Chapter 20 of the Daodejing

Only in chapters 16 and 20 of the DDJ do we hear a personal voice. The first person pronouns wu and wo are seen eighteen times in this text, but usually as part of external quotations, the debater’s convention for making hypothetical arguments (“If I had no body….”) or to indicate the subject of knowledge – the person who knows or doesn’t know, or who teaches, or who sees.

In chapter 16 the speaker sat alone, quietly observing the teeming forms of heaven and their return.  Here the speaker walks unnoticed through the crowd, nameless and alone. What we are shown, in both cases, is apartness amid transience.

Who is speaking? Not the Sage, who was not part of early Dao. Not Laozi, a legendary figure never mentioned in the DDJ. These chapters might describe actual experiences of whoever it was that first wrote or spoke them, but the chapter is not about one person’s experience. These speakers function as instances of the Daoist-in-the-world and show what it is to be a Daoist –detached from the world of names,  identities, and biographies and as unknowable as Dao itself:




Only I am quiet and showing nothing,

like an infant who has not yet smiled —

forlorn, as if with no home to go to.

At the beginning the tone is unremittingly dismal. Yi 遺 describes something lost, rejected, discarded, given away, or left behind — a remarkably vivid image of abjection. Like chapter 51, this chapter is also linked to an orphan’s despairing lament from the Shijing (蓼莪, Ode 202). The DDJ’s


Forlorn, as if with no home to go to,

The crowd all have plenty, only I am lost


echoes the ode’s


When I go abroad, I carry my grief with me;

When I come home, I have no one to go to….


People all are happy; –
Why am I alone miserable?

 After fifteen lines describing the speaker’s aloneness and (seeming) misery, the chapter sums it up in two vivid images of desolation (though the variants here make these lines a sort of Rorschach test for readers and translators since “peaceful” and “stormy” are two possible readings of the first word of the first line) :

澹兮其若晦.  飂兮若無所止.

Dim, like the dark of the moon!

Windblown, with nowhere to stop.

And then the first seventeen lines become ironic when the last four lines turn things around. The Daoist lives without the normal supports others have because he does not need them, and  honors his true mother: Dao.

Bill Porter (following Tu Erwei) thinks that the DDJ is organized around the lunar cycle of dark and bright, fullness and emptiness, and so on. The chapter is set at a spring festival, perhaps the solstice. In the MWD text the first line begins with 朢, which can mean the full moon festival, rather than with 荒 one of the other huang  words meaning “vast”, “wild”, “empty”, “confused”, etc. usually seen here. 央 in 未央 not yet at the limit  (seen in #182 of the Shijing) means a turning point, sometimes a middle and sometimes an ending (which can be the same thing in a repeating cycle). 央 and 朢 both have a sense of waiting and anticipation (for example, 央 in #182 of the Shijing), so we can suppose that the happy crowd is awaiting some lunar transition. On the other hand,  the variant I have chosen for the final word of the first line (晦 *hməʔ) can mean either “dim and dark” or (as I have translated) “the dark of the moon”. (The most commonly-translated variant, 海 *hməʔ,  gives “Calm/stormy like the sea”). Obviously the festival could not have been both a full moon festival and a dark-of-the-moon festival, but perhaps the clustering of lunar and calendric vocabulary here has literary significance.

The GD text includes only the opening passages of chapter 20. I divide the chapter at the same place, but have included here only the part not found in the Guodian text – the conclusion. The  three statements from the beginning of the chapter seen in the Guodian text seem unrelated either to each another or to the conclusion of the chapter. The first passage, 絕學無憂, will be put at the end of chapter 48, a placement justified both by the GD text and by the sense of the passage.  The second passage, 唯之與阿,相去幾何?善之與惡,相去若何?, will be put before the parallel statement which opens chapter 2.  The final passage, 人之所畏,不可不畏。, is identical to the ending of chapter 23 and similar in form to a line in chapter 17, but it would seem to fit best at the end of chapter 74.

bo and 澹 dan in this chapter, 淡 dan  in chapters 31 and 35) and  氾 / 汎 / 泛 fan in chapter 34  are frequently combined with one another or defined in terms of one another, and definitions of these words often refer back to the DDJ passages they are found in. 泊, 氾, 汎, and 泛 all mean “floating”, 泊, 澹 and 淡 all mean “peaceful”, and 氾, 汎, and 泛 all mean “flooding”. Other water metaphors in early Dao cluster around “deep” (淵 and 湛 in chapter 4, 深 in chapter 15) around the polarity between “pure”  (清. Chapter 15) and “murky” (濁 in chapter 15, 混 in chapters 14, 15, 20, and 25) or can just mean “flowing” (混 and 敦 in chapters 15 and 20).

Dan 澹 is a tricky case. In modern times it has essentially been absorbed as a synonym by 淡 dan  “bland, calm, mild”, and most translators translate it that way, but in the past it also had the opposite meaning, “turbulent”, and Wagner interprets it that way in this chapter (though he footnotes an old variant text which simply reads 淡 dan).

hu 14  21
huang / guang 14 15 20 21
hun 14 15 18 20 25 49 57
dun 15 20
men 20 58
Ying er 嬰兒 10 20 28
Xu 餘 20 24 53 54 77 9
Cha 察 20 58
Gui 歸 14 16 20 22 28 34 52 60
Mu 母 1 20 25 52 59























 Vast! – and not yet at the limit!

 The crowd is cheerful, as if attending a feast
or ascending a terrace in springtime.
Only I am quiet and show nothing,
like an infant who has not yet smiled;
forlorn, like a dog with no home to go to.

The crowd all have plenty,
only I am lost.
I have the mind of a fool – so confused!

Normal people are radiant,
only I am dim.
Normal people are penetrating,
only I am slack.

Hurried! like the dark of the moon!
Vast! as if with no home to return to.

The crowd all have their angles —
Only I am stubborn and crude.
I want to be uniquely different from others
and to honor the nurturing mother.


Published in: on September 23, 2009 at 7:53 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I see some discrepancies between text, translation, and commentary (the three were done at different times and not synchronized). I will fix them when I can but for now, the commentary should be taken as my final answer.

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