The text below is slightly different from the published text. A few references have been added to the bibliography and a few corrections made.

The 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 rising principle.

While I still have not been able to insert Chinese characters into my text, I have provided links to the Unihan glossary.


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, and still.

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)

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/ salary"; "ample, opulent, indulgent""; "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" (*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 submitted.6 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 powers.
9 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"; d'e.k "single, 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.


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 principle.

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.
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 him lost?]:

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 conduct'".16 ("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 encroaching").17 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 against t'e.k / 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 deficiency.




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."

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 below).

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 his shins...."
22 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 system,25 but Chinese concepts of government never entirely lost the idea that authority derives from virtue, generosity, and power to benefit.

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 Ching);
26 "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.


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 word).

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 "nothingness" *wu.30

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 k'uk "hollow, 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.


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").

"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 cleansing.


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 "good".34 The possessor of either displays generosity and forbearance; both can be glossed "largesse". Both are dynamic, representing dispositions or inclinations: both can be glossed "intention".35Of 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 babe.")38
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".


"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 relationships.)

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 form."

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."

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."


Munro has objected to Waley's description of te.k as a "pre- moral, auguristic-sacrificial" power similiar to Polynesian "mana".
46However, 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 them".
48The only difference is that Munro does not mention supernatural sanctions, but these were clearly part of the concept for most early Chinese.

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.


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.



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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 -- 128.


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Girardot, N. J., Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism, California, 1983.

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Granet, Marcel, Chinese Civilization, Meridian, l958.

Granet, Marcel, Festivals and Songs of Ancient China, George Routledge & Sons, 1932.


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Sangren, Steven, History and Magical Power in a Chinese Community, Stanford, 1987.


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1 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 ch’i-yuan”, two articles in Min-tso-hsue yen-chiu-suo chi-k’an, Taipei, 1959.


2 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 this type.


3 "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.


4 Karlgren, GSR 919: "virtue, virtuous; quality, nature; character, disposition"; Schuessler, pp. 117-11: "Character, personality, personal ability, authority, virtue, good/bad intentions."


5 Karlgren, Lexicon #1634.


6 Analects, II-iii-1 and IV-xi; Lewis, p. 274, fn. 50.


7 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.


8 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").


9 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. 229.


10 See Overmeyer and Arbuckle.


11 Graham, p. 75.


12  Also seen in Analects XIV: 36.

13."Shang te fu 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").

15 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.: "excess virtue").

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.

19  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.

20  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. 31.

21 For specifically Chinese examples, see Cooper, Eugene, "The Potlatch in Ancient China", History of Religions, vol. 22, #3, (November 1982), pp. 103-128.

22  Chuang Tzu, Watson tr., p. 366.

23  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 "black" radical].

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 philosophy.

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.)