Texts of Taoism
Chuang Tzu

Introductory Notes


'Thien Tâo,' the first two characters of the first paragraph, and prefixed to the Book as the name of it, are best translated by 'The Way of Heaven,' meaning the noiseless spontaneity, which characterises all the operations of nature, proceeding silently, yet 'perfecting all things.' As the rulers of the world attain to this same way in their government, and the sages among men attain to it in their teachings, both government and doctrine arrive at a corresponding perfection. 'The joy of Heaven' and 'the joy of Men' are both realised. There ought to be no purpose or will in the universe. 'Vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and non-action; this is the perfection of the Tâo and its characteristics.'

Our author dwells especially on doing-nothing or non-action as the subject-matter of the Book. But as the world is full of doing, he endeavours to make a distinction between the Ruling Powers and those subordinate to and employed by them, to whom doing or action and purpose, though still without the thought of self, are necessary; and by this distinction he seems to me to give up the peculiarity of his system, so that some of the critics, especially Aû-yang Hsiû, are obliged to confess that these portions of the Book are unlike the writing of Kwang-dze. Still the antagonism of Tâoism to Confucianism is very apparent throughout. Of the illustrative paragraphs, the seventh, relating the churlish behaviour of Lâo-dze to Confucius, and the way in which he subsequently argues with him and snubs him, is very amusing. The eighth paragraph, relating the interview between Lâo and Shih-khäng Khî, is very strange. The allusions in it to certain incidents and peculiarities in Lâo's domestic life make us wish that we had fuller accounts of his history; and the way in which he rates his disciple shows him as a master of the language of abuse.

The concluding paragraph about duke Hwan of Khî is interesting, but I can only dimly perceive its bearing on the argument of the Book.

Part II Section VI

Thien Tâo, or 'The Way of Heaven1.'

1. The Way of Heaven operates (unceasingly), and leaves no accumulation2 (of its influence) in any particular place, so that all things are brought to perfection by it; so does the Way of the Tîs operate, and all under the sky turn to them (as their directors); so also does the Way of the Sages operate, and all within the seas submit to them. Those who clearly understand (the Way of) Heaven, who are in sympathy with (that of) the sages, and familiar through the universe and in the four quarters (of the earth) with the work of the Tîs and the kings, yet act spontaneously from themselves:—with the appearance of being ignorant they are yet entirely still.

The stillness of the sages does not belong to them as a consequence of their skilful ability3; all things are not able to disturb their minds;—it is on this account that they are still. When water is still, its clearness shows the beard and eyebrows (of him who looks into it). It is a perfect Level4, and the greatest artificer takes his rule from it. Such is the clearness of still water, and how much greater is that of the human Spirit! The still mind of the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth, the glass of all things.

Vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and non-action;—this is the Level of heaven and earth, and the perfection of the Tâo and its characteristics5. Therefore the Tîs, Kings, and Sages found in this their resting-place6. Resting here, they were vacant; from their vacancy came fullness; from their fullness came the nice distinctions (of things). From their vacancy came stillness; that stillness was followed by movement; their movements were successful. From their stillness came their non-action. Doing-nothing, they devolved the cares of office on their employés. Doing-nothing was accompanied by the feeling of satisfaction. Where there is that feeling of satisfaction, anxieties and troubles find no place; and the years of life are many.

Vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and doing-nothing are the root of all things. When this is understood, we find such a ruler on the throne as Yâo, and such a minister as Shun. When with this a high position is occupied, we find the attributes of the Tîs and kings,—the sons of Heaven; with this in a low position, we find the mysterious sages, the uncrowned kings, with their ways. With this retiring (from public life), and enjoying themselves at leisure, we find the scholars who dwell by the rivers and seas, among the hills and forests, all submissive to it; with this coming forward to active life and comforting their age, their merit is great, and their fame is distinguished;—and all the world becomes united in one.

2. (Such men) by their stillness become sages and by their movement, kings. Doing-nothing, they are honoured; in their plain simplicity, no one in the world can strive with them (for the palm of) excellence. The clear understanding of the virtue of Heaven and Earth is what is called 'The Great Root,' and 'The Great Origin;'—they who have it are in harmony with Heaven, and so they produce all equable arrangements in the world;—they are those who are in harmony with men. Being in harmony with men is called the joy of men; being in harmony with Heaven is called the joy of Heaven. Kwang-dze said, 'My Master! my Master! He shall hash and blend all things in mass without being cruel; he shall dispense his favours to all ages without being benevolent. He is older than the highest antiquity, and yet is not old. He overspreads the heavens and sustains the earth; from him is the carving of all forms without any artful skill7! This is what is called the Joy of Heaven. Hence it is said, "Those who know the Joy of Heaven during their life, act like Heaven, and at death undergo transformation like (other) things8; in their stillness they possess the quality of the Yin, and in their movement they flow abroad as the Yang. Therefore he who knows the joy of Heaven has no murmuring against Heaven, nor any fault-finding with men; and suffers no embarrassment from things, nor any reproof from ghosts. Hence it is said, His movements are those of Heaven; his stillness is that of Earth; his whole mind is fixed, and he rules over the world. The spirits of his dead do not come to scare him; he is not worn out by their souls. His words proceeding from his vacancy and stillness, yet reach to heaven and earth, and show a communication with all things:—this is what is called the joy of Heaven. This joy of Heaven forms the mind of the sage whereby he nurtures all under the sky9.'"'

3. It was the Way10 of the Tîs and Kings to regard Heaven and Earth as their Author, the Tâo and its characteristics as their Lord, and Doing-nothing as their constant rule. Doing-nothing, they could use the whole world in their service and might have done more; acting, they were not sufficient for the service required of them by the world. Hence the men of old held non-inaction in honour. When superiors do nothing and their inferiors also do nothing, inferiors and superiors possess the same virtue; and when inferiors and superiors possess the same virtue, there are none to act as ministers. When inferiors act, and their superiors also act, then superiors and inferiors possess the same Tâo; and when superiors and inferiors possess the same Tâo, there is none to preside as Lord. But that the superiors do nothing and yet thereby use the world in their service, and that the inferiors, while acting, be employed in the service of the world, is an unchangeable principle. Therefore the ancient kings who presided over the world, though their knowledge embraced (all the operations of) Heaven and Earth, took no thought of their own about them; though their nice discrimination appreciated the fine fashioning of all things, they said not a word about it; though their power comprehended all within the seas, they did nothing themselves. Heaven produces nothing, yet all things experience their transformations; Earth effects no growth, yet all things receive their nurture; the Tîs and Kings did nothing, yet all the world testified their effective services. Hence it is said, 'There is nothing more spirit-like than Heaven; there is nothing richer than Earth; there are none greater than the Tî s and Kings.' Hence it is said (further), 'The attributes of the Tîs and kings corresponded to those of Heaven and Earth.' It was thus that they availed themselves of (the operations of) Heaven and Earth, carried all things on unceasingly (in their courses), and employed the various classes of men in their service.

4. Originating belongs to those in the higher position; details (of work) to those who are in the lower. The compendious decision belongs to the lord; the minutiae of execution, to his ministers. The direction of the three hosts11 and their men with the five weapons12 is but a trifling quality; rewards and penalties with their advantages and sufferings, and the inflictions of the five punishments13 are but trivial elements of instruction; ceremonies, laws, measures, and numbers, with all the minutiae of jurisprudence14, are small matters in government; the notes of bells and drums, and the display of plumes and flags are the slightest things in music, and the various grades of the mourning garments are the most unimportant manifestations of grief. These five unimportant adjuncts required the operation of the excited spirit and the employment of the arts of the mind, to bring them into use. The men of old had them indeed, but they did not give them the first place.

The ruler precedes, and the minister follows; the father precedes, and the son follows; the elder brother precedes, and the younger follows; the senior precedes, and the junior follows; the male precedes, and the female follows; the husband precedes, and the wife follows.

This precedence of the more honourable and sequence of the meaner is seen in the (relative) action of heaven and earth, and hence the sages took them as their pattern. The more honourable position of heaven and the lower one of earth are equivalent to a designation of their spirit-like and intelligent qualities. The precedence of spring and summer and the sequence of autumn and winter mark the order of the four seasons. In the transformations and growth of all things, every bud and feature has its proper form; and in this we have their gradual maturing and decay, the constant flow of transformation and change. Thus since Heaven and Earth, which are most spirit-like, are distinguished as more honourable and less, and by precedence and sequence, how much more must we look for this in the ways of men! In the ancestral temple it is to kinship that honour is given; in court, to rank; in the neighbourhoods and districts, to age; in the conduct of affairs, to wisdom; such is the order in those great ways. If we speak of the course (to be pursued in them), and do not observe their order, we violate their course. If we speak of the course, and do not observe it, why do we apply that name to it?

5. Therefore the ancients who clearly understood the great Tâo first sought to apprehend what was meant by Heaven15, and the Tâo and its characteristics came next. When this was apprehended, then came Benevolence and Righteousness. When these were apprehended, then came the Distinction of duties and the observance of them. This accomplished, there came objects and their names. After objects and their names, came the employment of men according to their qualities: on this there followed the examination of the men and of their work. This led to the approval or disapproval of them, which again was succeeded by the apportioning of rewards and penalties. After this the stupid and the intelligent understood what was required of them, and the honourable and the mean occupied their several positions. The good and the able, and those inferior to them, sincerely did their best. Their ability was distributed; the duties implied in their official names were fulfilled. In this way did they serve their superiors, nourish their inferiors, regulate things, and cultivate their persons. They did not call their knowledge and schemes into requisition; they were required to fall back upon (the method of) Heaven:—this was what is called the Perfection of the Rule of Great Peace. Hence it is said in the Book16, 'There are objects and there are their names.' Objects and their names the ancients had; but they did not put them in the foremost place.

When the ancients spoke of the Great Tâo, it was only after four other steps that they gave a place to 'Objects and their Names,' and after eight steps that they gave a place to 'Rewards and Penalties.' If they had all at once spoken of 'Objects and their Names,' they would have shown an ignorance of what is the Root (of government); if they had all at once spoken of 'Rewards and Penalties,' they would have shown an ignorance of the first steps of it. Those whose words are thus an inversion of the (proper) course, or in opposition to it, are (only fit to be) ruled by others;-how can they rule others? To speak all at once of 'Objects and their Names,' and of 'Rewards and Penalties,' only shows that the speaker knows the instruments of government, but does not know the method of it, is fit to be used as an instrument in the world, but not fit to use others as his instruments:—he is what we call a mere sophist, a man of one small idea. Ceremonies, laws, numbers, measures, with all the minutiae of jurisprudence, the ancients had; but it is by these that inferiors serve their superiors; it is not by them that those superiors nourish the world.

6. Anciently, Shun asked Yâo, saying, 'In what way does your Majesty by the Grace of Heaven17 exercise your mind?' The reply was, 'I simply show no arrogance towards the helpless; I do not neglect the poor people; I grieve for those who die; I love their infant children; and I compassionate their widows.' Shun rejoined, 'Admirable, as far as it goes; but it is not what is Great.' How then,' asked Yâo, 'do you think I should do?' Shun replied, 'When (a sovereign) possesses the virtue of Heaven, then when he shows himself in action, it is in stillness. The sun and moon (simply) shine, and the four seasons pursue their courses. So it is with the regular phenomena of day and night, and with the movement of the clouds by which the rain is distributed.' Yâo said, 'Then I have only been persistently troubling myself! What you wish is to be in harmony with Heaven, while I wish to be in harmony with men.' Now (the Way of) Heaven and Earth was much thought of of old, and Hwang-Tî, Yâo, and Shun united in admiring it. Hence the kings of the world of old did nothing, but tried to imitate that Way.

7. Confucius went to the west to deposit (some) writings in the library of Kâu18, when Dze-lû counselled him, saying, 'I have heard that the officer in charge of this Käng19 Repository of Kâu was one Lâo Tan, who has given up his office, and is living in his own house. As you, Master, wish to deposit these writings here, why not go to him, and obtain his help (to accomplish your object)20.' Confucius said, 'Good;' and he went and saw Lâo Tan, who refused his assistance. On this he proceeded to give an abstract of the Twelve Classics21 to bring the other over to his views22. Lâo Tan, however, interrupted him while he was speaking, and said, 'This is too vague; let me hear the substance of them in brief'. Confucius said, 'The substance of them is occupied with Benevolence and Righteousness.' The other said, 'Let me ask whether you consider Benevolence and Righteousness to constitute the nature of man?' 'I do,' was the answer. 'If the superior man be not benevolent, he will not fulfil his character; if he be not righteous, he might as well not have been born. Benevolence and Righteousness are truly the nature of man.' Lâo Tan continued, 'Let me ask you what you mean by Benevolence and Righteousness.' Confucius said, 'To be in one's inmost heart in kindly sympathy with all things; to love all men; and to allow no selfish thoughts;—this is the nature of Benevolence and Righteousness.' Lâo Tan exclaimed, 'Ah! you almost show your inferiority by such words! "To love all men!" is not that vague and extravagant? "To be seeking to allow no selfish thoughts!"—that is selfishness23! If you, Master, wish men not to be without their (proper) shepherding, think of Heaven and Earth, which certainly pursue their invariable course; think of the sun and moon, which surely maintain their brightness; think of the stars in the zodiac, which preserve their order and courses; think of birds and beasts, which do not fail to collect together in their flocks and herds; and think of the trees, which do not fail to stand up (in their places). Do you, Master, imitate this way and carry it into practice; hurry on, following this course, and you will reach your end. Why must you further be vehement in putting forward your Benevolence and Righteousness, as if you were beating a drum, and seeking a fugitive son, (only making him run away the more)? Ah! Master, you are introducing disorder into the nature of man!'

8. Shih-khäng Khî24, having an interview with Lâo-dze, asked him, saying, 'I heard, Master, that you were a sage, and I came here, wishing to see you, without grudging the length of the journey. During the stages of the hundred days, the soles of my feet became quite callous, but I did not dare to stop and rest. Now I perceive that you are not a sage. Because there was some rice left about the holes of the rats, you sent away your younger sister, which was unkind; when your food, whether raw or cooked, remains before you not all consumed, you keep on hoarding it up to any extent25.' Lâo-dze looked indifferent, and gave him no answer.

Next day Khî again saw Lao-dze, and said, 'Yesterday I taunted you; but to-day I have gone back to a better mood of mind. What is the cause (of the change)26?' Lâo-dze replied, 'I consider that I have freed myself from the trammels of claiming to be artfully knowing, spirit-like, and sage. Yesterday if you had called me an ox, you might have done so; or if you had called me a horse, you might have done so27. If there be a reality (corresponding to men's ideas), and men give it a name, which another will not receive, he will in the sequel suffer the more. My manner was what I constantly observe;—I did not put it on for the occasion.'

Shih-khäng Khî sidled away out of Lâo's shadow; then he retraced his steps, advanced forward, and asked how he should cultivate himself. The reply was, 'Your demeanour is repelling; you stare with your eyes; your forehead is broad and yet tapering; you bark and growl with your mouth; your appearance is severe and pretentious; you are like a horse held by its tether, you would move, but are restrained, and (if let go) would start off like an arrow from a bow; you examine all the minutiae of a thing; your wisdom is artful, and yet you try to look at ease. All these are to be considered proofs of your want of sincerity. If on the borders one were to be found with them, he would be named a Thief.'

9. The Master28 said, 'The Tâo does not exhaust itself in what is greatest, nor is it ever absent from what is least; and therefore it is to be found complete and diffused in all things. How wide is its universal comprehension! How deep is its unfathomableness! The embodiment of its attributes in benevolence and righteousness is but a small result of its spirit-like (working); but it is only the perfect man who can determine this. The perfect man has (the charge of) the world;—is not the charge great? and yet it is not sufficient to embarrass him. He wields the handle of power over the whole world, and yet it is nothing to him. His discrimination detects everything false, and no consideration of gain moves him. He penetrates to the truth of things, and can guard that which is fundamental. So it is that heaven and earth are external to him, and he views all things with indifference, and his spirit is never straitened by them. He has comprehended the Tho, and is in harmony with its characteristics; he pushes back benevolence and righteousness (into their proper place), and deals with ceremonies and music as (simply) guests:—yes, the mind of the perfect man determines all things aright.'

10. What the world thinks the most valuable exhibition of the Tâo is to be found in books. But books are only a collection of words. Words have what is valuable in them;—what is valuable in words is the ideas they convey. But those ideas are a sequence of something else;—and what that something else is cannot be conveyed by words. When the world, because of the value which it attaches to words, commits them to books, that for which it so values them may not deserve to be valued;—because that which it values is not what is really valuable.

Thus it is that what we look at and can see is (only) the outward form and colour, and what we listen to and can hear is (only) names and sounds. Alas! that men of the world should think that form and colour, name and sound, should be sufficient to give them the real nature of the Tâo. The form and colour, the name and sound, are certainly not sufficient to convey its real nature; and so it is that 'the wise do not speak and those who do speak are not wise.' How should the world know that real nature?

Duke Hwan29, seated above in his hall, was (once) reading a book, and the wheelwright Phien was making a wheel below it30. Laying aside his hammer and chisel, Phien went up the steps, and said, 'I venture to ask your Grace what words you are reading?' The duke said, 'The words of the sages.' 'Are those sages alive?' Phien continued. 'They are dead,' was the reply. 'Then,' said the other, 'what you, my Ruler, are reading are only the dregs and sediments of those old men.' The duke said, 'How should you, a wheelwright, have anything to say about the book which I am reading? If you can explain yourself, very well; if you cannot, you shall die!' The wheelwright said, 'Your servant will look at the thing from the point of view of his own art. In making a wheel, if I proceed gently, that is pleasant enough, but the workmanship is not strong; if I proceed violently, that is toilsome and the joinings do not fit. If the movements of my hand are neither (too) gentle nor (too) violent, the idea in my mind is realised. But I cannot tell (how to do this) by word of mouth; there is a knack in it. I cannot teach the knack to my son, nor can my son learn it from me. Thus it is that I am in my seventieth year, and am (still) making wheels in my old age31. But these ancients, and what it was not possible for them to Convey, are dead and gone:—so then what you, my Ruler, are reading is but their dregs and sediments!'


back 1 See pp. 144, 145.

back 2 That is, its operation is universal. The Chinese critics generally explain 'accumulation' here by 'rest,' which is not quite the idea.

back 3 Such is the meaning here of the ### as in the Tâo Teh King, chaps. 2, 8, and often.

back 4 ### here, is contracted in many editions into ### which some have mistaken for ###.

back 5 Such are the natural characteristics of the Tâoistic mind.

back 6 Implying cessation from all thought and purpose.

back 7 Compare in Bk. VI, pars. 13 and 7.

back 8 They do not cease to be, but only become transformed or changed.

back 9 I suppose that from 'It is said' to this is all quotation, but from what book we do not know.

back 10 'The virtue,' or attribute; = the way.

back 11 'Three hosts' constituted the military force of one of the largest states.

back 12 The bow, the club, the spear, the lance, the javelin. Other {footnote p. 335"> enumerations of them are given. See the 'Officers of Kâu,' Bk. XXXII.

back 13 Branding, cutting off the nose, cutting off the feet, castration, death.

back 14 I read here ### (not ###) ###.

back 15 The meaning, probably, is 'spontaneity.'

back 16 We cannot tell what book or books.

back 17 So, in the 'Spring and Autumn' Chronicle, the rightful reigning sovereign is ordinarily designated, 'Heaven's King.' It is not a Tâoistic mode of speaking of him.

back 18 It is supposed that Confucius, disappointed by his want of {footnote p. 339"> success, wished to deposit the writings or books which he prized so much in the Royal Library, that they might not be lost, and be available for some future teacher, more fortunate than himself.

back 19 The name of the Royal Library (###); meaning, perhaps, 'Approved.'

back 20 That is, help him to get his books deposited in the Library.

back 21 Meaning, perhaps, the 'Spring and Autumn,' containing a chronicle of twelve marquises of Lû. We know of no collection in the time of Confucius which could be styled the 'Twelve Classics.'

back 22 ### is to be read shui.

back 23 The unselfishness was not spontaneous.

back 24 We know nothing of this personage, but what is related here; nor does the whole paragraph serve to advance the argument of the Book.

back 25 These seem strange charges to bring against Lâo-dze, and no light is thrown on them from other sources.

back 26 The change had been produced by the demeanour of Lâo-dze; the other could not tell how. Other explanations of the question are given by some of the critics.

back 27 Compare in the first paragraph of Book VII.

back 28 No doubt, Lao-dze. In the 'Complete Works of the Ten Philosophers,' the text is ### and not ###.

back 29 No doubt, duke Hwan of Khî, the first of the five presiding chiefs of the Kâu dynasty.

back 30 See in Mencius I, i, vii, 4 a similar reference to the hall and the courtyard below it.

back 31 Compare the story in Book III about the ruler Wän-hui and his butcher; and other passages.