Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. (2003) Daodejing - "Making This Life Significant" : A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books


Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making,
And naming (ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming1:
The nameless (wuming) is the fetal beginnings of everything that is happening (wanwu),
While that which is named is their mother2:
Thus, to be really objectless in one’s desires (wuyu) is how one observes the mysteries of all things,
While really having desires is how one observes their boundaries3:
These two—the nameless and what is named—emerge from the same source yet are referred to differently.
Together they are called obscure4:
The obscurest of the obscure,
They are the swinging gateway of the manifold mysteries.


Experience is processual, and is thus always provisional. Process requires that the formational and functional aspects of our experience are correlative and mutually entailing. Our new thoughts shape how we think and act. And how we are presently disposed to think and act disciplines our novel thoughts. While the fluid immediacy of experience precludes the possibility of exhaustive conceptualization and explanation, enduring formal structures lend the flow of experience a degree of determinacy that can be expressed productively in conceptual language. The relative persistence of formal structures permits us to parse and punctuate the ceaseless flow of experience into consummate yet never really discrete things and events.

Given that the things and events are invariably entertained from some perspective or other, they are always unique. And the radical temporality of experience that will neither be arrested nor denied guarantees that all attempts to theorize about these events, while often of contingent value, will ultimately be outrun by the processive character of experience.

Experience is most replete when we entertain it in both its determinate and its indeterminate aspects, appreciating both the contingent boundaries that mediate it and make it meaningful for us, and the spontaneous emergence of novelty that can only be immediately felt. The gateway is constantly swinging open and swinging shut. Swinging open, it gives rise to some degree of uncaused and thus inexplicable novelty in the world. It then swings shut as the event is born, allowing for its persistence. The inchoate, novel aspect of experience at first resists rationalization. Born into a contextualizing world and persisting within it, the event gradually and in degree allows for conceptualization, and can be understood in such terms. In the course of time, the event begins to disperse and return, at first disappointing and then ultimately compromising those same rational structures that earlier promised meaning.

The human being is not passive in this continuing process. On the contrary, the human imagination is itself the clearest example of naming without assigning fixed reference. Our thoughts and language are not tied to a world, but function actively to articulate and realize one. In Daoism there is no appeal to a static vision of a reality or a mind that passively mirrors it. It offers rather a wholly transactional relationship between a world-making heart-and-mind and a heart-and-mind-shaping world. In this process, we tap the indeterminate aspect of our experience to think and speak a novel world into being.

However we try to be precise in denoting the events that make up our experience, new associations are constantly arising that challenge our terms of reference. Process insists that these events and their meanings for us be ever fluid and changing.

To underscore the penumbral advance of the continuing present, the text allows that while dao-ings (translated here as “way-making”) can be evoked as a “style” name (zi ), it cannot be used as a proper name (ming ). The style name is an attempt to illuminate the character of something and its directions; the proper name includes this present disposition as well as its inexhaustible possibilities. There is illumination, but there is shadow too.

But “way-making” is not simply about rational structures. Zi or “styling” is also a name of affection. It means to breed, to nurture, and to caress fondly. Beyond the cognitive understanding of experience, there is the epistemology of caring. We know things most immediately and profoundly through empathic feeling. This affective form of knowing is the content of our meaningful relationships, and the concreteness of these relations defines what we really are. As such, our desires are specific. But just as the processive character of experience ultimately defeats all rational structures, process also renders all concrete knowledge of specific things contingent. We can only know specifically, yet process requires that we constantly surrender the specificity of what we know. Optimally, then, we must have desires while at the same time be resolutely “objectless” in these desires.


As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful,
There is already ugliness.
As soon as everyone knows the able5:
There is ineptness6:
Determinacy (you) and indeterminacy (wu) give rise to each other,
Difficult and easy complement each other,
Long and short set each other off,
High and low complete each other,
Refined notes and raw sounds harmonize (he) with each other,
And before and after lend sequence to each other—
This is really how it all works7:
It is for this reason that sages keep to service that does not entail coercion (wuwei)
And disseminate teachings that go beyond what can be said.
In all that happens (wanwu),
The sages develop things but do not initiate them,
They act on behalf of things but do not lay any claim to them,
They see things through to fruition but do not take credit for them.
It is only because they do not take credit for them that things do not take their leave.


Distinctions produce their opposites. For the Daoist, dividing up the world descriptively and prescriptively generates correlative categories that invariably entail themselves and their antinomies. Way-making as the field of experience does not resolve itself into onto-logical distinctions. In fact, on the contrary, there is an ontological parity among the many events that constitute this process, with none of them being more real than any other.

This correlative sensibility in the Daoist process cosmology is the functional equivalent of the dualisms—good and evil, true and false, objective and subjective, theory and practice, reason and emotion, spirit and flesh, and so on—that constitute the familiar vocabulary of a reality/appearance metaphysics. In the process cosmology, with the absence of a putative ontological disparity between reality and appearance, the interdependent binaries, far from the “real” negating what is less so, require each other for explanation. Unlike “Being” and “Non-being,” the “determinate (you) and indeterminate (wu)” (or “something” and “nothing”) are not ontological categories at all, but are rather conventional distinctions that have explanatory force in giving an account of how things hang together.

Insight into this process cosmology and the interdependent character of the correlative distinctions used to interpret it provides a kind of sagacity in dealing with the world. The sages do not take sides, but are catalytic in facilitating the flourishing of the process as a whole. To favor one distinction over another—for example, the beautiful over the ugly—would make it exclusive and thus impoverishing. Given the continuity assumed within process cosmology, these categories are correlative and mutually entailing. Not only do you not get one without the other but, simply put, every constituent is necessary for every other constituent to be what it is. The job of the sage, then, is to enable each participant in the drama to contribute itself fully to the performance.


Not promoting those of superior character
Will save the common people from becoming contentious.
Not prizing property that is hard to come by
Will save them from becoming thieves.
Not making a show of what might be desired
Will save them from becoming disgruntled.
It is for this reason that in the proper governing by the sages:
They empty the hearts-and-minds of the people and fill their stomachs,
They weaken their aspirations and strengthen their bones,
Ever teaching the common people to be unprincipled in their knowing (wuzhi)
And objectless in their desires (wuyu),
They keep the hawkers of knowledge at bay.
It is simply in doing things noncoercively (wuwei8:
That everything is governed properly.


In attempting to govern the people, acting assertively to promote particular value judgments over others can be divisive and self-defeating. Such conduct in favoring one thing over another encourages a contentiousness among the people that undermines rather than fosters community. Better to be broadly inclusive of different talents and contributions, and to strive to appreciate each thing on its own terms, with the single proviso that coercion in any form is impoverishing.

Under the tutelage of sagacious rule, there is a tacit celebration of the bravery, patience, and kindliness of the ordinary person. There is a tolerance of difference and diversity that precludes any heavy-handed exercise of political constraints. In abjuring any appeal to political idealisms that are so often invoked by their advocates to justify the worst kinds of exclusion and coercion, those responsible for the flourishing of community simply allow it in all of its complexity to establish and sustain its own equilibrium. Rather than foisting an agenda on the community, effective administrators make sure that basic needs such as food and health are provided for, and then sit back to allow the character of the community to emerge synergistically out of the associated living of the people.

The people, encouraged to be free from assumptions and inclusive of alternatives, develop a tolerance and accommodation that immunizes them from purveyors of malignant prejudices. It is only empathy and openness that can inspire the community to go beyond the mediocrity of unilaterally legislated values.


Way-making being empty9:
You make use of it But do not fill it up10:
So abysmally deep—
It seems the predecessor of everything that is happening (wanwu).
It blunts the sharp edges
And untangles the knots;
It softens (he) the glare
And brings things together on the same track.
So cavernously deep—
It only seems to persist.
I do not know whose progeny it is;
It prefigures the ancestral gods.


It is the underdetermined nature of way-making that makes it, like a bottomless goblet, inexhaustibly capacious. The processive and fluid character of experience precludes the possibility of either initial beginning or final closure by providing within it an ongoing space for self-renewal. Within the rhythms of life, the swinging gateway opens and novelty emerges spontaneously to revitalize the world, tempering whatever has moved to an extreme, and reclaiming whatever has strayed from the path. Whatever is most enduring is ultimately overtaken in the ceaseless transformation of things.

The depth and profundity of experience lies in the inexhaustibility of its possibilities. And what makes these possibilities inexhaustible is real novelty: uncaused and inexplicable. As the creative origin of everything that happens and the locus of all relationships, experience itself is an appropriate object of awe and religious deference.

In Zhuangzi 27, this same idea of inexhaustible novelty is applied linguistically with the notion of “goblet words (zbiyan ).” “Goblet” words are words that are renewed with each use because when they are filled up with meaning, they tip themselves out, only to be filled again. Such language is appropriate to the fluidity and irreversibility of experience11:


The heavens and the earth are not partial to institutionalized morality12:
They take things (wanwu) and treat them all as straw dogs13:
Sages too are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They treat the common people as straw dogs.
The space between the heavens and the earth—
Isn’t it just like a bellows!
Even though empty it is not vacuous.
Pump it and more and more comes out.
It is better to safeguard what you have withi14:
Than to learn a great deal that so often goes nowhere.


Nature and the sages too are on the side of genuine moral feeling. This chapter needs to be read together with chapters 18 and 19, in which spontaneous and immediate caring is regarded as an expression of communal morality superior to the artificially constructed catechism associated with an increasingly institutionalized Confucianism. The image of “straw dogs” can be read in at least three different yet complementary ways.

First, nature does not participate in a kind of human exceptionalism in which the human being is singled out for special treatment. Nature treats all things, human and otherwise, with the same degree of care.

Second, both nature itself and the sages who model themselves on it treat all things and all people with parity, even the seemingly least among them. They do not, on the basis of a decadent and unnatural morality, give favor to some over others.

Third, “straw dogs” as sacrificial artifacts are celebrated according to the proper season, then abandoned when that season has passed. Even a clutch of straw is entitled to reverence at the proper time and place. In the natural cycle, all things have their moment, and when that moment passes, they must pass with it. There is nothing in nature, high or low, that is revered in perpetuity.

Repeatedly the Daodejing expresses a fascination for the way in which an indeterminate source spontaneously and inexhaustibly gives rise to the provisionally determinate phenomena that we experience around us. This cosmic creativity is always expressed through the particular foci that constitute it. As a microcosm of this cosmic macrocosm, then, we too have a spring of indeterminate energy within us. It is by tapping this internal font of spontaneity that we are best able to engage the world aesthetically at the level of immediate feeling. Rather than relying upon externally acquired and often ineffectual learning, we should look to this inner source.


The life-force of the valley never dies—
This is called the dark female.
The gateway of the dark female—
This is called the root of the world.
Wispy and delicate, it only seems to be there,
Yet its productivity is bottomless.


In chapters 4 and 5, we have the Daoist celebration of the fecundity of emptiness. The underdetermined nature of experience, like a self-emptying flask or a pair of bellows, makes it inexhaustibly productive. In this chapter and pervasively in the text, the image of the dark, moist, and accommodatingly vacant interior of the vagina is used as an analogy for this fertility.


The heavens are lasting and the earth enduring.
The reason the world is able to be lasting and enduring
Is because it does not live for itself15:
Thus it is able to be long-lived.
It is on this model that the sages withdraw their persons from contention yet find themselves out in front,
Put their own persons out of mind yet find themselves taken care of. Isn’t it simply because they are unselfish that they can satisfy their own needs?


The world as a process is constituted by the myriad things that find their consummation within it. Creativity is expressed through and only through each of these particular events that construes the process as its own unique field of experience. While each focus pursues its own consummation, there is no superordinate, generic agenda beyond the unsummed total of the foci themselves. There is no world qua world.

The sages in emulation of the natural processes are impartial and inclusive. Their concerns, on the model of nature itself, emerge out of the manifold of foci that are implicated within them. It is because the sages take nature as their mentor that their persons are preserved and all of their needs are satisfied.


The highest efficacy is like water.
It is because water benefits everything (wanwu)
Yet vies to dwell in places loathed by the crowd
That it comes nearest to proper way-making.
In dwelling, the question is where is the right place.
In thinking and feeling, it is how deeply.
In giving, it is how much like nature’s bounty16:
In speaking, it is how credibly.
In governing, it is how effectively.
In serving, it is how capably.
In acting, it is how timely.
It is only because there is no contentiousness in proper way-making That it incurs no blame.


The highest efficacy is a combination of the degree of benefit something bestows and the inclusiveness of such beneficence. The intensity and expansiveness of water is an appropriate analogy for such efficacy since it gives the gift of life without discrimination, and flows everywhere disdaining nothing.

In the human experience we are radically contextualized, constituted by those roles and relationships that locate us within our social, natural, and cultural environments. “Proper way-making” is getting the most out of these relationships as we make our way in the world: It is making this life significant. And getting the most out of our experience depends upon achieving and sustaining optimally productive harmony. Such efficacy depends upon always knowing where to be, committing ourselves utterly in our relationships, being generous in our transactions, making good on what we say, being successful both in service and in governance, and seizing the moment.

The greatest obstacle to optimizing relationships is coercion. If a healthy relationship is mutually accommodating, then the introduction of coercion, in which one party overwrites the importance of the other, entails a diminution in the creative possibilities of both. As Richard Rorty has observed, forced redefinition is humiliation.

In a cosmology that begins from the uniqueness of the particular, strict identity and its corollary, strict equality, are not an option. Relationships are invariably hierarchical. But hierarchy is only pernicious when it is compromised by coercion. The family as an institution is hierarchical, but appropriate patterns of deference can allow members of the family to have both dignity and parity in their relationships.


It is better to desist
Than to try to hold it upright and fill it to the brim.
Pounded out to a point
Its sharpness cannot be long maintained.
When treasure fills the hall,
No one is able to keep it safe.
Those who are arrogant because of station and wealth
Bring calamity upon themselves.
To retire when the deed is done
Is the way (dao) that tian works.


The human experience can be maximized only by coordinating its activities with the workings of the natural environment and the propensity of circumstances. These human activities should be modeled upon the cyclical patterns of nature in which one season gives way to the next, orchestrating the full range of natural forces—sun, soil, air, moisture—to collaborate in producing a thriving environment and an abundant harvest. In these interdependent processes of nature, any diversion in the direction of excess or extreme is short lived, and is ultimately defeated by a synergistic return to moderation and balance.

But experience is directed as well as cyclical. That is, the propensity of circumstances in which we live our lives has a bearing, and is irreversible. This direction is driven by a seamless combination of natural and human forces.

Within the human world as in nature, taking any endeavor to its extreme will result in a reversal of this direction and a self-induced subversion of the enterprise. What goes up must come down.

The importance of the indeterminate aspect in preempting the reversion that comes with fullness is celebrated in what is probably a spurious chapter of the Xunzi. When Confucius is asked by his disciple Zilu, “Is there a way of managing fullness, Sir?” he replies, “You need a measure of ignorance to cope with an intelligence that vies with the wisdom of the sages; you need a measure of humility to cope with accomplishments that blanket the world; you need a measure of timidity to cope with courage that pervades an entire age; you need a measure of frugality to cope with wealth that fills the four seas. This is what is called the way of draining some off and reducing the amount.17:


In carrying about your more spiritual and more physical aspects and embracing their oneness18:
Are you able to keep them from separating?
In concentrating your qi and making it pliant,
Are you able to become the newborn babe?
In scrubbing and cleansing your profound mirror,
Are you able to rid it of all imperfections?
In loving the common people and breathing life into the state,
Are you able to do it without recourse to wisdom?
With nature’s gates swinging open and closed,
Are you able to remain the female?
With your insight penetrating the four quarters,
Are you able to do it without recourse to wisdom?
It gives life to things and nurtures them.
Giving life without managing them
And raising them without lording it over them—
This is called the profoundest efficacy (de)19:


Early Daoist cultivation certainly involved a meditative regimen that seems to be the central issue here. In fact, much of the Daodejing can be read as metaphor for breathing exercises. It is the thorough integration of the physical and spiritual aspects of our experience in the concentration of our qi that enables us to maximize our potency and invigorate our minds. Penetrating insight is not inspired by some instrumental, enabling, “tried and true” wisdom, but is rather an immediate and fundamentally creative activity out of which fresh and efficacious intelligence arises to guide the way. The polished mirror that produces this insight is itself a source of energy, with the glow of its illumination recasting the world about it. Real wisdom, then, can only be this shaping insight into the present moment, and engagement with the unique circumstances at play.

The dynamic field of experience is the locus in which the stream of phenomena is animated and achieves consummation, but all of this pageantry occurs without the presence of some controlling hand. The energy of transformation lies within the process itself rather than in some external agency. It is the very nature of the world to transform.


The thirty spokes converge at one hub,
But the utility of the cart is a function of the nothingness (wn) inside the hub.
We throw clay to shape a pot,
But the utility of the clay pot is a function of the nothingness inside it.
We bore out doors and windows to make a dwelling20:
But the utility of the dwelling is a function of the nothingness inside it.
Thus, it might be something (you) that provides the value,
But it is nothing that provides the utility.


The classical Western notion of “Being” used in a metaphysical sense is generally associated with ontological ground—the reality behind appearance—while “Non-being” is its strict negation. The Chinese existential verb you overlaps with the sense of “having” rather than the copula, and therefore means “to be present” or “to be around.” Wu then—here translated as “nothing”—means “to not be present” or “to not be around.” Wu does not indicate strict opposition or contradiction, but absence. Thus, the you-wu distinction suggests mere contrast in the sense of the presence or absence of x rather than an assertion about the existence or nonexistence of x. You and wu are not ontological categories with all of the philosophical implications that would entail, but are rather the interdependent explanatory categories of “something” and “nothing,” of presence and absence.

In chapters 2, 4, and 5 we witness the Daoist fascination with the correlative relationship between the indeterminate and the determinate aspects of experience—between a productive emptiness and the phenomenal world that emerges from it. Here that relationship between the indeterminate and the determinate is parsed in terms of formation and function, what later in the tradition comes to be known as the complementary distinction between ti and yong .


The five colors21 blind the eye,
The hard riding of the hunt addles both heart and mind,
Property hard to come by22 subverts proper conduct,
The five flavors destroy the palate,
And the five notes impair the ear21:
It is for this reason that in the proper governing by the sages22:
They exert their efforts on behalf of the abdomen rather than the eye23:
Thus, eschewing one they take the other.


The main thrust of this chapter, like so many others in the Daodejing, is to prevent the inner focus of vital energy from being overwhelmed by outer distractions. In a world in which things are constituted by their relationships, these relations must be properly managed. A real source of agitation is the propensity of the senses to be tempted by external diversions. The difference between the abdomen and the eye is that the stomach can be easily satiated, but when the wandering eye finally lands on something, it just wants more.

This chapter can be read as a not-so-oblique reference to a meditative regimen. The abdomen is the center for nourishing and concentrating one’s vital energies. Both figuratively and literally, it is the center of the body and one’s source of equilibrium. The eye, on the other hand, is a major orifice through which the qi can leak away.

The concern about insatiability is echoed in chapter 46, which says:

There is no crime more onerous than greed,
No misfortune more devastating than avarice.
And no calamity that brings with it more grief than insatiability.
Thus, knowing when enough is enough
Is really satisfying.


“Favor and disgrace are cause for alarm.”
“Value your gravest anxieties as you do your own person.”
What does it mean in saying “Favor and disgrace are both cause for alarm?24:
It means that whenever favor is bestowed, both gaining it and losing it should be cause for alarm.
What does it mean in saying “Value your gravest anxieties as you do your own person?” The reason we have grave anxieties is because we are embodied persons. If we were not such persons, what anxieties would we have? Thus those who value the care of their own persons more than running the world can be entrusted with the world. And those who begrudge their persons as though they were the world can be put in charge of the world.


Most people are glad to receive favor, and are alarmed by disgrace. The Wang Bi commentary, however, warns that wherever there is favor, disgrace is certain to follow in its wake. Favor is not a legitimate response to merit, but rather a kind of patronage that is extended solely at the pleasure of someone else who holds power over you. The winds of such baseless favor are fickle, and can easily change direction. When favor is withdrawn, the absence of any prior justification for it becomes apparent, and circumstances are reinterpreted in such a manner that only humiliation and embarrassment remain.

The first apothegm here, in warning against favoritism, is making this recommendation on behalf of protecting our persons. The second saying is not unrelated. At a common sense level, anyone who is irreverent about his or her own well-being cannot be charged with any other responsibility, and certainly not with important matters of state. On the other hand, if we attend to each and every one of our responsibilities with the same care that we invest in our own persons, we can be entrusted with anything, including ruling the world.

The question then is what is appropriate attention to our own persons? While this maxim might seem to suggest that we are rightfully preoccupied with ourselves and should give priority to our own needs, such an interpretation has to be reconciled with chapter 7 in which quite the opposite is recommended:

… the sages withdraw their persons from contention yet find themselves out in front,

Put their own persons out of mind yet find themselves taken care of.

Isn’t it simply because they are unselfish that they can satisfy their own needs?

The message here seems to be: Treat all things with equal seriousness and respect, and our own persons will be taken care of as a matter of course. The way to be rid of personal concerns is to be rid of the distinction between one’s person and the world in which we live. After all, “If we were not such persons, what anxieties would we have?”

The Zhuangzi offers what appears to be a gloss on this passage:

Therefore if exemplary persons have no choice but to oversee the world, no policy is better than governing noncoercively. It is only once they govern noncoercively that they are able to be secure in the way they feel about their lives and circumstances. Thus those who value the care of their own persons more than running the world can be put in charge of the world. And those who begrudge their persons as though they were the world can be entrusted with the world25:

In this Zhuangzi commentary, ruling the world, far from being something to aspire to, is a burden best avoided. If such unwelcome responsibility cannot be sidestepped, however, the best way to govern effectively is again the best way to live one’s life: wuwei. One is able to maximize the productivity of one’s relationships and dissolve any tension between self and context through noncoercive, deferential activity. One both values one’s person and loses one’s person in this thoroughgoing integration with one’s field of experience. After all, “those who begrudge their persons as though they were the world can be put in charge of the world.”


Looking and yet not seeing it
We thus call it “elusive.”
Listening and yet not hearing it
We thus call it “inaudible.”
Groping and yet not getting it
We thus call it “intangible.”
Because in sight, sound, and touch it is beyond determination
We construe it as inseparably one.
As for this “one”—
Its surface is not dazzling
Nor is its underside dark.
Ever so tangled, it defies discrimination
And reverts again to indeterminacy.
This is what is called the form of the formless
And the image of indeterminacy.
This is what is called the vague and the indefinite.
Following behind you will not see its rear;
Encountering it you will not see its head.
Hold tightly onto way-making in the present
To manage what is happening right now
And to understand where it began in the distant past.
This is what is called the drawstring of way-making.


Ironically perhaps, one of the more suggestive glosses on this chapter is passage 9.11 in the Analects of Confucius, in which Confucius’s best and brightest student describes his education under the Master. For Yan Hui too, making one’s way is a continuing encounter with the indeterminate.

Yan Hui, with a deep sigh, said, “The more I look up at it, the higher it soars; the more I penetrate into it, the harder it becomes. I am looking at it in front of me, and suddenly it is behind me. The Master is good at drawing me forward a step at a time; he broadens me with culture and disciplines my behavior through the observance of ritual propriety. Even if I wanted to quit, I could not. And when I have exhausted my abilities, it is as though something rises up right in front of me, and even though I want to follow it, there is no road to take.”

Yan Hui is leading us in the right direction. The difference between the Daoist conception of dao-ing or “way-making” recounted in this chapter of the Daodejing and its Confucian counterpart lies in the relative proportions of its referent. While Yan Hui is reflecting on way-making as the ritualized education that enchants life within the human community, the Daodejing is more overtly cosmological in its scope. An understanding of the way in which the ongoing underdetermined process of experience unfolds and the porous character of the flow of phenomena that constitutes it not only enables one to locate the human life within this process, but also is instructive as to how to optimize this opportunity. For the Daoist, it is an understanding of the profundity of cosmic way-making and full participation in charting it that can potentially enchant the ordinary business of the day. As William James observed, “We add both to the subject and to the predicate part of reality” to “enhance the universe’s total value.26:

The continuous flow of experience within which a life is lived teases our sensual and cultural sensoria by seeming to allow for discrimination only to defy any predication we might propose to assign it. Unlike the things we think we know, cosmic way-making will not yield itself up to our most basic categories of location and determination: bright and dark, inside and outside, subject and object, one and many. And when we know this cosmic way-making better, we come to understand that we don’t really know “things” at all.


Those of old who were good at forging their way (dao) in the world27:
Subtle and mysterious, dark and penetrating28:
Their profundity was beyond comprehension.
It is because they were beyond comprehensio29:
That were I forced to describe them, I would say30:
So reluctant, as though crossing a winter stream;
So vigilant, as though in fear of the surrounding neighbors;
So dignified, like an invited guest;
So yielding, like ice about to thaw;
So solid, like unworked wood;
So murky, like muddy water;
So vast and vacant, like a mountain gorge31:
Muddy water, when stilled, slowly becomes clear;
Something settled, when agitated, slowly comes to life32:
Those who prize way-making do not seek fullness33:
It is only because they do not want to be full
That they are able to remain hidden and unfinished34:


Persons who have been most successful at making their way in the world have been fully immersed in the process itself, assuming for themselves the profound and complex character of the experience that they have forged. Their conduct, like way-making, is meliorative in the sense that it is productive of a desirable way forward on the middle ground between extremes. In their advancing on the path, the expansiveness and intensity of their creative sensibilities require not only an appeal to the full breadth of shared experience, but also a plumbing of the vague and indeterminate elements that lie beyond the boundaries of what is known, and that give experience its novelty and inexhaustible depth. Because this appeal to the full range of possibilities defies the adequacy of general description, we must rely upon the imagistic force of concrete metaphors drawn from the familiar events of our lives to attempt to give the significance of this experience ample expression. Communication through such metaphors reveals the Daoist epistemology of feeling in which the quality of understanding is a function of the immediacy and intensity of what is felt.

The processive and synergistic forces at work in way-making render the language of discreteness and closure inappropriate. The road is always under construction, and the hands at work are many. While there is the punctuation of consummatory events that separates the paragraphs of one’s lived experience, still the narrative is coherent and continuous: a never-ending story.


Extend your utmost emptiness as far as you can
And do your best to preserve your equilibrium (jing)35:
In the process of all things emerging together (wanwu)
We38 can witness their reversion.
Things39 proliferate,
And each again returns to its root.
Returning to the root is called equilibrium.
Now as for equilibrium—this is called returning to the propensity of things,
And returning to the propensity of things is common sense.
Using common sense is acuity,
While failing to use it is to lose control.
And to try to do anything while out of control is to court disaster.
Using common sense is to be accommodating,
Being accommodating is tolerance,
Being tolerant is kingliness,
Being kingly is tian-likt,
Being tian-like is to be way-making,
And the way-made is enduring.
To the end of one’s days one will be free of danger.


The optimum posture of the heart-and-mind (xin ) is to achieve and sustain an emptiness and equilibrium that will enable it to take in the world as it is without imposing its own presuppositions upon it, and without allowing the world to cause it agitation. It is significant that xin—a stylized drawing of the aorta—precludes the assumption of distinctions between thinking and feeling, or idea and affect. Xin is frequently translated simply as “heart,” but since it is the seat of thinking and judgment, the notion of mind must be included in its characterization if the term is to be properly understood. Indeed, the functional equivalent of what we often think of as “purpose” or “intention” is also implicit in the notion of xin.

Going back to Plato, the Western tradition has been accustomed to construe efforts aimed at moral perfection as involving an internal struggle between reason and passion, or, with Augustine, between what we know we ought to do, and an obstreperous will that frustrates our acting upon that knowledge.

The interpenetration of idea, intention, and affect expressed in the notion of xin suggests that in the classical Chinese world the conflict associated with self-consummation is not turned inward as a struggle between the heart and the mind—that is, between the passions and reason, or between the will and judgment. If the dynamic of self-consummation does not entail the self divided against itself, what is the source and nature of the disturbance that the cultivation of an appropriate personal disposition is meant to overcome?

If agitation is not referenced primarily within one’s soul, it can only be a disturbance in the relationships that constitute the self in its interactions with external things. It is through a mirroring of the things of the world as they are in their relations with us that we reach a disposition in which none among the myriad things is able to agitate our hearts-and-minds, and we are best able to promote their flourishing.

Throughout the Huainanzi we find reference to this “mirror-like knowing.” For example, in Huainanzi 6:

Sages are like a mirror—
They neither see things off nor go out to meet them,
They respond to everything without storing anything up.
They are thus never injured through the myriad transformations they undergo.

This Daoist disposition is neither passive nor quietistic. “Mirroring” is best seen as synergistic and responsive, like virtuoso dancing or charioting or “push hands (tuishou )” in taijiquan, where all of the elements are in step, and constitute a fluid interdependent whole. Such emptiness and equilibrium achieved at the root in the ordinary business of the day allows for mutual accommodation. And the common sense that facilitates such accommodation, far from being trite or trivial, is the distilled wisdom of the ages—a tried-and-true insight into the cadence of life—and as such, is deserving of enormous respect. It is what William James called “a stage of equilibrium in the human mind’s development.36:

Accommodation, far from being passive or weak, is the source of the fullness of strength and influence, timeliness and efficacy. Indeed, accommodation is inclusionary, enabling one to extend oneself through patterns of deference. It is ordering the external effected through inner tranquillity; it is governing the trunk and branches by taking care of the root; it is bringing order to the myriad things by managing the gate through which they emerge. Accommodation, inclusivity, and tolerance are the most effective means of achieving a stable and enduring social, political, and cosmic order. This then is how the kingly and the numinous way is extended and maintained.


With the most excellent rulers, their subjects only know that they are there,
The next best are the rulers they love and praise,
Next are the rulers they hold in awe,
And the worst are the rulers they disparage.
Where there is a lack of credibility,
There is a lack of trust.
Vigilant, they are careful in what they say.
With all things accomplished and the work complet37:
The common people say, “We are spontaneously like this.”


While certainly advocating a kind of political anarchism, the Daodejing still assumes the need for a hierarchical political structure, with rulers above and the common people below. What is distinctively anarchistic about the Daoist political order is the absence of coercion. The most efficacious regime is one in which those who rule carry out their administrative responsibilities so lightly and unobtrusively that the people are able to go about their business confidently without detecting any kind of manipulation. The people are never given reason to question the credibility of this unadvertised and always distant source of political orchestration, and it would not even occur to them that this good life is of anyone’s making save their own. The expectation that social order emerges from the bottom up is a strong theme in this traditionally agrarian culture in which most adjustments are the informal business of the extended family.

The grand analogy that is at work here is that in its activities the human world does well to model its cosmic context. Just as the boundless field of experience in which the human life is lived unfolds according to its own internal equilibrium without being secured by anything beyond it, so the human social and political order should proceed according to its own internal rhythms without relying upon some top-down source to discipline it. The ruler’s occupation is wuwei: that is, to bring together the concerted efforts of the people and to be the coordinate around which these contributions are synchronized to maximum benefit.


It is when grand way-making is abandoned
That authoritative conduct (ren) and appropriateness (yi) appear38:
It is when wisdom (zhi) and erudition arise
That great duplicity appears39:
It is when the six family relationships44 are disharmonious
That filiality (xiao) and parental affection (ci) appear.
It is when the state has fallen into troubled times
That upright ministers appear40:


It is philosophically significant that the Guodian find (c. 300 BCE) and the Mawangdui cache (168 BCE) contain both Confucian and Daoist documents. There are materials that are associated with the Confucian lineage extending from Confucius’s grandson, Zisizi, down to Mencius, and in the same tombs, versions of the Daodejing. The appearance of Confucian and Daoist texts in the same tombs indicates that the occupant had an intellectual compass that would accommodate both ways of thinking. While such tolerance might suggest that the intellectual tension between these two competing traditions had not as yet become as explicit as it is in later philosophical literature, it is difficult to read this present chapter, also contained in the early GD materials, as anything other than an anti-Confucian polemic.

When the authentic way of being human is thriving in the world, the family-based natural morality of the community takes care of itself, enabling its members to flourish and prosper. It is only in a period of decadence and decline that philosophers arise to proclaim the obvious, and in so doing, ironically exacerbate the problem by institutionalizing an artificial alternative that suffocates natural unmediated sentiment. What was spontaneous natural feeling becomes external rules of conduct, where the invocation of moral rules as an alternative to the spontaneous expression of feeling is dehumanizing.

Morality in a healthy community is nothing more than the uncaused emergence of patterns of deference and respect as one generation gives way to the next. Such a morality is alive and vibrant, with new experience occasioning an ongoing revision of old ways of doing things. The unfortunate breakdown of a world that allows the unadorned expression of honest feeling to become an alternative world in which educated morality and its vocabulary of right and wrong, good and evil, lead to the stifling of true affection.


Cut off sagacity (sheng) and get rid of wisdom (zhi41:
And the benefit to the common people will be a hundredfold.
Cut off authoritative conduct (ren) and get rid of appropriateness (yi42:
And the common people will return to filiality (xiao) and parental affection (ci).
Cut off cleverness and get rid of personal profit
And there will be no more brigands and thieves.
But these three sayings as they stand are still lacking
And need to be supplemented by the following:
Display a genuineness like raw silk and embrace a simplicity like unworked wood,
Lessen your concern for yourself and reduce your desires.


A contrast is carried over from the previous chapter between a bottom-up, unmediated morality that expresses the natural sentiments of human beings in community, and an ethic imposed upon the people from outside that serves only to distort their authentic feelings and to divide them against themselves. The former is particularistic and alive, while the latter is generic, and at best an ossified remnant of what was once real morality. Given the terms used, the target of the critique is clearly an increasingly institutionalized Confucianism.

Philosophically, there is good reason for chapter 18 and 19 to be read together. While chapter 18 describes the consequences of forsaking natural morality, chapter 19 promises that by getting rid of a reliance upon an unnatural moral catechism, we can restore our pristine ethical sensibilities.


Cut off learning and there will be nothing more to worry about.
How much difference is there really between a polite “yes” and an emphatic “no!”43:
How much difference is there between what is deemed beautiful and ugly44:
Those whom people fear
Cannot but also fear others.
So indefinite! Does this humbuggery ever come to an end!
Most people are happy, happy,
As though feasting at the Tailao banque45:
Or climbing some sightseeing tower in the springtime.
I alone am so impassive, revealing nothing at all,
Like a babe that has yet to smile;
So listless, as though nowhere to go.
Most people have more than enough,
While I alone have lost out.
I have the heart-and-mind of a fool—so vacant and dull!
The common lot see things so clearly,
While I alone seem to be in the dark.
The common lot are so discriminating,
While I alone am so obtuse.
So vague and hazy, like the rolling seas;
So indeterminate, as though virtually endless.
The common lot all have their purposes
While I alone am a dull-witted yokel.
My needs alone51 are different from other people,
Cherishing my mother’s milk.


Learning is all about being on the right side of conventional distinctions. Yet these distinctions—assenting and rejecting, deeming beautiful and otherwise, fearing and being feared, and so on—are at best porous and perspectival.

A contrast is established in the text between the ordinary run of people on the one hand—people who know what they enjoy, who understand that more is better, who value precision and discernment, and who are sure of what they want—and Daoist adepts on the other. The Daoists, unpersuaded as to the value of this kind of discriminating education, retain an inclusive, pristine state of mind, welcoming the full sea of experience like that of an infant, a blockhead, a fool, a country bumpkin. Rather than finding their nourishment at the marble temple of learning, the Daoists remain contented at the mother’s breast, suckled on the rich milk of immediate experience and unmediated feeling.


Those of magnificent character (de)
Are committed to way-making (dad) alone.
As for the process of way-making,
It is ever so indefinite and vague.
Though vague and indefinite,
There are images within it.
Though indefinite and vague,
There are events within it.
Though nebulous and dark,
There are seminal concentrations of qi within it.
These concentrations of qi are authentic,
And have within them true credibility.
From the present moment back into antiquity,
Praise for way-making has never ceased,
And it is through way-making that we can act in accordance with the sire of the many.
How do I know that the sire of the many is so? By this.


Way-making is participatory, and is thus influenced by the character of those who would act to extend it. While fluid and processual, it contains within it the eventful phenomena we identify as those “things” and “images” that make up our lives, including of course ourselves. This emerging field of experience is autogenerative, with the energy of transformation residing within it. The seminal concentrations of qi are fecund, giving birth to the myriad things around us, transforming as one thing becomes another. The under-determinacy of these unique constituents makes their boundaries ever porous, but even more so at the beginning of their ascendancy and in their decline.

Way-making as the unfolding field of experience is the unsummed totality of things and events. It is unsummed because it is unbounded, and can only be known from one perspective or another. There is no single-ordered whole, no perspective outside of it. Each of the foci that in total constitute experience is holographic in construing its own field of dynamic, transforming relationships.

There is a recurrent kind of expression in the Daodejing that ends several chapters, including this one: “By this (yici ).” The answer to the question, “How do we know that this is so?” is “By this.” This question, rephrased, is “What is your perspective on this?” Hence, the question “How?” also means “Whence?” The emphasis in this Daoist epistemology of feeling, then, is neither the external environs as an object of knowledge nor the solitary knower as subject, but upon the site at which the act of knowing takes place, and the range and quality of relationships that constitute this site. Given the qualitative dimension of knowing, implicit in this question, “How?” is “How well?” That is, how productive is the knowing of the world in this way?

The Zhuangzi contains a passage in which this notion of “locus” or “place” is presented as being integral to what it means to know:

Zhuangzi and Hui Shi were strolling across the bridge over the Hao river. Zhuangzi observed, “The minnows swim out and about as they please—this is the way they enjoy themselves.”

Huizi replied, “You are not a fish—how do you know what they enjoy?”

Zhuangzi returned, “You are not me—how do you know that I don’t know what is enjoyable for the fish?”

Huizi said, “I am not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know; but it follows that, since you are certainly not the fish, you don’t know what is enjoyment for the fish either.”

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s get back to your basic question. When you asked ‘From where do you know what the fish enjoy?’ you already knew that I know what the fish enjoy, or you wouldn’t have asked me. I know it from here above the Hao river.46:

Angus Graham, in interpreting this passage, observes that the expression anzhi can mean both “how do you know…” and “from where do you know…” But Zhuangzi is not just depending upon this linguistic ambiguity in order to win a sophistical argument. He has a more philosophic point to make: He wants to deny the “objectivity” of knowledge in the sense of the independence of the world known, from the knower. For Zhuangzi, knowledge is performative and a function of fruitful correlations. It is a “realizing” of a world in the sense of “making it real.” And the knower and the known are inseparable aspects of this same event. Agency cannot be isolated from action. As the Zhuangzi says elsewhere, “There can only be genuine understanding when there is a genuine person.”53 One and one’s posture or perspective is thus integral to what is known. Knowledge entails proximity. Zhuangzi’s experience with the fishes makes his world continuous with the world of the fishes, and as such, his claim to knowledge is a claim to having been there.

Being continuous with the fishes and collaborating with them in the experience does not deny the fishes their difference. In fact, it is only through Zhuangzi’s deference to their difference—allowing them to be what they are—that the experience can be optimally fruitful, and he can really come to know these particular fishes.

The expression “sire of the many (zhongfu )” balances the familiar metaphor for way-making “mother of everything that is (wanwu zhi mu )” and “the mother of the heavens and earth (tianxia mu ),” underscoring the androgyny of the process. It should be noted that mother is the impregnated female, and father is the siring male. Each of them entails the other.


Crimped then whole,
Warped then true,
Hollow then full,
Worn then new,
Modest then satisfied,
Demanding then bewildered47:
It is for this reason that the sages grasp oneness
To be shepherds to the world48:
Those who are not self-promoting are distinguished,
Those who do not show off shine,
Those who do not brag have lots to show,
Those who are not self-important are enduring49:
It is only because they do not contend
That none are able to contend with them.
Isn’t what the ancients called “giving up the crimped for the sake of the whole.”
Getting close to what these words mean!
This expression indeed says it all.


A major theme that runs through the Daodejing is the continuity between the focus and its field. The ever-shifting focus is constituted by an intrinsic pattern of relationships that locates it within its field of experience. These relationships are dynamic, and function in a way that can be discerned in the richness and complexity of nature itself. That is, any predicate we use to parse a particular focus will, in the course of the relentless, ineluctable process of transformation, entail its opposite as well.

The moon that has waxed full will eventually wane; the stand of cypress that has grown old will gradually be renewed; the star that is burning brightly will in time give itself up to the dark night. That is, a thing can be isolated provisionally as an event punctuated in terms of its present phase, and can also be seen in terms of the process as a whole. This being the case, we understand and function within the field of experience most effectively if we can resist the discriminating and judgmental attitude toward things that comes with a partial view of them, and instead relate to them on the basis of the wholeness implicated within any phase of their process.

This insight into the “wholeness” of the process that we discern in nature where everything in due course gives rise to its opposite can be instructive in guiding the human experience. In our desires, for example, less produces more, and more, less. In our social relationships, modesty leads to distinction, and accommodation gives rise to deference.


It is natural to speak only rarely.
Violent winds do not last a whole morning
And torrential rains do not last a whole day.
What is behind these occurrences?
[It is the heavens and the earth.50:
And if the heavens and the earth cannot sustain things for long,
How much less the human being.
Thus, those who are committed to way-making (dao) in what they do
Are on their way.
Those who are committed to character (de) in what they do
Achieve this character;
While those who lose it
Are themselves lost51:
Way-making is moreover enhanced59 by those who express character,
Just as it is diminished by those who themselves have lost it.


Throughout the Daodejing there is a sustained suspicion of language. Chad Hansen has even characterized this text as being fundamentally “anti-language.” In describing the evolution of Daoism, Hansen suggests that “Since language is an instrument of social control, we should avoid it—and everything that goes with it.”60 One point that Hansen is making here is well taken: “Trained discriminations are not a constantly reliable guide to behavior. Culturally motivated preferences based on those distinctions are, on the whole, unreliable. And they control us in insidious, unnatural ways.”61 But it might be a case of throwing out the baby with the befouled bathwater to extrapolate from the entirely reasonable claim about Laozi’s Daoism that “as anarchy, it rebels not only against political authority, but all social authority” and then to infer that this means “the way to remove the authority of society totally from your life is to remove language.52:

While we might find a palpable irony in one of the world’s literary classics offering a critique of the language in which it is written, it is undeniably the case that a major theme of the Daodejing is that an uncritical use of language can lull us into a distorted understanding of the nature of the world in which we live. That said, language also has an important function for the Daoists who rely heavily upon oral transmission to pass on their ideas to subsequent generations. Broadly speaking, in the absence of the divorce between philosophy and rhetoric that occurred in classical Greece, there is an appreciation in the classical Chinese tradition of the performative and perlocutionary power of language that not only describes a world, but more important, commands a desired world into being. The Daodejing is not an exception to this sensibility.

What then is the Daoist reticence in the use of language? The Daodejing is not a discursive, expository Aristotelian treatise that, in a linear and sequential way, sets out to explain the way the world is. Rather, it is a deliberately collated and edited collage of largely rhymed wisdom literature that was drifting about in the early Chinese tradition. Michael LaFargue offers an alternative reading strategy for the Daodejing in suggesting that, rather than anticipating some literal, univocal interpretation for each passage, we ought to search the text empathetically for the point that it is trying to make relative to concrete life situations.63 After all, even though empirically the claim that “a watched pot never boils” is demonstrably false, that does not diminish the saying’s psychological insight for those people who are given to watching pots.

The philosophical problem that provokes the Daoist mistrust of language lies in the possibility that a misunderstanding of the nature of language has the potential to promote the worst misconceptions about the flux and flow of experience in which we live our lives. There is an obvious tension between the unrelenting processual nature of experience and the function of language to separate out, isolate, and arrest elements within it. To the extent that it is the nature of language to arrest the process of change and discipline it into a coherent, predictable order, there is the likelihood that an uncritical application of language might persuade us that our world is of a more stable and necessary character than it really is.

The assumption, for example, that there is a literal language behind the metaphorical can introduce notions of permanence, necessity, and objectivity into our worldview that can have deleterious consequences. Corollary to such notions are dualistic categories, such as reality and appearance, right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, reason and rhetoric, that encourage a finality and thus a kind of dogmatism in our judgments about the world. Such assumptions in parsing our experience lead to the exclusionary prejudices familiar in foundational ways of thinking.

Of course, the alternative to this “myth of the given” foundationalism is not its twin: a divisive and intolerant relativism that promises a different yet equally final judgment for each discrete person or community. In the Daoist processual worldview, there are not the gaps in experience that would permit either an exclusive foundationalism or an equally exclusive relativism. The ethos of the world is not a given, but an ecological achievement that is increased or diminished by human participation and behavior. Morality, then, is an ongoing negotiation in which some consensual and thus appropriate good can be produced by considering the needs and possible contributions of all things concerned.


Blowhards have no standing,
The self-promoting are not distinguished,
Show-offs do not shine,
Braggarts have nothing to show,
The self-important are here and gone.
As these attitudes pertain to way-making (dao),
They are called indulgence and unseemliness.
Such excess is so generally despised
That even those who want things
Cannot abide it.


Arrogance is disintegrating. It is both an unrealistic obsession with the importance of one’s own role and a blindness to the contributions of those around one. Ironically, it has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than persuading the community of one’s own singular worth, it turns them away in irrepressible disgust. And of course, such disgust is rationalized by those who are smug and self-important as jealousy, quite ironically inspiring an even higher opinion of themselves. Such excess, despised by most, has precious little to offer to the quality of our experience.


There was some process that formed spontaneousl53:
Emerging before the heavens and the earth54:
Silent and empty,
Standing alone as all that is, it does not suffer alteration55:
[All pervading, it does not pause.56:
It can be thought of as the mother of the heavens and the earth.
I do not yet know its name (ming).
If I were to style it57:
I would call it way-making (dao).
And if forced to give it a name,
I would call it grand.
Being grand, it is called passing,
Passing, it is called distancing.
Distancing, it is called returning.
Way-making is grand,
The heavens (tian) are grand,
The earth is grand,
And the king is also grand.
Within our territories
There are four “grandees”
And the king occupies one of them.
Human beings emulate the earth,
The earth emulates the heavens,
The heavens emulate way-making,
And way-making emulates what is spontaneously so (ziran).


Among other things, this chapter represents a valiant although self-consciously inadequate attempt to do what Wittgenstein says cannot be done. According to Wittgenstein, one cannot predicate the whole. That is, one cannot say that the totality of things is either large or small if there is nothing beyond it with which to compare.

The ongoing process of experience predates the configuration of our cosmology and our terms of understanding it. A familiar interpretation of this chapter is that it offers one of the earliest Chinese cosmogonies, referencing some primal origin behind the discriminations of our everyday world. This reading becomes problematic if we think in terms of some initial beginning that is independent of the process itself. For the Daoist, the flow of experience has no beginning and no end. However, as the world continues to transform, in due course and with a sufficient passage of time, an increasingly novel world emerges that outruns and makes obsolete any earlier explanatory vocabulary.

So beyond but certainly not excluding the appropriateness of reading this chapter as an account of the ongoing process of experience, this chapter is also a description of the way in which this process in the continuing present proliferates in producing the manifold of particulars that constitute it. Diachronically, each event within this grand and fluid process emerges, is consummated in achieving the uniqueness and complexity that makes it truly distinctive and thus “distant” from its context, and then subsequently returns. As such, the process in any moment is being reconstituted by the various stages of growth and creativity that each phenomenon moves through. The process produces the events; the events produce the process.

Synchronically, then, each event when regarded in terms of its distinctness has a certain distance from its context, and when viewed in terms of its continuity with its context, has returned.

In early Chinese natural cosmology, there is no appeal to some substratum or independent metaphysical origin, no “One” behind the many. Tang Junyi offers a proposition about the ontological parity among the myriad of things expressed as “the inseparability of the one and the many, continuity and multiplicity (yiduo bufenguan ).”70 A process worldview is one of radical contextuality, where the particular and its context are at once continuous and distinct. In the Yijing, this sense of continuity and discreteness is captured in the image of the four seasons that are distinct from each other and yet continuous as well:

In their flux (bian ) and their continuity (tong ) the processes of nature are a counterpart to the four seasons58:

Just as the myriad particulars are implicated within the notion of way-making, so the myriad people are implicated within the notion of “kingship.” The human experience, far from being incidental to the unfolding of the cosmos, is an integral part of its majesty.


The heavy is the root of the light;
Equilibrium (jing) is the lord of agitation.
It is for this reason that the ruler72 in traveling the entire day
Will not take leave73 of his heavy wagons.
It is only when he is ensconced in familiar chambers encircled by watchtowers
That he rises above such concerns.
How could someone be the king of a huge state
And treat his own person as less important than the world?
If he treats his person lightly, he loses the root;
If he becomes agitated, he loses his throne.


All polarities are reconciled in the relationship between the particular focus and its field. To use singularity and plurality as a familiar polarity, a person is certainly a unique, nonsubstitutable individual, but as a radically contextualized matrix of relationships, this same person is also a manifold of selves all implicated within this individuality. Focus and field is thus another way of declaring the inseparability of the one and the many, of continuity and multiplicity, of uniqueness (aloneness) and commonality (sharedness).

The reconciliation of polarities means that in any particular event, there is a continuity between the inconsequential and the important, between equilibrium and agitation. This being the case, the Daodejing insists that if small matters are not attended to, they can have cascading consequences in which equilibrium gives way to turmoil.

In giving this apothegm a political application, the text evokes the image of a royal progress in which the ruler must be unrelentingly attentive to the basics—to the provisioning supply wagons upon which the well-being of not only the ruler, but all the travelers depends. Within the walls of the state itself, the ruler’s person is no different from all the other matters of concern to the court, and as such, must be given appropriate care.

This chapter might well be read together with chapters 7 and 13. If rulers treat all things with equal seriousness and respect, their own persons will be taken care of as a matter of course. The way to be rid of such personal concerns is to be rid of the distinction between one’s person and the world in which we live. One both values one’s person and loses one’s person in a thoroughgoing integration into one’s field of experience. This is what the Zhuangzi calls “hiding the world in the world.”74 After all, “those who begrudge their persons as though they were the world can be put in charge of the world” (chapter 13).


Able travelers leave no ruts or tracks along the way;
Able speakers make no gaffes that might occasion reproach;
Able reckoners have no use for tallies or counting sticks;
Able sealers make no use of bolts or latches yet what they close off cannot be opened.
Able cinchers make no use of ropes or cords yet their knots cannot be undone.
It is for this reason that the sages in being really good at turning others to account
Have no need to reject anyone,
And in dealing with property,
Have no need to reject anything.
This is what is called following their natural acuity (ming).
Thus able persons are teachers of the able
While the inept provide them with raw materials.
While perhaps wise enough,
Those who fail to honor their teachers and to be sparing with their raw materials
Have gotten themselves utterly lost.
This is what is called being subtle and getting to the essentials.


True efficacy means having the acuity to take things on their own terms and in so doing, to turn them to optimum account. The Daodejing itself makes frequent reference to “natural acuity (ming ),” as in chapter 16: “Using common sense is acuity, while failing to use it is to lose control.” The Zhuangzi offers further elaboration upon the relationship between acuity and efficacy:

Where neither “this” nor “that” has an opposite is called the hinge of way-making. As soon as this hinge finds its way to the center of the circle, it can respond without end. What is right is on an endless continuum, and so is what is wrong. Thus it is said: There is nothing like having acuity (ming)59:

In the Daoist worldview, “evil” is the opposite of efficacy. It is a failure of imagination, the inability to make the most of things, a missed opportunity. It is the failure to recognize and appreciate the worth of both people and things, and as a consequence, to misuse them. There is no need either to pick and choose, or to squander anything. For those who are truly proficient at what they do, there is no wastage—nothing left over, no loose ends. And there is nothing beyond their own proficiency that they are dependent upon to be successful in what they do.

When something or someone measures up to the mark, they can serve as a standard. And when they fall short of it—even far short of it—they become the best reason for having a standard in the first place.


Know the male
Yet safeguard the female
And be a river gorge to the world.
As a river gorge to the world,
You will not lose your real potency (de),
And not losing your real potency,
You return to the state of the newborn babe.
Know the clean
Yet safeguard the soiled
And be a valley to the world.
As a valley to the world
Your real potency will be ample,
And with ample potency,
You return to the state of unworked wood.
Know the white
Yet safeguard the black
And be a model for the world.
As a model for the world,
Your real potency will not be wanting,
And with your potency not wanting,
You return to the state of the limitless.
When unworked wood is split,
It is made into utensils.
When the sages are employed,
They are made into head officials.
There is no cutting, however, in the very best tailoring.


The continuity between polarities, a persistent theme in the Daodejing, is here applied specifically to gender, suggesting that the Daoist image of the most consummate and fertile person is an androgyne who has access to the full range of gender traits. A similar profile of this person is found in chapter 10: “With nature’s gates swinging open and closed are you able to remain the female?” It is the river gorge of the impregnated female that gives birth to the world.

This image of the dark, moist, and seemingly vacant concavity of the birthing female is pervasive in the Daodejing. In chapters 6, 32, 39, and 61, this river valley image is invoked to express the idea of inexhaustible cosmic fecundity.

Again, this gender distinction has two sides. First, it represents a whole range of other dichotomies that in their breadth demarcate the rich scope of possible behaviors available to the human being: being first and last, strong and weak, hard and soft, aggressive and recessive, agitated and still, and so on. Secondly, the androgyny of the consummate person resists any exclusivity among these traits. Under different circumstances, the authentic person might seem to be either aggressive or recessive, but in fact is both at the same time.76 While splitting up the world and making distinctions within it might seem to have a functional value, it always entails a diminution. The most effective way of cultivating order in the world invariably relies upon the power of inclusivity.


If someone wants to rule the world, and goes about trying to do so,
I foresee that they simply will not succeed.
The world is a sacred vessel,
And is not something that can be ruled.
Those who would rule it ruin it;
Those who would control it lose it.
In the way of things:
Some move ahead while others follow behind;
Some breathe to warm themselves while others breathe to cool themselves down;
Some are strong while others are disadvantaged60:
Some accumulate while others collapse.
It is for this reason that the sages eschew the excessive, the superlative, and the extravagant.


The world is constituted by a boundless sumptuousness of strange and wonderful things that often contradict each other in their life-patterns. This complex tension is not disciplined into order by some external controlling hand, imposing its considered design upon experience. And yet the oppositions that exist among things in nature resolve themselves into a self-adjusting balance and harmony. The spirituality we find pervasive in nature, far from being a gift bestowed by some external source, is rather the flowering of this thriving harmony. In fact, this harmony is not only autogenerative and self-sustaining, but persists only as long as it remains free from calculated manipulation, well-intended or otherwise.

When the patterns of nature are taken as counsel for political order in the empire, they teach us that the human world too will flourish if left to its own internal impulses. Coercive interventions from “above,” while perhaps temporarily efficacious, are, in the long term and in the big picture, a source of destabilization and impoverishment. It is thus that sagacious rulers stay close to the center, and simply oversee a world that can be relied upon to order itself.


Those who use way-making (dao) to minister to the ruler
Do not seek to make him the strongest in the world by force of arms.
Such a business would likely come back to haunt them61:
Wherever armies bivouac
Brambles and thistles will grow62:
[In the wake of great armies
Lean years are sure to follow.63:
Able commanders look only to achieve the right results
Without seeing victory as a source of empowerment.
They get their results without arrogance,
They get their results without becoming self-important,
They get their results without bragging about them,
They get these results and accommodate them only as a last resort64:
This is called getting the right results without forcing them65:
And creates a situation that is likely to endure66:
For something to be old while in its prime
Is called a departure from the way of things.
And whatever departs from the way of things will come to an untimely end67:


To achieve enduring results in all we do, we should be consistent with the way of things. To depart from this course of action and take any situation to an extreme will only backfire on us, producing untoward consequences. A good example of this precept is the use of arms to effect order.

The Daodejing offers a philosophy of warfare not unlike that of the Sunzi. It begins from the assumption that the prosecution of war is always a losing proposition, and should be undertaken only when all other avenues of reconciliation have been exhausted. While embracing this caution, the Daodejing like the Sunzi recognizes the fact that under some circumstances we are left with no choice but to resort to arms. Still, we must look to optimizing the possibilities of the situation, even when success is only minimizing our losses. This means that force can be justified only when a failure to respond aggressively would entail a great degree of coercion.

The most able commanders do only what is necessary to restore order without attempting to parlay the temporary military gain into long-term political capital. They are fully aware that with coercion, less is better, and do not regard their unfortunate role in having to restore order a personal recommendation. While military force might be a necessary evil in overcoming a particular obstacle, it is only an interim intervention, and is totally inappropriate as a policy for sustaining lasting social and political stability.

Martial order is an oxymoron, and being an offense against the way things ought to be, it is as vulnerable to natural correction as any other monstrosity.


Military weapons are inauspicious instruments,
And are so generally despised
That even those who want things
Cannot abide them68:
Rulers under normal circumstances take the left side as the seat of honor,
But when they go to war, they honor the right.
Thus, military weapons are not the instruments of true rulers.
Military weapons are inauspicious instruments,
And so when you have no choice but to use them,
It is best to do so coolly and without enthusiasm.
Do not glorify weapons,
For to do so is to delight in killing people,
And anyone who delights in killing people
Will come up short in the world.
It is for this reason that on auspicious occasions we honor the left side,
While at funerals we honor the right.
Analogously, the lieutenant commander stands to the left
And the supreme commander takes up his position on the right.
This means that they are positioned as they would be at a funeral.
When the casualties are high,
Inspect the battleground with grief and remorse;
When the war is won,
Treat it as you would a funeral.


Coercion is anathema to human flourishing, and perhaps nothing is a more poignant symbol of coercion than the instruments of war. Far from being celebrated as the trappings of the strong and mighty, weapons should be regarded for what they really are: a most unfortunate if perhaps sometimes necessary evil.

This chapter sets out to demonstrate the tragic character of war. The full human life includes a broad spectrum of experiences, some of which are occasions for celebration and others for mourning. These two extremes are marked in Chinese custom by reversing the seat of honor. That is, in those ceremonies that punctuate the happy moments, the left is honored, and in those formalities that mark the moments of grief and heartache, the right is honored. The fact that whenever the military is involved, it is the right that is the seat of honor locates warfare and all of its horrors squarely and unmistakably on the side of life’s misfortunes.

Warfare ought not to be glorified. It is always a losing proposition, and there are no victors. Although on occasion unavoidable, it is nothing better than methodical state-sanctioned killing. Even in the event of victory, triumph on the killing fields should never be confused with the proper seasons of celebration, but instead should be treated as what it is: a state funeral properly marked by grief and mourning.


Way-making (dao) is really nameless (wuming).
Although in this unworked state it is of little consequence69:
No one in the world87 would dare to condescend to it.
Were the nobles and kings able to respect this,
All things (wanwu) would defer of their own accord.
The heavens and the earth would come together
To send down their sweet honey70:
And without being so ordered,
The common people would see that it is distributed equitably.
When we start to regulate the world we introduce names.
But once names have been assigned,
We must also know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop is how to avoid danger.
As an analogy to describe way-making in the world:
The small creeks flow into the rivers and seas.


The ongoing shaping of experience entails working with the as yet inchoate and thus seemingly insignificant phases of the process. Each step requires a quantum of imagination and inspiration that does not reference the world as it is, but flies ahead of what has already been articulated to forge a new way forward. The value of this novelty and the respect due it lies in its potential to reshape our world.

Were those who have responsibility for order in the human world sufficiently deferential to this effort to maximize the available resources, the world would respond with natural plenty and the people would cooperate with fairness in the distribution of its bounty.

In order to function effectively in managing our environment, we need distinctions. These distinctions in themselves are functional and enabling, but once established, can take on a life of their own. We quickly fall into the trap of turning names into things, so that these names identify some more real “I-know-not-what” that stands independent of the now “superficial” way in which we actually experience any particular event. We misinterpret the persistence within process as some underlying foundation of our experience. Rational structures become institutionalized and, given enough time, petrified. The regimen of values they carry with them, empowering some against others, become entrenched and uncompromising. What began as a convenience takes over, constraining the very experience it was created to facilitate, and in so doing, robs life of its creative vigor.

Some commentators have balked at the analogy offered here, worried that way-making should in fact be the larger and more expansive rivers and seas, rather than their many tributaries. The point, however, is that dao as the ongoing process of experience is both in the world and is the world, is both the foci and their fields. In chapter 25 we invoked Tang Junyi’s characterization of this natural cosmology as “the inseparability of the one and the many, of continuity and its multiplicity (yiduo bufenguan )” to explain how the process is both one and many at the same time, depending on which is foregrounded. Way-making is not the One behind the many, but is rather the somewhat determinate many that constitute the somewhat indeterminate and ever continuous process.


To know others is wisdom;
To know oneself is acuity (ming)71:
To conquer others is power,
To conquer oneself is strength.
To know contentment is to have wealth.
To act resolutely is to have purpose.
To stay one’s ground is to be enduring.
To die and yet not be forgotten is to be long-lived72:


The radical contextualization that is a pervasive feature of Daoist philosophy entails a priority of situation over agency. That is, agency is itself an abstraction from the complex web of constitutive relations that locates one within a specific, concrete situation. Thus, “to know” is to understand fully the reflexivity and mutually shaping relationship between self and context; “to conquer” is to be in full control of oneself within the shifting conditions of the life experience.

As chapter 46 states, to be content is simply “knowing when enough is enough.” This satisfaction is neither a state of mind nor the acquisition of some absolute quantum of stuff, but rather the quality of reciprocal appreciation that gives character to a specific matrix of relationships. Appreciating one’s relationships requires a knowledge of oneself as well as others, and the adjustments necessary to remain self-possessed in one’s interactions.

The dominant assumption in classical Chinese natural cosmology is that the energy of transformation is not invested in some external efficient principle that stands independent of its creature, but rather that this energy for change resides within the world itself. The world is autogenerative and “spontaneously so” without initial beginning and without presumptive end.

Within such a world, this notion of the correlativity of life and death is anything but mystical or obscure. Quite simply, life and death have no separate status. The absence of cosmogonie thinking means that life and death are not distinguished as events distinct from the normal, more gradual processes of change.

Important for understanding the notion of “perishing wang ” is its cognate relationship with “forgetting wang ,” a relationship that is made explicit here in the Daodejing. There is a strong sense that real dying occurs when one is forgotten. In a cultural tradition in which persons are understood to be irreducibly social, constituted by the pattern of roles and rituals of their lives’ narratives, the answer to the question What is lost and what is left? is important. As long as a person is remembered, he or she has a place and a life. The emphasis on genealogical continuity, the ethic of filiality, the cultural requisite of returning the body to the ancestors intact, the elaborate structure of Chinese funerary rites, and the role of ancestor worship as the primary religious observance are all an expression of this social memory. On the other hand, “not being around,” “being exiled,” and “disappearing” are all ways of dying while still being otherwise alive. Hence, it is not surprising that the two characters, “to perish wang” and “to be forgotten wang,” are found in alternative readings of this chapter 33.

The thread that seems to tie these lines of the text together is that it is purpose, place, and persistence that in sum give one an enduring role as a discernible current in the unfolding flow of experience.


Way-making (dao) is an easy-flowing strea73:
Which can run in any direction74:
With all things accomplished and the work complete75:
It does not assume any proprietary claim.
Since all things (wanwu) offer it allegiance
And yet it does not act as master76:
It can be counted among things of the most minor significance.
And since all things offer it allegiance
And yet it does not act as master,
It can also be counted among things of the greatest significance.
It is thus that the capacity of the sages to become great
Is simply because they do not try to do great things.
This is why they are indeed able to be great77:


While the ongoing stream of experience has a disposition and a propensity, it has no predetermined direction. Although within this stream all things find their completion, yet there is no isolatable, efficient agency within it that claims a controlling ownership over the process. The successful maturation of each thing within experience is achieved only through a collaboration with its environing others that entails both contribution and deference.

Persons find the greatest satisfaction within their families, for example, by contributing themselves utterly to the well-being of their contextualizing relations, and at the same time, by deferring to the appropriate needs of the other members. Their personal realization and the flourishing of their families are mutually entailing and coterminous.

Ecologically, it is the ongoing investment of each participant in the process that sustains the habitat, with often the failure of any one element being significant enough to threaten the symbiosis of the system. The habitat facilitates the process only by deferring to the importance of each element within it. From this perspective, the system is merely a function of the flourishing of each participant, with the importance residing in these constituents. In fact, with each participant being a holograph of the system, there is no super-ordinated system at all, but only the associated living of the participants.

On the other hand, the thriving of each participant is dependent upon a conducive (rather than a controlling) environment that allows for its uninterrupted growth. It is this positive absence of control that is vital in sustaining the system. Less is indeed more.

The effective “governing” of the sage is analogous to the flourishing of an ecological habitat. The community is self-defining, with its ethos emerging out of the collaboration of its constituents. Sages are simply virtuoso coordinators, getting the most out of their populations without the imposition of any personal agenda. Their “sagacity” at its most excellent is not only uncelebrated, but even goes unannounced. Such sagacity is the spontaneous emergence of the flourishing community as it comes to be implicated in their persons as some lofty emblem of continuity. Greatness lies not in the sages themselves, but in their catalytic capacity to maximize the creative possibilities of their people. Again, for the sages, less is more. That is, from the perspective of their people, “we are spontaneously like this.”


Seize the great imag78:
And the world will flock to you.
Flocking to you they come to no harm,
And peace and security prevails.
Passing travelers will interrupt their journey
For music and fine fare.
But were way-making (dao) to be put into words:
It could be said to be so bland and insipid97 that it has no taste.
Look for it and there is nothing to see,
Listen for it and there is nothing to hear,
And yet in availing oneself of it, it is inexhaustible.


Seizing the great image is having an aspiration, and having the strength of character and imagination to forge a way that leads the human community forward to live in their most productive manner. Those who have the vision will win the people, and in pursuing this vision, will secure their well-being.

The central metaphor that pervades the Daodejing (and the Analects of Confucius as well) is making our way in the world. Many travelers along the road of life are distracted by the alluring pleasures of the senses. But way-making fairly described does not resolve itself into this taste or that. Drinking one’s cup of experience deeply is like partaking of artesian spring water that is at once the blandest of things, and the most delicious. Again, like spring water, effective way-making goes unnoticed, and yet it is not only essential to sustaining life, but without argument it is the most precious commodity in the world.


Whatever is gathered in
Must first be stretched out;
Whatever is weakened
Must first be made strong;
Whatever is abandoned
Must first be joined;
Whatever is taken away
Must first be given.
This is what is called the subtle within what is evident.
The soft and weak vanquish the hard and strong.
Fishes should not relinquish the depths.
The sharpest instruments of state should not be revealed to others.


This chapter begins by describing the mutual implication of opposites, a phenomenon that is pervasive in our experience of the world. This is the same insight we find in chapter 40: “‘Returning’ is how way-making moves, and ‘weakening’ is how it functions.” Any particular situation or condition that is most potent in its inchoate beginnings ultimately and inevitably gives way to its opposite.

Some commentators follow Han Feizi in interpreting this passage as a conscious political strategy for having one’s way. In wanting to accomplish great things, you initiate policy surreptitiously. On this reading, generosity is a calculated strategy used to subvert other people: You give in order to get. But such self-serving manipulation is not consistent with Daoist sensibilities.

Another interpretation might be that the mutual entailment of opposites can serve us as a caution against becoming preoccupied with one side of a situation. Such a comprehensive awareness of the ineluctable transformation of events can serve as a general precept in anticipating the eventual outcome and consequences of any particular situation.

The concluding three lines might be popular sayings that can be explained by the mutuality of antinomies. Any condition on reaching its extreme will subsequently give way to its opposite. Since the natural milieu of fishes is the deep water, for them to surrender the depths is an extreme that will precipitate disaster. State security depends upon knowledge—both what we know of our neighbors and, importantly, what they know of us. To allow one’s conditions to become transparent for one’s enemy invites disaster.


Way-making (dao) is really nameless (wuming)79:
Were the nobles and kings able to respect this,
All things (wanwu) would be able to develop along their own lines80:
Having developed along their own lines, were they to desire to depart from this,
I would realign them
With a nameless scrap of unworked wood.
Realigned with this nameless scrap of unworked wood,
They would leave off desiring.
In not desiring, they would achieve equilibrium81:
And all the world would be properly ordered of its own accord82:
(Dao section: 2426 characters83:


In the classical Chinese worldview, as in many others, language has power. “To name (ming )” is “to command (ming ).” If you have something’s name, you not only know it, but can contain it and hold it subject to your will. To invoke a name brings power and mastery with it. The custom of respecting a taboo on the names of one’s elders and superiors is a reflection of this belief. To have the vocabulary of a particular area of experience, then, is to assume charge over it and to control it.

But fixed principles, closed systems, the pretense of absolutes and initial origins are intellectually and practically suffocating. Dogma, artificiality, and finality close off the openness and fresh air of new directions in thought and action.

Indeed, the flow of experience is “nameless” and self-ordering. In making our way, it is the spontaneous aspect of experience and its irreversibility that enables us to overcome the pressure to conform to those existing structures that would obstruct the ineluctable process of self-transformation. In seeking to assist in removing such constraints and to help in reestablishing an equilibrium among things, perhaps the best tool in the toolbox is the uncalibrated set-square—a nondescript scrap of unworked wood that realigns things by disaligning them.


It is because the most excellent (de) do not strive to excel (de)
That they are of the highest efficacy (de).
And it is because the least excellent do not leave off striving to excel
That they have no efficacy84:
Persons of the highest efficacy neither do things coercively
Nor would they have any motivation for doing so.
Persons who are most authoritative (ren) do things coercively
And yet are not motivated in doing so.
Persons who are most appropriate (yi) do things coercively
And indeed do have a motive for doing so.
Persons who are exemplars of ritual propriety (li) do things coercively
And when no one pays them any heed,
They yank up their sleeves and drag others along with them.
Thus, only when we have lost sight of way-making (dao) is there excellence,
Only when we have lost sight of excellence is there authoritative conduct,
Only when we have lost sight of authoritative conduct is there appropriateness,
And only when we have lost sight of appropriateness is there ritual propriety.
As for ritual propriety, it is the thinnest veneer of doing one’s best and making good on one’s word,
And it is the first sign of trouble.
“Foreknowledge” is tinsel decorating the way,
And is the first sign of ignorance.
It is for this reason that persons of consequence:
Set store by the substance rather than the veneer
And by the fruit rather than the flower.
Hence, eschewing one they take the other.


For the Daoist, premeditated morality is a sham. Preassigned responses are forced and, because coercion only serves to diminish the creative possibilities of a situation, they are dehumanizing. Even in the cultivation of one’s own character, efforts to excel according to stipulated behaviors only compromise one’s natural moral proclivities, and will not do the job. There is a fundamental distinction to be made between actions that are inspired by and conduce to the formation of character, and those that are little more than an external show of proper conduct.

Technical morality, imposed from without, is no more than a record of steady moral deterioration. The more elaborate the terms of such norms, the clearer is the indication that morality has slipped from what we do spontaneously and unconsciously as the spirit moves us, to what we do for some self-conscious reason. Morality becomes increasingly instrumentalized, reduced to a means to some ulterior end in this spiraling decline. For the Daoist, the more that conduct is choreographed in the burlesque of Confucian ritualized living, the thinner and more diluted spontaneous moral sentiments become. This contrast is captured in the last section: the gulf between substance and veneer, between fruit and flower.

This chapter joins the anti-Confucian polemic of chapters 18 and 19 in which there is real concern that the Confucian celebration of increasingly artificial moral precepts will overwhelm the unmediated expression of natural feelings. It is for this reason that the full arsenal of Confucian moral values comes under assault.

To be fair to the early Confucian tradition, the Analects, the Mencius, and the recently recovered Confucian document, Five Modes of Proper Conduct (), all share this purportedly Daoist concern for moral authenticity as an uncontested value85:


Of old there were certain things that realized oneness:
The heavens in realizing oneness became clear;
The earth in realizing oneness became stable;
The numinous in realizing oneness became animated;
The river valleys in realizing oneness became full;
The lords and kings in realizing oneness brought proper order to the world86:
Following this line of thinking,
We could say that if the heavens had not become clear
They may well have fallen to pieces;
We could say that if the earth had not become stable
It may well have collapsed;
We could say that if the numinous had not become animated
It may well have faded away;
We could say that if the river valleys had not become full
They may well have dried up;
We could say that if the lords and kings had not brought proper order to the world
They may well have stumbled and fallen from power87:
Thus for something to be noble it must take the humble as its root;
For something to be high it must take the low as its foundation.
It is for this reason that the lords and kings use “friendless,” “unworthy,” and “inept” as terms to refer to themselves88:
This is a clear case of taking the humble as the root, is it not?
The highest renown is to be without renown.
They do not want to be precious like jade,
But common like stone.


Tang Junyi’s use of “the inseparability of one and many, of continuity and multiplicity (yiduo bufenguan )” to describe Chinese natural cosmology is a good place to begin in understanding the use of “one” in this chapter. In chapter 10, we have the passage, “In carrying about your more spiritual and more physical aspects and embracing their oneness (bao yi ), are you able to keep them from separating?” And again in chapter 22 there is an efficacy associated with “grasping oneness (zhiyi )”:108 “the sages grasp oneness to be shepherds to the world.”

While it is easier to see things as a manifold of separate events, it is more difficult not only to understand the “oneness” and “continuity” of the process, but to further act upon this understanding in our transactions with the world. The support that we derive from each element in our experience—the sustaining forces of the heavens and the earth, the sacredness of the numinous dimension of life, the nourishment provided by circulation of the life forces, and the security enjoyed by virtue of an appropriate political order—is due to the persistence of these lifelines within the process. What we call common sense is simply coordinating our own behavior with all that is coherent and persistent within the life experience.

One insight that is available in understanding the “oneness” and “continuity” of things is the mutual implications of opposites. The lofty are lofty only by virtue of the lowly that sustain them, and if the lofty ever forget this interdependence, they stand the real danger of toppling from prominence.

A second insight provided by an awareness of the radical continuity of things is the efficacy of inclusivity. While fame and reputation make one singular, and might raise one high above the people, the greatest renown is to be an intimate friend to the least among one’s countrymen. While rare items might be precious, the basic commodities that we depend upon, such as wind and water, stone and mortar, are even more so.


“Returning”109 is how way-making (dao) moves,
And “weakening” is how it functions.
The events of the world arise from the determinate (you),
And the determinate arises from the indeterminate (wu)89:


The swinging doors of the gateway open and, embarking upon its initial phase of becoming increasingly determinate, the inchoate “thing” or “event” emerges within its already determinate context. Culminating in its full maturation, the event then begins its gradual process of decline. As the journey continues, any persisting determinate aspects are ultimately weakened and overtaken by indeterminacy, concluding this sojourn into determinacy by its return to the indeterminate.

Just as being born is a certain death sentence, any phenomenon or event in its first steps on this journey toward consummation has set off on the road home. From the very start as it makes its way forward, its movement is one of “returning.” And its optimum potency is not in its consummation, but in its initial generation. From that point onward, it is a downhill slide.


When the very best students learn of way-making (dao)
They are just barely able to keep to its center90:
When mediocre students learn of way-making
They are sporadically on it and off it.
When the very worst students learn of way-making
They guffaw at the very idea.
Were they not to guffaw at it
It would be something less than way-making.
It is for this reason that in the Established Sayings113 we find it said:
Radiant way-making seems obscured,
Advancing way-making seems to be receding,
Smooth way-making seems to have bumps91:
The highest character (de) seems like a deep gorge,
The most brilliant white seems sullied,
The most broadminded character seems deficient,
The most steadfast character seems dubious,
The most pristine and authentic seems defiled.
The greatest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel is last to be attended to,
The greatest sound is ever so faint,
The greatest image has no shape.
Way-making is so profuse as to be nameless (wuming)92:
It is only way-making that is as efficacious in the beginnings of things As it is in their completion.


Forging a way for the world is a demanding business, and is not something that everyone is able to do. Throughout the Daodejing, a distinction is pursued between those of superior character and those of lesser parts. Indeed, there is a cultural elitism in Daoism that is reminiscent of classical Confucianism. It is Confucius himself who says: “The common people can be made to travel along the way, but they cannot be made to realize it” (Analects 8.9). Importantly, both the Confucian and the Daoist are proactive, and what makes one “common” for both of them is a lack of concentrated effort within their somewhat different regimens of self-cultivation. Said another way, what makes one “uncommon” for both Confucian and Daoist is the attainment of a disposition that conduces to optimally productive relationships, where the nature, scope, and priority given to these constitutive relationships differ respectively.

The way is always under construction. It is being built and extended by the best of every generation. But the way is both made and followed, and even when the common lot do not participate in constructing it, they can find a place along it.

We need to distinguish dao from classical Greek metaphysics. For Aristotle, a principle (arche) is 1) that from which a thing can be known, 2) that from which a thing first comes to be, or 3) that at whose will that which is moved is moved, and that which changes, changes.116 Dao or way-making is anarchic or unprincipled. It is without a beginning or origin. It is the indefinite in search of definition, the unlimited requiring limitation. It is lawless, obeying no strict causal rules. As such, it is open to infinite characterizations. It is the resource from which all things come, though it is in no sense separate from that for which it is the source.

In addition to the indeterminate qualities of experience, the determinate qualities are also integral to way-making. Although without character itself, way-making is nonetheless responsible for the character of every existing thing. As the locus of all characterizations, it cannot be predicated, and if predicated, it is both the predicate and its opposite as well. If bright, then dark also; if hard, then soft also.

There is another important feature of way-making that must be noticed. Way-making is the locus of creativity, where creativity is the self-construing activity of finite events in their processes of becoming. Co-creativity is present both in their beginnings and in their consummation. This function of way-making as the site and source of creativity is discovered only in and through things. Further, as the forum of creativity, way-making must remain provisional and incomplete. Otherwise true novelty—the spontaneous, uncaused, and unexplained emergence of the new and unique— would not be possible.


Way-making (dao) gives rise to continuity,
Continuity gives rise to difference,
Difference gives rise to plurality,
And plurality gives rise to the manifold of everything that is happening (wanwu).
Everything carries yin on its shoulders and yang in its arms
And blends these vital energies (qi) together to make them harmonious (he).
There is nothing in the world disliked more
Than the thought of being friendless, unworthy, and inept,
And yet kings and dukes use just such terms to refer to themselves93:
For things, sometimes less is more,
And sometimes, more is less.
Thus, as for what other people are teaching,
I will think about what they have to say, and then teach it to others.
For example: “Those who are coercive and violent do not meet their natural end”—
I am going to take this statement as my precept.


In chapter 25 we evoked Tang Junyi’s characterization of the Daoist natural cosmology as “the inseparability of the one and the many, of continuity and multiplicity (yiduo bufenguan ).” Daoism construes oneness and manyness as interdependent ways of looking at the process of experience. In this chapter, dao is said to engender both “one” and “many,” both “continuity” and “difference.” Viewed as the creative source of all things that, at the same time, is only experiencable through them, dao is both continuity and proliferation. A bare-bones reading of the opening passage of this chapter might be:

Dao engenders one,
One two,
Two three,
And three, the myriad things.

This might also be read as we have done here:

Dao gives rise to continuity,
Continuity to difference,
Difference to plurality,
And plurality, to multiplicity.

Since the proliferation of things are constitutive of dao and continuous with each other, they can be viewed several different ways: In their flux and flow they are “passing (shi ),” in their proliferation into distinct and unique particulars they are “distancing (yuan ),” and in their radical contextuality and continuity with other things they are “returning (fan )” (chapter 25).

If we chose to view this process of proliferation and differentiation from the perspective of the particular in its production of continuity, we could as legitimately claim that:

The myriad things engender three,
Three two,
Two one,
And one, dao.

Or, said another way:

Multiplicity gives rise to plurality,
Plurality to difference,
Difference to continuity,
And continuity to dao.

That is, the multiplicity of things seen from another perspective is the continuity among things: Each unique focus is holographic, entailing its contextualizing field.

Yin and yang is a vocabulary of contrast, suggesting the possible width of experience and the degree of its diversity. Particular events in the world emerge as unique combinations of this diversity. In this creative process, it is a balancing and harmonizing of extremes that is most productive. Hence, sometimes less is indeed more.


The softest things in the world ride roughshod over the hardest things94:
Only the least substantial thing can penetrate the seamless.
This is how we know that doing things noncoercively (wuwei) is beneficial.
Rare are those in the world who reach an understanding of the benefits of teachings that go beyond what can be said, and of doing things noncoercively.


The way to optimize the creative possibilities of all the elements in any particular situation is to allow them to collaborate in doing what they do noncoercively (wuwei). These participating elements are constituted relationally, and their most productive relationships are those in which they are able to contribute themselves fully to the shared nexus without being diminished by the friction of contentiousness. It is thus that the “softest” are in fact the hardest, and the thing that offers the least resistance penetrates the deepest.

As rehearsed in the Introduction above, the teachings of the Daodejing seem largely to be a collating of and an elaboration upon traditional wisdom sayings. The text does not pretend to any singular originality or radical disjunction with the ways of the past. Chapter 42 allows quite plainly: “As for what other people are teaching, I will think about what they have to say, and then teach it to others.”

The notion of “teachings that go beyond what can be said” also occurs in chapter 2 where, as here, it appears in tandem with “doing things noncoercively (wuwei).”

The “irrelevance charge” most often leveled against philosophy is a consequence of its being out of touch with the ordinary business of the day. Philosophy can be and often is a relatively systematic body of ideas accessed by its initiates through an elaborate technical vocabulary. Such professional philosophizing is “external” to life to the extent that it is esoteric, exclusive, and introduced to students through formal instruction.

The Daodejing in this respect is an object lesson in what it has to teach. By contrast with “professionalized” philosophy, the Daodejing appeals to a rich vein of shared wisdom sedimented into the everyday lives and language of the people. The “natural” disposition of the people that can be tapped for optimum harmony and equilibrium is an aggregate of unmediated feeling transmitted from generation to generation. By invoking sayings that are widely known, and by challenging its readers to make sense of associations that it draws among these sayings, the text simply orchestrates a popular transformation inspired by the internal impulse of the tradition itself.


Your reputation or your person—which is dearer to you?
Your person or your property—which is worth more?
Gaining or losing—which is the greater scourge?
Miserliness is certain to come at a huge cost;
The hoarding of wealth is certain to lead to heavy losses.
Therefore, those who know contentment avoid disgrace95:
And those who know where to stop avoid danger96:
They will be long-enduring.


Wealth and reputation are familiar preoccupations, and are frequently sought at the expense of one’s own personal well-being. This chapter goes about calculating the cost of dedicating oneself to fame and fortune, and weighs such an ambition against the familiar theme of finding contentment in what you have. Chapter 46 defines contentment as simply “knowing when enough is enough.” The choice is between an endless cycle of wanting and getting on the one hand, or finding satisfaction with what you have. The cycle of getting is endless because getting begets wanting, and wanting only increases with getting. Satisfaction with what you have, on the other hand, is neither the attainment of some subjective state of mind nor the acquisition of some objective standard of property, but rather an ongoing attunement of the relationships that locate one within one’s natural, social, and cultural environments. Just as “trusting” is more important than “truth,” so “being satisfied” is more important than “satisfaction.”


What is most consummate seems defective,
Yet using it does not wear it out.
What is fullest seems empty,
Yet using it does not use it up.
What is truest seems crooked;
What is most skillful seems bungling;
What is most prosperous seems wanting.
What is most eloquent seems halting97:
Staying active beats the cold,
Keeping still beats the heat.
Purity and stillness can bring proper order to the world.


The first line of chapter 45 is often translated as some variation on “what is most perfect” (Lau, Waley, Karlgren, Henricks). This rendering of dacheng raises an interesting philosophical issue that provides an opportunity to underscore some distinctions between a substance ontology and the Daoist process cosmology. It is sometimes claimed that “perfect” is an absolute term such as “prime” or “true” that precludes modification by qualifiers of degree such as “more,” “quite,” or “relatively.” If we accept this claim, then “perfect” as an absolute term entails finality and closure, and as such, is inappropriate for describing the always provisional consummation that we find in a process cosmology98:

The world-in-process that shapes and is shaped by human creativity is always open, always provisional, always changeable, always in some degree a unique disclosure. We might appeal to Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between “task or process” words on the one hand, and “achievement or success” words on the other, in locating an appropriate vocabulary to discuss the never-ending story of process cosmology. In the contrast between “to study” versus “to learn,” “to listen” versus “to hear,” “process” words are more appropriate for describing the human “task” of continuously going beyond one’s present conditions. Process words are a language of continuing disclosure and aspiration. “Success” words on the other hand are less appropriate to describe this processional sense of order because they can be construed as a vocabulary of closure and finality: “perfection,” “completion,” “ideal,” “absolute,” “eternal,” “immutable,” “universal,” and so on99:

In the absence of a language of closure, we must look to the notion of “consummation” as a sensibility that allows for the continuing process to be punctuated in terms of discriminated and distinct “events.” Process does not override singularity and uniqueness; on the contrary, it celebrates it.

It is the process of experience itself that is sumptuous in all respects. Because this process is fluid and creative, it is always pregnant with the vital energies of imminent transformation and incipient potentiality. Something is always about to happen. The provisional nature of experience gives the quite appropriate impression that nothing is perfect or complete. That is, something is missing and has yet to come. The most consummate thus arises out of this absence, this deficiency, this lack. It is the inconclusiveness of experience together with the bottomlessness of its possible permutations that makes the anticipation of what has yet to come so poignant and delicious.


When way-making (dad) prevails in the world,
The finest racing steeds are used to provide manure for the fields;
But when way-making does not prevail in the world,
Warhorses are bred just outside the city walls.
There is no crime more onerous than greed,
No misfortune more devastating than avarice.
And no calamity that brings with it more grief than insatiability.
Thus, knowing when enough is enough
Is really satisfying100:


One of the central themes of the Daodejing is how the human need to own, to get, to possess, throws the natural rhythms of life into convulsions. While the horror of war is perhaps the most dramatic consequence of wanting what you do not have, words such as “crime,” “misfortune,” and “calamity” are all common consequences of greed and avarice.

A distinction is necessary between simply “desiring,” which, in itself and exercised in an appropriate way, is a natural condition of the human experience, and the insatiable need to own as an invidious habit of living that feeds on itself. As the Buddhist scholar Peter Hershock is wont to say: The more we get, the more we want. The better we get at getting what we want, the better we get at wanting. But the better we get at wanting, the less we want what we get. The trouble is, in this endless spiral, with each iteration of the cycle of wanting and getting what we want, the wanting gets deeper. Not only are we unable to find satisfaction in what we have gotten, but in direct proportion to our increase in getting, our satisfaction becomes increasingly elusive. Hence, what is truly satisfying has little to do with what we have gotten, but is simply knowing contentment. Perhaps what is most satisfying is getting the most out of what we already have.


Venture not beyond your doors to know the world;
Peer not outside your window to know the way-making (dao) of tian.
The farther one goes
The less one knows.
It is for this reason that sages know without going anywhere out of the ordinary,
Understand clearly101 without seeing anything out of the ordinary,
And get things done without doing anything out of the ordinary102:


“Knowing,” “seeing,” and “doing” in Daoism (and early Chinese natural cosmology broadly) are always local. “Knowing” entails not only “know-how” and “know-what,” but also “know-whence.” That is, the world is always known from one perspective or another, and never from nowhere. Knowledge is not the subjective representation of some objective reality, but a quality of the local experience itself. It is the “realizing” of a particular kind of experience in the sense of bringing it about and making it real.

“Knowing” thus construed is achieved through responsive and efficacious participation in one’s environments, and through one’s full contribution at home in the local and the focal relationships that, in sum, make one who one is. In other words, making one’s way in the world is not “discovered” by traveling to distant lands and experiencing strange and wonderful things, but rather is “made” by participating fully in one’s defining roles and relationships.

In fact, “leaving home” effectively puts at risk precisely those specific relationships that, having been cultivated, constitute oneself as a “knowing” and “doing” perspective on the world. It is perhaps this consideration that justifies D. C. Lau’s instrumental reading of the opening lines: “By not setting foot outside the door…” and “By not looking out of the window….” This reading makes good sense of the line that follows: “The farther one goes the less one knows.” It would suggest that concentrating on one’s life locally is not only a desideratum for knowing the world, but is a necessary condition for it.


In studying, there is a daily increase,
While in learning of way-making (dao), there is a daily decrease:
One loses and again loses
To the point that one does everything noncoercively (wuwei).
One does things noncoercively
And yet nothing goes undone103:
In wanting to rule the world
Be always non-interfering in going about its business (wushi)104:
For in being interfering
You make yourself unworthy of ruling the world.


The most productive activities in the correlative world of classical Daoism are a function of optimally productive relations. And since coercion as either aggressor or victim diminishes the creative possibilities of a situation, optimally productive relations are the outcome of deferential dispositions in which all members of a social and natural nexus are able to express themselves fully in their relationships. It is under such conditions that a thriving community can accomplish the most, where “the most” is defined as the unique and productively diverse character of the community itself.

At issue here are two different ways of knowing a world. Most courses of study involve an ever-expanding range of knowledge and experience. To “master” a subject means to be able to predict and control a situation within a certain domain of the human experience. Not only is the Daoist suspicious of this kind of authority as a basis for interacting with our environments, but further the Daoist is persuaded that such “knowledge” promotes attitudes of mind that frustrate its own intentions. The development of a really deferential disposition requires largely a letting go of those barriers to associative and synergistic living that prevent full participation and contribution.

Perhaps one rather obvious example of these two approaches to functioning effectively in our world is our attempt over the last century to control water on the North American continent through the construction of dams and levies. Such construction feats certainly require a sophisticated level of engineering expertise, but to the extent that there is an insufficient respect for the way in which the processes of nature work, these projects have wreaked havoc on water supply, fish stocks, and natural reserves, and have precipitated human disaster where we have built our population centers on the floodplains.

Is the Daoist a Luddite, then? The problem is not the technology but the technological mind. The familiar passage from Zhuangzi about the farmer’s response to the use of the well-sweep is a most appropriate gloss on this very question. On hearing about the well-sweep as a more efficient substitute for his pitcher for irrigating his fields, the old farmer is incensed, and draws a straight line between the use of such contrivances and a contriving heart-and-mind. For him, the cost is too great:

If one has a contriving heart-and-mind lodged in his breast, he will be impure, and if he is impure, his spirit will be agitated, and the way (dao) will not carry someone whose spirit is agitated105:


Sages really think and feel immediately106:
They take the thoughts and feelings of the common people as their own.
To not only treat the able as able
But to treat the inept as able too
Is a quantum gain in ability.
To not only treat the credible as credible
But to treat those you do not trust as credible too
Is a quantum gain in credibility.
As for the presence of sages in the world, in their efforts to draw things together:
They make of the world one muddled mind.
The common people all fix their eyes and ears on the sages107:
And the sages treat them as so many children.


We can treat the expression wuxin , “thinking and feeling immediately,” as a wu-form. Just as wuwei in meaning “to do things noncoercively” is both a disposition and a quality of action, “thinking and feeling immediately” too is a sedimented habit of engagement.

What makes the sages “sages”? Using the focus-field language, sages are persons who through the quality of their transactions are able to establish patterns of deference that implicate the entire population within their fields of activity. The basis of the flourishing community is not ready-made individuals who distinguish themselves through their uncommon contributions, but rather a “functional” inchoate heart-mind emergent from productive relations. It is through communication and associated living that the shared knowledge, beliefs, and aspirations of individuals are formed.

Human realization is achieved, then, not through the wholehearted participation in communal life forms, but by life in community that forms one whole-heartedly. We do not speak because we have minds, but become like-minded by speaking to one another in a communicating community. The “thoughts and feelings” of the common people describe the emergence of a heart-mind out of social transactions and effective communication. This is an optimizing process of self- and world-enlargement that is focused and consummated in the conduct of the sage. In creating community, to get the best out of the conventionally best is relatively easy; to find the best in those who have been weighed, measured, and dismissed as the least, is to get the most out of your ingredients. And it is getting the most out of your ingredients that is the very definition of sagacity.

The “immediacy” of sagacious thinking and feeling has several implications. First, the locus of sagacious thinking lies in inspiring and transforming the ordinary and routine business of the common people rather than in some “I-know-not-what” altered state of consciousness. Secondly, sagacious living in drawing together and focusing the aspirations of the community is not a process of homogenization that sacrifices uniqueness and particularity to the gods of a clarifying rationalization. It might not be “clear” why the community thinks and feels the way it does, but in its richness and complexity, it certainly feels good. And thirdly, the people are able to remain childlike and to be treated as such because there is no master narrative in place that would discipline their experience, and in so doing, make it “grown up.” The unmediated potency of the child is a frequent image in the Daodejing (for example, chapters 10, 20, 28, and 55).


In the cycle of life and death,
One third are the companions of life,
One third are the companions of death108:
And one third again are people who, because of their preoccupation with staying alive,
Move toward the execution ground with each and every step.
Now why do they do this?
Simply because of their preoccupation with staying alive.
I have heard it said that those who are good at holding on to life
Do not steer clear of rhinos and tigers when traveling in the hills,
And do not hide behind armor133 and shields when entering the fray.
For the rhino finds nowhere to gore,
The tiger nothing to sink its claws into,
And the soldier nothing into which he can lodge his blade.
How can this be so?
Because there is not a whiff of the execution ground about them.


This is an important chapter in establishing a contrast between the presuppositions about life expectancy in the contemporary world, and those assumptions that attended life in classical China. Taken in their own context, the statistics offered here are probably quite accurate. Today there is an expectation that a full complement of life is some 75 or 80 years. If we turn the clock back a few generations, even in the relatively medically advanced environments of Western Europe and North America, childbirth was perilous for both infant and mother alike, not to mention the horror of plagues and pestilence that would occur at regular intervals.

It is hard to say how this precariousness of life would affect human relationships. On the one hand, such high mortality rates must have been at least a caution in the natural affection that parents would be willing to invest in their newly born children. In traditional China, there was the custom of calling infants pejorative names as a way of warding off those forces that would claim them and take them away.

On the other hand, such relentless temporality might well have made the fleeting relationship with a little life that much more precious. And when the perils of youth were successfully negotiated, a journey that reached longevity was certain to be much honored and celebrated.

The Zhuangzi can serve as a gloss here:

Those who understand way-making (dao) certainly have a penetrating familiarity with the overall pattern of things; those who understand this pattern certainly know how to deal with contingencies. And those who know how to deal with contingencies will not find themselves harmed by other things. For those of the very best character, fire cannot burn them, water cannot drown them, heat and cold cannot harm them, birds and beasts cannot hurt them. This is not to say they don’t pay any attention to such things, but rather that because they are alert to danger, secure amid changing fortunes, and careful in their undertakings, nothing is able to do them harm109:


Way-making (dao) gives things their life,
And their particular efficacy (de) is what nurtures them.
Events shape them,
And having a function consummates them.
It is for this reason that all things (wanwu) honor way-making
And esteem efficacy.
As for the honor directed at way-making
And the esteem directed at efficacy,
It is really something that just happens spontaneously (ziran)
Without anyone having ennobled them.
Way-making gives them life and nurtures them,
Rears and develops them.
It brings them to fruition and maturation,
Nourishes and guards over them.
Way-making gives things life
Yet does not manage them.
It assists them
Yet makes no claim upon them.
It rears them
Yet does not lord it over them.
It is this that is called profound efficacy.


The world emerges as a collaboration between foci and their fields, between particular events and their contexts, between one’s effective character and one’s way in the world, between de and dao. It is only within the complexity of a contextualizing situation that particular events take shape and assume their productive functions. Thus, within this process, respect is extended to both the energy of insistent particularity and the environments that conduce to its consummation.

While one’s general field of experience is the locus within which one finds the sustenance and shelter essential to achieve one’s own maturation, this environment in spite of its generosity does not make proprietary or regulatory claims on the particular events that constitute it. Given that the disposition of the general field emerges out of the expressed character of its constituents and is always construed from one perspective or another, the field itself is neither objective nor generic, having its own profound particularity.


The world has its fetal beginning
That can be considered the mother of the world.
You have to have gotten to this mother,
Before you can understand her progeny.
And once you have understood her progeny,
If you go back and safeguard the mother,
You will live to the end of your days without danger.
Block up the openings
And shut the gateways,
And to the end of your days your energies will not be used up110:
But if you vent the openings
And multiply your responsibilities,
To the end of your days you will be incurable.
Making out the small is real acuity (ming),
Safeguarding the weak is real strength.
Taking into account the way things reveal themselves,
If you go back again and rely upon your acuity,
You will stay clear of calamities.
This is what is called according with common sense.


Life-experience as we know it has its fetal beginning with the mother of the world, and the offspring of this matriarch are the pageant of novel events that emerge in the unfolding of each moment. Importantly, the fetal beginning of the world is a claim about the continuing present and generational divides in an ongoing genealogy rather than about some ultimate origin or initial beginning. That is, creativity is always expressed in situ, entailing both determinate and indeterminate aspects in a never-beginning and never-ending process. It is, indeed, turtles all the way down.

If we understand the nature of experience—both its determinate aspects (the existing context) and its indeterminate source (the mother)—then we have insight into the stream of novel events as they present themselves. And an insightful appreciation of what is happening in the ongoing transformation of things is the best way to secure ourselves within this world.

The need to conserve one’s vital energies and to avoid the depletion that is caused by externally induced agitation is a familiar theme in the text. This leaking away of vitality reflects a lack of insight into the nature of experience, and the consequent inability to manage relationships efficaciously.

The concluding passage really repeats the distinction necessary for insight into the character of phenomena that is made in the opening section. We must grasp the determinate world in light of its indeterminate source. The mirroring activity that we associate with the Daoist wu-forms is a kind of active and nurturing understanding that allows things to shine forth as themselves, both in their transitoriness and in their particularity, without mediation. One’s brightness of understanding, one’s acuity (ming ), is a conjunction between the determinate light given off by the things and events themselves, and the indeterminate (and thus non-distorting) light that the mirroring activity itself generates as it casts the world in its best light. Again, it is this quality of appreciation that precludes any destabilizing friction in the relationships that locate one in the world.


With the least modicum of wit,
The only things we have to fear in traveling the grand thoroughfare (dao)
Are the turn-offs.
The grand thoroughfare is perfectly level and straight
Yet people have a great fondness for mountain trails.
Their court is impeccably clean
Yet the fields are overgrown with weeds
And the granaries stand empty.
Their clothing is embroidered and colorful
And sharp swords hang at their sides;
They are stuffed with food
And have wealth and property to throw away.
This is called highway robbery (dao),
Which ought not to be confused with way-making (dao).


There is a strong propensity in favor of staying on course as we make our way in the world, with lapses being largely a matter of choosing unfortunate diversions. While the high road is always the good road, people exhibit an inexplicable penchant for wandering astray on paths that are as treacherous as they are draining.

One explanation for people getting lost along the way is thus of their own making: They are tempted from the straight and narrow by beckoning byways and shortcuts. Another familiar story is captured in a pun between two different kinds of rulers: There are those “robbers (dao )” who live an opulent life-style on the backs of the common people. They are not to be confused with proper rulers who take the lead as “way-makers (dao ).”


What has been well-planted cannot be uprooted;
What is embraced tightly will not escape one’s grasp;
And with one’s children and grandchildren performing the customary rites
The autumnal sacrifice will never be interrupted.
Cultivate it in your person,
And the character you develop will be genuine;
Cultivate it in your family,
And its character will be abundant;
Cultivate it in your village,
And its character will be enduring;
Cultivate it in the state,
And its character will flourish;
Cultivate it in the world,
And its character will be all-pervading.
Thus you can use your person to survey other persons,
Your family to survey other families,
Your village to survey other villages,
Your state to survey other states,
And your world to survey worlds past and yet to come.
How do I know that the world is really so?
From this.


Many commentators point out the resonances between this chapter and the Great Learning (daxue ), one of the Confucian foundational texts included in the Four Books. A comparison with the most relevant portion of this Confucian classic is instructive:

The ancients who sought to highlight illustrious character for the world first brought proper order to their states; seeking to bring proper order to their states, they first established parity for their families; seeking to establish parity for their families, they first cultivated their persons; seeking to cultivate their persons, they first established what was proper in their own hearts-and-minds; seeking to establish what was proper in their own hearts-and-minds, they first achieved integrity in their thoughts; seeking to achieve integrity in their thoughts, they first broadened their own understanding of things. And broadening understanding lies in getting to the bottom of things and events.

When one gets to the bottom of things and events, understanding will be as broad as it can be, and once understanding is thus broadened, one’s thoughts will have integrity, and once one’s thoughts have integrity, the heart-and-mind will do what is proper, and once the heart-and-mind does what is proper, the person will be cultivated, and once the person is cultivated, families will have parity, and once families have parity, the state will be properly ordered, and once the state is properly ordered, there will be peace in the world.

From the emperor down to the common folk, everything is rooted in the cultivation of one’s person. There is no such thing as healthy branches when the root is rotten, and it has never happened that what is invested with importance is treated lightly, or what is treated lightly is invested with importance.

The Daodejing seems to be using “well-planted” and “embraced tightly” in the opening passage as a metaphor for the effective cultivation of one’s personal disposition. Such personal cultivation encourages growth in every quarter of the cosmic order, and has enduring consequences for the proliferation of generation after generation of one’s continuing lineage.

The Daodejing like the Daxue rehearses the concentric and mutually entailing circles through which the rippling effect of cosmic cultivation takes place, beginning here with one’s own personal character and extending through the familiar social and political institutions to include the farthest reaches of the cosmos. Such overlapping and synergistic cultivation of a cosmic ethos establishes a touchstone—a standard of quality—that can be appealed to in continuing and sustaining the process.


One who is vital in character (de)
Can be compared with a newborn baby.
Wasps and scorpions will not sting a baby,
Snakes and vipers will not bite him,
And birds of prey and ferocious beasts will not snatch him up.
Though his bones are soft and his sinews supple
His grip is firm.
As yet oblivious to the copulation of male and female
His member still stands erect:
Such is the height of potency.
He screams through the entire day
And yet his voice does not get hoarse:
Such is the height of harmony (he).
Understanding harmony is common sense,
And using common sense is acuity (ming)111:
On the other hand, trying to increase one’s quantum of life is certainly a bad omen112:
While allowing the heart-mind to use up the qi one has, is to overdo things.
For something to be old while in its prime
Is called a departure from the way of things (dao).
And whatever departs from the way of things will come to an untimely end113:


Vitality is managing one’s energy effectively across the seasons of one’s lifetime. The newly born child is an image of the fullness of potency: a robustness that makes it immune from environing evils. This image is instructive. What gives the baby its vigor is its capacity to respond from the center, being supple yet firm, flexible yet potent. The baby, unconsciously and without motivation, is the embodiment of harmony and equilibrium. Vitality, then, is sustaining this kind of balance in the rhythms of the day. Common sense—insight into the ordinary and everyday—is the relatively uncommon ability to optimize one’s quantum of life-energy by using it up in a measured way, remaining ever responsive to the cadence of one’s experience.

To try either to add to or to overspend this vitality is to introduce an element of coercion into the life process that produces the opposite effect. Persons still young can quickly become old and dry when they exhaust their resources by straining against the world.


Those who really understand it do not talk about it,
And those who really talk about it do not understand it114:
Block up the openings,
Shut the gateways115:
Soften the glare,
Bring things together on the same track,
Blunt the sharp edges,
Untangle the knots116:
This is what is called the profoundest consonance.
Thus, there is no getting too intimate
Or staying aloof from it;
There is no benefiting
Or causing it harm;
There is no ennobling
Or debasing it.
It is thus the most precious thing in the world.


We can only assume that the subject of this chapter is way-making. In chapters 2 and 43, way-making is similarly characterized with the expression “teachings that go beyond what can be said ()” that suggests the limitations of language in communicating adequate insight into how best to make our way in the world. This is of course a familiar refrain that begins with the very first lines of the text: “Way-making that can be put into words is not really way-making, and naming that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.”

This chapter describes the process of effecting the most productive relationships within one’s field of experience. While maintaining one’s particular integrity, one comes together with other things in relationships that have no sharp edges or tangles. In this equilibrium between integrity and integration, between insistent particularity and the coordination of the shared creative opportunities that emerge, the optimization of the process of experience, like the most elegant dance or the most remarkable bronze, precludes the possibility of adding to or taking away from it. It is simply right.


Bring proper order to the state by being straightforward
And deploy the military with strategies that take the enemy by surprise117:
But in ruling the world be non-interfering in going about its business (wushi)118:
How do I know that this is really so?
From the following119:
The more prohibitions and taboos there are in the world,
The poorer the people will be120:
The more sharp instruments in the hands of the common people,
The darker the days for the state.
The more wisdom hawked among the people121:
The more that perverse things will proliferate.
The more prominently the laws and statutes147 are displayed,
The more widespread will be the brigands and thieves.
Hence in the words of the sages:
We do things noncoercively (wuwei)
And the common people develop along their own lines;
We cherish equilibrium (jing)
And the common people order themselves;
We are non-interfering in our governance (wushi)
And the common people prosper themselves;
We are objectless in our desires (wuyu122:
And the common people are of themselves like unworked wood123:


The key expression that sets the theme for this chapter is the wu-form, wushi : “being non-interfering in going about the business of governing.” The contrast that is established in applying the wu-forms to political administration is between a top-down and impositional attitude toward governing, and a bottom-up and emergent approach in which the people themselves define the terms of order. Heavy-handed rule is counterproductive, generating problems in direct proportion to the degree of interference in the authentic lives of the people. To the extent that those with political responsibility are able to leave the people to their own devices, the people will govern themselves.

Is Daoism a political anarchism? Definitely, with the proviso that there is an unquestioned assumption that rulership is a natural feature of human organization. Of course, such a presupposition about the nature of political organization is not unique to Daoism, being itself a precondition in many forms of anarchist theory.

What then is the function of sagely political leadership? Ironically from a Daoist perspective, the first occurrence in the classical corpus of the expression wuwei, “doing things noncoercively,” belongs to the Analects of Confucius 15.5:

The Master said, “If anyone could be said to have effected proper order while remaining noncoercive, surely it was the sage-king Shun. What did he do? He simply assumed an air of deference and faced due south.”

In the processual and relational cosmology of early China, implicated within the persons of the sage-rulers are the evolving patterns of associated living. These rulers are icons of the worlds over which they preside. Focused in their persons, they embody and lend their names to a particular generation of coherent behavior. Their very presence is an axis around which the complexity of change and multiplicity yields to persistence and coherence. As such, they have quite literally an integral role in the “inseparability of one and many, of continuity and multiplicity” that is a hallmark of this cosmology.


When the government is at sixes and sevens,
The common people sail right along,
But when the government is everywhere vigilant
These same people are always at fault124:
It is upon misfortune that good fortune leans,
It is within good fortune itself that misfortune crouches in ambush,
And where does it all end?
There is no straightforward maneuver
Because the straightforward reverts to surprise
And what is going well again becomes dark and ominous.
It has been a long time now that we human beings have lost the way.
Hence be square but do not cut anyone;
Be pointed but do not pierce anyone;
Be true but do not act willfully and without restraint;
Shine forth but do not be dazzling125:


Opposites always entail each other, and can only be separated abstractly and at the risk of upsetting the rhythm of life by treating them as really separable. Enforcing order produces disorder. Attempts at overt control on behalf of one half of a dyad at the expense of the other half, whether such manipulation be political or otherwise, simply makes things worse. The more we enact and implement laws, the more lawbreakers there are on the streets and in the jails. Coercion arises in a pointless attempt to promote one antinomy over the other, pushing any situation to an extreme.

How do we respond to this never-ending spiral of reversion? If we have an understanding of the process as a whole, we can, while staying balanced at the center, anticipate the movement between opposites. While we can certainly live a robust and healthy life, we can also, in the fullness of time, enjoy a consummatory and healthy death.

Death is real and, wherever there is life, it is not far away. However, to separate death out from the life experience and inveigh against it as something to be avoided at all costs prevents us from appreciating the fragility and preciousness of life that is made possible by this same delicious temporality. Life is made meaningful by death. Death as natural closure punctuates a most particular event in the ongoing transformation of things. Properly understood, a healthy death can be lived well and can enhance the lives of all involved; misunderstood, a resentful death can sour life and become a focus of dread and loathing that robs everyone, especially those left to carry on, of their life energy.

The Zhuangzi as a sustained reflection on the relationship between life and death provides many insightful anecdotes that take us beyond grief and suffering. For example:

Not long thereafter, Ziyu fell ill, and Zisi went to ask after him. “Extraordinary!” said Ziyu. “The transformer of things continues to make me all gnarly and bent. He hunches me up so badly that my vital organs are above my head while my chin is buried in my belly button. My shoulders are higher than my crown, and my hunchback back points to the heavens. Something has really gone haywire with the yin and yang vapors!” …

“Do you resent this?” asked Zisi.

“Indeed no,” replied Ziyu. “What’s to resent? If in the course of things it transforms my left arm into a cock, I’ll use it to tell the time of day. If it goes on to transform my right arm into a crossbow bolt, I’ll use it to shoot me an owl for roasting. If it then transforms my buttocks into wheels and my spirit into a horse, I will ride about on them without need of further transportation…. What’s to resent?126:

Zhuangzi’s conception of life and death is commonsensical. Empirically we know nothing of permanence and annihilation. In fact, all we know of experience is persistence within change. It is on this basis that the Zhuangzi concludes:

“Once we take the heavens and earth to be a giant forge and transformation to be the great ironsmith, wherever I go is just fine. Relaxed I nod off and happily I awake.127:


For bringing proper order to the people and in serving tian,
Nothing is as good as husbandry.
It is only through husbandry that you come early to accept the way,
And coming early to accept the way is what is called redoubling your accumulation of character (de).
If you redouble your accumulation of character, all obstacles can be overcome,
And if all obstacles can be overcome, none can discern your limit.
Where none can discern your limit,
You can preside over the realm128:
In presiding over the mother of the real129:
You can be long-enduring.
This is what is called the way (dao) of setting deep roots and a secure base,
And of gaining long life and an enduring vision.


The translation of se as “husbandry” is felicitous because this character means both husbandry in the agricultural sense of growing and harvesting, and also in the economical sense of being sparing. Both ideas are at play in this chapter. Cultivation and frugality are major themes.

Robert Henricks (2000):84–5 analyzes the meter and rhyme structure of the chapter, suggesting that it is quite striking in its prominence and complexity. Perhaps one way of appreciating this text is to take this internal rhythm as an object lesson for its message. The last two lines summarize the positive consequence of accumulating and expending the vital energies of our lives in a properly measured way.

Repeatedly the Daodejing enjoins its readers to conserve and nourish their quantum of vital energy in both their human and natural environments. We should never force life either in attempting to add to it or in allowing it to be unnecessarily squandered. Building effective character and spending it as we go, we are able to survey the lay of the land and participate fully in constructing the way for our place and time. We secure our role and make the most of our creative energies by expending them judiciously, always staying in step in the dance of life.

This chapter works on two levels. On one plane, it focuses on a regimen of self-cultivation and the nourishing of one’s life-force. There is much in the text that might well be construed as formal meditative practices. On the other hand, the text uses a political vocabulary to suggest that on a second plane, such a personal regimen prepares one to take a leading role in establishing a vision for the human community, and in bringing this vision to fruition.


Bringing proper order to a great state is like cooking a small fish.
When way-making (dad) is used in overseeing the world,
The ghosts of the departed will not have spiritual potency.
In fact, it is not that the ghosts will not have spiritual potency,
But rather that they will not use this potency to harm people.
Not only will the ghosts not use their potency to harm people,
But the sages will not harm people either130:
It is because the ghosts and sages do no harm
That their powers (de) combine to promote order in the world.


Bringing proper order to a great nation requires patience and a lightness of touch on the part of those who would assume this responsibility. There is a subtle and deliberate choice of language in this chapter that reflects the project it describes. The term “overseeing,” for example, suggests a need for a gentle hand in concentrating and shaping the available energies to their most positive effect.

The world around us is enchanted, with its spiritual forces residing high and low in different corners of the human experience. Such power, potentially both pernicious and benign, can be a source of either benefit or tremendous harm, depending upon how it is directed. This reservoir of spiritual potency is available to promote the flourishing community, which is to say that it can be channeled to maximum advantage by using it to forge a way forward for the community. Such way-making brings with it an awareness that these raw concentrations of power are both potent and fragile, and that interacting productively with them can only proceed with alertness and enormous care.


A great state is like the lower reaches of water’s downward flow.
It is the female of the world.
In the intercourse of the world,
The female is always able to use her equilibrium (jing) to best the male.
It is this equilibrium that places her properly underneath.
Hence if the great state is able to get underneath the small state,
It can rule the small state;
If the small state is able to get underneath the large state,
It can get to be ruled by the large state131:
Hence some get underneath in order to rule
And some get underneath in order to be ruled.
Now, the great state wants no more than to win over the other state and tend to it,
While the small state wants no more than to offer the other state its services.
If they are both getting what they want in the relationship,
Then it is fitting for the great state to take the lower position.


The theme of this chapter is not to set a contrast between an essentialized male and female, but is rather a reflection upon how modesty is the best way to maintain a fruitful relationship between the sexes. The great state is compared to the lower reaches of a river that is a confluence of all of the streams that flow into it at its higher levels. What it brings to the relationship is its greatness: that is, an abundance of vital energy.

Importantly, the female does not bring a stillness or passivity to her relationship with the powerful male, but an achieved equilibrium, an “underneath.” As we see in chapter 6 and elsewhere, she is the river valley. Her deference is a function of her capacity to accommodate and stabilize the relationship by drawing the energy into her emptiness. She “bests” the male by being able to absorb and reinvest any excess energy in her reproductive role.

Both the great and the small state understand that “ruling” and “being ruled” (literally, “taking” and “being taken”) is a fiduciary relationship justified by the quality of care and service that is invested in it. While it is vitally important that equilibrium is maintained in the small state being ruled by the great state, it is perhaps more difficult and yet essential that coercion does not surface in the great state channeling its resources to rule over the small. Hence, all things being equal, it is best for the great state to have the responsibility of reclining and assuming the receptive posture.


Way-making (dao) is the flowing together of all things (wanwu).
It is prized by those who are able
While safeguarding those who are inept.
Certainly fine words can be used in negotiations
And noble behavior can enable one to surpass others.
But why would we want to get rid of those who are inept?
At the coronation of the Son of tian
And at the inauguration of the three high ministers,
Better to respectfully present them with the tribute of this way-making
Than to offer up discs of jade followed by teams of horses.
Why was it that this way-making was so revered in antiquity?
Is it not said that way-making enables those who seek to get what they want,
And those who have done wrong to avoid retribution?
Thus it is the most valuable thing in the world.


Way-making as the flowing together of all things is properly prized as the enabling context that makes everything possible. It is the locus within which all things come to fruition. Indeed, way-making properly pursued gets the most out of all of its tributaries, including the very thinnest stream. Within the human experience, facility in language and conduct that is properly used might be entirely worthy, but there is a place for those who are less proficient as well.

Way-making in its capacity to accommodate all things is an appropriate model of rulership, and would be much more valuable to those taking on political responsibility than the usual expensive yet largely worthless symbols of office. After all, it is from way-making that the rulers can learn the tolerance and compassion necessary to find a place in community for all of their people, however humble and inept the lowest might be. And there is fair recognition that comforting the least among us and surviving through the most trying of times are occasions for those who are better off to grow in greatness. Those who are suffering provide those more fortunate the precious opportunity to be generous and share what they have.

From time immemorial, way-making has been an object of continuing reverence. It is a term of art that attempts to capture the endless natural processes that yield up the bounty of the earth, the wondrous human cycle that reproduces the beauty of its own kind, and the accumulating cultural artifacts and institutions that enchant the world. At the same time, way-making as a healer and as hope for those who have strayed, is forgiving. After all, in the flow of experience, most if not almost all transgressions go unpunished.


Do things noncoercively (wuwei),
Be non-interfering in going about your business (wushi)132:
And savor the flavor of the unadulterated in what you eat133:
Treat the small as great
And the few as many.
Requite enmity with character (de)134:
Take account of the difficult while it is still easy,
And deal with the large while it is still tiny.
The most difficult things in the world originate with the easy,
And the largest issues originate with the tiny.
Thus, it is because the sages never try to do great things
That they are indeed able to be great135:
One who makes promises lightly is sure to have little credibility;
One who finds everything easy is certain to have lots of difficulties.
Thus, it is because even the sages pay careful attention to such things
That they are always free of difficulties.


This chapter opens with several of the wu-forms, the implications of which have been discussed at some length in the Introduction. What the wu-forms have in common is that they describe an active disposition that is conducive to getting the most out of the relationships that locate one within any particular situation.

By way of gloss on the less common wu-form, “savoring the flavor of the unadulterated (wuwei ),” we might appeal to chapter 35, which says of way-making itself that were it “put into words, it could be said to be so bland and insipid that it has no taste.” In culinary terms, those who have the most comprehensive and inclusive taste make no final discriminations. They just try with imagination to find a productive use for things, and to enjoy all things big and small as they come.

In chapter 12 too it says that “the five flavors destroy the palate.” The relevant distinction here is between a preoccupation with instrumentalized and thus distracting sensual pleasures, and sustaining a focused way of life.

But is the Daoist a gourmet or a gourmand? Probably the best answer is Chinese cooking itself. There are distinctive characteristics of good Chinese cooking. A primary feature reflected in the never-ending menu is the stubborn attempt to optimize a finite number yet surprisingly imaginative range of ingredients. This is done by inventing any number of ways of preserving and extending them, and then combining them in different sequence, color, texture, flavor, fragrance, and so on. Use a little bit of the more pricey ingredients to flavor a lot of the more common ones. Take advantage of seasonableness. Prepare the food to provide maximum surface area and cook it so as to sear in the nutrients while minimizing the expenditure of fuel.

Importantly, getting the most out of your ingredients means keeping the garbage can empty. This effort at maximization is pursued with minimum wastage.

If “savoring the flavor of the unadulterated (wuwei )” has an analog in Cook Ding’s “doing things noncoercively (wuwei ),”162 it would be cooking and eating in such a way as to tease one’s unique ingredients into productive relationships that allow the natural flavors to speak for themselves.

There is also the porous line between food and medicine in the Chinese world, where one gathers and consumes from one’s external landscape those elements that promise a balanced and healthy body. The seemingly most innocuous resources in nature have their unique properties.

Part of getting the most out of your ingredients in the life-experience has to do with deference to detail. Understanding things in their relationship to the process as a whole enables one to anticipate a developing situation while it is still embryonic. By responding to circumstances while they are inchoate, one is able to coordinate them both positively and negatively to best effect. Said another way, Daoists would probably agree with both negative concerns about the need for full awareness such as “the devil is in the details” and “nip it in the bud,” as well as more positive expressions such as “you are what you eat” and “seize the moment.”

There is a passage in Sunzi: The Art of Warfare that shares with this chapter an insight into being doubly prepared:

He whom the ancients called an expert in battle gained victory where victory was easily gained. Thus the battle of the expert is never an exceptional victory, nor does it win him reputation for wisdom or credit for courage. His victories in battle are unerring. Unerring means that he acts where victory is certain, and conquers an enemy that has already lost136:


It is easy to keep one’s grip when things are stable,
It is easy to plan for a situation that has yet to happen,
It is easy to snap something that is brittle,
It is easy to break something up that is just beginning.
Deal with a situation before it happens;
Bring it under control before it gets out of hand.
A tree with the girth of a person’s embrace
Grows from the tiniest shoot.
A pavilion nine stories high
Rises from one basketful of earth.
A thousand foot wall
Begins from the soil under one’s feet137:
Those who would do things ruin them;
Those who would control things lose them138:
Hence because the sages do things noncoercively (wuwei)
They do not ruin them,
And because they do not try to control things
They do not lose them.
The common people always ruin the things they do
Just on the very brink of success.
Thus it is said:
If you are as careful at the end as you are at the start,
You will be free of failure139:
It is for this reason the sages in leaving off desirin140:
Do not prize property that is hard to come by,
And in studying not to stud141:
Return to what most people have passed over.
Although they are quite capable of helping all things (wanwu) follow their own course (ziran),
They would not think of doing so.


In the inseparability of continuity and multiplicity, the Daodejing encourages two mutually reinforcing levels of awareness: focal and field. The field awareness allows one to locate a particular event within the process of reversion: the mutual entailment of opposites. It foregrounds the relational character of the web of events, and the symbiotic continuities that obtain among them. This kind of insight—the capacity to see where a situation has come from and to anticipate where it is going—precludes the habit of resolving the fluid process of experience into isolated “things” and discourages the one-sided and exclusive judgments that come with it.

On the other hand, focal awareness is the full appreciation of the particular foci that are constitutive of the field, and are the medium through which field awareness is entertained. A detailed understanding of the minutia within situations enables one to encourage or discourage processual fluctuations in their inchoate phase before they evolve into the overwhelming force of circumstances.

This chapter stresses the importance of focal awareness. For example, it is salutary to understand that each major event has a modest beginning, that minor changes can have cascading consequences, and that the devil and the angels, too, are in the details.


Those of ancient times who engaged in way-making (dao)
Did not use it to edify the common people,
But rather to keep them foolish.
What makes it difficult to bring proper order to the people
Is that they already know too much.
Thus to use knowledge in governing the stat142:
Is to be a bane to that state;
To use a lack of knowledge in governing the state
Is to be its benefactor143:
Those who really know the distinction between using knowledge or a lack of it in governing the state will moreover become its model.
And those who really know this model are said to be profoundly efficacious (de)144:
Profound efficacy runs so deep and distant
Only to turn back along with other things to reach the great flow.


This chapter is an example of applying Daoist natural cosmology normatively to the pursuit of an anarchistic political order. It is also a good example of how Daoism entails an epistemology of immediate feeling.

There is much here that resonates with chapters 25, 32, and 40. Cosmologically, there is this focus and its field. The insistent particularity of the focus, facilitated but not controlled by its environing others, is expressed in a process of growth and consummation in which it achieves its own distinctiveness. In this self-creating process, it “distances” itself from the flow of experience and realizes its own individuality. But this attainment is not for the particular alone. At the same time, it is a source of enrichment for its field of experience. It is in this sense that it is reflexive, always returning into the great flow of experience. Making this life significant makes the cosmos significant too.

To translate rather abstract language into a more concrete example, in a classroom experience, this student can be conceptually isolated as a particular focus within the group. As a focus, she is looking from one perspective among many at the project of the group—to try to understand Daoism better. The group, always being entertained from one perspective or another, when seen from her perspective, constitutes her particular field of experience. Whatever anyone else might contribute, she will interpret it from where she stands. Said another way, there is no “objective” group or “objective” interpretation that stands independent of the many perspectives that constitute it.

The optimum learning experience for this student is when she is provided the space to grow and realize her distinctiveness within the class environment without being overwhelmed by assumptions and precedents that are not her own. The creative potential of this student lies in the extent to which she is able to engage and realize the project at a level of concrete, unmediated feeling. While other available interpretations might stimulate her to see Daoism in one way or another, they do her and the class a distinct disservice when they close off her capacity to think independently of them. The bane of the learned commentaries is that, in their persuasiveness, they conceal novel ways to think about the text.

The self-creative process at its best is one free of coercion and constraint. To the extent that this student has distinguished herself as a particular person with her own unique interpretation, she has distanced herself from the group. But then the quality of interpretation she has achieved that foregrounds her as a particular person provides a resource for other particulars in her field of experience, thereby enhancing the creative possibilities of the group.


What enables the rivers and seas to be king over all the valleys
Is that they are good at staying lower than them.
It is this that enables them to be the king of all the valleys.
This is the reason that the sages in wanting to172 stand above the common people
Must put themselves below them in what they have to say;
In wanting to stand before the common people
They must put themselves behind them in their personal concerns.
Hence, they dwell above them yet the people do not find them a heavy burden,
They dwell in front of them yet the people do not find that they block the way145:
The entire world delights in promoting them, and never tires of doing so.
Is it not because they strive without contentiousness (wuzheng) that no one in the world is able to contend with them146:


The waters from all the valleys flow down into the rivers and seas. Although the rivers and seas have noble status as the confluence of the waters of the world, they have it because they occupy the low ground. Important in this analogy is the interdependence between the many and the one, between continuity and multiplicity, between the highly and lowly stationed. Also there is the mutual entailment of opposites: The rivers and seas are noble because they occupy the low ground.

A familiar theme in the Daodejing is captured in the last line: “Is it not because they strive without contentiousness that no one in the world is able to contend with them?” The wu-form used in this rhetorical question assumes that the sages have not only an active, participatory role in bringing order to the world, but an effective one as well. The sages like the rivers and seas perform a synchronizing function that, perceived from a particular perspective, has a nobility to it. Both sages and seas do what they do naturally and well.

Far from being merely passive players buffeted about in the emerging order, both sages and seas actively coordinate the massive quantum of energy that flows into them from their constituents, and maximize its circulation to the advantage of all. Because such coordination benefits all equally, the streams and the common people defer happily to their coordinators.

What distinguishes the contribution of both the waterways and the sages is that they are able to be as effective as they are because they use accommodation rather than coercion as the basis for organizing their worlds.


The entire world knows me175 as “great.”
I am great, and yet bear a resemblance176 to nothing at all.
Indeed, it is only because I resemble nothing at all that I am able to be great147:
If I did bear a resemblance to something else,
For a long time now I would have been of little consequence.
I really have three prized possessions that I cling to and treasure:
The first of these is compassion,
The second, frugality,
And the third is my reluctance to try to become preeminent in the world.
It is because of my compassion that I can be courageous;
It is because of my frugality that I can be generous;
It is because of my reluctance to try to become preeminent in the world that I am able to become chief among all things.
To be courageous without compassion,
To be generous without being frugal,
And to take the lead without holding back—
This is courting death.
Compassion will give you victory in waging war,
And security in defending your ground.
When nature sets anything up
It is as if it fortifies it with a wall of compassion148:


The Daodejing uses the modifier “great or grand (da )” to refer both to the process of way-making itself (chapters 18, 25, 35, 41, and 53) and to the human embodiment of way-making, the king and the sage (chapters 25, 34, and 63). In this chapter, the first person pronoun “I” is used as the person who embodies way-making. It is my uniqueness that is the source of my greatness. What then are the conditions of this uniqueness?

The text describes these conditions as “three treasures,” but in fact they are three dimensions of the same temperament. A sense of frugality reflects an abiding respect for the integrity of things and an unwillingness to compromise them. It is this respect for other things that allows one to be magnanimous and accommodating in dealing with them.

And an unwillingness to contend for domination over other things is again a reluctance to sacrifice the creative possibilities of either oneself or one’s environing others through recourse to coercion. It is precisely because I am noncoercive that other things defer to me in leading the way.

Finally, and most fundamentally, I must be compassionate. In the Daoist epistemology of unmediated feeling, what makes frugality and noncontentiousness appropriate for dispositional interactions is that both entail taking other things on their own terms. Compassion funds the concrete network of affective relationships that constitutes one in a particular nexus. Feeling each other is how we really know each other. All effective transactions are affective transactions, and require recourse to these invested relations.

The Daoist is not naïve. Struggle for survival is sometimes a part of the natural condition. Under such circumstances, “courage” expressed without reference to these concrete relationships is merely raw aggression, and raw aggression usually elicits a like response. Real courage is dependent upon the fellow-feeling of the army being dispatched into battle, and success in war is unlikely without it. In nature’s own story, each thing emerges within a cocoon of familial feelings as a first line of defense that buffers it against a sometime hostile world.


Those who are good as students are not militant149:
Those who are good at waging war are not belligerent;
Those who are good at vanquishing their enemies do not join issue;
Those who are good at employing others place themselves beneath them150:
This is what is called having noncontentious efficacy (de).
It is what is called making use of others151:
It is what is called an axis that is as old as the heavens152:


What is the Daodejing’s attitude toward war? Commentators often cite chapters 30 and 31 as evidence that the text is anti-war, and such an interpretation certainly has merit. But even in these overtly pacific chapters, the guiding assumption seems to be that while warfare is indeed deplorable, it is on occasion unavoidable. For example, chapter 31 says that “military weapons are inauspicious instruments, and so when you have no choice but to use them, it is best to do so coolly and without enthusiasm.” And again, in chapter 30 it allows that “able commanders … get these results and accommodate them only as a last resort.” The operative term here, as in the Sunzi tradition,183 is that warfare is always a losing proposition, but sometimes you are left no other choice (budeyi ).

This being the case, the Daodejing like the military classics also has a lot to say about the appropriate disposition to assume when one has run out of options and must go to war. The point is that even under war conditions, the insight that “the soft and weak vanquish the hard and strong” (chapter 36) still applies. Hence, “compassion will give you victory in waging war, and security in defending your ground” (chapter 67).

The message of this chapter and the one that follows resonates closely with the Sunzi tradition. For example, line two is similar to the Sunzi’s caution:

A ruler cannot mobilize his armies in a rage; a commander cannot incite a battle in the heat of the moment153:

And line three is similar to the Sunzi’s advice:

So to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all154:


There is a saying about using the military:
I would not think of taking the offensive
But only of defending my ground;
I would not think of taking an inch
But only of giving up a foot.
This is what is called
Deploying forward without bringing the troops,
Throwing a punch without raising a hand,
Grasping tightly without having a weapon in hand,
Launching an assault without confronting an enemy.
There is no calamity greater than underestimating the enemy,
For underestimating the enemy is tantamount to losing your treasures155:
Hence, when two armies, evenly matched, cross swords in combat,
It is the side that laments the need to do so that wins the day.


This chapter might be read as an application of nominal rather than verbal wu-forms to military philosophy. Here the equipment of war is referenced, where in each case the element that would occasion coercion is absent. Hence you have “a troopless forward deployment” and “a handless punch.”

Being successful militarily requires awareness. A lack of aggression reflects a field awareness and the recognition that in the over-all process there will be a reversion of opposites. Just as control produces disorder, aggression leads to enervation, and arrogance to humiliation.

But such field awareness must be coupled with a focal awareness. For example, underestimating the enemy is a failure to pursue a detailed, concrete understanding of a relationship. The cost of treating the enemy lightly is the loss of the “three prized possessions” that are described in chapter 67 as compassion, frugality, and humility. As suggested in the commentary to chapter 67, it is the disposition constituted by these three attitudes that enables one to develop and sustain robust relationships at the level of unmediated feeling. This is what is meant in chapter 26 when it is said that to treat something lightly is to lose what is most fundamental.

Thus, the army that enters the battle with remorse is the one that has the deeper understanding of the relationship between itself and its enemy, and although it would not be deploying on the battlefield unless all other options had been exhausted, it still treats the relationship with this enemy with abiding respect.


What I have to say is very easy to understand
And is very easy to carry out,
Yet there is no one in the world who is able to understand i156:
And no one who is able to put it into practice.
Now what is said has its lineage
And what is done has its lord.
It is only because it requires unprincipled knowing (wuzhi)
That they do not understand me.
But if those who understand me are rare,
I am to be highly prized.
Thus the sages dress in burlap
Yet conceal jade in their bosom.


One important point being made here is that, however one understands the teachings of the Daodejing intellectually, such an appreciation needs to be authenticated in practice in order to be really understood. Saying and doing are inseparable, and knowing is “realizing” in the sense of “making real.”

There is a contrast that this text wants to pursue between what it has to say, and the substance of other philosophical doctrines. Most teachings require an archaeology of ideas and values, tracing the evolution of their governing theories and concepts from generation to generation, from master to student. These doctrines are systematic by appeal to governing principles, and require a formal initiation for their transmission.

The Daodejing has something different to offer. In fact, it eschews precisely what doctrinaire philosophies promote. It proffers a philosophy of immediate experience captured in its wu-forms. The function of the wu-forms is to dissolve philosophical concepts and theories, and return these constrained energies as concrete feelings and the immediate experience they animate. For it is affective feeling itself rather than simply cognitive “knowledge” that is the site of knowing. Even though these teachings about how best to make our way in the world could not be more straightforward, “when the very best students learn of way-making they are just barely able to keep to its center” (chapter 41).

The Daodejing recommends cultivating those habits of awareness that allow us to appreciate the magic of the ordinary and everyday. Like common sense, the rareness with which such habits are invoked as a test for what we ought to do makes them a treasured commodity hidden within the bosom of only the wisest among us.


Knowing that one does not know is knowing at its best,
But not knowing that one knows is suffering from a disease157:
Thus, the reason the sages are free of disease
Is because they recognize the disease as a disease.
This is why they are not afflicted.


The attainment of “unprincipled knowing (wuzhi )” alluded to in the previous chapter and elsewhere in the text is the habit of embracing experience immediately and on its own terms without allowing preconceptions to arrest one’s exploration and appreciation short of a probing depth of awareness. Unprincipled knowing is the stubborn attempt to know particularity exhaustively. A precondition for pursuing understanding at the level of concrete, affective feeling is knowing that one does not yet know it in a such a way. On the other hand, the greatest obstacle in the quest for this penetrating understanding is a failure to both acknowledge and suspend those preconceptions that pass as knowing. This is mistaking the fish trap for the fish. As the Zhuangzi observes:

The fish trap is how you catch the fish. Having caught the fish, forget the trap. The snare is how you catch the rabbit. Having caught the rabbit, forget the snare. Words are how you capture meaning. Having caught the meaning, forget the words. Where am I going to find someone who has forgotten the words so that I can have a word with him158:

In Chinese medicine, disease (bing ) usually entails a blockage of some kind in the healthy circulation of qi. In this case, epistemic disease is the blockage of access to immediate experience. The English translation, “disease,” is also felicitous in suggesting a condition that interrupts free and easy intercourse.

We invariably have a set of presuppositions that we bring to experience. To think otherwise is naïve. But a self-conscious awareness of such prejudices can go a long way toward immunizing us against the hardening of the categories and epistemic sclerosis.

This chapter can be contrasted rather clearly with passage 2.17 in the Analects of Confucius:

The Master said: “Zilu, shall I instruct you in what it means to know something? To know what you know and know what you do not know—this then is what it means to know.159:

For Confucius, an awareness of the limits of what you know is a necessary condition for the unrelenting pursuit of proper education. It is this self-cultivation that is the signature of the Confucian project of self-consummation. Confucius gives a positive value to both acquired knowledge and a knowledge of limits, while for the Daodejing, it is acquired knowledge itself that sets limits on unmediated knowing.

This Daodejing chapter can also be contrasted instructively with the well-known passage in the Apology in which the oracle’s pronouncement that Socrates is the wisest person in Athens is explained when the ever-modest Socrates is able to conclude that what the god means is “The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.160:

For Socrates like Confucius, a positive value is attached to both knowledge and a knowledge of limits. The important difference between Socrates and Confucius which does not really concern us here is that the content of knowledge for Socrates is the wisdom of God as opposed to human wisdom, while for Confucius, it is human wisdom itself as a continuing source of spirituality.


If the common people do not hold your authority in awe,
Then some greater authority is on its way161:
Do not reduce the size of their places of residence
And do not lower their standard of living.
It is only because you do not lower their standard of living
That they do not become disaffected.
It is for this reason that sages know themselves
But do not show off;
They love themselves
But are not precious.
Hence, eschewing one they take the other.


It is only by being people-centered that those entrusted with governing can exercise the authority appropriate to bringing proper order to the world. If the people feel mistreated and become estranged from those holding political responsibility, the days of the present regime are numbered, and political change is imminent.

Sagely rule is not a choice between self-abnegation and alienation. Proper governance is always inclusive, where the self-worth of the ruling authority is certainly in evidence, but not to the extent that it overwhelms its responsibility for the well-being of the people. For the rulers, knowing themselves is understanding and being responsive in the relationships that are implicated in their own persons; loving themselves is embracing fully the relationships that locate them within their social and political institutions. Importantly, the intrinsic relatedness of ruler and people means that self-regarding is also other-regarding.


Those who are courageous in feats of daring will die because of it;
While those whose courage is tempered by prudence will preserve their lives.
In these two cases, courage can either put one in harm’s way, or be beneficial.
Who can understand why tian despises the things that it does162:
Tian’s way (dao) is winning the war without going to battle,
Is answering effectively without saying a word163:
Is coming of its own accord without being summoned,
And is laying plans skillfully while remaining free and easy.
Tian’s net is cast wide,
And although coarse in its mesh, nothing slips through it.


The way of tian is the force of natural, social, and cultural conditions that give us context. That is, the patterns of nature and the propensity of circumstance that provide the stage for the drama of life are an appropriate guide for human conduct. These context-ualizing operations are rich and complex, and yet unfold efficiently and without any defect that does not ultimately find correction. A distinctive feature of nature’s efficacy is its yinyang width and comprehensiveness. However we choose to predicate its activities, the opposite correlation is true as well. The events of the world around us are both light and dark, gross and fine, fast and slow. Tian wins yet does not fight; it communicates yet does not speak; it comes yet is not on call; it is designing yet is impromptu and casual; its net is coarse yet fine enough that nothing escapes.

On tian’s model, real strength entails flexibility, real wisdom entails uncertainty, and real endurance entails patience. So, too, real courage is most effective only when it is tempered by prudence.


If the common people are really not afraid of dying
How can one frighten them by threatening to kill them?
But if the people are really afraid of dying
And know that we will arrest and kill those who do perverse things,
Who among them would dare to do them?
If the people are really afraid of dyin164:
Then there will always be an executioner.
To stand in for the executioner in killing people
Is to stand in for the master carpenter in cutting his lumber.
Of those who would thus stand in for the master carpenter,
Few get away without injuring their own hands.


One might speculate that the kinds of differences between the two MWD documents and the WB version suggest that editors in the process of transmission were trying to bring some clarity to an otherwise ambiguous text. For example, by leaving out the phrase “if the people are really afraid of dying” and simply stating “there will always be an executioner,” the WB text takes the step of resolving the ambiguity between government-sanctioned executioner and the natural executioner in favor of the latter.

But the MWD version does seem to be unproblematic as it stands. It makes basically three points. First, if the conditions of the common people become so extreme that their very survival is in question, the political authority of the state, reinforced as it is by the sanctioned violence of penal laws and punishments, will cease to have any deterrent effect on the conduct of the people. As far as they are concerned, death has become a foregone conclusion whatever course of action they take.

Secondly, political authority depends upon the people being able to exercise the choice of life over death. The better the lives of the people, the more they will fear death. It is this choice that, in the image of the executioner, introduces the very possibility of sanctioned violence, and is an encouragement for the people to refrain from untoward conduct. Political authority might set the conditions, but particular people make the choice. As the popular saying cited in chapter 42 has it, “those who are coercive and violent do not meet their natural end.”

However—and this is the third point—foreclosing on the lives of people is properly the province of our natural circumstances, and any real reliance upon this corporal strategy for enforcing order will usually backfire to one’s own detriment. Importantly, the Daodejing as a text is neither pollyannic nor categorical. Although it would embrace the precept that coercion is always a losing proposition, it leaves open the possibility that under certain and decidedly rare circumstances, sanctioned violence in the shape of capital punishment and even military intervention might be the lesser of two evils.


The people’s hunger is because those above196 are eating too much in taxes—
This is why they are hungry.
The people’s lack of order is because those above manipulate them—
This is why they are not properly ordered.
And the people’s scoffing at death is because those above are exacting so much from life197—
This is why they scoff at death.
It is precisely those who do not kill themselves in living
Who are more enlightened than those who treasure life.


Much of the Daodejing is a treatise directed at exhorting those in political office on the people’s behalf. The general premise is that much if not most of the suffering of the common people is an immediate result of bad government. Excessive taxation and heavy-handed interference in the lives of the people closes the distance between the joy of life and the pain of death to a matter of little consequence.

This chapter continues the idea that forcing life and trying to get too much out of it is as bad as squandering it. As stated in chapter 55: “Trying to increase one’s quantum of life is certainly a bad omen, while allowing the heart-mind to use up the qi one has, is to overdo things.”


While living, people are supple and soft,
But once dead, they become hard and rigid cadavers165:
While living, the things of this world and its grasses and trees are pliant and fragile,
But once dead, they become withered and dry.
Thus it is said: Things that are hard and rigid are the companions of death;
Things that are supple and soft are the companions of life.
For this reason,
If a weapon is rigid it will not prevail;
If a tree is rigid it will snap166:
Thus, the rigid and great dwell below,
While the supple and soft abide above.


The Daodejing is constantly challenging our uncritical assumptions with its theory of the correlative relationship among antinomies. What is living is soft and supple, and thus flexible; what is dead is hard and rigid, and thus easily broken. It is the weak that is really strong, and it is the strong that is really weak. Thus, contrary to our conventional inclinations, we should honor and defer to the weak and look down upon the strong.


The way of tian is like archers drawing their bows.
To hit something high in the air, they pull the string downward;
To hit something lower, they pull the string upward.
When they have drawn the string too far back, they let some go,
And when they have not drawn it far enough, they pull harder167:
The way of tian is also to let some go where there is excess And to augment where there is not enough.
The way of human beings on the other hand is not like this at all. It is instead to take away from those who do not have enough In order to give more to those who already have too much.
Who then in having too much is able to draw on this excess to make an offering to the world168:
Perhaps only those who are way-making (dao).
It is thus that sages act on behalf of things but do make any claim on them,
They see things through to fruition but do not take credit for them.
It is in such a way that they refrain from making a display of their worth.


The way of the world in which we live is one of sustained equilibrium. Excess and insufficiency in our various ecological environments certainly occur, but in the course of time they are righted through a process of redistribution, and balance is restored. As chapter 23 observes, “Violent winds do not last a whole morning and torrential rains do not last a whole day.”

While we human beings would do well to imitate this pattern, we instead create a vicious circle in which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Chapter 75 states what is a familiar refrain in the Daodejing: “The people’s hunger is because those above are eating too much in taxes.” It is only the enlightened among us who are able to coordinate fully their participation in their natural, social, and cultural environments, and who in so doing, extend the way forward for all concerned. The bonus, of course, is that while sagacious conduct conduces substantially to a thriving world, the persons responsible make no claims upon the dividends that such efficacious living produces.


Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water
And yet in attacking what is hard and strong,
There is nothing that can surpass it.
This is because there is nothing that can be used in its stead.
There is no one in the world that does not know
That the soft prevails over the hard
And the weak prevails over the strong,
And yet none are able to act accordingly.
This is the reason that the words of the sages say:
Only the person who accepts invective against the state
Is to be called its legitimate ruler;
Only the person who accepts the misfortunes of the state
Is to be called its true king.
Appropriate language seems contradictory.


The unfolding of experience is described in chapter 40 as “returning” and “weakening.” Hot is “hot-becoming-cold”; hard is “hard-becoming-soft.” All conditions of experience are alloyed with their opposites, and in the fullness of time, will ultimately manifest them. The young grow old, the powerful become effete, the high are laid low. In the processual cosmology of classical Daoism and in the passage of experience between the correlative yin and yang phases, words that properly capture this dynamic process certainly mean what they mean, but also mean their opposite.

An hour spent with the Oxford English Dictionary might persuade us that, in spite of our common sense assumptions about the literalness and specificity of language, this linguistic phenomenon of the inseparability of opposites—“appropriate language seems contradictory”—is not unfamiliar within the evolution of the English language itself, perhaps recalling an earlier processual sensibility. “Terrific,” for example, is both “bad” and “good”; “prodigious” is both “marvelous” and “ominous”; “enormity” is both “immense” and “horrendous”; “awful” is both “unpleasant” and “inspiring.”

The classic Daoist example of the inseparability of opposites is water that is at once soft and hard, weak and strong, noble and base. Although this insight into the working of things is obvious enough, it seems that only a few people are able to apply it to the way they live their lives. When this characteristic of experience is applied to the political order, for example, privilege invariably entails responsibility, and the attainment of high office is anything but an unmixed blessing.


In bringing harmony (he) to a situation of intense enmity,
There is sure to be some animosity remaining.
How can such reconciliation be considered a success?
The sages, holding on to the left half of the tally,
Do not demand payment from others.
Persons of character (de) take charge of the tally
While persons who are lacking in character look to calling it due.
The way of tian shows no partiality;
It is really on the side of people who are good in their relationships.
(De section: 3041 characters169:


By the time relationships have disintegrated into a situation of intense enmity, it is almost impossible to restore them. Much better to have managed these relationships through deference and accommodation in the first place. We can invoke two insights from chapter 63 that inform such a recommendation. First, “requite enmity with character,” and secondly, “take account of the difficult while it is still easy, and deal with the large while it is still tiny.”

The fifth chapter of the Zhuangzi, the title of which is “Character (de) Satisfies the Tally,” can serve as a gloss on these lines of the Daodejing. This chapter in the Zhuangzi contains a series of anecdotes about a menagerie of mutilated cripples who, under normal circumstances and under the sway of conventional values, would be ostracized from their communities. Their disfigured physical forms, often the result of amputary punishments, would be certain grounds for societal rejection. However, having overcome discreteness and extended the influence of their character to contribute to the community, they “satisfy the tally,” and not only integrate harmoniously into their societies, but further come to exercise considerable sway in establishing the importances of their respective worlds. The weight and quality of their character is such that they are important factors in the ongoing process of defining values and establishing an aesthetic and moral order.

To contextualize this rather obscure chapter of the Daodejing, we remember that the Daoist tradition is generally critical of the Confucian willingness to limit its concerns to the human world alone. At the same time, as in this chapter, the Daodejing does not preclude such a focus. It does not reject the “extension” of oneself in the development of one’s humanity, but seeks to go further in extending oneself to all things by “acting authentically and without coercion (wuwei).” The Daoist texts, like their Confucian counterparts, see resistance to the emergence of a discrete and discriminating self as a precondition for integrative action and the extension of character (de) that follows from mutual accommodation. In one of the Zhuangzi parodies on Confucius, it describes this process:

Yan Hui said, “I have made progress.”

“How so?” inquired Confucius.

“I have sat and forgotten.”

Confucius, noticeably flustered, inquired:

“What do you mean by ‘sitting and forgetting’?”

“I have demolished my appendages and body, gotten rid of my keenness of sight and hearing, abandoned my physical form, and cast off knowledge, and in so doing, have joined with the Great Extender,” said Yan Hui. “This is what I call ‘sitting and forgetting.’” … Confucius replied, “Please let me become your follower.170:

Perhaps the most helpful metaphor available in the Daoist texts to elucidate this notion of “extension” is that of the tally. Relationships are like tallies shared between persons, and those with character are able to make the most of them.

In the Daoist tradition, the extension of one’s character is described in more pervasive terms than in the Confucian literature. As in the Confucian tradition, at times such a person becomes the embodiment and protector of the human order, a styler of new culture, and a source of new meaning. But the Daoists take it beyond this into the natural world. The zhenren, the Daoist version of the consummating person, embraces the character (de) of the natural as well as the human environment. By becoming coextensive with the de of the ox, for example, Cook Ding in butchering its carcass is able to penetrate and interpret its natural lineaments and interstices without distraction, and hence is able to become an efficacious butcher; by becoming coextensive with the de of the wood, Carpenter Qing is responsive to the quality and potential of his materials without distraction, and hence is able to become an efficacious craftsman171:

The absence of a “dis-integrating” discrete self makes these exemplars open to the ethos of their natural environments, so that the environment contributes to them, making them potent and productive, and they contribute to their environments, interpreting and maximizing the possibilities of those things that constitute their worlds.


You want a small state with a minimal population.
Have ready to hand weaponry for a sufficient number of military units Yet have no recourse to use them.
Make sure that the common people take dying seriously
So that they have no taste for venturing far from home.
Though you have ships and chariots enough
Have no reason to man them;
Though you have armor and weapons enough
Have no reason to parade them.
Bring the common people back to keeping their records with knotted string,
To relishing their food,
To finding beauty in their garments,
To enjoying their customs,
And to finding security in their homes.
Although your neighboring states are within eyesight
And the sounds of their dogs and cocks are within earshot,
Your people will grow old and die without having anything to do with them.


Commentators are inclined to read this chapter as a primitivist document, rejecting the distractions of living within a larger world, and recommending a return to the simplicity of a village life untainted by the trappings of “civilization.” While this interpretation might have some merit, it does not exhaust what seems to be a more profound sensibility. After all, this small state has all of the resources on hand, military and otherwise, to protect itself against those undeserved yet perhaps inevitable forces that would threaten it. The message might be pacific, but it is not naively pacifistic.

The Heshanggong commentary observes:

Even though the sages govern a large state, it is as though it were small. Being frugal they do not demand too much. Even though the people are numerous, it is as though they are few. The sages would not think of wearing them out.

Wu Yi (2001):454 puts this commentary together with chapter 60: “Bringing proper order to a great state is like cooking a small fish.” The point is not the absolute size of the state, but the way in which it is governed.

There is much in this chapter that can be given a military interpretation, locating the text squarely within the pressing concerns of the Warring States Period in which it was compiled. The ruler must make a choice between raising and deploying an army in conquest of foreign lands, or leaving the people to tend their crops at home. In order to go to war, a culture must be created that glorifies combat and the spoils of victory above the risks entailed on the battlefield, thereby making light of death and injury. Of course, the recommendation offered here would seem to be that it is better to remain on the land, while at the same time prudently encouraging that preparations be made in case someone else is less deliberate and decides to bring the battle to you.

We might also read this chapter as a celebration of local living, resonating as it does with chapter 47: “Venture not beyond your doors to know the world; … The farther one goes the less one knows.”

A life is lived most fully in the immediacy and concreteness of ordinary experience. We can only thrive by further articulating and extending ourselves within those constitutive relationships that locate us in a specific time and place. We must grow from here to there. Whatever the temptations to wealth and grandeur that lure us away from these relationships, such distractions from what we really are serve only to diminish our opportunities for consummate experience. On the other hand, a fully responsive appreciation of the local redirects us back to unmediated feeling as the real site of efficacious knowing and living.


Credible words are not eloquent;
Eloquent words are not credible.
The wise are not erudite;
The erudite are not wise.
The adept are not all-around;
The all-around are not adept172:
The sages do not accumulate things.
Yet the more they have done for others,
The more they have gained themselves;
The more they have given to others,
The more they have gotten themselves.
Thus, the way of tian is to benefit without harming;
The way of the sages is to do without contending173:


This chapter recalls chapter 67, in which frugality, modesty, and compassion are celebrated as the mutually entailing conditions of effective living. Given the inseparability of opposites, frugality suggests a focused respect for the integrity of other things, and allows one to be magnanimous and accommodating in dealing with them. Likewise, modesty in one’s language, learning, and abilities does not in any way diminish one’s character, and yet opens up a space that facilitates harmonious and mutually productive relationships.

Given the inseparability of opposites, acting on behalf of others is gaining oneself, and giving to others is getting oneself. In the Daoist epistemology of unmediated feeling, frugality and the non-contentiousness that it entails is a disposition that allows one to take other things on their own terms. Indeed, it is only in feeling each other deeply that we are really able to know each other in the co-creative sense of realizing each other. All effective transactions are affective transactions, and require recourse to these invested relations.


To interpret this passage a bit closer to home, Ralph Waldo Emerson in celebrating the sacredness of one’s uniqueness and one’s spontaneity, decries doctrine and conformity. Indeed, “this conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true.” Emerson (1883):56.

The indeterminate (wu) is the beginning of everything that is happening;

While the determinate (you) is the mother of everything that is happening.

Chapter 32, which resonates with this chapter, is consistent with the reading we have offered here.

It is for this reason that in the proper governing by the sages:

They empty the hearts-and-minds of the people and fill their stomachs,

They weaken their aspirations and strengthen their bones.

In the way of the world in all of its profusion,

Each thing again reverts and returns to its root.

On the other hand, to sustain Henricks’s argument that the text took an anti-Mencian turn, some account would have to be given for why the signature paired ren and yi also appear here in the GD chapter 18.

Chapter 46, too, is concerned about insatiability:

There is no crime more onerous than greed,

No misfortune more devastating than avarice.

And no calamity that brings with it more grief than insatiability,

Thus, knowing when enough is enough

Is really satisfying.

In describing dao , the first phrase has been almost uniformly translated into English as some variation on “it stands solitary and does not change” (Legge, Karlgren, Lau, LaFargue, Henricks, Ames and Young, and most others). Yet we must ask what could it mean to assert that dao “does not change” in the “eventful” world of classical Daoism? To the contrary, Daodejing 40 claims explicitly : “Returning is the movement of dao.” We must allow that “change” is so real in fact that it is expressed in many different ways, gai being only one of them. If the assumption is that dao changes, then in order to avoid what is a rather obvious equivocation, a translation of this line might need to distinguish among several different senses of “change,” some of which are: 1) bian to change gradually across time, 2) yi to change one thing for an other, 3) hua to transform utterly where A becomes B, 4) qian to change from one place to another, and 5) gai to alter or correct or reform or improve upon x on the basis of some external and independent standard or model, Y.

In the received text, of course, it is 5) gai that delimits the meaning of “change.” The virtue of translating gai as “alteration” is that it introduces the notion of “alterity” to dismiss the possibility that there is something other than dao. A failure to make this “altering” sense of gai clear has led to some classic misunderstandings in translating important texts (see Ames and Rosemont [1998]:279–82), one of the most obvious perhaps being this particular passage. While “does not change” might fall within the semantic tolerance of gai, this translation is hard to square generally and not insignificantly with everything else that is said about dao in the literature. For example, it is contradicted by the line which immediately follows in the WB text: : “Pervading everything and everywhere it does not pause.”

The meaning here is not that dao “does not change,” but being the sui generis and autopoietic totality of everything that is, dao is not open to alteration by appeal to something other than itself. The Wang Bi commentary observes that dao has no counterpart—that is, there is nothing beyond it. As we read further on in this same chapter, one thing might emulate another thing—that is, “humans emulate the earth, and the earth emulates the heavens.” But because dao is everything, and everything is dao, what can it emulate? “Dao emulates what is spontaneously so .”

Fukunaga Mitsuji (1968):143–5 has avoided the equivocation so prevalent in the English translations when, on the basis of the received text, he offers the kanbun reading: aratamezu “is not reformed, revised.” His interpretive translation in modern Japanese is the passive-causative kaerarezu: “is not made to change.”

The variant in the GD Daodejing is of some value in suggesting the intended meaning of this passage. It has , reinforcing MWD B, which has with the classifier. Don Harper has suggested that is a loan for the same character with the classifier which the Shuowen takes as equivalent to jian (“to be paired with”). Such a reading, “solitary it has no counterpart,” is close to Wang Bi.

Alternatively, making quite a different point, with the classifier can also mean “complete, all-in-all, entire,” again consistent with or as “the total.” When we claim that dao is everything and everything is dao, we have to qualify this statement with the observation that dao is processual and hence underdetermined. Thus, it is described as the fecund mother of the world. Perhaps the point here is that dao as ziran (“self-so-ing”) entails the emergence of spontaneous novelty, and while always “grand ” it is never complete. There is no finality or closure.

Or perhaps the text is making both of these points—dao has no counterpart and is never complete—at the same time.

Mencius said: “What distinguishes the human being from the brutes is ever so slight, and where the common run of people are apt to lose it, the exemplary person preserves it. Shun was wise to the way of all things and had insight into human relationships. He acted upon authoritativeness and appropriateness rather than simply doing what was authoritative and appropriate.”

The Mencius 2B2 has the expression “acting on character (dexing )” and 2B3 has the passage “those who act authoritatively by virtue of their character are true kings .”

It is likely that Mencius was influenced in his ideas about the formation of character by the treatise Five Ways of Proper Conduct , copies of which have been recently recovered in both the MWD and GD finds. In spite of its Confucian vocabulary, there is a real resonance between Five Ways of Proper Conduct and this chapter of the Daodejing. Note the same sequence in listing the kinds of proper conduct. This document opens with:

Authoritativeness (ren ) taking shape within is called the formation of character (de ); where it does not take shape within it is simply called proper conduct. Appropriateness (yi ) taking shape within is called the formation of character; where it does not take shape within it is simply called proper conduct. Observing ritual propriety (li ) taking shape within is called the formation of character; where it does not take shape within it is simply called proper conduct. Wisdom (zhi ) taking shape within is called the formation of character; where it does not take shape within it is simply called proper conduct. Sagacity (sheng ) taking shape within is called the formation of character; where it does not take shape within it is simply called proper conduct. There are five ways of the formation of character, where harmony among them is called character.

Being grand, it is called passing,

Passing, it is called distancing.

Distancing, it is called returning.

The WB text has an additional, somewhat redundant line following this one: “It is only if you recognize the disease as a disease that you will be free of disease .”

The Master said: “Zilu, shall I instruct you in what it means to be wise? To know what you know and know what you do not know—this then is wisdom.”

  1. Or more simply, perhaps, “Speakable way-making—this is not really way-making, nameable naming—this is not really naming.” See Yijing Dazhuan A4 “spirituality is without squareness and change is without body.” Willard Peterson (1982):103 offers an interpretation of this commentary: “To have no ‘squareness’ is to be not susceptible of being differentiated into parts and to be not adequately delimited by any conceptual bounds.” Also see Zhuangzi 6: “Now understanding is dependent upon something before it can be on the mark, and yet that which it depends upon is never fixed. .” 

  2. An alternative punctuation of these lines would produce a text that would read: 

  3. Phenomena are never either atomistically discrete or complete. See Zhuangzi 5.2.40 and commentary on it in 63.23.58; compare Graham (1981):54 and 104, and Watson (1968):41 and 257. 

  4. D. C. Lau amends the MWD text here, adding the two characters on the basis of the WB. 

  5. Lau (1982) reconstitutes this line as it occurs in the WB text as “as soon as everyone knows the able as the able, there is ineptness.” He extrapolates on the basis of the opening line. But there is no lacuna in the MWD versions that would allow for this, and the GD text is also abbreviated in this same way. 

  6. The GD text has the final past particle yi at the end of these first two phrases, giving the sense of “already.” But the MWD texts both have the present progressive particle yi at the end of the second phrase denoting a continuing state of affairs. 

  7. The GD text does not have this line. 

  8. We are “restoring” this phrase on the basis of the WB version: The particle ze seems to require the subordinate phrase weiwuwei . 

  9. Reading “to surge up (chong )” as “empty (zhong ).” 

  10. Reading “the determinate (you )” as its cognate, the grammatical particle “you .” 

  11. Zhuangzi 75.27.1. See Graham (1981):106 and Watson (1968):303. 

  12. Some commentators give buren a negative value, interpreting it as “not humane” (Henricks) or “ruthless” (Waley, Lau). Ren appears elsewhere in the Daodejing (chapters 8 [in the WB version], 18, and 19) as a suspect Confucian value that emerges only when genuine moral feeling has been overwritten by conventionalized rules for living. 

  13. The expression “straw dogs (chugou )” appears in the Zhuangzi 37.14.31. These sacrificial objects are artifacts that are treated with great reverence during the sacrifice itself, and then after the ceremony, discarded to be trodden underfoot. 

  14. Some commentators suggest the “what you have within (zhong )” should be read as “your inner emptiness (zhong ),” thereby making a connection with the notion of the boundless productive capacity of emptiness found both in chapter 4 and in the bellows image in this same chapter. 

  15. Some commentators read the expression “buzisheng ” as “does not give itself life,” but this contradicts the “self-so-ing (ziran )” character of nature. The rest of the chapter takes the conduct of the sages as an analogy, making the point that it is their unselfishness that enables them to realize themselves. 

  16. The WB text has “In giving it is how authoritatively .” 

  17. See Xunzi 28. Compare Knoblock (1994):244. 

  18. Compare chapters 22 and especially 39 that also discuss “grasping” and “embracing oneness.” 

  19. The WB text has the expression “original character ” rather than “profoundest character ” here and in chapters 51 and 65. 

  20. The MWD texts do not have “to make a dwelling .” D. C. Lau reconstructs this line on the basis of the preceding sentence. 

  21. The order of these phrases is considerably different in the WB text: 1, 5, 4, 2, and 3. 

  22. The WB text does not have the phrase “in the proper governing .” 

  23. This contrast between the propriety of guaranteeing basic needs and the dangers inherent in indulging intellectual diversions resonates with a similar passage in chapter 3: 

  24. The GD text has “What does it mean in saying ‘Favor and disgrace’?” 

  25. Zhuangzi 26.11.13. Compare Graham (1981):212 and Watson (1968):116. 

  26. James (2000):112. 

  27. The GD text has shan wei shi (“good as students”) instead of shan wei dao (“good at forging their way in the world”). 

  28. The GD text begins this line with bi (“were certainly”). 

  29. The GD text does not have this line. 

  30. The GD text has shiyi wei zhi song (“For this reason were I to sing their praises”). 

  31. The GD text does not have this line. 

  32. The GD text differs from the MWD A and B, but like the Wang Bi, begins these two lines with shu neng (“who is able”), so this would read “Who is able while muddy, through stillness, to gradually become clear; who is able while settled, through agitation, to gradually come to life.” 

  33. The GD text has shang (“surpass”) in this sentence, meaning “surpassing fullness.” 

  34. The GD text does not have these last two lines. 

  35. The GD text has zhong (“focus,” “balance”) instead of jing (“equilibrium”). 

  36. James (2000):76. 

  37. This phrase also occurs in chapter 34, but there it refers to the facility provided by the workings of dao rather than “the most excellent rulers.” 

  38. This chapter in the MWD A and B and in the GD all begin with gu , usually translated “thus” or “therefore,” suggesting that these lines are a continuation from the previous chapter. On this basis, Henricks (1989:220–5 and 2000:112) suggests that 17 and 18 should be read as one unit. But gu is not always inferential, and in fact sometimes serves as a grammatical particle which simply separates passages. 

  39. The GD text does not have these two lines. 

  40. The GD text has zhengchen (“proper ministers”), while MWD A and B have zhenchen (“upright minister”). Robert Henricks (2000: 11–15) observes that there is much discussion on the issue of anti-Confucian polemic in the contemporary academic literature. On the basis of variants in GD chapter 19, Henricks adds his own argument that while the GD text is certainly anti-Confucian in general terms, at some later date this critique was made more explicitly anti-Mencian when a vocabulary prominent in the Mencius (“sage [sheng],” and the paired terms “authoritative conduct [ren]” and “appropriateness [yi]”) was introduced by some later editor. Thus, the earlier GD chapter 19 lines that read “cut off wisdom (zhi) and get rid of discrimination (bian)” and “cut off transformation and get rid of deliberation” became by 168 BCE “cut off sagacity (sheng) and get rid of wisdom (zhi)” and “cut off authoritative conduct (ren) and get rid of appropriateness (yi).” 

  41. In the GD text, this line reads “Cut off wisdom and get rid of discrimination.” 

  42. In the GD text, this line occurs as “Cut off hypocrisy and get rid of deceit,” and is located as the third saying instead of as the second as in MWD texts. 

  43. MWD A and GD have he and MWD B has he . Both characters mean “to shout at, to scold.” WB has ah that is taken to be an informal assent, a casual “yeah.” 

  44. The MWD and GD texts all have “what is deemed beautiful and ugly ,” while the WB text has “what is deemed efficacious and defective .” 

  45. At the Tailao banquet, all three animals (cow, sheep, and pig) would be killed, cooked, and eaten. 

  46. Zhuangzi 45.17.87–91; compare Graham (1981):123 and Watson (1968):188–89. 

  47. Compare chapter 12, which advocates modesty in one’s needs. 

  48. The WB text has “It is for this reason that the sages embraced oneness to be model to the world .” Compare chapters 10 and 39, which also discuss “grasping” and “embracing oneness.” 

  49. This passage is the same as chapter 24, only stated in negative terms. 

  50. MWD A and B are both missing this line. On examining a copy of the original text, one observes that although there is a lacuna here, it is not large enough to include this line. Lau (1982):159 speculates plausibly that the “ditto” mark might have been left out. 

  51. This passage is less than clear, and has given rise to a range of interpretations. But the symbiotic relationship between way-making (dao) and character (de) is not in doubt. 

  52. Hansen (1992):229. 

  53. Hun is sometimes translated as “chaos,” but this puts a negative twist on an idea that is basically positive in classical Chinese. “Spontaneity” might be a more appropriate rendering. See the Zhuangzi story of Lord Hundun discussed in Hall and Ames (1998):65–67. 

  54. All of the terms for “world,” such as tiandi and qiankun , are bipolar and correlative, entailing “copulation” in the sense of joining together. Even yuzhou as the rounded eaves and the phallic ridgepole is a sexual image. The emergence of dao is prior to these familiar images of conception and birthing. 

  55. In the WB Daodejing 25, the text reads: 

  56. This line, found in the received text, does not occur in either the GD or the two MWD versions. Lau restores it to the MWD text. 

  57. A “style” is the proper title or term of address in speaking to someone. In China it was a common practice among the literati on reaching majority at 20 years to take on and be referred to by such a name as a reflection of one’s sense of oneself and one’s aspirations. 

  58. Yijing dazhuan A6. 

  59. See Zhuangzi 4.2.30–1; compare Graham (1981):53 and Watson (1968):40. 

  60. MWD B is missing this line, but MWD A has a lacuna that would accommodate the missing characters. Lau reconstructs it on the basis of the WB text. 

  61. “Backfire” captures the meaning here, but would be anachronistic. MWD A and B are missing this line, although MWD B does have the first character qi , and according to Lau (1982) and Henricks (1989), there is a lacuna that would accommodate the remaining three characters. Lau (1982) restores the line. The GD text does not have this line or the four that follow it. 

  62. The MWD A text has the character chu in this line, translated as “brambles.” This character, as the name of the father of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the Qin, was taboo. Its presence here suggests with some certainty that it was either a copy that predates the Qin dynasty or a fair copy of a text that did. See Lau (1982):161–2. 

  63. These two lines occur in the WB text. Their absence in the MWD and GD texts supports the common assumption that they are interpolated commentary. 

  64. The language of “the able commander ” and “as a last resort ” is reminiscent of the Sunzi and Sun Bin. See Ames (1993): 91–3, 191, and especially Lau and Ames (1996):34–5, 153. The GD text does not have this line. The WB text has “He gets these results only as a last resort ,” while the MWD texts both have “He gets these results and accommodates them only as a last resort .” 

  65. The GD text like the MWD versions has the phrase “this is called ,” while the WB text does not. 

  66. Adding this line from the GD text: , although it is likely a relocated version of the second line that the GD text is missing: . Neither the WB nor the MWD versions have it. 

  67. These final three lines also occur in chapter 55. See Henricks (2000):15–16 for his discussion of the “bare bones” GD version of this chapter. 

  68. The WB text has “Fine weapons are inauspicious instruments, and are so generally despised that those who are engaged in way-making cannot abide them.” Only MWD A has “who want things ” rather than “who are engaged in way-making .” The MWD B has a lacuna. The problem with overriding the MWD A version is that the same phrase occurs in chapter 24, where both MWD texts have “who want things.” 

  69. The Guodian text has , which means “legitimate wife, peer,” rather than , which means “small, unimportant, lowly.” Alternatively, Li Ling (Henricks 2000:208 n. 36) reads this as , meaning “delicate, subtle, of little consequence.” 

  70. Arthur Waley (1934) points out that this term, literally “sweet dew ,” is a substance like barley sugar or honey that supposedly falls only when a kingdom is at complete peace. 

  71. The Sunzi has a passage: “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.” Ames (1993):96. This allusion might suggest that these are not exclusive propositions being offered here: One does best to know others and to have self-understanding. 

  72. The WB text has “To die and yet not perish is to be long-lived .” See Ames (1998) for an argument that in this tradition of ancestor reverence, to be forgotten is to perish. 

  73. MWD B has feng for fan . Note that these are cognate terms, and that fan can also be pronounced feng. 

  74. In the WB version, this phrase is followed by “All things depend upon it for their lives, and yet it does not control them.” A similar phrase is found in chapter 2, and the idea of “benefiting but not managing” as a characterization of dao pervades the text. This phrase does not occur in the MWD texts. 

  75. This phrase also occurs in chapter 17, although in that context, it refers to the facility provided by “the most excellent rulers.” 

  76. Both MWD texts are interrupted at this point with the phrase “Then it is constantly without desires .” The WB text has it as a subordinate clause, “and is constantly free of desires .” This phrase compromises the parallel structure, so that on the unlikely chance it be longs here, there should be a similar phrase in the subsequent parallel refrain. We have chosen to remove it. 

  77. A similar although expanded version of these lines appears in chapter 63 with a context that offers clarification for this characterization. The subject in the WB version of this chapter is way-making rather than the sages. 

  78. The Book of Changes comes to mind with the use of “image (xiang ),” where a proactive sense of “vision” complements the more passive sense of “revelation.” 

  79. The WB text opens with the two phrases “Way-making really does things noncoercively, yet everything gets done. .” The GD and MWD texts have only the first phrase, with the MWD as we have translated it here, and the GD as “Way-making really does things noncoercively .” 

  80. These three opening lines are almost identical to lines 1, 3, and 4 of chapter 32. 

  81. These few lines have many variations in the different texts, suggesting a general dissatisfaction with the wording. The WB text has “As a nameless scrap of unworked wood, they would be objectless in their de sires .” The GD text does not have line 7, following line 6 with “They would then be satisfied, and being satisfied, they would achieve equilibrium .” 

  82. The WB and GD texts have “stable (ding )” rather than “proper (zheng ).” 

  83. The MWD B text has the title and a character count for this section. 

  84. The mutuality of formation (structure) and function, agent and action, allows us to translate de as both action (“to excel”) and agency (“excellence, efficacy, character”). 

  85. This chapter is reminiscent of Mencius 4B19: 

  86. The WB version has an additional example just before this line: “The myriad things in realizing oneness came to life .” 

  87. The WB version has another line before this one: “If the myriad things had not come to life, they may well have become extinct .” 

  88. Compare chapter 42. In ancient times it was customary as a mark of humility for rulers to refer to themselves in first person singular as “the friendless,” “the unworthy,” and “the inept.” 

  89. The you and wu here might be translated as “something” and “nothing” respectively. They refer to the more determinate and indeterminate aspects of the ongoing process of experience. Importantly, rather than ontological terms, these are explanatory categories necessary to make sense of the process of experience (see Hall [1978]). 

  90. The WB version has qin (“with real effort”). The MWD and WB versions of the text just have “walk it .” But the GD text has “keep to its center ,” which extends the “path” metaphor. 

  91. This line comes before the one above it in the GD text. 

  92. The MWD and GD versions all have bao that D. C. Lau translates as “ample.” The WB text is also viable: “Way-making is hidden in the nameless ” 

  93. Compare chapter 39. See note 107 above. 

  94. For the Daodejing, water and qi , are symbols of the softest things, while rock and metal are the most unyielding. 

  95. The two MWD and the GD text all have “therefore (gu )” at the beginning of this line, while the WB text has “therefore (shigu )” before “miserliness” in line 4. 

  96. This same line occurs in chapter 32. 

  97. This sentence occurs in the WB edition, but not in the MWD or GD texts. However, we follow Lau in restoring it here on the basis of what seems to be a sufficiently long lacuna in the MWD B text. 

  98. Of course, the claim that “perfect” is an absolute term, or at least functions as one, is dubious. Quantification of “perfect” is both frequent and familiar in common English usage: witness “in order to form a more perfect Union,” or “a no more perfect spot could be found,” or “she was absolutely perfect.” 

  99. Ryle (1949):149–153. 

  100. These three lines are ordered differently in different texts. The MWD texts have 1, 2, and 3. The WB has only two lines: 2 and 3. The GD text does not have the first four lines that open this chapter, and has a 1, 3, 2 sequence. In wording, the GD text has “more onerous than (hou )” in place of “greater than (da ),” and “greed (shenyu )” in place of “being desirous (keyu ).” The GD text has “understanding when enough is enough (zhi zu zhi wei zu )” in place of “Therefore, the satisfaction of being content (gu zhi zu zhi zu ).” The order of the GD would seem superior because its sequence is a natural transition into the last two lines. Also the GD wording seems more varied and considered. We follow it in both respects here. 

  101. The MWD B and the WB text have “name, identify (ming ),” but given the interchangeability between this character and “to understand clearly (ming )” and the parallel with “knowing (zhi )” and “getting things done (cheng ),” we have translated this passage as ming . In fact, given the assumed relationship between “naming” and “knowing” in this tradition, this alteration does not make much difference. 

  102. This chapter presents a good example of how the MWD text with its more precise grammar clarifies the meaning. For the last line, the WB text has “And gets things done without doing .” This reading with an intransitive “doing” would suggest simply that the sage does not do anything. But the point being made in the opening lines seems to be that the job gets done, only locally. Both MWD texts have “And gets things done without doing ‘x’ ,” where “x” is the object of acting, that is, what is done. The MWD texts are missing the two lines preceding this one, but parallel structure allows us to extrapolate and assume that they too would have the fu negative, which requires an object. 

  103. D. C. Lau (1982):176–81 in his translation of MWD follows Gao Ming, who appeals to the fact that the expression “and all is done (wu bu wei )” does not occur anywhere in the MWD texts to argue that “and has no motivation for doing so (wu yi wei )” might be an earlier formulation of this idea. It certainly occurs in chapter 38 as a criterion second to “acting noncoercively (wuwei )” for superior conduct. The fact that the GD text does have wu bu wei makes Gao Ming’s arguments less persuasive, although most versions of chapter 38 do have wu yi wei as an alternative formulation. 

  104. The wushi in this passage is another wu-form. What the wu-forms seem to have in common is efficacy through the absence of coercion and constraint. 

  105. Zhuangzi 31.12.52; compare Graham (1981):186 and Watson (1968):134. For a detailed discussion of this anecdote see Hall and Ames (1998):178–80. 

  106. The WB text has “Sages do not have real thoughts and feelings .” 

  107. The WB text does not have this phrase, but most of the other received editions do. Further, Wang Bi’s commentary on the text clearly suggests that this phrase is present in the edition that he was working from. Again, the WB “text” seems to be a version of the Daodejing that is markedly different from the one on which he wrote his commentary. 

  108. Compare chapter 76, which also uses the expressions “companions of life” and “companions of death.” 

  109. Zhuangzi 44.17.48–50; compare Graham (1981):149 and Watson (1968):182. 

  110. The two MWD texts have jin , a familiar abbreviation for qin that can mean either “to toil” or “to be used up.” While the GD variant wu “to work at” would encourage the former reading, “to toil,” we follow chapter 6, which uses the same character to mean “to be used up.” D. C. Lau does the same in translating it as “will not run dry.” The subject of this passage seems to be one’s quantum of vital energies (qi), and again it might be an allusion to some kind of meditative regimen. 

  111. A version of these two lines also occurs in chapter 16. 

  112. The term xiang in modern Chinese has come to mean “auspicious,” but in the classical texts it could mean simply “omen,” or as in this passage, even a “bad omen.” 

  113. This final passage also occurs in chapter 30. The last line is not found in the GD text. 

  114. We follow the GD text, which has “those who really understand it ” and “those who really talk about it .” The first of these phrases is reminiscent of the wording in Analects of Confucius 6.20: “To truly cherish it is better than to just understand it, and to enjoy it is better than to simply cherish it.” 

  115. These two lines also occur in chapter 52. 

  116. These four lines that also appear in chapter 4 occur here in both the MWD and GD texts in this sequence, but have a different order in the MWD versions of chapter 4. The order that we find in MWD versions of chapter 4 is in fact the same order that we find in the WB version of this chapter. 

  117. The terms “straightforward (zheng )” and “take by surprise (qi )” are a technical military vocabulary. See Ames (1993):119 and Lau and Ames (1996):79–82 and 252–56. 

  118. A version of this line also occurs in chapter 48. 

  119. Neither of the MWD texts has this line . But we follow Lau (1982):160 in restoring it on the basis of parallels in chapters 21 and 54. 

  120. The GD text has “the more rebellious the people will be .” 

  121. The GD and MWD A versions just have “wisdom ,” while the MWD B text has the fuller expression “wisdom .” The WB version is more interpretive, with “skill and expertise .” 

  122. The MWD B and GD texts have “we desire not to desire ,” but the WB text has “we are objectless in our desires .” We follow the WB text here in order to maintain the parallel structure. 

  123. This correlation between being objectless in one’s desires and being like unworked wood also occurs as a WB variant in chapter 37. 

  124. A collation of the MWD versions provides us with an opening passage that we can only speculate about. That such speculation is not always rewarded with the resolution we hope for is demonstrated by the fact that Lau and Henricks provide translations of the same characters that are not far short of contradictory. The WB version would appear to be someone’s attempt to deal with this textual ambiguity. Within the context of the chapter as a whole, we can be relatively sure that a contrast is intended between a Daoistic government that does not intervene in the lives of the people, letting them get on with things, and a non-Daoistic government that is heavy-handed and judgmental, generating rules of conduct that are self-justifying in their application. 

  125. The WB text ascribes this conduct specifically to the sages. 

  126. Zhuangzi 17.6.47; compare Graham (1981):88 and Watson (1968):84. 

  127. Zhuangzi 17.6.53; compare Graham (1981):88 and Watson (1968):85. 

  128. Following Henricks (2000):84–5, where the GD text has the graphically similar character “realm (yu )” for “country (guo ).” Note, however, that “guo” begins the following chapter. 

  129. This expression is familiar in the text, where “mother” is the image of the creative source of our experience. Compare chapters 1, 20, 25, and 52. 

  130. While this phrase is ambiguous in the MWD texts as “the sages will not harm them either ,” where “them” could refer to either ghosts or people, the WB text resolves the ambiguity explicitly in favor of the people: “the sages will not harm the people either .” 

  131. The WB text has the small state “… can rule the great state .” Given that the lines that follow continue an assumed distinction between the great state “ruling” and the small state “being ruled,” it would seem that the WB version is less clear than the MWD texts in its failure to establish this subtle distinction at the outset. 

  132. In both chapters 48 and 57 this wu-form, “being non-interfering in going about your business wushi ,” is recommended as the most appropriate disposition in governing the world. 

  133. Compare chapter 35. 

  134. Chapter 79 provides an extended discussion of this precept. 

  135. A similar couplet appears at the end of chapter 34. The phrasing of these lines here is similar to the WB version of chapter 34, although the subject in the WB text is way-making rather than the sages. 

  136. See Ames (1993):116. 

  137. A variation on this line that has become a popular saying in vernacular Chinese is “a journey of hundreds of miles begins with the soil under one’s feet .” But according to Henricks (2000): 63, this version that appears in the WB text (but not the Wang Bi commentary) is a later revision that seems to have originated with the Heshanggong recension. At least the GD and both MWD texts have the version translated here. 

  138. These two lines occur in chapter 29 in a specifically political context. 

  139. Instead of these three lines, one version of the GD text (for the two different versions of the second half of this chapter, see Henricks [2000]:44 and 122) has “As a guideline in overseeing affairs, if you are as careful at the end as you are at the start, you will be free of failure .” 

  140. Compare chapter 37. The interpretation of the expression “desiring not to desire ” as “being objectless in one’s desires ” is encouraged by this same variant in the WB version. 

  141. One of the two GD versions of this text has “And in teaching not to teach .” 

  142. The WB text has “to use knowledge in bringing proper order to the state .” 

  143. The WB text has “is to confer good fortune upon the state .” 

  144. Because of a taboo character, the WB text has “original efficacy ” rather than “profound efficacy ” here and in chapters 10 and 51. 

  145. MWD A has these two phrases in reverse order, but GD and WB are the same order as MWD B. 

  146. The MWD versions have wuzheng as a wu-form in this sentence: “they strive without contentiousness.” The GD and WB texts have buzheng “they do not contend.” Only the MWD texts have this concluding line as a rhetorical question rather than a descriptive statement. 

  147. As Lau (1982):157 points out, in MWD A this conditional is reversed to read “it is only because I am great that I resemble nothing.” Lau argues for the superiority of the MWD B reading that we have here. 

  148. The WB text has “When nature is about to rescue something, it surrounds it with compassion .” 

  149. Many if not most of the traditional commentaries and contemporary translations interpret “students (shi )” in a military sense as “officers” or “warriors.” While entirely plausible, such an understanding assumes that this same term is being used here differently from the two other chapters in which it occurs (15 and 41). Also, it surrenders a possible contrast between the best students of way-making, who are “subtle and mysterious, dark and penetrating” and whose “profundity was beyond comprehension” (chapter 15), and persons who are militant and aggressive. 

  150. Compare chapters 61 and 66. 

  151. The WB text has “it is called making use of the strength of others ,” adding two characters to the text. Lau follows the WB and restores this expression, although there is no lacuna in the MWD versions. 

  152. This is a rather obscure phrase, and commentators have often abandoned it as corrupt. The WB text includes a verb that makes it parallel grammatically to the other two phrases preceding it at the expense of making it asymmetrical in the number of characters: “it is what is called matching up with an axis that is as old as the heavens .” 

  153. See Ames (1993):164–66. 

  154. See Ames (1993):110–11. 

  155. Compare the “three prized possessions” in chapter 67. 

  156. The MWD A text has “among people ,” while MWD B and the WB versions have “in the world .” 

  157. On the basis of what seems to be a “ditto” mark in the MWD A text, Henricks (1989):168 suggests that the text should read “not to know that you don’t know is a flaw .” Although he is responding to the rather forced attempts to make sense of this line in some of the other translations, there is no collaboration for this reading in any of the other texts. Grammatical differences between the MWD versions and the WB text suggest that scholars in the transmission of this chapter are puzzling over its meaning. In fact, we would argue that this line not only makes good sense as it stands, but further is a key to the chapter as a whole. 

  158. Zhuangzi 75.26.48–9; compare Graham (1981):190 and Watson (1968):302. 

  159. We follow the received text here. See Ames and Rosemont (1998) for an alternative reading found in the Dingzhou text, which would read: 

  160. Tredennick and Tarrant (1993):44. 

  161. The MWD versions, with the inclusion of a number of grammatical particles, are more precise than the WB version. Also, in this chapter, the meaning of the character wei is parsed to mean both “awe” and “authority,” and the character yan to mean both “lower” and “disaffected.” 

  162. And what tian despises are “those who are courageous in feats of daring.” The WB text has a line following this one: “It is for this reason that even the sages pay careful attention to such things .” This line also occurs in chapter 63. 

  163. Compare chapter 23: “It is natural to speak only rarely.” 

  164. This line does not occur in the WB text. 

  165. The WB text just has “hard and rigid,” but the MWD versions have an additional two rather uncommon characters, which when combined mean something like (laid out six feet long =) “cadaver.” 

  166. Although there is considerable variation in the different versions of these lines, the meaning is clear enough. 

  167. See Wu Yi (2001):444–45 for an alternative reading. 

  168. The MWD texts have “make an offering to tian ,” while the WB version has “to the world.” The WB alternative makes a stronger connection with the unselfish and enlightened conduct that is subsequently described, so we have followed it. 

  169. The MWD B text has the title and a character count for this section. It has been placed at the end of chapter 79 because in the MWD versions, this is the last chapter. What other texts parse as chapters 80 and 81 occur between chapters 66 and 67. 

  170. Zhuangzi 19.6.89; compare Graham (1981):92. 

  171. For Cook Ding, see Zhuangzi 7.3.2–12; compare Graham (1981): 63–4 and Watson (1968):50–1. For Carpenter Qing, see Zhuangzi 19.50. 54–9; compare Graham (1981):135 and Watson (1968):205–6. 

  172. The WB version has “the adept do not dispute; disputers are not adept , .” 

  173. The MWD B text just has “the way of the human being ,” but the WB version has “the way of the sages ,” which seems more consistent with what has gone before.