Sages in the Daodejing

John Emerson
Chapters 07, 49, 60, 77, 79 and 81 of the Daodejing:
Text, translation, and commentary

It is generally accepted that the Daodejing is a composite, the work of many authors over a considerable period, and that its present rather chaotic sequence is the work of a series of editors. In my version I try to sort the Daodejing into intelligible groups based on my understanding of the text and its history, and the sequence of my translation is entirely different than the sequence of the familiar Wang Bi text.

I begin by dividing the Daodejing, on textual grounds, into two approximately equal parts: Sage Dao and Early Dao. Sage Dao is made up of chapters 67-81, all other chapters in which the Sage is mentioned, and six chapters (Chapters 08, 09, 36, 53, 62, and 65) chosen because of their thematic relationship to the rest of Sage Dao. Early Dao is just the remainder of the Daodejing and I have assumed it is earlier. This rather mechanical procedure produces two parts which are clearly different in content: Sage Dao speaks especially of governmental affairs, while Early Dao includes most of the Daodejing’s mystical, metaphysical, and poetic chapters.

Besides dividing the Daodejing into its two major parts, I have divided each of these parts into 7 topical subgroups and have edited each chapter based on a comparison of the Wang Bi text with four much earlier texts unearthed by archaeologists during the last fifty years or so. These topical subgroups (some of which might also be textual subgroups) are internally fairly consistent and make it possible to find a unity in the Daodejing which is based not on sameness, but on the relationships between parts which are quite different from one another.

My commentary emphasizes the Daodejing’s internal relationships (with crossreferences), its textual history, and its relationships to the works of other thinkers of that era. In general my translation, text, and commentary are more speculative than is the norm.

Group VII
(Chapters 07, 49, 60, 77 79, 81)

This section is the culmination of Sage Dao and of the Daodejing as a whole. These chapters were some of the last written: none of them are included in the Guodian text, and 3 of the 5 final chapters of the present Daodejing belong to this group. Every chapter mentions the Sage, and this group includes 3 of the 5 chapters in which the Sage stands alone as the topic of the chapter rather than as part of a 是以聖人 introductory formula (Chapters 49, 60, and 81, the others instances are in chapters 05a and 28b).

Three of these chapters speak of 天道 / 天之道 the Dao of Heaven, and two of them speak of 天地 Heaven and Earth. Perkins has suggested that the prominence of Heaven in chapters 67-81 (the consecutive group of 15 chapters not included in the early Guodian text) might be a sign of the influence of Mohism, and while I suspect that this emphasis on Heaven might be a development of the ideas of Shen Dao rather than of Mohism, the emphasis in these five chapters on the Sages’ 無私 selflessness and 無親 impartiality might likewise be a development of Mohist 兼愛 universal love / impartial concern.

None of these chapters include the kind of practical political and military advice seen in most of the rest of Sage Dao, and the selflessness in these chapters would fit well into Early Dao. (In fact, the aphorism at beginning of chapter 07 fits well with aphorisms central to chapters 04, 05, and 06 and may originally have belonged together with them). Sages have no personal interest (無私, 07; 恆無心, 49) and favor no clan or party (無親,79). They do not strive or compete (為而不爭, 81) and do not take credit, claim ownership, collect debts or avenge grievances (是以聖人為而弗志也, 成而弗居, GD 02; 是以聖人執左契 而不以責於人, 79). Standing outside the affiliations and competitions by which normal people define themselves, Sages are obscure (不肖, 67) and do not want to be distinguished (不欲見賢, 77).

With no personal interest, they identify with others (聖人恆無心, 以百姓之心為心, 49) and consider others’ gains their gain (既以與人, 己愈多, 81). They follow the Way of Heaven and soften inequalities (天之道損有餘而補不足, 77), calm disturbances (非其鬼不神也, 其神不傷人也, 60), and help but never harm (聖人亦不傷人, 60; 利而不害, 81).

It is just because Sages are detached (無私, 07; 無親, 79), not needy or desirous (無欲, 57), and undistinguished that they can be great (夫唯不肖,故能大 67). Normal people are always at the intersection of multiple polarities and hierarchies – debtor and creditor, high and low, great and small, strong and weak, husband and wife, master and slave, Clan A and Clan B — and from these polarities and hierarchies (along with ambition and need) conflict and harm often arise.

Like Dao, Sages are everything and nothing and undefinable, and for this reason they cannot be distinguished or widely known (賢). They have few needs or desires and seek no benefit, and so do not do the harm that needy people inevitably do. Their capacity for promiscuous benevolence is like the inexhaustible fertility of the forces of life and of Dao, and their effectual benevolence is the ultimate form of Virtue 德 (the capacity for benefiting others). They quietly do what they do and then withdraw, allowing others to take the credit. They can be compared to a catalyst, which enables chemical reactions but is unchanged by them.

Chapter Seven

天地之所以能 長且久者

Heaven is long-lasting and Earth is enduring.
Heaven and Earth can last long and endure
because they do not live for themselves.
Therefore they are long lived.

So Sages hold back but end up first,
put themselves outside yet remain.
Isn’t the because they have no self?
Thus they can fulfill themselves.

長久 44 59
長02 06 09 10 22 24 28 44 51 54 59 67
久 15 16 23 33 44 58 59 67

Sages have no private interest and no ego. Here the Daodejing rejects 私 egoism, selfishness and self-assertion much as the Confucians did, favoring sharing and giving over getting and keeping. The egoism rejected by the Daodejing, however, is especially the competitive public egoism of those who strive for wealth, power, and fame and includes the Mohist and Confucian efforts to attain high position. The egoism of ambition puts you at risk of death (either death in battle or death as the result of court intrigue) and it requires you either to gain the support of others or to defeat them, in these senses making you dependent and not free.

The preservation and cultivation of life 生 and of the body 身 (a different form of “selfishness”) is harmed and not helped by competition for visible rewards and public esteem, and because followers of Dao have withdrawn from that competition and are not trying to accumulate wealth or power, they do not endanger themselves and are also able to be helpful to others. Chapter 49 makes the same point, with more emphasis on the Sage’s involvement with others.

長 / 久: The Daodejing here and elsewhere accepts the traditional high value Chinese gave to permanence and age. What abides is the most real.

Speculation: perhaps it is only an odd coincidence, but at the time when the Daodejing was written the word 私 si “self” was pronounced almost the same as the word 死 siʔ “death”, and it could also refer to what we call “the private parts” and their shameful functions. “Body” lhin 身 and “spirit” 神 m-lin were likewise pronounced similarly in in Old Chinese (and identically today: shēn.)

The words 尸 / 屍 lhi “corpse” and 屎 lhiʔ “feces” are not close cognates to 私 si /siʔ, but they are in the same rhyme-group, and perhaps the selfish 私 siʔ is the body in its negative sense as shameful, polluting or no longer alive (尸, 屍 / lhi, lhiʔ) in contrast to the 身 lhin honored in chapter 13, the body of life 生.

Chapter Forty-Nine


Sages are always without a mind.
They take the people’s mind as their own.
The good they treat well,
And the bad they also treat well.
They gain goodness.
To the true they are true,
And to the false they are also true.
They gain truthfulness.

Sages in this world
are all pulled in.
For the sake of the world they muddle their minds.
The eyes and ears of the people gravitate toward them
but the Sages just smile.

百姓 05 17 49 75
注 49 62
信 08 17 21 23 38 49 63 76 81
渾 (混, 昏) 14 15 18 25 49 57 58. (Other variants: 昏,運,沌,湷,昆,綸)
孩 (晐咳䀭) 49 20

For 恆無心 “always is without a mind” the Wang Bi text has 無常心 “without a constant mind”, but the earlier texts always have the former version. “Without a mind” 無心 here is like chapter 07’s 無私 “without a self”: Sages do not have intentions, desires, or interests,, and they are inscrutable. The people try to read them and look for signs, but Sages just smile benignly. (Other texts read 聖人皆孩之 “Sages just treat them like children.”)

Confusion 渾 / 混 /昏 is usually a positive value in the Daodejing, either in the sense of a mystical openness to experience not restricted by desires and intentions, or an ideal state of society governed by custom adjusted to immediate circumstances, rather than by laws and prescriptions. However, in chapters 18 and 57 (邦家昏), 昏 means disorder and is to be avoided.

Sages are circumspect and work by indirection. The people just barely know they exist (大上下知有之, chapter 17). They do not claim credit for the good they do: “They get the job done and then withdraw” (功遂身退, chapter 09); “The job is done and the business is finished, and the people all say ‘We just naturally did this” (功成事遂百姓皆謂我自然, chapter 17). Like the Confucian Sage, the Sages of the Daodejing have a magnetic power, and without their doing anything, the example of their virtue will cause people to be their best selves They know that some are usually bad and faithless, and the bad and faithless know that the Sages know this, but when they are treated well they are given a chance to be good and true. (報怨以德 in chapter 63 has somewhat the same intent. Another interpretation of these words is “The bad they also treat as good”, etc., which is a different slant, but which also works). “Respond to wrongs with generosity”).

Most texts have 德善, but some have 得tək “gain” for 德, and one has 直 drək “straight, upright”. 得tək “gain” makes sense here, and 德 in these lines is almost always interpreted as 得.(直 is presumably just a somewhat loose phonetic substitution). “Virtue” 德 tək and 得 tək “get” were pronounced the same and metaphorically associated as far back as the Shang dynasty, and I have puzzled about the use of 德 here. But in the end, I (like most others) decided that it’s just a phonetic substitution.

Chapter Sixty



Governing a great state is like cooking a small fish

If you preside over the empire according to Dao
the ghosts don’t show themselves —
not that they don’t show themselves,
they just don’t harm people —
not just that the ghosts don’t harm people
the Sages also will not harm them.

The two do not harm one another
and so blessing passes back and forth between them.

位 31 60 (立 泣 蒞)
立 24 25 31 60 62
傷 60 74 (and Shen Dao)
神 06 29 39 60
申 27 60 (for 神?)
屈 05 45
歸 14 16 20 21 28 34 51 60

Belief in the powers of ghosts and spirits (which could be earth spirits, ancestral spirits, or the vengeful ghosts of the angry dead) was almost universal in early China and survives to this day. It was thought that spirits emerged to emerge to punish wrongful conduct with disease or other calamities, and philosophers responded to this belief in various ways. In the Daodejing, 不道早已 “What is against Dao comes to an early end” in chapter 30 and 物或惡之 “There are things that abhor this” in chapter 31 are probably traces of this belief in nemesis, but in chapter 60 the Sage is shown neutralizing the power of the spirits, and most other Chinese philosophers tended to minimize the importance of the spirits in favor of an understanding of the general principles governing human life. (The Mohists were an exception to this: belief in the powers the spirits was central to their system).

Belief in spirits is associated with conditions of uncertainty, when people are powerless in the face of disease, famine, war, etc., and belief in malicious spirits and the possibility of witchcraft is characteristic of unstable societies without trust, in which everyone fears that unknown enemies are secretly working to harm them. As I read this chapter, the Sage’s example of virtue and benevolence has the effect of neutralizing this sort of toxic social network, making a healthier society possible and making the projected ghosts disappear.

“The ghosts don’t show themselves” 其鬼不神: I have interpreted 神 m-lin as 申 lhin “stretch out, extend, unroll” (the opposite of 屈 “shrink, reduce”). In one place In MWDA the character 申is actually used.

“The two don’t harm one another” 兩不相傷: as I understand it, “the two” are the Sage and the spirits, the two high powers in this passage, but others think they are the Sage and the people. In any case a benign situation of happy exchanges is described.

Chapters *59a – 60a


治大 若烹小鮮
In governing men and serving Heaven
there’s nothing like being sparing.
Govern a large state
the way you’d cook a small fish.

Speculation: the opening 7-syllable lines of chapters 59 and 60 are in neighboring chapters of the familiar text of the Daodejing and say almost exactly the same thing, and neither of them seems closely related to what follows in the chapter they’re in, and while they don’t rhyme and aren’t strictly parallel (the chapter 59 line divides 4+3, while the chapter 60 line divides 3+4), these two lines can be read as a couplet.

The closing lines of chapter 59 are among a group of banal chapter-ending passages which don’t seem to me to belong in the Daodejing, passages which aremostly just chains of buzzwords with little resonance with anything else in the Daodejing except one another. (The other passages are at the ends of chapters 16, 25, 52, and 55; all of these chapters are part of the early Guodian the GD text, though chapters 16 and 52 are included without the ending). I have no textual support for my conjecture, and the inclusion of the whole of chapter 59 in the Guodian text argues against it. But there is nothing impossible or terribly far-fetched about the idea that either this couplet once existed independently at some point , or that the opening lines of chapter 60 were written with the line in chapter 59 in mind.

Chapter Seventy-Seven


When a serious grievance is settled
some grievance always remains.
How could it be made good?

Therefore Sages keep the left hand token
and do not collect their due.
The virtuous keep the token,
Those without virtue exact payment.
The Dao of Heaven has no favorites
It is always with the good.

天之道 / 天道 09 47 73 77 79 81
餘 20 24 53 54 77 79
足 23 28 33 35 37 41 44 46 48 64 77
損 42 48 77
為而弗有 (etc.) 02 10 34 61 77
賢 03 75 77 不肖 67
功成 (成功) 02 17 34 77
弗居 02 24 31 77

Here again the Sages and those with Dao are identified with opulence and generosity. The opening passage describes the principle of homeostasis, the principle of the thermostat. If a room gets too cold, the thermostat turns on the heater or turns off the air conditioner until the temperature reaches the set point. If the room gets too warm, the thermostat turns off the heater or turns on the air conditioner until the temperature reaches the set point. The temperature varies but always returns to where it belongs.

In this case, the Dao of Heaven is the thermostat, returning society to the original state of social equality, which for the Daodejing is the ideal. The Dao of Man, by contrast, wants change, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. However, as we are told in chapter 75 and elsewhere, it violates Dao for the rulers to live in luxury while the lowly are wretched, and retribution will follow in the form of revolt. Revolt, which punishes malefactors and returns conditions to their natural state, is thus here` identified with Dao of Heaven.

The homeostatic principles of reversal and return to normality exemplified here can be seen as conservative, and the “return to the origin” is a common theme in the Daodejing. The prinviple of return can be seen as leading to endless cyclic repetition on the model of the four seasons or phases of the moon, where nothing stays the same from one moment to the next, but the cycle of change is constant and regular. However, for the Daodejing things haven’t been normal for a long time, and the normal state to which the Daodejing hopes to return to is in the distant past (the origin), and to return to it would require massive changes to the status quo. Cyclic theories of rise and decline are often used in many cultures to justify political uprisings which are conservative or reactionary in ideology, but which can be progressive in effect.

Chapter Seventy-Nine


When a serious grievance is settled
some grievance always remains.
How could it be made good?

Therefore Sages keep the left hand token
and do not collect their due.
The virtuous keep the token,
Those without virtue exact payment.
The Dao of Heaven has no favorites
It is always with the good.

和 02 04 18 55 56 79
怨 63 64 79
親 17 18 44 56 79

“Grievance” 怨 here doesn’t just mean feelings of resentment for being insulted, slighted, or taken for granted, but includes formal cases taken to the law or to a mediator claiming wrongdoing or (as here) demanding payment on a debt, and festering grievances can break out in violence. The point here is even that after a case has been settled by mediation or by a court, the relationship between the two parties is never as friendly as it formerly had been, and for this reason the Sage does not initiate cases or demand satisfaction.

“The Dao of Heaven has no favorites, it is always with the good man” (天道無親, 恆與善人) here overlaps in meaning with chapter 05’s “Heaven and Earth are not humane” (天地不仁). Confucian “Humaneness” (仁) is differentiated from the traditional principle of 德 “Virtue” by the fact that it manifests itself within the Confucian categories of relationship: kin and non-kin, superior and inferior, elder and junior, etc. (無親 in this chapter could also be translated “has no family”). But here and in chapter 81 the Dao of Heaven is described as benevolent, whereas Heaven and Earth in chapter 05 are objective and detached, like Shen Dao’s Heaven.

The MWDA version of this chapter has 右 “right”” where the others have 左 “left”. I thought at first that there might be something interesting here (as did Henricks), but the MWDA text also leaves out the verb of the sentence, 執, and I’m pretty sure this was just a scribal error. There is uncertainty anyway as to whether the left hand token goes to the debtor or the creditor, since there probably were historical and regional variations. The passage makes the most sense if the 左契 left token is the creditor’s token. (Needham’s Right and Left gathers examples from various cultures of the ways that the right / left polarity are treated in various cultures).

In the MWD texts, chapter 79 is the final chapter, instead of chapter 81. I cannot see any particular significance in this but it might be something worth thinking about.

Chapter Eighty-one


Sages don’t hoard
When they have done something for others
they are better off
When they have given something to others
They are richer

The Way of Heaven
benefits and doesn’t harm
The Way of the Sages
Acts but doesn’t compete

不爭 03 08 22 66 68 73 81
害 35 56 66 73 81
天之道 / 天道 09 47 73 77 79

Chapter 81 reiterates what has been said many times elsewhere about the Sages’ selflessness, uncontentiousness, and identification with others, and it serves to sum up Sage Dao and the Daodejing as a whole. The term non-action 無為 is never seen in chapters 67-81, and in chapter 81 (為而不爭 ) and chapter 77 (為而弗有) the Sages do act. Along with the emphasis on Heaven (chapters 07, 77, 79, 81) and the strong emphasis on the Sage’s impartiality and selfless generosity (chapters 07, 49, 77, 79 and 81) this is further evidence, for Perkins’ argument that chapters 67-81 are responses to (or developments of) Mohists’ 兼愛 universal love / impartial concern. (In my understanding of the Daodejing’s textual history, chapters 07, 49, and 60 are late chapters inserted earlier in the text to keep the division between Early Dao and Sage Dao from being too evident).

There is a tension between the statement in chapter 05 that Heaven and Earth are detached and “not humane” 天地不仁 and the statement that the Dao of Heaven “benefits and never harms” 利而不害 in this chapter and the statement that the Dao of Heaven “is always with the good man” 恆與善人 in chapter 79. Perhaps this is more evidence of a Mohist connection.

The opening lines of this chapter speak against wordiness, argumentation, and erudition and don’t seem especially connected to the rest of the chapter or the other chapters in this group, and I have moved them elsewhere.



Yang Dao 13 24 30 31 33 44 46
Body 50 51 52 55 56
Mother 04 05 06 10 28 14 15 16 20 21 25 56c 35a
Jixia 01 11 39 40 41 42 43 45 48
Anti Confucian 17 18 19 23a 38
Power of Dao 32 34 35 37

Note (3-26-23): I am posting this as a convenience for readers of my Sage Dao translation. I see many things I’d like to change, so please do not hold me accountable for what you read until I’ve revised it.

Yang Dao

*13 GD
Favor and disgrace are like warnings;
Honors and disasters are like your own person.
What does this mean:
“Favor and disgrace are like warnings”?
The favored one is in the inferior position.
Getting favor is like a warning; losing favor is like a warning.
This is the meaning of “favor and disgrace are like warnings”.

What does this mean:
“Honor a disaster are like your own body”?
The reason I have disasters is that I have a body.
If I had no body what disaster could there be?
So someone who regards care of their body
as greater than rule of the empire
might be entrusted with the empire;

someone who prizes the care of their body
more greatly then rule of the empire
might be granted the empire.
*30 GD
Someone serving a ruler of men in accordance with Dao
doesn’t use weapons to bully the world.
These things tend to come back at you.
Where an army has camped brambles and thorns grow.
In the wake of a mighty army there will be famine years.
A good commander gets the job done and that’s it.
Dont push his advantage.
Get the job done, but don’t brag.
Get the job done, but without arrogance.
Get the job done, but doesn’t bully.
Get the job done if you can’t avoid that.
This is the meaning of “Get the job done without bullying”.

Wasted in your prime: this is against Dao.
What is against Dao comes to an early end.
*31 GD
Now weapons are ominous devices.
There are beings which despise them,
and the man of Dao does not abide with them.
They are not the tools of a gentleman
Dispassion is best If they must be used.
Do not glorify them.
To glorify them
is to delight in slaughter.
Someone who delights in slaughter
will never reach his goal in this world.
At home a gentleman honors the left
in the army he honors the right.
In auspicious affairs we honor the left,
At funerals, we honor the right.
The lieutenant general stands on the left;
the commanding general stands on the right.
This means that the protocol for funerals is being followed.
When masses of men are slaughtered,
commemorate it with mourning and wailing.
Once the battle is won,
celebrate with funeral rites.
*24 Not GD
On tiptoes you’re unsteady.
Overstriding gets you nowhere.
Showoffs are not glorious.
The narcissist gains no renown.
The self-righteous are not admired
The braggart accomplishes nothing.
The self-important don’t last.
In Dao these are called
“Unclean food and outrageous behavior”.
There are beings which abhor them,
and the man of Dao does not abide with them. (24)
*44 GD
Name or body, which is dearer?
Your body and your property,
which is more precious?
Gaining and losing,
which is more harmful?
The greedy waste the most.
Hoarders lose the most.
Know what is enough
and you will not be disgraced
Know when to stop
and you will not be imperiled
and may live long.


*46 GD
In an empire with Dao
fast horses are sent to fertilize fields.
In an empire without Dao warhorses
are bred next to the capital.
There is no crime greater than excessive desire.
There’s no misfortune greater than not knowing what is enough.
There is no calamity more grievous than desiring gain.
The satisfaction of knowing what is enough
is enduring satisfaction.


The Body

*50 Not GD
Coming out is life, going back in is death.
One in three are in the party of life,
one in three are in the party of death,
and those whose initiatives in living life lead them to death
are also one in three.

And why is this? Because they live for life
I have heard it said that one good at grasping life
crosses the wilds without fearing the rhinoceros or the tiger
and enters battle without weapons or armor.

The rhinoceros finds no place to drive its horn,
the tiger finds no place to dig its claws
the sword finds no place to sink its blade.

And why is this?
Because he has no place of death.
*51 not GD
Dao gives them life
and Virtue cares for them.
Events shape them and
circumstances complete them.
So all beings revere Dao and honor Virtue.
Reverence for Dao, honor for Virtue —
No one commands this, it just comes naturally.
Dao gives them life and cares for them
raises them and tends them,
holds them up, heals them,
nurtures them, shelters them
So: it gives them life without possessing them,
works with them without dominating them
rears them without mastering them..

This is called the Dark Virtue.
*52 Not GD
The world has a beginning,
call it the mother of the world .
Once you’ve reached the mother
you can understand the child,
once you understand the child
you can return to the mother
to the end of your life safe from danger.
Block the holes
shut the doors —
to the end of your life free of travail.
Open the doors,
increase your activities —
to the end of your life beyond help.
*56b GD
Block the holes
shut the doors
soften the glare
settle the dust
blunt the edges
loosen the knots —
This is called the dark unity
*55a GD
One filled with the fullness of Virtue
can be compared to a bare baby.
Bees and wasps will not sting it,
eagles and wolves will not not carry it off.
Its bones and sinews are supple, but its grip is firm.

It has never known the union of male and female,
but its penis rises: the ultimate of vitality.

It howls all day long but never gets hoarse:
the ultimate of harmony.


The Mother

*04 Not GD
Dao is empty,
but in use somehow it cannot be filled
Deep!….like the ancestor of all beings….
Drowned!…. as if something were there.
I do not know whose child it might be —
it seems older than God
*05b GD
Isn’t the space between heaven and earth
like a bellows?
Empty but never exhausted,
work it and more comes out
*06 Not GD
The valley spirit will never die:
it is called the subtle female.
The entry of the subtle female is called
the root of heaven and earth.
Gossamer, it seems to exist,
use it without toil.
*10 Not GD
Carrying your soul and embracing oneness,
can you never leave them?
Concentrating your breath to extreme gentleness,
can you become an infant?
wiping and cleansing the dark mirror,
can you become flawless?
Cherishing the people and ordering the nation
Can you not use knowledge?
When Heaven’s gates open and shut,
can you become a woman?
Seeing clearly in every direction,
can you not use knowledge?
Give birth to them, rear them —
give birth without owning them,
raise them without ruling them:
This is called dark virtue.
*28 Not GD

Not yet translated
*14a Not GD
You look for it without seeing it —
it’s called minute.
You listen for it without hearing it —
it’s called faint;
You grab it but can’t hold it —
it’s called smooth.
These three do not register
and fuse into one. The One:
Its topside is not bright,
its underside not dim;
Boundless, it cannot be named
and returns to thinglessness. 
It is called the formless form,
the thing-less image, flurried and vast.
Follow it and you don’t see its back.
Meet it and you don’t see its face.
So you can’t get close to it,
And you can’t drive it away,
You can’t help it,
And you can’t harm it;
You can’t ennoble it,
And you can’t degrade it.
You cannot succeed in bringing it close
and you cannot succeed in sending it away.
You cannot succeed in benefiting it a
nd you cannot succeed in harming it.
You cannot succeed in honoring it,
and you cannot succeed in denigrating it.
Just so is it most honored in the world
*35b GD
The words of Dao are bland and flavorless.
Look for them, and they’re barely visible
Listen for them, and they’re barely audible But live them,
and they’re inexhaustible.
*15 GD

The masters of ancient days were subtle,
mysterious and darkly perceptive,
deep and impossible to know
If forced I will just praise them:
Cautious, as though crossing a frozen stream
Watchful, as though fearing the neighbors
Correct, like a guest
Yielding, like melting ice
Solid, like lumber
Mixed up, like muddy water
Open, like a valley.

The murky when stilled gradually clears
The inert when stirred gradually quickens.

He who accepts this Dao does not want fullness
and so can be worn and not made new.

*16a GD
Utter emptiness is the ultimate
Holding to stillness is integrity
The myriad beings rise beside me,
I sit and watch their return —
Heaven’s beings are teeming,
everything is returning to its root.
*20c not GD
 Vast! – and not yet at the limit!  
The crowd is cheerful, as if attending a feast
or ascending a terrace in springtime.
Only I am quiet and show nothing,
like an infant who has not yet smiled;
forlorn, like a dog with no home to go to.
The crowd all have plenty,
only I am lost.
I have the mind of a fool –
so confused!
Normal people are radiant,
only I am dim.
Normal people are penetrating,
only I am slack.
Hurried! like the dark of the moon!
Vast! as if with no home to return to.
The crowd all have their angles —
Only I am stubborn and crude.
I want to be uniquely different from others
and to honor the nurturing mother.
*21a Not GD
The ease of pervading virtue obeys only Tao.
Tao as a thing — vast and vague!
Vague and vast!
Within it is an image.
Vast and vague!
Within it is a thing.
Shadowy and dim!
but in it there is an essence.
This essence is very real a
nd in it there is firmness.
*25 GD
Not yet translated


*01 Not GD
The way that can be shown
Is not the unvarying way.
The name that can be called
Is not the unvarying name.
The nameless was the embryo of all things,
Naming is the mother of all things.
Thus: always, without intent you see the fine points
and with intent you see the outcomes.
These emerge together but are differently named,
And together are called dark.
Darkness upon darkness —
the gateway to the many mysteries.
*11 Not GD
Thirty spokes meet in one hub
The wagon’s usefulness is in what’s not there.
Mold clay to make a pot.
The pot’s usefulness is in what’s not there
Cut windows and a door to make a room.
The room’s usefulness is in what’s not there.
What’s there is what you own
What’s not there is what you use.

*40 GD
The movement of Dao is reversal,
The action of Dao is gentle.
The things of the world are born from presence,
presence is born of absence.
*43 Not GD
The softest thing there is
runs through the hardest thing there is.
Something without substance
penetrates something without gaps.
From this is I know the value of wuwei.
The wordless teaching, the value of wuwei –
few in this world can attain these.
*39 Not GD
Not yet translated
*42b Not GD
Not yet translated
*41 Not GD

When the finest student hears the Way He barely can practice it.
When the average student hears the Way
Now he gets it, now he doesn’t.
When the poor student hears the Way
He laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh it wouldn’t be the Way

So the Proverbs have it:
The bright Way seems dim The way forward seems to recede,
The smooth way seems rough
The highest eminence is like a valley
The whitest white seems smudged
The broadest virtue seems insufficient
The established virtue seems sneaky
The solidest reality seems unstable
The greates square is without corners,
The greatest vessel is last finished
The finest music is soft
The greatest image is shapeless.

Dao is secret and nameless
Only Dao is good at beginning and at completing.
*45 GD
The greatest completeness seems deficient
but in practice it never wears out.
The greatest fullness seems empty
but in practice it is never exhausted.
The greatest skill seems clumsy.
The greatest uprightness seems crooked
The greatest flourishing is humble.
Activity overcomes cold,
Stillness overcomes heat
Clarity and stillness can set the world right.
*48 GD
Studying, you daily get more,
Living Dao, you daily have less.
Less, and again less,
until you have reached wuwei –
doing nothing, but getting everything done. .
To get it all, never be busy.
If you’re busy
you’re not good enough to get it all.


*23a Not GD
To speak sparingly is natural.
A sudden storm doesn’t last all morning,
A hard rain doesn’t last all day.
Who makes these? Heaven and earth.
If heaven and earth can’t make things last long,
How much less can man?
*17 *18 *19 GD
The greatest ruler is just known to be there;
The next best is praised and beloved;
The next best is feared;
And the worst is treated with contempt.
The unreliable can rely on no one.
How sparing are his proclamations!
he finishes up, the job is done,
and the people just say
“We’re just naturally this way”.
Thus: when the Great Way fails
you get benevolence and righteousness.
When wisdom and craft appear
you get the Big Lie.
When family relationships are unsettled
you get deference and filiality.
When the state is in chaos
you get upright ministers.
Get rid of sageliness and cast off wisdom
and the people will be a hundred times better off.
Get rid of benevolence and cast off righteousness
and the people will return to filiality and compassion.
Get rid of cleverness and cast off calculation
and there will be no more thieves and bandits.
These three sayings don’t seem quite complete,
so an attachment is required:
display the pure and embrace the simple,
minimize selfishness and reduce desire
*38 Not GD
The highest virtue does not make gains, So it has virtue;
The lesser virtue holds to its gains so it lacks virtue.
The highest virtue does not act and does not impose categories,
The highest benevolence acts but without imposing categories
The highest righteousness acts by imposing categories
The highest propriety does things and if anyone fails to respond
it rolls up its sleeves and and drags them.
So lose Dao and get Virtue,
Lose virtue and get benevolence,
Lose benevolence and get righteousness,
Lose righteousness and get propriety.
Now propriety is the husk of reliability
and the beginning of confusion,
Foreknowledge is the blossom of Dao
but the first sign of stupidity.
Thus a big player holds to the solid
and not to the flimsy,
holds to the fruit and not to the blossom,
holding to the former and letting go of the latter.

Power of Dao

*32 GD
Dao is always nameless
Though the primal simplicity is tiny,
nothing in heaven or earth can master it
If lords and princes could hold to it
all things would submit themselves
Heaven and earth would come together
to send down sweet dew
and without anyone’s command
the people would live in harmony.
Then names are first cut
and once there are names,
indeed should know to stop
If you know when to stop
you will be free of trouble
Compare Dao in the world
to the little valleys and the river and ocean.
*33 Not GD
If you understand others you are smart,
If you understand yourself you are wise,
If you conquer others you are powerful,
If you conquer yourself you are strong.
If you know what is enough you are rich…..
*34 Not GD
Not yet translated
*35a GD
Grasp the great image
and the world proceeds.
Proceeds without harm,
Peace and harmony are complete.
Music and treats
make passing travelers stop by.
*37 GD
Not yet translated

The Primitivist Chapters of the Daodejing

Chapters 03, 12, 53, 75, and 80.

The Primitivist group is the most thematically consistent of any of the groups I have found in the Daodejing. All chapters in this group speak against the luxury of the royal court and in favor of a frugal lifestyle. A common theme is satisfaction with what you have as opposed to desire for something you’ve only seen or imagined. All of these themes are consistent with what came earlier in the Daodejing, but these chapters speak of nothing else.

None of these chapters are included of the GD text and their texts are unproblematic, and both of these facts argue for their being quite late. The Primitivists (as described in Graham’s Disputers of the Dao) were a widespread movement well represented in Zhuangzi but not necessarily always Daoist, and the concluding lines of chapter 80 are very similar to a passage in 胠篋 Qu Qie, a late chapter of Zhuangzi.

The Primitivist chapters reject all hierarchy and even the recognition of personal excellence (賢), and they especially speak against the opulent lifestyles of the rulers. Instead they propose a simple egalitarian lifestyle within which people do not seek exotic pleasures, and do not try try to distinguish themselves from others by the display of rarities like jewelry, fine fabrics, etc., In the rustic Primitivist utopia people concern themselves only with what is immediately at hand and do not compare their own lives with the lives of distant others or ask themselves how things might be different. Peace, order, and a quiet, satisfied populace are the goal.

Chapter 80 describes this utopia. This chapter speaks of a small, autonomous local community, with no mention of a state, and it might be called anarchist. At the same time, four of chapter 80 might describe a system in which the people are placid and play no active political role, and it could be adapted for authoritarian purposes. People who do not ask questions and are satisfied with what is near at hand are easy to govern.




強其骨 恆使民無知無欲也


Do not elevate the worthy
and the people will not compete.
Do not prize scarce goods
and the people will not become thieves.

Do not display desirable objects
and the people will not be disorderly.

Thus the rule of the Sage
empties their minds
and fills their bellies
weakens their wills
and strengthens their bones. The people are always kept without knowledge and without desires
so that the wise guys don’t act up.

Don’t do these things,
and there will be no disorder.

The emphasis here is in achieving order by not inviting comparisons between rich and poor, though it does not quite suggest abolishing class distinctions. The utopia described here is clearly recommended as a tool of government. “The knowing / smart guys” are treated as a threat – those who understand what is going on and can see ways of taking personal advantage, or of improving the system for the better, or both.

不尚賢: This is the rejection of a basic Mohist principle. The Mohists (against the Confucians) believed that the capable should be promoted to high office without regard for their family status. The Daodejing here opposes the establishment of any hierarchical class distinction of any kind — everyone should be in the same class as everyone else. This is consistent with the Daodejing’s general tendency to dissolve distinctions and reverse valuations. The Mohist or Confucian leader was assumed to be prominent and admired by all, whereas the 聖人 Sage of the Daodejing is obscure, just as the 德 Virtue of the Daodejing is not prominent, but obscure (玄德: 10, 61, 65).

賢 is often seen coupled with the contrasting term 不肖 in the pair “worthy / unworthy” (or “distinguished / undistinguished”). In Chapter 67 we read “Only because I am undistinguished can I be great” (夫唯不肖故能大), and chapter 77 speaks of the Sage’s unwillingness to be seen as worthy (若此其不欲見賢也). Only in chapter 75 is the word given its positive meaning, “superior”: “Only those who don’t strive for life
are superior at valuing life” (夫唯無以生 為者,是賢於貴 生)。

賢 Worthies: 03 75 77
盜 Thieves: 03 19 53 57
亂 Disorder: 03 18 38 64
難得之貨 Scarce goods: 03 12 64 (財貨有餘: 53)
腹 /心 Belly vs. mind 03
腹 / 目 belly vs. eye 12

Chapter Twelve

五色 使 人目盲
五音 使 人耳聾
五味 使 人口爽
馳騁田獵 使 人心發狂
難得之貨 使人行妨

The five colors blind the eye
The five tones deafen ear dead
The five flavors numb the mouth
Riding to the hounds craze the mind
Scarce goods make you act wrongly

Therefore the Sage’s rule
Attends to the belly and not to the eye,
Gets rid of the one and keeps the other.

The resemblances to chapter 03 are obvious,. This chapter is directed specifically to the lords, who are the only ones who can afford luxury, whereas chapter 03 states a general principle of government.

The MWDA text reads 明 “bright” instead of 盲 “blind”. The two words sound a little alike and this is presumably just a slip. There are a certain number of absent-minded scribal errors in the texts of the Daodejing, which is a little comforting for a scholar who sometimes makes absent-minded mistakes himself.

腹: 03, 12.
彼 / 此: 12, 38, 72.

Chapter Fifty-three




If I had the least bit of sense
I’d walk the great Dao,
and only fear straying
The great Dao is smooth
but the people prefer shortcuts

The court is well kept
The fields are weedy
The storehouses are empty

They wear embroidered robes
carry sharp swords
eat and drink their fill
and have treasure in excess

Call this banditry! Not Dao!

Puns here: 道 means Dao, but also simply “road” or “way”. In the last line, 道 “Dao” and 盜 “banditry”are pronounced much the same.

More preaching against the luxury of the court. Often enough in ancient China the court and the capital city prospered while the outlying areas (where the food was grown) starved. This state of affairs was not unique to China, and in China and elsewhere famine is often the result of government policy and the prelude to rebellion. It is especially during famines that people “cease to fear death” and are willing to rise up.

盜 Thieves: 03 19 53 57
盜兮 also reads 盜夸 and 盜竽. I have never been able to make sense of these readings.

Chapter Seventy Five




The people starve
because the higher-ups eat so much tax grain
That’s why they starve

The people are ungovernable
because of their higher-ups’ meddling
That’s why they’re ungovernable

The people don’t fear death
Because their higher-ups seek the fullness of life
That’s why they don’t fear death

Only those who don’t strive for life
are excellent at valuing life

I have made the stanzas of this chapter parallel by inserting the word 上(from the Fuyi version in Jiang Xichang) into the third stanza.

The general point of this chapter is that the common people are starving, unruly, and ready to rise up in rebellion because of the excesses of the elite. “Striving for life” is tricky. The early chapters of the Daodejing urge that life should be prized more than such lesser goods as fame, wealth, and power, but here “seeking the fullness of life” is seen as harmful. I see this as a late development of the original doctrine, which first meant the preservation of life by avoiding the dangers of military service and court life, next developed into more positive nurturing of life by temperance, physical disciplines, and contemplation, and finally became the luxurious nurturing of life by rich foods and rare drugs. The point of this chapter is that this late version of “valuing life” was not the right way to value life.

輕死 75 / 重死 80. Similar themes in chapters 72, 73, and 74.

Chapter Eighty






不相往來 .………………………….

Let the state be small and the people few.
Let the weapons for platoons and companies be unused.
Let the people fear death and not travel afar.
Though they have boats and carriages, they won’t ride them.
Though they have weapons and armor, they won’t carry them.
Let them return to knotted-cord recordkeeping

Let their food be tasty,
their clothing beautiful,
their homes cozy,
and their customs lovely.

Though neighboring states can see one another
and hear one another’s dogs and chickens,
people will die of old age
without making a visit.

A passage in a late chapter of Zhuangzi (胠篋) is almost word for word identical to the last 9 lines of this chapter: 樂其俗 / 安其居 / 安其居 / 樂其俗 / 雞狗之音相聞, / 至老死而不相往來.

Unlike the other four chapters in this group and most of the rest of Sage Dao, chapter 80 describes a hypothetical or imaginary ideal rather than critiquing the actual societies of that time. No central state is a factor here, and this chapter can be called anarchist for that reason. But it also describes an intensely conservative traditionalistic society, and the ideal shown here could be adapted for the use of an authoritarian government.

On depression

With a highly-educated population you always end up with large groups of people who understand what’s happening and feel capable of making a contribution, but who are in the losing faction and can only watch while people they despise run the show, usually disastrously badly from their point of view. That describes me and pretty much everyone I know.

How would that not lead to depression? It’s a double whammy: being personally disregarded, disrespected, and unsuccessful, and also having to watch those in power ruin the world.

Liberal arts majors, humanists,and generalists are the ones most subject to depression, whereas businessmen, politicos, and tech specialists are in the drivers’ seat and can be cheery as hell. They work at what they’re good at and are well paid for their work, and as a result most things that can be technically defined are well done — as long as they don’t conflict with some major interest. But the biggest deficiencies and dysfunctions of our society are mostly at the general level of overall system coordination, rather than at the tech specialist level — for one example, our economic and governmental systems work well enough on their own terms, but seem not to be compatible with the long-term welfare of the human race.

And of course, the conclusion economists, politicos, businessmen, and specialists draw from this is “Oh, those generalists and humanists always fuck everything up, we need to take over and do things right” — even though the generalists and humanists had never been in the loop at all. And the economists, politicos, businessmen, and tech people go on to fuck things up worse, improvising by the seat of their pants on something they’ve never thought about for more than an afternoon.

Early Dao and Sage Dao 道 經 與 聖 經

Early Dao and Sage Dao
(Daojing and Shengjing )
John Emerson

A much earlier and significantly different version of my work,
from before I had seen the Guodian text: A Stratification of Laozi,
Journal of Chinese Religions, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1995, pp. 1-28.


Starting from Lau’s thesis that the Daodejing (DDJ) is an anthology of writings of diverse origin, together with the common hypothesis that the DDJ consists of a relatively more mystical layer and a relatively more political layer, in this article I divide DDJ into two parts, roughly equal in length, which I call Early Dao (the Daojing 道 經; the mystical and metaphysical part) and Sage Dao (the Shengjing 聖 經; the part speaking more of strategy and state service).

Continue reading “Early Dao and Sage Dao 道 經 與 聖 經”

Skip James and the Fed’s Killing Floor

Skip James and the Federal Reserve’s Killing Floor

Sometime before 1990 I was reading a story about how industry was having so much trouble finding workers that companies were sending buses to inner city Milwaukee to pick up workers who didn’t have transportation. Heartwarming! Capitalism works!

But elsewhere in that same issue there was a different story about a meeting where a group of bankers worried about overheating and inflation, and concluded that interest rates must be raised. This is the Federal Reserve’s killing floor.

One thing all this shows is the way that economic issues and race issues are closely related and not mutually exclusive. If some group is going to be sacrificed every time the Fed turns the spigot, it makes sense for them to be people that no one else else cares about. Black Americans.

Daniel Kato, “Liberalizing Lynching”

Liberalizing Lynching

But this subtlety of accommodating something that was anything but subtle reveals the dark side of constitutional flexibility. If it is the case that “Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes of emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form”, then what exactly is the point of having a Constitution?”

Daniel Kato’s book Liberalizing Lynching describes the way the Supreme Court allowed the Fourteenth Amendment (1866) to be suspended in the Southern states for the greater part of a century (1877-1965). Lynch-mob justice came to be accepted as normal in about a third of the US, and black Americans in the old Confederacy lost their voting rights, their right to the protection of the laws, their right to a fair trial, and their access to education.

Kathleen Pistor, “The Code of Capital”

The Code of Capital

Pistor’s book shows how the law, in various ways, has been tweaked to favor the biggest businessmen and often leaves everone else holding the bag. Poeple in general do not think of the law and the courts as enemies, but there are good reasons why they should.

Contracts and property rights support free markets, but capitalism requires more – the legal privileging of some assets, which gives their holders a comparative advantage in accumulating wealth over others. Not all assets are equal; the ones with superior legal coding tend to be “more equal” than others.

Not the asset itself, but its legal coding, protects the asset holder from the headwinds of ordinary business cycles and gives his wealth longevity, therefore setting the stage for sustained inequality. Fortunes can be made or lost by altering an asset’s legal coding.

Today’s entrepreneurs no longer need to seek redress at home, and the fate of their wealth is no longer tied to the communities they have left behind. Instead, they can choose among many legal systems whichever one they prefer, and can enjoy its benefits even without physically moving themselves.

(All citations from Pistor.)