The Worthy in Ancient Chinese Philosophy

(This piece was written some time ago and may need revision).

In Chinese philosophy the 賢, usually translated “worthy”, is a man of great merit, but not part of the hereditary line of succession, who is brought to the ruler’s attention and appointed to high position. “Promoting the worthy” 尚賢 was a key doctrine of the Mohist school, but something like it was also advocated by Confucians. The goal, especially in the case of the Mohists, was a kind of meritocracy which would weaken the ruling families’ stranglehold on power and make government more responsive to the needs of the people.

The worthy was chosen for his moral excellence together with mastery of the Zhou cultural traditioncompetences in the Confucian case and competence in the Mohist case. Once promoted, the amply-rewarded worthy would serve as an example for others to emulate and would diligently encourage them to improve themselves while unerringly doing the right thing when exercising his governmental responsibilities. The worthy is outranked only by the Sage.

The word 賢 is comparative: “excellent, superior, better than; the superior man”. In various grammatical contexts it can also be translated “excellence”, “superiority”,  or (as a transitive verb) “to regard as excellent”, and  in Chinese philosophy it meant the specific type of superior man just described.  Two of the three appearances of the word 賢 in the Daodejing have the adjectival meaning, and in one of these cases worthiness is unmistakably rejected:

夫唯無以生為者 賢於貴生

Just because he does not act for the sake of life, he is better than 賢  those who honor life. (Daodejing, chapter 75)


是以聖人為而弗有 成功而弗居若此其下欲見賢也

Therefore the sage acts without taking possession and attains his goal without dwelling there; thus far does he dislike being regarded as superior [or:“being regarded as a worthy 賢]. (Daoedejing, chapter 77)


In chapter 3 , which belongs to the late Sage Dao layer of the  Daodejing the word 賢 “worthy” is used in the same sense as in Mozi and Confucius , butthe Confucian and Mohist practice of seeking out and promoting worthies is unequivocally rejected:

Do not honor  the worthies, so that the people do not contend.


The worthies’ contentious nature is the reason given for this rejection. In Shen Dao and Hanfeizi the worthy is also accused of contentiousnes. Shen Dao’s particular worry is that the worthy, once in office, will compete with the prince in doing good:

Yet today those who establish the laws also advance private interest. This means that private interests contend with the law, which is a greater disorder than having no law. Those who establish the prince also honor the worthies. This means that 賢 與 君 爭 the worthies contend with the prince, which is worse than having no prince.

In a state following Dao, the law is established so that private benevolence (私 善) does not develop; the prince is established so that the worthies are not honored; the people are united with the prince, and cases are decided according to law. This the great way of states. Shen Dao, L76-77.

The contentiousness of the worthies is also mentioned by the Legalist Shang Yang:

The benevolent always take concern for others as their aim, but the worthy make it their way to excel each other….When they established a ruler, elevating worth was abandoned for honoring rank. (Shangjun Shu II:7: Duyvendak p. 226; in Graham’s, Disputers of the Dao, p. 272; my adaptation).

 Raising virtuous and capable men is the cause of bringing order into the world, but it is also the cause of order becoming disorder. Those whom the world calls virtuous are men whose words are upright. the reason why they are regarded as upright in words is due to their partizans. Hearing their words, one takes them to be capable, and on asking their partisans, one thinks that they are indeed so (慎法).

Even Mencius was cautious about the advancement of worthies, since any commoner promoted to a high position would necessarily take the position away from a royal relative or some other nobleman.:


The reply was, ‘The ruler of a State advances to office men of talents and virtue only as a matter of necessity. Since he will thereby cause the low to overstep the honorable, and distant to overstep his near relatives, ought he to do so but with caution? (Liang Hui Wang II).

The worthy is someone who because of his reputation (and despite his relatively lowly and perhaps foreign origins) has been appointed to high position and “does well by doing good”.  When you think of this in terms of actual court life, the problems become evident. The power, wealth, and fame that come with high position tempt men of all kinds,  good or bad, to contend for position by fair means and foul. Contenders cultivate a reputation for benevolence and virute and dedicate themselves to flattering the ruler and impressing him with self-promoting claims, and rival contenders are disposed of by slander, murder, or whatever other means are available. This is the normal pattern in royal courts everywhere.

Furthermore, a state minister hired because of his splendid reputation will very likely be hard to control. He might take personal credit for benevolent acts funded from the public purse, rather than crediting them to the ruler. (In Shen Dao’s words he will “compete with the ruler” with “private goodness”). He might use his position to build a coterie loyal to him rather than to the ruler, and in the extreme but not rare case he will usurp the throne. Furthermore, in this contentious environment candidates for honors who fail to be rewarded as they think they deserve will become aggrieved and resentful, fomenting discontent and perhaps rebelling.

The above are the legalists’ objections (though there’s no reason why the Daoists wouldn’t have shared them). But the Daodejing goes further. If the worthy lives in splendor and is honored by the bestowal of wealth, the hierarchy of rich and poor is reinforced and validated, which is one of the other causes of strife condemned by the Daodejing. Furthermore, the word 賢 is essentially a comparative  designating those who excel, are better than, or are superior to others. By marking and glorifying worthies, you are by that very act declaring the rest of the population to be 不 肖 unworthy — the phrase 賢 不 肖 “worthy and unworthy” is a cliché of Chinese philosophy. A key message of the Daodejing is that comparatives should not be made absolute: The world recognizes the good as good, and so we get the bad (chapter 2); Between good and bad, how great is the difference? (chapter 20).

In the Daodejing the sage is described as non-contentious 不爭 in chapters 22, 66, and 81; the Dao of Heaven is so described in chapter 73; and  in chapter 8 the highest good 上善, compared to water, is also described as non-contentious. The sage 聖人 is not like the worthy. He does not want fame, power, wealth, or high position. In his transcendent generosity the sage  gives but does not receive, does not expect gratitude, and does not remember obligations. In this the sage is like Dao, which is inexhaustible (chapters 4, 5 and 6) and which gives life to all beings without expecting gratitude (Chapters 2, 34, and 51).

Selected themes in the Daodejing and in the Guodian text of the Daodejing

Note that the phrase 不 爭 never appears in Early Dao, and only once in the Guodian text.

Chapter不 爭聖 人In Guodian?

No othersNo others20 others


John Emerson,  Translation of Thompson’s Reconstructed Shen Dao text, self-published, 2015.

A. C. Graham,  Disputers of the Dao, Open Court, 1989.

Robert Henricks, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Columbia, 2000.

D. C. Lau, Tao Te Ching, Chinese U. Pres, Hong Kong, 1982.

Mencius (Legge, tr.), The Works of Mencius, Dover.

Shang Yang (Duyvendak tr.), The Book of Lord Shang Probsthain 1928; reprinted (1963), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.