Taoteching: Chapter 33

Because Chapter 33 is a relatively short chapter it may illustrate better than some other chapters how apparently minor differences in wording subtly shift the meaning of a poem.

Here are, in order, Le Guin's, John Wu's, and Red Pine's translations with selected commentary from Red Pine's edition:

Kinds of Power

Knowing other people is intelligence,
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
overcoming yourself takes greatness.
Contentment is wealth.

Boldly pushing forward takes resolution.
Staying put keeps you in position.

To live till you die
is to live long enough.


HE who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.


Who knows others is perceptive
who knows himself is wise
who conquers others is forceful
who conquers himself is strong
who knows contentment is wealthy
who strives hard succeeds
who doesn't lose his place endures
who dies but doesn't perish lives on

SU CH'E says, "Perception means to distinguish. Wisdom means to remove obstructions. As long as our distinguishing mind is present, we can only know others, but not ourselves."

WANG P'ANG says, "The natural endowment of all things is complete in itself. Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it. But fools abandon this treasure to chase trash. Those who know contentment pay the world no heed. This is true wealth. Mencius said, 'The ten thousand things are all within us"

WANG PI says "Those who strive with devotion reach their goal. Those who examine themselves and work within their capacity don't lose their place and are able to endure. Although we die, the Tao that gave us life doesn't perish. Our body disappears, but the Tao remains. If our body survived, would the Tao not end?"

KUIMARAJIVA says, "Not to live in living is to endure. Not to die in dying is to live on,"

Stylistically, I prefer Wu's parallel structure, possibly because the repetition of "he who" places more emphasis on the individual than the other two versions.

It's impossible for me to say which of the three versions is closer to the actual text. In fact, I'm a little intimidated by how different the Chinese character in Wu's and Red Pine's appear. There are, though, particular lines in each of them that seem "truer" to my view of life than the others.

For instance, my favorite lines from all three versions are: "To live till you die/is to live long enough." Although it doesn't suggest an "eternal" quality as the others do, it fits in better with my own personal philosophy. It also seems to fit in with Kuimarajiva's interpretation, as suggested above. Of course, I might prefer this version simply because I'm more interested in a philosophy that allows me to live life to the fullest than in one that promises me some sort of barely-believable after-life.

If I had to decide whether knowing others is intelligent, clever, or perceptive, I would probably lean toward "clever," but that might merely be my INTP bias coming out, as would suggesting that "wisdom" is the best description of knowing yourself.

If forced to choose between, "Contentment is wealth," "He who knows when he has got enough is rich," and "who knows contentment is wealthy, " I would choose the simpler "He who knows when he has got enough is rich," perhaps because that sounds like a line directly out of Thoreau or Emerson.

Though I can see no clearly superior version, reading all three versions certainly gives a good indication of what the main message of the chapter is, while at the same time revealing how personal values and word choice must inevitably color any interpretation.

All three versions remind the reader that the greatest, and most rewarding, task is to "Know thyself" as Plato suggested a few years later, and perhaps that is all that we can demand of any book.

6 thoughts on “Taoteching: Chapter 33

  1. Even for someone whose head usually begins to swim in the midst of oriental wisdom, I guess it’s still good for me to see some of it, Loren. Good job to keep people thinking, though you are spelling things out, not just to the blind, but to the reprobate and stubborn heathen in my case.

    signed, Swooning In Texas

  2. It seems to me that the greatest value of reading religious works outside our own tradition is simply to remind of us of similar values in our own culture, values we once knew but forgot after they were buried in a veritable barrage of media propoganda trying to convince us that the most important things are not our own feelings but those things we buy from them.

  3. all wonderful translations,
    33 has been a bedrock for me,
    however, i have been accostumed t the
    Stephen Mitchell translation,
    are you familiar with it? thoughts?

  4. Sorry, but I don’t know the Mitchell translation, Ryan, though some of the comments on Amazon suggest that it might be more in the spirit of Le Quin’s translation, which often tends to smooth over obscure points. and Le Quin’s translation is the one i recommended to family members who aren’t really into the whole Chinese tradition.

What do you think?