They use countless creatures as straw dogs. [iii]
Wise people are not humane.
[i] Wang Bi contrasts ‘sky and earth’, which make no conscious effort and allow things to manage themselves, with the ‘humane’ who make conscious effort, establish institutions, and influence behaviour. Influencing behaviour causes people to lose authenticity and fail to preserve their integrity. In contrast, ‘The sky and earth do not make the grass grow for the sake of beasts, yet beasts eat grass.’ He ends his comment with ‘As long as you use kindness derived from a personal perspective, it indicates a lack of capacity to leave things to themselves’ (Lynn 1999, 60). Roberts (2001, 38) translates a passage from Su Che (1039-1112) with a similar sentiment.
[ii] ‘Humane’ is rén (仁), often also rendered ‘benevolent’. It is a central Confucian virtue of proper graded affection first to family and then outwards to others. See Roberts (2001,38), who renders it as ‘kin-kindness’, for a brief discussion of its appearance here, and Cua (2003, 643) for a general introduction.
[iii] Lau (1963, 9) draws attention to the Zhuangzi comment that straw dogs were treated with deference before the offering, only to be trampled upon afterwards (Palmer 2006, 120; Mair 1994,136).
[iv] ‘All families’, bǎi xìng (百姓), is often given as ‘the common people’ or ‘the hundred families’. Bǎi is both ‘one hundred’ and ‘all (of that type)’ (Kroll 2015, 7). Xìng is literally ‘surname’ or ‘descendent’ (Kroll 2015, 510). ‘All surnames’ would be more literal, but confusing in English. ‘People’ is too undifferentiated, and misses the point that the wise person treats them as straw dogs regardless of surname, important in a discussion of rén (see fn 2). ’Clan’ and similar terms tend towards unnecessary exoticism.
[v] Roberts (2001, 39) points out that these lines may be a deliberate counter to Mozi’s ‘the sky loves all families’, and his vision of an interventionist divine order.
[vi] Lau (1963, 9, 106) notes the connection between this part of the verse and the first 4 lines seems weak. His point is strengthened by the appearance on these two lines alone in the Guodian texts (Henricks 2000, 58).
[vii] ‘Bellows’ is tuó yuè (橐蘥). Most commentators read it as a compound, but Wang Bi reads tuó as bellows and yuè as a musical pipe (Lynn 1999, 61). Ryden (2008, 170) reads the Guodian version in a way that supports Wang Bi’s interpretation.
[viii] Ryden (2008, 13, 170) reads this as (modified) ‘As it empties it inhales less, as it closes it expels more’.
[ix] Roberts (2001, 39) notes that this and the previous line use ‘mechanical’ imagery characteristic of Mozi and suggests this passage may date from his era (just after 478BC).
[x] This follows the received version. The Ma-wang-tui version reads ‘too much learning/hearing often exhausts’ (Henricks 1989, 196; Ryden 2008, 171). The received version seems to connect better with the previous line, although either would fit into the text as a whole. Wang Bi’s version appears to have been ‘words/talk’ (Lynn 1999, 61).
[xi] Lau (1963, 9) again notes that these last two lines seem only loosely connected to what goes before (see fn 6). Roberts (2001, 40) suggests that they were added to tie together the ‘straw dogs’ and ‘bellows’ sections through the multiple meanings of zhōng (see fn 12,13).
[xii] Zhōng (中) ,‘centre’, may also be zhòng: to hit the target, be in balance (Kroll 2015, 611).
[xiii] For zhōng (中),‘centre’, Ryden (2008, 13, 170) reads a homophone (盅? See Ames and Hall 2003, 206) giving (modified) ‘It does not compare to preserving emptiness’. This fits well with Wang Bi’s commentary, which draws a direct parallel between this line and the emptiness of the bellows (Lynn 1999, 61).