Dàodéjīng 5: lots of talk often exhausts

Heaven and earth are not humane.

Use countless creatures as straw dogs.

The sage is not humane.

Uses all families as straw dogs.

Heaven and earth’s spaces, are they like bellows?

Empty and not collapsed, moving and expelling more.

Lots of talk often exhausts.

Does not compare to preserving the centre.

Notes on the version:

Bǎixìng (百姓) is literally ‘the hundred surnames’, but usually means ‘the people’ or ‘the common people’. Variations of both turn up in translations. I’ve gone for ‘all families’ as ‘common people’ loses the resonance with wànwù  (萬物) (‘countless creatures’, ten thousand things). ‘Hundred’ is used to indicate ‘all of the’, and ‘ten thousand’ is used to indicate ‘countless’. In both cases, I have gone for the less literal, more natural, English option.

‘Heaven and earth’s spaces’ is more often given as singular, or even as something like ‘the space between heaven and earth’. As with my use of plural ‘ways’ instead of the singular ‘the way’, my aim in pluralising is to deflate the dualist metaphysics that the definite article gives English versions. I don’t see any reason to start supposing that ‘space(s)’ is/are something separate to the world, but as soon as the singular is used (and ‘it’) in opposition to all of heaven and earth, it seems like that.

Dàodéjīng 4: in a pluralistic mode

Ways are empty, but sometimes using them does not fill them.

An abyss! They seem to be the countless creatures’ ancestors.

They blunt their edges.

Untangle their threads.

Soften their light.

Share their dust.

Fathomless! They sometimes seem to exist.

We do not know whose children they are.

Their image preceded the Lord.

Notes on the version:

The unusual bit here is rendering dao (道) as the plural ‘ways’, instead of the more usual ‘the way’. I did this for a couple of reasons. It’s a handy way of preserving the ambiguity of ‘their’ in ‘blunt their edges’ etc, which is difficult in English when dao is singular. More importantly, this gives prominence to what I called the metaphorical descriptive, the way someone does something, and the metaphorical normative, the way someone should do something.

I think this brings out a slightly Greek reading, which focusses on the gap between ideals and reality. In it, the first line is saying that ideals have no content of their own and yet sometimes practice fails to reaches them. This ‘abyss’ seems a very Socratic sort of irony to me.

This emphasis on dao as concrete and normative ways of doing things also adds an unexpectedly Darwinian undercurrent to the second line – patterns of behaviour and striving do indeed form creatures.

In the four lines in the middle, it is unclear whether ways are blunting the edges of creatures or ways are blunting the edges of ways (in the singular, the way is blunting its own edge). I find the former reading more natural, but have tried to preserve the ambiguity.

I adopted ‘the Lord’ from Henricks. It’s the only rendering I know of that remains properly ambiguous between ‘Emperor’ and ‘God’.

Anachronistically, another version of the first line counters a popular exaggeration of Wittgenstein: to speak is empty, but sometimes its use does not fill it. Meaning is not always just use: a point Wittgenstein himself allowed, but which is sometimes forgotten.

Dàodéjīng 3: not Aristotelian

Not preferring the worthy allows people to not quarrel.

Not prizing hard to obtain goods allows people to not act like thieves.

Not displaying what can be desired allows people’s hearts to not be troubled.

Thus the sage’s government empties their heart and fills their belly.

Weakens their will and strengthens their bones.

Always allows people to be without knowledge, without desire.

Allows those that know to not dare act.

Acts without action, so that nothing is without government.

There’s a popular interpretation in the West that says early Daoism is a bit like Aristotle. I think that’s wrong.

It’s hard to imagine any Aristotelian saying ‘don’t prefer the worthy/excellence’ (however they choose to define worthiness). It’s just as hard to imagine them saying empty your mind and fill your belly, much less hoping that the knowledgeable will not dare to act.

Anti-ethics interpretations of Aristotle do exist; but, even so, this verse can only be called ‘Aristotelian’ if you bend that word far from it’s usual meaning. I’m utterly suspicious of the idea that other traditions should reduced to particular schools of Western philosophy; but a more fruitful analogy would surely be with monastic writers: for example, Benedict’s Rule or Bernard’s Steps.

The only way it is close to Aristotle is in comparison to the almost infinite distance from modern bureaucratic expertise, policy recommendations, campaigns for change, idolatry of progress, and parliamentary bills for every perceived problem.

Anyhow, notes on this version:

A more fluid rendering of the first three lines would be ‘If the worthy are not preferred, the people will not quarrel’ and so on. This, however, loses the emphasis on ‘NOT x, allows NOT y’. The last line asserts the importance of non-action, so I think the negativity is emphasised for a reason.

‘Allow’, shi (使) is often given as ’causes’ or even ‘makes’. To me this carries the wrong connotations, as it undermines the emphasis on wuwei (nonaction) in the last line. To ’cause’ someone to do something in English very much suggests intentional doing and even coercion.  Shi allows for ‘enables’ or even ‘gives free reign too’. ‘Allows’ seems a good balance.

‘Act like thieves’: is broad and allows for general subterfuge, sneakiness, taking by force, and even murder. I considered ‘act criminally’, but that seems to sacrifice the obvious link to material goods from the start of the line.

‘Government’: zhi (治) is also broad. It means to simply put things in good order, ‘policy’, and (in medicine) cure, as well as a seat of government (eg Westminster, Washington). I think the English word has the same flexibility, but tends to be read as ‘the institution of government’ above other possibilities. Still, I think it captures the range of associations better than the alternatives.

‘Hearts’: is closer to the older English reading of ‘heart’ than the modern. It means the combined seat of the emotions and intellect, not the emotions in conflict with the intellect. In honour of Mary Midgley, I nearly went for ‘heart and mind’.

‘Empties their heart’ etc: it’s not entirely clear that ‘their’ refers to the people. It might refer to the sage, or even the sage’s government. It is usually read as referring to the people, and I think that is the most plausible possibility, but I tried to preserve this ambiguity. This is why heart, belly, and will are not plural. Probably, the sage’s government empties the hearts of sage, government and people all together.

Dàodéjīng 1 and 2: A more literal rendering


Ways that can be ways are not the constant way.

Names that can be names are not the constant name.

Without name, heaven and earth’s beginning.

With name, countless creatures’ mother.

Therefore be constantly without desire in order to watch its subtlety.

Be constantly with desire in order to watch its borders.

As for this pair, they emerge together, yet have different names.

Together, call them darkening: darkening’s further darkening.

Gate of crowded subtleties.


If all under heaven know beauty’s beauty, this is ugly.

If all know good’s good, this is not good.

Therefore being and absence give life to one another.

Hard and easy complete one another.

Long and short measure one another.

High and low upturn one another.

Voice and music harmonise one another.

Before and after follow one another.

Thus the sage’s role is to remain without action, practice teaching without words.

Countless creatures arise, but there is no utterance.

Live, but no there is no being.

Act, but no there is no expectation.

Work is completed, but there can be no rest.

It is always true that there can be no rest.

Thus, there is no departure.

I guess the main new divergence from the mainstream here is the ever-shifting first line of the first verse. Instead of the usual noun/verb/noun translation of dao (道), I have kept all three as nouns (and inserted ‘be’, which would not be written in classical Chinese anyway). So far as I can, I’m trying to preserve eight simultaneous meanings of Dao across it’s 3 appearances:

Dao1: Literal. A path or way.

Dao2: Metaphorical descriptive. A skill or art. The way someone actually does something. The gymnast’s way, the butcher’s way.

Dao3: Metaphorical normative. The proper way of doing something. The way someone should do something. A way that guides practice. ‘To follow the butcher’s way, you must cut between the joints’.

Dao4: Narrow political. The Confucian way. The ideal of social responsible gentleman who cultivates the appropriate virtues.

Dao5: Wide political. Any doctrine or body of teachings.

Dao6:  Narrow epistemic. To speak.

Dao7: Wide epistemic. To categorise or label.

Dao8: Metaphysical. Fundamental reality, the ineffable, etc

This is the best rendering I can find to keep all that. If the result is a bit mysterious, then maybe that is a good thing?

In the same line, there’s chang (), which I’ve given as ‘constant’. I think that’s better than the common ‘eternal’, which suggests some very questionable metaphysics. It still, however, loses chang as ‘commonplace’ or ‘everyday’, and there are valuable readings that rely upon that. For example, the ways that can be spoken of are not the commonplace ways. In other words, you can’t capture everyday human practices in words (with, I think, an anti-authoritarian tone). Or, even more strongly, the ways that can be doctrines are not the everyday ways. In my less literal rendering, I went for ‘lasting’; but, on reflection, I don’t think that really captures these meanings either, so I reverted to the more usual ‘constant’. I’d love some smooth way of combining these meanings, but am at a loss for now.

Dàodéjīng 2: a field of ambiguities

I’m mostly producing these versions as a way to deepen my own understanding, but someone may find something to value here anyway. Notes are after the chapter.

When the whole world actively perceives beauty as beauty, then there is ugliness.

When all actively perceive good as good, then there is no good.

So presence and absence create one another,

Hard and easy complete one another,

Long and short measure one another,

High and low upturn one another,

Voice and music harmonise one another,

Before and after follow one another.

So the wise person’s role is to accomplish without acting, practice teaching without words.

The swarm of creatures arise! But no excuse.

Create, but no presence.

Act, but no expectation.

Work is completed, but rest is impossible.

Yet because rest is impossible, there is no loss.

In lines one and two, ‘actively perceive’, although more clunky than ‘know’ or ‘perceive’, seems to avoid their undue passivity and preserves the quiet contrast with ‘without acting’ later on (due to the repetition of wei in both sentences).

I’ve rendered the famous appearance of wu wei as ‘accomplish without acting‘. I feel it’s important to preserve the ambiguity between ‘accomplish [something else] without acting’ and ‘accomplish [the state of] without-acting’. More common translations, such as ‘no-action’, sacrifice the first to emphasise the second; but then you need long explanations of how wu-wei doesn’t mean literal inaction. Better to preserve the ambiguity. A bonus is that in ‘accomplishes without acting’, ‘acting’ is ambiguous between the usual interpretation and ‘acting’ as artifice or pretence, so this rendering preserves the text’s emphasis on naturalness.

The final section is often rendered along the lines of ‘The swarm of creatures [lit: the ten thousand things] arise, but the sage does not refuse them’. No subject is given, though, so translations like ‘…arise, but they [the swarm of creatures] do not refuse’ are just as plausible. I tried to preserve this ambiguity, and that made me realise that a third reading is also possible ‘…arise, but there is no refusal’. I like that reading, but I don’t think that any translation is the reading; so, in the end, I returned to a structure parallel to the Chinese, ‘but no x’ (although ‘and no x’ would also fit). I think this preserves all three possibilities.

‘Create, but no presence’, gave me a certain amount of trouble. In translations where this section is taken to mean something like ‘The sage creates, but he does not…’, the most natural reading is ‘possess’ or even ‘take ownership’, but translating like this misses the metaphysical meanings of the word (‘being’). ‘Presence’ keeps a (slightly deflated) metaphysical reading, and fits well with interpretations along the lines of ‘Create, but there is no presence’, but I have had to sacrifice some of the connotations of not taking ownership. An alternative, which I toyed with, would be ‘Create, but no possession’.

Dàodéjīng 1: yet another interpretation

I’m not sure why I think the world needs another English version of this verse, but here it is. My aim has been to be as word-for-word as possible while retaining the allusive imagery. In a few places (‘womb’, ‘shadow’) I sacrificed literalness to retain an associative web. I’m not entirely happy with ‘subtlety’ for miao (妙), but dislike the alternatives more.

The way that can be walked is not the lasting way.

The name that can be named is not the lasting name.

Without name, heaven and earth’s womb.

With name, the swarm of creatures’ mother.

So abide without desire to see her subtlety, abide with desire to see her boundaries.

These two are born together, yet differently named.

Together, call them the shadow of a shadow’s shadow, crowded subtleties’ door.