The Worthy in the Daodejing

The worthy 賢 in ancient Chinese texts

In Chinese philosophy the 賢, usually translated “worthy”, is a man of great merit (but not from the royal family or from one of the ruling noble families) who is brought to the ruler’s attention and appointed to high position. (Often worthies were descended from the nobility of conquered and abolished states). “Promoting the worthy” 尚賢 was a key doctrine of the Mohist school, but something like it was also advocated by Confucians. The goal, especially in the case of the Mohists, was a kind of meritocracy which would weaken the ruling families’ stranglehold on power and make government more responsive to the needs of the people.

The worthy was assumed to be competent and morally upright, and in the Confucian but not the Mohist case, also a master of all aspects of the Zhou cultural tradition. Once promoted, the amply rewarded worthy would serve as an example for others to emulate and would diligently encourage them to improve themselves. The worthy is outranked only by the Sage.

The root meaning of the word 賢 is adjectival and comparative: “excellent, superior, better than”. In various grammatical contexts it can also be translated “excellence”, “superiority”,  or (as a verb) “to regard as excellent”, and  in Chinese philosophy it meant the specific type of superior man just described.  Two of the three appearances of the word 賢 in the Daodejing have the  more generic meaning:

夫唯無以生為者 賢於貴生

Just because he does not act for the sake of life, he is better than 賢 those who honor life. (Daoedejing, chapter 75)


是以聖人為而弗有 成功而弗居若此其下欲見賢也

Therefore the sage acts without taking possession and attains his goal without dwelling there; thus far does he dislike being regarded as superior [or:“being regarded as a worthy 賢]. (Daoedejing, chapter 77)


In chapter 3 of the  Daodejing the word 賢 “worthy” is used in the same sense as in Mozi and Confucius, in a rejection of Mozi and Confucius:

Do not honor  the worthies, so that the people do not contend.


This chapter, which belongs to the Primitivist group within the late strategic layer of the  Daodejing , rejects economic progress, interventionist and reformist government, and the Confucian and Mohist practice of seeking out and promoting worthies. The reason given is the worthies’ contentious nature.

The worthy is also accused of contentiousness in Shen Dao and Hanfeizi. In Shen Dao the particular worry is that the worthy, once in office, will compete with the prince in doing good:

Yet today those who establish the laws also advance private interest. This means that private interests contend with the law, which is a greater disorder than having no law. Those who establish the prince also honor the worthies. This means that  賢與君爭 the worthies contend with the prince, which is worse than having no prince.

In a state following Dao, the law is established so that private benevolence (私善) does not develop; the prince is established so that the worthies are not honored; the people are united with the prince, and cases are decided according to law. This the great way of states. Shen Dao, L76-77.

The contentiousness of the worthies is also mentioned by the Legalist Shang Yang:

The benevolent always take concern for others as their aim, but the worthy make it their way to excel each other….When they established a ruler, elevating worth was abandoned for honoring rank. (Shangjun Shu II:7: Duyvendak p. 226 in Graham, Disputers of the Dao, p. 272; my adaptation).

 Raising virtuous and capable men is the cause of bringing order into the world, but it is also the cause of order becoming disorder. Those whom the world calls virtuous are men whose words are upright. the reason why they are regarded as upright in words is due to their partizans. Hearing their words, one takes them to be capable, and on asking their partizans, one thinks that they are indeed so慎法

Even Mencius was cautious about the advancement of worthies, since any commoner promoted to a high position would necessarily take the position away from a royal relative or some other nobleman. Among other things, this would lead to contentiusness:


The reply was, ‘The ruler of a State advances to office men of talents and virtue only as a matter of necessity. Since he will thereby cause the low to overstep the honorable, and distant to overstep his near relatives, ought he to do so but with caution?  Liang Hui Wang II

The worthy is someone who because of his reputation (and despite his commoner origins) has been appointed to high position and “does well by doing good”.  When you think of this in terms of actual court life, the problems become evident. The power, wealth, and fame that come with high position tempt men of all kinds,  good or bad, to contend for position by fair means and foul. Contenders dedicate themselves to flattering the ruler and impressing him with self-promoting claims, and rival contenders are disposed of by slander, murder, or whatever other means are available. This is the normal pattern in royal courts everywhere.

Furthermore, a state minister hired because of his splendid reputation will very likely be hard to control. He might take personal credit for benevolent acts funded from the public purse, rather than crediting them to the ruler. (In Shen Dao’s words they will “compete with the ruler” with “private goodness”). he might use his position to build a coterie loyal to him rather than to the ruler, and in the extreme but not rare case he will usurp the throne. Furthermore, in this contentious environment candidates for honors who fail to be rewarded as they think they deserve will become aggrieved and resentful, fomenting discontent and perhaps rebelling.

The above are the legalists’ objections (though there’s no reason why the Daoists wouldn’t have shared them). But the Daodejing goes further. If the worthy lives in splendor and is honored by the bestowal of wealth, the hierarchy of rich and poor is reinforced and validated, which is one of the other causes of strife condemned by the Daodejing. Furthermore, the word 賢 is essentially a comparative  designating those who excel, are better than, or are superior to others. By marking and glorifying worthies, you are by that very act declaring the rest of the population to be 不肖 unworthy — the phrase 賢不肖 “worthy / unworthy” is a cliché of Chinese philosophy. A key message of the Daodejing is that comparatives should not be made absolute: The world recognizes the good as good, and so we get the bad (chapter 2); Between good and bad, how great is the difference? (chapter 20).

In the Daodejing the sage is described as non-contentious 不爭 in chapters 22, 66, and 81; the Dao of Heaven is so described in chapter 73; and  in chapter 8 the highest good 上善, compared to water, is also described as non-contentious. The sage is not like the worthy. He does not want fame, power, wealth, or high position. In his transcendent generosity the sage  gives but does not receive, does not expect gratitude, and does not remember obligations. In this the sage is like Dao, which is inexhaustible (chapters 4, 5 and 6) and which gives life to all beings without expecting gratitude (Chapters 2, 34, and 51).

Selected themes in the Daodejing and in the Guodian text of the Daodejing

Note that the phrase 不爭 never appears in what I have described as the “early layer” of the Daodejing, and only once in the Guodian text.

Chapter 不爭 聖人 天道 Water In Guodian?
3 x x x
8 x x
22 x x
66 x x x Yes
68 x
73 x x x
75 x
77 x x x
81 x x x
  No others No others 20 others 3 others Many others


John Emerson, A Translation of Thompson’s Reconstructed Shen Dao text

A. C. Graham,  Disputers of the Dao, Open Court, 1989.

Robert Henricks, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Columbia, 2000.

D. C. Lau, Tao Te Ching, Chinese U. Pres, Hong Kong, 1982.

Mencius 孟子

Shang Jun Shu 商君書

Published in: on October 18, 2009 at 6:43 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] is far different than the Legalists’, but they are alike in rejecting heroic striving. (More on worthies […]

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