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The Art of Chinese PhilosophyEight Classical Texts and How to Read Them$

Paul Goldin

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780691200798

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691200798.001.0001

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(p.109) Chapter Five Laozi
The Art of Chinese Philosophy

Paul R. Goldin

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter lay out a centrist interpretation of the Laozi on the basis of the Wang Bi recension, and then asks how much of this account needs to be adjusted in view of evidence from the Guodian manuscripts. Laozi is one of the few classical Chinese texts for which a theory of accretion might fit the facts. Currently, there is only one set of undisputedly pre-imperial Laozi texts: the so-called Laozi A, B, and C manuscripts from Guodian, each of which contains a small number of passages that are found, with some variation, in the Wang Bi recension. Laozi is also discussed in this chapter because its philosophy marks a major turning point: the conceptualization of “the Way” (dao) as a cosmic principle. Although it is not certain that Laozi was the very first text to use the word dao in its radically new sense, the text is representative of intellectual trends that emerged around the fourth century BC.

Keywords:   Laozi, dao, Guodian, Wang Bi recension, the Way, Laozi texts

Laozi is one of the few classical Chinese texts for which a theory of accretion might fit the facts. Currently, there is only one set of undisputedly pre-imperial Laozi texts: the so-called Laozi A, B, and C manuscripts from Guodian, each of which contains a small number of passages that are found, with some variation, in the Wang Bi recension.1 There is very little overlap among the three Guodian texts, and, even taken together, they represent less than half of the Wang Bi recension, which comprises eighty-one brief chapters. There are two main theories attempting to explain this distribution: some scholars suppose that each of the three Guodian texts represents a set of selections from some larger, currently unknown edition, while others argue that the eighty-one-chapter text must be the endpoint of a long history of accretion, and that shorter texts like the manuscripts from Guodian represent snapshots of that process.2 To be sure, these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. The number eighty-one is probably not accidental: it is 9×9 and also the conventional length (in years) of a healthy life.3 Thus even if the first hypothesis is correct, and the Guodian texts were indeed short anthologies drawn from a larger corpus, it is still likely that some later redactor had a hand in determining the length and organization of the text.4 Nor do all extant versions share the same section divisions.

There are, in addition to the Guodian manuscripts, two short texts that may or may not be pre-imperial: the “Explaining Lao” (“Jie Lao” 解老‎) and “Illustrating Lao” (“Yu Lao” 喻老‎) chapters of Han Feizi. Chinese literati have long suspected that, despite their transmission, they should not be accepted as the work of Han Fei (whose philosophy will be treated in chapter 9).5 “Explaining Lao” and “Illustrating Lao” provide politically minded comments on several passages, and their significance for the textual history of Laozi is similar to that of the three Guodian texts: we cannot tell whether they are selections from some longer text, or two further examples of the various shorter texts that eventually coalesced to (p.110) become the eighty-one-chapter Laozi. Regardless of their authorship, “Explaining Lao” and “Illustrating Lao” survived, unlike similar texts that must have abounded, because of their unique interpretations.

It is frustrating not to be able to say more than the above, yet we can safely dismiss most traditional accounts of the text’s genesis. A. C. Graham demonstrated many years ago that the manifold and contradictory tales about the supposed author, Lao Dan 老聃‎, reveal more about the competition among diverse ideological camps than they do about Lao Dan himself.6 Like Homer and Hesiod in ancient Greece,7 Lao Dan was a constructed figure, the details of whose life were tailored to suit later polemicists’ intentions. Sometimes the name Laozi is construed as “Old Master,” since the normal meaning of lao 老‎ is “old, venerable,” but I suspect that Lao is a surname, and a certain Scribe Lao 史老‎, known as an adviser of King Ling of Chu 楚靈王‎ (r. 540–529 BC),8 may be the dimly remembered historical figure (or one of the dimly remembered figures—perhaps there were several) who inspired the world-famous text. Scribe Lao was in the right place at the right time: as a member of King Ling’s court, he was from Chu, where Laozi is said to have been born,9 and he was probably an older contemporary of Confucius, just like Lao Dan. (This is not to say that Scribe Lao was necessarily responsible for any portion of the received Laozi.) Some later devotees, not content with attributing the text to a spurious savant of antiquity, held it to be no less than an avatar of Lord Lao (Laojun 老君‎), a god who chose to descend in the form of a book in order to spread his sublime doctrines on Earth.10 Few philosophers believe this.

Laozi is placed at the head of part 2 of this volume because its philosophy marks a major turning point: the conceptualization of “the Way” (dao) as a cosmic principle. All the texts in part 1 use the word dao, but not nearly as frequently, and, crucially, without any cosmic connotations. In these earlier texts, dao usually means “right conduct, right course of action,”11 but sometimes it refers to any habitual course of action, right or wrong. (In those contexts, dao was not very far from the Hebrew halakhah, Greek hodos, or Arabic sharīʿah, all of which were originally in the semantic domain of “road, path,” just like dao.) We cannot be sure that Laozi was the very first text to use the word dao in its radically new sense, but the text is representative of intellectual trends that emerged around the fourth century BC12 and whose significance was grasped almost (p.111) immediately. Every subsequent text to be discussed in this book, regardless of its philosophical orientation, displays a deep familiarity with the traditions of Laozi. The strategy of this chapter will be to lay out a centrist interpretation of the text on the basis of the Wang Bi recension (though not, in the main, relying on Wang Bi’s commentary), and then ask how much of this account needs to be adjusted in view of evidence from the Guodian manuscripts.

Let us begin with Laozi 38, which we saw in chapter 1 (p. 17): “The highest virtue is not virtuous; therefore, it has virtue” 上德不德,是以有德‎. My suggestion there was that the keyword “virtue” must be taken in two different ways: “the highest virtue” is real and potent because it derives from the dao itself, whereas ordinary “virtue” refers here to the great sham that human society wrongly identifies as virtue. Thus the highest virtue has real virtue precisely because it is not the false virtue that everyone has been trained to venerate.13

The passage continues with an indictment of conventional (and conspicuously Confucian) values and self-appointed authorities. A “great man” (da zhangfu 大丈夫‎) conducts himself very differently from such fools:

故失道而後德,失德而後仁,失仁而後義,失義而後禮。夫禮者,‎ 忠信之薄而亂之首。前識者,道之華而愚之始。是以大丈夫處其厚,‎ 不居其薄;處其實,不居其華。故去彼取此。‎

Thus there is virtue only when the Way is lost; there is humanity only when virtue is lost; there is righteousness only when humanity is lost; there is ritual only when righteousness is lost. Ritual, a thin manifestation of loyalty and trustworthiness, is the fountainhead of disorder. Rash cognizance is but the flower of the Way, the starting point of foolishness. Therefore, the great man abides by the thick and does not dwell in the thin; he abides by the fruit and does not dwell in the flower. Thus he rejects one thing and chooses another.

Teachers advancing the cardinal Confucian virtues of humanity, righteousness, and ritual—we must imagine someone like Mencius14—are impugned for their “rash cognizance” (qian shi 前識‎), that is, their failure (p.112) to comprehend that their ethical system is contrived and unnatural. The “great man” rejects this “thin” dwelling place and chooses instead the most profound source. But in this respect, he walks alone:

衆人皆有餘,而我獨若遺。我愚人之心也哉!沌沌兮!俗人昭昭,‎ 我獨若昏;俗人察察,我獨悶悶。澹兮其若海,飂兮若無止。衆人皆有以,而我獨頑似鄙。我獨異於人,而貴食母。‎

(Laozi 20)

The multitude have abundance; I alone seem to be at a loss. I have the mind of a fool! Confused! The vulgar are shiny; I alone seem to be dim. The vulgar analyze; I alone am muddled. I bob, as though at sea; I drift as though without stopping. The multitude all have their means; I alone am mulish, like a boor. I am different from others; I value feeding from the Mother.

The Mother, as we will see shortly, is the Way.

The sustained assault on traditional values fuels some searing passages, such as Laozi 5:


Heaven and Earth are not humane; they treat the Myriad Creatures as straw dogs. The Sage is not humane; he treats the Hundred Surnames as straw dogs.

Confucians might be horrified to read that “Heaven and Earth are not humane”—one could scarcely imagine a dictate more antithetical to Confucian norms—but Laozi deftly invokes nature’s capacity for cruelty to argue that Confucian virtues are not, in fact, immanent in the world around us. Heaven and Earth are not humane because “humanity” is a human concept, not a natural one. The “straw dogs” are probably accouterments at a sacrifice: they have an indispensable role at a certain juncture of the ceremony but thereafter are cast aside, as they have no further use.15 Anyone who has seen an animal rent by predators in the wild knows what the text is trying to say. Laozi turns Confucian and Mohist naturalism on its head: if you really want to be just like Heaven, you will be pitiless.

The celebrated virtues, then, are an indication of decline. Only people who fail to grasp the dreadful truth of Laozi 5 would try to construct a comforting edifice of virtue upon virtue:

(p.113) 大道廢,有仁義;智慧出,有大偽;六親不和,有孝慈;國家昏亂,‎ 有忠臣。‎ (Laozi 18)

When the Great Way declined, there were humanity and righteousness; when wisdom and cleverness appeared, there was great dissimulation; when the six cardinal relationships were no longer harmonious, there was filial kindness; when the state and its families were bedimmed and disordered, there were loyal ministers.

絕聖棄智,民利百倍;絕仁棄義,民復孝慈;絕巧棄利,盜賊無有。‎ (Laozi 19)

If we abrogate sagacity and cast aside wisdom, the people will profit a hundredfold; if we abrogate humanity and cast aside righteousness, the people will return to filial kindness; if we abrogate craftiness and cast aside profit, there will be no robbers or bandits.

An openly acknowledged expository problem is that “the great man’s” thicker source, which he chooses over the delusions of man-made virtue, is too profound to capture in mere words.16 “Way” is a mere byname.


(Laozi 1)

A way that can be told is not the perduring Way. A name that can be named is not the perduring Name.

The wiseacres of the world may brandish keywords like dao and try to name everything under the sun, but they cannot be referring to “the perduring Way” (changdao 長道‎) when they do so, because the perduring Way defies description.

Occasionally one encounters the criticism that, after declaring the Way ineffable, Laozi proceeds to expatiate on it incessantly,17 but this is unfair, as the text never succumbs to the fallacy of trying to specify the Way. Rather, its primary tactic is to hammer home the point that most people’s beliefs are the opposite of ultimate truth because they thoughtlessly accept the fallacies of their society. Often the theme is the usefulness of “emptiness” (xu 虛‎), and “not having” or “nonexistence” (wu 無‎) as opposed to the more familiar values of “having” or “existence” (you 有‎):

(p.114) 三十輻共一轂,當其無,有車之用。埏埴以為器,當其無,有器之用。鑿戶牖以為室,當其無,有室之用。故有之以為利,無之以為用。‎ (Laozi 11)18

Thirty spokes share a single hub; it because of the nonexistence (i.e., the hole for the axle) that a carriage is useful. One combines water and clay to make a vessel; it is because of the nonexistence (i.e., concavity) that a vessel is useful. One cuts out doors and windows in order to make a room; it is because of the nonexistence (i.e., the openings furnished by doors and windows) that a room is useful. Thus having something may be profitable, but not having something is useful.

Elsewhere in Laozi, the Way is presented as inexhaustible even though it cannot be tasted, seen, or heard. It seems to have no substantiality whatsoever, yet it is the most useful thing in the universe.

道之出口,淡乎其無味,視之不足見,聽之不足聞,用之不足既。‎ (Laozi 35)

When the Way emerges from one’s mouth, it is insipid, as though tasteless. One may look for it, but that is not enough to see it; one may listen for it, but that is not enough to hear it; one may use it, but that is not enough to exhaust it.

In multiple chapters, the text revisits standard descriptions of the Way: it is nameless and inexhaustible; it is like a vessel, hollow yet useful; and it exemplifies traits that, in our ignorance, we denigrate rather than esteem:

明道若昧,進道若退,夷道若纇。上德若谷,太白若辱,廣德若不足,建德若偷,質真若渝。大方無隅,大器晚成,大音希聲,大象無形。道隱無名,夫唯道善貸且成。‎ (Laozi 41)

When the Way is bright, it is as though dull; when the Way advances, it is as though retiring; when the Way is level, it is as though ragged. The highest virtue is like a valley; the greatest immaculacy seems disdained; the broadest virtue seems inadequate; the firmest virtue seems shiftless; genuine authenticity seems capricious. The greatest square has no corners; the greatest vessel is the last to be brimmed; the greatest tone has the slightest (p.115) sound; the greatest image has no shape. The Way is hidden and has no name. Only the Way is adept at lending assistance to and perfecting [all things].

大成若缺,其用不弊:大盈若盅‎19,其用不窮。大直若屈,大巧若拙,大辯若訥。‎ (Laozi 45)

The greatest accomplishment seems deficient, yet its uses never expire. The greatest fullness seems hollow, yet its uses are never exhausted. The greatest rectitude seems crooked; the greatest skill seems clumsy; the greatest eloquence is like stammering.

信言不美,美言不信;善者不辯,辯者不善;知者不博,博者不知。‎ (Laozi 81)

Trustworthy words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not trustworthy. The good are not eloquent; the eloquent are not good. The wise are not learned; the learned are not wise.

In a very important chapter, the text recapitulates these themes and concludes with an inference that, by this point, readers are apt to have noticed on their own: “Correct words seem contrarian”:20

天下莫柔弱於水,而攻堅強者莫之能勝,其無以易之。弱之勝強,‎ 柔之勝剛,天下莫不知,莫能行。是以聖人云,受國之垢,是謂社稷主;受國不祥,是謂天下王。正言若反。‎ (Laozi 78)

There is nothing in the world softer and weaker than water, yet for attacking what is brittle and strong (i.e., rock), there is nothing that can surpass it. There is no substitute for it. There is no one in the world who is unaware that weakness overcomes strength and that softness overcomes hardness, but no one can put this into practice. Thus a sage would say: The one who accepts the filth of the kingdom is dubbed the proprietor of its altars; the one who accepts the inauspiciousness of the kingdom is dubbed the King of the World. Correct words seem contrarian.

As is typical of Laozi, these assertions are left for readers to interpret according to their own experience. The image of water “attacking” rock could evoke, for example, the unforgettable vista of a mountain canyon or, more mundanely, pebbles that have been flattened and smoothened (p.116) by a river as perfectly as by the most meticulous sculptor. Both associations would be appropriate. And why is the King the one who accepts “the filth of the kingdom” and its “inauspiciousness”? Is it because filth is what we are taught to detest, yet, because we are learning that we must unlearn everything we have been taught, we must come to appreciate its value? Or is it because only someone who can embrace all the attributes of the body politic, whether beautiful or ugly, deserves to be the sovereign? Questions like these are always open for the reader to ponder. But the thrust is clear: the truth is the opposite of what you have been conditioned to accept. Rethink your assumptions.

Water is one of the text’s favorite metaphors,21 not only because it is soft yet potent, but also because it gathers in the lowest spots, which the ignorant rabble predictably misprize. Recall that in Confucius’s famous simile, both mountains and rivers are praised, but mountains are unmistakably privileged (p. 40). This text admires water instead.

上善若水。水善利萬物而不爭,處衆人之所惡,故幾於道。‎ (Laozi 8)

The highest adeptness is like water. Water is adept at profiting the Myriad Creatures without competing with them and abides in places that the multitude detest. Thus it is close to the Way.

Hence rulers, who have already been advised to accept what everyone else discards, would be wise to imitate the lowly yet inexhaustible rivers and seas:

江海所以能為百谷王者,以其善下之,故能為百谷王。是以聖人欲上民,必以言下之;欲先民,必以身後之。是以聖人處上而民不重,‎ 處前而民不害。是以天下樂推而不厭。以其不爭,故天下莫能與之爭。‎ (Laozi 66)

Rivers and seas are able to be sovereigns of the hundred valleys because they are adept at placing themselves below them. Thus they are able to be sovereigns of the hundred valleys. Therefore, if a sage wishes to be above the people, he must place himself below them with his words; if he wishes to be foremost among the people, he must place himself behind them with his body. Therefore, a sage abides above the people, but they do not consider him burdensome; he abides in front of the people, but they do not (p.117) consider him harmful. Therefore, the world takes joy in him and does not tire of him. Because he does not compete, no one in the world is able to compete with him.

If a sage can position himself as the people’s waterway, they will love him because he will appear to nourish them without competing with them, and thus, painlessly, they will be induced to accept him as their suzerain.22

The political overtones are significant and will be considered in due course. But first it is necessary to review certain other themes in Laozi, starting with “nonaction” (wuwei 無爲‎), which Laozi 43 juxtaposes to the familiar theme of weak water:


The softest thing in the world stampedes over the most brittle thing in the world; a thing with no substantiality enters [even where there is] no space. From these examples, we know the benefits of nonaction. Few in the world attain the wordless teaching and the benefits of nonaction.

Presumably, we can infer from previous passages that “the softest thing in the world” refers to water, once again methodically boring through rock. The “thing with no substantiality” (wu you 無有‎), that is, the Way, permeates the entire universe precisely because it is not subject to the ordinary limitations of matter. But what are “the benefits of nonaction” that so few know how to obtain?

Fortunately, other passages shed some light, especially by associating “nonaction” with another keyword, “spontaneity” (ziran 自然‎).

為者敗之,執者失之。是以聖人無為,故無敗;無執,故無失。民之從事,常於幾成而敗之。慎終如始,則無敗事。是以聖人欲不欲,‎ 不貴難得之貨。學不學,復衆人之所過。以輔萬物之自然,而不敢為。‎ (Laozi 64)

One who acts on a thing ruins it; one who holds a thing loses it. Therefore, the Sage does not ruin things because he does not act on them and does not lose things because he does not hold them. When people pursue their (p.118) undertakings, they usually ruin things just as they are near completion. If one is as careful about the end as the beginning, one will not ruin one’s undertakings. Therefore, the Sage desires what is not desired and does not prize rare objects. He studies what is not studied and returns to what the multitude have passed by. Because he assists in the spontaneity of the Myriad Things, he does not dare to act.

As ziran has served as a stock translation of the Western word “nature” since the nineteenth century, it is all too easily misunderstood in its original contexts. Ziran is indeed similar to “nature” in some respects, but with a fundamental connotation of noncausality.24 Literally, ziran means “to be as it is [ran] of its own accord [zi].” The implied contrast is with a hypothetical phrase like taran 他然‎, which would mean “being as it is because some other force or entity caused it to be so.”25 We may be inclined to regard most things in the world as taran—that wall is the work of a mason; this book is the work of an author—but the Way, in its magnificence, does not rely on any external source.26 Nor can we hope to create the Myriad Things, as the Way has done for us; from our perspective, they are effectively self-engendering, since we cannot bring them about ourselves. (Who planted the first tree?) Hence the most we can do is “assist” (fu 輔‎) in the cosmic processes.

常有司殺者殺,夫代司殺者殺,是謂代大匠斲。夫代大匠斲者,希有不傷其手矣。‎ (Laozi 74)

There is always the Master Executioner to kill things. Killing in place of the Master Executioner is called hacking in place of the Great Carpenter. Of those who would hack in place of the Great Carpenter, few avoid injuring their own hands.

Do not try to do the dao’s work because you will be unable to achieve it;27 worse, you will probably only hurt yourself. Applying this insight to his government of the world, the Sage rules not by trying to act on the world himself, but by being wise enough to foresee how the Way will act on it, and positioning himself accordingly. (As we will see in chapter 7, Sunzi applies a comparable approach to battlefield strategy.) In this manner, the Sage “achieves without acting” (bu wei er cheng 不為而成‎, Laozi 47). Similarly:

(p.119) 為學日益,為道日損。損之又損,以至於無為,無為而無不為。‎ (Laozi 48)

Those who perform their studies daily increase; those who perform the Way daily decrease. They decrease and decrease again until they reach the point of nonaction. Through nonaction, nothing is left undone.28

故聖人云,我無為而民自化。‎ (Laozi 57)

Thus the Sage says: I will be without action, and the people will be spontaneously transformed.

是以聖人終不為大,故能成其大。‎ (Laozi 63)29

Therefore the Sage, to the end, does not do great things, and thus he is able to achieve his great things.

The ideal of nonaction has two important implications: it entails a recognition of one’s own limitations, of the fruitlessness of trying to proceed athwart the Way; and it offers the prospect of silently dominating everyone who does not grasp this philosophy.

Another one of Laozi’s characteristic inversions is to exalt “the Mysterious Female”:

谷神不死,是謂玄牝,玄牝之門,是謂天地根。緜緜若存,用之不勤。‎ (Laozi 6)

The spirit of the valley does not die; it is called the Mysterious Female. The gates of the Mysterious Female are called the root of Heaven and Earth. Filamented, it only appears to exist, yet it is used without exhaustion.

In interpreting this highly allusive passage, it is easiest to start from the end. We know from other passages that insubstantiality and inexhaustibility are two fundamental attributes of the Way, and thus “the Mysterious Female,” whatever else it might connote, is, if not a byword for the Way itself, at least a closely related concept. No one really knows what “the spirit of the valley” denotes,30 but valleys are, strikingly, the opposite of the Confucians’ beloved mountains. Given a (p.120) choice between concavity and convexity, Laozi will always choose concavity. And if “the gates of the Mysterious Female” make one think of a vagina, the image is probably apt, in as much as the Way is repeatedly portrayed as the great mother that bore the entire cosmos, including Heaven and Earth:

天下有始,以為天下母。既得其母,以知其子;既知其子,復守其母,沒身不殆。‎ (Laozi 52)

The world has a beginning, which is to be considered the Mother of the world. Once you attain the Mother, you will know her children; once you know her children, if you revert to preserving the Mother, you will be without danger to the end of your life.

Accordingly, the famous and enigmatic cosmogony of chapter 42 narrates the generation of the cosmos as a process of miraculous differentiation, with the Way as the ultimate source:


The Way bore the One; the One bore the Two; the Two bore the Three; the Three bore the Myriad Things. The Myriad Things bear yin on their backs and hold yang to their breast.

Like so much else in Laozi, the meaning of “the One,” “the Two,” and “the Three” are left entirely for the reader to unravel. Commentators furiously disagree with one another,31 but my understanding is that “the One” refers to qi,32 “the Two” to yin and yang,33 and “the Three” to Heaven, Earth, and human society, with the Sage King at the top.34 The last line provides a strong hint that all material things are to be conceived as manifestations of qi in its two complementary aspects, yin and yang. (For more on these concepts, see the appendix.) The Way, which exists at a metaphysical level anterior to materiality itself,35 commences the chain of generation by “giving birth” (sheng 生‎) to the One, or undifferentiated matter. Notably, the Way does not “create” (zuo 作‎) or “fashion” (zhi 制‎) the cosmos; as the Mother, it “gives birth” to the cosmos. The One then begins to split, first into yin and yang, then into Heaven, Earth, and human society, until, at the endpoint of the progression, all the Myriad Things are produced.36

(p.121) Describing the Way as “female” (ci 雌‎ or pin 牝‎, which normally refer to female birds and beasts, respectively) is a poetic device that serves multiple philosophical ends. First, whereas readers operating within Confucian and Mohist discourse would, as a matter of course, place the very masculine Heaven at the top of the cosmic hierarchy, Laozi proposes that Heaven itself was produced by something more mysterious, which we scarcely perceive because its existence is unlike that of any material object. What better method of dethroning Heaven—with all its demands, oppression, and self-assertion—than to present it as the child of a Mother that transcends time and space?

有物混成,先天地生,寂兮寥兮,獨立不改,周行而不殆,可以為天下母。吾不知其名,字之曰道。‎ (Laozi 25)

There was something undifferentiated and perfect before the birth of Heaven and Earth. Silent and vast, it stands autonomous and does not change; it revolves without tiring; it is able to be the Mother of Heaven and Earth. I do not know its name; I style it “the Way.”

Second, in order to emphasize that this nameless power is unlike anything that the reader is apt to have learned in school, the text resumes its contrarian diction: the greatest thing is not rigid and masculine; it is yielding and feminine. The image of sexual intercourse (implicitly the missionary position: male on top, female below) appears more than once:

天門開闔,能為‎37 雌乎?‎ (Laozi 10)

In the opening and closing of the Gates of Heaven, are you able to act the part of the female?

大國者下流。天下之交,天下之牝。牝常以靜勝牡,以靜為下。‎ (Laozi 61)

A great state is a low-lying flow, the crossroads of the world, the female of the world. The female eternally overcomes the male through stillness. She lies below in stillness.

Naturally, such passages should not be misread as feminist in a modern sense.38 Femininity is merely a productive metaphor. The “great man,” whom we encountered above, is a man (zhangfu 丈夫‎). (p.122)

After “The Way bore the One,” chapter 42 takes up another important theme:


Those who are strong like a crossbeam do not attain [a natural] death. I will make this the father of my teaching.

Yet another advantage of being yielding and flexible is that one is likely to live longer. Strength, sturdiness, and rigidity, when subjected to contrarian deconstruction, are recast as harbingers of death:

物壯則老,是謂不道,不道早已。‎ (Laozi 30)

When things become stiff, they are senescent. This is called “not in accord with the Way.” What is not in accord with the Way comes to an early end.

Readers must think of rigor mortis. The human body is at its stiffest when it is dead.

By contrast, those who know how to accord with the Way seem to have a knack for avoiding predators and living long:

蓋聞善攝生者,陸行不遇兕虎,入軍不被甲兵,兕無所投其角,虎無所措其爪,兵無所容其刃。夫何故?以其無死地。‎ (Laozi 50)

I have heard that those who are adept at managing life traverse the continent without encountering rhinoceroses or tigers, and enter battle without donning armor or weapons. Rhinoceroses have no occasion to launch their horns; tigers have no occasion to exercise their claws; soldiers have no occasion to use their blades. What is the reason for this? There is no terrain of death in such people.

Of all the imperfect Myriad Things, the one furthest from death is a newborn, who exemplifies many of the same traits as the Way:

含德之厚,比於赤子。蜂蠆虺蛇不螫,猛獸不據,攫鳥不搏。骨弱筋柔而握固,未知牝牡之合而朘‎39 作,精之至也。終日號而不嗄,‎ 和之至也。‎ (Laozi 55)

The bounty [that comes of] imbibing the power [of the Way] can be compared to an infant. Bees, scorpions, serpents, and vipers do not prick it; (p.123) wild beasts do not seize it; predatory birds do not snatch it. Its bones are weak and its sinews soft, yet its grasp is solid. It does not yet know the congress of female and male, yet its member is erect: it is the acme of vital essence. It can cry the whole day and without becoming hoarse: it is the acme of harmony.

Yet although health and long life are invariably praised, Laozi is careful not to hold out the prospect of immortality (unlike many later traditions).40 Being “strong like a crossbeam” is bad because—just like trying to take the place of the Great Carpenter—it leads to an early death, but the proper alternative is living out one’s proper lifespan, not trying to transcend it, as that too would be a failure to recognize and conform to the Way. (As we will see in the next chapter, the theme of accepting mortality is vividly expanded in Zhuangzi.) The goal is “to die without being obliterated” 死而不亡‎ (Laozi 33).41

Thus it is important to remember that although there are allusions to macrobiotic practices involving the manipulation of qi,42 these are to be understood as exercises to maintain one’s health, not as methods of attaining immortality.

載營魄抱一,能無離乎?專氣致柔,能嬰兒乎?滌除玄覽,能無疵乎?愛民治國,能無知乎?天門開闔,能為雌乎?明白四達,能無為乎?生之、畜之,生而不有,為而不恃,長而不宰,是謂玄德。‎ (Laozi 10)

In regulating your hun soul43 and holding the One to your breast, are you able to do it without ceasing? In concentrating your qi and bringing about softness, are you able to be a baby? In polishing your dark mirror (i.e., the mind), are you able to be without blemish? In loving the people and governing the state, are you able to be without wisdom? In the opening and closing of the Gates of Heaven, are you able to act the part of the female? In comprehending all within the four directions, are you able to perform nonaction? It bears them and rears them; it bears them without possessing them; it acts without relying [on anything else]; it leads without being masterful. This is called Mysterious Virtue.

The same chapter that upholds the goal of “dying without being obliterated,” that is, immortality in the restricted sense of being remembered (p.124) after one’s death, also emphasizes the importance of knowing contentment: “To know sufficiency is to be wealthy” 知足者富‎ (Laozi 33). Coveting more than one needs only leads to the misery of considering oneself poor.

富貴而驕,自遺其咎。功遂身退,天之道。‎ (Laozi 9)

The wealthy and noble become arrogant, bequeathing calamity on themselves. Retiring when one’s work has succeeded is the Way of Heaven.

知足不辱,知止不殆,可以長久。‎ (Laozi 44)

Those who know sufficiency are not disgraced; those who know when to stop are not endangered. They can live long.

Yet I do not think Laozi is encouraging the reader to become an abstemious hermit. The issue, rather, is the impact of social pressures on one’s happiness (in modern times, this was brilliantly captured in the syndicated comic strip Keeping Up with the Joneses)44—and the possibility of manipulating them. “Knowing sufficiency,” when conjoined with “eliminating wisdom,” acquires troubling political dimensions: if “knowing sufficiency” means teaching people to make do with whatever one allows them to have, and “eliminating wisdom” means preventing them from discovering more about the world, the result is a chilling political system in which the people are not even aware that their simple lives could be any different.

古之善為道者,非以明民,將以愚之。民之難治,以其智多。‎ (Laozi 65)

Those who were adept at practicing the Way in the past did not enlighten the people, but made them ignorant. What makes the people difficult to govern is too much wisdom.

雖有舟輿,無所乘之,雖有甲兵,無所陳之;使民復結繩而用之,‎ 甘其食,美其服,安其居,樂其俗。鄰國相望,鷄犬之聲相聞,民至老死不相往來。‎ (Laozi 80)

Though there may be boats and carriages, there should be no occasion to ride in them; though there may be armor and weapons, there should be no occasion to deploy them. Make the people return to the use of knotted (p.125) cords (i.e., life before writing) and think their food sweet, their vestments beautiful, their dwellings secure, and their customs delightful. Though they may gaze at the neighboring country and hear the cries of chickens and dogs coming from it, they should have no inclination to go hither and thither, until they grow old and die.

If making the people “think their food sweet, their vestments beautiful, their dwellings secure, and their customs delightful” calls to mind North Korea,45 where much of the citizenry lives within range of South Korean airwaves, but is too terrified to inquire further, one can only wonder whether Laozi has, directly or indirectly, inspired the regime.

People who know better are the greatest danger to such a state, since they are the only ones who could pop the bubble of ignorance. Accordingly, the wise are to be cowed into silence:46

不尚賢,使民不爭;不貴難得之貨,使民不為盜;不見可欲,使心不亂。是以聖人之治,虛其心,實其腹,弱其志,強其骨。常使民無知無欲。使夫智者不敢為也。為無為,則無不治。‎ (Laozi 3)47

If you do not esteem the worthy, you will cause the people not to contend with one another; if you do not value rare goods, you will cause the people not to steal; if you do not show them things they might desire, you will cause their minds to avoid disorder. Therefore, the government of the Sage is to empty their minds, fill their bellies, weaken their wills, and strengthen their bones. Always make the people be without wisdom and without desire; make the wise dare not to act. If you act through nonaction, nothing will fail to be placed in order.

This relentless autocratism is so vital to the worldview of Laozi that “the King” is written into the very structure of the cosmos:

故道大,天大,地大,王亦大。域中有四大,而王居其一焉。‎ (Laozi 25)

Thus the Way is great; Heaven is great; Earth is great; and the King is great. Within the realm, there are four great things, and the King occupies one place among them.

If the Way produced the world we live in, it determined that there must be a King ruling over us, just as there must be Heaven above and Earth below.48

(p.126) The implied reader of Laozi is a literate, solitary, and ambitious lord: the sort of person who might have the vision and wherewithal to put the dark teachings into practice and make himself a Sage King. The pointed lack of allusions to named persons and places—particularly noticeable in the context of classical Chinese literature, which abounds in them—conveys that the method of complying with the Great Carpenter is timelessly effective. The text merely has to wait for the right reader to discover it.

The foregoing has been, by and large, a mainstream reading of Laozi, though perhaps highlighting the political implications more than most, since I believe that whitewashing them would result in distortion.49 Early imperial movements like Huang-Lao 黃老‎, which attempted to apply Laozi’s teachings to the business of statecraft and conquest, confirm that what most elites wanted out of the text was a handbook of domination. (We will return to Huang-Lao on p. 224.)

What remains, as promised in the opening pages of this chapter, is to ask whether our limited evidence regarding the earliest history of the text necessitates interpretive adjustments. The answer is: Not many.

Soon after the discovery of the Guodian Laozi manuscripts, it was observed that they do not contain the same mordant attacks on Confucian morality. The notorious slogan “Heaven and Earth are not humane” from chapter 5, for example, does not appear in any of the Guodian texts (or “Explaining Lao” or “Illuminating Lao,” for that matter).50 But they do contain chapters that portray the emergence of Confucian virtues as by-products of devolution from the spontaneous simplicity and authenticity of the Way.51 The Guodian C version of chapter 18 is almost identical to the corresponding Wang Bi text, discussed above:


Thus, when the Great Way declined, there were humanity and righteousness; when the six cardinal relationships were no longer harmonious, there was filial kindness; when the state and its families were bedimmed and disordered, there were upright ministers.

(p.127) Guodian A opens with a significantly different version of chapter 19:


If we abrogate wisdom and cast aside discrimination, the people will profit a hundredfold; if we abrogate craftiness and cast aside profit, there will be no robbers or bandits; if we abrogate artifice and cast aside chicanery, the people will return to filial kindness.

While it is noticeable that although Guodian A has the blander phrase “artifice and chicanery” where the Wang Bi recension more provocatively targets “humanity and righteousness,” the former still advocates “abrogating wisdom,” one of the cardinal Confucian virtues. Thus although the wording of the Guodian manuscripts may not be as challenging, they certainly evince antipathy toward received wisdom, with all its “discrimination” (bian 辨‎), as misguided rubbish that needs to be cleared away. Yet the Wang Bi version is more arresting and hence more memorable. Proposing the elimination of artifice and chicanery would hardly be controversial in any era. Proposing the elimination of humanity and righteousness, especially in the intellectual milieu limned in part 1 of this book, marks one as an arch iconoclast.

Essentially the same pattern holds for all the distinctive themes of Laozi: they are attested in the Guodian texts, but not as fully, and sometimes in gentler language. Neither the cosmogony of Laozi 42 nor the description of the Way as “the mother of Heaven and Earth” in Laozi 52 appears in the Guodian manuscripts, but the theme is still present in the Guodian A version of Laozi 25, which is almost identical (after palaeographical interpretation and transcription) to the Wang Bi recension:

有狀混成,先天地生。脫寥,獨立不改,可以為天下母。未知其名,‎ 字之曰道。吾強為之名曰大。大曰逝,逝曰轉,轉曰返。天大,地大,道大,王亦大。域中有四大焉,王處一焉。人法地,地法天,‎ 天法道,道法自然。‎54

There was a form undifferentiated and perfect before the birth of Heaven and Earth. Unapproachable and vast, it stands autonomous and does not change; it is able to be the mother of Heaven and Earth. I do not know its name; I style it “the Way.” If I were forced, I would make the name (p.128) “Great” for it. Great means progressing; progressing means revolving; revolving means returning. Heaven is great; Earth is great; the Way is great; the King is also great. Within the realm, there are four great things, and the King abides in one place among them. People model themselves on Earth; Earth models itself on Heaven; Heaven models itself on the Way; the Way models itself on ziran.

Nor do the Guodian manuscripts include chapters 3,65, and 80, with their ruthless vision of a populace undisturbed by the awareness that life is different in other domains, but their King still dwells in his reserved place, tranquil and immovable. In sum, the Guodian Laozi texts present a vision that, although inchoate, is already recognizable as a Laozi vision, only more disjointed and less compellingly phrased than the recension we have known for centuries. At the same time, they show why it is unacceptable to read Laozi as though it were the work of a single author, whether Lao Dan, Scribe Lao, or any other legendary genius.


(1.) For the Wang Bi recension of Laozi, I rely on Lou Yulie, Wang Bi ji jiaoshi, 1:1–193. Specialists must bear in mind that “the Wang Bi recension” is something of a fiction because it has been transmitted in multiple editions, which often conflict with Wang Bi’s own commentary. Hence we may never know precisely which edition or editions Wang Bi used. See the discussion in Wagner, Chinese Reading of the Daodejing, 3–31 (followed by an attempt to reconstruct Wang Bi’s text).

(3.) The number 81 recurs throughout Granet’s magisterial study of numbers in Chinese philosophy (La pensée chinoise, 127–248).

(4.) Other Chinese texts were also organized in numerologically significant ways; for example, Schaberg, “Speaking of Documents,” 350–51, observes that the New Script version of the Canon of Documents (Jinwen Shangshu 今文尚書‎) contains the same number of chapters as there were astronomical “lodges” (xiu 宿‎) in the sky (twenty-eight).

(5.) For two recent studies, see Queen, “Han Feizi and the Old Master”; and Kim, “Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi.” Kim’s conclusion is that “Jie Lao” and “Yu Lao” cannot derive from the same author; Queen accepts this possibility but notes that they might also have been written by Han Fei at different stages of his life. I do not see any way to settle the question with the available evidence.

(8.) Guoyu jijie 17.502–5 (“Lingwang nüe, Bai gongzi Zhang Zhou jian” 靈王虐,‎ 白公子張驟諫‎). According to the commentary of Wei Zhao 韋昭‎ (AD 204–73), the scribe’s courtesy name was Lao Ziwei 老子亹‎. In his otherwise thorough study, Graham, Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, did not consider this reference. Previous scholars have considered the possibility that Lao is a surname, but not, as far as I am aware, in connection with Scribe Lao: e.g., Zhang Songhui, Laozi yanjiu, 21–26; Gao Heng, Chongding Laozi zhenggu, 157ff.; and Ma Xulun, Laozi jiaogu, 57.

(11.) Schwartz, World of Thought in Ancient China, 62ff., interprets Confucius’s “Way” as the equivalent of a “good system,” but the word “system” sounds a false note, inasmuch as Confucius cannot be plausibly categorized as a systematic philosopher.

(p.267) (12.) Cf. Wang Zhongjiang, Daojia xueshuo de guannianshi yanjiu, 80–86; Xu Keqian, Zhuangzi zhexue xintan, 38–45; and Eno, “Cook Ding’s Dao and the Limits of Philosophy,” 145n10. Texts that do not use dao in this sense still occasionally appeal to cosmic regularities, e.g., Mencius 4B.26: “Despite the height of Heaven and the distance of stars and constellations, if you seek out the right premises, you can calculate solstices from a thousand years ago while sitting [at your workplace]” 天之高也,星辰之遠也,苟求其故,千歲之日至,可坐而致也‎ (Mengzi zhengyi 17.588). Compare Laozi 47: “One may know the world without going out through the doorway; one may see the Way of Heaven without peering through the window” 不出戶,知天下,不窺牖,見天道‎. If one grasps the underlying principles, one does not even have to witness phenomena in order to understand them.

(13.) For more on de, see, e.g., Ivanhoe, “Concept of de (‘Virtue’) in the Laozi.” Laozi 38, is reminiscent of The Methods of Guo Yan (Guo Yan zhi fa 郭偃之法‎), as quoted in Shangjun shu zhuizhi 1.1.2 (“Gengfa” 更法‎): “One who discourses on supreme virtue does not harmonize with the vulgar” 論至德者不和於俗‎. Too little is known about this tradition, however, to be sure of any substantive connections. On Guo Yan, see Pines, Book of Lord Shang, 268n7.

(14.) The very phrase da zhangfu might have been lifted from Mencian discourse, as it appears in Mencius 3B.2. The more general term daren 大人‎ (great person) is widely attested and would merit a specialized study.

(17.) This was voiced even in antiquity: see, for example, the Mohist attempt at reductio ad absurdum in Graham, Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science, 452 (B 77). For other examples, see Zhang Songhui, Laozi yanjiu, 168–69.

(18.) Compare also Laozi 16: “One should bring about extreme emptiness” 致虛極‎.

(19.) For the variants zhong 盅‎ (cup) and chong 沖‎ (to infuse), see Boshu Laozi jiaozhu, 42. The two words are probably cognate: a cup盅‎ (Old Chinese *truŋ) is what one pours 沖‎ (*N-truŋ) water into. (All reconstructed Old Chinese forms in this book are based on the system in Baxter and Sagart, Old Chinese.)

(20.) Compare Laozi 40: “The Way moves by being contrary and is useful by being weak” 反者,道之動;弱者,道之用‎.

(21.) For a general survey of the image of water in Chinese philosophy, see Allan, Way of Water and Sprouts of Virtue; also, Allan, “Great One, Water, and the Laozi.”

(22.) Cf. Puett, To Become a God, 165–67. Compare also Laozi 17: “In highest antiquity, inferiors knew only that there was [a ruler]” 太上,下知有之‎; that is to say, it never even occurred to them that they should love, praise, fear, or hate him. Two editions read xia bu zhi you zhi 下不知有之‎, taking the point even further: “inferiors did not even know that there was [a ruler].” See the variants and discussion in Boshu Laozi jiaozhu, 305.

(23.) Compare Laozi 2: “Therefore, the Sage dwells in affairs of nonaction and practices the unspoken teaching” 是以聖人處無為之事,行不言之教‎.

(25.) Taran is not a real word and is not found in any standard dictionary. It happens to be attested in Taixuan jizhu 7.187 (“Xuanchi” 玄攡‎), but in that context ta is probably (p.268) to be construed as tuo 佗‎/馱‎, “to bear on one’s back”: “Earth, bearing [all things], shows people the bright [spirits]” 夫地他‎ [=佗‎] 然示人明也‎.

(26.) Compare Laozi 25: “People model themselves on Earth; Earth models itself on Heaven; Heaven models itself on the Way; the Way models itself on ziran”人法地,地法天,天法道,道法自然‎.

(27.) Compare Montaigne, Les essais, 1088: “Laissons faire un peu à nature: elle entend mieux ses affaires que nous” (3.xiii; roughly: “Let us allow nature a little [freedom] to act; it understands its affairs better than we do.”

(28.) This passage is particularly effective in Chinese (and difficult to capture in English) because of its repeated use of wei in slightly different senses (to perform, to act, to do).

(29.) Compare Laozi 34: “To the end, he does not do great things himself; thus he is able to achieve his great things” 以其終不自為大,故能成其大‎.

(30.) Several editions read yu 浴‎ (to bathe) in place of gu 谷‎ (valley), not that this would make the text any easier to comprehend (Boshu Laozi jiaozhu, 248).

(31.) See the sampling in Boshu Laozi jiaozhu, 30.

(32.) For a brief survey of other interpretations of “the One,” see Robinet, “Diverse Interpretations of the Laozi,” 137–38.

(33.) Reading “the Two” as yin and yang accords with the elaboration on Laozi 42 in Huainanzi jishi 3.244 (“Tianwen” 天文‎).

(34.) Compare Laozi 25, discussed below.

(35.) Compare Laozi 4: “It appears to have preexisted the Deity” 象帝之先‎.

(36.) Although it can be hazardous to rely on later Daoist practices when trying to interpret Laozi, it is worth observing that the purpose of the notorious sexual cultivation rites of the Celestial Masters (tianshi 天師‎) was “the ritual reconstruction of the cosmos” by effectuating a return to the primordial moment when qi was undifferentiated and unified. See Raz, Emergence of Daoism, 186–202.

(37.) The Wang Bi edition reads wu ci 無雌‎ (to be without the female), but wei ci 為雌‎ (to act the part of the female) is prolifically attested in other editions (Boshu Laozi jiaozhu, 267) and makes more sense.

(39.) Zui 朘‎, “immature penis,” is widely attested in place of quan 全‎, “integrity, wholeness” (Boshu Laozi jiaozhu, 93). Either reading would fit philosophically.

(43.) On this concept, see, e.g., Lo, “From a Dual Soul to a Unitary Soul.”

(44.) Several of the earliest strips were collected in Momand, Keeping Up with the Joneses; it ran regularly from 1913 to 1938. For modern discussions of happiness from the perspective of social comparison theory, see, e.g., Yamada and Takahashi, “Happiness Is a Matter of Social Comparison”; and Boyce et al., “Money and Happiness.” We are happiest when we are happier than someone else.

(45.) Consider the testimony of a soldier who fled North Korea, reported in Iaccino, (p.269) “Kim Young-Il Fled North Korea as a Young Soldier”: “I had never seen bananas or clementines. … We always thought it was normal to have our freedoms restricted. It is only when my family and I came to South Korea that we finally had means of comparison. We didn’t realise how unhappy we were until we came here.” Or in Szabłowski’s bizarre and fascinating Dancing Bears, which compares the struggles of bears rescued from abusive captivity to those of postcommunist citizens adapting to the new order, a keeper says: “For twenty or thirty years they were used to having somebody do the thinking for them, providing them with an occupation, telling them what they had to do, what they were going to eat and where to sleep. It wasn’t the ideal life for a bear, but it was the only one they knew” (87).

(46.) The classic study of anti-intellectualism in Chinese political thought is Yu Yingshi, Lishi yu sixiang, 1–75; for his treatment of Laozi, see 10ff.

(47.) Many classical political texts share the conviction that the people should be kept poor and weak, e.g., Shangjun shu zhuizhi 1.4.27 and 5.20.121 (“Quqiang” 去彊‎ and “Ruomin” 弱民‎, respectively). The difference is that Shangjun shu does not recommend subtlety such as “nonaction” in implementing such policies.

(48.) Cf. Pines, Envisioning Eternal Empire, 36–38. Michael, Pristine Dao, 40–50, distinguishes between the Sage and the King, but this interpretation does not readily account for passages such as Laozi 25.

(49.) Cf. Goldin, After Confucius, 129ff. Two examples of what I mean by “whitewashing” the political dimensions are Chen Guying, Daojia de renwen jingshen; and Moeller, Philosophy of the Daodejing (e.g., 55–75), both of which ignore the most problematic passages, especially Laozi 65. Similarly, some libertarian theorists claim to be inspired by Laozi, but only by palliating the extensive role envisioned for government: e. g., Boaz, Libertarian Reader, 207; and Rothbard, Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, 1:23–27. The phrase laissez-faire is sometimes said to derive from wuwei (e.g., Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment, 50).

(50.) Guodian A contains an unrelated passage in the received chapter 5 (Cook, Bamboo Texts of Guodian, 1:261–62). “Jie Lao,” for its part, makes a sustained attempt to reconcile Confucian virtues with the philosophy of Laozi (cf. Queen, “Han Feizi and the Old Master,” 212–13).

(51.) Despite Kirkland, Taoism, 59: “the Guodian texts show no signs of anti-Confucianism” (emphasis in original).

(53.) Cook, Bamboo Texts of Guodian, 1:225–26; for other possible interpretations of the final two graphs, see 1:227n13.