d it as
s o m e th in g q u i t e w on d erfu l. T h e p o i n t o f the s a y in g is n o t to
instruct p e o p le in som ething th e y d o n o t know, b u t t o c e le b ra te
th e sh ared e x p e rie n c e they a lre a d y h a v e , o f F em in in ity as s o m e
th in g of Mc o s m i c w im portance. In th is respect, it is n o t u n lik e sa y
ings su ch a s ML o v e makes th e w o rld g o /rou n d .,/ T h is c e le b r a te s
th e e x p e r i e n c e o f lo v e It d oes n o t an sw er the q u e s tio n , W h a t
m akes th e e a r t h sp in ? but ra th e r, H o w g re a t is love?
In s o m e say in g s related to self-cu ltiv atio n the p o in t is n o t c e l e
bratory b u t in stru ctio n al, as for e x a m p le th e simple d ire c tiv e , MP u sh
[m ental] E m p tin e s s to the lim itM( 2 8 [ 1 6 ] 1 ; see p. 2 3 2 u n d e r I n s tr u c
tion *). B u t instructional h e r e alw ay s refers to practical i n s t r u c t i o n
con cern in g th e co n cre te practice o f self-cu ltivation a n d its re s u lts in
the way o n e lives (see p. 2 3 8 , N o rm a tiv e * ), n o t in s tru c tio n in d o c
trines (see p p . 2 3 6 a n d 2 5 0 , N am in g * a n d U n d erstan d in g*).
Laoists u s e d a set of special te r m s t o re fe r to the q u a lity o f m in d
th e y c u ltiv a te d , w h ich are alw ay s c a p ita liz e d in m y t r a n s l a t i o n .
Some of th e s e w o rd s are descriptive: S oftn ess, Stillness, E m p tin e s s ,

Analyzing Laoist Sayings

Steadiness, C la rity , Fem ininity, H a rm o n y , The M ergin g, N o th in g ,

N ot D e sirin g , N o t Doing. But th is q u a lity was also h y p o s ta tiz e d ,
spoken o f as t h o u g h it were a q u a si-in d e p e n d e n t e n t i t y o r force,
an d th i s l e a d s t o th e use o f n o n a d j e c t i v a l words lik e T h e O ne
T h in g , T h e M o t h e r , T h e U n c a r v e d B lo ck , T ao, a n d T e . E a c h of
these te r m s is a h ead in g in th e T o p ica l Glossary, w h ere th e m e a n
ings are e x p la in e d an d references g iv e n to all their o c c u rre n c e s .

Origin S ay in g s

The g ro u p o f sayings related t o self-cultivation t h a t p rob ab ly

will be m o s t p ro b le m a tic for th e m o d e rn reader are th o s e th at
appear t o d escrib e the origin o f th e w o rld . These also are th e say
ings w h ose in te rp re ta tio n in th is b o o k departs quite s tro n g ly from
th e d o m i n a n t in terp retive tra d itio n . I w ould like to d iscu ss my
construal o f th e sem an tic stru ctu re o f su ch sayings in a little m ore
detail. T h ese are sayings like

I do n o t k n o w of a n y th in g w h o se offspring it m ig h t b e. It
seem s t o p re ce d e God. (31 [4 ]:5)
B ein g is b o r n of N othing. ( 3 4 [ 4 0 ] :2 )
T h e th o u s a n d s of things g a in e d th e One T hing a n d so cam e
to life. ( 3 5 [ 3 9 ] :1 )
T ao p ro d u c e d the One, O ne p ro d u ce d T\vo, T w o p ro d u ced
T hree, T h re e p rod u ced the th o u s a n d s of things ( 3 6 [ 4 2 ] :1 )
N am eless, it [Tao] is th e origin o f the thou san d s o f th in gs.
(4 3 [1 ]:1 )
T ao p ro d u c e s them , Te rears th e m , events shape th e m , tal
ents c o m p le te th eir d ev elo p m en t. (6 5 [5 1 ]:1 )

B eg in n in g w ith early c o m m e n ta to rs like W ang Pi; sa y in g s like

th is are m o s t o fte n in te rp re te d as "d o c trin a l f o u n d a t i o n s " of
Laoist th o u g h t, as th ou gh Laoists first arrived at some c o s m o g o n ic
or m etap h ysical th eories and th en u se d these th eories as a basic
foundation o n w h ic h to build th e re s t o f their th o u g h t a n d their
ap p roach to p ra c tic a l p rob lem s. In m y view, th is a p p r o a c h to
in terpreting su ch sayings is the u n fo rtu n a te result of so m e crucial
differences b e tw e e n the situation a n d interests of later c o m m e n ta
tors and th e situ a tio n of the Laoist shih w ho first u sed su ch say
ings. W h a t h a p p e n e d is a p h e n o m e n o n com m on to m a n y m o v e -
m ents a n d tra d itio n s : At the b e g in n in g o f a m ovem en t lies a sm all
group of e n th u s ia s ts w ho are in te n se ly m oved, "c a rrie d a w a y " by
some e x p e rie n c e s th a t transform b o th th e ir personalities a n d th eir
world as t h e y p erceiv e it. For early en th u siasts, this p e rso n a l tra n s

The Tao o f th e Tao Te Ching

form in g e x p e r i e n c e is s o m e th in g o n e "m u s t b e t r u e to , sim p ly

because in i t is revealed s o m e t h i n g d irectly e x p e rie n c e d as m o re
p recious a n d im p o rta n t th a n a n y t h i n g else in life. L a t e r p eop le
read in g t h e w o r d s o f th e s e e n t h u s i a s t s by a n d l a r g e h a v e n o t
shared th is s a m e exp erien ce. T h e y are (a) m e m b e rs a n o rg a n iz a
tio n , p a rt o f w h o s e m em b ersh ip req u irem en ts is t h a t o n e assen t
to c e rta in d o c tr in e s o r (b) p h ilo so p h e r-in te lle ctu a ls w h o ty p ica lly
assum e t h a t " h a v i n g th e o rie s," c o n s c io u s ly fo rm u la te d , is a form
of k n o w le d g e su p erior in itse lf t o u n reflective e x p e r ie n c e o f an y
kind. B o th o f th e s e groups h a b itu a lly distrust th e ir o w n ("su b je c-
tive") u n r e f le c tiv e exp erien ce o f t h e w orld as a gu id e t o n o rm a tiv e
trutG a n d a r e se e k in g fo r s o m e a u th o r ita tiv e a n d " o b j e c t i v e
e x te rn a l f o u n d a t i o n th a t w ill p r o v id e a critical s t a n d a r d d istin
g u ish in g t h e i r " tr u e " from t h e i r false p ercep tion s, t h e i r " g o o d "
fro m th e ir b a d im pulses. T h e y c o m e to writings lik e t h e T a o Te
Ching l o o k in g f o r such a u th o r ita tiv e fou n d ation al d o c tr in e s . N ot
su rp risin gly, t h e y find there w h a t th e y ca m e looking fo r.
The t e n d e n c y described h e re is sh ared b oth b y m a n y tra d itio n a l
C h in ese c o m m e n t a t o r s on t h e T a o T e Ching a n d m a n y m o d e r n
sch o la r-in te lle ctu a ls, Eastern a n d W e s te rn , am ong w h o m th e r e is an
unspoken a s s u m p tio n th at tre a tin g a n y w riting as "p h ilo s o p h y " is a
p re co n d itio n f o r taking it seriou sly. W e ste rn scholars o fte n c o m e to
th e T ao T e C h in g ad d itio n a lly b u r d e n e d by th e q u e s t t o d is c o v e r
^absolute f o u n d a tio n s 1' fo r k n o w le d g e th a t has p re o c c u p ie d p h ilo
sophical t h o u g h t fro m th e tim e o f D escartes up until t h e ^ a n tifo u n -
d a tio n alw th in k e r s o f very r e c e n t tim e s .34 Finally, th e a c k n o w le d g e
ment an d re s p e c t for cultural d iv e rsity beginning in th e n in e te e n th
cen tu ry r a is e d fo r m an y th e t h r e a t o f ,/^elativism /35 a n d a c o n s e -
quent s e a rc h fo r transcultural "u n iv e rs a lMabsolutes to o v e r c o m e it.
This, too, h a s greatly affected th e c o n c e rn s an d interests w ith w h ich
tw entieth c e n t u r y readers ap p ro ach t h e Tao Te Ching.
M y v iew is t h a t the ap p ro ach t o th e in te rp re ta tio n o f o rig in -
sayings in t h e T a o Te Ching g u id ed b y th ese interests is f u n d a m e n
tally m is g u id e d , because th e se in te r e s ts d id n o t m o t i v a t e th o s e
w ho c o m p o s e d th e Tao Te Ching. T h e /'p o in tw of L ao ist o r ig in say
ings is n o t in stru ctio n a lb u t c e le b ra to ry , celeb ratin g t h e existen
tially ^ fo u n d a tio n a r* ch aracter o f T a o as con cretely e x p e r ie n c e d in
the s e lf-cu ltiv a tio n practice o f t h e id e a l Laoist, e x p e rie n c e d b o th
as an in te rn a l p erso n al center a n d a fo u n d atio n fo r m e a n i n g in a
tran sform ed w o rld .
A m a jo r p ro b le m for us m o d e rn s in u n d erstan d in g o rig in -s a y
ings is th a t th e y re fle ct certain im a g in a l an d linguistic h a b its c o m -

AnaiyztngjLaolst Sayings

nton am ong ancient Chinese (and ancient peoples gen^BUy) 1that

are no longer common. One of the closest analogtes, I believe,
though still only approximateis some of the ways we still speak
about _the.wttart?fonhlng! .experte.nce_ of fnlllrtg Consider,
for example, the ioye song whichbegins:
The first time fiver I saw your face,
I thought the sun lose In your eyes,
And the moon and stars were the gift you gave,
To the dark and the empty skies.
This song celebrates the wcpsmlcwsignificance thnt the loved one
takes on for the lover. The significance of the cosmic imdgos seems
roughly this: One thing that makes falling in love different Itom
ordinary experiences Is that ordinary experiences tke place within
a wworklw that is the stable backdrop for our lives. Palling In love
strongly affects the backdrop Itseil, making It seem w though the
world Itself Is radically changed (wl felt the earth shake under my
foci, and the sky come tumbling dovvnw). H is now fundamentally
dlfforont place, a place in which tove and the loved person hove a
central place on the <(largcstwpossible scale. Compare the eulogy
of /f'/EHquette:Ceremony In the Confuclnn* HsRn Tzu:
By this Heaven and Earth join
By this sun and moon shine,
By this the four seasons proceed,
By this the sJais take their course.
By this the Yangtse and the Yellow River flow,
By this the myriad things flourish^
We could diagram Shu semantic structtire implicit In the Iasi
two lines of the love song above {n the following v/ay
(Q Ims^c (You (Htl tUt H%Atktk 1% )



fA} P^rafptSm -i- (D)5^tiuSvtchx^aUkffS

(A ured a ocmtr1
In which <m*t iht msstnUi^ tn a woiwfesfol
^ ^ rmmn(n$ fune3^ fUve

The Tao of th e Tao Te Chiug

The p e rc e p tu a l b asis (A) h ere is t h e fo u n d a tio n for e v e r y th in g . Nei

th e r th e b a c k g r o u n d assu m p tio n t h a t th e sky is th e " u i t i m a t e con -
t e x t w fo r h u m a n life (B), n o r t h e id e a t h a t th e lo v e d o n e p u t the
stars in t h e s k y (C ) are d o c tr in a l " b e l i e f s on w h ic h a n y t h i n g is
b a se d T h e im a g e of th e stars' o rig in (C ) is a c e le b ra to ry e x p re ssio n
of th e p e r c e p t i o n (A). It does n o t re p re s e n t so m e th in g o n e know s
in a d d itio n t o it, n o r is it a s e p a ra te basis for the s u b s ta n tiv e im p li
catio n (U ), w h ic h is wholly g r o u n d e d in the p e rce p tio n (A ).
Of c o u r s e , th e r e are s ig n ific a n t differences b e tw e e n th is love
song a n d L a o is t sayings ab o u t T a o as o rig in . Being in lo v e o fte n is
a te m p o ra ry p h e n o m e n o n , w h e r e a s L ao ist se lf-cu ltiv a tio n aim ed
a t k eep in g lif e c e n te re d o n T a o . B e in g in love is s tric tly p erso n al,
w h e re a s L a o i s t s p o se d th e ir T a o a s th e f o u n d a tio n f o r a new
w o rld " o r d e r ( i n th e ir n a i v e e t h n o c e n t r i s m , o f c o u r s e " t h e
w orld" m e a n t t h e C hinese E m p ire ).
Som e d iffe re n c e s betw een L a o is t an d modern th o u g h t h a b its
th a t also a r e im p o r ta n t here lie in t h e area of w h at w e re c a lle d in
th e d ia g ra m background assum ptions. O f principal im p o r ta n c e here
is th e t e n d e n c y o f an cien t C h in e s e t o use ch ro n o lo g ical im a g e ry ,
im ages o f " a n c i e n t tim e" a n d "o r ig in a l s o u rc e , to e x p re s s ideas
for w h ic h w e te n d to use s p a tia l im a g e ry , im ag es o f wd e p t h / '
" f o u n d a tio n ," a n d so on. T h is c a n b e illustrated b y a n u m b e r of
e x a m p le s

C o n te m p o r a r y shih w ere in t h e h ab it of p re se n tin g t h e p o li

cies t h e y co n sid e re d ideal as th e policies of le g e n d a ry a n c ie n t
kin gs a n d sages. Usually, th e s e m a n tic structure o f s u c h s ta te
m e n ts is t h e sa m e as th a t p ic tu re d above. That is, t h e y u su a lly
h a v e n o re lia b le in d e p e n d e n t k n ow led ge of a n c i e n t p o lic ie s
o n w h i c h t o base their re c o m m e n d a tio n s . A scrib in g a p o licy
to t h e a n c i e n t s is a c o n v e n tio n a l w ay of ex p re s s in g it s id eal
d i a r a c t e r . (S ee p . 2 2 0 , A n cien t*.)

G r a h a m p o in ts out t h a t t h e C h in e s e w o rd f c w /a n c ie n t is
related e ty m o lo g ically to a n o t h e r / cm th a t m eans " a r e a s o n , a
b a s is /' u sed fo r exam ple by M o h is t logicians to re fe r t o t h e fa c
tual a s s e rtio n th a t is the wb asic c o r e wo f a sen te n ce 's m e a n i n g .37

In s p e a k i n g of th e s in g le u n if y in g sp irit u n d e r l y i n g all
Laoist w is d o m , tw o passages in t h e T ao Te Ching u s e t h e im a g e
o f a p a r e n t : T h is sp irit is t h e " a n c e s to r o f m y w o r d s "
( 4 5 [ 7 0 ] :2 ) , t h e "father o f m y t e a c h in g " (3 6 [4 2 ]:6 ). B e c a u s e T a o
also is c a lle d t h e ancestor o f t h e thousands o f th in g s ( 3 1 [ 4 ] 2)

Analyzing Laoist Sayings

o n e c o u ld say: Tao is to th e th o u s a n d s of th in gs w h a t th e sin

gle L a o is t a p p ro ach is to th e m u ltip licity of Laoist sayin gs.

A p a ssa g e fro m th e Chuang Tzu says: wYou h a v e o n ly to rest

in in a c t i o n a n d things will tra n s fo rm them selves. S m a sh your
fo rm a n d b od y, spit out h e a rin g a n d eyesight, fo rg e t y o u are a
th in g a m o n g oth er th in g s . [T h is is] th e G re a t M e rg in g [ta
t'ung], d eep an d boundless. U n d o th e mind, slo u g h off spirit,
be b la n k a n d soulless, and the ten thousand things on e by one
will turn b a c k to the R o o t/3S A s in 2 8 [1 6 ]:2 , t h e im a g e of
^th in g s tu rn in g back to th e R o o t w h ere describes n o t a n objec
tive e v e n t, b u t a shift in th e w ay o n e experiences th e w o rld (see
p. 2 4 2 , S h ift*). There is o n e sta te in which one's o w n m in d is
very a c tiv e , an d it experiences th e w orld as full o f a m u ltip lici
ty of a c tiv e things. As one's o w n m in d calms d o w n , th e w orld
seem s to c a lm down, too, u n til one begins to e x p e rie n c e the
m u ltip licity of the world as th o u g h it has its s o u rce -fo u n d a
tion in a single Still Root. H ere w e can see the re la tio n of the
im age of T ao as Root-Origin to th e transform ed e x p e rie n c e of
the w o rld b ro u g h t about in L ao ist self-cultivation.

2 9 [ 5 2 ] : l - 2 pictures th e h y p o s ta tiz e d quality of m in d one

cu ltiv ates as th e source-M other o f th e empirical w o rld , called
here th e children. The saying says wO nce you g e t th e M o th e r,
th en y o u und erstan d th e c h ild r e n /' The key to u n d e rsta n d in g
th e tru e m e a n in g of th in g s in th e w orld is u n d e r s ta n d in g
th e m in re la tio n to a certain so u rce-fou n d ation o f m e a n in g ,
id en tical w ith the quality of m in d o n e cultivates. T h is is the
p ro b a b le m e a n in g also of th e sa y in g s " u n d e r s ta n d in g th e
fcu /an cien t so u rce is the m a in th re a d of Taow ( 3 7 [ 1 4 ] :6 ) and
"[T ao s p o w er] allows us to see th e beginnings o f e v e ry th in g
(3 8 [ 2 1 ] :3 ) . T h e expression seeing the ancient beginnings o f so m e
th in g m ean s seeing it in its tru e lig h t.

Finally, w e sh o u ld rem em b er t h a t th e distinction w e c u sto m

arily m ak e b e tw e e n wbare o b jectiv e f a c ts /' on the o n e h a n d , and
th e wm e a n in g s w th ese facts h ave fo r h u m an s is a th o ro u g h ly m o d
ern d is tin c tio n , w h o lly d e p e n d e n t o n th e d e v e lo p m e n t o f th e
m odern s c ie n tific id ea of a "b a re o b je ctiv e fact "T h e w o rld " th a t
prescientific p eo p les refer to w h en th e y speak o f wth e o rig in o f the
worldw d o e s n o t co n sist of bare p h y sical facts and o b je cts, b u t the
m e a n in g -fille d w o rld of th eir o r d in a r y experience. B e c a u s e for
m ost th e m e a n in g of the w orld is t h e preem inent q u e s tio n , the

The Tao of th e Tao Te Ching

question a b o u t th e o rig in -fo u n d a tio n o f the w orld is a q u e s tio n

ab ou t t h e o rig in -fo u n d a tio n o f m e a n in g in the w orld.
W ith t h e s e o b s e rv a tio n s in m i n d a b o u t th e " b a c k g r o u n d
a s s u m p tio n s ^ u n d e rly in g o r ig in im a g e ry , we c a n d i a g r a m th e
sem an tic s t r u c t u r e o f Laoist o rig in say in g s roughly as fo llo w s:

(C) Im age (Tao is th e origin of the world)

(B) B ackgrou n d Assumption

(The origin" o f th e world is the most
fundamental basis o f its true meaning)

(A) Perception -------------------- ^ (D) Substantive Im plication
(A transformed experience of the world, (The best way to understand events is
in which on e exp erien ces Tao as a deeper to see them in the light cast o n them
level, underlying an d giving meaning to by seeing Tao as th eir
ev ery d ay reality) deeper foundation)

T h e p e r c e p tu a l basis (A) h e re is th e foundation f o r e v e ry th in g .

N either t h e b a c k g ro u n d assu m p tio n eq u atin g origins w ith w h a t is
e x iste n tia lly fu n d a m e n ta l (B) n o r th e id e a th at Tao is t h e o rig in o f
the w orld (C ) is a doctrinal "b e lie f o n which a n y th in g is b ased .
T he im a g e o f T a o as world o rig in (C ) is an expression o f th e p e r
cep tion (A ). It d o es n o t re p re se n t s o m e th in g o n e k n o w s in ad d i
tio n to it, n o r is it a separate basis fo r th e substantive im p lic a tio n
(D), w h ich is w h o lly grounded in th e perception (A ). 'T a o -o r ig i-
n ated w is a d je c tiv a l, describing th e c h a ra c te r o f th e w o rld as seen
from a L a o is t p ersp ectiv e.39
To in t e r p r e t L ao ist origin say in g s in th is way is n o t to d e n y
th a t so m e L a o is ts m ay have tak en t h e s e prim arily c e le b r a to r y say
ings also a s lite ra l pictures o f th e w o rld 's origin. In th e a b s e n c e of
a n y c o m p e tin g , scientifically b a se d p ictu re of w orld o rig in s , th is
w ould be a v e ry e a s y and n atu ral t h i n g to do. But (a) t h e r e is still
no in d ic a tio n t h a t th ey to o k lite ra l fa c ts o f this kind a s t h e basis
fo r th eir t h o u g h t . And (b) o n e in d ic a tio n th at literal in te r p r e ta
tion was n o t fo rem o st in th e ir m i n d s is th e lack o f a n y v isib le
attem p t in th e T ao Te C hing t o h a r m o n iz e th e m a n y d iffe re n t,
som etim es c o n f lic tin g im ages o f w o rld origins c o n ta in e d in th e
sayings. (S ee, fo r exam ple, c o m m e n ts on 3 5 [3 9 ]1.) T h is is w h a t
on e w ould e x p e c t o f som eon e s e rio u s ly interested in c o n s tr u c tin g
a co n siste n t s e t o f literal beliefs o r d o c trin e s about h o w t h e w o rld

The Luglst "Sysicm'

began. W h at we have instend are a serifs of overlapping imnges.

Som e m ay see this analysis as reductionist, reducing Laoism to
som ething less than it would be if It wyre ;i philosophical doctrine
based o n o b jectiv e and absolute metaphysical truths. 'H^is is so
only on th e assumption that absolute metaphysical truths are tht*
sole d fs ir a b ic , possibli*, and iidccuuiti; foundations for a wull-
founded w rld-viw. Mv own assuniptions on this m atter (spelled
out In th e longer edition of this work) are qullc* opposed to this.

Tha Laoist ^System"

Uolst thoughi forms a coherent system" of mutually dufln-

Ing elements, each of which cao be* properly understood only In
fdaUon to a sirucuued whole. The discussions earlier In this chap
ter can be summarized here by giving a brief account of the for-
mnl structure- of this system 3S I understand it. M'his account Is
approximate, schemntle, nnd very simplified. I offer It to counter-
balanct; the natural tendency to stfuciure Uotst thoughf in more
fmnlliw ways, for example as a set of <k)culnes or uiles or !is
description of goals and of means to achieve thorn.

) (2) M)
AiUtc4 - AUiUKtci SMlciOf iiiind
aiid.ytcs jim I jtylci Uotis <ultlviitc qu^litio 6i
I,ao^?s oppose l- m itu l w h
actet t^obK ccU
A ity fc < Iwing atul a<tti>g
cxpfciSlv*c o t ihli o#
Qi mltut
\ quality

l\ xt W ttt ,ii&c fo? j<Kiccy a

^ stytc of
cotfwfuss andisytco? gjvctfrtrn^i
of thU AULtUi^tOf
iVitt mijul 7 ^ tju^Sto oc raist-ii
ta v-ay oi btffing a* eh*
d ?h w tjT
atsaetm^ sSte
fW atf sUI
The Tao o f th e Tao Te Ching

This s k e tc h uses several E n g lish phrasesa ttitu d e , s t a t e o f

mind, style, settin g a toneto d escrib e different asp ects o f som e
thing spoken o f in the Tao T e C hin g as a single reality, w h a t it is
that Laoists "cu ltivate. Aspects (2), (3), (4), (5), (7), a n d (8) are all
called Tao. T h e center of th e system is th e attitu d e or sta te o f
mind cu ltivated , valued for its o w n sake. Styles o f a ctin g are val
ued insofar as th ey express th is attitu d e, and social wto n e setting''
is valued in so far as it spreads th e spirit o f this attitude to th e soci
ety as a w h ole. Celebratory sayings/ including origin sayings, cele
brate the w onderful character and fundamental im p o rta n ce this
attitude o r state of mind is directly experienced to h ave. The posi
tive im ages presented in p o lem ic aphorism s give rep resen tativ e
examples (n o t rules) of ways o f b e in g and acting expressive of this
attitude. T h e se aphorisms are a lso ^speech acts;, actin g o u t this
attitude (see p. 20 4 ).

A Note on Translation

This tra n sla tio n is based o n th e standard traditional C hinese

text o f th e T a o T e Ching given in th e commentary o f W a n g Pi, as
printed in H o S h ih -ch i;s Ku p en ta o te ching hsiao k'an . W h en I
accept a read in g n o t from W ang Pi, I always m ention th is in the
textual n o tes. M o st o f these o th e r readings are from th e new ly dis
covered M a -w a n g -tu i m anuscripts, as printed and d iscu ssed in
This tra n sla tio n was done over a period of eighteen years dur
ing which I w en t carefully through th e Chinese text a n u m b er o f
times, co m p a rin g it to th e p rin cip al available sch o larly tran sla
tions in W e ste rn languages, especially those o f Paul Carus, W ing-
tsit Chan, C h 'e n Ku-ying, Ch'u Ta-kao, J. J. L. Duyvendak, Carm e-
lo Elorduy, R obert Henricks, Bernhard Karlgren, D. C. Lau, Jam es
Legge, V ictor v o n Strauss, Arthur W aley, and the tran slatio n s o f
Chinese co m m en tato rs given in Erkes (1950), Ju lien , and Rump
(see References). Phrases in my tran slation and ideas in m y co m
mentary too num erous Id m ention are borrowed from th ese previ
ous works. O n m atters having to do strictly with the m ean in g s of
individual w ords I often give special weight to th e very literal
translation by Bernhard Karlgren, a scholar with little interpretive
expertise b u t a forem ost expert o n an cien t Chinese language and
lexicography a n d th e author o f a standard dictionary o f a n cien t
Chinese. N inety-five percent o f th e tim e, my basic understanding

A Note on Translation

of the te x t is found in at least o n e of these translators. In cases

where I am consciously departing from all these authors in my
basic understanding, I mention eith er in the com m entary or the
textual n o tes th at this is a "new " translation or interpretation of
the text and try to give some reasons. The designation new signals
only a departure from the previously mentioned translations
other translators whom I have n ot read of course also m ay have
arrived at the same understanding. My intention is not to claim
credit for original opinions, but to alert the reader w hen I depart
from the o p in io n of learned sinologists and perhaps strike out
into more shaky territory.
My m eth o d o f translation is a compromise between tw o main
principles. The first principle is, where possible, to give a fairly lit
eral translation, approximating o n e English word for one Chinese
word and approximating also the Chinese word order. (The first
goal is rendered difficult because th e Chinese of the text is so suc
cinct. The latter goal is often made relatively easy because Chinese
syntax resem bles English in many respects.) This literal approach
yields tran slation s like "not Tao, soon gone" (69[30]:5).
Literal translation sometimes, however, would give th e wrong
impression in English, read to o awkwardly, or be to o succinct to
make sense to an English-speaking reader.41 Where this seemed to
be the case I have drawn on a different approach to translation:
One ought to try first to get a concrete sense of what th e Chinese
probably m ea n s, keep this co n crete sense without w ords, and
then try to th in k how one would express this sense in contem po
rary English today. So for example in 3[67]:1 a very literal render
ing would read something like,

I great seem n ot resemble...

if resemble long-time the insignificance.

I translate

I am 'great but not norm al'...

if I were 'n o rm a l/ Td have been o f little worth for a long
time now.I

I have deliberately avoided the somewhat formal style charac

teristic o f older translations, considering more colloquial English
closer to th e Laoist spirit. I have especially tried to m ain tain the
colorful, som etim es "shocking" character of the Chinese, w hich is
sometimes sm oothed out by other translators.

The Tao o f th e Tao Te Ching

This e n tire work is an interpretation o f the Tao T e C hing. That

is, both in th e translation and in th e com m entary I h a v e c o n
strued every th in g in some way th a t I can make som e sense of. I
have strongly resisted forcing th e tex t to say what I w ould like it
to sayth e th eories discussed earlier about this book's com p osite
character an d com plex o ri^ n s p rovide many options fo r solving
difficulties fo r w hich others o fte n propose solu tio n s I te n d to
adopt only as a very last resort, like textual em endation w ithou t
nBnuscript support,42 On the o th e r hand, even w here th e te x t is
difficult to m a k e sense of, I have generally chosen som e co n je c
tural rendering th a t makes some sense, rather than giving a literal
translation an d leaving the reader to m ake sense of it h o w ev er she
can. For th e sake o f brevity, I have also generally g iv en o n ly one
in terp reta tio n o f each passage, r a th e r than d iscu ssin g several
other plausible ones, even w here th is m eans choosing o n th e basis
of rather slight probabilities in clin in g in one direction ra th e r than
another. W h e re I am conscious th a t my translation is m ore th an
usually c o n je ctu ra l, I have tried to m en tion this fact e ith e r in the
com m entary o r th e additional textu al notes.
I am m o re confident in th e qu estio n s I have asked an d the
general lin es o f interpretive m eth o d I have tried to fo llo w th an I
am about all th e details of this p articular interpretation. C on sid er
ing especially th e lim itations o f m y sinological k n o w led ge, the
probabilities are th a t I have o fte n guessed wrong o n d eta ils. I
hope this in terp retation wil stim u late others to proceed to further
im provem ents in our understanding o f this great book.

Topical Glossary

T h is glossary contains brief discussions of som e topics that
recur freq u en tly in the Tao Te C h in g or in the com m entary. The
topics are listed alphabetically under key-words m arked with an
asterisk in the commentary. (All form s of a word are listed under
one heading; for example, references to desiring*, desirable*, and
desireless* will all be found under Desire*.) These key-words are
primarily a reference devicem any are chosen merely because of
the ease w ith which they could be worked into the commentary.
This m eans th a t often key-words themselves cannot be used as an
accurate clu e to Laoist thought; primary attention needs to be
paid to th e discussion following each word. (For exam ple, the dis
cussion under Self-promotion* makes it clear that Laoists were not
against seeking promotions. The discussion under Metaphorical*
is not an essay on Laoist use o f m etaphor.)

A g ita tio n * . The target o f o n e group of polemic aphorisms*

is the hum an attraction to exciting things and stim ulating activi
ties w hich Laoists aiticize on th e grounds that th ey agitate the
mind. A m ong "agitating" th ings are included colorfu l clothes,
fine foods and music, horse racing and hunting (21[12]:1), luxuri
ous living (2 2 [5 0 ]:l-2 , 51[75]:1-2), excited conversation (16[5]:3,
1 4 [2 3 ]:l-2 , 3 0 [5 6 ]:l-2 ), and the pressures of one's jo b (29[52]
Desire* and desirable things are also mentally agitating. W e tend
to regard our lives as dull when n oth in g especially ex citin g or
desirable "stan d s out" against our ordinary existence. But when
something that stands out stimulates us; this causes our being to
strain to align itself around this, losing the organic* order it has
when all th e parts are allowed to align themselves naturally with
each o th er in a harmony arising from within. Our being can stand
this only so long, and this is why prolonged stimulatation eventu
ally reduces the sensitivity of our senses (21[12]:1), causes internal
agitation (2 1 [1 2 ]:1 :4 , 23[26]), m akes us vulnerable to disease
(2 2 [5 0 ]:1 -2 ), wears us out (2 9 [5 2 ]:4 ), and is bound to be short
lived (1 4 [2 3 ]: 1 -2 , 69[30]:5). In co n trast, Laoists cu ltiv a te an
extraordinary internal Stillness* th a t deepens and en h an ces the
organic h a rm o n y toward w hich our being tends w h en left to

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

itself. This gives us an in ex h au stib le source of en erg y (1 6 [5 ]:2 ,

32[6 ]:4 ), a n in te rn a l S tead in ess*, a lasting* way o f b e in g as
opposed to c o n sta n t ups and d ow n s, an d preserves w h o le a capac
ity for deep satisfaction (21[12]:2). O n e who cultivates th is Still
ness and H arm o n y * on a deep lev el ca n engage in in te n s e activity
without b e c o m in g agitated o r w earing herself out (3 3 [5 5 ]:2 :6 -7 ),
See 5[45]:3, 1 4 [2 3 ]:1 ,2 , 16[5]:2,3, 2 1 [1 2 ]:2 -3 , 22[50]:2, 2 3 [2 6 ]:1 - 3,
29[52]:4, 3 2 [6 ]:4 , 33[55]:5 (= 6 9 [3 0 ]:5 ). Section 2 of th e tran slation
groups t o g e t h e r chapters th a t c e n t e r on m ental e x c ite m e n t/
desire/agitation an d the opposite id eal of Stillness* an d co n te n t
ment. T hese are th e chapters in w h ic h Laoist thought co m es clos
est to that attribu ted to Yang* C h u and also to the em p h asis on
physiological self-cultivation in so m e later forms of T ao ism (see
com m ents u n d er 22[50]). See also D esire*.
A n c ie n t * . Contem porary C h in e s e frequently in vok ed the
image o f id e a liz e d kings and th e ir perfectly wise ad visors who
ruled in a legen d ary ancient G old en Age. To attribute a particular
policy to t h e s e an cien t w o rth ie s w as a co n v en tio n a l w ay of
putting fo rth th is policy as an ideal, o ften with no appeal to any
historical ev id e n ce that the an cien t sages actually practiced it. (See
p. 210, an d t h e analysis o f o rig in * sayings, pp. 2 0 7 - 2 1 3 .) See
4[22]:7, 6 [1 5 ]:1 , 11[38]:4, 1 2 [1 8 ]:1 , 37[14]:5, 38[21]:3, 4 8 [6 2 ]:6 ,
57[68]:2; 8 0 [6 5 ]:1 .
A p h o r is tic * . A word I use to describe the m eaning-structure
of the proverblike polemic aphorism s in the Tao Te C hing. A pho
risms are n o t rules to be applied literally and consistently, b u t are
corrective, ^com pensatory^ w isdom , counterbalancing som e ten
dency in th e opposite direction (see p. 201). The polem ic th ru st of
these aphorism s describes one kind o f thrust Laoist sayings have,
the other tw o kinds being in stru ctio n a l* and celebrato ry*. T h e
analysis o f p o le m ic aphorisms o n pp. 201-205 is th e sing le m ost
important se t o f guiding principles underlying the present in ter
pretation o f th e T a o Te Ching.
A p p e a r a n c e s * , The target o f o n e group of p o le m ic a p h o
risms* is th e ten d en cy to admire m ost and cultivate in o n e se lf the
appearances o f good qualities th a t w ill impress others qu alities
like uprightness (4 [2 2 ]:2 ,5 [4 5 ]:2 ), com petence, (5[45]:2), knowl_
edge (8 [8 1 ]:1 ), eloqu en ce (8 [8 1 ]:1 , 5 [4 5 ]:2 , 3 0 [5 6 ] :1 ); and Te
(11[38]:1, 4 4 [4 1 ] :3 ). These q u alities w ould have been esp ecially
attractive to s h i h * anxious to fu rth e r th eir careers b y m a k in g a
good im pression, as well as to rulers w h o wanted to im press* their
people. S o m e o f these sayings h o ld up ideals that w ould be co m

Topical Glossary

monly ad m ired , but are n ot very strikingly impressive; for exam

ple, sincere speech in contrast to eloquent speech (8 [8 1 ]:1 ). Others
are m ore extrem e, holding up for admiration qualities th a t would
co n v e n tio n a lly be regarded as positively bad or undesirable (for
exam ples, com p rom ised [4 [2 2 ]:2 ], disgraceful [1 7 [2 8 ]:1 ]). Social
adm iration tend s to make certain personal qualities stan d out, and
we experience them then as especially desirable and solid*, in con
trast to o th e r qualities cast in to th e shade as Em pty*, N othing*,
even disgraceful. But seeing th in g s this way and working* to devel
op im p ressiv e qualities and rep ress disgraceful o n e s ru in s the
organic* h arm o n y , the goodness including the w hole o f each per-
son's u n iq u e b ein g, toward w h ic h it tends when th is external
influence does n o t interfere. Such working, typically m otivated by
self-prom otion*, cuts the U ncarved* Block 1 7 [2 8 ]:2 ). Laoist
self-cultivation aims at developing and enhancing this organic and
holistic good ness, less impressive externally but m ore genuinely
satisfying to the possessor ( u sefu l" 5 [4 5 ]:i, 11[38]:7, 15[11]:2).
This m eans counterbalancing our tendency to em phasize socially
desirable qualities, by deliberate attem pts to develop and integrate
the "shadow " side of ourselves (Jung): the qualities o f our being we
ignore or repress because in the eyes o f conventional society they
seem w o rth le s s or bad." T h ese id eas account for m u c h o f the
parad oxical ch aracter of Laoist th o u g h t, in co n tra st to Confu-
cians*, w h o ten d ed to see th e ir id eals as more co n tin u o u s with
co n v e n tio n a l standards. See 3 [6 7 ] :1 , 4[22]:2, 5 [4 5 ] :2 , 7[8]:2,
8[81]:1, 1 1 [3 8 ]:1 , 14[23]:4, 17[28]:1, 30[56]:1, 44[41]:3, 48[62]:3.
Section 1 o f th e translation groups together chapters th a t criticize
adm iration o f impressive appearances and propose Laoist ideals
that con trast w ith this. See also Self-promotion*.
B e n e fits * . A large group of celebratory* sayings celebrate the
wonderful powers or benefits that result from cultivating Tao and
conducting government and personal life accordingly. The bene
fits described are usually based on relatively realistic experiences,
but the descriptions extrapolate from this to highly exaggerated
and utopian images. For example, o n e could easily see th at the
Still* state o f m ind Laoists cultivated might be more even and last
ing* th an th e ups and downs in th e life o f one who likes excite
m en t But som e sayings extrapolate from this to a utopian image
of win ex h a u stib leMenergy (16 [5 ]:2 , 29[52]:4, 32[6]:4), even per
haps to wlastingw beyond death (24[33]:3). I think th e exaggerated
and u to p ia n im agery reflects th e Laoist experience o f being
wsavedw b y T ao (48[62]:6, 4 9 [2 7 ]:3 ): Something th a t solves so

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

wonderfully th e m ain life problem , th e problem o f m e a n in g , is

easily taken to have the potential of bringing about a p erfect state.
Sometimes th e utopian images in th ese sayings have som e specific
con nection to words or phrases describing the qu ality o f m ind
being celebrated , for example, th e con nection betw een th e not-
desiring* ru le r a n d the p'w/Simple people in 7 7 [ 5 7 ] :5 :8 - 9 . But
often the co n n e ctio n is very loose; fo r example, in 2 6 [5 9 ]:3 there
seems no s p e cific connection b etw een the co n n o tatio n s of the
phrase M oth er o f th e State, on the o n e hand, and the b en efit lasting
long on th e o th e r. ^Possessing th e M other of the S ta te " cou nts
here as ju s t o n e more d escrip tion o f the single s ta te of m in d
Laoists cu ltivate, and this state o f m in d allows one to last lo n g .
This observation should caution ag ain st emphasizing sp ecific con-
necWons; fo r exam ple, the co n n ectio n between not d esirin g " and
understanding th in g s truly in 4 3 [ l ] :3 .x The celebratory* character
of these sayings m eans that they assum e a primary au d ien ce who
already exp erien ced Tao as so m eth in g wonderful, an d th e exag
gerated im ages in these sayings express this shared ex p erien ce of
Laoists/ii/i*. See 3[6 7 ]:3 -4 # 1 4 [23]:3, 16[5]:2, 22[50]:3, 2 5 [4 8 ]:2 -3 ,
2 6 [5 9 ]:2 -3 , 2 9 [ 5 2 ] :2 :l - 2 , 3 1 [4 ] :3 , 3 2 [6 ]:4 , 3 3 [5 5 ]:1 , 3 7 [ 1 4 ] :5 ,
38 [2 1 ]:1 a n d 3, 4 3 [1 ]:3 , 4 6 [3 5 ] :1 ,3 , 4 7 [4 3 ]:1 , 4 8 [6 2 ] :2 an d 6,
4 9 [2 7 ]:3 # 5 2 [ 7 7 ] :2 , 5 6 [6 1 ]:3 # 6 1 [ 5 4 ] :1 ,2 # 6 3 [3 2 ]:2 # 7 0 [ 6 0 ] :2 #4,
72[64]:5, 7 5 [7 8 ]:1 ; 77[57]:5, 8 1 [37]:1.
C e le b r a to r y * , A word I use to describe the intent or thrust of
many Laoist sayings, in contrast to a polem ic (see A phoristic*) or
instructional* in te n t. See pp. 197, 2 0 6 , 208-209. D iscu ssions of
the main types o f celebratory sayings will be found u n d er B en e
fits* and C o s m ic *, and in the tre a tm e n t of origin sa y in g s pp.
C h'i*. C fi!. m eans literally b rea th , a ir / but th e w ord is
often used to refer to one's bod ily energy as felt in te rn a lly . As
Mencius2 says, Stumbling or ru sh in g [the way] th is [feels] is
c h V f Hence rtth e m ind controlling th e c h T (33[55]:4) probably
refers to attem p ts to directly control th e quality of this felt energy
by will power, an d "Empty c/ii" ( 3 6 [42]:3) refers to an Em pty*
quality of m in d Laoists cultivate. A lthough cW\ was b eg in n in g to
be used by som e3 as a technical th eo retical term, I believe th a t in
the Mencius a n d th e Tao Te Ching it is still an unsystematized term
of folk psychology, similar in use to words like feelings in co llo q u i
al English.4 C h'i occurs in 27[10]:1# 3 3 [5 5 ]:4 , 36[42]:3.
C h u a n g * T zu . Laoists share a general approach to life ch ar
acteristic o f several other groups, w h ich later came to be know n

Topical Glossary

collectively as T ao ists A roughly contemporary book, called the

Chuang T zu,6 is an anthology of writings from various other Taoist
groups7 and the principal source o f our knowledge o f early Taoism
in addition to the Tao Te Ching (see p, 195). Quotations from the
Chuang Tzu w ill be found on pp. 192, 211, and 234.
C la r ity * . Afi/Clarity is one o f the names for the quality of
mind L aoists cultivate, probably referring to the m en tal clarity
experienced w hen the mind is at rest. Mental c/iir^/clarity is the
result o f grad ually Stilling the m in d in 6[15]:3. In 27[10]:1,
miM^/Clarity is a quality of reality as experienced by one in a med
itative state. See 6[15]:3, 2 4 [3 3 ]:1 ; 27[10]:1, 28[16]:3, 29[52]:5,6,
3 3 [5 5 ]:3 , 4 9 [2 7 ]:3 , 73[36]:1. M in g also can m ean wbrig h tM
(4 4 [4 1 ]:2 ), " s h in e " (4[22]:5), or " to enlighten [= to educate]"
C o m p o s e r s * . The term I use for the Laoist teachers whom I
believe com posed the collages o f oral sayings that constitute the
"chapters^ o f the Tao Te Ching (see p. 198).
C o n fu c ia n is m * . The target o f one group of p o lem ic apho
risms* is the approach of other contemporary teachers with
a Confucian ben t. Confucius (5 5 1 -4 7 9 b . c .) was one of the earli
est, and th e m ost famous of the shih* teachers. Several later teach
ers, including Mendus*, daim to be following wth e Tao o f Confu-
cius," At a later time, Confucianism and Taoism becam e the two
principal rival movements in C h in a (Buddhism b ein g a third
upon its arrival in the first century a . d .) Commentators generally
agree th at, in Laoist sayings, ;en/Goodness, i/Morality, ///Etiquette,
and /Learning serve as code words, referring to the focus of
self-cultivation for contemporary Confucian sW/i-schools.8 Good-
ness, w h ich m ig h t also be translated "benevolence," "h u m an e
ness," o r "em path y," often fu nctions as a summary reference to
the C onfu cian ideal. Morality m eans doing what is right according
to a refin ed version of c o n v e n tio n a l norms, esp ecia lly those
regarding con d u ct proper to one's station in life. Etiquette is a very
approximate translation of Zz; It refers to elaborate religious and
court cerem ony , but Confucian ideals tended to picture refined
social in teractio n as a kind of cerem ony as well.9 Learning refers
prim arily to character form ation and only secondarily to the
study of traditional customs and exemplars that were to serve as a
guide.10 Polem ic aphorisms against Confucian self-cultivation are
related to Laoist thought against impressive appearances*, against
self-p rom o tio n *, and against w ork in g*. Laoist sayings against
naming* probably have at least partly in mind the C onfu cian pro-

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

ject of rectify in g nam es. Laoist criticism s caricature th eir C onfu-

dan rivals a n d should not be taken as accurate representations of
Confucian th o u g h t. See 11[38]:3,4 ,5 , 12[18]:1, 1 3 [20]:1,2, 16[5]:1,
42[2]:1, 7 2 [6 4 ]:7 , 78[19]:1. I believe 7[8]:2# 25[48]:1:1, an d per
haps 1 3 [2 0 ]:3 :1 , are Confucian sayings.
C o n n e c t iv e *. I believe th a t com posers of the c h a p te r co l
lages often h ave altered or added to an oral saying to c o n n e c t it to
other sayings included in the sam e ch apter (see p. 198). T h e m ain
criteria I use for conjecturing th a t th is has probably h ap p en ed are
(a) a word o r lin e interrupts a p a tte rn (such as rhym e o r paral
lelism) in th e saying where it o ccu rs, and in addition (b ) th is same
word or lin e co n n ects this saying to another nearby. I list ex am
ples here in th r e e groups, e x p la in e d under F ra m in g *: (a)
2 7 [1 0 ] :l:7 - 8 ; 3 5 [3 9 ]:1 :2 6 ; 5 1 [ 7 5 ] :l : 4 - 6 ; 5 6 [6 1 ]:2 :2 ; 5 7 [ 6 8 ] :1 :4 ;
67[31]:7:2; 6 9 [3 0 ]:4 :3 . (b) 6 [15]:2:9; 7[8]:2; 28[16]:5:6; 3 0 [5 6 ]:3 :5 ;
4 4 [4 1 ]:3 :9 ; 7 7 [5 7 ] :5 :6 -7 ; 7 9 [ 3 ] :2 :1 a n d 4 :2 . (c) 1 1 [ 3 8 ] :4 :2 ;
3 8 [2 1 ]:Z :l-2 ; 5 5 [6 6 ]:3 :4 -5 ; 5 8 [7 3 ]:5 :5 .
C o n q u e s t * c y c le . Some a n c ie n t texts make referen ce to a
kind of p rim itiv e physics-psychology in ancient C hina com para
ble to the wfour elements^ theory o f an cien t Greece.11 In th e C h i
nese version th e re was an attem p t at a hierarchical o rd erin g of
certain h yp o statized * elements or energies, expressed b y saying
that the superior energy shenx/overcomes ("conquers") a n inferior
one; as in th e follow ing excerpt from the Shuo Wen: wJo y in ju res
the heart, b u t fear overcomes jo y . Heat injures the b re a th , but
cold overcom es h eat, and bittern ess injures the breath , b u t salt
overcomes b itte rn e ss.... Fear in ju res th e kidneys, bu t desire over
comes fe a r ...c o ld injures th e b lo o d , bu t dryness o v e rc o m e s
co ld /'12 G ra h a m 13 calls this the cy cle o f conquests. Several Laoist
sayings borrow th e formula "X /overcom es Y to express the
superiority o f th e internal "e n e rg ie s" th ey cultivate ov er th e ir
opposites, as in "Softness overcom es hardness" (75[78]:2). T h is is
further evidence fo r my thesis th at Laoists hypostatized* th e qu al
ity of m ind th e y cultivated. I b e lie v e Laoists have n o g en u in e
interest in th is speculation as such. These sayings are purely cele
bratory* in in te n t. See 5[45]:3; 5 6 [6 1 ]:2 ; 73[36]:2; 7 5 [7 8 ]:2 ; and
perhaps 2 3 [2 6 ]:1 an d 47[43]:1,
C o n te n d in g * , C/?e/^/contend m ean s both "to strive, c o m
pete" and " t o quarrel" (see 57[68]:2). It is a negative term in th e
Tao Te Ching, referring especially to com petition with o th ers for
higher status an d reputation, so th is term is related to th e Laoist
polem ic a g a in s t self-p rom o tio n * a n d against a d m irin g o n ly

Topical Glossary

impressive appearances' and to th e positive Laoist ideal of "being

low*,; (see 5 7 [68]: 1-2). Not-contending describes an attitude or state
of m in d t h a t is the co n tra stin g Laoist ideal. See 4 [2 2 ]:6 (=
55[66]:4), 7[8]:1,3, 8[81]:4, 57[68]:2, 58[73]:5, 79[3]:1.
C o n ten t*. Resting "c o n te n t" within oneself as opposed to
reaching o u t for desirable* an d exciting things is a Laoist goal
m entioned in 19[44]:3, 20[46]:2,3, 24[33]:2.
C o s m ic * . Some sayings celeb rate the fou nd ation al impor
tance o f T ao in the life of th e ideal Laoist, by ascribing to it a foun
d atio n al ro le in the cosm os, as in the origin* sayin g s (see pp.
2 0 5 -2 1 3 ). O th er wcosmicwsayings frequently use th e form ula X wei
Vien h sia Y, is the Y of the W orld" (as in ^Stillness is th e Norm
of the W o rld /' 5[45]:4). This form ula probably draws on th e tradi
tion of the C hou Emperor* as one of the pillars of th e cosm ic order
(s e e 3 5 [3 9 ]:l) and the Laoist idea th at the ideal Laoist is the spiritu
al heir to th is role. See4[22]:4, 5[45]:4, 17[28]:1; 28[16]:5, 30[56]:5
( = 48[62]:7), 32[6]:2, 35[39]:1:13, 39[25]:4; 48[62]:1, 65[51]:2:2.
D e s ir e * . The target of one group of polemic aphorism s* is
reaching out for "desirable" things, especially material goods and
fame ( 2 l [ 1 2 ] :l, 1 8 [l3 ]:l-3 , 19[44]:1, 72[64]:7), and th in g s regard
ed as im provem ents* (20[46]:1, 43[1]:3, 76[80]). These desires are
not criticized primarily on m oral grounds, that is, as something
egotistical. R ather desire causes m ental agitation*, disturbing
mental S tilln ess* and co n ten tm en t, and because o f th is causes
social disharm ony. See 1 8 [1 3 ]:l-3 , 19[44]:1, 20[46]:1,2, 21[12]:1,
43[1]:3, 7 2 [6 4 ]:7 , 76[80], 79[3 ]:1 ,3 , and comments under Agita
tion*. Kii/desire also is a recurrent term with a som ewhat special
ized m eaning in Laoist thought. Yu is a negative term in 20[46]:2,
79[3]:1, 81 [37]:2, and wm yii/"not desiring" describes th e opposite,
ideal Laoist state o f mind in 43[1]:3, 64[34]:4, 72[64]:7, 77[57]:5,
78[19]:2, 7 9 [3 ]:1 ,3 # 81[37]:2. As w ith not working*, th is should
not be taken literally, as a ban on all desires. "Desire" is negative
when an d insofar as it interferes w ith Laoist goals. wA m bitiousw it.
yu yii/Mhaving desires^) is a positive term in 1[24]:4.
D oin g *. See Working*.
D w e llin g * . Several sayings use spatial imagery to describe
m aintaining a certain frame of m ind, as though there are several
mental "sp aces" where one can " d w e ll. For example, th e saying
^Achieves successes but does n o t dw ell in th em w (4 2 [2 ]:5 =
52[77]:3), seem s to envision a kind o f floating u\h th at can choose
whether or not to W dwell in w (identify with) external successes.
Similarly, 11[38]:7 speaks of ^residing inwtruly substantial person

The Tao of th e Tao Te Ching

al qualities ra th e r than in " th in " ex tern al show. See 1 [2 4 4 (=

67[31]:2), 4 2 [2 ] :3 ,5 , 67[3 1 ]:7 ,8 , 4 2 [ 2 ]
3 ,5 ( = 5 2 [ 7 7 ] :3 ) . Saying s
24[33]:3 a n d 7 2 [6 4 ]:7 also seem to en vision a mental "p la c e " one
should retu rn to or not leave. It is partly on the basis o f th is
imagery th a t I translate men/gate:dwelling as "abode" in 3 2 [6 ]:2
and 43[1]:5, w here others usually tran slate gate." Men seem s to
mean #/abodew rather than wgatew in a phrase found in th e C huang
Tzu wtake T ao as your men.,u S h ih * gathered around a teach er are
sometimes called men ;en/rthouse m e n /' that is, men o f th e m as
ter's house. T h e idea of a m ental wa b o d e wis frequent in th e N ei*
Yeh, although a different word is usually employed.
E m b r a c e * . A verb describing self-cultivation. See Use*.
E m peror*. T rad itional C h o u -d y n a sty ( 1 1 2 2 - 2 2 2 b . c .)
thought co n ceiv ed o f the Emperor as som eone representing in his
person the sy m b o lic Norm of th e W orld . This tradition is reflected
in the Tao Te C h in g (35[39]:1 an d 3 9 [2 5 ]:4 ), showing th a t, o n one
level, Laoists did n o t question this id ea. On another level, how ev
er, Laoists regarded the person well advanced in self-cultivation as
having the m o st valid spiritual claim to this symbolic norm ative
//cosmicwrole in Chinese culture, in contrast to actual co n tem p o
rary claim ants to th e wEmperorwtitle (see pp. 191 and 192). This is
the background for many phrases in Laoist sayings th a t im p licitly
evoke the sp iritu al role of Em peror as an image o f th e cu ltu ral
leadership role o n e deserves who is accomplished in Laoist self-
cultivation. Som e of these phrases, like rttake over th e w o rld w
(25[48] 3,4) p ro b a b ly refer on a literal level to the a m b itio n s o f
the heads o f various Chinese states to reunite the Em pire under
their leadership. From the early fo u rth century onward, th e title
of wan /Em peror began to be claim ed by many rulers o f feudal
territo ries,15 an d accordingly I tra n s la te wang as wk in g .w T h e
Emperor im age is evoked by phrases in 4[22]:4, 17[28] 1, 1 8 [13]:4,
2S[48]:3,4, 2 8 [1 6 ]:5 , 55[66]:1, 5 7 [6 8 ]:2 , 75[78 :4, 77[57]:1.
E m p ty * . T h is is one d e sig n a tio n of the qu ality o f m in d
Laoists cu ltiv ate in themselves, con veyed by three C h in e se syn
onyms cW ung, hsii, and wa. H s u / e m p t y has the c o n n o ta tio n
"worthless," as c a n be seen in 4 [2 2 ]:7 , "Is this an em pty sayin g? I
believe th is n e g a tiv e c o n n o ta tio n o f Emptiness is im p o r ta n t
throughout. It refers to our ten d ency to experience qualities th a t
are not socially admiredthis includes the most im portant q u ali
ties for Laoists as somehow lackin g full reality. They feel like
nothing*, a w ord with similar m ean in g s in the Tao Te C hing. See
4[22]:2, 5 [4 5 ]:1 , 16[5]:2, 28[16]:1, 3 1 [4 ]:1 , 36[42]:3, an d "v a ca n t

Topical Glossary

Valley^ in 6 [1 5 ] 2. The opposite word, ym^/fullness connotes a

solidly felt, substantial presence in th e world; for exam ple, 6[15]:4
characterizes "cautious, timid, h esitan t" ideal men as not fu ll.
Because th e English word full does n ot have these connotations, I
translate yin g as wsolid.wSolid occurs in this m eaning in 4[22] 2;
5[45] 1, 6 [1 5 ] 4, 31[4]1. See also Appearances*.
E t iq u e t t e * , See Confucian*.
E x c e lle n t * , Sftfln/good:excellent is very com m on in Chinese,
m eaning b o th "morally good, and "competent "good a t " ,).
Like th e E n glish word good it is a Mgenericwconcept; th at is, it
refers to som eth in g the speaker approves of, although different
people have different ideas about what actually is Mg ood.;, Shan is
used very frequently in the T ao Te Ching to refer to th e ideal
Laoist way of being. In several passages it seems to refer to a very
high degree of Laoist wgoodness;,; for example 49[27]:3-4 speaks of
the Taoist teach er as a shan je n / g o o d manwand his pupil as a pu-
shan je n / ^ n o t good man.w It is unlikely that th e la tte r phrase
means a "no-good man"; it m eans rather one who is n o t highly
advanced in goodness like th e teach er: hence my tran slation
Excellent m a n and not excellent m a n . This understanding of
the w ord is supported by th re e other passages (2 2 [5 0 ] 3,
4 9 [2 7 ]:l-3 ; 61[54]:1), which attribute wonderful and quasi-magi-
cal effects to actions done "E xcellently. Saying 7 [8 ]:i describes
the im p o r ta n t Taoist ideal o f low ness as high E x ce lle n ce .
S h a n /E x c e lle n t occurs with th is m eaning in 6 [1 5 ] 1, 7 [8 ] l t2 t
8[81]:1, 2 2 [5 0 ] :3 , 4 2 7 ]:1 ,2 ,3 ,4 , 5 5 [ 6 6 ] :1 ,5 8 [7 3 ]:5 , 6 1 [5 4 ]:1 ,
F e m in in ity * , One designation o f the quality o f m ind Laoists
cultivate, conveyed by the synonym s p'in and tz'u. The parallel
with Mdisgracefulwin 17[28]1 makes it clear that th is convention
ally was considered a negative characteristic, in the m ale-dom i
nated society o f ancient China. See also Mencius's16 disparaging
comparison of other shih to w om en the point being th at th e role
of women is to be compliant, but the role of shih is to stand up
against bad rulers, which these sh ih failed to do. The C hu an g* Tzu
occasionally m entions17 women students and one w om an teach
er, but otherw ise I know of no evidence suggesting th a t th e Laoist
valuing of Femininity led them to advocate upgrading the social
position of women. See 17[28]:1; 27[10]:1# 32[6]:1#2# 56[61]:2.
F o r c in g * . C h'ian g/force is a negative term in 3 3 [5 5 ] 4,
69[30]:1,4, and 36[42]:6 (translated "violent" in this last passage).
Ch'iang also m eans whard, s tro n g /' th e opposite o f L ao ist wSoft-

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

ness" in 7 3 [3 6 ] :2 ; 7 4 [7 6 ]:1 ,2 ,3 ,4 ; 75[78]:1,2_ C /i'fflr^/stren g th is

used in a p ositive sense in 24[33]:1; 2 9 [52]:5; 6[15]:2; a n d 3 9 [2 5 ]:2 .
F r a m in g * . I believe that som etim es the composers, instead
of juxtaposing closely related sayings, will try to unify th e ir ch ap
ter collages b y placing closely related sayings at the b eg in n in g and
the end o f a collage, or before and after other material, "fram in g "
these in te rv e n in g sayings. M eth o d o lo g ically , su p p ort fo r this
hypothesis a b o u t com p osition e n ta ils making a d is tin c tio n
between (a) th o se passages th a t ca n b e used as evidence th e com
posers used th is device, and (b ) th o s e passages th a t p ro b a b ly
ought to be construed this way, o n c e o n e has discovered evidence
for the presence o f this device by m ean s o f examples o f type (a).18
Accordingly, I use three rough d istin ctio n s in grouping exam ples
of this device h ere: (a) clear exam ples, where the con sciou s use of
this device w ould seem the m ost likely explanation o f th e text,
even if we looked at each example in isolation; (b) p robable exam
ples where, in isolated exam ination o f each, the presence o f the
device would seem somewhat likely; and (c) examples w here we
would n ot k now whether this device was being used consciously
if we did n o t already know it was in com m on use elsew here in
this book, (T h ese are rough and relative distinctions, o f course.
Clear m eans ^relatively clear.w) W h ere there are easily m en tion ed
catchword co n n ectio n s between sectio n s, I indicate th is in paren
theses in th e listin g given here, (a) 4[22]:1 and 7; 7[8]:1 and 3
(con tend ); 2 2 [ 5 0 ] :2 and 4 (d e a th spot); 2 3 [2 6 ]:1 a n d 3
(agitated/root/m aster); 28[16]:1 and 3:1 (Stillness); 3 1 [4 ]:2 and 4;
65[51]:1 a n d 3; 76[80]:2 and 4. (b) 9[79]:1 and 4 (g o o d );
11[38]:12 an d 4 (Te); 29[52]:2 and 6 (turn back); 32[6]:1 and 3 -4 ;
4 4 [4 1 ]:l-2 an d 4 (Tao); 48[62]:1 and 5 -6 (Tao), 2 an d 6 - 7 (trea
sure); 5 0 [5 3 ]:2 and 6 (display/boast), 1 -3 and 6 (Tao); 5 8 [ 7 3 ] :l- 3
and 6 (H eaven); 63[32]:1 and 3; 6 7 [31]:1 and 4 (weapons), 3 and
l t 6 and 8; 7 2 [6 4 ]:4 -5 and 8 (n o t working); 7 9 [3 ]:1 and 3
(wise/clever), 2 and 4 (govern); 8 0 [ 6 5 ] :l- 3 and 5. (c) 6 [1 5 ]:1 and 5
(beyond-understanding/concealed); 14[23]:1 and 4; 3 5 [3 9 ]:1 and
3, 2 and 4 ; 4 3 [1 ]:1 and 4 (n am es), 3 and 5 (hidden essen ces);
59[58]:1 a n d 4 ; 60[49]:1 and 3.
G et*, A verb describing self-cultivation. See Use*.
G ood *. See Confucian*.
H a r m o n y * . One designation o f th e quality o f m in d Laoists
cultivate. In 3 3 [55]:2, the ideal m ental quality of /io/H arm ony is
illustrated by th e image of the wharm oniousw working of bodily
forces that allow s an infant to "scream all day without becom in g

Topical Glossary

hoarse/' A felt internal organic* harm ony probably is meant, a

state in w h ic h all the forces o f o n e's being seem to be working
smoothly to geth er, rather than at odds with each other. /fo/Har-
mony is a s so c ia te d with m e n ta l Steadiness* an d C larity * in
33[55]:3, a n d w ith Emptiness* in 36[42]:3. In 30[56]:3 (= 31[4]:3);
/ao/harmonize is used as a verb in th e phrase "make th e flashings
h arm on ious, th a t is, sm ooth o u t those things exp erien ced as
exciting o r ja rr in g about th e w o rld . See 30[56]:3 (= 3 1 [4 ]:3 );
3 3 [5 5 ]:2 ,3 , 3 6 [4 2 ] :3 . See also 5/iM r?/harmony:subm ission in
H eaven *. In Chou-dynasty th ou g h t, t'ie/Heaven was a gen
eral name for th e highest divinity, sometimes pictured as a person-
al being and som etim es as an im personal principle or force similar
to our Fate. Traditional religious beliefs like this play n o central role
in the th o u g h t o f Laoists (or th a t o f m ost other contem porary sW/a,
who in th is resp ect resemble m odern secular "in tellectu als."19) At
times som e traditional ideas associated with Heaven are indirectly
alluded to or in voked in the T a o T e Ching, but th is is always to
make som e o th e r point, not to te a ch some Laoist doctrin es about
Heaven. T h e re are none, as show s in th e contradictory notion s
invoked a t tim e s (for exam ple, 1 6 [5 ]:1 and 5 8 [7 3 ]:3 con trad ict
9[79]:4 a n d 8 [8 1 ]:4 .) Heaven is som etim es pictured as a cosmic
principle or fo rce sometimes alongside "Earthw(e.g. 10[7]:1), or
the Emperor (2 8 [1 6 :5, 39[25]:4). The phrase "Heaven's Tao/W ay"
is a c o n v e n tio n a l designation o f " th e right way," w h ich Laoists
sometimes use to describe th e Laoist way. Heaven's W ay occurs in
2[9]:2, 8 [8 1 ]:4 , 9[79]:4, 41[47]:1, 5 2 [7 7 ]:1 , 58[73]:5. O th er occur
rences o f H eaven are 3[67]:4, 1 0 [7 ]:1 , 14[23]:2; 16[5]:1,2, 26[59]:1;
27 [1 0 ]:1 , 2 8 [ 1 6 ] :5 , 32[6]:2, 3 9 [ 2 5 :1,4, 4 8 [6 2 ]:5 , 5 7 [6 8 ]:2 ,
58[73]:3,6, 6 3 [3 2 ]:2 . T ien h sia /a H e a v e n under"' is th e n orm al Chi
nese e x p re s sio n fo r wthe w o rld ,w u su ally meaning th e C hinese
H u rt*. Laoists stress the way th a t an impressive* and strict*
ruler is felt b y th e people as som eone trying to put th em to shame
by co m p ariso n and so is exp erien ced as burdensome and "h u rt
ful," sp a rk in g resentm ent. T h is th e m e is explicit in 4 6 [3 5 ]:1 ,
55[66]:3, 5 9 [5 8 ]:4 , 81[37]:2, and im p licit in 54[17):1, 6 0 [49]:3.
H y p o s ta tiz e * . To hypostatize som ething is to speak o f it as
thougii it w ere an independent en tity or force. "T h e w eather is
acting strangely todaywis an hypostatization of the w eather. "Let
the m usic flow through your fin g e rs" is an h yp ostatization of
music. "I got in touch with m y an g er" or "a wave o f anger came

The Tao of th e T ao Te Ching

over m e" is a n hypostatization o f anger. I believe th a t Laoists

hypostatized th e quality o f m in d th e y cultivated, fo r in sta n ce
speaking o f "b rin g in g about Stillness*" as a mental state o r quali
ty, but also o f Stillness* as an in d ep en d en t force that is " th e Norm
o f the W orldw (5[45]:4). Among o th er indications like th is, form u
las borrow ed from speculation a b o u t the ^conquest c y c le w also
support th e th esis that Laoists assim ilated the internal "energies"
they cultivated Softness, Fem ininity, and Stillness to th e hypo-
statized e n e rg ie s, or hsing/dgents, th a t others20 used to explain
physical a n d psychological p h en o m en a, (See further u nder C on
quest*.) I b eliev e Tao, The M oth er, a n d The One T h in g are hypo-
statizations o f th is quality of m in d as well. Hypostatization is part
of the Laoist im agin al and linguistic style. In my view th e T ao Te
Ching makes n o attempt to develop a system of d octrines about
Tao as an in d e p e n d en t en tity (see pp. 207-213). C o m p are the
h y p o s ta tiz a tio n o f W isdom in th e biblical books o f P roverbs
(Chapters 1 a n d 8), Sirach (1 and 24) and Wisdom o f S olom on (6-9).
Im p r e s s iv e * . The target o f one group of polemic aphorism s*
is the ten d ency o f rulers to p ro ject an impressive presence, inspir
ing awe in th e ir people, for exam p le, by speaking to th em in a
haughty m a n n e r (55[66]:2) or b y insisting on recognition o f their
privileged statu s by imposing h ig h taxes and setting aside royal
lands where peasants cannot live (53[72]:2). But for Laoists, even
the C on fu cian * ruler who strives to impress people w ith his high
moral q u alities (16[5]:1) is a ruler trying to emphasize the way
that he p e rso n a lly stands o u t o v e r against the "o rd in a ry " and
inferior m asses. This polarization ruins the organic* h a rm o n y of
society and causes people to resent th e ruler (54[17]:1) as burden
some and tirin g (55[66]:3, 5 3 [7 2 ]:2 ); hurting* them b y m aking
them feel in ferior. He is som eone engaging in personal a n d quar
relsome co n te n tio n * for social status, provoking his su b jects to
contend/quarrel w ith him to defend their own sense o f w orth. He
thus loses th e respect and co o p eratio n of the people, a cen tral
basis for so cia l order. The ideal organic* social h arm o n y en v i
sioned by Laoists includes the cen tral figure of the ruler as sym bol
ic norm setting th e tone for the society, on the model o f th e tradi-
tional Chou Emperor*. Organic h arm o n y for them still depends
on the alleg ian ce and cooperation that the people "n atu rally *"
and spontaneously accord to a true ruler. (See Graham 's en light
ening remarks21 on ''hierarchic anarchism ^ in ancient C h in a.) But
for them the preeminent characteristic of a true naler is th at, in
his style o f ruling, he strives m ightily not to stand out. In transac

Topical Glossary

tions w ith h is subjects, he adopts th e manner o f o n e lower in

social sta n d in g th an they ( 5 5 [ 6 6 ] :l- 2 , 35[39]:2). He works hard
and co m p eten tly at adm inistration, but keeps such a low profile
that his w ork goes unnoticed and people think good order came
about sp on tan eou sly (54[17]:3, 81[37]:3). He quietly nips in the
bud bad so cia l tendencies (7 2 [6 4 ] l - 2 ) or defeats his opposition
by indirect an d nonconfrontational tactics (73[36]:1), so he will
not be fo rced in to dramatic personal confrontations. He has no
principles th at stand in opposition to the general character of his
society (6 0 [4 9 ]:1 ). What he stands for and what he tries to foster
and draw out is just the ideal goodness incipiently in h eren t in the
way social groups spontaneously tend to structure their relation
ships to each o th er (72[64]:8). T his kind of goodness radiates from
his person an d his style of g ov ern in g , as extrem ely su btle but
powerful T e*, setting a tone and producing a perfectly harmo
nious and prosperous society. (This Te is not a substitute for effec
tive adm inistrative work, law enforcem ent, and so on, but radiates
from th e style in which the ideal ruler carries out these routine
tasks.) S a y in g s directly ta rg e tin g th e "im pressive ru ler are
35[39]:2, 3 6 [4 2 ] :5 , 46[35]:1, 5 3 [7 2 :1 , 54[17:1,3, 5 5 [6 6
59[58]:4:5. S ectio n 5 of the tran slation groups together chapters
that center o n criticism of th e impressive ruler or propose con
trasting Laoist ideals. See also S trict* and Hurt*. Like all wadvice
for rulersw th e se sayings are in ten d ed both (a) for sh ih * in the
Laoist sch o o l, advising them o n how to conduct them selves as
administrators; and (b) for top rulers whom Laoist shih would like
to advise. See further on this under 78[19].
I m p r o v e m e n t s * . Some p o le m ic aphorisms* are directed
against p ro g ra m s proposed by o th e r shih* schools d esigned to
introduce w h a t Laoists see as fundam ental changes in the "natu
ral*" social order. Such fundam ental "improvements include the
use of ("M o h is t* utilitarian ratio n ality in deciding governm ent
policy and encouraging this kind of rationality among th e people
(7 9 [ 3 ]:l-2 , 8 0 [ 6 5 ] :l- 3 ) . They in clu d e the program o f rectifying
nam es' "carvin g up" implicit o rgan ic* social norms in to codified
legal p re scrip tio n s (63[32]:3, 7 7 [ 5 7 ] :3 :l - 2 and 4). T h ey include
deliberate attem p ts to provide in cen tiv es for am bitious people to
educate th e m s e lv e s and im p rove th e ir adm inistrative or work
skills, th ereb y improving public administration and general living
standards (7 9 [ 3 ]:l-2 , 7 8 [1 9 ]:l:5 -6 , 77[57]:3:5-6). Even the Confu-
cian program o f trying to spread consciously conceived "virtues"
among th e people is looked upon b y Laoists as an attem pt to fun
The Tao erf the Tao Te Ching

dam entally alter and rep lace people's organic, wnatural*wgoodness

(7 8 [ 1 9 ]:l:l- 4 ). In Laoist eyes, these programs spread to the society
th o s e very things they struggle against personally in themselves in
th e ir self-cultivation p ractice. They bring ab o u t a general populace
full o f disquieting desires* destructive o f social harm ony, conduct
ing personal and p u b lic business under th e g u id an ce o f rational-
conceptu al (naming*) knowledge and replacing th eir natural good-
n ess w ith th e artificial appearances* o f v irtu e. Laoists explicitly
acknow led ge (8 0 [6 5 ]:5 , 3 6 [4 2 ]:2 ) that p eo p le le ft to themselves
o fte n w ill want to p ro ceed in this wim provingw direction, destruc
tive o f th e wnaturalwo rg an ic* harmony o f so ciety th at the (wconser-
v a tiv e w) Laoist administrator-advisor wants so m uch to protect and
foster. Sometimes th erefo re he must set h im self win opposition to
th ings'" (80[65]:5). T h is o f course also is a dilem m a for the Laoist
adm inistrator, who w ould like as much as possible to let the m ind
o f th e people be his m in d (60[49]:1) and avo id confrontation with
th e people. The basic Laoist solution u\will restrain them with th e
N am eless Ones S im p lic ity caus[ing] th e m n o disgrace[then]
th e y will be Still*.;, (8 1 [3 7 ]:2 ) P'w/simplicity: /#Uncarved* Blodcwis a
nam e for the quality o f m in d the Laoist cu ltiv ates, which governs
the style in which he ru les and therefore th e to n e he sets for his
society. These "im p rovin g" trends must be opposed, but the hope
is th at this can be d one in a manner that th e people will not feel as
a hum iliation, so that it will result in a Still* people, content with a
sim p le life (76[80], 7 7 [5 7 ]:5 , 79[3]:2-3). N ot w orking* also is a com
m on term used for a style o f ruling that does n o t try to overM
(or allow others to work over, 79[3]:3) the society by implementing
^ im p ro v e m e n ts/' b u t tr ie s to m ain tain its o rg a n ic harmony
(7 2 [6 4 ]:8 ). Lacist th o u g h t o n th is subject is co n tain e d mainly in
ch ap ters in Section 7, "A g ain st Disquieting Im provem ents." See
th e sayings in 6 2 [2 9 ]:1 , 7 6 [8 0 ]:2 ,3 ,4 ,5 ,6 , 7 7 [5 7 ]:3 ,4 ,5 , 78[19]:1,
7 9 [3 ]:1 ,2 ,8 0 [6 5 ]:1 ,2 ,3 .
In fa n t * - A frequently recurring m etaph orical* image repre
s e n tin g one aspect o f th e state of m in d L ao ists cultivate. See
1 3 [2 0 ]:4 , 17 28]:1, 2 7 [1 0 ]:1 , 33[55]:1,2, 74[76]:1.
In s tr u c tio n * Instructive is one kind o f th ru st Laoist sayings
have, th e other two m ajo r kinds being p o lem ic (see Aphoristic*)
and celebratory. Besides th o se instructive sayings listed under Med
it a t io n * and N orm ative* an o th er small g rou p o f sayings give
in stru ctio n in Laoist self-cultivation, ty p ically by using several
favorite Laoist terms o r phrases: See 28[16]:1;2, 29[52]:4, 71[63] 1
7 2 [6 4 ]:7 , 78[19]:2:4*5.

Topical Glossary

L a o is t* . A term o f convenience I use, following Graham,22

fo r the thought o f th e T a o Te Ching and th e shih* sdiool out of
w h ic h it arose, to d istin g u ish it from o th e r ancient and later
form s o f Taoism. See p. 1 9 5 and Chuang* Tzu.
L a s tin g * . Som e passages speak o f la stin g as a benefit* of
L a o is t s e lf-c u ltiv a tio n . S u ch lastin g is co n trasted with th e
wexhaustingw effects o f agitated*, short-lived excitem ent In co n
trast to this, Laoists exp erienced the FeminineVStilP/Empty* state
o f m in d as an in e x h a u stib le source o f energy (32[6]:4, 16[5]:2).
See 10[7]:1, 1 4 [2 3 ]:2 , 1 9 [4 4 ]:5 ; 24[33]:3, 2 6 [5 9 ]:3 ,4 , 28[16]:5:6,
3 2 [6 ]:4 , 33[55]:5 (= 6 9 [3 0 ]:5 ) 61[54]:2, and Agitation*. Chapters
2 4 [3 3 ]:3 and 32[6] suggest th a t some Laoists m ay have extrapolat
ed from this e x p e rie n c e to an exp ectatio n o f surviving death
(w h ich became a m a jo r g oal in some later T a o ist movements).23 I
b elieve a utilitarian in terp retatio n of this th em e in the T ao Te
C h in g is mistaken, h ow ever: Lasting is one am ong many utopian
"m arvelous benefits*" o n e m ight hope fo r fro m Laoist self-cultiva-
tio n in its perfection, n o t th e main purpose for undertaking it.
L earn in g *. See C o n fucian*.
L ife * . S h en g /lifeiliv in g has a negative sense in 51[75]:l-2 and
2 2 [5 j : l - 2 ; referring to th e high living o f th e wlife-loving aristoc
racy , which wears th e m o u t. Attempts by o th ers to "increase
shenglv\t^\\\Y by d irect m editation* tech n iqu es is also criticized
in 33[55]:4. But "fo sterin g shen g/life Excellently*wdesaibes a posi
tive Laoist goal in 2 2 [5 0 ]:3 . And 38[21]:2 and 33[55]:2 m ention
c h i n g energy;, as som eth in g Laoists cultivatein 33[55]:2
th is is exemplified in th e vitality of a young infant*, an image o f
positive, Sofi* "life" also in 74[76]:l-2. See Graham 's discussion24
o f th e close relation b etw een the etym ologically cognate sheng/life
and [hum an] n a tu r e " and th e use o f both words by
Yangists* expressing th e ir concern to keep life/nature in tact"
L in k * , One g en re o f Laoist sayings celebrates the way th at
cultivating one q u ality o f m ind is linked to th e achievement of
o th er qualities as w ell. For example, "Experiencing Steadiness* is
C larity*" (28[16]:3:4.) See also 29[52]:5 3 3 [5 5 ]:3 , 36[42]:3.
L o w *. H s ia ^ [ b e i n g ] low " is a term u sed frequently to
describe one aspect o f th e Laoist ideal. It describes a deferential
m ann er in dealing w ith others, as well as a m ore general willing
ness to accept being o n e w h o m others look dow n uponthe c o n
sequence sometimes o f cultivating qualities and practicing a Tao*
th a t is not impressive. T h is is different from W estern "humility
if hum ility is understood to reflect an acceptance o f one's place as

T h e Tao of the Tao Te Ching

so m e o n e n ot very im p o r ta n t or deserving. T h e cultivation o f

L aoist lowness o n th e contrary gives o n e th e spiritual status o f
Em peror*, ''Norm o f th e W orld." Laoists h o p ed th at people would
actu ally feel the subtle greatness of the "lo w n ess" they cultivated
and would want to m ake such a low person th e leader he deserves
to b e. See 3S[39]:2, 5 5 [6 6 ]:1 ,2 , 5 6 [61]:1,2,3,4,6, 57[68]:1. (Lowness
is im plied ako in 7[8]:1 an d 63[32]:4.) H s ia /lo w is also used som e
tim es in its ordinary n egative sense to d esig n ate som ething o f
in ferio r quality, tran slated wpoorestwin 1 1 [3 8 ]:1 and 44[41]:1. A
related word is hsiao/sm all:insignificant, also used sometimes in
its usual negative sen se referring to som eone o f wsm allMworth or
sig n ifica n ce (for e x a m p le , 3[67]:1:6), bu t a lso sometimes used
paradoxically to ch aracterize "great" Tao (for exam ple, 29[52]:5,
6 3 [3 2 ]:1 ; 64[34]:4).
M e d ita tio n * . T w o sayings, 27[10]:1 and 6[15]:3, are fairly
c le a r ly m editation in s tru c tio n , and th is is probably true o f
2 8 [ 1 6 ] :2 and 3 0 [ 5 6 ] :2 - 3 as well. T h e e n tir e ch ap ter collages
2 8 [1 6 ], 29[52], and 3 0 [5 6 ] probably have th is intention. (Saso
d escribes25 m editation practices of a m o d e rn Taiwanese Taoist
group th at appears to m e very similar to th o se suggested in th e
T a o T e Ching, M editation here of course does n o t m ean meditating
on som e ideas, but introspective exercises a im e d at changing th e
q u ality o f consciousness.) I believe four o th e r sayings (30[56]:4,
3 7 [1 4 ]:3 -4 , 38[21]:2, 4 6 [3 5 ]:3 ) describe th e experience o f trying to
m e n ta lly grasp the elu siv e quality of m in d Laoists cultivated.
T h ese follow a sayings fo rm common in th e N et* Yeh as well. Say
in g 39[25]:1 may represent a vision seen at m editation. The m en
tio n o f ^Heaven's G atew in 27[10]:1 may in d icate that Laoists, like
o th er Taoists represented in t e C/wwmx Tz integrated into their
m e d ita tio n practice e le m e n ts of earlier C h in e s e sham anism ,
in v o lv in g mental "s p irit journeys." The fo llo w in g passage from
th e C huang Tzu illustrates this. I have slig h tly revised W atson's
tran slation here, and in serted asterisks to h ig h lig h t the connec
tio n o f the overall sp irit journey theme w ith th e achievement o f
m e n ta l qualities cultivated by Laoists:

T h e Extreme o f P e rfe c t Tao* is m y s te rio u s and hushed in

silence. Let there b e n o seeing, no hearing; em brace* the spirit
in Stillness* and th e Form 26 will becom e co rrect by itself. You
m ust be Still*, you m ust be pure. Do n o t lab o u r your Form, do
n o t churn up your vital energy [ching], and th e n you can live a
lo n g life. W hen th e eye does not see, th e ear does not hear,

Topical Glossary

and the mind does n o t know, then your spirit will watch* over
th e Form. W ith th is Form will com e long-lasting* life. Be cau
tious of what is inside; block off what is outside.... Then I will
lead you up above th e Great Clarity*, to th e source of Perfect
Yang; I will guide you through the Dark and Mysterious Gate,
to the source o f th e Perfect I w a tch * over this O n e*
Thing, so as to reside in this H arm ony*.... So I will take leave
o f youto enter th e abode of the Inexhaustible and wander in
the limitless fields, to form a triad with th e light of the sun and
moon, to partake in th e Steadiness* o f H eaven and Earth.27

M ejjciu s*. M e n c iu s was a C o n fu cia n * sh ih * teacher (c.

3 7 0 -3 0 0 b .c .) know n to us from a large b o o k bearing his n am e
(but probably written by his pupils) con sistin g mainly of stories
about him and lectures given by him. This b o o k is the principal
contemporary source I rely on for understanding the social posi
tio n of Warring S ta tes' 5 /71/7 teachers an d th e nature o f s h ih -
M erging*. O ne n am e for the m en tal state or quality th a t
Laoists cultivate, occurring in 30[56]:3 and 4 3 [l]:4 -5 . See discus
sion in 30[56]:3, and th e occurrence of t'un^/M ergingin the q u o te
from th eC h u an g T zu p. 211.
M e t a p h o r ic a l* I m a g e s . Some sayings use images, m o stly
nature images like t h e behavior of water, as metaphors illustrating
som e particular Laoist idea or combination o f ideas. Sayings in this
genre are often taken28 as an indication that Laoists strove to "im i
ta te nature/' giving th e mistaken im pression th a t they first n eu
trally observed nature and then formulated hum an ideads based on
this objective inquiry. T h e selection of images represented makes it
clear that the opposite is th e case: Laoists first formed ideals based
o n th eir own values and perspective, and th e n selected n atural
phenom ena that could serve as metaphorical images for these ide
als. (The projection o f th eir ideals onto nature o f course resulted in
a world-view felt to b e "in accord with n atu re" so perceived) It is
n otew orth y th at in 6 9 [3 0 ]:5 and 1 4 [2 3 ]:2 , n atu ral phenom ena
serve as negative images o f what is to b e avoided. And on the other
hand, not all the im ages used are taken from nature; for example,
th e image of a gentlem an traveling in a caravan (23[26]:2), and th e
im ages of awheel, a p o t, and windows and doors (15[11]:1). See
7 [8 ]:1 , 10[7]:1, 1 4 [2 3 ]:2 , 15[11]:1, 16[5]:2, 2 3 [2 6 ]:2 , 3 3 [5 5 ]:1 ,2 ,
3 3 [5 5 ]:5 (= 6 9 [30]:5), 4 4 [4 1 ]:3 :5 -8 , 4 7 [4 3 ]:1 , 52[77]:1, 5 5 [6 6 ]:1 ,
56[61]:1, 63[32]:4, 7 4 [7 6 ]:1 3 / 75[78]:1.

T he Tao of the Tao Te Ching

M oh ists*. Follow ers o f a shih* teacher, M o Tzu (c. 4 8 0 -3 9 0

B -C .). According to G ra h a m 29 and Sch w artz,30 M ohist political
th o u g h t was based larg ely on utilitarian ratio n ality ; that is, ana
ly zin g situations in term s o f conscious goals and calculating the
m e a n s best suited to a ch ie v e these g o a ls. M o h ists were also
a m o n g the few a n cie n t C hinese who reflected systematically o n
qu estions of formal lo g ic.31 Mohist or M oh ist-like thought is prob
a b ly o n e o f the ta rg e ts o f Laoist polem ic ap h o rism s* against
Im provem ents* and N am in g*.
M orality *. See C on fu cian *.
M o th er*. M w/M other is one hyp ostatization * of the quality
o f m in d Laoists cu ltiv ate. T h is partly reflects th e them e that th is
qu ality is envisioned as th e origin* (wM otherw) o f the world. But as
th e origin image conveys the idea o f som eth ing fundamental, this
wM o th e rwone cultivates internally is also ca lled th e Mother o f th e
S tate, th at is, the fo u n d a tio n o f Chinese cu ltu re (26[59]:3). (The
idea th a t Laoists found a foundation for th e ir th ou g ht in the phys
ical universe, as opposed to human culture, in m y view is a m is-
take.) Mother is also related to the idea th a t th e hypostatized quali
ty cultivated is in tern ally nourishing (1 3 [2 0 ]:5 ) and Feminine* (a
co n tra st with the c h a lle n g in g Father Gods c e n tra l to many reli
g ions). See 13[20]:5, 2 6 [5 9 ]:3 , 29[5 2 ]:l-2 , 3 9 [2 5 ]:1 , 43[1]:2.
N am in g *. For Laoists, m ing/nam ing is generally a negative
term referring to the use o f conscious co n cep ts to try to under
stand the world. Laoists may have lumped togeth er several differ
e n t groups here: Som e early Chinese wSop histsw who concerned
th em selves with lo g ic were later labeled th e School o f N am es.32
Som e Mohists* were also concerned with logic, and they may be
included here. ^Legalist^33 thinkers, who advocated written codifi
ca tio n o f customary law , m ay be the target o f Laoist criticism o f
n a m in g in 63[32] 3. In clu d ed , finally, is th e program advocated
by some Confucians* called rectifying nam es attem pts to fix social
n orm s by carefully d efin in g moral terms.34 Such nam ing "cuts up
th e Uncarved* Block" (63[32]:3); that is, tru e norm ative goodness
perceived through unconceptualized experience.
In my view, unconceptualized here only refers to the absence o f
conscious and explicit co n cep ts. Unconceptualized experience does not
m e a n perception o f "'o b jectiv e raw d a ta /' co m p letely uninflu
en ced even in an im plicit way by cultural in flu en ces and subjec
tive concerns. A m u ltitud e o f implicit cu ltu ral assumptions, and
personal rancerns and values, entered in to w h at Laoists consid
ered a wtrue understanding*Mof the world, (I o fte n in these pages

Topical Glossary

try to make explicit assum ptions and concerns they left im plicit,
see especially co m m en ts under Organic* harmony.) This is why
(contrary to Hansen35) it is perfectly consistent for Laoists (a) to
reject some convention / evaiuative nam ing, and (b) to reject the
em phasis placed o n exp licit conceptual nam ing by other shih*, and
yet also (c) clearly to do som e evaluative "n am in g " themselves, as
w h en they name som e attitudes Soft (good) and others hard/forc-
in g * (bad). The focu s o f Laoist thought rem ain s however on an
unconceptualized "sta te o f mincT and th e experience one has o f
th e world when in th is state o f mind. "N am es" like Softness only
partially describe a state of mind which would be destroyed if one
th ou g ht of sayings ab o u t Softness as a set o f "truths^ to be under
stood intellectually and deliberately "applied" to life.
This is also why Laoists are so "in con sisten t" in their use of
wordsverbal con sisten cy is important only to one whose world
view is centered o n a conceptualized doctrinal system. (See com
m e n ts on s h e n /s e lf in 1 0 [7 ], on sh en g /y v isd o m in 78[19], on
yw/desire p. 2 2 5 , c/7ffln$/strong:forcing pp. 227 and 2 4 3 ,
t Jien/H eaven p. 2 2 9 , sh en g /life p. 233, h s ia /lo w p. 234. M ing/nam e
its e lf has a positive use in 43[1]:1, 41[47]:3, and 38[21]:3; in the
la st passage Tao's " n a m e " stands positively for its power.) See
com m ents on Laoist Mconsistency/' pp. 2 0 2 , 2 0 4 , 213, and further
discussion under Understanding*.
Criticism o f co n cep tu al naming is related to criticism o f self-
assured knowledge o f norm s and the laws th at govern ev en ts
(5 8 [7 3 ]:l-3 , 59[58]:2, 62[29]:3). Passages critical o f "naming, or
presenting namelessness or wordlessness as an ideal, are 4 2 [2 ]:l-4 ,
4 3 [1 1 :1 and 4, 4 7 [ 4 3 ] :2 , 63[32]:3, 7 7 [ 5 7 ] :3 :l - 2 and 7 7 [5 7 ]:4 .
"Namelessness as a characteristic of Laoist T a o occurs in 37[14]:3,
3 9 [2 5 ]:2 , 43[1:1 ,2 , 4 4 [4 1 ]:4 , 63[32]:1, 8 1 [3 7 ]:2 . It is relevant to
th is last usage that m in g /n a m e can also m ean wfame, reputation"
(for example, 19 [44]:1:1).
N atu ral*. Being wnaturalwis a modern ideal that bears som e
sim ilarity to a central Laoist ideal. Modern thou ght on this topic,
however, has been greatly affected by the co n cep t o f nature devel
oped in modem scien ce: T h e idea that wN atureMis what we learn
ab o u t through o b jective and impersonal scientific research and is
th e only solid fo u n d atio n for true knowledge o f any kind T his
leads, for example, to a quest to discover h u m an "nature as it
would be apart from th e overlay o f any particular "culture. Such
assumptions and co n cern s are foreign to Laoist thought I believe
th e concept o f ^organic harmony^ comes closer to tiie aspect o f

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

th e Laoist ideal often called naturalness. (See Organic* harmony.)

"N atu ralness" as o rg a n ic harm ony (a) assu m es normal hum an
acculturation and (b) is an ideal state th at m u st be worked at and
cultivated, not som eth in g th a t happens by itself. See Graham o n
wn a tu re w in other s h ih * schools.36 T h e o n ly term in the Tao T e
C h in g th at comes clo se to our word natural is tzu-jan, (lit wself-
lik e " ), occurring in 1 4 [2 3 :1 , 54[17
:3 , 7 2 [6 4 ] :8 , 6 5 [5 l
:2, and
3 9 [2 5 ]4 (translated in th e last passage ^things as th ey arew).
N e i* Yeh. W d-FeW Inw ard Training" is th e name o f Chapter
4 9 o f an ancient an th o lo g y o f miscellaneous material called the
K u an Tzu. The Nei Yeh probably dates from th e fou rth century b . c .
an d is a valuable source o f information abo u t early self-cultivation
and meditation practices in China.37 M any sayings in it are simi
lar in form or co n ten t to sayings in the T ao T e Ching, including
sayings using the word T ao* to refer to an hypostatized* quality o f
m in d that one cultivates o n e such saying is qu o ted under Tao*.
N o rm a tiv e* D e s c r ip tio n . Some instru ction al* sayings give a
n orm ativ e description o f what one is like w h o embodies Laoist
Tao or Te. The m ain th ru s t o f such sayings is to specify what true
Laoist Tao/Te consists in , by describing ways o f being or acting
expressive of these qu alities. They function in effect as definitions
o f L aoist ,,o rth o p raxy .,/ See 6[15]:4, 9 [7 9 ]:3 , 2 0 [46]:1, 3 l [ 4 ] :l ,
3 4 [4 0 ]:1 , 37[14]:6# 6 0 [4 9 ]:2 , 64[34]:1, 69[30]:1, 80[65]:1.
N o th in g *. One d esig n atio n of th e qu ality o f mind Laoists
cultivate. On my view, "N oth in g wu or wm yu), and its contrast
,#b ein g Mneed to be interpreted not philosophically, but experien-
tially . This is evident in passages like 4 7 [4 3 ] 1, where wu yu/wnon-
b e in g parallels "S o ftn ess" as a description o f a style of personal
interaction. That is, it refers to a very subtle influ ence one person
has on another, an in flu en ce th at feels like ''n oth in g^ because it is
so in d irect and in ta n g ib le . Thus the co n tra stin g pair N othing/
b ein g is very similar in m eaning to the pair Empty*/solid. Nothing
refers to a quality of m in d in 1 5 [ ll] :l- 2 , 3 4 [4 0 ]:2 # and 47[43]:1.
O n e T hin g*. O n e n a m e for the h y p o statized * quality o f
m in d Laoists cultivate. The Tao Te Ching gives little clue as to the
co n n o ta tio n s o f y //O ne. I tentatively tra n sla te yi as wThe O ne
T h in g /' based partly o n a passage in th e D o ctrin e o f the M ean
(2 0 /8 -1 8 ) that speaks o f "n in e standard rules," "five duties," and
" th r e e virtues/' and says th a t the key to all o f these is yi7"one
th in g " apparently referring to genuineness" (20/18), a central
fo cu s o f self-cultivation in th e Doctrine o f th e M ean. A possible
c o n n e c tio n betw een 3 5 [3 9 ]:1 and 3 5 [3 9 ]:3 m ay suggest th a t

Topical Glossary

yi/O ne there refers to a single feeling th at seems to pervade th e

universe when o n e is in an ideal state o f m in d (see further co m
m e n ts on 35[39]). T h e con trast with wdividedw in 27[10]:1 sug
gests th a ty i m ight also describe a unified state o f mind, as opposed
t o one o f inner c o n flic t. (Compare th e m en tal quality or state
d escrib ed in 37 [ 1 4 ] i n w hich e v e ry th in g blends and w ei
yf/"becom es o n e.w) y7/"O ne Thing occurs in 4[22 :4, 2 7 [1 0
3 5 [3 9 ]:1 , 36[42]:1.
O racle*, The Yi C hing, an ancient C hinese divination m anu
al, sometimes uses a form ula exemplified in , wN ot acting the rob
ber [but] intent o n m arriage, in the end [there will be] no fault
[wu yiu].U3S Some Laoist sayings seem to borrow this woraclew for
m ula, as for exam ple 7[8]:3, wDo not contend , then [there will be]
n o fault [wu yiu\/f T h e c h ie f implication o f this observation for
interpretation is th a t n o specific im portance should be given to
th e phrases no fault, n o trouble, and so on in sayings using this for
m ula. These phrases are m erely conventional ways of designating
som ething as wluckyan action or event th a t will bring good for-
tu n e . See 7[8]:3, 1 3 [2 0 ]:1 , 19[44]:3,4 (= 6 3 [3 2 ]:3 :4 ), 28[16]:6 (=
2 9 [52]:3), 50[53]:2.
O rganic*. The Laoist view of the world is remarkably unified
(4 5 [70]:1), but this u n ity is suggested and "performed" (p. 204)
rather than exp licitly spelled out. Among m y own attempts to
spell out explicitly th e single thing that Laoists value most, form
in g the basis for th e Laoist perspective on th e world, the concept I
have found most satisfactory overall is that of "organic harmony.w
Organic harmony in a social group is exem plified in the case of
a harmonious fam ily or a group of friends or coworkers who have
b een together for a lo n g tim e. In such cases th e unity and harmony
of th e group is o rg a n ic ," a spontaneous and integral part of the
way members in s tin c tiv e ly relate to each o th e r. The identities,
roles, and modes o f relating have been formed in th e context o f this
group, hence it is n o t a question of trying to im pose unity and orga
n iz a tio n from w ith o u t, on a group of iso lated and independent
individuals. O rganic" social harmony and organization stands in
contrast to organization th a t results from form ulating a conscious
p la n as to how each p erson in the group should acta plan th a t
n eed s then to be co n scio u sly and deliberately implemented. It is
also opposed to th a t k in d o f organization th a t happens when one
dominating person, "'standing outwfrom th e organic group, im pos
es his ideals, his plans and his will on the others. This kind of organ
ic harmony is the u nderlying value m otivating the Laoist attitude

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

tow ard ruling. (See Im pressive*, Strict*, F o rcin g *, Im provem ents'

an d Sections 5 -7 o f th e translation and com m entary.)
O ne can also speak, by analogy, o f an "o rg an ic harm ony"
w ith in a persons b e in g . This might be (a) an organic harm ony
characterizing a person's "personality" she h as developed a kind
o f goodness arising fro m a unique, organic integration of all th e
g o o d potentialities o f h er own being. Sh e d oes n o t let certain per
son al qualities "stan d o u tw and ruin this h a rm o n y , merely because
th ese qualities m ake h e r "stand out" socially in th e admiration o f
h e r fellows. Nor is sh e try in g to live up to so m e ideals consciously
co n ce iv e d in her m in d as intellectual c o n v ic tio n s , which sh e
w orks*" to directly im p o se on her bein g. T h is kind of organic
h arm o n y is the value th a t motivates th e L ao ist attitude toward
p erso n a l character fo rm a tio n and in te r a c tio n w ith peers. (See
Appearances*, Self-P rom otion*, and S ectio n 1 o f th e translation
a n d commentary.)
Organic harm ony m ig h t also characterize (b) a personas psy-
chobiological being: All th e parts and forces o f her psychobiologi-
cal makeup work h arm on iou sly and h ealth ily together. This kind
o f organic harmony is disrupted when so m eth in g external, stand
ing o u t" in contrast to everyday life, ^'exdtes^ o n e's being, stirs it
up to move in one particular direction. T h e strain this places o n
o n e's being as a w h o le is m anifest in the fact th a t an excited state
c a n n o t last a lo n g tim e; eventually the tug o f o th e r parts of one's
b ein g pulls everything b ack toward an in tern ally balanced, hom e
o sta tic state. This k in d of organic harm ony is th e value m otivat
ing th e Laoist attitude tow ard m ental-physical health. (See Agita-
tio n * , Desire*, S tilln ess*, and Section 2 o f th e translation and
com m entary.)
Finally, organic h a rm o n y might ch aracterize (c) one;s c o n
scio u s awareness of th e w orld as a whole perceived by a partici
pan t concerned w ith and involved in the o n g o in g processes of th e
w orld. This kind o f organic harmony is disrupted by attempts to
replace holistic experience with clear, con sciou s concepts, stand
ing o u t in contrast to unreflective experience, as the main way of
grasping reality and d irectin g one's dealings w ith the world The
reality that abstract con cep tu al thcxight ca n capture is only pale
and partial compared to th e richness of th e w orld perceived holis
tically . This kind o f o rgan ic harmony is th e v alu e motivating th e
L ao ist attitude toward attem pts to u n d erstan d th e world, (See
Understanding*, N am ing*, and the first four ch ap ters in Section 4
o f th e translation.)

Topical Glossary

In all these cases, organ ic harmony tends to be a taken-for-

granted "background," against which certain things stand out as a
"foreground" in our awareness, a phenom enon to which modern
G e sta lt psychology ca lls attention. Laoists emphasize the w ay
attending to and d evelop ing this out-standing foreground causes
us to neglect, and also dam age, the taken-for-granted background,
w h ich is a necessary sustaining basis (a wM oth er*w) for our person
al and social life. A lthou gh it needs to arise from within, organic
h arm on y does n o t alw ays and necessarily co m e about of its own
accord. The high lev el o f organic harmony Laoists desire must be
cultivated, but this ca n o n ly be done indirectly. For example, cu l
tivating organic h a rm o n y in one's psychobiological being is pri
m arily a matter o f cu ltiv atin g a deep Stillness* th a t is a prime con-
dftion fostering the h arm o n io u s integration and functioning o f all
parts of our being. H ence, Stillness is the kind o f thing Laoist say
ings explicitly speak about, because these sayings are centered on
th e practice o f self-cultivation and use rhetorical devices to induce
th e attitudes they ad v o cate. Laoists did n o t develop an explicit
con cep t o f organic h a rm o n y because they had n o interest in a th e
oretical explication o f th eir values such as I attem pt here.
O rigins*. Som e sayings celebrate* the cosm ic importance of
Tao by picturing it as a cosm ic origin. This genre, important but
difficult for us m oderns to understand, is discussed at length pp.
2 0 7 - 2 1 3 . See 2 9 [ 5 2 ] :1 , 3 1 [4 ]:2 , 3 2 [6 ]:2 , 3 4 [4 0 ]:2 , 3 5 [3 9 ]:1 ,
3 6[42]:1, 39[25]:1, 4 3 [1 ]:2 , 65[51]:1,3.
S elf-p ro m o tio n .'*1 T h e target of a large group of polem ic
aphorism s* is the ten d en cy o f people to try to achieve recognition
by direct and co n scio u s "boasting" efforts to impress others as
som eo n e who stands o u t above others. This must have been a
co m m o n tendency a m o n g shih* anxious to draw attention to
th em selves to fu rth er th e ir careers. These sayings offer several
closely related im ages to counter this tendency: There is first th e
negative image o f th e self-defeating show-off w h o turns off other
p eo p le by obvious self-p rom o tio n (for exam p le, 1[24]:2). And
th e re are several c o n tra s tin g positive im ages: (a) the image of
attractive self-effacem ent th a t wins adm iration from others on
th is basis (like 4[22]:5); (b) the image o f th e competent and suc
cessfu l shih who does n o t treat success prim arily as a means to
en h an ce his own prestige (like 42[2]:5) (c) th e image of the shih
in office who works selflessly for the good o f others in society
rather than com peting w ith others for higher personal status (like
7[8]:1, 8[81]:3); (d) th e im age o f the person, selfless and secure in

T he Tao erf the Tao Te Ching

him self, who can be generous to others even w hen they do n o t

reciprocate (9[79]:3, 6 0 [4 9 ]:2 ); (e) the im age representing a hyper
bo lic extreme of th is, th e person willing to accep t the lowest posi
t io n in society ( 7 [ 8 ] 1 ), an d wfaII like a s to n e in to o b liv io n w
(35[39]:4). One m ust n o t turn the aphoristic* thou ght here in to a
literal rule against seeking promotions o f an y k in d In my view,
Laoists wanted to in flu en ce their society from positions of highest
leadership and h en ce m u st have wanted u ltim ately to "get p ro
m o ted to high g ov ern m en t posts. And on th e other hand, a utili-
tarian interpretation o f Laoist thought here probably also is m is
taken the view th a t self-effacem ent is m erely a tactic adopted to
further egotistic a m b itio n . Being self-effacing is part of a certain
posture and style" o f relating to the w orld th a t Laoists value for
its own sake (see pp. 2 1 3 -2 1 4 ). Their hope is th a t th e true hidden
w o rth of the good b u t self-effacing p e rso n w ill subtly sh in e
th rou gh and win p u blic admiration and in flu en ce. Sayings on th is
to p ic rtsublimatewth e desire o f shih for rep u tatio n and influence,
substituting the subtle ideal of attractive self-effacem ent for th e
crass ideal of aggressive self-assertion. See fu rth er comments under
Appearances*. See 1 [2 4 ]:2 , 2[9]:2, 3[67]:2, 4 [2 2 ]:5 ,6 (= 55[66]:4),
6[1 5 ]:2 , 7[8]:1,3, 9 [7 9 ]:3 , 10[7]:1,2,3, 1 8 [13]:4, 27[10]:2, 35[39]:4,
4 2 [2 ] :5 , 50[53]:2, 5 2 [ 7 7 ] :3 , 5 3 [72]:3, 6 2 [ 2 9 ] :4 , 64[34 :3 ,5 (=
71[63]:5), 65[51]:4, 6 9 [3 0 ]:3 .
S h ift*. Some passages reflect an experience in which a shift
in o n e 's state of m ind cau ses a shift also in th e world as perceived.
The Chuang* Tzu has a g o o d example o f th is (quoted more fully p.
2 1 1 ), which I believe also illum inates 2 8 [1 6 ] :2 : "Be blank and
soulless, and the te n th ou san d things one by o n e will return to
th e ro o t/' That is, o n e first experiences th e w orld as a place o f
bewildering m ultiplicity- As one manages to clear ("blank") one's
m in d , one begins to experience the world differently, as though
th is multiplicity springs from a single root. See also 30[56]:3 (=
3 1 [4 ]:3 ), 42[2]:1, and com m ents on origin* sayings, pp. 207-213.
S h ih *. The nam e o f th e social class to w h ich the authors of
th e Tao Te Ching p ro b ab ly belonged, discussed in pp. 1 9 1 -1 9 5 .
T h e word shih occurs in 6[15]:1, 44[41]:1# an d 57[68]:1 (in the last
passage it means "so ld ie r).
S o ft n e s s / W e a k n e s s .* /ow/Softness a n d / / Weakness o fte n
o ccu r together as d escrip tiv e terms referrin g to th e quality o f
m in d Laoists cultivate (th e opposite o f ch^an^/hardrstrongrforc-
in g). This quality is a k in d of energy one can cultivate internally
(2 7 [1 0 ]:1 # 74[76]:1). But th is quality of m in d also expresses itself

Topical Glossary

in a certain "Soft," n o n confrontational way of dealing with the

world. Judo, the n am e of a Japanese martial art, is taken from the
Chinese jou-T ao/^Soft W a y /' and 73[36] m akes it clear that, like
ju d o , ^Softness^ d escribes a n on con frontation al style by w hich
one hopes to defeat opponents when necessary. /o/Weakness is
n o t of course to be taken literally. It is a term with ordinarily neg
ative connotations th a t refers paradoxically to a positive quality
(w h ich can also be d escribed as an in n e r c h ,ia n g /stren g th l
2 9 [5 2 ]:5 ). See 2 7 [ 1 0 ] :1 ; 2 9 [5 2 ]:5 ; 3 3 [5 5 ]:2 ; 3 4 [4 0 ]:1 ; 4 7 [4 3 ]:1 ;
7 3 [3 6 ]:2 ; 74[76]:lf2 f3 f4 f 75[78]:1;2. See also Forcing*.
SoZiJify' See Em pty*.
S tea d y *, Hen /Steadiness39 is another descriptive name for
th e quality of mind L aoists cultivate. Som e translate heng as ^eter-
n a l / ; but I think this m istakenly evokes th e concerns of Hindu
and Greek thinkers to grasp eternal m etaphysical truths. Laoism is
m ore practically orien ted , so I believe th is term refers to a co n
cretely felt steadiness o f m ind, able to rem ain centered in itself in
th e midst o f disturbing and distracting events in the world. (Men-
ciu s*40 uses heng to describe the ^steady^ m in d of a good s hi h* f
able to keep his in tegrity even in the face of strong pressures from
d iffic u lt life situ a tio n s.) See 28[16]:3; 4 ; 2 9 [5 2 ]:7 , 33[55]:3. In
4 3 [1 ]:1 and 17[28]:1 h en g serves as an adjective desaibing wtrue##
T ao/T e on which one can always rely as an unchanging internal
standard. In these passages I translate ^in varian t/' Heng also h as a
very common use m ea n in g "always, in variably ." In this use, it
som etim es has a very w eak sense as an introductory (43[1]:3,
6 4 [3 4 ]:4 , 80[65]:4) or concluding (42[2]:2) particle, a usage com
m o n in the Nei* Y eh41 as well. (This is im portant in 43[1]:3, where
com m entators often m istakenly emphasize this word.)
Still*. CWn /S tilln ess is another descriptive term referring to
th e quality of m ind Laoists cultivate. Stilling a "stirred up" m ind
is a goal of m editation in 6[15]:3. Mental Stillness is contrasted
w ith "agitation" in 2 3 [2 6 ]:1 and 5[45]:3, and w ith tso/activity in
2 8 [ 1 6 ] :2 - 3 and 8 1 [ 3 7 ] :2 . See 5 [4 5 ]:3 ,4 , 6 [1 5 ]:3 , 2 3 [2 6 ]:1 ,
2 8 [1 6 ]:l-3 , 56[61]:2, 7 7 [5 7 ]:5 , 81[37]:2. C hing also means wpure.w
S trict*. A target of som e polemic aphorism s* is the ideal of
th e ruler as a model and enforcer of strict m oral norms. Laoists
dislike the co n fro n tation al, "hurting" stance such a ruler takes
toward his people and reject his underlying assumption that he
has full and certain understanding* of th e norm s that ought to be
enforced (5 8 [7 3 ]:l-3, 5 9 [5 8 ]:2 ; 62[29]:3). Som e passages pose the
counterimage of a ruler w ho actually does enforce h i^ i standards,

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

b u t does so in a tactfu l and nonconfrontational way that does n o t

m ake the people feel h u rt (for example, 5 5 [6 6 ]:3 :3 , and see Hurt*.
C h a p ter 58[73] m akes it clear that literally n o t enforcing laws is
n o t th e issue: a wS o ftwstyle o f law en fo rcem en t is the ideal). Also
relev ant here is (a) th e counterimage suggested in 60[49]:1: th e
ruler w ho imposes standards that are ju st an idealized version o f
th e organic* harm ony already inherent in th e society. And o n e
should also consider (b) th e kind of understanding* Laoists take as
th e ir ideal: They r e je c t t h e use o f c o n c e p ts th a t incline us to
im pose fixed standard categories on fluid a n d always different sit
uations. The direct experience on which th ey rely instead is better
able to adapt itself to new and unique circum stances. These seem
to be the positive ideals underlying several o th er, highly exagger
ated counterim ages: T h e ruler who sim p ly ''d rifts" to and fro
(64[34]:1), who is like a prostitute devoid o f standards (56[61]:1),
w h o appears wdull an d incom petent 5 9 [5 8 ]:1 ), and keeps his
m in d muddled 6 0 [4 9 ]:3 ). See further discussion under Impres-
sive*. S ee5 6 [6 1 ]:l, 5 8 [7 3 ]:5 ; 59[58]:1,4, 6 0 [4 9 ]:1 ;3 ;4, 64[34]:1.
S u p erstitiou s*. Som e situations m ake people uneasy for not
q u ite rational reasons: Th in gs have been g o in g to o well too long,
som eone is getting m u ch too rich m uch to o easily, a pridefully
self-assertive person is stepping all over other people with impuni
ty so far; someone is introducing radical ch an g es in a very stable
traditional com m unity, an d so forth. The kind o f uneasy expecta
tion we have in such circum stances that som eth ing bad is going
to happen for n ot q u ite accountable reasons th is is what I call in
th e commentary a quasi-superstitious feeling. Such a feeling under
lies m an y Laoist sayings, especially those against war and violence
grouped together at th e beginning of Section 6 . Part o f this feeling
is due to Chinese ideas about the close co n n ectio n between prop
er ruling and good order in the world o f nature. (A passage from
th e M o Tzu42 describes som e of the effects o f a bad ruler: wPhan-
to m women came o u t after dark...a w om an turned into a m an,
fle s h rained down fro m heaven, b ram b les grew on the state
r o a d s . See further c o m m e n ts at 70[60].) "Q uasi-superstitious
Laoist sayings are h alf rationalized, in th a t (a) things said to bring
m isfortune are always th in g s rejected on th e basis of Laoist values
expressed elsewhere; a n d (b) ttiere is a c o n tin u ity between th e
Laoist world-view and th e general sense o f th in g s which underlies
"superstitious" t h in k in g : hat is, in b o th cases the underlying
sense is that there is a certain natural* way th e world runs, and
th in g s that appear stran g e, novel, or in d iv id u ally self-assertive

Topical Glossary

against this background are felt to be vaguely ^dangerous/' Self-

assertive people actin g w ith hubris put them selves in a Mprecari-
ousw situation. See 1 [2 4 ]:4 (=67[31]:2), 19[44]:2, 36[42]:6, 66[74]:2,
67[31]:1,2,6, 6 9 [3 0 ]:2 -3 , 70[60]:2, 77[57]:3. See also Oracle*.
T a k e -o ff* . S o m e tim e s the com poser o f a chapter seems to
q u o te a saying n ot fo r its o w n sake, bu t sim ply to use as a take-off
p o in t for some o th e r co m m en t he w ants to make. See 9[79]:1,
25 [4 8 ]:1 :1 , 34[40]:2:1, 4 0 [7 1 ]:1 :1 , 58[73]:1, 66[74]:1:1, 77[57]:1. In
2 9 [5 2 ]:2 and 8 1 [37]:3 th e composer's co m m en ts reverse the point
o f a Laoist saying co m m e n te d on.
T a o * . Along w ith T e ^ Tao is the predom inant term Laoists
use to refer to th e hypostatized* quality o f m ind they cultivate,
and these two term s give th e book its n am e.43 Tao has a variety o f
m eanings in the T a o T e Ching, due partly I believe to the fact th at
th e meaning o f the term had not yet been systematized Som e
tim es Tao is used in a w ay common to an cien t Chinese generally,
and sometimes it is used in a way more specific to Laoism. Its
m ain uses in the T a o T e C hing can be summarized under the fol
lowing three points:
(a) The basic m ea n in g o f tao is Mroad, w ay,wand its most basic
m etaphorical m ean in g is best captured in th e English phrase th e
right way. Tao was a g en eric concept, d esignatin g something th a t
th e speaker regards as n orm ative, but th e c o n te n t fluctuated as
th e re was no g e n eral ag reem en t am ong a n c ie n t Chinese abo u t
w h at exactly is th e rig h t way of doing things. Like others, Laoists
use T ao to mean th eir version of wthe true W ay w(the phrase uthis
T a o w [6[15]:4] im p licitly recognizes there are others). Tao can also
refer to teflc/zing about th e right way, and "assisting people's rulers
w ith Taow(69[30]:1) describes the activity o f a shih* counselor giv
in g advice to rulers on th e right way of gov ern in g . Because th e
L aoist way does n o t c o n s is t o f a set o f rules, " th e right way" for
th e m was a kind o f in te rn a l spirit that expresses itself in a certain
style of relating to th e w orld (see p. 2 1 4 ). T h is is the connection
b etw een this m eaning an d th e meanings in (b) and (c) that follow.
(b) For some sh ih involved in self-cultivation, Tao is an hypo-
statizatio n * of the sp irit or quality of m in d o n e is cultivating
internally. The follow ing passage from the N et* Yeh illustrates this

Tao is w h a t perfects the [m inds] Form,

But men c a n n o t make it stand fast.
[Sometimes] it goes and does n o t return,

T h e Tao of the Tao Te Ching

[Sometimes] it comes and does n o t stay...

Tao has n o [fixed] place.
It will p eacefully settle in a good m ind.
Tlie m in d still, the c h T right,
Then T ao can stay.44

In a similar fashion, 4 4 [4 1 ]:4 and 14[2 3 ]:3 in th e Tao Te C hing

sp eak o f Tao as b e in g a "supporting or w elcom ing internal
presence. This hypostatization o f Tao paved th e way for picturing
it as a cosmic* force, th e origin* o f the world (see pp. 207-213).
(c) Although o th e r sch o o ls also ca ll th e ir W ay Tao, T aoists
seem somewhat unique in taking it as th e predom inant summary
reference to the quality o f m ind they cultivate, and particularly in
tak in g it as the distinctive nam e that describes th e ir self-cultivation
p ro ject in contrast to th a t o f others. Thus 2 5 [4 8 ]:1 contrasts wdoing
ao with "doing [C o n fu cian ] Learning," a co n trast Confucians
would not have agreed to .4S In accord w ith th is, Tao seems in some
sayin gs to be a sh o rth a n d designation for L aoist self-cultivation
its e lf, as in ll [ 3 8 ] :6 , wForeknowledge is th e flow er o f Tao [= o n e
result o f Laoist self-cultivation]" or 34[4 ] : l , Turning back is T ao
m ov em en t [= the in te rn a l m ovem ent ch aracteristic of Laoist self-
c u ltiv a tio n ]/' See also 3 7 [1 4 ]:6 . Related to th is is an wadjectivalM
u s e o f Tfloin 69[30]:5: T h e seasonal flourishing and dying of plants
is used as a metaphor for short-lived human excitem ent, and this is
called un-Tao-ish"46 it is an image o f th e lack o f Tao as a mental
q u a lity or spirit th a t L aoists cultivate in te rn a lly , which is som e
th in g steady and la s tin g . See 1[24]:3, 6 [1 5 ]:4 , 7[8]:1, 11[38]:4;6 ;
1 2 [1 8 ]:1 , 14[23]:3, 2 0 [4 6 ]:1 , 25[48]:1, 2 8 [1 6 ]:5 , 31[4]:1, 33[55] 5,
3 4 [4 0 ] :1 , 3 6 [4 2 ]:1 , 3 7 [ 1 4 ] :5 ,6 , 3 8 [2 1 ]:1 ,2 , 3 9 [2 5 ]:2 ,4 , 4 3 [1 ]:1 ,
4 4 [4 1 ]:1 ,2 ,4 , 46 [3 5]:2, 48[6 2 ]:1 ,5 ,6 , 52[77]:2, 63[32]:1,4, 64[34]:1,
6 5 [ 5 11:1,23, 69[3 ] : l ,5 , 70[60]:2, 80[65]:1, 8 1 [3 7 ]:1 .1 translate T ao
as "W a y ," in 2 [9 ]:2 , 9 [7 9 ] :4 , 26[59]:4, 4 1 [4 7 ] :1 , 5 0 [5 3 ]:1 ,3 ,6 ,
5 2 [7 7 ]:1 , 58[73]:5. See a ls o Heaven's W ay u n d e r Heaven*.
T e*, rtVirtuew is a rough equivalent for th e Chinese word te,
if we include the older m eaning o f "virtuew h ich also referred to
th e powers of som ething or someone em anating from their innate
character (as when M edieval people spoke o f th e ,,virtues,/ o f cer
ta in herbs or gems). Like th e Greek word for virtue, arete, and th e
L a tin virtus, te had an early stage in w h ic h the meaning o f
"p ow er" was em phasized in this case it is perhaps closest to what
we now call personal charism a." But during th e Warring States
period it took on a m ore ethical coloring. Thus Mencius* uses te

Topical Glossary

often as a general w ord referring to good character. Like Tao*, te

w as in this period a g e n e ric word, w hose co n ten t could vary,
according to varying conceptions of what "good character" con-
sists in. This is why Laoists can use th e word as a summary desig
n ation for their co n cep tio n of the highest kind of human good
ness, sometimes hypostatized* as a quasi-independent energy or
force that one "a ccu m u lates" internally th rou gh self-cultivation
(26[59]) and that can be envisioned as a co sm ic force, the origin*
o f th e world (65[51]). Laoists probably liked th e word partly on
th e basis of its older connotations of ^power/charisma/' because
o f their emphasis on th e subtle but powerful influence that th e
ideal ruler or adm inistrator exerts on those under him (this m ean
ing is evident in 5 7[68] and 26[59]:2. See also the story of C h 'i
Tzu, included under th e to p ic This*).
Three passages (9 [7 9 ], 60[49]:2, 71[63]:3) em{iiasize the asso
ciation with Te as self-forgetting generosity, able to wbe good to
those who are not g o o d .w In 61[54]:2, Te refers to the good ch ar
a cter or spirit of larg er social units (fam ily, village, state). See
9 [7 9 ]:3 , 1 1 [3 8 ]:1 ,2 ; 4 ; 1 4 [2 3 ]:3 , 1 7 [2 8 ]:1 , 26[59]:2, 2 7 [1 0 ]:2 ,
3 3 [5 5 ]:1 , 3 8 [2 1 ] :1 ; 4 4 [4 1 ]:3 , 5 7 [6 8 ]:2 , 6 0 [4 9 ]:2 , 6 1 [5 4 ]:2 #
6 5 [5 1 ]:1 ,2 ;3;4, 7 0 [60]:4, 71[63]:3, 80[65]:4,5.
T eachin g*. Som e sayings reflect directly on what it is like to
b e a teacher in t h e L a o is t school, b o th th e difficulty o f th is
because of the subtlety an d unconventional nature o f the "word-
IessMTao one is try in g to teach and the supreme importance of
w h at one has to o ffer th e world. See 3 [6 7 ]:1 , 36[42]:6, 42[2]:3,
4 5 [7 0 ]:1 ,2 ,3 , 4 6 [ 3 5 ] :2 , 4 7 [43]:2, 4 8 [6 2 ] :4 ,5 , 4 9 [2 7 ]:3 ,4 ,5 ,
75 [7 8 ]:3 ,5 . Chapters d ealin g mainly w ith th is topic are grouped
together as the last six chapters in Section 4 o f my translation.
T h in g s .* W /th in g (s ), and w an w u /Mth e thousands o f
th in g s" are com m on phrases in the Tao Te Ching, with a meaning
I b elieve close to th e co lloq u ial use o f thin gs in English, as in
" d o n 't let things g et to y o u . PVm refers n ot only to individual
objects, but to m any o th er kinds of realities, as for example th e
reputation or in flu en ce o f a king (36[42]:5) or problem s a teacher
reso lv es (4 9 [2 7 ]:3 ). A lth o u g h som etim es th e "'thousands o f
th in g s are contrasted w ith "people" (for exam ple, 74[76]:1), very
o ften it is clear th a t wth in g sMor ^thousands o f things^ refers pri
m arily to people (3 6 [4 2 ]:2 , 80[65]:5, 81[37]:2.) Compare Mencius'
statem en t,47 ^[The rulers] correct them selves and ww/things are
co rrected Legge tra n sla te s "o m are co rrected ). This usage
probably reflects th e fact th a t Laoists look on th e world primarily

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

fro m the perspective o f th e ru ler-ad m in istrator: The world at

large consisting o f lands, crops, people, p o litical cohesion, social
tendencies, and so o n constitutes a held o f "th in g s" that it is his
jo b to manage well. W u/X hing can also m ean wsubstance/# as in
3 8 [2 1 ]:2 , where Tao is called a w/thing, inside of which there is
w k / " som eth ing s u b s ta n tia l. Finally, in 1 [2 4 ]:4 (= 6 7 [3 1 ]:2 )
wu/things refers to norm ative reality as seen from the Laoist per
sp ectiv ethe reality w ith w hich one's a c tio n s ought to be in
T h is * . I believe th e Laoist saying Leave 'th a t' aside, lay
h old o f ^this^ (1 1 [3 8 ]:8 = 21[12]:3 = 53[72]:4), uses this and th a t in
a sp ecial sense (n o t, as some th in k , to m ean simply wth e
form er...the latter^). T h e key to this saying's m eaning is found in
a passage where it is qu o ted in the Huai N an Tzu, a passage report
ing Confucius' co m m en ts on the case o f a ruler with such strong
T e * (invisible influence) th a t fishermen th rew b ack small fish o f a
size below the lim it he set even when no one was looking, merely
because they knew th a t he wanted them to .
How perfect is th e Te o f Ch'i Tzu. He causes m en to act even
in private as th o u g h th ere were going to be stern punishment
for any infraction. How did Ch;i Tzu achieve this? Confucius
said, u\ have h e a rd said, 'Sincerity in th is is [equivalent to]
enforcem ent in th a t.*" So Lao Tzu said, "Leave 'that" aside,
take hold o f 'th is ." 48
Huai Nan Tzu here takes this in both the C on fu cian and the Laoist
sayin g s to refer to th e cu ltivation o f Te in o n e's own person,
w hereas t/zat refers to attem pts to affect others by external means
(here, through p u n ish m en t). This is con firm ed by a variation of
the above Confucian saying that appears in th e Great Learning,49
w h ic h substitutes rtin sid e/o u tsid ew {chu n g/w ai) for ^this/that^
(^Sincerity on the c/iun^/inside [is equivalent to] enforcement on
th e wa//outsidew). T h is m eaning fits the co n te x t well in 11[38]:8
a n d 5 3 [7 2 ]:4 . I t h in k th e meaning is e x te n d e d somewhat in
2 1 [1 2 ]:3 , where th e parallel of wth is/th at,# w ith wbelly/eyew sug
g ests th a t th at refers to eye-catching th in g s wo u t there,# in th e
w orld, and refers to something truly satisfying internallyor
perhaps to the mind itself, in a state capable o f quiet satisfaction.
Three other sayings using this which need com m ent are those
u sin g the form ula, "H ow do I know ...? By th is " in 3 8 [2 1 ]:4 ,
6 1 [5 4 ]:4 , and 7 7 [5 7 ]:2 . My conjecture is th a t this formula is a
favorite Laoist reply to questions from others demanding reasons

Topical Glossary

or evidence supporting th eir opinions. T h e Laoist reply appeals

sim ply to this_ m eaning either (a) the reality right in front o f you,
intuitively understood and evaluated in th e right state of mind, or
(b) your mind itse lf, in a cultivated state able to understand*
things rightly by in tu itio n . The latter use o f this occurs in a pas
sage from the Kuan Tzu quoted by Waley: wW h at a man desires to
know is that (i.e. th e external world). But h is means o f knowing is
this (i.e. himself). How can he know that? O n ly by the perfection
of th is/r^
Turn b a c k * . This is one designation o f the activity of self-
cultivation, conveyed b y three words w ith sim ilar meanings, fan ,
kuei, and fu. Fan (3 9 [2 5 ]:3 , 34[40]:1) co n n o te s ''reversing direc-
tio n f, and is used in th e Mencius* to m ean introspective ^turning
in w ard /'51 M encius also uses fan p en /Hturn back to the ro ot#, to
m ean rtget back to fundam entals/'52 Kuei con notes rather wreturn-
ing h om e,t and is fo u n d in connection w ith self-cultivation in
4[22]:7, 17[28]:1, 2 8 [1 6 ]:2 , 29[52]:2. Two Laoist notions condition
th e meaning of this term in the Tao Te C hing: th e idea of an origi
nal and superior, ^n atural*" state of m ental Stillness* we ought to
^turn back to /' and the idea of an unfortunate human tendency
to becom e m entally activ e and direct en ergy outwardin th is
con text Laoist self-cultivation involves a "reversal, "turning back
to the place all others have gone on fro m #, (72[64]:7). See 4[22]:7,
1 7 [2 8 ]:1 , 2 8 [1 6 ]:2 ,3 , 2 9 [5 2 ]:2 ,6 , 3 4 [4 0
:1 , 3 7 [1 4 ]:3 , 3 9 [2 5 ]:3 ,
64 [3 4 ]:4 # 72[64]:7, 7 8 [19]:1, and comments on ^knowing to stop 1'
in 63[32].
U ncarved* B lo c k . P^/^Uncarved Block1' is one name for th e
quality of mind Laoists cultivate. P'w can also mean Simplicity
(see 81[37]:2 and 77[5 7 ]:5 ), but it is used in two passages in th e
T ao Te Ching th at th e n speak of ^cutting [it] up,w evoking th e
w ords concrete reference to a block of wood on a carver's shelf,
p rio r to its carving. For Laoists, this is an im age of n atural*
h um an goodness before it is "carved up in to socially determined
good and bad qu alities (1 7 [2 8 ]:l-2 ) or before rulers attem pt to
define it by n a m in g * it in definite legal rules (63[32 :3). The
M encius*5^ uses a sim ilar image, attributing to a rival shih* teacher
(K ao Tzu) th e idea th a t making a person's character Good and
R ight is like carving a b lo ck o f willow to m ake a cup or bowl.
(M encius also rejects th is model of self-cultivation, as im plying
th at cultivating virtue does violence to our nature.) Note that the
Laoist "Uncarved Block is not the same as a "bare human nature
completely uninfluenced by culture. In th e absence of the modern

T h e Tao of the Tao Te Ching

preoccu tion w ith bare objective reality" as opposed to hum an

cu ltu re (see Natural*), w e should assume th a t Laoists spoke of real
ity as th ey perceived it. N atural meant w h at feels natural, in co n
tra s t to what one feels socially imposed. P^u/^Uncarved Block^
occurs in 6[15]:2, 1 7 [2 8 ]:1 ,2 ; 63[32]:1, 7 7 [5 7 ]:5 # 78[19]:2; 81[37]:3.
See also Appearances*, N am ing*.
U n d e r s t a n d in g * . S o m e polemic a p h o rism s* are directed
ag ain st ideas o f o th er s h ih * about the righ t w ay to go about under
stand in g the world. T h e claim to have a superior understanding o f
th in g s was central to th e leadership role th a t sh ih * wanted to play
in th e ir society. B u t o f course what is p rim arily to be Munder-
sto o d Mhere are n ot th e abstract natures o f individual objects, but
sociop olitical situ ation s and forces; and to "understand" th ese
rig h tly meant to b e a b le to evaluate th e m w ell and propose an
analysis that would serve as a practical guide to dealing effectively
w ith problems. The targets o f Laoist criticism here are primarily
(a) th e em phasis o th e r s give to broad le a rn in g (8 [ 8 1 ]:l:5 -6 ,
4 1 [ 4 7 ] :l- 2 ) ; (b) em p h asis on conceptual "n a m in g *" ( 4 i[ 2 ] :l,2,
6 3 [3 2 ]:3 ); and (c) th e ir confidence based o n th is that they know
th e universal norms and laws governing every possible situation
(6 2 [2 9 ]:3 ; 5 8 [7 3 ]:l-3 # 5 9 [5 8 ]:2 ).
This kind of know ledge gives th e know er a sense of being in
possession o f som eth ing special, something m ore clear and more
valuable, ^standing o u tw against the unreflective perception of th e
w orld given in plain experience. But plain experience of the world
has a valuable rth o listicw characterin it th e world is directly per
ceived as an organic* w h o le in which th in g s are all interrelated
an d interpenetrate each other in subtle and com plex ways. This
perception is organic also in that the world perceived is directly
co lo red by the values, concerns, and feelings o f th e perceiver, w ho
is n o t a separate th e o re tica l observer. T h is h olistic character o f
unreflective experience is destroyed when o n e tries to relate to th e
w orld primarily through th e medium o f deliberately learned ideas
and conceptual categories. In addition, because th e reality of any
g iv en social situation ca n never be com pletely grasped by analyti
cal thought, a ruler-adm inistrator who acts o n th e basis of ratio
nal analysis runs th e danger o f neglecting som e important facets
o f th e situation th at th e categories of his th o u g h t are inadequate
to grasp.
Laoist shih* do n o t w an t to rely on plain conventional experi
e n c e situations h a v e a mysterious, deep a n d subtle dimension
(6 [1 5 ]:1 , 43[1]:3)/ w h ich th e conventional m inded cannot grasp.

Topical Glossary

B u t neither do th ey w an t to "improve on unreflective experience

b y developing rational-conceptual th ou ght. Th eir view is th a t th e
personal tran sform ation achieved in self-cultivation also causes a
sh ift* in the w orld as perceived, deepening th e organic wholeness
found in ordinary unreflective experience. To perceive the world in
th is new, ideal state o f m ind is to see th e tru th about events. O ne
im ag e for this: T h e "n o n d esirin g * m e n ta l abode in which o n e
n ow rests, w here all particulars are M erged* into an o rg an ic
w h o le ~ th is is the abode where the m/ao/#,hidden essentials^ o f sit
u ations reside (4 3 [1 ]:3 ,5 ). Another image: To get in touch with the
quality of mind Laoists cultivate is also to get in touch with a deep
er level of reality, th e source or foundation o f the true meaning of
even ts. Once you get in touch with this foundation, you under-
stand th e events ( 2 9 [ 5 2 ] :2 :l- 2 / 37[14]:6; 3 8 [2 1 ]:3 ; and see p. 211).
In th e absence o f an y other likeiy candidates for the "hidden
essence^ of situations th a t Laoists see, I th in k we ought to assume
th a t this is identical w ith the view of various situations expressed
b y Laoist p o lem ic ap h o rism s*. (See th e use of m iao/uh\dder\
essence" to refer to a "hid d en truth about how to view teacher-
student relationships in 49[27 :5.) See 4 [2 2 :3, 6[15:1, 8[81 :l:5 - 6 ,
2 9 [5 2 ]:2 :l-2 , 3 0 [5 6 ]:1 , 3 7 [1 4 :6, 38[21 :3 A 40[71 :1, 41[47 2,3,
4 2 [2 ]:1 ,2 ,4 , 4 3 [ 1 ] :1 - 5 , 5 8 [7 3 ]:l-3 , 5 9 [5 8 ]:2 , 61[54]:3, 6 2 [2 9 ]:3 ,
75[78]:3. See also N am in g* and com m ents o n the formula wHow
do I know t h is ? w u nder This*. C hap ters on this topic are
grouped together as th e first four chapters under Sectiai 4 o f the
translation. K n ow ledge is a negative term in 12[18]:1, 2 7 [10]:1,
78[19]:1, 79[3]:3, 8 0 [6 5 ]:2 ,3 / probably referring primarily to co n
ceptual (n am in g *) know ledge o th ers pride themselves on.
C/n7?/know:understand can also refer to direct experience o f som e
thing, as in ^c/nTi/experiencing Steadiness^ 28[16]:3.
U se*. Yung/use is one of several words to describe the action
o f cultivating or in tern alizin g certain internal qualities in self-cul
tivation. C ontem porary English terms better expressing the idea
m ig h t be practice, internalize, act in accord an ce with. In 46[35]:3,
^u sin g'V intern alizing th is quality is co n trasted with trying to
grasp it with o n e's m ind. See 17[28]:2, 3 1 [4 ]:1 ; 32[6]:4, 34[40]:1,
44[41]:1, 46[35]:3. O th er terms constituting a special vocabulary
re la te d to s e lf-c u ltiv a tio n are (a) 5/io/ww a tch overw (1 6 [5 ]:4 ,
17[2S ]:1, 2 8[16]:1, 2 9 [ 5 2 ] 2 and 5, 6 3 [3 2 ]:2 ; 81[37]:2, M encius
uses this term s im ila rly 54); (b)pfl /em b race (4[22]:4, 2 7 [1 0 1,
6 1 [5 4 ]:1 ; 78[19]:2 (see also ^embrace yang** 36[42]:2); (c) te/get
(29[52]:2/ 35[39]:1, 37[14]:1). See also Turn* back.

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

V alley *. An im age associated with th e ideal Laoist state o f

m in d in 6[15]:2, 1 7 [2 8 ]:1 , 32[6]:1 (see co m m en ts on 32[6]).
W ea kn ess*. See Softness*.
W ise Person^. Sheng je n r W is e Person#, is often used in co n
tem porary literature, to designate the very h ig h est human ideal.
(For example, M encius55 quotes Confucius as saying that being a
sh en g jen was beyond h is capacity.) W ise does n o t capture the full
m eaning of sheng, w h ich some translate wh oly w or wsaint.wSheng
jen figures in th e T a o T e C hing mainly in a standard formula th a t
th e composers use to in trod uce sayings.
W o rkin g *. W ei/w orking:doing is used o ften as a negative
term . It describes an attitu d e rather than an activity: The attitude
of one who thinks o f reality as inert raw m aterial on which to
im pose her plans and m ake her mark. All th e im portance is given
to her ideas and efforts and none to th e in n a te character of w hat
sh e is working on. T h e contrasting Laoist ideal, wu wei/wnot work-
ingw should not then b e taken literally. It also describes an a tti
tu d e, the attitude o p p o site that of the ''w ork er/' one who aims to
draw o u t the in h eren t goodness of what is given and who is will
ing to subordinate h erself to the demands o f th e material and th e
task, with subtle a tte n tio n and extreme care. See especially com
m e n ts on 71[63] and 7 2 [6 4 ], Work is used in this special sense in
ll [ 3 8 ] :2 - 3 , 2 5 [4 8 ]:1 ,2 ,3 A 27[10]:1, 4 1 [47]:3, 42[2]:3, 47[43]:1,2,
5 1 [7 5 ]:1 ,2 , 62[29]:1,2, 7 1 [6 3 ]72[64]:4,5,8, 7 7 [5 7 ]5, 79[3]:3,4,
8 1 [3 7 ]:1 . Some of th ese passages (like 7 1 [6 3 ]:1 ; 77[57]:1,5) use n o t
w ei but a somewhat synonym ous term, sh ih /serv e:w ork, com m on
ly used to refer to rtservicew in a government post. Working is used
predom inantly in sayings against "im p ro v em en ts*, but there is
also a tendency to apply this key term to o th e r areas of life as
w ell, like s e lf-c u ltiv a tio n (1 1 [3 8 ]:2 ,3 ); g a in in g knowledge
(41[47]:3), and even "w orkin g " at luxurious living (51[75]:2), Note
th a t wei/work is used in a positive sense, to refer to administrative
task s th e sh ih * o u g h t to undertake, in 8 [ 8 1 ] :3 ; 4 ; 27[10]:2 (=
5 2 [7 7 ]:3 , 65[51]:4), an d 72[64]:2,
Y an g * Chu. A shadow y figure who cam e to stand for an atti
tude probably com m on to many others in W arring States China
the rejection of g overnm ent service to care for one^s own personal
w ell being and peace o f m in d.56 The Laoist polem ic against men
tal agitation*, co n tain e d m ostly in Sectio n 2 o f my translation,
has something in co m m o n with the rtYangistw concern for peace
o f m ind. See further com m en ts under Life*. I believe 18[13]:1 is
probably a Yan^st saying wrdnterpretedw how ever by the Laoist

Topical Glossary

composer to fit w ith th e Laoist acceptance o f public service as an

Y in*. Som e th in k e rs in ancient C h in a were beginning to
develop schemes fo r categorizing forces in th e world. One o f these
schem es centered arou n d th e polar opposites, yin and yang (origi
nally terms m ean in g wshadyw and rtsu n n y /# respectively). Under
yin were grouped such things as fem ininity, darkness, passivity,
m oisture. Under y an g w ere grouped such things as m asculinity,
brightness, a ctio n , h e a t.57 Some later T a o ist groups advocated
deliberately trying to b a la n c e yin and yang, b u t Laoist aphoristic*
wisdom emphasizes cultivating yin qualities as opposed to yang
ones (see com m ents in 17[28]). The terms yin and yang occur only
o n ce in the T ao T e C hing, 36[42]:2.


How to Read This Book

1. See Hansen 1 9 8 3
52 n. 1.


1. Mair 1 9 9 0 : xi.
2. This was t h e p rin cip al m ean in g o f hermeneutics u n til
recently. Many th in k ers skeptical of this traditional goal now use
hermeneutics to refer to interpretive practice with different goals.
For my critique o f recen t skeptical herm en eu tics see LaFargue
1988b . For a b rie f h isto ry o f herm eneutics, see Mueller-Vollmer
(1988: 1-53) and for a longer account of recen t developments, see
Palmer (1969).
3. See, for exam p le, Hansen (1983: 1 -2 9 ) and Hall and Ames
(1 987: 1-9 and p assim ). I regret I th at I am n ot able to read or
co m m e n t on th e co n sid erab le body o f m odern Chinese and
Japanese scholarship o n th e Tao Te Ching,
4. This is a c e n tr a l principle p u t fo rth by by Friedrich
Schleiermacher, o n e o f th e pioneers o f m odern hermeneutics, in
th e new approach to interpreting C hristianity he introduced in
his 1801 Lectures on Religion.


1. On the m eaning o f hermeneutics, see th e Introduction p. xv

and note 2.

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

2. Tao and M ethod: A Reasoned A p p roach to the Tao te ching.

Forthcom ing from SUNY Press. I have developed other aspects of
a theory of herm eneutics in LaFargue 1 9 8 5 : 1 -9 , 206-217; 1988a;
3. See Baker and H acker 1980: 4 7 -7 9 .
4. Extant sources give us no reliable d irect accounts of th e
T a o Te C hinas origin . All attempts to discover this are based on
in d irect and frag m en tary evidence. C h an (1 9 6 3 : 3 5 -9 3 ) gives a
len gthy discussion o f th e m ain evidence an d traditional attem pts
to provide an a cco u n t of th e Tao Te Ching'% origin.
5. Hsu 1965. I am also grateful to Professor Hsu for his per
sonal help, co m m en tin g o n this aspect o f m y work.
6 . My heavy relian ce on the Mencius an d on th e Nei Yeh (see
p. 2 3 8 )in this b o o k d o es not represent an inform ed judgm ent
th a t other ancient works have little relevance to an interpretation
o f the Tao Te Ching. I am sure the opposite is th e case. After a cur
sory survey o f m an y su ch works early in m y research it seemed
th a t these two held th e m o st promise for th e kinds o f questions I
w an ted to ask, and I con cen trated the lim ited tim e I had on a sys
tem atic study o f th em .
7. The sim ilarities an d differences betw een medieval Euro
p ea n and ancient C h in e s e feudalism are discussed at length in
C reel 1970a: 3 1 7 -3 8 7 .
8 . Hsu 1965: 2 4 - 5 2 .

9. Ibid.: 89.
10. This is the term Hsu uses to describe this class, and th e
M encius uses the term th is way som etim es bu t not always. The
C hinese word shih has a somewhat broader usage in the Mencius
and other ancient C h in ese texts. Creel (1 9 7 0 a : 331-334) gives a
discussion of older usages.
11. Hsu 1965: 3 4 -3 7 , 5 1 -5 2 # 88-106.
12. This is true o f M encius, too, if we in terp ret cheng as /#nor-
m a tiv e , norm g iv in g '' in th e phrase Vien h s i a ch ih cheng wei,
"[sta n d s in then orm -g iv in g position o f th e w orld" (3B/2,3). This
is th e m eaning tra n sla to rs usually give to chen g in the Tao Te
C h in g . Many stories in th e Mencius (e.g. 2 B /2 , 5B/7) center o n
M encius's claim th a t h e is superior in status to all feudal "kings."


13. W atson 1 9 6 8 : 54. In the probably legendary story, th e

pupil is Yen Hui and th e teacher is C onfucius.
14. The C hun S hih chapter of the Shu C hing (Karlgren 1 9 5 0 :
5 9 -6 2 ) gives a g oo d p ictu re of this im p o rta n t and exalted role of
counselor, in w h at m ay be a genuine speech given by a very early
great counselor, th e Duke of Chou, later considered a m od el for
those aspiring to th is ro le. (See Creel 1970a: 71-80, and 453, n. 34.)
15. SeeM encius 5B /7,1.
16_ See p. 2 4 6 u nder "Te*_

17. The phrase /i>szw-1s /ieM/"self-cultivation occurs, for ex a m

ple, in 7A/1,3; 7 A /9 ,6; 7B /32,2. The last passage brings out th e
implied agricultural m etaphor of hsiu by comparing the ^cultiva-
tio n w of self to "w eed in g fields/' Hsiu also has a more g en eral
meaning of " r e p a ir , as in "repair the walls o f my h ou se, Xfencfus
4 B /3 U .
18. Analects 2 :4 .
19. 6B/14;4.
20. For the subsequ ent history o f Taoism , see the article "T ao
ism " in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
21. 1990: 11 8, 124. Creel also (1929: 47) once suggested the
term Laoism to refer to ancient Taoism in general.
22. For G raham 's view on how the T a o Te Ching came to be
attributed to "Lao Tzusee Graham 1990: 111-124. Chan (1 9 6 3 :
3 5 -5 9 ) gives a broad er survey of the evid ence and older discus
sions of this issue. Graham (1989: 170) points out that the earliest
sources mention th e T a o Te Ching and th e Chuang Tzu separately.
The Han court historiographer Ssu-ma T 'an (d. 110 b .c .) is th e first
ex ta n t source to h a v e classified both w orks as wTaoist.w C reel
(1970b : 5 -6 , 4 3 - 4 7 ) describes the differences between w h at he
sees as the wco n tem p lativ ew Taoism o f th e Chuang Tzu an d th e
^purposive^ Taoism o f th e Tao Te Ching.
23. Graham 1 9 8 9 ; Schwartz 1985. T h e interpretation o f th e
T ao Te Ching in b o th these books however is very different from
the present one.
24. See th e d iscu ssio n s of au thorship in ancient C h in a in
Waley (1 9 5 8 :1 0 1 -1 0 5 ) and Lau (1963: 1 4 9 -1 6 5 ).

T h e Tao of the Tao Te Ching

2 5 . The earliest com m entary on th e T a o T e Ching, contained

in th e Han Fei Tzu, com m ents on th e ch ap ters in a very different
order than the tra d itio n al one. M anuscripts o f the Tao Te C hing
fro m the second cen tu ry b . c ., recently fo u n d a t Ma-wang-tui, also
arrange the chapters in a slightly different order.

26. See, for exam p le, Karlgren (1 9 3 2 : 2 5 n. 1), Waley (1 9 5 8 :

9 7 ) , Lau (1 963: 1 6 3 - 1 7 4 ) , K altenm ark (1 9 6 5 : 1 3 -1 5 ), C reel
(1 9 7 0 b : 6). The o n ly serious exception I am aware o f in recen t
tim es is R. G. W ag n er (see also p. 2 2 8 n. 1 8 ), who has tried to
show th e existence o f a n elaborate p a tte rn in th e book ("in te r
lock in g parallelism ") th a t could have co m e about only through
t h e careful work o f a single author in co m p lete control o f th e
m aterial.

2 7 . The p io n eerin g an d now classic w ork on form criticism

applied to the Syn optic Gospels is Rudolf Bultm ann's History o f the
Synoptic TVfldffion. 1 learned form criticism from a pupil of Bult-
m a n n , Dieter G eorgi. For a brief accou n t, see McKnight. For a
m ore detailed a cc o u n t o f the developm ent o f this method, see
R hode or, for the O ld Testam ent, Rast.

28. This is co n tra ry to Lau's view (1 9 6 3 : 5 1 -5 2 , 1 6 3 -1 7 4 ),

w h o thinks it a m istake to try to find co n n ectio n s between th e
sayings in a given ch a p te r. Some think th a t th e sayings originally
were presented in an organized fashion, b u t th at at some p o in t
th is organization was lost. Taking this view, th e Chinese scholar
Ma Hsii-lun attem pted to reconstruct w hat h e thought was th e
original order. His w ork h as influenced th e translations of C h 'u ,
Duyvendak, and Karlgren. The view taken in this book is close to
th a t expressed by W a le y (1958: 9 6 -9 8 ). T h e Japanese sch o lar
Kim ura Eiichi also has a theory about th e deliberate ordering o f
sayings in the chapters and analyzes the en tire work accordingly
(Kimura's analysis is translated, with an introductory explanation,
in Hurvitz). But K im ura's analysis is quite different from mine an d
assum es several successive redactions o f th e T a o Te Ching.
29. For rhyme schem es in the Tao Te Ching, I rely on Karl-
gren's (1932) reconstru ction of rhymes in th is book, based on th e
p h o n etic values o f th e words in ancient C hinese.
3 0 . Although co m p letely u nin ten tional, it is perhaps n o te
w orthy that, in the traditional 'Tirstbook^ (Chapters 1-37) only
th re e (3, 17, 19) o f th e first twenty-eight chapters fall into my


"political" Sections 57, and only two (33, 35) of the rem aining
n ine chapters fall in to m y "personal" Sections 1-3. Likewise in th e
traditional "secon d b o o k Chapters 38_81) only four of th e first
nineteen chapters (49, 51, 53, 54) fall under my wpoliticalw Sec
tions 5-7, only four (59, 67, 79, 81) o f th e remaining twenty-five
chapters fall under m y "personal sections.
31. In addition to th e longer treatm ent o f this topic in Tao
a n d Method, see th e fuller discussion o f th e semantic structure o f
aphorisms in LaFargue (1990).
32. Austin 19 62: 4 -1 1 .
33. This is a co m m o n view, two different versions of w hich
have been put fo rth by Hansen (1981) and by Schwartz (1 9 8 5 :
196-213), respectively. Schw arts however, also acknowledges th a t
th e Tao Te C hing has a '"moralistic torquew th a t stands in con tra
diction with this relativism (203-204, 213).
34. See for e x a m p le Bernstein (1 9 8 3 ); Rorty (1 9 8 2 ). T h e
im pact of an tifou n d ation alist thought on Christian theology is
illustrated in Schssler-Fiorenza (1985: 2 8 5 -3 1 1 ).
35. G ardiner (1 9 8 1 ) gives a good a cc o u n t of the re la tio n
between the rise o f cross-cultural study an d the perceived th reat
o f relativism.
36. Quoted in G raham 1989: 243.
37. Graham (1 9 8 9 ) 161 and footnote reference to pp. 124 and
38. Watson 1968: 122, slightly altered.
39. Those fa m ilia r with biblical scholarship will recognize
here the in flu e n ce o f Rudolf B u ltm an n 's wdem ythologizingw
approach to com parable themes in the N ew Testament I reject,
however, Bultm ann's tendency to think th a t philosophy is a supe
rior mode of rep resen tin g what myths represent indirectly and
40. Henricks's work appeared during the last stages of prepa
ration for this b ook. His detailed discussions of the differences
between these m anuscripts and the traditional text made possible
for the first time a close comparison and evaluation of these dif
ferences for persons like myself who are n o t specialists in pre
standardized C h in ese w riting and lexicography. More work evalu

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

a tin g these d iffe re n c e s certainly n eed s to be done. My ow n

impression so far is th a t th e earliness o f M a-wang-tui texts (c. 2 0 0
b . c .) is counterbalanced by the fact th a t th e y contain many m ore
surely corrupt passages than th e traditional W an g Pi text. See th e
introduction to ^A dditional Textual N o tes/'
41. The reader w ish in g to consult a m o re literal translation
can consult the re ce n t translation of Yi W u (1989), or the older
work of Paul Carus (1 9 1 3 ), each o f w h ich gives the Chinese te x t
an d places English equivalents next to th e C h in ese characters.
42. Compare, fo r example, my co m m e n ts on 50[53]:2 w ith
th ose o f Duyvendak.

Topical Glossary

1. For example, H ansen 1981: 236, 2 3 8 .

2. 2A/2;10.
3. See Graham 1 9 8 9 : 351-354.
4. See Schw artz's co m m en t on th e co llo q u ia l usage of ch'i
(1 9 8 5 : 181).
5. See Graham 1 9 8 9 : 170-171.
6. Watson 1968.
7. See Graham 1 9 8 9 : 172-2 1 1 ; Schwartz 1 9 8 5 :2 1 5 .
8. Compare M encius* 7A/21,4.
9. See especially Fingarette.

10. For further discussions of these term s, see the references

to th em in Grahams (1 9 8 9 ) index.
11. See Forke 1 9 2 5 : 235, 251-254, 2 8 6 .
12. Quoted in ibid .: 2 3 5 .
1 3 . 198 9 :3 2 6.
14. Watson 1968: 3 6 2 .
15. Bodde 1981; 105.
16. 3B2,2.


17. W atson 1968: 7 2 ,8 2 .

18. Failure to observe this d istin ctio n is the main m eth o d
ological failing o f W agner's (1980) thesis about the Tao Te Ching's
composition (see p. 196 n. 26). He sim ply uses a certain pattern as
an analytical d ev ice to analyze m any passages. Such analysis in
itself cannot serve as evidence th a t the au th o r worked according to
this pattern.
19. See M aspero 1981: 23-25.
20. See G raham 1989: 340-356.
21. 1 9 8 9 :2 9 9 -3 1 1 .
22. 1990: 118, 124.
23. See Maspero 1981:413-421 and 4 4 6 -5 5 3 ; and Kohn passim.
24. 1989: 5 3 - 5 9 ; also Schwartz 1985: 175.
25. Saso 1983.
26. See n o te on h sin g /form and ch in g /^ v itsl en ergy ;; in
27. Watson 1968: 119, lightly revised.
28. See, for exam ple, Needham 1962: 4 6 -5 2 .
29. 1 9 8 9 :3 9 4 1 .
30. 1 9 8 5 :1 3 6 -1 7 2 .
31. See G raham 1989: 137-170.
32. See G raham 1989: 75-95.
33. Ibid.: 2 6 7 -2 9 2 .
34. See Ibid.: 2 3 - 2 5 , 261-267, 2 8 3 -2 8 5 ; Hansen 1983a: 7 2 -8 2 .
35. 1 9 8 1 :2 3 7 -2 4 4 .
36. 1 9 8 9 :5 6 , 1 1 8 -1 2 5 .
37. Translated in Rickett 1965: 1 5 8 -1 6 8 . See the discussion in
Graham: 1989: 1 0 0 -1 0 5 . Waley (1958: 4 3 -5 0 ) also discusses som e
parallels between this book and the Jiao 7>
38. Hex. 22, lin e 4, "Great Sym bol" commentary. Com pare
also hex. 23, line 5, and hex. 39J i n e 2.

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching

39. The M a-w ang tui text has h m g w here Wang Pi generally
h as th e synonym ch^ang. Henricks (1 9 8 9 : xv) says that W ang Pi
represents a change in th e original text, to avoid the taboo n am e
o f an Emperor Liu H en g (179-156 B.C.).
40. lA /7,20.
41. Rickett 1 9 6 5 : 158 A, opening line.
42. Watson 1 9 6 3 : 57.
43. Ching in T a o T e Ching means wsacred b o o k /' According to
W elch (1957: 1 0 4 ), th e book first acquired th is status under the
Emperor Ching T i (1 5 6 - 1 4 0 B.c.).
44. Rickett 1 9 6 5 : 1 5 8 -1 5 9 A, my tran slation .
45. The Mencius (3B /4,4) describes th e specific occupation of
sh ih generally in contrast to, say, carpenters as wei tao/'*doing
T a o ."
46. Pu too. Pu is a n adverbial negative preceding an adjective
or verb, in contrast w ith th e verbal wu w h ich is used with nouns.
47. 7A/19,4.
48. Morgan 1 9 6 9 : 1 3 2 -1 3 3 , my tran slation .
49. 6/2.
50. 1958: 47; p aren thetical remarks are W aley's. The quote is
from a writing sim ilar to the N d Yeh, found in chapter 36 o f th e
K u an Tzu,
51. Fbr exam ple, lA /7 ,9 , 2A/2,7.
52. For exam ple, 1A /7,23.
53. 6A/1.
5 4 . 2A /2,6. T h e b a s ic m eaning o f th e word is "to guard"
som ething (as in "g u ard in g gold and jew els, 2[9]:1), but it has a
m ore general m ean in g to take care o f , as in "take care of par
e n ts," contrasted w ith "neglecting" th em . (Mendw5* 4A/19,1.)
5 5. 2A/2,19.
56. See Graham 1 9 8 9 : 53- 64*
57. See further in ibid .: 330-340.


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List o f Chapters in the Traditional Arrangement

O ld N ew Page O ld N ew Page
N um ber N um ber N um ber N um ber

[i] 43 p. 94 [4 2 ] 36 p. 7 8
[2] 42 p. 9 2 [4 3 ] 47 p. 102
[3] 79 p. 172 [4 4 ] 19 p. 42
[4] 31 p. 68 [4 5 ] 5 p. 12
[5] 16 p. 34 [4 6 ] 20 p. 4 4
[6] 32 p. 70 [4 7 ] 41 p. 9 0
[7] 10 p. 22 [4 8 ] 25 p. 5 6
[8] 7 p . 16 [4 9 ] 60 p. 130
[9] 2 p. 6 [5 ] 22 p. 48
[1 0 ] 27 p. 60 [5 1 ] 65 p. 1 4 0
[1 1 ] 15 p. 3 2 [5 2 ] 29 p. 64
[1 2 ] 21 p. 46 [5 3 ] 50 p. 11 0
[1 3 ] 18 p. 4 0 [5 4 ] 61 p. 13 2
[1 4 ] 37 p. 8 0 [5 5 ] 33 p. 72
[1 5 ] 6 p . 14 [5 6 ] 30 p. 6 6
[1 6 ] 28 p. 62 [5 7 ] 77 p. 16 8
[1 7 ] 54 p . 118 [5 8 ] 59 p. 1 2 8
[1 8 ] 12 p. 26 [5 9 ] 26 p. 58
[1 9 ] 78 p . 170 [6 0 ] 70 p. 15 2
[2 0 ] 13 p. 28 [6 1 ] 56 p. 1 2 2
[2 1 ] 38 p .8 2 [6 2 ] 48 p. 1 0 4
[2 2 ] 4 p. 10 [6 3 ] 71 p. 15 4
[2 3 ] 14 p. 30 [6 4 ] 72 p. 156
[2 4 1 p .4 [6 5 80 p. 1 7 4
[2 5 ] 39 p. 84 [6 6 ] 55 p. 1 2 0
[2 6 ] 23 p. 5 0 [67] 3 p. 8
[2 7 ] 49 p. 106 [6 8 ] 57 p. 1 2 4
[2 8 ] 17 p. 36 [6 9 ] 68 p. 14 8
[2 9 ] 62 p. 134 [7 0 ] 45 p. 9 8
[3 0 ] 69 p. 150 [7 1 ] 40 p. 88

T h e T ao o f th e T ao Te Ching

O ld N ew Page O ld N ew Page
N um ber N um ber N um ber N um ber

[3 1 ] 67 p. 146 [7 2 ] 53 p. 1 1 6
P2] 63 p. 136 [7 3 ] 58 p. 1 2 6
[3 3 ] 24 p . 54 [7 4 ] 66 p. 1 4 4
p4] 64 p. 138 [7 5 ] 51 p. 1 1 2
[3 5 ] 46 p. 100 [7 6 ] 74 p. 1 6 0
P6] 73 p. 158 [7 7 ] 52 p. 1 1 4
[3 7 ] 81 p. 176 [7 8 ] 75 p. 1 6 2
[3 8 ] 11 p. 24 [7 9 ] 9 p. 2 0
[3 9 ] 35 p . 76 [8 0 ] 76 p. 1 6 6
[4 0 ] 34 p . 74 [8 1 ] 8 p. 18
[4 1 ] 44 p. 96

Sincere w ord s are n o t elegant
elegant w ords are n o t sincere.
Excellence is n o t w in n in g arg u m en ts
w inning a rg u m e n ts is n ot b ein g E x c e lle n t.
U nd erstan d in g is n o t wide le a rn in g
wide le a rn in g is n o t u nd erstand ing .

The Wise P e rso n d o es n o t store u p fo r him self.

By working fo r o th e rs
he increases w h a t h e h im self p o ssesses.
By giving to o th e r s
he gets in cre a se fo r h im self m ore a n d m ore.

Heaven's W ay: to b e n e fit and n o t to h a rm .

The Way o f t h e W is e Person: to w o rk an d n o t co n ten d .
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