Chapter 51 of the Daodejing



生而弗有 Chapters 2, 10, 34, 77.
自 (“of itself”). Chapters 32, 37, 57, 73.
自然 Chapters 17, 23, 25, 51, 64.
是謂 Chapters 10, 14, 16, 27, 36, 51, 52, 56, 59, 62, 65.
Chapters 1, 6, 10, 15, 51, 56, 65.
Chapters 10, 21, 23, 28, 38, 41, 49, 51, 59, 60, 63, 65, 68, 79.
玄德 Chapters 10, 65.

 生之, 畜之, 長之, and 育之 come from 蓼莪 (Ode 202 of the Shijing), which emphasized the poet’s enormous debt to his mother and father, but especially to his mother.




O my father, who begat me!

O my mother, who nourished me!

You indulged me, you fed me,

You held me up, you supported me,

You looked after me, you never left me,

Home and away you bore me in your arms.

If the parallel is taken to be exact, Dao is the father and de 德 Virtue is the mother, but it is unlikely that this reading is intended. Ode 202 is a mourning poem expressing the utter abandonment of an orphan alone in the world, and a line from this poem is also echoed in chapter 20, which shows the Daoist all alone in the midst of a festive crowd. Taken together, the two chapters seem to say that while Daoists lack the normal supports that ordinary people have, they do not regret this, since they have better support in Dao.

Versions of the final section of chapter 51 are also seen in chapters 2 and 10, and in mixed and partial form, also in chapters 17, 34 and 77. Altogether there are five lines. Lines A, C, and D are basically stable, but there are many variants of B and E. Chapter 10 and 51 includes A, B, and C; chapter 2 includes lines A, B, D, and E;  and Chapter 77 includes D and a line combining B and A. Two lines in chapter 34 are clearly related to B and E in the first case and D and A in the other. Finally, the ending of chapter 17 includes a line from some versions of chapter 34. In the various available texts there are many variants of B and E, whereas A, C, and D are basically stable.

Below are the standard texts of these lines together with my interpretations / translations:

A. 生而不有 (*wəʔ)

Gives them life without owning them (Chapters 2, 10, 51; a mixed D/A form in chapter 34; a mixed B/A form in chapter 77).

B. 為而不恃 (*dəʔ)

Helps them without making them dependent. (Chapters 2, 10, 51; a mixed B/E form in chapter 34; a mixed B/A form in chapter 77. Variants of 恃: 侍 shi “servant”, 寺 si “eunuch”, and 志 zhi “will, intention, record”. Suggested emendation: 持 chi “grasp”.)

C. 長而不宰 (tsəʔ)

Raises them, but doesn’t stock them. (Chapters 10 and 51. My translation is explained below).

D. 功成而弗居 (kaʔ, kah)

Finishes the job but does not stay. (Chapters 2 and 77; partial citation in chapter 17; mixed D/A form in chapter 34, without 居. All of the other lines end with the words rhyming on ə from rhyme class4 (之: zhi, *tə). This line is not found in chapters 10 and 51 and represents something new.

E. 萬物作焉而不辭 (s-lə)

The myriad creatures depend  on it to live and are not rejected.; 萬物恃之而生而不辭 The myriad creatures rise from it and are not rejected. (Chapters 2 and 34. Variant of 不辭: 始  “begin”. Suggested emendation:司 “be in charge).

What these lines all have in common is two phrases linked by the phrase er fu 而弗 “but not” with the first phrase telling about good things Dao does and the last phrase telling how Dao makes no demands on those benefited. This was not customary: in ancient China benefactors put those they helped in their debt, gaining power over them by establishing a hierarchal patron-client relationship.  All five of these lines deny either the patron or the client role in this relationship.

The phrases 不有 does not own them and 弗居 does not stay say that Dao does not take the patron role. You 有 in A means “to have” or “to own” as a verb and “property” as a noun, but in those days  ownership and rule were not clearly distinguished and in  both uses of 有 could indicate the “possessions” or domain of a king or noble.

Likewise, ju 居 in D can just mean to live somewhere, but usually the meaning is stronger and means to occupy or preside over a place, like a lord in his manor. Furthermore, gui 歸 in G can just be translated “return”, but it usually means “go home” or “go where you belong”, and often implies putting yourself in the service of the master of the house. So these lines say that Dao helps people and gives them a home without afterwards owning or ruling them.

Zai 宰 in C means “manager, to manage”, often someone who handles goods and supplies. It can indicate the chamberlain or steward of a king’s household, a governmental minister, the commoner or slave overseer managing a noble household and its lands, or even just a butcher. My translation develops the latter meanings (as did John Wu’s).

In B and E the patron-client interpretation helps me choose between variant forms. In B the words 恃 “depend on, trust” gives us the rather forced traditional reading Helps them without making them dependent or Helps them without presuming on them (Wagner), but two of the variants, 侍 shi “attendant, lackey” and 寺 si “eunuch” work better: He helps them without making them into lackeys or He helps them without castrating them. (Eunuchs were frequently attendants or lackeys, so these two lines are almost equivalent).

In The myriad creatures rise from it and are not rejected (chapter 2)and The myriad creatures depend on it to live and are not rejected (chapter 34), the variant 始 (*lhəʔ)  “begin” for 辭 (*s-lə)“reject” does not help, and Lau’s suggestion of  司 (*sə) “take charge” has the advantage of having a similar meaning to that of the other four lines. This emendation is supported by the GD text, where the line ends with an otherwise unknown graph made by removing the “mouth” 口 element from 司 and replacing it with the “heart” 忄 element on the left: Henricks p. 52. However, it also should be said that in terms of chapters 2, 10 and 51, chapter 34 is quite irregular in many respects, so perhaps “is not rejected” is just a new theme here.

Lines B, C, and E deny the “client” end of the patron-client relationship. The 宰, 寺, 侍 and 司 were all simultaneously subservient and powerful: they were lackeys of their patron and thus humble, but they were also his agents and could exercise power in his name. So Dao neither dominates us as a patron nor allows us to dominate others in its name, and is thus distinctly different from the monotheistic God, who was modeled on ruthless and despotic Babylonian rulers.

Probably the original statement of this theme was in chapter 51, where it grows naturally from the earlier part of the chapter and from the Shijing poem. The lines in chapter 10 are exactly the same as those in chapter 51 and were probably added by an editor trying to weave the DDJ into a unity. While the theme can clearly be seen in chapter 34, its development there is original and messy, so perhaps this chapter should be regarded as independent. Chapter 2 seems to be synoptic and includes versions of every line but C.  The lines in the late chapter 77 are also messy but they are quite apropos to the topic of the chapter, which is the selflessness of the sage. Finally, chapter 17 appropriates half of D (without the 而不 part) in his description of the invisible action of the greatest rulers.

Others are better equipped than I am to trace the historical development of this theme, and in any case the interest for me here lies not in discovering the historical sequence, but in seeing how the theme develops in six chapters. Many think that the DDJ first appeared within a (literate) oral tradition, and this sort of development by variation is characteristic of such traditions. Not only does oral development allow for improvisation, but any scribe writing down what he just heard also has to (or is allowed to) improvise his own interpretation: “Was what I just heard 侍 or 寺 or 志 or 持?” I think that reading these six lines together while considering the interesting variants gives a much richer understanding than a normal sequential reading of the supposed best variant.



10, 51




Variants: 侍 GD 2, MWDa 2;  寺 MWDb 2;  志 MWDa 51.




Variant of  辭: 始 (GD 2, MWDb 2.( 司 suggested by Lau). Variant of 功成不名有: 功成事遂而不名有也, (MWD).


萬物作焉而不辭 (Variant: See 34)




處 for 居; 成而弗居; 成功而弗居



功成而不處  (居 for 處)


功成事遂, 百姓皆謂我自然


10, 51


為而不侍 (為而弗寺)








為而弗侍 (為而弗寺)



為而弗侍 (為而弗寺)





Most choices are explained in the text. I have generally replaced 不 bu with 弗 fu because 弗 fu, which seems to have become an archaism by the 2nd century BC, implies a direct object. I also have consistently replaced 處 with 居.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 10:15 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi John,

    I find B. 為而不恃 (*dəʔ) “Helps them without making them dependent” a bit questionable. Isn’t it odd that here it is said that Dao 為? “Without making them dependent,” is odd, since we often find statements that all life depends upon the Dao, or success depends on being aligned with it, (e.g., Laozi 34 says of the Dao: 萬物恃之以生). The Heshanggong commentary speaks often of the sage (following the Dao?) “does not rely on recompense” (不恃其報 / 不恃望其報), so the lack of “dependency” could be the reverse of what you’ve got (unless you are implying that as well).

  2. I find all interpretations of 恃 in this line to be doubtful. Another interpretation is “helps them without presuming on them”. It would seem that “helps them without depending on them” would be more grammatical, but not good otherwise. I feel the same way about 始, in E, which doesn’t really makes sense.

    So in B my translation would be “helps them without making them into lacckeys/ attendants / eunuchs” and in E my translation would be “helps them without taking control”.

    Just noticed that I wrote 始 for 宰.. in one place above, which I will correct..

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