Taoteching: Chapter 2

In the next couple of days I’ll be comparing rather different versions of the TaoTeChing, a.k.a Tao Te Ching or Tao Teh Ching. Normally I would follow the spelling I first used in discussing the work, but Microsoft Word insists on correcting, and correcting, and correcting the version I first went with, and, strangely enough, all seem equally authoritative.

I’ll tell you right up front that I’m not going to argue that one is more “authoritative” than the other versions, or that any of them is more authoritative than the earlier two versions I referred to. I will tell you that I find that I prefer different chapters from each of the volumes.

The oldest version is John C. H. Wu’s Tao Teh Ching, published in 1961. In the foreword Arthur Hummel offers the interesting, and particularly relevant, disclaimer, “It is vain to hope for a definitive English rendering of the Tao Teh Ching; and this expectation Dr. Wu would be among the first to disclaim. Any translation is an interpretation, particularly if the work is one of great imaginative insight; for the language of one tradition does not provide exact verbal equivalents for all the creative ideas of another tradition.” That said, Wu was a famous scholar, translating parts of the Bible into Chinese and Chinese classics into English. Interestingly, Red Pine, a.k.a Bill Porter, was Wu’s student in China.

Ursula Le Guin relates that she was raised on the Taoteching, introduced to it by her father’s copy at a very young age. At times Le Guin’s “rendition,” her word, not mine, makes the book accessible in ways that neither of the others does. She does not claim to have made an accurate translation of the Taoteching, but does seem to have a remarkable understanding of the book. Most of her renditions certainly seem true to the original.

The book I learned the most from is Red Pine’s Taoteching. This is partially due to an excellent historical introduction, partially due to the included commentary, and partially due to an interesting, and at times unique translation. Red Pine notes that, “The text itself has seen dozens of editions containing anywhere from five to six thousand characters. The numerical discrepancy is not as significant as it might appear and is largely the result of adding certain grammatical particles for clarity or omitting them for brevity. The greatest difference among editions centers not on the number of characters but on the rendering of certain phrases and the presence or absence of certain lines.” Perhaps this is not at all surprising for a book written and handed down since the 6th century, B.C. He also notes that over a hundred English translations have been written.

It’s nice that both Wu and Red Pine include the Chinese text with their translation, but it’s a little distracting for someone like myself who doesn’t read Chinese to note that the characters aren’t always the same, and at times appear quite different.

With that disclaimer, let’s take a look at the critical second chapter. Here’s Wu’s translation:


WHEN all the world recognizes beauty as beauty,
this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognizes good as good, this in
itself is evil.

Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.

Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.

And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

Wu’s translation seems to focus on the idea of “ebb and flow,” ying and yang, particularly in the second stanza. This ebb and flow complement each other. This, in turn, leads to the idea of “letting go,” not hanging on to things in the third and fourth stanza, certainly a key idea in the Tao.

Though expressed less formally, Le Guin’s rendition seems to follow the same themes:

Soul food

Everybody on earth knowing
that beauty is beautiful
makes ugliness.

Everybody knowing
that goodness is good
makes wickedness.

For being and nonbeing
arise together;
hard and easy
complete each other;
long and short
shape each other;
high and low
depend on each other;
note and voice
make the music together;
before and after
follow each other.

That’s why the wise soul
does without doing,
teaches without talking.

The things of this world
exist, they are;
you can’t refuse them.

To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim;
to do the work and let it go:
for just letting it go
is what makes it stay.

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.

I particularly liked the wisdom offered in the lines, “The things of this world/ exist, they are;/you can’t refuse them.” We are deluding ourselves if we think we can control reality by ignoring or denying those things we don’t want to know or admit to ourselves. Judging things doesn’t change their reality, it merely alters our ability to deal with them.

It seems to me that Red Pine offers a slightly different take on this chapter:

All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
the coexistence of have and have not
the coproduction of hard and easy
the correlation of long and short
the codependence of high and low
the correspondence of note and noise
the coordination of first and last
is endless
thus the sage performs effortless deeds
and teaches wordless lessons
he doesn’t start all the things he begins
he doesn’t presume on what he does
he doesn’t claim what he achieves
and because he makes no claim
he suffers no loss

LU HSI-SI-IENG says, “What we call beautiful or ugly depends on our feelings. Nothing is necessarily beautiful or ugly until feelings make it so. But while feelings differ, they all come from our nature, and we all have the same nature. Hence the sage transforms his feelings and returns to his nature and thus becomes one again.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The existence of things, the difficulty of affairs, the size of forms, the magnitude of power, the pitch and clarity of sound, the sequence of position, all involve contrasting pairs. When one is present, both are present. When one is absent, both are absent.”

LU HUI-CH’ ING says, “These six pairs all depend on time and occasion. None of them is eternal. The sage, however, acts according to the Immortal Tao, hence he acts without effort. And he teaches according to the Immortal Name, hence he teaches without words. Beautiful and ugly, good and bad don’t enter his mind.”

WANG WU-CHIU says, The sage is not interested in deeds or words. He simply follows the natural pattern of things. Things rise, develop, and reach their end. This is their order.”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “The sage creates but does not possess what he creates. He acts but does not presume on what he does. He succeeds but does not claim success. These three all result from selflessness. Because the sage is selfless, he does not lose his self. Because he does not lose his self, he does not lose others.”

SU CH’E says, “Losing something is the result of claiming something. How can a person lose what he doesn’t claim?” LI H5I CHAI says, “Lao-tzu’s 5,000-word text clarifies what is mysterious as well as what is obvious. It can be used to attain the Tao, to order a country, or to cultivate the body.”

HO-SHANG KUNG titles this verse “Cultivating the Body.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “Those who practice the Way put an end to distinctions, get rid of name and form, and make of themselves a home for the Way and Virtue.”

[And the translator’s notes:] I have incorporated line thirteen from the Mawangtui texts and have also used their wording of the six preceding lines. In line sixteen, I have relied on the Fuyi edition as well as Mawangtui Text B in reading shih:start in place of tz’u:say/ refuse. I have followed the Mawangtui texts again in omitting the line “he doesn’t possess what he begets” after line sixteen as an interpolation from verse 51, lines seventeen and eighteen also appear in verse 77.

This translation seems to me to put more emphasis on the idea of “wholeness,” or “unity.” Classifying things sets them apart and denies the underlying unity, the yin and the yang. If we judge some people as “beautiful” that seems to imply others must be “ugly.” Certainly if we are “good” anyone who opposes us must be “evil.” And what do we gain by such definitions?

As noted before, I’m a little bothered by words like “coproduction” and “codependence” in the translation of a work this old, but in a sense the use of “co-” certainly helps to convey a main idea of this chapter.

I wouldn’t normally cite all the interpretations offered in a chapter, but I wanted to do it once to show just how extensive the commentary is and how it can be helpful in guiding your own reading of the chapters.