Names that can name do not always name. [iv]
With name, countless creatures’ mother. [vii]
So always be without desire to watch its subtlety. [viii]
Yet they have different names.
Together, call them dark. [xii]
Dark, they are again dark.
[i] Although ‘way’ captures much of the Chinese, both as ‘path’ and ‘way of doing things’, the root meaning was probably a water channel, not a road (Allan 1997, 66 – 67).Here, the second ‘way’ (dào, 道) is placed inverted commas to approximate the ambiguity between dào as a noun, meaning ‘way’, and dào as a verb, meaning ‘to say’ (Kroll 2015, 79).
[ii] Classical Chinese is uninflected, but English tends to nominalise processes. The combination can lead to translations that emphasise particular words (eg: ‘The Way’) in ways that undermine the message of this text. To avoid this, I have sometimes pluralised words, as with the first ‘way’ here (see Rainey 2014, 49, 147).
[iii] Cháng (常) is translated as ‘always’ here and in lines 2, 5, and 6. It means both ‘constant’ and ‘commonplace’ (Kroll 2015, 42). The most common form of translation is along the lines of ‘…not the constant way’. This, however, gives a misleading impression that dào is unchanging (Allan 1997, 99). ‘Always’ avoids the distortion caused by nominalising the word (‘always the’ vs ‘the constant’), giving a more deflationary reading (see fn 2).
[iv] The pluralisation of ‘name’ (míng, 名) raises similar issues to dào (see footnote 2), but míng does not have the latter’s ambiguity as a verb. Míng, however, also means conforming to social morals (Kroll 2015, 309), a subtext that is hard to preserve in translation.
[v] ‘Countless’ (wàn, 萬) is more literally ‘ten thousand’. ‘Creatures’ (wù, 物) includes plants (Allan 1993, 96).
[vi] In the received text: ‘Without name, sky and earth’s beginning’. This follows the Ma-wang-tui texts (Henricks 1989, 188-9). Probably, Wang Bi also had a text in this form (Lynn 1999, 53).
[vii] These two lines introduce the contrast between wú (無: without, absence, non-being) and yǒu (有: with, presence, being). I have translated them ‘without’/’with’ where they modify another term, and ‘absence’/’presence’ or ‘what exists’/’what does not exist’ otherwise. ‘Being’, as Chesterton says, has ‘a sort of hazy atmosphere’ (1933/1986, 518) that is seldom helpful. See Graham (1989, 406 – 412) on being, yǒu, and wú.
[viii] One line of interpretation punctuates this and the next line differently, producing: ‘Therefore, let there always be nothingness, so to watch its subtleties/Let there always be existence, so to watch its borders’ (modified from Lynn 1999, 53). The Ma-wang-tui texts preclude this interpretation (Henricks 1989, 188).
[ix] The final character of this line in the received text is jiǎo (徼), ‘borders’, which Wang Bi interprets as ‘the ends to which things revert’ (Lynn 1999, 52). The Ma-wang-tui texts, however, give a similar character meaning ‘wail’ (Henricks 1985, 188; Kroll 2015, 205); and it is possible that yet another character meaning ‘shines’ was intended (Henricks 1985, 272; Kroll 2015, 204). To add to the complexity, the Ma-wang-tui texts also modify the word with suǒ (所), ‘that which’, (Henricks 1989, 189), so the final word must be a verb (Kroll 2015, 437). The consensus seems to be that the correct verb is the verbal form of jiǎo (徼), which is ‘to seek’ (Henricks 1989 188; Ryden 2008, 169).
[x] Qí (其), ‘its/they’, in these two lines could refer to dào or to ‘countless creatures’ (Lau 1963, 5). Some authors, such as Roberts (2004, 27) and Ames and Hall (2003, 77) seem to shift from one to the other. Here, as in Ryden (2008, 5), it is assumed that the author is still discussing that which can be ‘without name’ or ‘with name’. In contrast, Henricks (1989, 188) thinks that it is the ‘watcher’ who also seeks. The overall contrast seems to be that ‘without desire’ the whole world is the undifferentiated play of a single way but ‘with desire’ the world contains separate individuals that ‘seek’ (ie: have purposes). This perspectival reading is influenced by the Zhuāngzǐ (and Western philosophy such as Nagel 1989), and it is very speculative.
[xi] Lau (1963, 5) treats this section (to the end) as a later editorial comment.
[xii] ‘Dark’, xuán (玄), does not imply complete blackness, but blue-purple ‘sloe black’, dimness, murkiness, ‘dark to the mind’, and unknowable (Kroll 2015, 519). The colour is that of a black mountain tarn (Allan 1997, 142) or of mountains in the distance (Pregadio 2008, 1126). The Western duality dark=bad/light=good should not be read into this character, in this verse or elsewhere. The image of the graph itself is of ‘tiny/one’ (yāo, 么) under a ‘lid’ (tóu, 亠).
[xiii] Zhòng (眾), ‘crowded’, often taken as to modify miào (妙), ‘subtlety’, giving something like ‘all subtlety’s gateways’; but this discards, without resolving, the paired opposites in the verse to this point. In particular, zhòng may refer to the countless creatures and miào to their source, see fn 10. ‘Crowded and subtle’, however, does leave two possibilities for zhī (之), the next character, giving either ‘crowded and subtle gateways’ or ‘gateways to crowds and subtlety’ (See Kroll 2015, 603: 2/2b).
[xiv] On Mén (門), ‘gateways’, see chapter 6 footnotes 5, 6.