Fathomless! It sometimes seems to survive. [vii]
I do not know whose child it is.
Its image preceded the lord. [viii]
[i] ‘Swells’, chōng (沖) also means ‘sublime’, ‘modest’, and ‘empty’ (Kroll 2015, 53). ‘Empty’ is the most common translation, but loses a lot. If taken to suggests only ‘empty’ like a cup, it misses the dynamism of chōng, which also means ‘surges’ and ‘bubbles up’ (Kroll 2015, 53). Instead it may mean ‘empty’ like a spring, a space in the earth that produces water (Allan 1997, 76: this leads to resolvable difficulties with the final yíng (盈), ‘fill’, see footnotes 3, 4). Finally, chōng may be ‘empty’ like a wave, shifting and ‘empty of shape’ (see footnote 4). ‘Swell’ captures both this and the spring metaphor better than ‘empty’, and preserves the link to the water imagery in following lines, but is not perfect. ‘The way is empty; and using it, what exists does not fill’ would better bring out the parallel between the ‘empty’ dào and the ‘not full’ object (see footnote 4)
[ii] ‘What exists’, yǒu (有) follows the Ma-wang-tui (Hendricks 1989, 194). Wang Bi seems to have also had a version with yǒu (Lynn 1999, 58), but the received version has instead ‘may/sometimes’, huò (或). Henricks, Ames and Hall, and Lynn all substitute yòu (又), ‘again’; but like Roberts (2001, 36) and Ryden (2008, 11), this version takes yǒu as written. ‘What exists’ (Kroll 2015, 565: 3), was reached by elimination: yǒu as ‘with’/’to have’ seems incoherent here; and yǒu as an existential modifier ‘there is not fullness’ would be more naturally written wú yíng (無盈), not yǒu bù yíng (有不盈). For yǒu, this leaves: ‘a thing that exists’ (a particular, if poorly specified, object); ‘any existing thing’ (any member of the set of all existing things); or ‘all existing things’ (the set of all existing things). ‘A thing that exists’ seems implausible. It is oddly unspecific, and next line suggests that the author is concerned with the general relationship between dào and yǒu. This leaves a choice between ‘any existing thing’ and ‘all existing things’. To me, both the line and the English phrase ‘what exists’ are ambiguous between these two remaining meanings.
[iii] Lau (1963, 8), Allan (1997, 76), and others change ‘fill’, yíng (盈), to ‘drain’ based on similar phrases in the text. If, however, ‘fill’ is a corruption, it is an old one, predating the Ma-wang-tui finds (Hendricks 1989, 194).
[iv] What is not filled, dào or ‘what exists’? If yǒu (有) is replaced with huò (或) or yòu (又) (see footnote 2) it seems to be dào. When, however, yǒu (有) is preserved, then the second clause introduces a new subject, ‘what exists’; and there is, for instance, no final zhī (之), indicating ‘using it, what exists does not fill it [dào]’. By default, it seems that ‘what exists’ is probably the thing that is not filled. This modifies how the metaphors in the line work (see footnote 1). The image of dào as empty and bubbling up like a spring can be preserved, but it is whatever drinks from the spring that is not filled. The idea that dào is constantly creative, an important link to the following lines, is present without any need to change the final yíng (盈), ‘fill’, to ‘drain’ (footnote 3). Furthermore, if it is yǒu, not dào, that does not fill, this suggests a further metaphor: one continuous with the ‘deep’, yuān (淵), and ‘fathomless’, zhàn (湛), of the following lines. Reading chōng (沖) as ‘empty’ of particular shape like a wave, which is close to its core meaning, suggests a boat metaphor with two intertwined meanings. First, ‘what exists’, if it uses dào, is like a boat that rides waves without filling. The contrast is with a boat that works against the waves, and so takes on water. Second, the parallel between chōng, ‘empty’, and yíng, ‘not fill’, suggests that ‘what exists’, in order to use dào, must be ‘not full’ in the same way as a boat cannot be overloaded without sinking. In other words, the relationship is iterative. Being ‘not full’ allows one to use dào, and using dào allows one to avoid becoming full. Although, I find this interpretation persuasive, I have attempted to leave the English as ambiguous as the Chinese: ‘does not fill’, not ‘does not fill itself’.
[v] Yuān (淵), ‘deep’ also means ‘an abyss’, a ‘whirlpool’, and ‘profound’ (Kroll 2015, 575).
[vi] Most versions follow this line with the following four:
Blunt their edges.
Untangle their threads.
Soften their light.
Share their dust.
This version follows Roberts’ (2001, 36) omission; and he, in turn, follows an existing line of practice. As he notes, these lines seem to fit where they appear in chapter 56 (see also chapter 52), but interrupt the logic here (see also Lau 1963, 109).
[vii] ‘Sometimes’, huò (或), could also be ‘may’ (Kroll 2015, 178).
[viii] Wang Bi says that ‘the lord’ refers to ‘the lord of the sky’ (Tiandi, 天帝) (Lynn 1999, 58). Hendricks (1989, 194) notes that dì (帝) was the supreme deity of the Shang (1766 – 1122 BC) and that the name was similarly used by the Chou (1122 – 221 BC). Allan (1993, 20 – 21) discusses the possibility that this originated as an ancestor, group of ancestors, or nature spirit.