Call her dark dell. [iv]
Delicate, delicate, seeming to survive. [ix]
Their use is no toil. [x]
[i] This line could also be read as ‘is not dead’ or ‘is not dying’.
[ii] Roberts (2001, 41) notes that gǔ (谷), ‘valley’ had associations of ‘death and night as well as female’.
[iii] Ryden (2008, xxiv – xxv) discusses three interpretations this line has had: Heshanggong reads gǔ (谷), ‘valley’, as ‘nourish’ and so takes the line as advice of self-cultivation; Wang Bi reads the ‘valley sprint’ as the space between the hills, a metaphor for wú, absence; Xiang’er replaces gǔ with yu, desire, and so reads the chapter as instructions on what to do if you ‘desire that your spirit not die’. Ryden himself (14) takes ‘valley spirit’ to mean ‘river’, intended as a metaphor for dào.
[iv] This line is often given as something like ‘Call her the Mysterious Female’, capitals and all. This loses both the verse’s sustained landscape metaphor and a certain playfulness. Pìn (牝) means both ‘a female animal’ and ‘a ravine or valley’ (Kroll 2015, 346), and so links to the gǔ (谷), valley, in the previous line. The ‘her’ of ‘call her dark dell’ preserves the ‘female’, and the ‘dell’ preserves the valley synonym. The combination hopefully preserves the playfulness, the landscape metaphor, and the original’s suggestion of the female genitals.
[v] Making mén (門), ‘gateways’, plural here is unusual, but the singular would make the next line ‘Call it the sky and earth’s root’, and this loses the image of delicate, thread-like root networks that follows. Beyond that, saying ‘the gateway’ here, and in chapter 1, implies a single road to a transcendent dào, and this is best avoided.
[vi] Wang Bi links this to the gateway in chapter 1 and says ‘Do you wish to say that it does exist? Well we do not see its form. Do you wish to say that it does not exist? Well the [countless creatures] are produced by it.’ (Lynn 1999, 62). I would pluralise this, see fn 5.
[vii] Roberts (2001, 41) links this to the Tree of Dawn, Fusang, which is fed by an underground river that, overnight, carries the fallen sun. The dead were thought to dwell in the same river system (Roberts 2001, 196).
[viii] What sort of gateways can be called roots? The obvious meaning would be the point where a smaller valley formed by a stream opens into a larger one that holds the river that the stream feeds. If, as Ryden thinks (footnote 3) the river itself is the valley spirit, then it might mean both the upstream, to smaller valleys, and downstream, to bigger valleys, openings. As you move upstream, such valleys get finer and finer, fitting well with the next line. There may also be a visual image here. Looking at one mountain from another, then ravines and valleys can look like both like root networks, but also like vertical ‘gateways’. On this interpretation, the first line would be better pluralised: ‘valley spirits do not die’. The only reason not to do this is the absence of a specifically feminine plural in English means that some of the second line would be lost (footnote 4).
[ix] Mián (綿), ‘delicate’, is repeated. It means ‘cotton’, ‘fine spun thread’, ‘twisted’ (Kroll 2015, 305). One visual image is of tiny roots, so small that they are on the edge of vision. This would fit well with Allan’s (1997) emphasis on plant imagery, although she does not mention it. Ryden (2008, 14) takes it more literally as cotton, and points out that weaving was probably female work. Lynn (1999, 63) takes the repetition of the character to give it the sense ‘on and on’.
[x] Most translations take this line to be about someone else using the roots, something like ‘[someone else] using them is no toil’, rather than about how they themselves work. Ames and Hall, Goddard, and (according to Lynn), Wang Bi take it as saying that they ‘function inexhaustibly’ (Lynn 1999, 62). The first option seems a more natural reading of zhī (之) here, but I have attempted to preserve some ambiguity (contrast: ‘using them is no toil’).