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Dao De Jing The Book of the Way

Read the Introduction

Moss Roberts

The poems and sayings of the mysterious book of wisdom called Dao De Jing have powerfully affected many aspects of Chinese philosophy, culture, and society. In the realm of aesthetics the idea of Dao, or the Way, a transcendent natural principle working through all things, has inspired artists and poets, who have sought to represent nature in its raw wholeness or have depicted vast landscapes within which human structures and pathways, overwhelmed by mists, mountain faces, and water vistas, hold a tiny and precarious place. With regard to personal spiritual cultivation Daoism offers techniques of concentration and self-control, while in the realm of physiology the Daoist theory of natural cycles points toward systems of internal circulation and techniques of rejuvenation.1 In its ethical application Daoism teaches self-subordination and frugality and warns of the self-defeating consequences of assertiveness and aggrandizement, whether political, military, or personal.

In the realm of governance political theorists influenced by Laozi have advocated humility in leadership and a restrained and concessive approach to statecraft, either for ethical and pacifist reasons or for tactical ends. The well-known line that opens stanza 60, "Rule a great state as you cook a small fish," has been used in China and in the West as an argument for a "light touch" in governing: the Way creates sufficient order. In a different political context, one mediated by legalist theories of government, a transcendent Way has served to legitimate state builders in constructing impersonal institutions and formulating all-powerful laws. Indeed the marriage of the Way with law (fa) is one of the earliest transformations and adaptations of Laozi's thought.2 On the popular level, by contrast, various anti-authoritarian movements have embraced the Dao De Jing's teachings on the power of the weak.

Thus the Dao De Jing, in the world of philosophy a small kingdom in its own right, has spawned diverse schools of thought, and these have elaborated upon and spread widely the original teachings—often in ways that might have surprised or distressed their creator.

The Dao De Jing has so wide a compass that it is difficult to think of a comparable work in the Western canon. Passages on nature's patterns of motion and their indifference to man's purposes may evoke for a Western reader themes and language found in Lucretius and his model, Epicurus. If some stanzas concerning statecraft and tactical maneuver suggest Machiavelli, others suggest Gandhi, who personified in his leadership principled humility, minimal struggle, and simplicity of lifestyle. For some readers Laozi's aphorisms and resigned reflections on human life may evoke lines in Ecclesiastes or Proverbs. Comparisons have also been made with Thoreau's warnings about economic overdevelopment and government..

With so many English versions of the Dao De Jing, why another? There is much of value in most of the English translations, but each is only partially successful. The synergy of the work's themes as well as the concision of its phrasing make many of its stanzas so ambiguous and suggestive that definitive interpretation, much less translation, has often proved unattainable. Rendering in another language a work that says so much in so few words, and about whose meanings scholars differ greatly, can only be problematic. Even in Chinese, many Dao De Jing passages seem like paintings of striking detail that compel the gaze but always remain partly out of focus. Each translator tries to refine the images or to find fresh language to capture the power of Laozi's gnomic lines. In the end, however, the only justification I can offer for a new attempt is that it is meant not only to improve but to be improved upon. The cumulative effect of multiple translations contributes to the understanding of the Laozi, just as the ongoing performance tradition of musical works yields new possibilities of expression and appreciation.

What this version seeks is, first, to bring out the Dao De Jing's political and polemical purposes by situating it in the context of the philosophical debates that raged from the time of Confucius down to the unification of the empire in 221 b.c. Second, it attempts to reproduce the condensed aphoristic force of Laozi's style, the appeal of his intriguing and often indeterminate syntax, and the prevalence of rhymed verse in his original. Unlike most translators, I have avoided relying on prose. Third, in the comments and notes to the stanzas I have included material from recently discovered texts—the two Mawangdui versions, which were published in 1973, and the Guodian version, published in 1998. In this way the reader can learn something about the differences between versions of the text and weigh for himself or herself the significance of the variations in wording and, perhaps more importantly, the differences in the actual number and sequence of the stanzas.3

For example, according to the research of one of the leading contemporary Laozi scholars, Yin Zhenhuan, it is likely that the true number of individual stanzas is not eighty-one but as many as 112, some of which, like passages in the Analects, are only four or eight words long.4 For convenience of reference and for the sake of continuity, however, the traditional order of eighty-one is followed in this translation. Ornaments indicate probable stanza divisions within a conventional stanza.

Titles and Texts

The title Dao De Jing may be translated "Canonical text (jing) on the Way (Dao) and virtue (de)." But this now-universal title did not become widely used until the Tang dynasty (a.d. 618-905), when Laozi was officially regarded as a divine guardian of the dynasty. Laozi is the older title, going back almost to the creation of the text. Although scholars now generally use the two titles interchangeably, Dao De Jing suggests an established classic in the Chinese philosophical tradition, while Laozi is more modest—"the words of Master Lao," perhaps. Like the Mozi, the Guanzi, the Mencius, and other titles for writings and records collected under the name of a central figure, Laozi suggests a historical document and its original context rather than a canonical work. To reflect the difference between the two titles, in the present work Dao De Jing is more frequently, albeit not exclusively, used in the introduction, and Laozi in the comments. It is an open question how pleased the self-effacing Laozi would have been to see his little book classified as a jing—or for that matter himself as a divinity.

The Dao De Jing has come down to us in eighty-one stanzas, a form set slightly before the Christian era began; stanzas 1-37 constitute the first half, stanzas 38-81 the second. Although there are several versions, they are not dramatically different from one another. Two of the versions are named after their scholarly annotators, the Heshang gong Laozi and the Wang Bi Laozi. A third, the Fu Yi Laozi, is named for the Tang-dynasty Daoist scholar who published a text unearthed in a.d. 574 from a Han tomb dating from about 200 b.c.5 Present-day scholars usually call the current common text the "received text" to distinguish it from recently discovered manuscripts.

The first of these new discoveries was made in 1973 at Mawangdui in the tomb of an official's son; that tomb has been dated to 168 b.c. The Mawangdui Laozi was published in 1976. Inscribed on silk, it consists of two texts, A and B, the former dating from about 205-190 b.c., the latter slightly later. These two texts differ from the received version in significant details, but the only major structural difference is that they begin with chapter 38 and end with chapter 37. In other words, the second half of the text comes before the first. Found together with Laozi A and B was a rich trove of political and cosmological documents that have been called the Huangdi sijing, or the Four Classics of the Yellow Emperor.6

The Guodian Laozi, inscribed on bamboo slips, was found in 1993 and published in 1998.7 The text was unearthed from a royal tutor's tomb at Guodian, near the city of Ying, the capital of the southern kingdom of Chu. This area contains many graves, and fresh discoveries can be expected. Like the Mawangdui Laozi, the Guodian Laozi was found as part of a trove of related works of politics and cosmology. All of them are works of established importance and so were probably written well before the time of their burial, approximately 300 b.c. (No complete translation of the accompanying documents has appeared so far.)

The Guodian Laozi consists of only about two thousand characters, or 40 percent of the received version, covering in their entirety or in part only thirty-one of the received text's stanzas. The order of the stanzas is utterly different from any later versions. Moreover, it is yet to be determined whether the Guodian Laozi represents a sample taken from a larger Laozi or is the nucleus of a later five-thousand-character Laozi. A current working hypothesis is that the Guodian Laozi should be attributed to Laozi, also called Lao Dan, a contemporary of Confucius who may have outlived him, and that the remainder, the non-Guodian text, was the work of an archivist and dates from around 375 b.c.8

Let us leave the recent manuscript discoveries and turn to information on the Dao De Jing in texts long available. Most traditional Chinese scholars (and a number of modern ones as well) have held that the Laozi reflects substantially the time of Confucius, that is, the late sixth or early fifth century b.c., acknowledging occasional interpolations to account for anachronistic language suggesting a somewhat later period. Before the Guodian finds, many modern Chinese and Western scholars argued for a date ranging from the early fourth to the late third century b.c. because sightings of a Laozi in Chinese works of the third century b.c. are so fragmentary. One finds lines or partial stanzas, the authorship of which either is not indicated or is attributed to someone named Lao or Lao Dan; but this attribution is not systematic. The Zhuangzi, for example, is a Daoist text of the late fourth to early third century b.c. collected under the name of the philosophical recluse Zhuangzi. This work contains several Dao De Jing lines or partial stanzas. Sometimes these are attributed to Lao Dan, yet sometimes these quotations from Lao Dan say things that are not in the Laozi, though they are compatible with its ideas.

In the Zhuangzi and other contemporary texts we find references to the Shi, the Odes (later the Shijing), and the Shu, the Documents (later the Shujing), suggesting that these are titles for bodies of shorter works. But it is only in the Han Feizi, a compilation of writings on law and statecraft attributed to diplomat and strategist Han Feizi of the late third century b.c., that references to Laozi's work suggest a substantial text; that is, the Han Feizi includes some Dao De Jing stanzas that are more or less complete. Han Feizi was influenced by Laozi, and he analyzes a number of stanzas in two of his chapters, "Jie Lao," and "Yu Lao." Han Feizi's discussion of stanza 38, for example, opens the "Jie Lao." It was the absence of references to a recognizable oeuvre, Dao De Jing, prior to the Han Feizi that led many modern scholars, Chinese and Western, to conclude that the work took shape closer to the time of Han Feizi than to the time of Confucius. The Guodian finds of course suggest the opposite.

In the Han period (206 b.c.-a.d. 220) the writings attributed to Laozi were referred to as the Daode, the Laozi, or the Laozi jing. Dao and de refer of course to two of the work's primary philosophical terms, the former belonging to the cosmic realm, the latter to the human. But Dao and de also refer to the two roughly equal sections of the text as it has come down to us: the Dao stanzas and the de stanzas. The first part of this text (stanzas 1-37) begins with a stanza devoted to Dao; the second part (stanzas 38-81) begins with a stanza devoted to de. According to one recent study, "the present eighty-one chapters were determined around 50 b.c." in order to make a "perfect number" of nine times nine.9 The oldest complete Laozi, the two Mawangdui texts, dating from about 200 b.c., closely resemble the received version, though neither one has numbered stanzas and both start with the de, or second, half (stanzas 38-81).10 Either this was the original order, or the de part became a text before the Dao part. The priority of the de stanzas had been suspected because the "Jie Lao" begins with stanza 38, and also because Wang Bi's (a.d. 226-249) edition appends to stanza 38 a lengthy annotation that is virtually an introduction. Against this hypothesis stands the fact that about half of the Guodian Laozi consists of Dao stanzas, half of de stanzas.

It is not possible to say when the Dao section was placed before the de section. In his joint biography of Laozi and Han Feizi in the Shiji (Records of the Historian, a general history completed about 90 b.c.), renowned Han historian Sima Qian (145-86? b.c.) refers to a five-thousand-word text devoted to the theme of Daode. But did Sima Qian see a text with the Dao stanzas coming first, or is he using the terms Dao and de in the order of their importance? Dao is of course the leading term and de must follow in its path; the words are not found transposed. The political philosopher Yan Zun (fl. 53-24 b.c.) used Daode in the title of his commentary Daode zhigui, of which only the de section survives. The philosopher Ho Yan (d. 249 a.d.) wrote a Daode lun. So the phrase Daode (still today a common term for "morality") had title status for the text.

The present form of the Heshang gong commentary has the Dao stanzas first and seems to have been divided into a Daojing and a Dejing, but conjectures on the date of this important early commentary range from the reign of Emperor Wen of the Han (179-156 b.c.) to the fifth century a.d.11 The equally important Wang Bi (a.d. 226-249) version, Laozi zhu (zhu means annotations), dominant since the Song dynasty, also begins with the Dao stanzas. These two major commentaries, by Heshang gong and by Wang Bi, were attached to Dao De Jing texts and were the principal vehicles for the Dao De Jing's dissemination in China. There are, however, no editions of either commentary early enough to establish the original order of the two parts.

It is almost as difficult to say when jing became part of the title. According to a citation in the Fayuan zhulin, an early Tang dynasty work, jing (canon, or classic) was probably not added to the title of the Laozi until the reign of the fourth Han emperor, Jing (r. 156-140 b.c.).12 This source says, with reference to the Laozi, simply that a zi (philosophical) text was elevated to jing (canonical) status. It does not mention the title Dao De Jing. In Han bibliographies the work is referred to as the Laozi; variants on the title Laozi jing also occur. The title Dao De Jing is said to have been spoken by the third Han emperor, Wen, (r. 179-156 b.c.). The source is Ge Hong's (d. a.d. 341) biography of Heshang gong in the Shenxian zhuan. Although probably anachronistic with respect to Emperor Wen, this quote may be the first instance of this form of the title.

Mention should be made of two important compendia of Daoist thought that contain many Dao De Jing passages. First is the Wenzi, a late Warring States (or possible early Han) text that contains lengthy essays built around formulas of the Dao De Jing; the essays often synthesize Confucian and Daoist terms and concepts. Second is the Huainanzi, a collection of essays called xun (teachings) that were profoundly informed by the Dao De Jing. These essays cover a wide variety of subjects. This work was sponsored and guided by the prince of Huainan, Liu An (179-122 b.c.).

Confucius and Laozi

The Dao De Jing is the philosophical counterpart—the rival and the complement—to the Analects of Confucius. These two classics are the foundational works of their respective traditions, Daoism and Confucianism, which may be said to constitute the yin and yang of Chinese culture. The Dao De Jing is primarily reflective in nature, while the Analects is more activist. Both works consist of pithy lines mixed in with longer passages, but the Analects is rooted in concrete historical settings and deals with specific persons and problems. In contrast, the Dao De Jing is without obvious historical markers and gives the impression of timeless universality. Beyond saying that these works have been traditionally associated with Confucius and Laozi, and that both works address central themes of a dramatic period of Chinese history (ca. 500-350 b.c.), there has been no scholarly consensus on how to date or even define either one.13

The Dao De Jing emphasizes the forces of nature and human interaction with them; the Analects emphasizes the social realm alone—human relationships, ethics, and political organization. The former stresses the relation of a transcendent Dao with the totality of its creation; the latter stresses hierarchical relations centering on the parent-child model and the particular obligations within clan and kingdom that are required of each person. For the former the highest authority is a maternal force that creates a gamut of ten thousand phenomena, humans but one among them; the latter honors an ancestral heaven that sanctions patriarchal dominion and elite lineage. The former idealizes the self-effacing leadership of the wise man or sage (shengren), who governs himself and others by keeping to the Way; the latter idealizes the superior man (junzi), a public role model who may advise the patriarch or even serve as a potential ruler in place of an unfit heir. As for religion in the sense of a deity interactive with humans, Laozi ascribes no consciousness to the Way, while Confucius, committed to an exclusive focus on human relations, cautiously advises a follower to respect the gods but keep them at a distance (Analects 6.20), a judicious compromise that the Chinese have by and large adhered to over the millennia.

In the West the influence of the Analects has been comparatively weak outside of academic circles, while the Dao De Jing enjoys a considerable public. It is the most popular and most frequently translated work of Chinese thought, with more than forty versions in English alone. This level of foreign interest reflects more than the text's importance in China. Its themes seem to speak aptly to the modern era, to problems that have festered for generations: economic overdevelopment and war led by those who crave power. But the work also speaks to those searching for a code of life conduct in a society where fundamental values have been degraded. For some, the Dao De Jing has become a cry of reason for our own war-divided world of master builders, militarists, and modernizers. For others, it is a manual for mastering one's own life by accommodating oneself not to wielded power but to nature or to force of circumstance in the broadest sense. Laozi's modern appeal may in part explain why the Dao De Jing has become separated from its native contexts and has perhaps been overappropriated by Western readers. And yet, as we proceed to consider its themes and historical setting, we shall see how Western apprehensions of the Dao De Jing have captured elements of its original significance.14

The Western reading public's resistance to the Analects may be explained by that text's emphasis on authority and discipline in its exhortations both regarding the observance of the formalities of speech, dress, and conduct, and regarding the pursuit of learning and self-cultivation for the purpose of public service. The undeniable virtues of Confucian correctness notwithstanding, there is hardly a student of Chinese culture who has not found relief in turning from the Analects' stern tone to the unpredictable stanzas of the Dao De Jing and exploring their varied themes, their ironic, almost modern, inversions, and their imaginative turns of phrase. The Dao De Jing presents a universal cosmic mother to replace the dead hand of paternal ancestral direction. For Laozi the social sphere is a small part of reality. Human authority accordingly is limited and must find its proper—that is, diminished—place in a far vaster context: one he calls the ten thousand things (wanwu), which are subject to the authority of the Way, an authority that subsumes heaven and ancestors.

China in Laozi's Time

The China of the Dao De Jing was not the single nation we know today. There was no unified territory called China until the last twenty years of the third century b.c. Before Confucius's time, scores of small and medium-sized kingdoms were spread along the middle and eastern stretches of the Yellow and Huai river valleys. The two greatest of these kingdoms, Chu under the hegemony of Duke Zhuang and Qi under the hegemony of Duke Huan, annexed smaller kingdoms by the score and opened new land to cultivation, a process of expansion and amalgamation that continued down to the unification in 221 b.c.15 These kingdoms of the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. recognized diplomatic and ritual obligations to a small kingdom called Zhou, situated near present-day Luoyang, which purported to be the heir of the great Zhou dynasty, founded in the mid-eleventh century b.c. The socket of the wheel, so to speak—the empty center—was the royal Zhou ruler, the son of heaven (tianzi; tian meaning heaven), who conferred legitimacy on regional princes, kings, and lords and their acts, including their choice of heir, but who was rarely able to impose his will on their kingdoms unless a stronger kingdom was backing him. He stood for a symbolic rather than an actual unity of the tianxia, the realm under heaven.

Above the son of heaven stood (or rather, walked) heaven itself, a kind of paternal oversoul whose mandate (ming) legitimated the rule of its "son" over the realm. Heaven comprised ancestral authority of three kinds: the immediate ancestors of the son of heaven, the founders of earlier ruling lineages, and the even more remote culture heroes (or founding fathers) of the entire civilization, such as Shen Nong, Yao, Shun, and the Yellow Emperor.

By the time of Confucius the various kingdoms had been waging many-sided wars for generations, one kingdom devouring and then absorbing another only to be itself devoured by a third power. In the period after Confucius's death in 479 b.c. new concepts and patterns of organization slowly formed and the Zhou order continued to weaken. During the decades preceding the era of Mencius (372?-289? b.c.), the philosopher who sought Confucius's mantle, the ongoing process of conquest and absorption had reduced the overall number of kingdoms, while the size and economic power of the surviving kingdoms increased. Traditionally, the era of Confucius has been called the last phase of the Spring and Autumn period, referring to the ceremonial (calendrical) authority of the royal Zhou house, while the subsequent era, the period after Confucius, has been called the Warring States period, indicating that the remaining kingdoms were increasingly independent of the Zhou son of heaven. Yet the aspiration for some unifying principle higher than the individual kingdoms remained. None of the powerful kingdoms lost sight of the goal of bringing the entire tianxia, the realm under heaven, under its rule. The Dao De Jing, some of whose stanzas speak of "capturing" the realm under heaven, has traditionally been dated to the transition from the Spring and Autumn period to the Warring States period.16

The period between Confucius and Mencius was a time marked by round-robin crises driven by three salient factors: serial inter-kingdom wars; accelerating economic, commercial, and technological development based on improved farming and the expansion of arable land; and political instability inside the kingdoms due to succession struggles and rising non-noble factions. These developments produced new theories of governing and state organization. Confucians, Daoists, Mohists, and Legalists—to name the principal schools—struggled to answer the problems forced into the open as the rule of Zhou weakened and the warring kingdoms grew to maturity. Initially in competition with each other, these schools increasingly tended to borrow from and even combine with one another as the process of territorial amalgamation went on and the prospect of unification loomed on the horizon.

In the philosophical competition among rival schools the Dao De Jing was a pivotal work of criticism and creativity. It rejected key Confucian and Mohist doctrines and at the same time opened the way for new philosophical syntheses. Penetrating and unsparing, the Dao De Jing transformed the terms of debate and inspired a spectrum of new ethical, political, and cosmological formulations. Its ideas could be opposed or co-opted, but they could not be ignored. To give a single example, when Laozi developed the concept of the ten thousand things, he endowed each of them with an independent identity and life momentum and freed them from any identity other than their common parentage in the Way. Guided only by their own inner momentum, the ten thousand things exist outside of the conventional network of social relationships and responsibilities, the sphere that the key Confucian terms li, ritual, and yi, obligation, roughly cover.17 The ten thousand are not even beholden to the Way, the mother that gave them life (stanza 2), for what mother could properly attend to so vast a brood? Cast into life, any one of the ten thousand is as good as any other. There is no elite component. The indifferent Way has no career ambition for any of them. Human beings are among them, but are not preeminent. Having pursued their own natures (ziran, self-becoming, or what is so of itself), their seasonal cycle of life complete, they return to the Way. They do not exist to serve human ends or the developing economies of the expanding states.

The independence of the phenomena is expressed through the word zi, self, a term that figures in the Analects in only a minor way. Zi may be thought of as the "self" of an objective entity (see the motif word "themselves" in stanza 57). It is quite different from the Confucian term for self, shen, which in addition to the physical self existing in space and time also means character and social identity, thus a purely subjective kind of force to be exerted on others or on things. For Laozi, zi is the self as an individuated, objective other: to be viewed but not altered (stanzas 1 and 14). For the Confucians, shen is the self as a social instrument for molding the other in order to suit itself. In the fourth century b.c. the Confucians added the word xing (human nature common to all) to their lexicon to counter the concept of wanwu because they needed to make their concept of the self universal and objective while keeping it distinct from the more biological ten thousand things.

By making the self of all things objective and independent Laozi broke through the confining categories of Confucian thought: paternal authority, ancestor worship, and inherited privilege—categories that created a nexus of social roles and rules on which depended each person's being and consciousness. Subordinating these categories to the Way, Laozi dramatically widened the view and prepared the way for other transcendent concepts. One such concept was law (fa), to which was subordinated the clan as well as the subjective judgment of its patriarch; another was receptivity or emptiness (xu), which suggests open-mindedness, receptivity to differing or conflicting views. Receptivity is how the Daoists view (guan) the ten thousand without discrimination, with an emphasis on their collective welfare, not their usefulness to human beings. The oft-quoted summary of Laozi's thought found in the second Daoist classic, the Zhuangzi, says, "Gentle and yielding, modest and deferential—this was what he stood for; and with his openness and receptivity he never injured the ten thousand things—this was his actual practice."18

In the view of the Dao De Jing the wise have ming (insight or clarity of vision), which makes possible their appreciation of Dao and how it moves the ten thousand things (stanza 16). Laozi values ming but rejects zhi, a word covering intellect, knowledge, expertise, and sophistry. To Daoists ming is the power of the natural mind, while zhi refers to educated and hence artificial judgment (stanza 33). Confucians, however, value zhi over ming. In the Analects, zhi is an all-important term, ming an unimportant one. In the Guodian Confucian text Wuxing (Five categories of conduct) clarity of vision (ming) is a lesser faculty that leads to educated judgment (zhi) concerning men and affairs.

Opposed to favoritism in political practice and subjectivism in human thought, Laozi's liberating, all-inclusive vision also facilitated the development of philosophical tolerance and syncretism. In the second chapter of the Zhuangzi we find the concept of qiwu, treating all things equally by acknowledging the relativity of their qualities. Using qi to develop the idea of receptivity, Zhuangists advocated impartiality among diverse schools of thought, stressing the limitations of each and looking toward the accommodation of antithetical doctrines in a comprehensive argument. This same Zhuangzi chapter uses ming to denote a perspective from which opposites are reconciled and transcended. This tendency to embrace all sides became common in the philosophy of the late Warring States period (late fourth to late third centuries b.c.), as more complex governing systems promoted inclusive philosophical syntheses. Thus Laozi's critique of state development ideology paradoxically led to a higher stage of state development ideology. Put another way, the Dao De Jing exposed the limitations of Confucian and Mohist formulations but at the same time served as a bridge to various recombinations of the elements of Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist thought.19 The creative application of Daoist thought to questions of law, institutional governance, and statecraft is a prominent feature of the writings collected under the names Guanzi (late fourth to early third centuries b.c.), Xunzi (mid-third century b.c.), and Han Feizi (mid to late third century b.c.).

Laozi might have despaired over history's cunning, but he would have understood it. Legalism and unification were not the future he envisioned for the kingdoms of the Chinese cultural area. Perhaps the most telling revision of Laozi's thought may be the phrase "All ten thousand things take the number one as their ancestor." This formulation from the Guanzi chapter "Zheng" (Correction) reestablishes patriarchal (and masculine) authority over the ten thousand but on an abstract level and with a clear reference to law: Legalists used the number one (yi) to underline the idea of law's uniform application to all social strata.

Confucians, Daoists, and Heredity

Conflict over succession was the driving force of the many-sided transgenerational civil wars of the late Spring and Autumn and the Warring States eras. Unstable inheritance patterns—who rules after the king dies?—was the critical problem that no Warring States thinker was able to master. Nearly every death of a ruler ignited a power struggle among the sons of his principal and secondary wives, and often among his brothers or even his nephews. A contender in one kingdom might seek support in a neighboring kingdom, whose intervention usually only widened the crisis. In other cases the pattern was reversed: the ruler of one kingdom, in expectation of future favors, might support a contender in a neighboring kingdom, thus instigating or intensifying the internal conflict there. The spiraling conflicts spread destruction down to the time of unification. The people of China have accepted unification (and often its counterpart, conformism) and have cherished unity ever since, in large part because of their anxiety over a divided territory and the concomitant experience of civil war. Stable central authority, when local officers answered to the center and not to the local clans, meant stable regions. But that was a China yet to come.

The Confucians recognized the seriousness of the succession problem, but they tolerated it. Hostile to law as the source of governmental authority lest it challenge the hereditary structure of noble rule itself, they strove only to convince the hereditary rulers to recruit fresh talent without consideration of birth, that is, to open family-based government to outsiders whom Confucius and his disciples were educating (precisely) for state service. They believed that an elite thus reformed and invigorated would enable the nobles to rule rightly as well as rightfully and would enable them to ensure the continuity of their rule and the attendant values of filial piety and generational continuity.

The Confucians called the new elites they were cultivating junzi, royal sons or true princes—men fit to succeed a king because their learning (xue) and virtue (de), if not their birth, qualified them to serve as role models for other officials and members of society. This artificial creation of ideal noblemen to fill the many new functions in the developing kingdoms was the goal of Confucius's education program. However, Confucius was conservative, in that for him the technological and bureaucratic issues were always subordinate to the social and ethical ones.20 He meant for his students to serve the ruler filially and to urge the ruler to treat the people as if they were his own children, avoiding war and economic disruption and educating them morally and technically. He also placed the burden of ensuring social order on the rulers, as if they were the fathers of their kingdoms.

Confucius intended to use the family as the vital core of a metafamily of junzi serving the new expanding state. This is why he sought to preserve filial piety and hereditary succession within the kingdoms as the keys to political order.21 The choice of the term junzi for the new elite shows that Confucius was intent on remedying the problem of the defective heir and protecting the throne from the contest among the heirs to succeed the king.

The Mohists boldly veered away from the Confucians. Making an argument Socrates might have approved of, they held that ruling family interests hampered the development of the objective independent state, and so they cut the Gordian knot to separate guo from jia—state from family, kingdom from clan. One of their main slogans, "promote the worthy," was in effect a call for a ban on family preference in appointments to office. Mohists demanded that only the worthy and able should assume official position. Laozi probably knew of the Mohist critique, since he quotes the slogan in stanza 3.22

Both the Confucians and the Mohists were progressive state builders. Through practical and moral education they sought to develop a cadre of administrative and technical experts qualified to serve in an increasingly complex state. Laozi opposed both the Confucians and the Mohists. He looked upon economic development, new inventions, increased commerce, state building, and the recruitment of experts as destructive progress. He saw the close connection between modernization and war. He sought to return to an ancient era of content and to guide people toward a life of extreme simplicity: "Plain appearance, humble habits, / Owning little, craving less" (stanza 19). This autarkic utopia is described in some detail in stanza 80: let the kingdom be small and its people few.

Perhaps the "small kingdom stanza" affords a glimpse of the imperiled world to which Laozi belonged and in which he played an important part. According to Laozi's biography in the Shiji, he served in the royal court of the Zhou son of heaven as an archivist and historian. And the Zhou, itself a small kingdom—a sort of Vatican perhaps—may have been looked to by other threatened kingdoms as the last hope for protection from the aggressions of the greater kingdoms. "The greater kingdoms loathe having a son of heaven" the Han king was advised at a conference of kings in 344 b.c. "Only the smaller kingdoms benefit from it. If Your Highness and the greater powers would simply ignore King Hui [of Wei], he and the smaller kingdoms will never be able to bring back the son of heaven."23 Laozi's biography goes on to say that he left his position as archivist because of the "decline of Zhou."

Laozi undoubtedly knew that his small utopia was unrealistic. But imagining it may have helped him to formulate other elements of his political philosophy, at the center of which is the shengren, a retiring sage, a wise man, who leads by staying behind, by enabling rather than visibly directing others. The emphasis on the ear in the graph for shengren suggests passivity: a good listener and someone to listen to as well. He receives and reacts. He is sometimes represented by the first person pronoun, wu or wo, suggesting an independent figure with no family ties except to the Way. The sage of the Dao De Jing has no institutional or legal context and no history. His authority is based on no lineal transmission from the past, nor can it be inherited by a future generation. Alone with the maternal Way, the sage is childlike, never a father. Whether ruler or minister (it is never clear), he under-governs, avoids exerting influence the better to allow all to realize their inner potential, their unconditioned self-becoming (ziran),with no filial obligation to him or the Way. He rules a great kingdom as one cooks a small fish, hardly touching it.

Laozi's liberating vision is the reverse of paternalistic socialization based on the power of the manifest personal example of an educated elite. In Analects 12.19 Confucius says, "The virtue of the true prince (junzi) is like the wind that bends lesser men below as if they were grass." Laozi's sage is positioned below, near mother earth, not above. He seeks diversity not conformity. Child of the mother, man of the Way, the shengren despises "name," distinction and distinctions, and all forms of hierarchy. His powers (de) are within, depending on nothing external except the Way. Those he rules are his guests, not his subjects (stanza 32). He cares as much for the hopeless as for the elite (stanza 27). His self-mastery and insight win the trust of all. However, no shengren is ever named, no model ever cited. The shengren has no father or sons, genetic or spiritual. He has no ruler-vassal (jun-chen) relationships just as he has no father-son (fu-zi) relationships, the dual bond at the core of the Confucian conception of governing (Analects 12.11). About two centuries after Confucius's time, Mencius denounced the Daoist Yang Zhu for recognizing no ruler and Mozi for recognizing no father—two denials of authority that left humans in a state of nature, like "wild beasts" (Mencius III.3B.9).

For Laozi the ten thousand come from the Way, not from the previous generation. Everything the Way creates returns to the Way; the Way then creates the next generation anew (stanza 14). Subsuming all ancestry, the Way operates not in socially constructed, generational time, but in cyclical or biological time. Thus the political and cosmological aspects of the concept Dao converge.

Terms of the Dao De Jing: De, Dao, Tian

De, conventionally translated "virtue" or "power," refers to how the Way functions (literally, walks) in the visible world. "Moral authority" is probably the closest modern English equivalent to de. The graph for de consists of three elements: walking legs on the left and on the right "mind" under "straight, go straight." Closely related to another de (meaning attain, obtain), de-virtue means the inner power to reach a result or affect a situation: charisma or dynamism, usually of a moral kind. De can also refer to the potency of medicinal herbs, which is also an older sense of the English word "virtue." Translators tend to prefer "virtue" as the translation for de; "power" is the second choice; "potency" has also been used. Generally, translators intend the original, active sense of "virtue," meaning manly, virile, derived from the Latin vir, and not the word's more recent, passive sense of avoiding wrongdoing or preservng feminine chastity. Perhaps it was to prevent this confusion that the translator Arthur Waley chose "power" for de. In the Dao De Jing the meaning of "virtue" depends on the meaning of Dao, the other half of the binary.

Dao is not a mysterious or metaphysical word. It commonly means roadway and by extension, method, and in philosophy, the path or teachings (or truths) that followers of a particular school adhere to. The Dao De Jing universalizes these definitions of Dao to the general truth that there is a course all things follow and a force that guides them on it. Laozi thus redefined and transformed the term for all time. Perhaps this was the defining moment in philosophy that divides the concepts of the Spring and Autumn era from Warring States thought, the moment when history (political and ancestral), social ethics, and personal cultivation were subordinated to a metaphysical conception framed by a pair of transcendent terms: "the Way" and "the ten thousand."

The components of the graph for Dao—advancing footsteps to the left of shou (head)—visually suggests "chief agency" or "moving first mover." Whether Dao is common or transcendent, something to walk upon or something higher than heaven itself—or both—is an ambiguity that informs the Dao De Jing. Dao and de are highlighted as a walking pair in the opening lines of stanza 21, in which de is described as attending or serving (cong) the Way—but in easy companionship (cong-rong), not as master and vassal (alone, cong means walking behind).

For the Confucians tian (heaven) was more a social and patriarchal concept than a concept about nature. They understood tian in relation to two other terms, de (virtue) and ming (mandate). De and tian (virtue and heaven) formed the cardinal relation, a kind of religious sublimation of father and son. In the Zhou period political power was rationalized in terms of a mandate that heaven bestowed on a ruler because he had manifested virtue. The name for the construct that legitimated political power was tianming (heaven's mandate). These three concepts, tian, de, and ming, are central to the political thought of the texts in the Confucian canon.

Analects 2.1 says, "Government by virtue is like the polar star to whose fixed seat the multitude of stars turn in homage." In the same way the king's virtue must strive to attract and hold the mandate because, according to the ode "King Wen," heaven's mandate is not constant: it rests with the virtuous while they remain virtuous and departs when they do evil.24 The magnetism of the ruler's virtue will draw widening circles of domains and their peoples into his orbit.

King Wen, founder of the Zhou house in the mid-eleventh century b.c., "succeeded by letting his virtue shine . . . and heaven gave its great mandate to King Wen."25 The connection between virtue and light from the sky is often made in these writings. The ode "Shimai" says of another Zhou founder, King Wu, "May the dawning heaven above regard him as its son."26 Throughout China's history this bond between heaven and virtue, the key to the concept of legitimacy, was in the end no more than a heightened and idealized form of the father-son relation. Confucius's "Heaven has given birth to the virtue in me" (Analects 7.22) moved the concept of virtue away from hereditary elitism toward a common human potentiality.

Laozi delinked virtue from a masculine heaven and reconnected it to the Way, forming a new parent-child relation and leaving heaven free to enter into new relationships—with earth, with the Way—or to remain single and independent.27 The Chinese imagined their ancestors and culture heroes as sky walkers—planets and stars pacing the void. It was but a small step from the progenitors overhead to heaven itself as progenitor. Hence the verb "to give birth" (sheng) commonly follows "heaven," as it does "the Way." But Laozi's Dao vastly surpasses heaven in procreative capacity, bearing a full panoply of ten thousand, not just a few special heroes and ancestors. Moreover, maternal parentage is lowly, not prestigious—a reminder to all that they share humble origins with the ten thousand. As stanza 40 says, all existence comes from negation, or, in social terms, from a nonentity (wu).

The denial of heredity, the perpetual renewal of existence ab ovo, is why the Dao De Jing changes the unit of time measure from generation to season. History becomes nonchronological; it is an ever-present antiquity.28 As Laozi rejects paternal guidance and heaven's authority, he also turns away from Confucian history grandly conceived as a descending procession of fathers and kings who empower the living generation with their legacy of virtue.

Hereditary time is time structured in generational tiers: Confucian time, historical time, heavenly time, calendrical time. Dao time is seasonal and cyclical, collapsed into the dead and the living, and so past generations can not reach across the limit of their life spans to affect the living generations, who have unmediated access to the Way. "[T]he ghosts of the dead shall have no force" (stanza 60). Having no parent, the Way is not parental and expects no ritual offering from its offspring. They have no debt to repay to a Dao that did them no favor in creating them. Neither does the Way reward or punish. "Heaven and earth refuse kin-kindness: / Treating all things as dogs of straw" (stanza 5). The Way is thus a concept devised to oppose and subordinate the traditional concept of a heaven reciprocally engaged with authorized descendants or, more broadly, with human affairs.

As a graph Dao strikingly reconfigures the same two elements that constitute tian (heaven). "Heaven" is written with human legs, shortened arms, and an emphasized head. The head is represented by a flat line in modern graphs but by a circle in earlier forms. Dao consists of the same two elements: walking legs on the left, head on the right (not as a round skull but rather metonymically by shou, an eye under an eyebrow). Thus Dao may be thought of as a graphic synonym for heaven but in a form that somewhat conceals the anthropomorphism. The Chinese words for Great One (taiyi) are also a deconstruction of the graph for heaven into two sequent graphs. Another head-and-legs word, gui (human ghost), is represented by an enlarged head or mask over walking legs. The Way subsumes both heaven and ghosts.29 The semantically charged graph for Dao has had a certain mystic power in Chinese and Japanese culture. For example, it is the to in Shinto, the Way of the Gods.

Laozi's Dao transcends visible heaven itself. It is unseen and unnamed—a modest, retiring female, unmarried. The virtue that accompanies it is dark (xuan), not shining (ming) like light from the sky (stanzas 10, 15, 65). Laozi challenged the basic Confucian term mingde (illuminating virtue) with a hidden virtue that follows the Way alone. Unlike the Confucian heaven crowded with deceased male progenitors real and mythic, the Way keeps in the background, hosts no visible bodies, no celebrities, boasts no names. As a graph, nu, "woman," shows a bent back and legs crossed in a half-bowing posture of service and subordination. The word for mother (mu) is an enlargement of the same graph. Herself invisible, inaudible, and intangible (stanza 14), her nearest synonym is the ordinary negative wu, what is not. In Dao the yin principle is stronger than the yang. Spatially Dao encompasses the opposites heaven and earth. Temporally it connects the categories negation and existence. The flat line, the number one (yi), serves as a kind of boundary between the opposites: the horizon dividing heaven and earth and also the boundary line between wu and you. The Daoists were thus creating a new philosophical language.

In every kingdom of the realm ministers, stewards, and lesser lords were overthrowing their traditional clan leaders and taking power for themselves. Usurpation from below was the order of the day. This ongoing brutal process of subversion, reorganization, invasion, annexation, and expansion characterized the world that the author of the Dao De Jing bore witness to and that he turned against in a prophetic manner. The New Testament sought to remake a covenant from the breakdown of the Old Testament covenant. In a comparable way the Dao De Jing sought to redefine philosophically and even philologically a new ultimate authority by recombining the elements, literally the pieces, of an older, ruined one.

 . . . Stanza 1

1. The Way as "way" bespeaks no common lasting Way,

2. The name as "name" no common lasting name.

3. Absent is the name for sky and land's first life,

4. Present for the mother of all ten thousand things.

5. Desire ever-absent:

6. Behold the seed germs of all things;

7. Desire ever-present:

8. Behold their every finite course.

9. Forth together come the two

10. As one and the same

11. But differ in name.

12. As one, a dark recess

13. That probed recedes

14. Past that portal whence

15. The milling seed germs teem.


Laozi opens with a creation myth. Dao, a single mother, source of all life, is juxtaposed to its creation, the ten thousand things. Measured against Dao's fecundity, what ancestor, what male dynastic founder, can compare? Sky and land (tiandi) themselves are an intermediate creation, serving the Way as a framework that imparts form and name, and thus duality, on all things as they are produced. The ten thousand move between two poles: negation and existence, unity and division, potentiality and actuality.1 The Way describes a recurring circular or continuous s-shaped process that must return to its starting point before beginning again: "[A]ll living forms . . . go round home again" (stanza 14); "the Way moves on by contra-motion" (stanza 40).

There is no human role at the level of the Way's creative power, neither for the living nor for their ancestors or the ancient god-kings. Dao is chang (everlasting, constant, common to the ten thousand): it is now as it ever has been, with no duality in itself, no historical aspect, and no ancestor or descendant. The concept of Dao denies paternal lineage, the foundation of hereditary privilege. The Way's ten thousand progeny—human beings among them—share a common birth mother and a common, humble, and anonymous status. They are nonentities produced of negation (stanza 40). By contrast, consider the classic Confucian formula: "Heaven gives birth to the hundred phenomena; among them humankind is noblest."2

Transcendent and also immanent, Dao resembles time or nature and is thus different from but not superior to its creation. In some contexts the Way seems indistinguishable from the ten thousand. The commentary by Heshang gong explains "common lasting Way" as nature (ziran), and its negation, "no common lasting way" (fei chang Dao) as the political rule of one era or another, that is, social constructs that time will alter. This reading is confirmed by a line in the Guodian text titled Xing zi ming chu (Human nature proceeds from the mandate), which says that only the "human Way" is definable.

The contemporary scholar Zhang Songru sees in this stanza a possible analogy to the atomic theories of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.3 Laozi's imagery, however, belongs more to the realm of biology than to physics. The "seed germs" (miao) are fertile germ cells, not Lucretius's genderless atoms streaming slantwise through space. Nonetheless, since the antecedents of Laozi's vision are not easily found in other Chinese writings, a remote and indirect influence from the Greeks should not be absolutely excluded, especially since a possible transliteration of a-mbrotos, meaning immortal, appears in stanza 32.4

This stanza introduces most of the key terms that recur throughout the work: you (what is present, manifest, becoming; as a verb: to have), wu (what is absent, unmanifest, negation; as a verb: to not have), tong (as one, unity), liang (two, dual), Dao (Way, driving force, common path), ming (name, definition), xuan (mysterious, unseen, withdrawn, deep and dark as heaven at night, sublime; as a verb: to explore a recess), wanwu (wan, ten thousand, myriad; wu, figured things, visibilium omnium); and chang (common, lasting, regularly recurring, ever-present). Judging from both the text found at Mawangdui (the earliest complete text of the Laozi found so far) and the partial Guodian text, the term chang in this stanza was originally heng, a synonym of chang. Heng is also the name of a hexagram in the Yijing, or Book of Changes, where it stands for renewal after return to the origin, hence, circular movement.5

The term tong (one and the same) has implications often passed over, namely, that there is an underlying identity among all things arising from their common ancestry in Dao; furthermore, Dao itself is ultimately identical with its creation, thus denying the subordination of junior to senior, child to parent, creature to creator. As stanza 34 says, "The Way wins the name of humble and low." For further discussion of the relation of Dao to the ten thousand in terms of the tension between transcendence and immanence see stanzas 25 and 34.

In line 3 the received texts read tiandi (heaven and earth), translated here as "sky and land," but the Mawangdui texts have wanwu (the ten thousand things). "Ten thousand things" seems to resonate with the term "seed germs" (miao) in lines 6 and 15. The pairing of sky/land and absent/present also fits the theme of emerging duality in this stanza and in stanza 2.

Stanza 2

1. In every fair the world considers fair

2. There's foul;

3. In every good the world considers good

4. There's ill.

5. For what is what is not yields,

6. And the harder the easier consummates;

7. The long the short decides,

8. And higher lower measures;

9. Bronze gongs jade chimes join,

10. And former latter sequence form,

11. Ever round, and round again.1

12. This is why the man of wisdom

13. Concerns himself with under-acting

14. And applies the lesson

15. Of the word unspoken,

16. That all ten thousand may come forth

17. Without his direction,

18. Live through their lives

19. Without his possession,

20. And act of themselves

21. Unbeholden to him.2

22. To the work he completes

23. He lays down no claim.

24. And this has everything to do

25. With why his claim holds always true.


Stanza 1 sets the stage for the appearance of duality, the twins born of a prior, nameless unity. The second stanza begins with the world below (tianxia), where human beings create duality through knowledge and language: naming and judging, comparing and contrasting, the ten thousand. Another of the Guodian texts says, "There is human nature, there is knowledge; and then good and bad arise."3 The opposites interact, complementing each other as much as they conflict. Note that stanza 1 is not in the Guodian text, while stanza 2 is.

Dualism as a theme may be connected with warfare. Sunzi's Art of War (Bingfa) names some thirty pairs of warring opposites.4 In the chapter "Attack with Fire" ("Huogong") Sunzi writes, "Anger can be turned back to delight, and resentment to good feeling, but a fallen kingdom cannot be brought back into existence nor the dead brought back to life."

From the military strategist's narrow, purposive angle, opposition is to be exploited for an end. From Laozi's wider angle of time and nature, duality is a constant process that brings things round and round, as lines 5-11 suggest. The sage observes but does not intervene or try to exploit the process.5

Lines 1-2 seem to suggest that foul and fair are a twin presence, not that one resulted from or led to the other. "Forth together come the two/As one and the same/But differ in name" (stanza 1). The world of dualities is the world of forms and sounds that people sense and name, but it originates in something formless and soundless. Unlike the activist Confucian leader, who tries by his example to shape people and events within his sphere, Laozi's shengren, who is both a ruler and a sage, observes the interacting forms and then steps back to let events take their course and fulfill their hidden potential for reversal. The listener-sage is attentive, as the prominence of the ear in the graph for "sage" suggests. He makes no judgments, neither accepting the good and the beautiful nor rejecting the bad and the ugly. In the Mawangdui text Cheng (Weighing factors) speech is classified as a yang function, silence as a yin function.

Duality is the precondition for the term wuwei, a motif of the Dao De Jing. Translated as "under-acting" in line 13 of this stanza, wuwei in other stanzas is translated as "under-govern," "without leading," "not striving," "pursue no end." The negative wu (to be absent) in texts of this period sometimes interchanges with the negative imperative wu, which corresponds to "for" in the sense of "refrain from" in such words as "forbear," "forsake," and "forbid." Movement is implicit in the term wei, which means not only action and reaction but also conducting and leading forward; its earliest graph depicts a hand guiding an animal.

In the Guodian text stanza 2 follows stanza 63 and precedes stanza 32. Stanza 63 also deals with opposites. Lines 18-19 are not found in either the Guodian or the Mawangdui texts; they appear in the Wang Bi and Heshang gong texts, however. Perhaps the lines were added as a reference to stanza 1.

Stanza 3

1. Do not promote those who excel

2. And folk will have no cause to quarrel.

3. Prize not goods too hard to find

4. And people won't be turned to crime.

5. These objects of desire unviewed,

6. The people's thoughts remain subdued.

7. Thus under a wise man's rule

8. Blank are their minds

9. But full their bellies,

10. Meek their wills

11. But tough their bones.

12. He keeps the folk

13. From knowing and craving,

14. And the intellects

15. From daring to lead.

16. By acting himself without taking the lead

17. Inside his kingdom all is well ruled.


The slogan "promote those who excel" (shangxian) comes from Mozi, who urged the appointment of able commoners to government office in preference to nobles and royal kinsmen. Commoners would be rewarded for their knowledge and expertise, both technical and administrative. Laozi opposed this type of state activism (wei). In his view this recruiting policy in the service of state building would only hasten the kingdoms along the path toward modernization and war, taking the common people farther and farther away from the simple life that Laozi thinks they once enjoyed.1

An important thinker of the generation after Confucius, Mozi broke with the Confucians and formed his own school. Opposed to Confucius's more cautious inclusion of the able among the noble, Mozi advocated an aggressive plan: to empower a new class of educated elites with high salaries and thus bind their loyalty to the ruler and give him leverage over the traditional nobles. The presence of the slogan "promote those who excel" in the Laozi has long been given as a reason for dating Laozi after Mozi. However, since this stanza is not found in the Guodian set of stanzas and may therefore postdate the Guodian text, its quoting of a Mozi slogan is likely.2

From the angle of politics and economics, Laozi opposed the policy of promoting the able because he wanted to simplify government, not develop it, and because he opposed the use of wealth—and the increased consumption it implies—as an incentive. A striking development of elite recruitment in post-Laozi Daoist political thought is found in the Guanzi, a syncretic text of the fourth-to-third centuries b.c. That text recommends to the rulers of Qi:

"To put aside the self and establish the public good—can [the ruler] recruit the right men? To preside over state administration and appoint commoners to office—can [the ruler] place his own person last?" This passage from the chapter "Zheng" (Correctness in rule) shows Laozi's philosophical influence. The ruler is selfless, nonassertive, determined on strengthening the state by recruiting the able.

For Heshang gong, political order is dependent on and secondary to the ruler's personal discipline and spiritual cultivation, and his commentary on this stanza (referring to lines 1, 3, and 5) emphasizes that self-discipline: "For the sage, governing the kingdom is no different from governing the person."

The extent to which "those who excel" became an elite intellectual force is suggested by the Later Han author Wang Chong: "In the time of the six kingdoms [late fourth to mid third century b.c.] if talented ministers entered the service of Chu kingdom, its weight increased; if they departed from Qi, that kingdom's weight was reduced; if they worked for Zhao, Zhao was kept whole; if they turned against Wei, Wei suffered. . . ." So also, Mencius speaks of the renowned traveling political counselor Zhang Yi as "striking fear in the feudal lords with a single moment of rage, calming the realm when calm himself."3 These are the "intellects" whom Laozi opposes.

In the "Jiudi" (Nine terrains) chapter of Sunzi's Art of War the relationship of the commander to the troops is couched in terms similar to the description of the relationship between the wise and those they govern in this stanza: "[The commander] must be able to make stupid the eyes and ears of his troops . . . driving them like a herd of sheep, back and forth, not a one knowing where he is headed."4

Stanza 4

1. Ever void, Dao provides

2. But does not fill.

3. To a welling font akin,

4. The living myriad's sacred source

5. Is like the darkness of the deep;

6. There its living presence bides.

7. Child of whom I cannot tell,

8. Liken it to the ancestor of ancestors.


Laozi returns to the term Dao and the genesis theme of stanza 1, introducing water as a metaphor for Dao. Often associated with the yin principle, water is soft, low, useful, life-giving, ever-present, common, indefinable, and vast.1 Dao's creative power is likened to a well without limit; Dao always remains empty because it is not subject to the oscillations (between full and empty) of duality. The source of everything, Dao comes from nothing; it is an orphan. Known human ancestry is limited to a succession of likenesses, a genealogy stretching back to an named clan founder. Dao as orphan is a prime progenitor, an ancestor more ancient and venerable than any other.2 In it all hierarchies of historical time collapse.

The structural problem of this stanza is whether or not to include the four triplet phrases found after line 4 in most translations. The four phrases appear in non-Guodian stanza 56, where they seem to fit in smoothly with the context of engaging the world. In the abstract and mythical context of stanza 4, however, they seem to interrupt the logic of the stanza. Gu Li excises them; Chen Guying and Gao Heng bracket them; Zhang Songru keeps them. In the present translation the four phrases are translated only in stanza 56: "They dull their keen edge and / Resolve their differences, / Reconcile the points of view / And blend with the lowly dust."3

Stanza 4 is not in the Guodian text of the Laozi.



1.  One aspect of the rejuvenation theme in the Dao De Jing involves returning to infancy, about which Joseph Needham has written: "There is no single key to physiological alchemy more important than the idea of retracing one's steps along the road of bodily decay" (Science and Civilization in China [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983], 5:25). 2.  This development is found in the Guanzi, a late-fourth- to early-third-century b.c. encyclopedia on government compiled in the eastern kingdom of Qi. A similar association of Dao and law marks a number of the other texts accompanying the Dao De Jing in the Mawangdui tomb. Known collectively as the Yellow Emperor's Four Classics (Huangdi sijing), these texts are available in a bilingual edition (Chinese-English) edited by Yu Mingguang: Huangdi sijing jinzhu jinyi. Daoist influence also pervades the writings of the Confucian legalist Xunzi and the legalist Han Feizi. By contrast, the legalist writings of Lord Shang, associated with the central kingdom of Jin, have a sterner, more punitive character, and Daoism plays no role in them.

3.  I began this project a half dozen years ago by making a careful study of Gu Li and Zhou Ying's compendious two-volume edition and analysis, Laozi tong (A comprehensive Laozi). Though many contemporary scholars may feel that this work has been superseded, it remains a treasure-house of references and thoughtful questions. Among its unusual features is the authors' attempt to re-order radically the sequence of the stanzas. While this effort may have seemed arbitrary or futile, we now know from the Guodian discovery that in the earliest known Laozi the order of the stanzas was indeed altogether different. So in a sense the authors of the Laozi tong were correct about the lack of logic in the order of stanzas, the possibility of interpolation within stanzas, and the fact that some stanzas comprise what were originally smaller individual stanzas or even one-line sayings.4.  Yin Zhenhuan, Boshu Laozi shixi.5. For more information on the Fu Yi text and the other received texts, see Rudolf G. Wagner, "The Wang Bi Recension of the Laozi" in Early China 14 (1989).6. An English translation of the Mawangdui texts discovered with the Laozi, done by Leo S. Chang (Zhang Chun), may be found in Yu Mingguang's critical edition, Huangdi sijing jinzhu jinyi, pp. 211-326. Robin D.S. Yates has also translated the Mawangdui documents accompanying the Laozi. In the view of the contemporary scholar Bai Xi, the Huangdi sijing postdates the Laozi but predates the Guanzi, the Legalist classic containing texts from the late fourth to early third century b.c. See his Jixia xue yanjiu, p. 226.7. Jingmenshi bowuguan [Museum of the City of Jingmen], Guodian Chumu zhujian [Bamboo slips from a Chu tomb at Guodian]. Another edition is Peng Hao, ed., Guodian Chujian Laozi jiaodu. An English version is now available: Robert Henricks, Lao Tzu's [Laozi's] Tao Te Ching [Dao de jing] (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).8. This hypothesis has been advanced by Guo Qi in his "Chujian Laozi yu Laozi gong'an," in Zhexue yanjiu 1998.7. A later exponent of this dual attribution is Yin Zhenhuan; see his "Lun Guodian Chumu zhujian Laozi," in Wenxian, 1999.3, p. 27.9. Robert Henricks, Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), p. xvii.10. The original arrangement of the Fu Yi text, which presumably is contemporaneous if not slightly earlier than the Mawangdui, cannot be determined from the present form of that text.11. Arguments dating the Heshang gong commentary to the Former Han period may be found in Jin Chunfeng, Handai sixiangshi (Beijing: Shehui kexue chubanshe, rev. ed., 1997), pp. 399-411. See also William Boltz, "Lao tzu Tao te ching" in Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Michael Loewe, Early China Special Monograph Series, no. 2 (The Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1993), pp. 273-77.12. Cited in Xu Kangsheng, Boshu Laozi, p. 135.13.  Confucius died in 479 b.c. It has not been established whether the Analects were edited and completed at a specific time, say by his followers' followers in the generation 430-400 b.c. (approximately the traditional view), or whether they are a collection of sayings or chapters covering a longer period, from perhaps the mid-fifth century to the mid-third century b.c., as argued by E. Bruce Brooks and Taeko Brooks in The Original Analects (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). In the present work all references to the Analects cite book and chapter and refer to James Legge, trans., Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean. Translations of the text may vary from Legge's. 14 . For an interesting instance see Herman Hesse's 1921 essay: "Thoughts about China" in If the War Goes On . . . (New York: Noonday Press, 1970; repr. 1973), pp. 128-31.15.  These events of the seventh century b.c. are so described in Han Feizi's chapter "Youdu." 16.  There is no neat or agreed-upon dividing line between these two periods. Some historians prefer to start the Warring States period at the death of Confucius in 479 b.c. or at the close of the Spring and Autumn Annals a few years later. Others take as the dividing point the year 403 b.c., the year when the Zhou house recognized the three new kingdoms that formed when the older kingdom of Jin broke up. Jin had been the major protector of the Zhou house.17.  In the history of Chinese thought the term wanwu (the ten thousand things) becomes prominent from the fourth century on. It is found in the Mencius, one hundred times in the Zhuangzi, and twenty times in the Dao De Jing. However, the term does not appear in the Zuozhuan, the Shijing, or the Analects, which probably date to an earlier time stratum. The term baiwu (one hundred things), found once in the Analects, seems to be formed by analogy with baixing, the one hundred clan names and, by extension, the people in general. Baiwu was probably an anticipation of the universal wanwu. Perhaps the idea of totalizing all phenomena was first developed by the earliest Daoists.18Zhuangzi, "Tianxia" ("The World," in Watson's translation). The first to break with Confucian elite subjectivism was Mozi, founder of the Mohist school. Mozi redefined a number of Confucian concepts to shift the balance from the subjective to the objective. He argued that one man should show filial piety to another man's father in hopes of eliciting reciprocal filial piety from the other man toward his own father. He also removed from heaven from the grip of the elite and reconceptualized it as an objective entity above all human claims on its authority. He characterized heaven as a carpenter's measuring tool, thus suggesting its commonness and its accessibility to the common man; the image also suggests its usefulness.19.  The outstanding examples of the new syncretism are, to begin with, the Mawangdui texts found along with the Laozi, followed by the Guanzi, the Xunzi, and the Lüshi chunqiu. Interestingly, those Mawangdui texts use a number of terms found in the non-Guodian sections of the Laozi: the number one (yi), receptivity (xu), tranquillity or equilibrium (jing), and dark virtue (xuande). These texts bear clear marks of Laozi's influence.20Analects 6.21 brings home this point with an elegant metaphor. Confucius likens humanity (ren) to mountains and knowledge (zhi) to water. Knowledge or expertise is treated by Confucius as a changing and dynamic thing that must shape itself to conform with stationary principles as it flows on. Technology serves morality. Laozi's criticism of expertise is discussed in the body of the present work, e.g., in stanzas 19 and 57.21.  Laozi rejects this ideal in the formula: "Refuse kin-kindness [ren], dismiss due service [yi], / The folk again will love as child and parent" (stanza 19). Here Laozi rejects not only ren but ren as an expansion of filial love, which is the central political proposition of the Analects: governmental form must be congruent with family structure and values. See comment to stanza 19 for further discussion.22.  Since it is not in the Guodian text, stanza 3 may be hypothetically dated to 375 b.c. Mozi's approximate dates are 468-400. According to modern scholar Zhang Songru, "In the history of early Chinese thought Laozi forms the third leg of the tripod with Confucius and Mozi" (Laozi jiaodu, p. 439).23. Zhanguo ce, Han 3.24Shijing, ode 235, "Wenwang." For a translation of the Shijing, see Arthur Waley, The Book of Songs.25Shujing, "Kanggao." For the Shujing, see Jiang Hao et al., Jinguwen Shangshu quanyi. 26. Shijing, ode 273, "Shimai."27.  The chapter called "Lun" (Judgments) in the Huangdi sijing shows how diversely the term "heaven," freed of its Confucian setting, could be used.

28.  One of the crucial differences between the polemical Dao De Jing and later Daoist synthesizing texts like the Wenzi, the Huangdi sijing, and the Lüshi chunqiu is that the later works subdivide antiquity (gu) into a primal era of formless cosmic forces and a lesser, later era dominated by culture heroes like Fu Xi, Shen Nong, and Huangdi. Thus Laozi's pristine vision was compromised with a mytho-historical phase. See Li Xueqin, "Chu boshu yu Daojia sixiang," in Daojia wenhua yanjiu, ed. Chen Guying, 5 (1994), p. 230. Laozi only refers to gu, never to specific figures.29.  Mozi's critique of ancestor worship took the form of universalizing the ghosts, making them agents sent by heaven to reward the good and punish evil. Mozi thus turned private gods into public servants. For Confucians, the filial son could appeal for divine ancestral aid, but no one out of the clan could authentically summon them. Mozi's heaven-delegated ghosts no living man has the power to call down. Thus the objective heaven that Mozi sought to create was manifested in this proto-Legalist manner. See Mozi's chapter " Minggui" (Bringing ghosts into the light). Stanza 1

1. Compare "The number one of the Way was born, / A duad from this monad formed" (stanza 42). Neither stanza 42 nor this opening stanza appear in the Guodian text. However, a cosmogony is offered in The Great Number One Gives Birth to Water (Taiyi sheng shui), another Guodian text that may have been a part of the Laozi text group.2. Guodian text Yucong (Collected sayings), item 1. The social virtues—kindness, sense of duty, ritual observance, and knowledge—are what make human beings superior to natural phenomena. For more on the Confucian virtues in the Guodian manuscripts, see Zhang Liwen, "Lue lun Guodian Chujian de 'ren-yi' sixiang," in Kongzi yanjiu, 1999.1.3. Zhang Songru, Laozi jiaodu, p. 10.4.  The possibility of Indian influence is explored in Victor Mair's Tao Te Ching. A convenient review of the Chinese antecedents to the Laozi may be found in Xu Kangsheng, Boshu Laozi, pp. 182-91.5 . The term zhouxing in stanza 25, meaning circular movement, parallels this sense of the term heng. A number of scholarly articles on the relation of the Book of Changes to the Laozi may be found in the third volume of a major collection edited by Chen Guying, Daojia wenhua yanjiu. Another way to look at the term chang is as the antonym of yao (abnormal and malign). See Zuozhuan, Zhuang 14; and compare stanza 60. The connection between the number one and chang is made in the "Quanyan Xun" section of the Huainanzi, p. 692: "If the ruler holds to one, he governs; if he lacks constancy (chang), there will be disorder."

Stanza 2

1. The translation in line 11 interpolates heng from the Mawangdui texts, following Chen Guying's Laozi zhuyi ji pingjie, p. 66. The words hengye, "ever round, and round again," are not in the Guodian text.2. In line 21 both the Guodian and Mawangdui texts have the word zhi, intent, instead of shi, rely (translated here as "beholden"). To take this difference into account one would have to shift the subject of the sentence to the wise ruler ("the man of wisdom" in line 12) and translate lines 21-22: "The sage acts without [self-interested] intent; his work complete." This reading is more likely without lines 18-19.3Yucong (Collected sayings), stanza 1. Here "nature" is the translation of xing not ziran.

4.  See Yang Shanqun, Sunzi Pingzhuan (Guangdong: Nanjing daxue chubanshe, 1992), pp. 200-205. The chapter "Unreal and Real" ("Xushi") contains a list that includes: "strength and weakness, victory and defeat, gain and loss, the few and the many, excess and insufficiency." According to the "Wu Zixu liezhuan" in the Shiji, Sunzi presented a text of his military writings to the ruler of the kingdom of Wu in 512 b.c. Some scholars believe, however, that Sunzi's writings date from the fourth century b.c.

5.  A number of Laozi stanzas, most of them not in the Guodian find, appear to advocate exploitative dialectics. The theme of buyan, not speaking, was turned into advice for the ruler in such Legalist texts as the Guanzi and the Han Feizi. The ruler was advised to keep his peace in a world of complex contradictions lest by revealing his reaction (or his position) he should cause the ministers to alter information they were bringing to him. See Yin Zhenhuan's notes to stanza 70 in Boshu Laozi shixi, p. 204. Stanza 3

1.  See stanza 80 and note 1 for that stanza.2. Mozi's dates are uncertain. Modern scholar Zhou Jizhi suggests from 485-480 to 415-410 b.c. See his essay on Mozi in volume 1 of the collection of critical biographies of Chinese thinkers: Xin Guanjie and Li Xi, eds., Zhongguo gudai zhuming zhexuejia pingzhuan (Shandong province: Qi-Lu shushe, 1980). 3.  The first quote is from the chapter in Wang Chong's Lunheng titled "Devoting Effort" ("Xiaoli"); the second is Mencius 3B.3. Both are cited in Bai Xi, Jixia xue yanju, pp. 9-10. In the formulation of Shen Dao (390?-282? b.c.), whose thought forms one of the bridges from Daoism to Legalism, the worthy (xian) and the wise (sheng) are both to be kept out of government for the sake of the authority of the law. See the section on Shen Dao in the "Tianxia" chapter of the Zhuangzi. Laozi praises the wise in both Guodian and non-Guodian sections of the Laozi but opposes appointing the worthy.4.  The key phrase of line 16, wei wuwei (act on the principle of wuwei), is not found in the Mawangdui text. Stanza 4

1.  For a discussion of water in Warring States texts see Sarah Allan, The Way of Water (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997) pp. 29-61. Also see the comment to stanza 6, which develops the idea of an underworld river of life. The Guodian essay, found with the Laozi portions, called The Great Number One Gives Birth to Water treats water as the first creation of the number one, and then makes water the ancestral element for all things. 2.  There are various interpretations of line 8. For Wang Bi and Heshang gong, xiang simply means "can be imagined as" or "likened to" the ancestor of ancestors. However, xiang, image, may be an adjective forming the compound xiangdi, imaginable gods; this may refer to the astral signs (gan stems) by which the Shang ancestor-kings (di) were identified; or the term may refer to the natural imagery (animals, mountains) embodied in the names of such cultural heroes as Yao, Shun, Yu, and Fuxi.3.  For a convincing interpretation of the four phrases, see the excerpt from Ju Zai's Lun Laozi, cited in Chen Guying, Laozi zhuyi ji pingjie.