Dào Dé Jīng with footnotes: 9

Standard disclaimer

Holding back and filling, this is not the same as it stopping. [i] [ii] [iii]

Torrents clash and gather, this cannot be long sustained. [iv] [v] [vi]

Gold and jade filled rooms, these no-one can keep safe. [vii]

Rich, noble, and arrogant, self-neglect condemns them.

Working and yielding integrity, the sky’s way. [viii] [ix]


[i] This verse consist of five sets of paired lines. I have combined the pairs into single lines with a comma in the middle as that seems the best way to preserve the overall structure in English. In doing so, by putting ‘this’ after the comma, I have effectively moved the zhī  (之) at the end of the original lines one and three to the start of the original lines two and four (from the first half to the second half of lines one and two here). This changes it from a direct object pronoun (‘it’/’them’) into a demonstrative adjective (‘this’) (Kroll 2015, 603); but only doing so allows me to keep the paired-line structure without undue wordiness.

[ii] This line has received numerous interpretation. Ivanhoe (2003, 98) links it to a story in Xunzi chapter 28 about a tilting vessel that empties itself after filling to a certain point. Lau (1963, 13) makes a similar connection. In contrast, Ryden (2008, 171) notes that some have linked it to the tautness of a bow (弛 for 持? See Kroll 2015, 51). In light of the Guodian version of the following line (see footnote 4), another interpretation suggests itself: wet field rice cultivation. Chí (持), often given as ‘hold’ can also mean ‘hold back’ (Kroll 2015, 51). In other words, holding back the water and filling the fields is not the same as the water stopping in its attempt to flow downhill. This fits very well with Allan’s (1997) thesis about the centrality of water and plant metaphors, and fits with the (其) in this line (footnote 3). Henricks (2000, 79) gives ‘accumulate’ rather than hold back, but seems to have a similar image in mind.

[iii] Qí yǐ (其已) is ‘it stopping’ or even ‘it’s stopping’, not ‘stopping it’ (Kroll 2015, 353). Agency remains with ‘it’.

[iv] This follows the Guodian version, which Henricks (2000, 80) links to later lines by Li Kang ‘when a mound stands out from the shore, the fast flowing water is sure to overwhelm it’. This version directly continues the water metaphor from the previous line. In contrast, the Ma-wang-tui and received versions have ‘Hammering and honing, this cannot be long sustained’. The difference seems to one of emphasis. The received version emphasises the intrinsic limits of human efforts, but the Guodian emphasises external forces beyond human control.

[v] ‘Sustained’, bǎo (保) also means ‘protected’, which emphasises the parallel with ‘keep safe’ in the next line (Kroll 2015, 10).

[vi] There is an extended undertone beginning in this line that cannot be preserved on translation. ‘Sustained’, bǎo (保), suggests tàibǎo (太保), the grand guardian, a high-ranking courtier (Kroll 2015, 10). In the received version, ‘rooms’ in the next line, táng (堂), also means ‘dais’ (Kroll 2015, 444); and ‘keep safe’, shǒu (守), suggests tàishǒu (太守), another chief official (Kroll 2015, 419). In the fourth line, (遺), ‘neglect’, also means ‘inheritance’, giving ‘their own inheritance condemns them’ (Kroll 2015, 543). In the final line, ‘yielding’, tuì (退) also means to retire from a position (Kroll 2015, 462). These double-meanings give the political point a sharper edge, with stiff advice to have nothing to do with the institutions of power.

[vii] ‘Rooms’ in the Ma-wang-tui and Guodian versions differs to in the received version. They have shì (室), which means the private inner chambers or storeroom (Kroll 2015, 416) but the received version has táng (堂), which means the large public hallway (Kroll 2015, 444).

[viii] ‘Working’ is gōng suì (功遂), both characters of which mean both to perform a task and to succeed (Kroll 2015, 134, 436). ‘Working’ has a similar ambiguity: both ‘it is working’, ‘it works’; and ‘we must do the work’. Nevertheless, this is not shì (事), which is also translated as ‘work’ in chapters 2 and 8.

[ix] On ‘integrity’, shēn (身), see chapter 7, footnote 5. As shēn also refers to the self, there is a subtle distinction being made, lost in most translations, in this line and the last: ‘self-neglect condemns them’ but ‘yielding’ self is the sky’s way. To arrogantly fail to attend to yourself it is a fault, but to yield yourself in work is admirable. The self-neglect of the ‘rich and noble’ paradoxically prevents them from yielding themselves.

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