Dào Dé Jīng with footnotes: 2

Standard disclaimer

When all under the sky know beauty as beauty, there is already foulness. [i] [ii]

When all know the good, there is already the not good. [iii]

So presence and absence give life to one another.

Hard and easy complete one another.

Long and short shape one another. [iv]

High and low fill one another. [v]

Voice and music harmonise one another.

Before and after follow one another. [vi]

Thus, the wise person remains without action in their work. [vii] [viii] [ix]

Walking, not talking, is their teaching. [x]

Countless creatures arise, but they do not begin. [xi] [xii] [xiii]

Act, but they do not depend. [xiv] [xv]

Complete tasks, but they do not rest. [xvi] [xvii] [xviii]

Only by not resting do they not depart. [xix] [xx]


[i] An alternative interpretation is ‘All under the sky know that when beauty acts as if it is beauty, it is already foul’. See Suzuki (1913) and Ivanhoe (2003, 2). This gives ‘All know that the good is already not good’ in the Guodian and Ma-wang-tui versions of line 2,(see footnote 3).

[ii] ‘Sky’, tiān (天) is often translated ‘heaven’. This, however, misleadingly implies a euphemism for a personal God and a connection with the afterlife, see Allan (1997, 20 – 22). Furthermore, it obscures the visual imagery.

[iii] This version follows the Guodian and Ma-wang-tui texts (Henricks 1989, 190; 2000, 50). The received text reads ‘When all know good as good, there is already not good’.

[iv] ‘Shape’, xíng (形), follows the Ma-wang-tui and Guodian texts (Henricks 1989, 191; 2000, 50). A received variant is ‘measure’, jiào (較).

[v] ‘Fill’, yíng (盈) follows the Ma-wang-tui and Guodian texts (Henricks 1989, 191; 2000, 50). The received text reads ‘upturn’, qīng (傾).

[vi] The Ma-wang-tui texts follow this line with one reading ‘These are all constants’ (Henricks 1989, 190).

[vii] ‘Wise person’, sheng rén (聖人), is often translated ‘saint’ or ‘sage’. It includes what might be considered both ‘practical’ and ‘spiritual’ excellences, although the concept varies in different texts (Cua 2003, 697; Pregadio 2008, 879). It would be assumed to refer to a man, although rén (人) can mean ‘person’ generally.

[viii] ‘Without action’, wúwéi, is a central concept in Daoism. Liu summarises it as ‘(1) when things are running well, do nothing to interfere; (2) when the sage has to do something, let him do it with no personal, selfish desire; (3) in all his acts, the sage should conform to Dao, the natural pattern of things, and refrain from introducing human intervention’ (cited in Liu 2015, 82).

[ix] Work, shì (事), sometimes translated ‘affairs’ should be understood widely, not only as paid employment.

[x] ‘Walking’, xíng (行) is often translated ‘practices’ (eg: ‘practices teaching without words’), but ‘walking’ uses an association that also exists in English (‘walk the walk’) that fits the central metaphor of dào (Kroll 2015, 509).

[xi] Ames and Hall (2003, 80) punctuate this line differently. They read ‘countless creatures’ as ‘countless events’ and so obtain (modified here) ‘In all that occurs/arising but not beginning…’ This makes them fairly unique in thinking the wise person ‘arises’, although they render the word (zuò, 作) as ‘develops things’.

[xii] This follows the Ma-wang-tui (Henricks 1989, 190), Guodian (Henricks 2000, 52), and (possibly) Wang Bi’s (Lynn 1999, 55) versions. The received text has (辭), ‘reject’/’utter’ (Kroll 2015, 64), instead of shĭ (始), ‘begin’ (Kroll 2015, 414).

[xiii] Who does not begin? Most translators think it is the wise person, but Legge thinks it is the countless creatures; and Lau thinks it is the dào (but reads it as ‘claims no authority’: 1963, 6). Furthermore, it is also unclear who or what does not get begun. Hendricks (1989, 190) and Ryden (2008, 7) think the wise person does not begin the creatures; but, instead, a contrast with the creatures may be intended. They arise, but he has no beginning. ‘The unborn’ (bushing, 不生) appears in the, albeit later, Liezi (Graham 1990, 17 – 18). The use of ‘they’ here is an attempt to leave the ambiguity in place.

[xiv] This version follows the Ma-wang-tui (Henricks 1989, 191) and Guodian (Hendricks 2000, 50) texts in omitting the line ‘Are born, but not owned’ before this one. The (admittedly tentative: see footnotes 6 and 19) structure of this verse – a series of paired lines – argues for its omission. Furthermore, line 3 of this verse also contains both yǒu (有), ‘owned’/’present’, and shēng (生), ‘live/give birth’, but the meanings of these characters in the omitted line seem clumsily different. The omitted line appears in chapters 10 and 51.

[xv] As in the previous line (footnote 12) it is unclear who acts and who does not depend. Hendricks and Lynn think that the wise person acts and the creatures don’t depend. Ivanhoe, Suzuki, Goddard, and Ames and Hall think the wise person acts and does not depend. Legge and Roberts thinks that the creatures act and do not depend. Ryden thinks the creatures act, and the wise person does not depend. Lau reads this entire passage as being about dào. Beyond this, there is no consensus about what ‘the non-depender’ is not depending on: themselves or some other entity (person/creatures). As before, this version attempts to preserve the ambiguity.

[xvi] The same ambiguity as affects the previous two lines is still apparent here, see footnotes 12 and 15.

[xvii] ‘Rest’, (居) also means ‘reside/dwell’ (Kroll 2015, 223). It is often glossed ‘does not dwell on achievements’.

[xviii] In the received text, the ‘not’ of ‘do not rest’ is (弗) here and in the next line, but all other ‘not’s’ in this section are (不). The Ma-wang-tui and Guodian texts use throughout the end of the chapter.

[xix] Lau (1963, 5) treats this line as an editorial comment, but the Guodian find suggests that it was added by about 350BC (Henricks 2000, 22).

[xx] (去), ‘depart’, can mean ‘die’, but this is medieval (Kroll 2015, 378), so probably not intended here.

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Dào Dé Jīng with footnotes: 1

Standard disclaimer

Ways that can be ‘the way’ are not always the way. [i] [ii] [iii]

Names that can name do not always name. [iv]

Without name, countless creatures’ beginning. [v] [vi]

With name, countless creatures’ mother. [vii]

So always be without desire to watch its subtlety. [viii]

Always be with desire to watch what it seeks. [ix] [x]

As for this pair, they emerge together. [xi]

Yet they have different names.

Together, call them dark. [xii]

Dark, they are again dark.

Crowded and subtle gateways. [xiii] [xiv]


[i] Although ‘way’ captures much of the Chinese, both as ‘path’ and ‘way of doing things’, the root meaning was probably a water channel, not a road (Allan 1997, 66 – 67).Here, the second ‘way’ (dào, 道) is placed inverted commas to approximate the ambiguity between dào as a noun, meaning ‘way’, and dào as a verb, meaning ‘to say’ (Kroll 2015, 79).

[ii] Classical Chinese is uninflected, but English tends to nominalise processes. The combination can lead to translations that emphasise particular words (eg: ‘The Way’) in ways that undermine the message of this text.  To avoid this, I have sometimes pluralised words, as with the first ‘way’ here (see Rainey 2014, 49, 147).

[iii] Cháng (常) is translated as ‘always’ here and in lines 2, 5, and 6. It means both ‘constant’ and ‘commonplace’ (Kroll 2015, 42). The most common form of translation is along the lines of ‘…not the constant way’. This, however, gives a misleading impression that dào is unchanging (Allan 1997, 99). ‘Always’ avoids the distortion caused by nominalising the word (‘always the’ vs ‘the constant’), giving a more deflationary reading (see fn 2).

[iv] The pluralisation of ‘name’ (míng, 名) raises similar issues to dào (see footnote 2), but míng does not have the latter’s ambiguity as a verb. Míng, however, also means conforming to social morals (Kroll 2015, 309), a subtext that is hard to preserve in translation.

[v] ‘Countless’ (wàn, 萬) is more literally ‘ten thousand’. ‘Creatures’ (wù, 物) includes plants (Allan 1993, 96).

[vi] In the received text: ‘Without name, sky and earth’s beginning’. This follows the Ma-wang-tui texts (Henricks 1989, 188-9). Probably, Wang Bi also had a text in this form (Lynn 1999, 53).

[vii] These two lines introduce the contrast between (無: without, absence, non-being) and yǒu (有: with, presence, being). I have translated them ‘without’/’with’ where they modify another term, and ‘absence’/’presence’ or ‘what exists’/’what does not exist’ otherwise. ‘Being’, as Chesterton says, has ‘a sort of hazy atmosphere’ (1933/1986, 518) that is seldom helpful. See Graham (1989, 406 – 412) on being, yǒu, and .

[viii] One line of interpretation punctuates this and the next line differently, producing: ‘Therefore, let there always be nothingness, so to watch its subtleties/Let there always be existence, so to watch its borders’ (modified from Lynn 1999, 53). The Ma-wang-tui texts preclude this interpretation (Henricks 1989, 188).

[ix] The final character of this line in the received text is jiǎo (徼), ‘borders’, which Wang Bi interprets as ‘the ends to which things revert’ (Lynn 1999, 52). The Ma-wang-tui texts, however, give a similar character meaning ‘wail’ (Henricks 1985, 188; Kroll 2015, 205); and it is possible that yet another character meaning ‘shines’ was intended (Henricks 1985, 272; Kroll 2015, 204). To add to the complexity, the Ma-wang-tui texts also modify the word with suǒ (所), ‘that which’, (Henricks 1989, 189), so the final word must be a verb (Kroll 2015, 437). The consensus seems to be that the correct verb is the verbal form of jiǎo (徼), which is ‘to seek’ (Henricks 1989 188; Ryden 2008, 169).

[x] Qí (其), ‘its/they’, in these two lines could refer to dào or to ‘countless creatures’ (Lau 1963, 5). Some authors, such as Roberts (2004, 27) and Ames and Hall (2003, 77) seem to shift from one to the other. Here, as in Ryden (2008, 5), it is assumed that the author is still discussing that which can be ‘without name’ or ‘with name’. In contrast, Henricks (1989, 188) thinks that it is the ‘watcher’ who also seeks. The overall contrast seems to be that ‘without desire’ the whole world is the undifferentiated play of a single way but ‘with desire’ the world contains separate individuals that ‘seek’ (ie: have purposes). This perspectival reading is influenced by the Zhuāngzǐ (and Western philosophy such as Nagel 1989), and it is very speculative.

[xi] Lau (1963, 5) treats this section (to the end) as a later editorial comment.

[xii]  ‘Dark’, xuán (玄), does not imply complete blackness, but blue-purple ‘sloe black’, dimness, murkiness, ‘dark to the mind’, and unknowable (Kroll 2015, 519). The colour is that of a black mountain tarn (Allan 1997, 142) or of mountains in the distance (Pregadio 2008, 1126). The Western duality dark=bad/light=good should not be read into this character, in this verse or elsewhere. The image of the graph itself is of ‘tiny/one’ (yāo, 么) under a ‘lid’ (tóu, 亠).

[xiii] Zhòng (眾), ‘crowded’, often taken as to modify miào (妙), ‘subtlety’, giving something like ‘all subtlety’s gateways’; but this discards, without resolving, the paired opposites in the verse to this point. In particular, zhòng may refer to the countless creatures and miào to their source, see fn 10. ‘Crowded and subtle’, however, does leave two possibilities for zhī (之), the next character, giving either ‘crowded and subtle gateways’ or ‘gateways to crowds and subtlety’ (See Kroll 2015, 603: 2/2b).

[xiv] On Mén (門), ‘gateways’, see chapter 6 footnotes 5, 6.

Standard disclaimer for Dào Dé Jīng pages

I am neither a sinologist nor an expert on Daoism. Doing this translation is just a way of thinking slowly about the text. By sharing the process, I hope that others who have admired it in translation can ‘peek behind the curtain’ a little.

For those unfamiliar with the classic, a variety of excellent translations by experts already exist, whether you want something accessible, poetic, or precise. This version cannot supplant such work.

The translation aims to preserve the ambiguity, simplicity, and allusive, metaphorical language of the original. The footnotes aim to show my working out. Nothing is finished. Let me know if you notice errors.

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.

Is state power a Swiss army knife or a gun?

This is another of my vague musings on legal metaphors, but it is different in two ways. First, it is more about the metaphors of academics, activists, and others who criticise the law than about the metaphors of judges and lawyers. Second, it is not a metaphor in actual use, so much as my metaphorical representation of a common pattern of assumptions and their reversal.

So, I think there’s a common perception that state power is a bit like a Swiss army knife. It’s a complex tool that can be used in a variety way to achieve a variety of ends. Usually this assumption is implicit, but occasionally it bubbles to the surface. For instance, Nedelsky argues that the law structures property relations, so it’s quite capable of being used to structure other kinds of relations too. I think there’s a second implication there: the idea that state power, like the screwdriver on your Swiss army knife, can undo the work it does. The law can screw something together, and it can unscrew it if it doesn’t work.

I doubt state power is like a Swiss army knife. I think it’s more like a gun. It does one thing extremely well, and that one thing is exert force.

You can use a gun to threaten other people to do a variety of things for you, but it doesn’t mean that your gun is a Swiss army knife. It just means that you can get the people with Swiss army knives to do what you want.

Now, patterns of threats can be ornate. For instance, you could threaten some people who are hoarding goods to share what they have with some other people. That doesn’t mean your gun can both threaten bad people and reward good people. It just means that you’re threatening some people to reward some other ones. Maybe that’s justified, maybe it’s not; but, either way, all your gun does is threaten and shoot. Exactly same holds for state power. The only difference is that, here, the patterns of behaviour flowing from the threats are so ornate it becomes easy to forget the initial threat exists.

If state power is more like a gun than a Swiss army knife this entails a couple of things. First, unlike the screwdriver, it’s not reversible. Just because you can shoot someone doesn’t mean that you can unshoot them, and just because you can threaten someone doesn’t mean that you can unthreaten them. Sure, you can stop threatening them, but that’s not the same thing as never having threatened them; and, let’s be honest, unless you get rid of the gun you can’t even do that. Putting the gun down doesn’t mean that you’re not threatening someone if they know you can pick it up whenever you like. Similarly, state power doesn’t stop being coercive just because it’s not coercing someone right now.

The second of entailment of state power being a gun and not a Swiss army knife is that if a problem is due to the very existence of coercion, then the state cannot help. It can stop some people coercing some other people, but only by, directly or indirectly, coercing a third group of people to intervene. And because coerced people, above all, want to please the coercer, this never works. The attention of these people, call them ‘coerced liberators’, isn’t on genuinely freeing those other people from coercion, it’s on making sure that whoever is coercing them is happy.

We see this in the move to ‘free markets’. Whether or not it is genuinely desirable, one thing we never get is genuinely free markets. Instead, we get powerful multinational cartels doing very well, targets, procedures, and ultimately more state involvement. The coercive power of the state is concealed, but not lost. Similarly, in mental health law, we get ever more ornate procedural checks, but basically unchanged conditions of detention. The language of ’empowerment’ gets ever more strident, yet lived freedom disappears. The gun of state power cannot undo itself. All it can do is threaten and shoot.

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.