DAO DE JING
. . .
1. The Way as "way" bespeaks no common lasting Way,
2. The name as "name" no common lasting name.
3. Absent is the name for sky and land's first life,
4. Present for the mother of all ten thousand things.
5. Desire ever-absent:
6. Behold the seed germs of all things;
7. Desire ever-present:
8. Behold their every finite course.
9. Forth together come the two
10. As one and the same
11. But differ in name.
12. As one, a dark recess
13. That probed recedes
14. Past that portal whence
15. The milling seed germs teem.
Laozi opens with a creation myth. Dao, a single mother, source of all life, is juxtaposed to its creation, the ten thousand things. Measured against Dao's fecundity, what ancestor, what male dynastic founder, can compare? Sky and land (tiandi) themselves are an intermediate creation, serving the Way as a framework that imparts form and name, and thus duality, on all things as they are produced. The ten thousand move between two poles: negation and existence, unity and division, potentiality and actuality.1 The Way describes a recurring circular or continuous s-shaped process that must return to its starting point before beginning again: "[A]ll living forms . . . go round home again" (stanza 14); "the Way moves on by contra-motion" (stanza 40).
There is no human role at the level of the Way's creative power, neither for the living nor for their ancestors or the ancient god-kings. Dao is chang (everlasting, constant, common to the ten thousand): it is now as it ever has been, with no duality in itself, no historical aspect, and no ancestor or descendant. The concept of Dao denies paternal lineage, the foundation of hereditary privilege. The Way's ten thousand progeny—human beings among them—share a common birth mother and a common, humble, and anonymous status. They are nonentities produced of negation (stanza 40). By contrast, consider the classic Confucian formula: "Heaven gives birth to the hundred phenomena; among them humankind is noblest."2
Transcendent and also immanent, Dao resembles time or nature and is thus different from but not superior to its creation. In some contexts the Way seems indistinguishable from the ten thousand. The commentary by Heshang gong explains "common lasting Way" as nature (ziran), and its negation, "no common lasting way" (fei chang Dao) as the political rule of one era or another, that is, social constructs that time will alter. This reading is confirmed by a line in the Guodian text titled Xing zi ming chu (Human nature proceeds from the mandate), which says that only the "human Way" is definable.
The contemporary scholar Zhang Songru sees in this stanza a possible analogy to the atomic theories of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.3 Laozi's imagery, however, belongs more to the realm of biology than to physics. The "seed germs" (miao) are fertile germ cells, not Lucretius's genderless atoms streaming slantwise through space. Nonetheless, since the antecedents of Laozi's vision are not easily found in other Chinese writings, a remote and indirect influence from the Greeks should not be absolutely excluded, especially since a possible transliteration of a-mbrotos, meaning immortal, appears in stanza 32.4
This stanza introduces most of the key terms that recur throughout the work: you (what is present, manifest, becoming; as a verb: to have), wu (what is absent, unmanifest, negation; as a verb: to not have), tong (as one, unity), liang (two, dual), Dao (Way, driving force, common path), ming (name, definition), xuan (mysterious, unseen, withdrawn, deep and dark as heaven at night, sublime; as a verb: to explore a recess), wanwu (wan, ten thousand, myriad; wu, figured things, visibilium omnium); and chang (common, lasting, regularly recurring, ever-present). Judging from both the text found at Mawangdui (the earliest complete text of the Laozi found so far) and the partial Guodian text, the term chang in this stanza was originally heng, a synonym of chang. Heng is also the name of a hexagram in the Yijing, or Book of Changes, where it stands for renewal after return to the origin, hence, circular movement.5
The term tong (one and the same) has implications often passed over, namely, that there is an underlying identity among all things arising from their common ancestry in Dao; furthermore, Dao itself is ultimately identical with its creation, thus denying the subordination of junior to senior, child to parent, creature to creator. As stanza 34 says, "The Way wins the name of humble and low." For further discussion of the relation of Dao to the ten thousand in terms of the tension between transcendence and immanence see stanzas 25 and 34.
In line 3 the received texts read tiandi (heaven and earth), translated here as "sky and land," but the Mawangdui texts have wanwu (the ten thousand things). "Ten thousand things" seems to resonate with the term "seed germs" (miao) in lines 6 and 15. The pairing of sky/land and absent/present also fits the theme of emerging duality in this stanza and in stanza 2.
1. In every fair the world considers fair
2. There's foul;
3. In every good the world considers good
4. There's ill.
5. For what is what is not yields,
6. And the harder the easier consummates;
7. The long the short decides,
8. And higher lower measures;
9. Bronze gongs jade chimes join,
10. And former latter sequence form,
11. Ever round, and round again.1
12. This is why the man of wisdom
13. Concerns himself with under-acting
14. And applies the lesson
15. Of the word unspoken,
16. That all ten thousand may come forth
17. Without his direction,
18. Live through their lives
19. Without his possession,
20. And act of themselves
21. Unbeholden to him.2
22. To the work he completes
23. He lays down no claim.
24. And this has everything to do
25. With why his claim holds always true.
Stanza 1 sets the stage for the appearance of duality, the twins born of a prior, nameless unity. The second stanza begins with the world below (tianxia), where human beings create duality through knowledge and language: naming and judging, comparing and contrasting, the ten thousand. Another of the Guodian texts says, "There is human nature, there is knowledge; and then good and bad arise."3 The opposites interact, complementing each other as much as they conflict. Note that stanza 1 is not in the Guodian text, while stanza 2 is.
Dualism as a theme may be connected with warfare. Sunzi's Art of War (Bingfa) names some thirty pairs of warring opposites.4 In the chapter "Attack with Fire" ("Huogong") Sunzi writes, "Anger can be turned back to delight, and resentment to good feeling, but a fallen kingdom cannot be brought back into existence nor the dead brought back to life."
From the military strategist's narrow, purposive angle, opposition is to be exploited for an end. From Laozi's wider angle of time and nature, duality is a constant process that brings things round and round, as lines 5-11 suggest. The sage observes but does not intervene or try to exploit the process.5
Lines 1-2 seem to suggest that foul and fair are a twin presence, not that one resulted from or led to the other. "Forth together come the two/As one and the same/But differ in name" (stanza 1). The world of dualities is the world of forms and sounds that people sense and name, but it originates in something formless and soundless. Unlike the activist Confucian leader, who tries by his example to shape people and events within his sphere, Laozi's shengren, who is both a ruler and a sage, observes the interacting forms and then steps back to let events take their course and fulfill their hidden potential for reversal. The listener-sage is attentive, as the prominence of the ear in the graph for "sage" suggests. He makes no judgments, neither accepting the good and the beautiful nor rejecting the bad and the ugly. In the Mawangdui text Cheng (Weighing factors) speech is classified as a yang function, silence as a yin function.
Duality is the precondition for the term wuwei, a motif of the Dao De Jing. Translated as "under-acting" in line 13 of this stanza, wuwei in other stanzas is translated as "under-govern," "without leading," "not striving," "pursue no end." The negative wu (to be absent) in texts of this period sometimes interchanges with the negative imperative wu, which corresponds to "for" in the sense of "refrain from" in such words as "forbear," "forsake," and "forbid." Movement is implicit in the term wei, which means not only action and reaction but also conducting and leading forward; its earliest graph depicts a hand guiding an animal.
In the Guodian text stanza 2 follows stanza 63 and precedes stanza 32. Stanza 63 also deals with opposites. Lines 18-19 are not found in either the Guodian or the Mawangdui texts; they appear in the Wang Bi and Heshang gong texts, however. Perhaps the lines were added as a reference to stanza 1.
1. Do not promote those who excel
2. And folk will have no cause to quarrel.
3. Prize not goods too hard to find
4. And people won't be turned to crime.
5. These objects of desire unviewed,
6. The people's thoughts remain subdued.
7. Thus under a wise man's rule
8. Blank are their minds
9. But full their bellies,
10. Meek their wills
11. But tough their bones.
12. He keeps the folk
13. From knowing and craving,
14. And the intellects
15. From daring to lead.
16. By acting himself without taking the lead
17. Inside his kingdom all is well ruled.
The slogan "promote those who excel" (shangxian) comes from Mozi, who urged the appointment of able commoners to government office in preference to nobles and royal kinsmen. Commoners would be rewarded for their knowledge and expertise, both technical and administrative. Laozi opposed this type of state activism (wei). In his view this recruiting policy in the service of state building would only hasten the kingdoms along the path toward modernization and war, taking the common people farther and farther away from the simple life that Laozi thinks they once enjoyed.1
An important thinker of the generation after Confucius, Mozi broke with the Confucians and formed his own school. Opposed to Confucius's more cautious inclusion of the able among the noble, Mozi advocated an aggressive plan: to empower a new class of educated elites with high salaries and thus bind their loyalty to the ruler and give him leverage over the traditional nobles. The presence of the slogan "promote those who excel" in the Laozi has long been given as a reason for dating Laozi after Mozi. However, since this stanza is not found in the Guodian set of stanzas and may therefore postdate the Guodian text, its quoting of a Mozi slogan is likely.2
From the angle of politics and economics, Laozi opposed the policy of promoting the able because he wanted to simplify government, not develop it, and because he opposed the use of wealth—and the increased consumption it implies—as an incentive. A striking development of elite recruitment in post-Laozi Daoist political thought is found in the Guanzi, a syncretic text of the fourth-to-third centuries b.c. That text recommends to the rulers of Qi:
"To put aside the self and establish the public good—can [the ruler] recruit the right men? To preside over state administration and appoint commoners to office—can [the ruler] place his own person last?" This passage from the chapter "Zheng" (Correctness in rule) shows Laozi's philosophical influence. The ruler is selfless, nonassertive, determined on strengthening the state by recruiting the able.
For Heshang gong, political order is dependent on and secondary to the ruler's personal discipline and spiritual cultivation, and his commentary on this stanza (referring to lines 1, 3, and 5) emphasizes that self-discipline: "For the sage, governing the kingdom is no different from governing the person."
The extent to which "those who excel" became an elite intellectual force is suggested by the Later Han author Wang Chong: "In the time of the six kingdoms [late fourth to mid third century b.c.] if talented ministers entered the service of Chu kingdom, its weight increased; if they departed from Qi, that kingdom's weight was reduced; if they worked for Zhao, Zhao was kept whole; if they turned against Wei, Wei suffered. . . ." So also, Mencius speaks of the renowned traveling political counselor Zhang Yi as "striking fear in the feudal lords with a single moment of rage, calming the realm when calm himself."3 These are the "intellects" whom Laozi opposes.
In the "Jiudi" (Nine terrains) chapter of Sunzi's Art of War the relationship of the commander to the troops is couched in terms similar to the description of the relationship between the wise and those they govern in this stanza: "[The commander] must be able to make stupid the eyes and ears of his troops . . . driving them like a herd of sheep, back and forth, not a one knowing where he is headed."4
1. Ever void, Dao provides
2. But does not fill.
3. To a welling font akin,
4. The living myriad's sacred source
5. Is like the darkness of the deep;
6. There its living presence bides.
7. Child of whom I cannot tell,
8. Liken it to the ancestor of ancestors.
Laozi returns to the term Dao and the genesis theme of stanza 1, introducing water as a metaphor for Dao. Often associated with the yin principle, water is soft, low, useful, life-giving, ever-present, common, indefinable, and vast.1 Dao's creative power is likened to a well without limit; Dao always remains empty because it is not subject to the oscillations (between full and empty) of duality. The source of everything, Dao comes from nothing; it is an orphan. Known human ancestry is limited to a succession of likenesses, a genealogy stretching back to an named clan founder. Dao as orphan is a prime progenitor, an ancestor more ancient and venerable than any other.2 In it all hierarchies of historical time collapse.
The structural problem of this stanza is whether or not to include the four triplet phrases found after line 4 in most translations. The four phrases appear in non-Guodian stanza 56, where they seem to fit in smoothly with the context of engaging the world. In the abstract and mythical context of stanza 4, however, they seem to interrupt the logic of the stanza. Gu Li excises them; Chen Guying and Gao Heng bracket them; Zhang Songru keeps them. In the present translation the four phrases are translated only in stanza 56: "They dull their keen edge and / Resolve their differences, / Reconcile the points of view / And blend with the lowly dust."3
Stanza 4 is not in the Guodian text of the Laozi.
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