People :

Author : Laozi (Lao-Tzu)

Translator : Ursula K. Le Guin

Text :

Concerning This Version

This is a rendition, not a translation. I do not know any Chinese. I could approach the text at all only because Paul Carus, in his 1898 translation of the Tao Te Ching, printed the Chinese text with each character followed by a transliteration and a translation. My gratitude to him is unending.

To have the text thus made accessible was not only to have a Rosetta Stone for the book itself, but also to have a touchstone for comparing other English translations one with another. If I could focus on which word the translators were interpreting, I could begin to understand why they made the choice they did. I could compare various interpretations and see why they varied so tremendously; could see how much explanation, sometimes how much bias, was included in the translation; could discover for myself that several English meanings might lead me back to the same Chinese word. And, finally, for all my ignorance of the language, I could gain an intuition of the style, the gait and cadence, of the original, necessary to my ear and conscience if I was to try to reproduce it in English.

Without the access to the text that the Carus edition gave me, I would have been defeated by the differences among the translations, and could never have thought of following them as guides towards a version of my own. As it was, working from Carus’s text, I learned how to let them lead me into it, always using their knowledge, their scholarship, their decisions, as my light in darkness.

When you try to follow the Way, even if you wander off it all the time, good things happen though you do not deserve them. My work on the Tao Te Ching was very wandering indeed. I started in my twenties with a few chapters.

Every decade or so I’d do another bit, and tell myself I’d sit down and really get to it, some day. The undeserved good thing that happened was that a true and genuine scholar of ancient Chinese and of Lao Tzu, Dr. J. P. Seaton of the University of North Carolina, saw some of my versions of bits of the Tao Te Ching (scurvily quoted without attribution by myself). He reprinted them with honor, and asked me for more. I do not think he knew what he was getting into.

Of his invaluable teaching, his encouragement, his generosity, I can say only what Lao Tzu says at the end of the book:

Wise souls don’t hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.


Though the Tao Te Ching has been translated into English very much more often than any other Chinese classic, indeed almost overwhelmingly often, it wasn’t easy to get hold of more than a few of these versions until quite recently.

Carus’s word-for-word Chinese-to-English was endlessly valuable to me, but his actual translation wasn’t very satisfactory. “Reason” as a translation of Tao did not ring true. I always looked at any translation of the book I found and had a go at it. The language of some was so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension. (James Legge’s version was one of these, though I did find the title for a book of mine, The Lathe of Heaven, in Legge. Years later, Joseph Needham, the great scholar of Chinese science and technology, wrote to tell me in the kindest, most unreproachful fashion that Legge was a bit off on that one; when Chuang Tzu was written the lathe hadn’t been invented.)

Listed roughly in the order of their usefulness to me, these are the translations that I collected over the years and came to trust in one way or another and to use as my exemplars and guides:

Paul Carus. Lao-Tze’s Tao-Teh-King. Open Court Publishing Company, 1898.
The book has recently been republished, but the editors chose to omit its unique and most valuable element, the character-by-character romanization and translation.

Arthur Waley. The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Tê Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. First published in 1958; I have the Grove edition of 1968. Though Waley’s translation is political where mine is poetical, his broad and profound knowledge of Chinese thought and his acutely sensitive tact as a translator were what I always turned to when in doubt, always finding secure guidance and illumination.

Robert G. Henricks. Te-Tao Ching: Lao-Tzu, translated from the Ma-wang-tui texts. Modern Library, 1993. It was exciting to find that new texts had been discovered; it was exciting to find their first English translation an outstanding work of scholarship, written in plain, elegant language, as transparent to the original as it could be.

Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Tao Te Ching. First published 1972; I have the Vintage edition of 1989. Arising from a sympathetic and informed understanding, this is literarily the most satisfying recent translation I have found, terse, clear, and simple.

D. C. Lau. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching. First published 1963; I have the Penguin edition of 1971. A clear, deeply thoughtful translation, a most valuable reference.
Lau has also translated the Ma wang tui text for Everyman’s Library (Knopf, 1994).

Michael Lafargue. The Tao of the Tao Te Ching. State University of New York Press, 1992.

Tam C. Gibbs and Man-jan Cheng. Lao-Tzu: “My words are very easy to understand.” North Atlantic Books, 1981.
These books, though somewhat quirky, each proved useful in casting a different light on knotty bits and obscure places in the text and suggesting alternative readings or word choices.

Witter Bynner. The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu. Capricorn Books, 1944.
In the dedication to his friend Kiang Kang-hu, Bynner quotes him: “It is impossible to translate it without an interpretation. Most of the translations were based on the interpretations of commentators, but you chiefly took its interpretation from your own insight ... so the translation could be very close to the original text even without knowledge of the words.” This is true of Bynner’s very free, poetic “American Version,” and its truth helped give me the courage to work on my own American Version fifty years later. I did not refer often to Bynner while I worked, because his style is very different from mine and his vivid language might have controlled my own rather than freeing it. But I am most grateful to him.

I started out using translations by Stephen Mitchell and Chang Chung-yuan, butfound them not useful. Since I began working seriously on this version so many Tao Te Ching s have appeared or reappeared that one begins to wonder if Lao Tzu has more translators than he has readers. I have looked hopefully into many, but none of the new versions seems to improve in any way on Waley, Henricks, Lau, or Feng-English, and many of them blur the language into dullness and vagueness. Lao Tzu is tough-minded. He is tender-minded. He is never, under any circumstances, squashy-minded. By confusing mysticism with imprecision, such versions betray the spirit of the book and its marvelously pungent, laconic, beautiful language.[61]

Notes on Some Choices of Wording

For tao, I mostly use “Way,” sometimes “way,” depending on context. “Way” in my text always represents the character tao.

I consistently render the character te as “power.” “Virtue” ( virtus, vertú) in its old sense of the inherent quality and strength of a thing or person is far closer to the mark, but that sense is pretty well lost. Applied obsessively to the virginity or monogamy of women, the word lost its own virtue. When used of persons it now almost always has a smirk or a sneer in it. This is a shame. Lao Tzu’s “Power is goodness” makes precisely the identification we used to make in the word “virtue.” “Power,” on the other hand, is a powerful word, almost a mana-word for us. It is also a very slippery one, with many connotations. To identify it with goodness takes a special, Taoistic definition of it as a property of—the virtue of—the Way.

The phrase t’ien hsia, literally “under heaven,” occurs many times throughout the text. More often than not I render it as “the world.” It is often translatable as “the Empire”—which after all meant the world, to Lao Tzu’s contemporaries. I avoid this, in order to avoid historical specificity; but often t’ien hsia indubitably means one’s country, one’s land, as in chapter 26.

Elsewhere I call it the public good, the commonwealth, or the common good, and sometimes I render it literally.

The phrase wan wuh, occurring very frequently, means the material world, all beings, everything. I often use the traditional literal translation, “the ten thousand things,” because it’s lively and concrete, but at times I say “everything” or “the things of this world.”

I use “wise soul” or “the wise” for the several words and phrases usually rendered as Sage, Wise Man, Saint, Great Man, and so on, and I avoid the pronoun usually associated with these terms. I wanted to make a version that doesn’t limit wisdom to males, and doesn’t give the impression that a follower of the Tao has to be a professional, full-time Holier-than-Thou who lives up above snowline. Unimportant, uneducated, untrained men and women can be wise souls. (I thought of using mensch.)

With the same intention, I often use the plural pronoun where other translations use the singular, to avoid unnecessary gendering and to keep from suggesting the idea of uniqueness, singularity. I appreciate the Chinese language for making such choices available.

Certain obscure passages and verses that change or obstruct the sense of the poems may be seen as errors or interpolations by copyists. I decided to eject some of them. My authority for doing so is nil—a poet’s judgment that “this doesn’t belong here.” It takes nerve to drop a line that Waley has left in. My version is openly dependent on the judgment of the scholars. But my aim was to make esthetic, intellectual, and spiritual sense, and I felt that efforts to treat material extraneous to the text as integral to it weaken its integrity. Anyhow, rejects are discussed and printed in the commentary on the page with the poem, or in the Notes.

The Titles of the Poems: Carus is one of the few translators to use titles; they are in both his Chinese text and his translation. I follow his version sometimes, and sometimes invent my own.

The Two Texts of the Tao Te Ching

We now have two versions of the Tao Te Ching: the texts that have been standard since the third century CE, and the Ma wang tui texts of the mid-first century CE, not discovered till 1973. They differ in many details, but in only one major respect: the order of the two books that constitute the text.

The three words tao te ching, put into English without syntactical connection, are “way power classic.” The usual interpretation gives the meaning of this title as something on the order of “the classic [text] about the way and [its] power.” The two books are titled (in some versions) Tao, “The Way,” and Te, “The Power.” (I personally find that the poems do not consistently reflect that division of subject-matter.) In the Ma wang tui, the Power comes before the Way.

I keep the standard order, in which tao precedes te, and the famous stanza about the go-able way and the namable name is the first chapter, not the thirty-eighth. Where there are differences in wording, I follow sometimes the standard text, sometimes Robert G. Henricks’s translation of the Ma wang tui, whichever seemed more useful.

Notes on the Chapters


Here, for the words in the third verse that I render “what it wants,” I use the Ma wang tui text. The words in the standard text mean boundaries, or limits, or outcomes. This version seems to follow more comprehensibly from the preceding lines.

And yet the idea of what can be delimited or made manifest is relevant. In the last verse, the two “whose identity is mystery” may be understood to be the hidden, the unnamable, the limitless vision of the freed soul—and the manifest, the namable, the field of vision limited by our wants. But the endlessness of all that is, and the limitation of mortal bodily life, are the same, and their sameness is the key to the door.


As I said above, in a few of the poems I leave out lines which I find weaken the coherence of the text to the point that I believe them to be a long-ago reader’s marginal notes which got incorporated in later copyings. My authority for these omissions is strictly personal and esthetic. Here I omit the last two lines. Translations of them vary greatly; my version is: Mere talk runs dry.

Best keep to the center.


There are times Lao Tzu sounds very like Henry David Thoreau, but Lao Tzu was kinder. When Thoreau says to distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes, I distrust him. He is macho, flaunting his asceticism. Lao Tzu knows that getting all entangled with the external keeps us from the eternal, but (see chapter 80) he also understands that sometimes people like to get dressed up.


T’ien hsia, “under heaven,” i.e. the Empire, or the world: here I render it as “the public good,” “the commonwealth,” and “the body politic.”

J. P. Seaton comments: “When Lao Tzu mentions ‘the Empire’ or ‘all under heaven,’ he does so with the assumption that all his readers know that it is a commonwealth where only the ruler who rules by virtue of virtue alone is legitimate.”

CHAPTERS 17, 18, AND 19

Henricks considers these three chapters to belong together.

The last two lines of 19 are usually printed as the first two lines of 20, but Henricks thinks they belong here, and I follow him.

In 18, line 6, the words hsiao tzu are traditionally translated as “filial piety and paternal affection,” a Confucian ideal. In that chapter Lao Tzu cites these dutiful families as a symptom of social disorder. But in chapter 19, line 4, hsiao tzu appears as the good that will result when people cease being moralistic. Unable to reconcile these contradictory usages, and feeling that Lao Tzu was far more likely to use Confucian language satirically than straightforwardly, I fudged the translation in chapter 19, calling it “family feeling.” Evidently we aren’t the only society or generation to puzzle over what a family is and ought to be.

Sometimes I translate the characters su and pu with such words as simple, natural. Though the phrase “the uncarved block” has become familiar to many, yet metaphor may distance ideas and weaken a direct statement. But sometimes, as here, I use the traditional metaphors, because the context so clearly implies knowing something as an artist knows her materials, keeping hold on something solid.


The standard texts ask what’s the difference between wei and o, which might be translated “yes” and “yessir.” The Ma wang tui has wei and ho: “yes” and “no.” This is parallel with the next line (“good and bad” in the standard text, “beautiful and ugly” in the Ma wang tui). Here’s a case where the older text surely is correct, the later ones corrupt.

In the first two lines of the second verse, the Ma wang tui text is perfectly clear: “A person whom everyone fears ought to be feared.” The standard text is strange, obscure: “What the people fear must be feared.” Yet the next lines follow from it as they don’t from the Ma wang tui; and after much pondering I followed the standard text.


In the second verse the word shih, “loss,” gives trouble to all the translators. Waley calls it “the reverse of the power” and “inefficacy,” and Waley’s interpretations are never to be ignored. All the same, I decided to take it not as the opposite of the Way and the power, but as a kind of shadow-Way. Identify yourself with loss, failure, the obscure, the unpossessible, and you’ll be at home even there.


My version of the first four lines of the second verse doesn’t follow any of the scholarly translations, and is quite unjustified, but at least, unlike them, it makes sense without horrible verbal contortions.


In all the texts, the fourth verse reads:

So they say: “The Way is great,
heaven is great,
earth is great,
and the king is great.
Four greatnesses in the world,
and the king is one of them.”

Yet in the next verse, which is the same series in reverse order, instead of “the king” it’s “the people” or “humanity.” I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.

The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, which I render “what is,” bear many interpretations. Waley translates them as “the Self-So,” glossing them as “the unconditioned” or “what is so of itself”; Henricks, “what is so on its own”; Lau, “that which is naturally so”; Gibbs-Cheng, “Nature”; Feng-English, “what is natural”; Lafargue, “things as they are.” I came out closest to Lafargue in this case.


I follow the Ma wang tui text for the third verse, which fits the theme much better than the non-sequitur standard text, “Amid fine sights they sit calm and aloof.” The syntax of the Ma wang tui also clarifies the last verse, relating it to the last verse of chapter 13.


The first two lines of the third verse say that the not-good are the t’zu: “the capital” (Carus), or “the charge” (Feng-English), or “the stock in trade” (Waley), or “the raw material” (Henricks) of the good. Lafargue has “the less excellent are material for the excellent,” and Gibbs-Cheng, “mediocre people have the potential to be good people.” The latter two interpretations seemed the most useful to me. And so I call these makings, this raw material, “a student”—somebody learning to be or know better.

The last lines of the second and third verses are translated in wildly various ways; my “hidden light” and “deep mystery” are justified if, as I believe, Lao Tzu is signaling that his apparently simple statements have complex implications and need thinking about. Of course, this is true of everything in the book.


“The natural” and “natural wood” are the same word, pu, which I talked about in the note to chapter 19. Given the amount of cutting up and carving that goes on in the last verse (which seems a kind of footnote to the first three), we really seem to be talking about wood.

Chinese lends itself to puns, and this last verse is rife with them. Waley says that ch’i (“useful things”) can mean “vessels” or “vassals,” and chih can mean “carving” or “governing.” A great government wouldn’t chop and hack at human nature, trying to make leaders out of sow’s ears. But the paradox of the last two lines surely exceeds any single interpretation.


The phrase t’ien hsia occurs only in the first verse, where I translate it “the world.” I begin the second verse with the literal translation of it, “under heaven.” I wanted the phrase in the poem as a reminder that the world of these extremes—of hot and cold, weakness and strength, gain and loss—is the sacred object, the place under heaven.


I have omitted certain lines included by the translators who are my sources and guides. In all the texts, the second verse begins:

A courteous person
in peacetime honors the left,
in wartime, the right.

And the last verse begins:

In celebrations the left is the place of honor,
in mourning the right is the place of honor:
so lesser officers stand on the left,
the generalissimo on the right,
just as they would at a funeral.

I consider these passages to be commentaries or marginal glosses that got copied into the text. J. P. Seaton says, “What were once supports by analogy to common ceremonial practice are now relevant only to the historian.” Here they confuse the clear, powerful statement that culminates in the last four lines. The confusion already existed when the Ma wang tui version was written, and there seems to be no way of sorting it out now except by radical surgery.


This chapter sounds like Polonius, incontrovertible but banal, until the last verse, which is a doozer. Here are some other versions of the last six words, Sss erh pu wang che shou:

Carus (word for word): “[Who] dies / yet / not / perishes, / the-one / is-long-lived [immortal].”

Carus’s free translation: “One who may die but does not perish has life everlasting.”

Waley: “When one dies one is not lost; there is no other longevity.”

Feng-English: “To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.”

Henricks: “To die but not be forgotten—that’s [true] long life.”

Bynner: “Vitality cleaves to the marrow / Leaving death behind.”

Lafargue: “One who dies and does not perish is truly long-lived.”

Gibbs-Cheng: “One who dies yet still remains has longevity.”

Lau: “He who lives out his days has had a long life.”

Under J. P. Seaton’s guidance I finally came to feel that I had a handle on the line, and that Lau’s rendition was the most useful. One thing is certain, Lao Tzu is not saying that immortality or even longevity is desirable. The religion called Taoism has spent much imagination on ways to prolong life interminably or gain immortality, and the mythologized Lao Tzu was supposed to have run Methuselah a close race; but the Lao Tzu who wrote this had no truck with such notions.


Wei ming—this phrase in the first line of the second verse (and the chapter title)—is tricky:

Carus (word for word): “the secret’s / explanation”; Carus’s free translation: “explanation [ i.e., enlightenment] of the secret”

Feng-English: “perception of the nature of things”

Gibbs-Cheng: “wonderfully minute and obscure, yet brilliant”

Lafargue: “subtle clarity”

Henricks: “subtle light”

Bynner: “a man with insight”

Waley: “dimming one’s light”

Ming is “light” or “enlightenment.” Waley explains that wei means obscure because very small, and also obscure because dark. I use this second meaning to make an oxymoron.


The words in the first verse I translate as “the nameless, the natural” and in the next verse as “the unnamed, the unshapen” are the same four words: wu ming chih p’u; more literally, “the naturalness of the unnamed.” “The unnamed” is a key phrase in the first chapter and elsewhere, as is “not wanting,” “unwanting.” Pu is the natural, the uncut wood, or, as Waley glosses it here, “uncarved-wood quality.”


The series here is of familiar Confucian principles: jen, li, i—“good, humane, human-hearted, altruistic”; “righteous, moral, ethical”; “laws, rites, rules, law and order.” But Lao Tzu reverses and subverts the Confucian priorities.

Chien shih in the fourth verse is “premature knowledge” in Carus and “foreknowledge” in Lau, Henricks, and Waley (who explains it as part of Confucian doctrine). Henricks interprets it as having “one’s mind made up before one enters a new situation about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘proper’ and ‘acceptable’ and so on.” Prejudice, that is, or opinion. Buddhists and Taoists agree in having a very low opinion of opinion.


Yi, “one, the one, unity, singleness, integrity,” is here translated as “whole, wholeness.”

Waley explains the last two verses as comments on the first three, but their relevance is pretty tenuous. The last verse is very difficult and the translations are various and ingenious. Henricks reads the Ma wang tui text of the first two lines of it as meaning “too many carriages is the same as no carriage,” and I picked up on the idea of multiplicity as opposed to the singleness or wholeness spoken of in the first verses. The meaning of the lines about jade seems to be anybody’s guess.


I moved the line about perfect whiteness down to keep the three lines about power together, in parallel structure with the three lines about the Way. In the last line of the second verse (and in chapters 21 and 35) I translate hsiang as “thought.” The word connotes “form, shape, image, idea” Waley explains it as the form which is formless, the Tao which can’t be tao’d.


In the sixth line, does the word fu mean “carry on one’s back” or “turn one’s back on”? Lafargue is the only translator I found that made the second choice. I don’t follow him because I don’t think the “ten thousand things” would or can make the mistake of turning their backs on the yin to embrace only yang. (But a great many of us do make that mistake, which is why Lao Tzu keeps reminding us to value yin, the soft, the dark, the weak, earth, water, the Mother, the Valley.)

Lafargue’s reading, however, lets the next stanza follow more coherently—orphans, the bereaved, the outcast are what we turn our backs on; winning is yang, losing is yin. Through loss we win....

The last stanza is uncharacteristic in its didactic tone and in assimilating the teaching to a tradition. Lao Tzu usually cites “what others teach” only to dissociate himself from it. I was inclined to dismiss it as a marginal note by someone who was teaching and annotating the text. But J. P. Seaton, who does teach the text, persuaded me to keep it in the body of the poem, saying, “It’s a message that for all its flat moralism does connect Taoism to Confucianism and even to Buddhism with a single solid thread—averting a hundred holy wars, if nothing else.”


The intense, succinct, beautiful language of the first verses of a poem is sometimes followed by a verse or two in a more didactic tone, smaller in scope, and far more prosaic. I believe some of these verses are additions, comments, and examples, copied into the manuscripts so long ago that they became holy writ. They usually have their own charm and validity, but—as here, and in chapter 39 and other places—they bring a tremendous statement down to a rather commonplace ending. But then, Lao Tzu values the commonplace.


The last line, literally “not do, yet accomplish,” is a direct statement of one of the fundamental themes of the book. When I came up with a slightly mealy version of it (“doesn’t do, but it’s done”) J. P. Seaton reminded me that “doing without doing is doing, not not doing.”


Shi (my “fuss,” Carus’s “diplomacy”) is translated by Lafargue as “work,” by Lau as “meddling,” by Waley and Feng-English as “interference,” by Henricks as “concern,” by Gibbs-Cheng as “act for gain.”


Following some of Carus’s interpretations, the first lines of the third verse might be read, “Wise souls live in the world carefully, handling it carefully, making their mind universal.” I can’t make much sense of any of the other versions except Henricks’s beautiful reading:

As for the Sage’s presence in the world, he is one with it.
And with the world he merges his mind.


Those who read shih yu san as “thirteen,” rather than as “three out of ten,” make better sense of the difficult first verse. The thirteen “companions of life” (Waley, Henricks), which I translate “organs,” may be physical, the limbs and passages and cavities of the body—or physio/psychological, the emotions and sensations.

My “mad bull” occurs variously as a rhinoceros and a wild buffalo. The idea seems to be a big irritable animal with horns.

My “live in the right way” is literally “take care of your life,” or “hold on to your life.” The context indicates care without anxiety, holding without grasping. I read the poem as saying that if you can take life as it comes, it doesn’t come at you as your enemy. Lao Tzu’s “nowhere for death to enter” isn’t a promise of invulnerability or immortality; his concern is how to live rightly, how to “live till you die.”


The last two lines of the first verse are the same as the last two lines of chapter 16. I wonder if some of these repetitions were insertions by people studying and copying the book, who were reminded of one poem by another and noted down the relevant lines. They are indeed relevant here, but they don’t fit with perfect inevitability, as they do in chapter 16. This is of course a purely esthetic judgment, subject to destruction by scholarship at any moment.


Gibbs and Cheng, finding both the language and the message “discordant with the teachings of Lao Tzu,” won’t even discuss this chapter. Waley’s reading saves it, but the listing “self, family, community, country, empire/world” (a conventional series in ancient Chinese thought), and the list of rules and results is uncharacteristically mechanical. Though he uses many commonplaces, familiar phrases, rhymed sayings, and so on, Lao Tzu’s thought and language are usually more unconventional and unpredictable than this.


Another repetition: the first four lines of the second verse are the same as the second verse of chapter 4. They carry a different weight here. I vary my translation of them in the fourth line to make it connect to the next.

Hsuan t’ung, “the deep sameness”: hsuan is “deep” or “mysterious”; t’ung is variously translated “identification,” “oneness,” “sameness,” “merging,” “leveling,” “assimilation.” It is an important theme, met with before in chapter 49.


The phrase “How do I know? By this,” has become a kind of tag by its third repetition; but as Waley points out, it still implies intuitive knowing, beyond reason—knowing the way.

The words I translate “experts” literally mean “sharp weapons,” but the term implies “pundits, know-it-alls.” I was tempted to say “smart bombs,” which is too cute and topical, but which would certainly lead neatly to the next lines.


Waley points out that words in the last verse, with such meanings as “square, right, angular,” are typical Confucian virtues. Henricks remarks that all these words and operations refer to carpentry. The verse is about how to cut the uncut wood without cutting it.


Se, my “gather spirit,” is variously translated “frugality,” “moderation,” “restraint,” “being sparing,” or, by Waley, “laying up a store.” Evidently the core idea is that of saving.

The chapter is usually presented in the manual-for-princes mode. Waley makes sense out of it by complex technical references; other versions make only gleams of sense. To persuade or coerce it into the personal mode meant a more radical interpretation than I usually dare attempt, but Waley’s reading, which points to the symbology of the breath ( ch’i) and the “long look” of the meditator, gave me the courage to try. Here is a version closer to the conventional ones:

In controlling people and serving heaven
it’s best to go easy.
Going easy from the start
is to gather power from the start,
and gathered power keeps you safe.

Safe, you can do what you like.
Do what you like, the country’s yours.
If you can make the country’s Mother yours,
you’ll last a long time.
You’ll have deep roots and a strong trunk.
The way to live long is to look long.


The first seven lines continue the themes of “sameness” or assimilation, and of “being woman,” “being water,” the uses of yin. From there on, the language goes flat, and may be interpolated commentary. There’s an even feebler fourth verse:

A big country needs more people,
A small one needs more room.
Each can get what it needs,
but the big one needs to lie low.

Because the Ma wang tui texts are older, one longs to see them as more authentic, less corrupt. But though they are invaluable in offering variant readings, some of the variants may themselves be corruptions. In this chapter, the Ma wang tui reads “Small countries, submitting to a great one, are dominated,” and in the next verse, “Some by lying low stay on top, but some by lying low stay on the bottom.” Both versions are truisms, but the Ma wang tui version isn’t even a Taoistic truism.


The first and last verses hang together; the two middle verses are difficult and rather incoherent. Waley says the enigmatic second verse refers to sophists and sages who went about selling their “fine words” to the highest bidder, like our pop gurus and TV pundits.


I think the advice about being careful at the end of an undertaking was added, perhaps to balance the advice that the right time to act is before the beginning.

It confuses the argument a bit, and I put it in parentheses.

The line I give as “turn back to what people overlooked” is rendered by Lafargue as “turns back to the place all others have gone on from”; Feng-English, “brings men back to what they have lost”; Henricks, “returns to what the masses have passed by”; Waley, “turning all men back to the things they have left behind.” Each version brings out a different color in the line, like different lights on an opal.


A dictator and his censors might all too easily cite from this chapter. A democrat might agree that the more people know, the harder they are for a ruler to govern—since the more they know, the better they are at governing themselves. Anyone might agree that an intellectual agenda pursued without reality-checking is indeed a curse upon the land. From the divine right of kings through the deadly teachings of Hitler and Mao to the mumbojumbo of economists, government by theory has done endless ill. But why is Lao Tzu’s alternative to it a people kept in ignorance? What kind of ignorance? Ignorance of what? Lao Tzu may be signaling us to ask such questions when he speaks of “understanding these things.”


Waley is my guide to the interpretation of the second verse, but I make very free with the last two lines of it. If they aren’t a rather vapid statement that one should never underestimate one’s foe, they must follow from what went before and lead to the extraordinary last verse. It all comes down to the last line and the word shwai. Carus translates it as “the weaker [the more compassionate],” and Bynner uses the word “compassion.” Waley translates it as “he who does not delight in war,” Henricks as “the one who feels grief,” Gibbs-Cheng as “the one stung by grief,” Feng-English as “the underdog,” Lafargue as “the one in mourning.” A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.


I follow Henricks in choosing the Ma wang tui text, which has a double negative in the second line. Most other texts have “not knowing knowing is sickness.”


I take the liberty of reading this chapter as a description of what we, we ordinary people, should fear. The usual reading is in the manual-for-princes mode. In that case “what should be feared” is the ruler, the rightful authority, and the advice that follows is evidently directed to that ruler. It’s certainly what William Blake would have told the oligarchs of the Industrial Revolution, who still control our lives:

When people don’t fear what should be feared
they are in fearful danger.
Don’t make them live in narrow houses,
don’t force them to do stupid work.

When they’re not made stupid
they won’t act stupidly.


I follow the Ma wang tui text, but make very free with the word Henricks renders as “constant [in their behavior].” If I understand Henricks’ version, it says that if people were consistent in behaving normally and in fearing death, and if death were the penalty for abnormal behavior, nobody would dare behave abnormally; and so there would be no executions and no executioners.

But this is not the case; as Lao Tzu says, there are times when even normal people lose their normal fear of death. So what is the poem about? I read it as saying that since we are inconsistent both in our behavior and in our fear of death, no person can rightfully take on the role of executioner, and should leave the death penalty to the judgment of heaven or nature.


To dismiss this Utopia as simply regressivist or anti-technological is to miss an interesting point. These people have labor-saving machinery, ships and land vehicles, weapons of offense and defense. They “have them and don’t use them.” I interpret: they aren’t used by them. We’re used, our lives shaped and controlled, by our machines, cars, planes, weaponry, bulldozers, computers.

These Taoists don’t surrender their power to their creations.

The eleventh line, however, is certainly regressive if it says knotted cords are to replace written literature, history, mathematics, and so on. It might be read as saying it’s best not to externalize all our thinking and remembering (as we do in writing and reading), but to keep it embodied, to think and remember with our bodies as well as our verbalizing brains.


This last poem is self-reflexive, wrapping it all up tight in the first verse, then opening out again to praise the undestructive, uncompetitive generosity of the spirit that walks on the Way.

To my mind, the best reason for following the Ma wang tui text in reversing the order of the books is that the whole thing ends with a chapter (37) that provides a nobler conclusion than this one. But if you reverse the order, chapter 1 turns up in the middle of the book, and I simply cannot believe that that’s right. That poem is a beginning. It is the beginning.

[1] A satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible. It contains the book. I think of it as the Aleph, in Borges’s story: if you see it rightly, it contains everything.

[2] One of the things I read in this chapter is that values and beliefs are not only culturally constructed but also part of the interplay of yin and yang, the great reversals that maintain the living balance of the world. To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths which encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.

[3] Over and over Lao Tzu says wei wu wei: Do not do. Doing not-doing. To act without acting. Action by inaction. You do nothing yet it gets done....
It’s not a statement susceptible to logical interpretation, or even to a syntactical translation into English; but it’s a concept that transforms thought radically, that changes minds. The whole book is both an explanation and a demonstration of it.

[4] Everything Lao Tzu says is elusive. The temptation is to grasp at something tangible in the endlessly deceptive simplicity of the words. Even some of his finest scholarly translators focus on positive ethical or political values in the text, as if those were what’s important in it. And of course the religion called Taoism is full of gods, saints, miracles, prayers, rules, methods for securing riches, power, longevity, and so forth—all the stuff that Lao Tzu says leads us away from the Way.
In passages such as this one, I think it is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.

[5] The “inhumanity” of the wise soul doesn’t mean cruelty. Cruelty is a human characteristic. Heaven and earth—that is, “Nature” and its Way—are not humane, because they are not human. They are not kind; they are not cruel: those are human attributes. You can only be kind or cruel if you have, and cherish, a self. You can’t even be indifferent if you aren’t different. Altruism is the other side of egoism. Followers of the Way, like the forces of nature, act selflessly.

[6] A clear stream of water runs through this book, from poem to poem, wearing down the indestructible, finding the way around everything that obstructs the way. Good drinking water.

[7] Most of the scholars think this chapter is about meditation, its techniques and fulfillments. The language is profoundly mystical, the images are charged, rich in implications.
The last verse turns up in nearly the same words in other chapters; there are several such “refrains” throughout the book, identical or similar lines repeated once or twice or three times.

[8] One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny. He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.

[9] Lao Tzu, a mystic, demystifies political power.
Autocracy and oligarchy foster the beliefs that power is gained magically and retained by sacrifice, and that powerful people are genuinely superior to the powerless.
Lao Tzu does not see political power as magic. He sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped. He does not see power as virtue, but as the result of virtue. The democracies are founded on that view.
He sees sacrifice of self or others as a corruption of power, and power as available to anybody who follows the Way. This is a radically subversive attitude. No wonder anarchists and Taoists make good friends.

[10] In the first stanza we see the followers of the Way in ancient times or illo tempore, remote and inaccessible; but the second stanza brings them close and alive in a series of marvelous similes. (I am particularly fond of the polite and quiet houseguests.) The images of the valley and of uncut or uncarved wood will recur again and again.

[11] To those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it, or spirituality of which man is not the measure, the firmness of Lao Tzu’s morality and the sweetness of his spiritual counsel must seem incomprehensible, or illegitimate, or very troubling indeed.

[12] This invisible leader, who gets things done in such a way that people think they did it all themselves, isn’t one who manipulates others from behind the scenes; just the opposite. Again, it’s a matter of “doing without doing”: uncompetitive, unworried, trustful accomplishment, power that is not force. An example or analogy might be a very good teacher, or the truest voice in a group of singers.

[13] This chapter and the two before it may be read as a single movement of thought.
“Raw silk” and “uncut wood” are images traditionally associated with the characters su (simple, plain) and pu (natural, honest).

[14] The difference between yes and no, good and bad, is something only the “bright” people, the people with the answers, can understand. A poor stupid Taoist can’t make it out.

[15] This chapter is full of words like huang (wild, barren; famine), tun (ignorant; chaotic), hun (dull, turbid), men (sad, puzzled, mute), and hu (confused, obscured, vague). They configure chaos, confusion, a “bewilderness” in which the mind wanders without certainties, desolate, silent, awkward. But in that milky, dim strangeness lies the way. It can’t be found in the superficial order imposed by positive and negative opinions, the good/bad, yes/no moralizing that denies fear and ignores mystery.

[16] Mysticism rises from and returns to the irreducible, unsayable reality of “this.”
“This” is the Way. This is the way.

[17] I’d like to call the “something” of the first line a lump—an unshaped, undifferentiated lump, chaos, before the Word, before Form, before Change. Inside it is time, space, everything; in the womb of the Way.

[18] The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, I render as “what is.” I was tempted to say, “The Way follows itself,” because the Way is the way things are; but that would reduce the significance of the words. They remind us not to see the Way as a sovereignty or a domination, all creative, all yang. The Way itself is a follower. Though it is before everything, it follows what is.

[19] I take heaviness to be the root matters of daily life, the baggage we bodily beings have to carry, such as food, drink, shelter, safety. If you go charging too far ahead of the baggage wagon you may be cut off from it; if you treat your body as unimportant you risk insanity or inanity.

[20] The first two lines would make a nice motto for the practice of T’ai Chi.

[21] The hidden light and the deep mystery seem to be signals, saying “think about this”—about care for what seems unimportant. In a teacher’s parental care for the insignificant student, and in a society’s respect for mothers, teachers, and other obscure people who educate, there is indeed illumination and a profoundly human mystery. Having replaced instinct with language, society, and culture, we are the only species that depends on teaching and learning. We aren’t human without them. In them is true power. But are they the occupations of the rich and mighty?

[22] The simplicity of Lao Tzu’s language can present an almost impenetrable density of meaning. The reversals and paradoxes in this great poem are the oppositions of the yin and yang—male/female, light/dark, glory/modesty—but the “knowing and being” of them, the balancing act, results in neither stasis nor synthesis. The riverbed in which power runs leads back, the patterns of power lead back, the valley where power is contained leads back—to the forever new, endless, straightforward way. Reversal, recurrence, are the movement, and yet the movement is onward.

[23] For Lao Tzu, “moderation in all things” isn’t just a bit of safe, practical advice. To lose the sense of the sacredness of the world is a mortal loss. To injure our world by excesses of greed and ingenuity is to endanger our own sacredness.

[24] This first direct statement of Lao Tzu’s pacifism is connected in thought to the previous poem and leads directly to the next.

[25] The last verse is enigmatic: “Things flourish then perish”—How can this supremely natural sequence not be the Way? I offer my understanding of it in the note on the page with chapter 55, where nearly the same phrase occurs.

[26] The second verse connects the uncut, the uncarved, the unusable, to the idea of the unnamed presented in the first chapter: “name’s the mother of the ten thousand things.” You have to make order, you have to make distinctions, but you also have to know when to stop before you’ve lost the whole in the multiplicity of parts. The simplicity or singleness of the Way is that of water, which always rejoins itself.

[27] Or, more literally, “the State’s sharp weapons ought not to be shown to the people.” This Machiavellian truism seems such an anticlimax to the great theme stated in the first verses that I treat it as an intrusion, perhaps a commentator’s practical example of “the small dark light.”

[28] Here the themes of not doing and not wanting, the unnamed and the unshapen, recur together in one pure legato. It is wonderful how by negatives and privatives Lao Tzu gives a sense of serene, inexhaustible fullness of being.

[29] A vast, dense argument in a minumum of words, this poem lays out the Taoist values in steeply descending order: the Way and its power; goodness (humane feeling); righteousness (morality); and—a very distant last—obedience (law and order). The word I render as “opinion” can be read as “knowing too soon”: the mind obeying orders, judging before the evidence is in, closed to fruitful perception and learning.

[30] Beginning with a pocket cosmology, this chapter demonstrates the “interplay of energy” of yin and yang by showing how low and high, winning and losing, destruction and self-destruction, reverse themselves, each turning into its seeming opposite.

[31] We tend to expect great things from “seeing the world” and “getting experience.” A Roman poet remarked that travelers change their sky but not their soul. Other poets, untraveled and inexperienced, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, prove Lao Tzu’s point: it’s the inner eye that really sees the world.

[32] The word shi in the second stanza, my “fuss,” is troublesome to the translators. Carus’s quite legitimate translation of it is “diplomacy,” which would give a stanza I like very much:
To run things,
be undiplomatic.
No diplomat
is fit to run things.

[33] The next to last line is usually read as saying that ordinary people watch and listen to wise people. But Lao Tzu has already told us that most of us wander on and off the Way and don’t know a sage from a sandpile. And surely the quiet Taoist is not a media pundit.

[34] Similarly, the last line is taken to mean that the wise treat ordinary people like children. This is patronizing, and makes hash out of the first verse. I read it to mean that the truly wise are looked after (or looked upon) like children because they’re trusting, unprejudiced, and don’t hold themselves above or apart from ordinary life.

[35] This chapter on the themes of return and centering makes circles within itself and throughout the book, returning to phrases from other poems, turning them round the center. A center which is everywhere, a circle whose circumference is infinite....

[36] So much for capitalism.

[37] I follow Waley’s interpretation of this chapter. It is Tao that plants and keeps; the various kinds of power belong to Tao; and finally in myself I see the Tao of self, and so on.

[38] As a model for the Taoist, the baby is in many ways ideal: totally unaltruistic, not interested in politics, business, or the proprieties, weak, soft, and able to scream placidly for hours without wearing itself out (its parents are another matter). The baby’s unawareness of poisonous insects and carnivorous beasts means that such dangers simply do not exist for it. (Again, its parents are a different case.)
As a metaphor of the Tao, the baby embodies the eternal beginning, the ever-springing source. “We come, trailing clouds of glory,” Wordsworth says; and Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” No Peter Pan-ish refusal to grow up is involved, no hunt for the fountain of youth. What is eternal is forever young, never grows old. But we are not eternal.
It is in this sense that I understand how the natural, inevitable cycle of youth, growth, mature vigor, age, and decay can be “not the Way.” The Way is more than the cycle of any individual life. We rise, flourish, fail. The Way never fails. We are waves. It is the sea.

[39] A strong political statement of the central idea of wu wei, not doing, inaction.

[40] My “monstrous” is literally “new.” New is strange, and strange is uncanny. New is bad. Lao Tzu is deeply and firmly against changing things, particularly in the name of progress. He would make an Iowa farmer look flighty. I don’t think he is exactly anti-intellectual, but he considers most uses of the intellect to be pernicious, and all plans for improving things to be disastrous. Yet he’s not a pessimist. No pessimist would say that people are able to look after themselves, be just, and prosper on their own. No anarchist can be a pessimist.

[41] Uncut wood—here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial.

[42] In the first verse, the words “dull and confused” and “sharp and keen” are, as Waley points out, the words used in chapter 20 to describe the Taoist and the non-Taoists.

[43] In the last verse most translators say the Taoist is square but doesn’t cut, shines but doesn’t dazzle. Waley says that this misses the point. The point is that Taoists gain their ends without the use of means. That is indeed a light that does not shine—an idea that must be pondered and brooded over. A small dark light.

[44] Thomas Jefferson would have liked the first stanza.

[45] “Troubled spirits” are kwei, ghosts, not bad in themselves but dangerous if they possess you. Waley reads the second stanza as a warning to believers in Realpolitik: a ruler “possessed” by power harms both the people and his own soul. Taking it as counsel to the individual, it might mean that wise souls neither indulge nor repress the troubled spirits that may haunt them; rather, they let those spiritual energies be part of the power they find along the way.

[46] I think the line of thought throughout the poem has to do with true reward as opposed to dishonorable gain, true giving as opposed to fake goods.

[47] Waley says that this charmingly complex chapter plays with two proverbs. “Requite injuries with good deeds” is the first. The word te, here meaning goodness or good deeds, is the same word Lao Tzu uses for the Power of the Way. (“Power is goodness,” he says in chapter 49.) So, having neatly annexed the Golden Rule, he goes on to the proverb about “taking things too lightly” and plays paradox with it.

[48] Where shall we find a ruler wise enough to know what to teach and what to withhold? “Once upon a time,” maybe, in the days of myth and legend, as a pattern, a model, an ideal?

[49] The knowledge and the ignorance or unknowing Lao Tzu speaks of may or may not refer to what we think of as education. In the last stanza, by power he evidently does not mean political power at all, but something vastly different, a unity with the power of the Tao itself.

[50] This is a mystical statement about government—and in our minds those two realms are worlds apart. I cannot make the leap between them. I can only ponder it.

[51] One of the things I love in Lao Tzu is his good cheer, as in this poem, which while giving good counsel is itself a praise and enjoyment of the spirit of yin, the water-soul that yields, follows, eludes, and leads on, dancing in the hundred valleys.

[52] The first two verses of this chapter are a joy to me.

[53] The three final verses are closely connected in thought to the next two chapters, which may be read as a single meditation on mercy, moderation, and modesty, on the use of strength, on victory and defeat.

[54] A piece of sound tactical advice (practiced by the martial arts, such as Aikido, and by underground resistance and guerrilla forces), which leads to a profound moral warning. The prize thrown away by the aggressor is compassion. The yielder, the griever, the mourner, keeps that prize. The game is loser take all.

[55] What you know without knowing you know it is the right kind of knowledge. Any other kind (conviction, theory, dogmatic belief, opinion) isn’t the right kind, and if you don’t know that, you’ll lose the Way. This chapter is an example of exactly what Lao Tzu was talking about in the last one—obscure clarity, well-concealed jade.

[56] To Lao Tzu, not to fear dying and not to fear killing are equally unnatural and antisocial. Who are we to forestall the judgment of heaven or nature, to usurp the role of “the executioner”? “The Lord of Slaughter” is Waley’s grand translation.

[57] How many hundreds of years ago was this book written? And yet still this chapter must be written in the present tense.

[58] In an age when hardness is supposed to be the essence of strength, and even the beauty of women is reduced nearly to the bone, I welcome this reminder that tanks and tombstones are not very adequate role models, and that to be alive is to be vulnerable.

[59] This chapter is equally relevant to private relationships and to political treaties. Its realistic morality is based on a mystical perception of the fullness of the Way.

[60] Waley says this endearing and enduring vision “can be understood in the past, present, or future tense, as the reader desires.” This is always true of the vision of the golden age, the humane society.
Christian or Cartesian dualism, the division of spirit or mind from the material body and world, existed long before Christianity or Descartes and was never limited to Western thought (though it is the “craziness” or “sickness” that many people under Western domination see in Western civilization). Lao Tzu thinks the materialistic dualist, who tries to ignore the body and live in the head, and the religious dualist, who despises the body and lives for a reward in heaven, are both dangerous and in danger. So, enjoy your life, he says; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven.

[61] If you want to know more about Taoism, or would like some help and guidance in reading the Tao Te Ching, the best, soundest, clearest introduction and guide is still Holmes Welsh’s Taoism: The Parting of the Way (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).

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Chronology :

November 07, 2021 : Notes -- Added.
November 14, 2021 : Notes -- Updated.

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