The “Nei Ye” and the Daodejing

(This article was written sme time ago and might need some revision).

In his book Original Dao (Columbia, 1999) Harold Roth has argued that the “Nei Ye” chapter of the Guanzi is a guide to meditation produced within an organized teacher-student lineage devoted primarily to the arts of “cultivation of life” (meditation, diet, ritual, and physical practices), and that the  Daodejing, a handbook of political wisdom, is the product of a late politicized stage of this same school, or of a branch of the school. Roth’s theory is a beginning toward giving a definite answer to the question “What kind of book is the Daodejing?”, a question which has divided Daodejing interpreters more or less from the beginning.

My answer to this question is very close to Roth’s. However, while Roth (following Graham)  classifies Daoists as Individualists, Primitivists, or Syncretists, I am more inclined to classify the Primitivists as politicized Daoists and as just one kind of Syncretist — for all its utopianism and satirical edge, in the Daodejing Primitivism often seems to be advocated as kind of political device. I also don’t think that it’s terribly important to decide whether the “Nei Ye” is older than the Daodejing; the two texts may have been contemporary, both of them being used in different contexts by the same school, or they may have been used by two opposed schools which had split off from a united earlier school.

The two texts also seem different in type: the “Nei Ye” seems to be a uniform text produced for a specific purpose, whereas the Daodejing is a dense and plural compendium of wisdom drawn from more than one era and more than one body of discourse.If the “Nei Ye” can be taken as one representative of the contemplative, non-political phase (or tendency, or aspect) of the school which also produced the Daodejing, it seems reasonable to ask how well it matches part of the “Early Layer” of the Daodejing which I defined before I had seen Roth’s book.1 The short answer to that question is that the comparison is very illuminating, and a substantial proportion of the chapters I have classified as Early have unmistakeable analogues in the Nei Ye . Some of the Nei Ye ’s echoes the DDJ are in the part of the DDJ I have left unclassified, and perhaps these chapters should be added to the early group. Only a few are in chapters I have classified as Late.

A fair part of my Early layer is not matched by anything in the Nei Ye and seems to point toward the (possibly non-Chou)  cosmology of Heaven and Earth, Birth and Death, the Mother and Child, the Valley, and Hundun described in Girardot’s Myth and Meaning in Early Daoism, rather than to specific meditational practices of the sort underpinning the Nei Ye.  This does not mean that the Nei Ye and the DDJ cannot be from the same tradition  – it might merely be because the  Nei Ye was not intended as a complete scripture, but had a specific purpose. Passages in the Nei Ye are matched and echoed in the DDJ as follows:

First, in the Nei Ye , sections II, IV, V, and VI are basically  psalms to Dao, and are very similar to chapters 14, 15, 20, 21, and 25 of the DDJ (one of the subgroups within my early layer). Like chapters 14, 35, and 56 of the DDJ, these sections of the Nei Ye speak of the elusiveness of Dao. Likewise, NY’s section XXV, which compares Dao to an inexhaustible spring, makes a similar point to chapters 4, 6, 41, 70, and 78 of the DDJ, where the inexhaustibility of Dao is a major theme. This gives us 12 DDJ chapters with affinities to these passages of the NY.

Second, the word jing 靜“stillness” appears at least 14 times in the Nei Ye and 6 times in the DDJ (in chapters 15, 16, 26, 37, 45, and 57). In the Nei Ye stillness is associated with zheng , “right / squared off / aligned ” 7 times, and the jing-zheng 靜 / 正 pair appears 3 times in the DDJ. In chapters 32, 33, 37, 44, 46, 57, and 73 of the DDJ and in sections III, XI, XIII, XXX, and XXV of the “Nei Ye” the reflexive zi 自 is used in phrases like zi jing 自 靜, “becomes still of itself” –  examples of what is elsewhere labeled wuwei. When you add the term ying 盈, “fullness” (DDJ chapters 2, 4, 9, 15, 22, 39, and 45),  which in the DDJ  is often associated with jing and zheng though it appears only once on the NY, you end up with a cluster of 15 chapters (chapters 2, 4, 9, 15, 16, 22, 26, 32, 37, 39, 44, 45, 46, 57, and 73) harmonizing with this central theme of the NY, of which 13 were not mentioned in the preceding group (thus giving us  25 chapters for these two clusters alone, half of them Early in my classification and only 4 of them Late.)

Third, the theme of “oneness” (一 yi) in IX, XIX, and XXV is also a theme in DDJ 14, 22, 39, 42, and perhaps 11. The idea of holding fast (zhi ) or embracing (抱 bao)) or getting (得 de) Oneness  or Dao or stillness or emptiness (盅 zhong) or simplicity ( pu) or the Great Iimage ( xiang ), or softness (ruo), or the Mother (母 mu), which appears several times in the NY, appears in chapters 5, 10, 16, 19, 22, 35, 37, 39, 42, and 52  of the DDJ.

The Nei Ye illuminates the DDJ in several other places. In the section I of the Nei Ye we read of jing, “essence”:

When flowing amid the heavens and the earth we call it ghostly and numinous (鬼神 gui shen)

when stored within the chest of human beings, we call them sages (聖人 sheng ren)”.

This illuminates chapter 60 of the DDJ, which I have always found bothersome:

When the empire is ruled in accordance with the way,

the spirits (gui) lose their potencies (shen);

Or rather, it is not that they lose their potencies,

But that, though they have their potencies, they do not harm the people;

It is not only they who, having their potencies, do not harm the people,

The sage (sheng ren), also, does not harm the people.

It has been suggested that the sheng ren is descended from the Chinese wu or shaman / sorcerer, and these two passages lend strong support to that interpretation (which is also supported by Saso’s The Teachings of Master Chuang, where contemporary heterodox Taoists are suspected of black magic and even the orthodox Master Chuang engages in practices which we could call magical). The traditional shaman was a figure of power whose benevolence could not be relied on, and he or she was thought to have access to ghostly or spiritual powers and spirits inaccessible to ordinary folk.  Thus Chapter 60 is saying that if the empire has Dao, neither the spirits nor the sages (shamans, magicians) do any harm.

“Restlessness / impetuousness” (躁 zao) in Nei Ye section XXV, if regarded as a technical term of Taoist meditation (the opposite of jing “stillness”), illuminates the appearance of the same term in DDJ chapters 26 and 45.

“Concentrate the qi” (NY XIX:專氣 zhuan qi) is also is seen in DDJ 10 and likewise seems to be a technical term.

“Does not deviate” (不忒 bu te: Nei Ye XII and XVI) helps anchor the meaning of the same phrase in DDJ 28.

There are also systematic ways that the Nei Ye and the early layer of the DDJ differ. The mother is mentioned only once in the Nei Ye (paired with the father) and the child does not appear. Emptiness, nothingness, and pu simplicity” are also  not seen. As for the DDJ, the key Nei Ye terms jing “essence”and qi “vital energy” are seen only in chapters 10, 21, 42, and 45 (together with the sole appearance of 陰陽 yin yang in Ch. 42). Xin heart-mind”, a key term in the NY, is seen only 6 times in the DDJ (in chapters 3, 8, 12, 20, 49, and 55), and only in chapter 55 does the mind have the significance that it does in the Nei Ye – in DDJ chapters 3, 12, and 49 the topic is merely part of the primitivist “keep the people simple” theme.


1. I remain agnostic about attempts to give a date to the DDJ based on vocabulary. Partly this is simply because I think that the text we have was put together over a considerable period, often using old, already-existing materials, with  the final editing coming  sometime after 300 BC, and we also no that later transmitters frequently revised what they had inherited. Second, as far as I know we don’t know much about the influence of dialects (which might be conservative in various respects) on classical Chinese, or about the possibility of overcorrection by dialect speakers trying to write in standard court Chinese, or whether authors of that era used deliberate archaism. I also don’t know how much consensus there is among the 10 or so phonetic realizations of classical Chinese, many of which seem intended for use in Sino-Tibetan comparative studies and as a result are not terribly helpful.  (Here I will put in my plea for a phonemically-reduced consensus dictionary of classical Chinese intended to be  usable as a handbook by people like me.)

Nothing in the Nei Ye is explicitly political, but you still find political metaphors lurking here and there, and in fact self-discipline is conceived almost on the model of government.  The word zhi “rule, put to order” is seen in Nei Ye sections X, XI, XIII, XIV, and in XIV the “mind within the mind” (心之中又有心) is said to order (zhi) the mind, after which the freshly-ordered mind orders the senses, guan . (The use of the term guan “officials” to mean “senses” is also seen in Lushi Chunqiu 2:2, Gui sheng, where the metaphor is explained in terms of guan zhi 官職, the specific tasks of the senses by analogy to the specific tasks of bureaucratic officials.)

This is probably just a reminder of the pervasiveness and inescapability of the state, in China as elsewhere, and of the holism of Chinese culture. The word  zhi is used in medicine too — healing is like bringing a state to order, just as ordering a disordered state is like healing an illness. (But then, much the same is true in Plato). Both in China and the West self-control and self-governance are modelled on the prince’s rule of the populace (see Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, or Foucault’s History of Sexuality).