Chapter 16 of the Daodejing:

2177 words on ~25 words


The many variants in these opening lines make this ~25-character passage a very interesting case in textual criticism. While the problems are many, most of them are solvable, and the few which are not can either be accepted as alternate readings, or left as unsolved problems. I have translated only the first six lines of the traditional version of this chapter, which are the only ones included in the GD text. The chain-sequence at the end of the chapter has been moved elsewhere, along with the other four chain-sequences.

The below is mostly based on the Henricks GD (pp.60-62 and 209-210) and the Henricks MWD (pp. 218-219 and 273). The Old Chinese (OC) and Modern Chinese (MC) pronunciations are from Schuessler, and the definitions are from Wang Li. I have ignored the various added / dropped grammatical particles.

If you start by establishing what is common to the WB, MWD A, MWD B and GD texts of these lines, from the strictest point of view this is all you get:

* 虛 *, 守* *. 萬 * * * , * 以 * *. * * * *, 各 * * *.
However, there are many routine or obvious graphic or phonetic substitutions in these four versions. The pre-Qin writing system was not standardized, and even in the later textual tradition substitutions are frequent, but many cases non-standard forms can easily and uncontroversially be converted into standard forms. If you make these routine substitutions, the four texts are now in substantial agreement on three of six lines (though there are interesting questions about 芸芸 in line 5):

致虛極, 守 * *. 萬物旁作, * 以 * 復. * * 芸芸, 各復(歸)其根.

I will deal with the easiest questions first: in every text of the final line but the GD text we see the phrase 復歸, but the GD text only has 復. These two words are not synonyms, but they have overlapping meanings, and the combined form 復歸 fugui “return” (also seen in chapters 14, 28, and 52) is one of the DDJ’s important themes. However, in chapter 16 this two-word phrase destroys the parallelism of the closing lines. It looks as though at some point later point editor, forced to choose between parallelism of the GD text and richness of interconnectivity, decided to choose the latter. This type of variation is common in the texts of DDJ, and as far as I know there is no temporal pattern – sometimes the parallel text is earlier, sometimes it’s later.

In line four the GD variant changes the meaning of the line but does not substantially affect the function of the line in the chapter: “I watch their return” 吾以觀復 vs. “[ I ] sit and await their return” 居以須復.

We now have a fairly readable chapter:

Attain the ultimate in emptiness,
Keep to the …..
The myriad beings are rising beside me
And so I watch their return [I sit and await their return] —
The …. are teeming,
each is returning to its root….

Now, in line five there are two problems. First, the WB text begins with the introductory particle 夫 fu, whereas both the GD text and the two MWD texts begin with the word 天 tian “heaven”. Since 夫 usually is used to introduce new topics or to divide longer discourses into sections, the word seems inappropriate in this short passage, and the better choice would tian 天, modifying the following noun.

In most DDJ texts the noun which follows is wu 物 “beings”, but in the GD text we see an otherwise-unknown graph which has been interpreted both as 狀 “Dao” (based on its right-hand element) and as zhuang 狀 “shapes / forms” (based on its left-hand element). Since “Dao” isn’t plural and doesn’t really teem, I have translated this line as “Heaven’s forms are teeming”. (“Heaven’s beings are teeming” would be OK too, but this new version seems better because of a similar passage in Chapter 14.)

Line two is a bit mysterious in all versions and is also the trickiest textually:

WB 守靜篤 shou jing du
MWD B 守靜督 shou jing du
MWD A 守情表 shou qing biao
GD 守中篤 shou zhong du (=守盅篤?)

All texts of line two begin with the word 守 shou “Honor, defend, keep to”. 情 qing in MWD A is probably a substitute for 靜 jing “stillness”. Probably for taboo reasons, in the MWD and GD texts the 靜 of the WB version frequently is replaced by phonetically and graphically similar words such as 靜. At the same time, 情 qing can mean “basic reality”, whereas the next word 表 biao can mean “the external, what is evident”, so you wonder whether this reading doesn’t relate to the 徼/妙 jiao/miao “externals / mysteries” and 皦/昧 jiao/mei bright / dim contrasts from chapters 1 and 14. But that sense is hard to fit into an already difficult chapter.

For the second word his still leaves us the choice between jing 靜 “stillness”, zhong 中 “the inner, the center, the unbiased”, and zhong 盅 “emptiness”. The first and third of these are important themes in the DDJ and either would probably fit here; jing 靜 “stillness” might be better because “emptiness” 虛 xu has already been mentioned in line one, but perhaps an intensification of emptiness was desired, and both readings should probably be kept as alternative possibilities.

For the third word there are three variants: du 篤 “thick, solid, or deep”; du 督, often a substitute for the above, but also meaning “the spine or central seam” and “to oversee”; and 表 biao “the evident, the exterior”. Biao 表 has already been discussed and makes sense only when paired with情 qing. Du 督, if it is not simply a substitute for du 篤 “solid, deep”, makes sense as “the spine or central seam”, but its verbal meaning “to oversee” is hard to construe at the end of a line. So now we have Keep to the [still/empty/central] [solidity/main seam], and in the context of the DDJ all of these combinations would work.

Translations of this line include “Abide in genuine quietude”, “Maintain utter stillness”, “Preserve the profoundest depths of tranquility”, “Maintain tranquility in the center”, “Cautiously guard the void”, “Hold firmly to stillness”, “Keep to extreme stillness”, and “Watch over stillness very firmly”).

So now we have solved most textual problems while leaving alternative texts in two or three places (and while still leaving many problems of interpretation and translation untouched):

Attain the ultimate in emptiness,
Keep to the [empty and solid / empty main seam / still and solid / still main seam / central solidity / central main seam].
The myriad beings are rising beside me
[And I watch their return / and I sit and await their return] —
The beings or forms of Heaven are teeming,
each is returning to its root….

Finally, I have mentioned a question with 芸芸 “teeming”. There is no doubt about this translation, since this phrase is a common one and since all variants are cognates. It would be easy enough to ignore the variants, except for the Chinese linguistic usage in question.

The phrase 芸芸 is an example of a particular Chinese linguistic form which produces poeticisms. This form is somewhat comparable to (but much more flexible and productive than) the English language’s more or less obsolete vocative form: — “O England, how brave and true are your heroes….”, etc. Functionally the Chinese form is an adverbial modifier which colors the whole sentence. This form is often doubled, either by repeating a word (“AA”) or coupling two similar words (“AB”). It can be followed by one of a number of particles and a van doublet be split: A兮, AA兮, AA然, A兮B兮, A哉!, A乎B乎, and so on. Dobson (p. 8) classifies these forms as impressives, emotives, intensives, imitatives, similatives, etc., but I just call them expressives. What they have in common is that they simultaneously refer to a thing, the experience of a thing, and the feeling that the experience gives you — a grammatical form for the objective correlative. They are evidence for Stephen Owen’s claim that in Chinese poetry, meanings are not private but public. The expressives are part of the common stock of Chinese emotion, a standard linguistic way of representing the experience-feeling couple.

Expressives are notoriously fluid both phonetically and graphically. The various representations of 芸芸 in this passage are phonetically relatively uniform (always wən or wen) but there are six different graphic forms representing as many as five different underlying metaphors. The table below gives the WB, MWD A, MWD B and GD variants, plus two variants from Jiang Xichang. Three of these variants are not found in most dictionaries, and in two cases I give my guesses as to their meaning based on words found in Wang Li’s dictionary. Because of the regularity of the OC phonetics I have guessed at the OC pronunciations but these phonetics diverge in modern Chinese so I did not guess about the MC.
1 Wang Bi: 芸, wən / yun: Flourishing, teeming.
2 Common Jiang variant: 云, wən / yun: ancient version of #3 “clouds”.
3 MWD A: 雲 , wən / yun: clouds.
4 MWD B: 礻 on left, 云 on right: [wən / ?] Soul? Same as 4a?
4a Wang Li: 魂, wən hun: Soul.
5 GD: 員 above 火. [wen?] ? Yellowed? Round and round? Same as 5a?
5a Wang Li p. 665: 熉, [wen?]/ yun: Yellowed.
6 Jiang variant: 員 on left, 云 on right. [wən or wen / ?]: Round and round?
Wang Li, p. 977: 耘, wən / yun: To weed.

The chart gives two unmistakable underlying metaphors and hints of three more. 芸 is a kind of plant, and as an expressive binome this word commonly means “flourishing, teeming” (as do several other agricultural metaphors). In MWD A you see 雲雲 “clouds clouds” which could be a different metaphor for teeming — in many respects a better one in this case since we are talking about changing forms. (云 is an archaic version of 雲; it is amusing here because 云云 is sometimes used to mark ellipses in quotations – “etc., etc.”)

If #4 is taken to be #4a 魂, which is very plausible, then we have “spirits spirits”, and spirits also teem. If #5 is taken to be #5a 熉, since both characters are made up of the same elements, then we get an entirely different metaphor — “withered and yellowed” rather than “teeming”. In this interpretation the forms of Heaven returning to their roots are dying, and this is definitely part of the Daoist belief. (芸 also is part of the phrase 芸黄, “withered and yellow, and 耘 yun means “to weed”.)

Finally, the 員 element in #5 and #6, though it also can serve as a phonetic here, means “round” (also written 圓), so the phrase could mean “round and round” in cyclic repetition, as Henricks suggests.

What I have just written here seems to resemble the well-refuted century-old character-splitting fallacy of Fenellosa, Pound, and Amy Lowell, et al., and many readers will be skeptical It is absolutely true that in most cases in Chinese a word is just a word, and that you need not think of elephants when you see the word 象 xiang “image”. However, the expressives are in essence poetic and (to us) “subjective”, and it seems likely to me that scribes used their ingenuity to come up with interesting written representations of them — just as authors used their ingenuity in creating sayings or texts, and just as the commentators used their ingenuity in creating commentaries.

One final questions: what is the point of all this? One point is that all this was to a considerable degree unnecessary. What I have just written is an example of the the process that translators and editors go through when translating or editing, and in most cases they quite rightly pass over most of this silently. A further point which is especially applicable to the DDJ is that there is no need to decide every case. Many of the possible readings we have found are good ones, and not only is the Ur-DDJ almost certainly impossible to find, in many cases the plurivocal reading of the DDJ is often the best. And finally, despite all my efforts, the worst problems still remain. 致虛極,守靜篤 remains hard to interpret, and none of the suggested alternative readings of the second line (守靜篤, 守靜督, 守情表, 守中篤, 守盅督) make the task any easier Some of the problems with the DDJ are textual, but many of them are intrinsic to the text.


虛 3 5 16 22 53
守 5 9 16 28 32 37 52 67
靜 15 16 26 37 45 57 61
觀 1 16 26 54
狀 14 (16) 21

歸 14 16 20 22 28 34 52 60
復歸 14 16 28 52
根 6 16 26 54

Published in: on August 25, 2009 at 5:28 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Laozi chapter 5: 不如守中 / 不若守於中 (not in the Guodian proto-Laozi) might be relevant. Note that 中 can also mean “inner” (內).

    Side note, Harold Roth translates the 2nd line as “Maintaining tranquility is the central (practice)” and regards the part about the myriad things as not referring to the actual living things in the world, but that “it is a phenomenological description of how one observes the arising and passing away of the contents of consciousness during guided breathing meditation.”

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