text below is slightly different from the published text. A few
references have been added to the bibliography and a few
new pieces by Arthur Cooper and Lin Shun-sheng further describe
the archaic gendered religion of vitality and life
("fertility religion") which I think is the ultimate
origin of many of Lao Tzu's themes. Conrady's paper speculates
about some of the themes I discuss, without coming to the
conclusions I have. A central contrast which I would stress more
if I were writing today is "the valley" as the
descending principle, as opposed to "virtue" as the
While I still have not been
able to insert Chinese characters into my text, I have provided
links to the Unihan glossary.
HIGHEST VIRTUE IS LIKE THE VALLEY"
John J. Emerson
Published in Taoist Resources,
vol. 3, #2, 1992, pp. 47-61.
"The valley" is clearly one of the most important
symbols in Lao Tzu, but its exact significance has never been
completely clear, and many readings of the text treat this theme
peripherally, concentrating instead on wu-wei, non-distinction,
Tao, and other obviously philosophical themes. My studies have
made it possible to return "the valley" to its central
position in the interpretation of Lao Tzu. It is my belief that
"virtue/power" ( te/*te.k)1
and "The Valley" ( ku/*kuk) were mutually-defining
polar principles in early China, and that this polarity is one of
Lao Tzu's central themes. The former is the positive or male
principle: virile, inceptive, actual, and active; the second is
the negative or female principle: receptive, potential, empty,
My argument is philological and textual on the one hand, and
anthropological on the other. I work with the uses of te.k and
kuk and their cognates in various pre-Han texts (as well as in
some of the later commentaries), interpreting this material in
light of concepts from cultural anthropology: mana, the big man,
symbolic reversal, polarity, cyclic repetition, and (especially)
gift-exchange and fertility religion (together with their related
notions, debt and pollution) 2
Cognates of te.k "virtue/power" (from GSR. 905, 918-21:
*te.k, *tie.k, *de.k, *d'e.k, *d'ie.k, *siek) include
"get, succeed"; "special, particular"; "single / male calf"; "food, feed, eat"; "grow"; "breed"; and perhaps even even "office, responsibility" various terms meaning "debt, blemish, or deviation (variant 1; variant 2).
Cognates of kuk "valley" (from
GSR 1202, 1226: *kuk *giuk *giug *guk) include "grain/ blessing/ child/
"intention, desire"; "hub"; "lust"; and "nestling". (Many of the verbal associations upon which
my argument depends have been noted in commentaries).
The words in these cognate groups are not synonyms; they merely
belong to "polythetic classes" of
metaphorically-related word-families, each member of which shares
meanings with most of the other members, but not necessarily with
all of them. 3 Examples of such
families in English include the groups "skid, scoot, skate,
skip, schooner" and "right, righteous, direct,
director, rectitude, rector". (Appendix I justifies my
methodology in greater detail).
This kind of reading of Lao Tzu deviates sharply from earlier,
predominantly philosophical approaches. It also differs, though
much less so, from treatments which interpret Lao Tzu within the
long subsequent tradition of religious Taoism. The use of a
mythic, philological, and anthropological approach does not imply
doubts about the philosophical value of the book: the author(s)
of Lao Tzu used archaic symbolism without being enslaved by it.
I will begin with a discussion of te.k "Virtue/Power"
in Lao Tzu and in early China generally, proceed to an
interpretation of kuk "The Valley" and its relationship
with te.k, and conclude with some general comments. Much of what
I will say about te.k has been said elsewhere, though some of it
has also been disputed; but by identification of kuk as a theme
paired with te.k is, to my knowledge, original.
TE.K: "VIRTUE/POWER" IN EARLY CHINA
Te.k "virtue/power" (*te in the Wade Giles
romanization) is familiar to every student of Chinese philosophy.
In its minimal, most neutral usage te.k means any quality or
trait of anything.4
Te.k standing alone is usually regarded as good or benevolent
(and in many contexts requires that interpretation), but evil
te.k was also spoken of.5
Government by te.k relies on generosity and good example; its
opposite is government by *hsing
: mutilating punishments and fear. In military situations te.k
signifies the victorious general's mercy toward those who have
In human affairs generally, te.k can be translated
"largesse", "bounty", "boon",
"favor", "mercy", or
"forebearance". (For example, in Chapter 7 of Chuang
Tzu we read: "Hun-tun treated them very kindly, and Shu and
Hu discussed how they could repay his kindness" [ te.k.])7 Preceding a pronoun
te.k functions verbally, meaning "to show gratitude, to
repay a kindness" -- literally, "to acknowledge
te.k" or "to credit with te.k")8
More generally, te.k means the positive principle of any polar
process; like alchemical "virtue" it can name inanimate
In astronomy *te.k
"virtue" is used to mean "waxing" and is
opposed to hsing
"waning": the same two graphs which were contrasted
just above in a governmental context.10 In many early texts,
the "Five Elements" (wu hsing
) were called the "Five Virtues" ( te.k.)11
Another group of cognates relates te.k to words meaning "to
stand up" or "stand out" or "to be
particular". These cognates include d'ie.k
"straight; to stand up, to raise, to rise up; to grow";
particular"; tie.k "office, job, function"; and perhaps sie.k "rule, model".
Several words cognate with te.k evoke virility and fertility:
d'e.k " male calf; anything
male"; die.k "grow, flourish"; and d'ie.k " food, to
eat, to feed".
Finally, many commentors identify te.k "Virtue/Power"
with te.k: "get; attain; satisfy;
succeed; success". These two words are phonetically
identical and are frequently interchanged (twice in Lao Tzu); I
believe that they might even be different grammatical functions
of the same word. This identification is another argument for
defining te.k as power, potency, or efficacy; the commentary
definition of te.k "virtue" as "that which gets
[te.k ] the support of the people" connects
"virtue" with largesse as well.
TE.K IN LAO TZU
Many of the appearances of te.k "virtue/power" in Lao
Tzu can be interpreted simply as "benefit" or
"credit for benefit". For example, "each
attributes the merit [te.k] to the other" (Ch. 60); "Do
good [te.k] to him who has done you an injury" (Ch. 63)12; "A boon [te.k]
to the state" (Ch. 65); and "The man of virtue [te.k]
takes charge of the tally; the man without virtue takes charge of
the exaction" (Ch. 79: the point is that the man of virtue
is generous and does not insist on repayment).
Te.k "virtue" is subordinated to Tao in two places in
Lao Tzu. "When Tao was lost there was virtue" (Ch. 38),
and "Tao gives them life [gives birth to them] and virtue
rears them" (Ch. 51). The word translated "rear"
in this passage ( *hsu)
is also seen in Ch. 61, where large states are said to
"tend" the small states dependent on them; in the
context of life and fertility, te.k here is the father, and Tao
the mother (who has priority over the father in the Taoist
scheme). This passage may also support the association of te.k
the actuality and particularity of creatures, with Tao
functioning, by contrast, as the comprehensive originating
In Chs. 23 and 49 the Ma Wang Tui texts read
"virtue/power" in passages where "get" is
seen in the traditional texts. Furthermore, the negation of
"virtue" with the verbal negator pu in Ch. 38 mandates
a verbal or adjectival interpretation. While the most common
translation of this passage is "The highest virtue is not
virtuous", the use of "virtue/power" as a stative
verb is rather rare; normally it is said is that someone or
something "has te.k" or "is without te.k" .
The reading "The highest virtue cannot be got" seems
the best here.13
In Chs. 23 and 38, "virtue/power" [te.k] is associated
with "loss" [shih]
-- the opposite of "get" [te.k]. Ch. 38: "After
losing Tao, there is virtue/getting":14 Ch. 23: "The man
of virtue/attainment conforms to virtue; the man of loss conforms
to loss. To him who conforms to virtue, Tao gets him [gives him
virtue?; is grateful to him?; considers him virtuous?]; to him
who conforms to loss, Tao loses him/ [gives him loss? considers
In a number of other passages "getting" is treated
paradoxically or critically. In Ch. 44 "getting" in its
normal form is set in ambivalent contrast with wang, another word
meaning "lose": "Getting and losing, which is more
harmful?". Ch. 22: "With little you get" :15 Even the phrase "scarce goods"
(*nan te chih huo" : literally "hard-to-get
goods") in Chs. 3, 12, and 64 might also be interpreted
"goods of troublesome virtue/power".
Several passages in Lao Tzu are illuminated by the "virtue/ food" (te.k / d'ie.k ) relationship. D'ie.k me.g in
Ch. 20 ("Feed / be fed by the mother") may also mean
te.k me.g "show gratitude to the Mother". (A similiar
and probably related phrase is seen in Ch. 52: te.k me.g ,
usually translated "get" or "attain the
Mother"). Similiarly, Liu Shih-p'ei has already pointed out
that "excessive food" in Ch. 24 can punningly be read
"excessive virtue": "From the point of view of the
way, [bragging and display] are 'excessive virtue and excrescent
("There is no misfortune more painful than desiring
gain" in Ch. 46 can be read the same way: "There is no
misfortune more painful than desiring virtue" : both these
interpretations make sense if "virtue" is thought of as
power or prestige.)
Of the cognates of te.k "virtue/power", d'ie.k "straight, rise up", te.k / t'e.g "defect,
deviation, debt", and s'ie.k
"rule, model" appear in their own right in Lao Tzu.
D'ie.k "straight, etc." is seen in Chs. 45 ("Great
straightness seems bent") and 58 ("Upright but without
Here "straight" seems to mean "upright,
prominent" and can be identified with the moral
interpretation of te.k; as is often the case in Lao Tzu, both
passages temper or redefine "uprightness", rather than
simply taking the term for granted.
In Ch. 65 "virtue/power" is associated with s'ie.k
"model": "Constantly to be aware of the models is
known as dark virtue." In Ch. 28 these two words are set
/ t'e.g "defect, deviation, debt": "If you are a
model to the empire, the constant virtue will not deviate".18Similiarly, in the
Ch'u Silk Manuscript, te.k "virtue [increase?]" is
opposed to tne.k
"evil, wrong [deviation? deficiency?]" in an
astronomical context; in Analects XII:21 these same two words are
opposed in a purely moral sense.19 The phonetic similiarities between the antithetical
terms in these three passages may be fortuitous, but I tend to
believe that te.k "virtue/power" and tne.k / t'e.k /
d'e.k / t'e.g are the positive and negative values of a single,
mutually-defining polarity between notable excellence and notable
In the traditional Chinese universe, Heaven, Earth, and Man were
not disjunct. Debt, deficiency, need, lack, sin, and astronomical
abnormality were analogous, and all of them were opposites of
te.k "virtue/power". The fertility of the soil, the
fertility of women, personal health, the political and economic
order, and the astronomical order were thought to be linked and
similiar in kind. (For example, royal licentiousness was thought
to cause bad weather, famine, deformed births, and astronomical
anomalies.) In any of these areas, te.k is the power of increase
and initiative, or the positive power.
My research supports Waley's identification of te.k
"virtue/power" with mana. Te.k (like mana) is a
paradoxical concept. In the first place, te.k is gained by giving
and not by having. Traditional Chinese society resembled the
anthropological "big-man" or "potlatch"
systems within which reputation, status, and authority were
gained by lavish gift- giving on ritual occasions. In such
systems, receivers of gifts are put in a servile or inferior
position which can be erased only by return gifts which are at
least equally lavish. Debts and crimes are equivalent, and
property in one's possession is always debt. The spirits are
"the real owners of the world's wealth"; a gift
received is at once "property, possession, pledge, loan,
object sold, object bought, deposit, mandate, and trust". In
such a system, no one is free. "A man gives himself because
he owes himself to others" ; "He himself is `bought'
until [what he has received] is paid for."20
Mana is the power to obligate and control others by prestige,
spiritual power, and the bestowal of benefits. The
"magical" aspect of mana rises from the fact that these
powers were thought to come from the spirits, who gave the debts
a spiritual sanction and who punished ingrates: a gift not repaid
eventually harmed the receiver. (Gifts and favors were often
strategically used with hostile intent). Both mana and te.k
depend on reputation. You possess these only if you are thought
to do so: only someone who is thought to be generous and powerful
will receive enough gifts and help to be able to be generous.
Since reputation for mana (or te.k) decides ones's social
standing (to the extent that a loser in the game can be
enslaved), mana and te.k are real. (Munro has criticized Waley's
interpretation of te.k; a defense of Waley appears in Appendix II
The traditional Chinese "sage" ( sheng jen) had many
points in common with the anthropological "big man". He
was diligent: "Yu" in person carried the basket and
wielded the spade, gathering together and mingling the rivers of
the world, till there was no down left on his calves, no hair on
Compare the big man: "[The big man] has to work harder than
anyone else to keep up his stocks of food.... It is acknowledged
that he has to toil early and late: `His hands are never free
from earth, and his forehead continually drips with sweat'".23 The big man builds up
a reputation by ostentatious giving, hoping to attract as many
people as possible to his feasts. A similiar theme recurs in the
classical Chinese descriptions of the sage. "Those who are
near are made happy, and those who are far off are
attracted".(Analects XIII-4).24 Po Yi speaks of Wen Wang: "Why should I not go
and follow him? I have heard that the chief of the West knows
well how to nourish the old" (Mencius IV A 13.)
"Suppose the case of the whole kingdom turning in great
delight to an individual to submit to him" (Mencius IV A
28). "Of the scholars of the kingdom there were multitudes
who flocked to him" (Mencius V A 1 3). The sequence of
Chinese sages seems to represent the transition from a big-man or
potlatch system (roughly speaking) to a hereditary state
but Chinese concepts of government never entirely lost the idea
that authority derives from virtue, generosity, and power to
A second paradox of te.k is that within the Chinese system of
reciprocities te.k is self-liquidating. This can be seen in the
gift-giving model, within which each gift or favor cancels one
debt and establishes another (reverse) debt. This relationship is
modeled in part on astronomy, where each increase brings decrease
closer: "The sun at noon is setting" (Hexagram #55, I
"It is the way of Heaven to take from what has in excess in
order to augment what is deficient" (Lao Tzu, Ch. 77). Thus
the various cognates of te.k mentioned above which mean
"debt" or "crime" are really its inverses:
the debt of the loan, or the deficiency of the excess.
As particularity, te.k is debt and is fated to disappear (or
return to the origin). When Chen writes that te.k is "Tao's
manifestation in Nature" or "the specific inborn nature
of each thing",27
or when Ames and Hall call te.k the "presencing of
particular" or the "arising of the particular as a
focus of potency in the process of existence",28 this positive
coming-to- be incurs a debt which, within the structure of
reciprocity, implies its eventual annullment. In this respect any
te.k is like food, which is defined by its consumption or
ceasing-to-be -- "the return to the Mother." (One of
the definitions of die.k "food, eat, feed" is
"eclipse of the moon or sun".)
Te.k is subordinated to Tao in Lao Tzu, and in Confucius *jen
"human-heartedness" has primacy. For the Chinese
philosophers, te.k was a given. Each of them had to make his own
adaptation of an archaic and potentially problematic term. Lao
Tzu's subversive strategy was to show that te.k, as comprehended
within Tao (the overall pattern of give and take), is transient
and entails its opposite.
KUK: THE VALLEY
The primary meaning of "the valley" is certainly
significant: a downward-tending emptiness through which water
flows. But other aspects of this symbol are also important. When
the "valley spirit" is associated in Ch. 6 with
"the dark female" and with inexhaustibility (which also
figures in Chs. 4 and 5), fertility is clearly a theme, and some
of the word's cognates reinforces this theme. For example, when
the Ho-shang Kung commentary interprets kuk "valley" in
this chapter as yang,
"nurturing", it does not provide a good gloss for
"valley", but its cognate kuk "blessing" (seen in its own right in Chs. 39 and 42 of
Lao Tzu) can thus be defined. (This word's confusing array of
meanings -- "grain, baby, luck, good, salary" -- can be
understood as the specific forms of "blessing" in
various contexts. The word giuk
"ample, generous, far- reaching", which often
characterizes royal largesse, may be an ancestral form of this
A second cognate ( giuk
"desire, intention"), which figures in many
commentaries on Ch. 6, evokes the erotic aspect of the female
principle, as well as the Taoist sexual yoga. A more explicit
form of this word -- giuk
"lust" -- is the focus of the Hsiang Erh commentary on
the chapter -- one of the oldest we have.29 (The appearances of the word giuk
"desire" in the text of Lao Tzu, by and large, do not
support my thesis; this question is discussed in Appendix III.)
Third, the interpretation "emptiness", though often
regarded as a Buddhist contamination, also receives textual
support from kuk "hub" in Ch.
11, which Lao Tzu explicitly identifies with
Fourth, several cognates not seen in the commentaries or in the
text of Lao Tzu support interpretation in terms of fertility: k'ug
"nestling", kug "to suckle" (GSR 1226 m), and
shell, eggshell". (Girardot has found a cosmic-egg theme in
Taoism; eggs often figured in ancient Chinese origin- myths,
notably that of the ruling *tzu "egg" clan of Shang).
The most interesting variant is the actual graph seen in the Ma
Wang Tui Lao Tzu: giuk
"wash, cleanse, purify". This variant has not so far
been regarded as significant, but (as we shall see below) the
term giuk "wash" figured in purification ceremonies
which took place on riverbanks and which were thought to bring
fertility; furthermore, the appearances of "the valley"
in Lao Tzu correlate closely with themes of soiling, muddying,
lowliness, and disgrace.
KUK IN LAO TZU: "THE VALLEY"
In most of the chapters in Lao Tzu in which water is of central
importance, (for example, Chs. 8, 32, 61, 62, 66, and 78),
lowliness and humility are the theme. In Ch. 66 (which, along
with Ch. 32, is the chapter in which "the valley" in
the literal sense is most obviously meant), "the
valley" stands for humbleness and willingness to take a low
and even disgraceful position. This is a common theme in ancient
Chinese philosophy: negatively in Confucius (Analects XIX-20:
"The superior man hates to dwell in a low-lying
position" ) but positively elsewhere (Lao Tzu, Ch. 61:
"A large state is the lower reaches of a river" ; Shen
Tao: "When the sea contends with the mountains for water,
the sea always wins the prize"; Mo Tzu: "The big rivers
do not despise the tiny brooklets as tributaries").31
"The valley" is clearly associated with impurity in at
least three of its seven appearances in Lao Tzu: "Murky like
muddy water, immense like the valley" (Ch. 15); "Know
the white, but keep to the role of the sullied, and be a valley
to the empire" (Ch. 28); "The highest virtue is like
the valley, the sheerest whiteness seems sullied" (Ch. 41).32 Furthermore, when kuk
"blessing" appears in Lao Tzu (in its negative form
"unblessed": Chs. 39 and 42), it is also associated
with humility. (The royal rites of self-denigration seen in these
chapters are most vividly described in Ch. 78: "Only he who
has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of the
soil-shrines" -- i.e., be king: Waley translation).
Consistent with reversal (the ruling principle in Lao Tzu), the
message in all these passages is the rehabilitation of impurity:
purity and impurity both have their place, and "the
valley" is identified with impurity as well as with
KUK AND TE.K IN LAO TZU
Kuk and te.k appear together in many passages in Lao Tzu.
"The highest virtue is like the valley" (Ch. 41);33 "If you are a
valley to the empire, the constant virtue will be
sufficient.....if you are a model (s'ie.k) to the empire, the
constant virtue will not deviate" (t'e.k: Ch. 28); "The
valley possessed (te.k) oneness and became thereby full"
(Ch. 39); "There is no crime greater than being desirable
(giuk); there is no misfortune more painful than being
covetous" (giuk te.k: Ch. 46); "Now if they both get
(te.k) their desire (giuk), it is fitting that the large should
take the lower position" (Ch. 61); "Hence the sage
desires not to desire (giuk) and does not value goods that are
hard to come by" (te.k: Ch. 64); "Not to value goods
that are hard to come by (te.k) will keep the people from theft;
not to display what is desirable (giuk) will keep the people from
being unsettled" (Ch. 3); "From the point of view of
the Way these are excessive food (d'ie.k ) and excrescent
conduct. As there are things that detest these, the man of
ambition (giuk : "desire, intention") does not abide
therein" (Ch. 24).
Kuk and te.k (together with their cognates) share a surprising
number of meanings. Both have been glossed *shan
The possessor of either displays generosity and forbearance; both
can be glossed "largesse". Both are dynamic,
representing dispositions or inclinations: both can be glossed
particular interest is the fact that both can mean either
"food" or "salary".
Much of the material I have presented so far on the functions of
te.k and kuk lends support to Ellen Marie Chen's theory that Lao
Tzu is rooted in pre-Confucian Chinese fertility religion.
"Everywhere and at all times food and children are the two
chief concerns of a primitive community".36 In Chinese culture
food is still a prime symbol of well-being and a chief means of
expressing respect and affection, and in ancient China this was
the more true. Confucius named his son after a carp he had been
presented by the Duke of Lu (Analects XVI-13), and left office on
one occasion because he had not been allowed to share the meat of
a sacrifice (Mencius VI B 6; see also Analects X-15). Monetary
units were customarily expressed in terms of measures of grain,
and "food" or "grain" ( d'ie.k; kuk) could
simply mean "salary". In Analects XV 31 (Legge tr.) we
read "The object of the superior man is truth [Tao]. Food
d'iek [salary] is not his object". Analects XV 37: "A
minister, in serving his prince, reverently discharges his
duties, and makes his emolument d'iek [food] a secondary
consideration". Te.k "get, succeed" appears in a
similiar context in Analects XII-21: "Put the service before
the reward you get for it [te.k]," as does kuk in Analects
XIV1: "When good government [Tao] prevails in a state, to be
thinking only of salary [ kuk "grain"]; and, when bad
government prevails, to be thinking only of salary -- this is
shameful". (A gloss on the Huai Nan Tzu identifies te.k with
kuk: "Eat [d'ie.k] the te.k of the earth" is explained
"The five grains [kuk] are the te.k of the earth".)37
Two traditional rituals (attested from the Han dynasty but
probably older) also suggest that te.k and kuk may in fact have
been archaic religious concepts.
1. "In the middle month of spring a sacrificial offering is
made to the Supreme Intermediary (Kao Mei) south of the city. The
offering consists of a single [male] calf" ( die.k seng).
The Kao Mei is the divine go-between or marriage broker;
according to the Li Chi, the calf was chosen because, in its pre-
sexual innocence, it had not lost any of its vitality. (Lao Tzu,
Ch. 55: "One who possesses virtue in abundance is comparable
to a new born babe"; Ch. 28: "When the constant virtue
does not desert you, you will again return to being a
2. The *fu-ch'u or "Lustration Festival" was closely
associated with giuk
"bathing". During this festival groups of young people
(male and female) waded a stream to purify themselves, afterwards
singing love songs and playing flirtatious games. Fertility was
one theme; purification (and breaking the hold of winter) the
second; and commemoration of the dead was the third. "It
embodies springtime renewal, purification, and sexual rites, and
its predominant tone is gay even though drowning and caring for
the dead are minor themes."39
Within the exchanges and transformations comprising the processes
of life (including health, prosperity, the production of heirs,
and political order), kuk is the negative pole, and te.k the
positive. Kuk is female, receptive, potential, and empty; te.k is
male, active, actual, and full. In Lao Tzu the traditional values
of virtue, fame, success, satisfaction, etc. (te.k) are
subordinated to a second cluster of traditional values (kuk): the
female, humility, soiling and purification, the valley, desire,
emptiness and need, and even death (the "return to the
Mother"). The positive, actual, virile, pure, successful,
and glorious are dependent on the empty, potential, fertile,
polluted, needy, and humble. In Lao Tzu te.k
"virtue/power" is redefined, and purged of its aspect
of pride, whereas the female principle is exalted.
Simple doctrines are not to be looked for in Lao Tzu. Instead,
the book should be thought of as a meditation on intention,
desire, satisfaction, life, death, fertility, vitality, order,
and disorder. While it is still possible that there is a
discrepancy between the political and the contemplative layer, or
between the primal fertility layer and the later immortality
layer, it is more accurate to speak of the development and
extension of a group of very old themes. The fundamental idea, I
believe (which rather resembles the heretical Christian idea of
the "fortunate fall", which is also associated with
uncleanness of woman) is that since there can be no fertility
without purification, there can be no fertility without
pollution. Similiarly, there can be no life without death, no
getting or owning without giving or losing, no being without non-
being, no satisfaction without need, and so on. Lao Tzu, Ch. 15:
"The muddy, being settled, slowly becomes limpid; the
settled, being stirred, slowly comes to life".
APPENDIX I : METHOD
"Sometimes the existence in the commentaries of two quite
different explanations of a word or phrase is due to the fact
that in reality both senses were intended": Arthur Waley,
"Introduction", Book of Songs, Grove, l960, p. 17.
My handling of variant graphs in the texts of Lao Tzu differs
considerably from the approach most often seen. I often treat
variant graphs as *chuan-chu (metaphorical extensions of meaning)
rather than as *chia-chieh (phonetic substitutions). Going even
further, I have allowed myself to look for semantic relationships
between any two words which are homonyms by Karlgren's rules
(though this does not mean that I always or usually find such
I have also systematically ignored scholarly attempts, motivated
by graphic essentialism, to fix the correct written forms
(thereby choosing a single interpretation.) I believe that these
attempts are often quite harmful, since the exploitation of
significant verbal ambiguities and double meanings is one of Lao
Tzu's most powerful devices. Geoffrey Waters, in his study of
Chu" Yu"an, has stated a similiar (but less extreme)
methodological principle thus: "First, I take it for granted
that a written character, or graph, may have more than one
correct meaning, depending upon the reader's assumptions about
the context. Graphs may represent a word with more than one
meaning, they may be borrowed for other words of similiar
pronunciation, and they may stand for similiar graphs from which
they differ only in detail: different radical, alternate
My method is phonetically-based, and is not dependent on attempts
to derive the meanings of words from the analysis of their
graphic forms. A similiar approach has been taken in the
interpretation of classical Greek, which is alphabetically
written. In the words of Charles Kahn (in his study of
Heraclitus): "[The principle of linguistic density within a
given text] is essentially the phenomenon of meaningful
ambiguity: the use of lexical and syntactical indeterminacy as a
device for saying several things at once...... This principle,
which has been taken for granted in literary criticism for some
time, has unfortunately been neglected in the more austere
proceedings of classical scholarship. As a result, a good deal of
scholarly effort has been devoted to eliminating multiplicity of
meaning and thus impoverishing the semantic content of the text,
by defending a single construal to the exclusion of all others.
In the case of Heraclitus as well as Aeschylus, the interpreter's
task is to preserve the original richness of significance by
admitting a plurality of alternative senses."42
I find more puns and double meanings in Lao Tzu than does any
other scholar (except perhaps the oft-criticized Ma Hsu-lun.) I
believe that certain vocables (notably kuk and te.k) resound
through the book as unrecognized themes, and that their
recognition makes possible the perception of important structural
relationships inaccessible to anyone reading a translation (and
even, often enough, to anyone reading Chinese without an
awareness of the archaic pronunciations.)
Many will feel that I am reading too much into the text, and
that, by and large, the words in Lao Tzu mean just what they say:
a valley is a valley, a hole is a hole, etc. While it is probably
inevitable that some of my claims will turn out to have been
exaggerated, I do not believe that this objection is valid as a
general principle. Anthropologists have never found a culture
which is without a complex symbolic language. In terms of
cultural evolution, it is diametrically wrong to suppose that
human languages gradually evolved from simple systems (suited
mostly for practical descriptions of physical reality) into
complex systems capable of expressing poetic ideas. Instead, it
is clear that the ability to make simple and unambiguous
statements about physical fact is late and sophisticated, whereas
ways of making rich and ambiguous symbolic statements about
birth, death, fertility, virtue/power, largesse, pollution,
magic, luck, the spirits, etc., are early and original.
The serious-minded interpretation of homonyms and puns has long
been an important philosophical technique -- not merely in
ancient China, but in most pre-modern cultures. (Vedantist
phonetic symbolism, the etymological and alphabetical mysticism
of the Kabbalists and the Sufis, and Plato's Cratylus come
immediately to mind.) Karlgren has described the punning glosses
of the Han scholiasts as "primitive etymology";43 to treat them as mere
whimsy or superstition is certainly unjustifiable. When archaic,
deep-lying meanings are exposed by this method, the effect can be
rather like a cultural psychoanalysis. This is as true of modern
as it is of classical languages: Nietzsche's history of the
meanings of the word "virtue" (from male virility to
female chastity) is only one example. (Amazingly, Machiavelli and
Han Fei Tzu resolved the ambiguities in the interpretations of
vertu and te.k, respectively, in exactly the same way: both
writers ignored the ethical meanings of these words, and
recognized only "power".)44
In order to understand any work, it is necessary to know what the
words mean. Just as Socrates' concept of justice bulds upon
Cephalus' and Polemarchus' more traditional definitions, Lao
Tzu's terminology can be illuminated by a study of other uses of
these terms. Waley's words were prescient: "I see no other
way of studying the history of thought except by first studying
the history of words."45
APPENDIX II: TE.K AND MANA
Munro has objected to Waley's description of te.k as a "pre-
moral, auguristic-sacrificial" power similiar to Polynesian
Munro's objections to Waley seem to be motivated mostly by doubts
about Waley's strong emphasis on the amoral, magical aspects both
of te.k and mana. Mana, however, does not simply mean
"magic". In the words of Mauss, "Polynesian mana
itself symbolizes not only the magical power of the person, but
also his honor, and one of the best translations of the word is
`authority' or `wealth'".47
Margaret Mackenzie's version of Polynesian mana also has an
ethical content: "Mana, in Maori medicine, is related to the
power of secret knowledge from spirits.....Where illness impinges
on ethics, health and salvation coalesce. Treatment joins the
worlds of the living and the dead, and mana is manifest as
correct, efficaceous activity specific to God, gods, spirits,
men, and medications". This is almost identical to Munro's
description of *Te (te.k ): "Te can be defined as a
consistent attitude toward the norms, which displays itself in
regularly appearing action in accordance with or in opposition to
only difference is that Munro does not mention supernatural
sanctions, but these were clearly part of the concept for most
To us, power derived from sacrifice or piety is hardly less
magical than the sorcerer's power: the only difference is that
the latter is considered illicit and perhaps malevolent. The
important point is that te.k, like mana, implies power and
efficacity -- and not just generous sentiments or obedience to
ethical rule. Originally this power was thought to be
supernatural in origin; in the course of time, moralized secular
interpretations of te.k arose. The meaning of the term was always
contested, and the meaning given the term by an individual can
serve as an indicator of that individual's ethical state. (One
can hardly imagine Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, Chou of Shang, or any
other evil emperor admitting to a lack of te.k; in fact, their
crime was precisely their claim to have gained permanent,
uncontestable possession of te.k -- i.e., "power").
Munro's stress on te.k's interpretation as "power of
example" and his objections to Waley's exaggerated stress on
the amoral aspect of te.k are both justified. But Munro's
understanding of mana is quite weak, and his interpretation of
te.k relies too exclusively on the scribal interpretations
embedded in the script itself, and requires that too many of the
actual meanings of the word simply be ignored.49
APPENDIX III: DESIRE
Giuk "desire" as an interpretation of the Valley Spirit
is well-attested in the commentarial literature and in later
Taoist practice. However, the appearances of this word in the
text of Lao Tzu are not closely related to the appearances of The
Valley and its related themes. I believe that, while giuk
"desire" is one of the associations of kuk "the
valley", most of the appearances of the word
"desire" itself belong to a different thematic group,
and possibly to a different textual layer. (Some are simply
unthematic appearances of a very common word).
Thus "desirelessness" and "making the desires
few" in Chs. 3, 19, 34, 37 (traditional text), 57, and 64
relate to the attainment of political order through simplicity
and contentment, rather to than fertility or the cultivation of
life: "[The sage] constantly keeps the people innocent of
knowledge and free from desire, and causes the clever not to
dare" (Ch. 3). Similiarly, the related theme "life and
death" appears not only in a "cultivation-of-life"
context in Chs. 50, 52, and 55, but also in a political context
in Chs. 73, 74, and 75.
The appearances of "having desire" in Lao Tzu are more
promising for my thesis. In Ch. 1 "having desire" and
"desirelessness" are paired as mutually-necessary polar
values; "desirelessness" here seems to be primary, but
"having desires" is not condemned. More dramatically,
in Chs. 24 and 31 of the MWT Lao Tzu, "The man of
desire" (Lau: "The man of ambition") is seen where
"The man of Tao" is seen in the traditional text! In
these two chapters nemesis and the renunciation of pride and
glory (consistent with the general significance of "the
valley") are the themes. Since "without disgrace",
as noted, appears in Ch. 37 of the Ma Wang Tui text where
"does not desire" is seen in the traditional text, I
believe that we have here more evidence for my theory that the
association of kuk "the valley / desire" with shame,
disgrace, and lowliness is central to Lao Tzu.
A subtle play of desire and freedom from desire is present at
every level of Lao Tzu. It should not be expected that the
appearances of these themes should be unambiguous.
Allen, Sarah, The Heir and the Sage, CMC, San
Ames Roger, and Hall, David, Thinking
Through Confucius, SUNY, 1987.
Barnard, Noel, Chu Silk Manuscript:
Translation and Commentary, Canberra, 1973.
Bodde, Derk, Festivals in Classical China,
Wing-tsit, The Way of Lao Tzu, Library of Liberal Arts,
Chen, Ellen Marie, The Tao Te Ching, Paragon,
Chen, Ellen Marie, The Meaning of Te in the Tao Te
Ching, Philosophy East and West, vol. 32, #4, 1973,
Cheng, Man-jan, Lao Tzu: "My Words Are Very
Easy To Understand", North Atlantic Press, 1981.
Chiang Hsi-ch'ang, Lao Tzu Chiao Ku, Taipei,
Chuang Tzu: tr. Burton Watson, Columbia U.
ta-tzu-tien, Chinese Culture U., Taipei, 1973.
Confucius: Analects, The Great learning, and the
Doctrine of the Mean, tr. James Legge, Dover, l971.
Conrady, A., Zu Lao-Tze cap. 6, Asia
Major (first Series), Vol. 7, 1932, pp. 150-6.
Cooper, Eugene, The Potlatch in Ancient
China, History of Religions, vol. 22, #3, 1982, 103
Cooper Arthur, The Creation of the Chinese Script,
China Society Occasional Papers, #20, 1978, London.
Couvreur, F.S., Dictionnaire Classique de la
Langue Chinoise, Taipei, Book World 1966.
Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger, Routledge
Kegan Paul, 1975.
Douglas, Mary, Implicit Meanings, Routledge Kegan Paul,
Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Princeton,
Erkes, Edward, tr., Ho-Shang Kung, Artibus
Fried, Morton, The Evolution of Political
Societies, Random House, 1967.
Girardot, N. J., Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism,
Graham, A.C., Yin-Yang and the Nature of Correlative
Thinking, Singapore, 1986.
Granet, Marcel, Chinese Civilization,
Granet, Marcel, Festivals and Songs of Ancient China,
George Routledge & Sons, 1932.
Hou Han Shu, Fan Hua ed., Chung Hua
I Ching: Wilhelm, Richard and Baynes, Cary, trs., I
Ching, Princeton, 1967.
Charles, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, Cambridge,
Bernhard, Grammata Serica Recensa, BMFEA Bulletin
#29, Stockholm, 1957.
Bernhard, Glosses on the Book of Odes, BMFEA, 1964.
Karlgren, Bernhard, Gleanings for a Lexicon of Classical
Chinese, parts. 1-3, BMFEA, 1972-4.
Karlgren, Bernhard, Loan Characters in Pre-Han Texts,
Michael, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, SUNY, 1992.
Whalen, Icons and Iconoclasms, Taoist Resources,
vol. 1, #2, Winter, 1989, pp. 28-36.
Tzu: Lau, D.C., tr., The Tao Te Ching, 1982, Chinese
U. Press, Hong Kong.
Shun-sheng, Chung-kuo tzu-miao te chi-yuan, in Min-tso-hsue
yen-chiu-suo chi-kan, Taipei, 1959.
Mark Edward, Sanctioned Violence in Early China, SUNY
Press, 1990Li Chi, tr. Legge, University Books, 1967.
Hsu-lun, Lao Tzu Chiao Ku, Beijing, 1974.
Mana in Maori Medicine, in The Anthropology of
Power, eds. Fogelson and Adams, New York: Academic Press,
Marcel, tr. Cunnison, The Gift, Norton, 1967.
Tzu: The Works of Mo Tzu, tr. Mei, Confucius Pub. Co.,
Donald, Concept of Man in Early China, Stanford, 1969.
Rodney, Symbolic Classification, Goodyear, 1971..
Needham, Rodney, ed., Right and Left,
Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, vol.
II, Cambridge, 1956.
Nivison, David, Royal Virtue in
Shang Oracle Inscriptions, Early China, vol. 4,
1978-9, pp. 52-5.
Daniel, and Arbuckle, G., Review of LeBlanc and
Blader, Journal of Chinese Religions, vol. 16, Fall
1988, pp. 113-117.
Ariane, tr., Commentary on Lao Tzu by Wang Pi, Hawaii,
Sahlins, Marshall, Stone Age Economics,
Sangren, Steven, History and Magical Power in a Chinese
Community, Stanford, 1987.
Schuessler, Axel, Dictionary of Early Zhou
Chinese, Hawaii, 1987.
Chün-yi, Chung-kuo Che-hsueh Yuan-lun, vols. 1-3, Student
Bookshop, Taipei, 1975.
P. M., The Shen Tzu Fragments, Oxford, l979.
Thompson, P. M, A Translation of the Shen
Tzu Fragments, vol. 3 of unpublished dissertation, U.
Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process, Routledge
Kegan Paul, 1969.
Waley, Arthur, The Book of Songs, Grove, 1937
Waley, Arthur, The Way and its Power, Grove,
Wang, Hsiao-po, and Chang, Leo, The Philosophical
Foundations of Han Fei's Political Theory, Hawaii, 1986.
Pi, Lao-tzu Chou-I Wang Pi chu chiao-shih, Taipei, Hua
Chung Publishing, 1983.
Wang Yuk, Lao Chuang Ssu-hsiang Lun-chi, Taipei, 1979.
Waters, Geoffrey, Three Elegies of Chu,
Yen Ling-feng, Tao-chia Ssu Tzu Hsin Pien,
Yen Ling-feng, Ma-wang-tui Po-shu Lao-tzu
shih-tan, Taipei, 1976.
I would like here to acknowledge the encouragement and advice I
have received from Rodney Needham, Norman Girardot, and Ellen
Marie Chen, as well as the material help I have received from my
late friend Patty Mecham and from the Department of Interlibrary
Loan at the Oregon Health Sciences University Library.
Since finishing this chapter, interesting articles by Arthur
Cooper, A. Conrady, David Nivison, and Lin Shun-sheng have come
to my attention: Cooper Arthur, The Creation of the Chinese
Script, China Society Occasional Papers, #20, 1978, London;
Conrady, A., Zu Lao-Tze cap. 6, Asia Major
(first Series), Vol. 7, 1836, pp. 150-6; Nivison, David,
Royal Virtue in Shang Oracle
Inscriptions, Early China, vol. 4, 1978-9, pp. 52-5;
Ling Shun-sheng, Chung-kuo tzu-miao te
chi-yuan, two articles in Min-tso-hsue
yen-chiu-suo chi-kan, Taipei, 1959.
My general theoretical framework is derived from Mircea Eliade,
The Myth of the Eternal Return; Victor Turner, The Ritual
Process; Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger and Implicit Meanings;
Marcel Mauss, The Gift (amplified by Sahlins in Stone Age
Society; and Rodney Needham, Symbolic Classification. Marcel
Granet's Chinese Civilization is a classic application of a
similiar approach to ancient China; Steven Sangren's History and
Magical Power in a Chinese Community, Mark Edward Lewis'
Sanctioned Violence in Early China are more recent studies of
"Polythetic classes" are defined in terms of several
traits, no one of which is either shared by every member of the
class, or unique to the class. Rodney Needham is responsible for
bringing this term, which is much the same as Wittgenstein's
"family resemblance", into anthropology from botany.
See Needham, 1979, pp. 64-66.
Karlgren, GSR 919: "virtue, virtuous; quality, nature;
character, disposition"; Schuessler, pp. 117-11:
"Character, personality, personal ability, authority,
virtue, good/bad intentions."
Karlgren, Lexicon #1634.
Analects, II-iii-1 and IV-xi; Lewis, p. 274, fn. 50.
Chuang Tzu, Watson tr., p. 97. See also Schuessler, p. 118, De2c.
(For some reason Schuessler (p. 352) lists this usage of under ,
even though the graph seen is ). The Chung Wen Ta Tz'u Tien
(#10480, Chinese #6) lists the definition en hui "largesse,
generosity, favor", giving examples from the Tso Chuan,
Lü Shih Ch'un Ch'iu, and elsewhere.
Couvreur (p. 306) gives the definition "etre
reconnaissent", providing the following example from the Tso
Chuan (Ch'eng Wang Year Three): ? "`Then,' continued the
King, `do you feel grateful to me?' (Legge tr., p. 352; see also
p. 189). In an exasperatingly ambiguous pattern familiar to
students of Classical Chinese, te.k can mean either "a
benefit" or "to feel gratitude for the benefit
received". Most often, the nominal use should be translated
"benefit" , and the verbal form "to feel
gratitude", but Couvreur (p. 306) cites a passage from the
Book of Odes within which a verbal appearance of te.k is best
interpreted "benefit": : "No one is willing to
help me". Since a return benefit was the expected expression
of gratitude for a benefit received, the identification of
"benefit" and "gratitude" is not surprising.
Hsu Shen's definition of *te.k "virtue" as sheng "to ascend, to raise, to rise; interpreted teng"(cited
in Nivison) makes sense when sheng is read to mean "to
present to", as is frequent, and likewise if
"rise" is interpreted as "increase" (as in
the English phrase "the increase").
In Waley (1958) virtus is identified as a power on p. 20,
as is *te [te.k] on p. 21, but no connection is suggested between
the two. Joseph Needham, however, identifies all three (mana,
virtus and te.k): Science and Civilization in China, vol. II, p.
See Overmeyer and Arbuckle.
Graham, p. 75.
12 Also seen in
Analects XIV: 36.
te" would mean "the highest virtue doesn't get
anything", but this variant is not seen anywhere; while and
are almost interchangeable in later texts, this is almost
certainly the result of a late taboo; the Ma Wang Tui texts
should be regarded as definitive.
14 Wang Pi
stressed the virtue / get / lose association in his comments on
Chs. 23 and 38. In Chuang Tzu's "T'ien Hsia" chapter,
Kuan Yin, an apocryphal figure closely associated with Lao Tzu,
is quoted as saying that "Whoever gains loses ". (My
translation. Watson translation, p. 370: "to look upon
accumulation as insufficiency").
Cited by Wang Pi (Rump, p. 71: Ch. 23).
16 Ma Hsu-lun (p.
269) has credited Liu Shih-P'ei with this interpretation; see
also Wang Yuk, p. 266 (who cites Sun Yi- jang), and Yen
Ling-feng, 1977, p. 66. If this interpretation of Ch. 24 is
correct, we have additional support for Man-jan Cheng's doubts
(p. 171) about the authenticity of Ch. 54, where we see the same
phrase used in an incompatible sense: "Cultivate it in the
family, and there will be virtue to spare " (Lau tr.:
17 Wang Pi cites Ch. 45 in his comment on Ch. 58:
"lead the people with uprightness [but do not] stir things
up with inflexibility" (Rump, p. 167).
18 In Ma Wang Tui A t'e.k
/ d'e.k "beg, demand" is seen for t'ek
"debt, defect" in this passage; in Ma Wang Tui B t'e.g
"borrow" is seen.
Barnard, Ch'u Silk Manuscript (pp. 146, 150, 152, and 160).
Barnard shows little confidence in his own translation
"slower motion of the moon": p. 160.
Mauss, pp. 13, 22; 41, 51. Compare Waley's definition of te.k as
"the stock of credit [or the deficit] that at any given
moment a man has in the bank of fortune": Waley, 1958, p.
21 For specifically Chinese examples, see Cooper,
Eugene, "The Potlatch in Ancient China", History of
Religions, vol. 22, #3, (November 1982), pp. 103-128.
Chuang Tzu, Watson tr., p. 366.
Sahlins, p. 135, citing Hogbin.
24 Compare Mauss, p. 106, n. 152.
25 Fried (1967) provides a description of this
evolution; it is not necessary to accept his overall theory to
profit from what he says. It is interesting to read Allan (1981)
in light of Fried.
26 I Ching, Wilhelm-Baynes tr., p. 670.
27 Chen, 1970.
28 Ames and Hall, pp. 217, 219.
29 Chan, p. 111.
30 The many appearances of nothings, holes, and
absences in Lao Tzu (perhaps symbolizing the womb, the belly, or
even the grave) are worthy of note. Nonbeing of any kind is
usually treated favorably -- notably *wu "nothing,
nothingness" in Chs. 2, 11, 40, and 43; *hsu
"emptiness" in Chs. 3, 5, and 16; *chung
"empty" in Chs 4, 45, and possibly 43; *wa
"hollow" in Ch. 22; *chien "gap, crack" in
Ch. 43; and *chiao "orifice, hole" in some texts of Ch.
1. The *tui "openings" which were to be "stopped
up" in Chs. 52 and 56 are problematic; in these chapters
freedom from process seems to be aimed at. **
31 Analects XIX-20 (see also VI-21 and XVII-24);
Thompson, The Shen Tzu Fragments, #101 (tr. p. 559); Mo Tzu, Ch.
I (p. 9, Mei translation). Water is pervasive in Chinese
philosophy; see also Mencius IV A 9 2, VI A 2, VII A 24, IV B 26,
VI B 11, VII A 24.
32 Wang Pi's note on this chapter is interesting. It
can be transcribed "He does not te.k his te.k" (
"virtue/power" being seen in both places.) Rump (p.
124) translates "He will not consider his virtue as virtue,
for he does not think of it." The
"virtue"/"get" association discussed earlier
is relevant here: "He does not get his success",
"He does not regard his success as virtuous", etc. (*Huai
"think of" also means "possess, keep" -- Lao
Tzu Ch. 70: "conceal on his person".) In any case,
selflessness, humility, and non-possessiveness are intended.
33 Ho-Shang Kung commentary, Erkes tr., p. 79: the
valley is "not ashamed of dirt and lowliness".
"Sullied" *ju is closely cognate with
"shame, disgrace, humiliation" *ju ,
seen in Ch. 13: "Favor is disgrace and is like being
startled"; Ch. 44: "Knowing contentment, one suffers no
humiliation. Knowing when to stop, one will be free of
danger"; and in the MWT text of Ch. 37: "They will not
be shamed. When they are not shamed, Heaven and Earth will be
proper of their own accord." ["Sullied" ju
is a rare graph made up of "shame" ju plus the hei
34 For te.k see the Chung Wen Ta Tz'u Tien, #10480,
Chinese #8; for kuk see Legge's notes to Analects VIII-12.
35 Schuessler, p. 117: te.k : "Good/bad
intentions". Giuk "desire" can simply mean
"intention" or "goal", without the erotic or
emotional aspect. Chiang Hsi-ch'ang (pp. 38-9) concludes that
"the valley" symbolized *fu "belly" (or
perhaps "appetite", inclusive of sexual appetite.)
36 Ellen Marie Chen, The Tao Te Ching, Paragon, 1989
(pp. 24, 70); citing E. O. James. Her articles have also been
helpful. Girardot's Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism , Whalen
Lai's "Icons and Iconoclasm", and Sarah Allen's works
are other recent investigations of the mythic roots of Chinese
37 From Book II, "Shu Chen"; cited in the
Chung Wen Ta T'zu Tien, (#10480, Chinese #9).
38 Bodde p. 244; Li Chi, Legge tr., Vol. I, p. 417;
Hou Han Shu, "Kao Mei" section. (Karlgren, Gloss #129:
"primarily means `male'".)
39 Bodde, p. 273. (This is the festival described by
Granet in his Festivals and Songs of Ancient China.) Bodde does
not make it quite clear whether "bathing" is actually a
name of this ceremony or not: "Other analogous terms found
in the texts include....`bathing' [giuk]".
"Bathing" appears also Analects XI-25; as might be
expected, in this case it is all-male and completely chaste.
40 Arthur Waley, "Introduction", Book of
Songs, Grove Press, 1960, p. 17.
41 Karlgren Loan
Characters, pp. 10--17.
42 Waters, p. 21.
43 Kahn, pp. 88-89.
44 Karlgren, 1963/1967, pp. 1-2.
45 Wang and Chang, pp. 167-168.
46 Waley, 1958, p. 29.
47 Waley, 1958, pp. 20-21; Munro pp. 102-3.
48 Mauss, p. 36. Te.k is used in compounds meaning
"reputation" or "fame": Schuessler, p. 118.
49 Munro, p. 100; Mackenzie, p. 56. Munro pp. 185-193.
Munro's dismissals of various proposed interpretations of te.k
are scattered: "innate nature" (p. 101);
"get" (pp. 107, 193); "bounty" (pp. 104,
186); "character" (p. 100); "to plant, to
grow" (p. 108.)