Dào Dé Jīng with footnotes: 2

Standard disclaimer

When all under the sky know beauty as beauty, there is already foulness. [i] [ii]

When all know the good, there is already the not good. [iii]

So presence and absence give life to one another.

Hard and easy complete one another.

Long and short shape one another. [iv]

High and low fill one another. [v]

Voice and music harmonise one another.

Before and after follow one another. [vi]

Thus, the wise person remains without action in their work. [vii] [viii] [ix]

Walking, not talking, is their teaching. [x]

Countless creatures arise, but they do not begin. [xi] [xii] [xiii]

Act, but they do not depend. [xiv] [xv]

Complete tasks, but they do not rest. [xvi] [xvii] [xviii]

Only by not resting do they not depart. [xix] [xx]


[i] An alternative interpretation is ‘All under the sky know that when beauty acts as if it is beauty, it is already foul’. See Suzuki (1913) and Ivanhoe (2003, 2). This gives ‘All know that the good is already not good’ in the Guodian and Ma-wang-tui versions of line 2,(see footnote 3).

[ii] ‘Sky’, tiān (天) is often translated ‘heaven’. This, however, misleadingly implies a euphemism for a personal God and a connection with the afterlife, see Allan (1997, 20 – 22). Furthermore, it obscures the visual imagery.

[iii] This version follows the Guodian and Ma-wang-tui texts (Henricks 1989, 190; 2000, 50). The received text reads ‘When all know good as good, there is already not good’.

[iv] ‘Shape’, xíng (形), follows the Ma-wang-tui and Guodian texts (Henricks 1989, 191; 2000, 50). A received variant is ‘measure’, jiào (較).

[v] ‘Fill’, yíng (盈) follows the Ma-wang-tui and Guodian texts (Henricks 1989, 191; 2000, 50). The received text reads ‘upturn’, qīng (傾).

[vi] The Ma-wang-tui texts follow this line with one reading ‘These are all constants’ (Henricks 1989, 190).

[vii] ‘Wise person’, sheng rén (聖人), is often translated ‘saint’ or ‘sage’. It includes what might be considered both ‘practical’ and ‘spiritual’ excellences, although the concept varies in different texts (Cua 2003, 697; Pregadio 2008, 879). It would be assumed to refer to a man, although rén (人) can mean ‘person’ generally.

[viii] ‘Without action’, wúwéi, is a central concept in Daoism. Liu summarises it as ‘(1) when things are running well, do nothing to interfere; (2) when the sage has to do something, let him do it with no personal, selfish desire; (3) in all his acts, the sage should conform to Dao, the natural pattern of things, and refrain from introducing human intervention’ (cited in Liu 2015, 82).

[ix] Work, shì (事), sometimes translated ‘affairs’ should be understood widely, not only as paid employment.

[x] ‘Walking’, xíng (行) is often translated ‘practices’ (eg: ‘practices teaching without words’), but ‘walking’ uses an association that also exists in English (‘walk the walk’) that fits the central metaphor of dào (Kroll 2015, 509).

[xi] Ames and Hall (2003, 80) punctuate this line differently. They read ‘countless creatures’ as ‘countless events’ and so obtain (modified here) ‘In all that occurs/arising but not beginning…’ This makes them fairly unique in thinking the wise person ‘arises’, although they render the word (zuò, 作) as ‘develops things’.

[xii] This follows the Ma-wang-tui (Henricks 1989, 190), Guodian (Henricks 2000, 52), and (possibly) Wang Bi’s (Lynn 1999, 55) versions. The received text has (辭), ‘reject’/’utter’ (Kroll 2015, 64), instead of shĭ (始), ‘begin’ (Kroll 2015, 414).

[xiii] Who does not begin? Most translators think it is the wise person, but Legge thinks it is the countless creatures; and Lau thinks it is the dào (but reads it as ‘claims no authority’: 1963, 6). Furthermore, it is also unclear who or what does not get begun. Hendricks (1989, 190) and Ryden (2008, 7) think the wise person does not begin the creatures; but, instead, a contrast with the creatures may be intended. They arise, but he has no beginning. ‘The unborn’ (bushing, 不生) appears in the, albeit later, Liezi (Graham 1990, 17 – 18). The use of ‘they’ here is an attempt to leave the ambiguity in place.

[xiv] This version follows the Ma-wang-tui (Henricks 1989, 191) and Guodian (Hendricks 2000, 50) texts in omitting the line ‘Are born, but not owned’ before this one. The (admittedly tentative: see footnotes 6 and 19) structure of this verse – a series of paired lines – argues for its omission. Furthermore, line 3 of this verse also contains both yǒu (有), ‘owned’/’present’, and shēng (生), ‘live/give birth’, but the meanings of these characters in the omitted line seem clumsily different. The omitted line appears in chapters 10 and 51.

[xv] As in the previous line (footnote 12) it is unclear who acts and who does not depend. Hendricks and Lynn think that the wise person acts and the creatures don’t depend. Ivanhoe, Suzuki, Goddard, and Ames and Hall think the wise person acts and does not depend. Legge and Roberts thinks that the creatures act and do not depend. Ryden thinks the creatures act, and the wise person does not depend. Lau reads this entire passage as being about dào. Beyond this, there is no consensus about what ‘the non-depender’ is not depending on: themselves or some other entity (person/creatures). As before, this version attempts to preserve the ambiguity.

[xvi] The same ambiguity as affects the previous two lines is still apparent here, see footnotes 12 and 15.

[xvii] ‘Rest’, (居) also means ‘reside/dwell’ (Kroll 2015, 223). It is often glossed ‘does not dwell on achievements’.

[xviii] In the received text, the ‘not’ of ‘do not rest’ is (弗) here and in the next line, but all other ‘not’s’ in this section are (不). The Ma-wang-tui and Guodian texts use throughout the end of the chapter.

[xix] Lau (1963, 5) treats this line as an editorial comment, but the Guodian find suggests that it was added by about 350BC (Henricks 2000, 22).

[xx] (去), ‘depart’, can mean ‘die’, but this is medieval (Kroll 2015, 378), so probably not intended here.

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