THE TAO TEH CHING,
THE TAO AND ITS CHARACTERISTICS
translated by James Legge
1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
2. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven
and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all
3. Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
4. Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development
takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them
the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that
is subtle and wonderful.
1. All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing
this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill
of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the
want of skill is.
2. So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to
(the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the
idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the
figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from
the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and
tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and
that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.
3. Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and
conveys his instructions without the use of speech.
4. All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show
itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership;
they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a
reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no
resting in it (as an achievement).
The work is done, but how no one can see;
'Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.
1. Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to
keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles
which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming
thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is
the way to keep their minds from disorder.
2. Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties
their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens
3. He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without
desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them
from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from
action, good order is universal.
1. The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our
employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness. How
deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of
2. We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of
things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into
agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao
is, as if it would ever so continue!
3. I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before
1. Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be
benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt
with. The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they
deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
2. May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a
'Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power;
'Tis moved again, and sends forth air the more.
Much speech to swift exhaustion lead we see;
Your inner being guard, and keep it free.
The valley spirit dies not, aye the same;
The female mystery thus do we name.
Its gate, from which at first they issued forth,
Is called the root from which grew heaven and earth.
Long and unbroken does its power remain,
Used gently, and without the touch of pain.
1. Heaven is long-enduring and earth continues long. The reason
why heaven and earth are able to endure and continue thus long is
because they do not live of, or for, themselves. This is how they are
able to continue and endure.
2. Therefore the sage puts his own person last, and yet it is found in
the foremost place; he treats his person as if it were foreign to him,
and yet that person is preserved. Is it not because he has no
personal and private ends, that therefore such ends are realised?
1. The highest excellence is like (that of) water. The excellence
of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying,
without striving (to the contrary), the low place which all men
dislike. Hence (its way) is near to (that of) the Tao.
2. The excellence of a residence is in (the suitability of) the place;
that of the mind is in abysmal stillness; that of associations is in
their being with the virtuous; that of government is in its securing
good order; that of (the conduct of) affairs is in its ability; and
that of (the initiation of) any movement is in its timeliness.
3. And when (one with the highest excellence) does not wrangle (about
his low position), no one finds fault with him.
1. It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to attempt to
carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been
sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness.
2. When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them
safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil
on itself. When the work is done, and one's name is becoming
distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.
1. When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one
embrace, they can be kept from separating. When one gives undivided
attention to the (vital) breath, and brings it to the utmost degree of
pliancy, he can become as a (tender) babe. When he has cleansed away
the most mysterious sights (of his imagination), he can become without
2. In loving the people and ruling the state, cannot he proceed
without any (purpose of) action? In the opening and shutting of his
gates of heaven, cannot he do so as a female bird? While his
intelligence reaches in every direction, cannot he (appear to) be
3. (The Tao) produces (all things) and nourishes them; it produces
them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not
boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them.
This is what is called 'The mysterious Quality' (of the Tao).
The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty
space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is
fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that
their use depends. The door and windows are cut out (from the walls)
to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its
use depends. Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for
profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.
1. Colour's five hues from th' eyes their sight will take;
Music's five notes the ears as deaf can make;
The flavours five deprive the mouth of taste;
The chariot course, and the wild hunting waste
Make mad the mind; and objects rare and strange,
Sought for, men's conduct will to evil change.
2. Therefore the sage seeks to satisfy (the craving of) the belly, and
not the (insatiable longing of the) eyes. He puts from him the
latter, and prefers to seek the former.
1. Favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared; honour and
great calamity, to be regarded as personal conditions (of the same
2. What is meant by speaking thus of favour and disgrace? Disgrace is
being in a low position (after the enjoyment of favour). The getting
that (favour) leads to the apprehension (of losing it), and the losing
it leads to the fear of (still greater calamity):--this is what is
meant by saying that favour and disgrace would seem equally to be
And what is meant by saying that honour and great calamity are to be
(similarly) regarded as personal conditions? What makes me liable to
great calamity is my having the body (which I call myself); if I had
not the body, what great calamity could come to me?
3. Therefore he who would administer the kingdom, honouring it as he
honours his own person, may be employed to govern it, and he who would
administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be
entrusted with it.
1. We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it 'the
Equable.' We listen to it, and we do not hear it, and we name it 'the
Inaudible.' We try to grasp it, and do not get hold of it, and we
name it 'the Subtle.' With these three qualities, it cannot be made
the subject of description; and hence we blend them together and
obtain The One.
2. Its upper part is not bright, and its lower part is not obscure.
Ceaseless in its action, it yet cannot be named, and then it again
returns and becomes nothing. This is called the Form of the Formless,
and the Semblance of the Invisible; this is called the Fleeting and
3. We meet it and do not see its Front; we follow it, and do not see
its Back. When we can lay hold of the Tao of old to direct the things
of the present day, and are able to know it as it was of old in the
beginning, this is called (unwinding) the clue of Tao.
1. The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle
and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep
(also) so as to elude men's knowledge. As they were thus beyond men's
knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they
appeared to be.
2. Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in
winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave
like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting
away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into
anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.
3. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it
will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest?
Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.
4. They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of
themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that
they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.
1. The (state of) vacancy should be brought to the utmost degree,
and that of stillness guarded with unwearying vigour. All things
alike go through their processes of activity, and (then) we see them
return (to their original state). When things (in the vegetable
world) have displayed their luxuriant growth, we see each of them
return to its root. This returning to their root is what we call the
state of stillness; and that stillness may be called a reporting that
they have fulfilled their appointed end.
2. The report of that fulfilment is the regular, unchanging rule. To
know that unchanging rule is to be intelligent; not to know it leads
to wild movements and evil issues. The knowledge of that unchanging
rule produces a (grand) capacity and forbearance, and that capacity
and forbearance lead to a community (of feeling with all things).
From this community of feeling comes a kingliness of character; and he
who is king-like goes on to be heaven-like. In that likeness to
heaven he possesses the Tao. Possessed of the Tao, he endures long;
and to the end of his bodily life, is exempt from all danger of decay.
1. In the highest antiquity, (the people) did not know that there
were (their rulers). In the next age they loved them and praised
them. In the next they feared them; in the next they despised them.
Thus it was that when faith (in the Tao) was deficient (in the rulers)
a want of faith in them ensued (in the people).
2. How irresolute did those (earliest rulers) appear, showing (by
their reticence) the importance which they set upon their words!
Their work was done and their undertakings were successful, while the
people all said, 'We are as we are, of ourselves!'
1. When the Great Tao (Way or Method) ceased to be observed,
benevolence and righteousness came into vogue. (Then) appeared wisdom
and shrewdness, and there ensued great hypocrisy.
2. When harmony no longer prevailed throughout the six kinships,
filial sons found their manifestation; when the states and clans fell
into disorder, loyal ministers appeared.
1. If we could renounce our sageness and discard our wisdom, it
would be better for the people a hundredfold. If we could renounce
our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again
become filial and kindly. If we could renounce our artful
contrivances and discard our (scheming for) gain, there would be no
thieves nor robbers.
2. Those three methods (of government)
Thought olden ways in elegance did fail
And made these names their want of worth to veil;
But simple views, and courses plain and true
Would selfish ends and many lusts eschew.
1. When we renounce learning we have no troubles.
The (ready) 'yes,' and (flattering) 'yea;'--
Small is the difference they display.
But mark their issues, good and ill;--
What space the gulf between shall fill?
What all men fear is indeed to be feared; but how wide and without end
is the range of questions (asking to be discussed)!
2. The multitude of men look satisfied and pleased; as if enjoying a
full banquet, as if mounted on a tower in spring. I alone seem
listless and still, my desires having as yet given no indication of
their presence. I am like an infant which has not yet smiled. I look
dejected and forlorn, as if I had no home to go to. The multitude of
men all have enough and to spare. I alone seem to have lost
everything. My mind is that of a stupid man; I am in a state of
Ordinary men look bright and intelligent, while I alone seem to be
benighted. They look full of discrimination, while I alone am dull
and confused. I seem to be carried about as on the sea, drifting as
if I had nowhere to rest. All men have their spheres of action, while
I alone seem dull and incapable, like a rude borderer. (Thus) I alone
am different from other men, but I value the nursing-mother (the Tao).
The grandest forms of active force
From Tao come, their only source.
Who can of Tao the nature tell?
Our sight it flies, our touch as well.
Eluding sight, eluding touch,
The forms of things all in it crouch;
Eluding touch, eluding sight,
There are their semblances, all right.
Profound it is, dark and obscure;
Things' essences all there endure.
Those essences the truth enfold
Of what, when seen, shall then be told.
Now it is so; 'twas so of old.
Its name--what passes not away;
So, in their beautiful array,
Things form and never know decay.
How know I that it is so with all the beauties of existing things? By
this (nature of the Tao).
1. The partial becomes complete; the crooked, straight; the empty,
full; the worn out, new. He whose (desires) are few gets them; he
whose (desires) are many goes astray.
2. Therefore the sage holds in his embrace the one thing (of
humility), and manifests it to all the world. He is free from self-
display, and therefore he shines; from self-assertion, and therefore
he is distinguished; from self-boasting, and therefore his merit is
acknowledged; from self-complacency, and therefore he acquires
superiority. It is because he is thus free from striving that
therefore no one in the world is able to strive with him.
3. That saying of the ancients that 'the partial becomes complete' was
not vainly spoken:--all real completion is comprehended under it.
1. Abstaining from speech marks him who is obeying the spontaneity
of his nature. A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a
sudden rain does not last for the whole day. To whom is it that these
(two) things are owing? To Heaven and Earth. If Heaven and Earth
cannot make such (spasmodic) actings last long, how much less can man!
2. Therefore when one is making the Tao his business, those who are
also pursuing it, agree with him in it, and those who are making the
manifestation of its course their object agree with him in that; while
even those who are failing in both these things agree with him where
3. Hence, those with whom he agrees as to the Tao have the happiness
of attaining to it; those with whom he agrees as to its manifestation
have the happiness of attaining to it; and those with whom he agrees
in their failure have also the happiness of attaining (to the Tao).
(But) when there is not faith sufficient (on his part), a want of
faith (in him) ensues (on the part of the others).
He who stands on his tiptoes does not stand firm; he who stretches
his legs does not walk (easily). (So), he who displays himself does
not shine; he who asserts his own views is not distinguished; he who
vaunts himself does not find his merit acknowledged; he who is self-
conceited has no superiority allowed to him. Such conditions, viewed
from the standpoint of the Tao, are like remnants of food, or a tumour
on the body, which all dislike. Hence those who pursue (the course)
of the Tao do not adopt and allow them.
1. There was something undefined and complete, coming into
existence before Heaven and Earth. How still it was and formless,
standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in
no danger (of being exhausted)! It may be regarded as the Mother of
2. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao
(the Way or Course). Making an effort (further) to give it a name I
call it The Great.
3. Great, it passes on (in constant flow). Passing on, it becomes
remote. Having become remote, it returns. Therefore the Tao is
great; Heaven is great; Earth is great; and the (sage) king is also
great. In the universe there are four that are great, and the (sage)
king is one of them.
4. Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from
Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Tao. The law of the Tao is its
being what it is.
1. Gravity is the root of lightness; stillness, the ruler of
2. Therefore a wise prince, marching the whole day, does not go far
from his baggage waggons. Although he may have brilliant prospects to
look at, he quietly remains (in his proper place), indifferent to
them. How should the lord of a myriad chariots carry himself lightly
before the kingdom? If he do act lightly, he has lost his root (of
gravity); if he proceed to active movement, he will lose his throne.
1. The skilful traveller leaves no traces of his wheels or
footsteps; the skilful speaker says nothing that can be found fault
with or blamed; the skilful reckoner uses no tallies; the skilful
closer needs no bolts or bars, while to open what he has shut will be
impossible; the skilful binder uses no strings or knots, while to
unloose what he has bound will be impossible. In the same way the
sage is always skilful at saving men, and so he does not cast away any
man; he is always skilful at saving things, and so he does not cast
away anything. This is called 'Hiding the light of his procedure.'
2. Therefore the man of skill is a master (to be looked up to) by him
who has not the skill; and he who has not the skill is the helper of
(the reputation of) him who has the skill. If the one did not honour
his master, and the other did not rejoice in his helper, an
(observer), though intelligent, might greatly err about them. This is
called 'The utmost degree of mystery.'
1. Who knows his manhood's strength,
Yet still his female feebleness maintains;
As to one channel flow the many drains,
All come to him, yea, all beneath the sky.
Thus he the constant excellence retains;
The simple child again, free from all stains.
Who knows how white attracts,
Yet always keeps himself within black's shade,
The pattern of humility displayed,
Displayed in view of all beneath the sky;
He in the unchanging excellence arrayed,
Endless return to man's first state has made.
Who knows how glory shines,
Yet loves disgrace, nor e'er for it is pale;
Behold his presence in a spacious vale,
To which men come from all beneath the sky.
The unchanging excellence completes its tale;
The simple infant man in him we hail.
2. The unwrought material, when divided and distributed, forms
vessels. The sage, when employed, becomes the Head of all the
Officers (of government); and in his greatest regulations he employs
no violent measures.
1. If any one should wish to get the kingdom for himself, and to
effect this by what he does, I see that he will not succeed. The
kingdom is a spirit-like thing, and cannot be got by active doing. He
who would so win it destroys it; he who would hold it in his grasp
2. The course and nature of things is such that
What was in front is now behind;
What warmed anon we freezing find.
Strength is of weakness oft the spoil;
The store in ruins mocks our toil.
Hence the sage puts away excessive effort, extravagance, and easy
1. He who would assist a lord of men in harmony with the Tao will
not assert his mastery in the kingdom by force of arms. Such a course
is sure to meet with its proper return.
2. Wherever a host is stationed, briars and thorns spring up. In the
sequence of great armies there are sure to be bad years.
3. A skilful (commander) strikes a decisive blow, and stops. He does
not dare (by continuing his operations) to assert and complete his
mastery. He will strike the blow, but will be on his guard against
being vain or boastful or arrogant in consequence of it. He strikes
it as a matter of necessity; he strikes it, but not from a wish for
4. When things have attained their strong maturity they become old.
This may be said to be not in accordance with the Tao: and what is not
in accordance with it soon comes to an end.
1. Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen,
hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore they who have
the Tao do not like to employ them.
2. The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most
honourable place, but in time of war the right hand. Those sharp
weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the
superior man;--he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm
and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him
undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the
slaughter of men; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot
get his will in the kingdom.
3. On occasions of festivity to be on the left hand is the prized
position; on occasions of mourning, the right hand. The second in
command of the army has his place on the left; the general commanding
in chief has his on the right;--his place, that is, is assigned to him
as in the rites of mourning. He who has killed multitudes of men
should weep for them with the bitterest grief; and the victor in
battle has his place (rightly) according to those rites.
1. The Tao, considered as unchanging, has no name.
2. Though in its primordial simplicity it may be small, the whole
world dares not deal with (one embodying) it as a minister. If a
feudal prince or the king could guard and hold it, all would
spontaneously submit themselves to him.
3. Heaven and Earth (under its guidance) unite together and send down
the sweet dew, which, without the directions of men, reaches equally
everywhere as of its own accord.
4. As soon as it proceeds to action, it has a name. When it once has
that name, (men) can know to rest in it. When they know to rest in
it, they can be free from all risk of failure and error.
5. The relation of the Tao to all the world is like that of the great
rivers and seas to the streams from the valleys.
1. He who knows other men is discerning; he who knows himself is
intelligent. He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes
himself is mighty. He who is satisfied with his lot is rich; he who
goes on acting with energy has a (firm) will.
2. He who does not fail in the requirements of his position, continues
long; he who dies and yet does not perish, has longevity.
1. All-pervading is the Great Tao! It may be found on the left
hand and on the right.
2. All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to
them, not one refusing obedience to it. When its work is
accomplished, it does not claim the name of having done it. It
clothes all things as with a garment, and makes no assumption of being
their lord;--it may be named in the smallest things. All things
return (to their root and disappear), and do not know that it is it
which presides over their doing so;--it may be named in the greatest
3. Hence the sage is able (in the same way) to accomplish his great
achievements. It is through his not making himself great that he can
1. To him who holds in his hands the Great Image (of the invisible
Tao), the whole world repairs. Men resort to him, and receive no
hurt, but (find) rest, peace, and the feeling of ease.
2. Music and dainties will make the passing guest stop (for a time).
But though the Tao as it comes from the mouth, seems insipid and has
no flavour, though it seems not worth being looked at or listened to,
the use of it is inexhaustible.
1. When one is about to take an inspiration, he is sure to make a
(previous) expiration; when he is going to weaken another, he will
first strengthen him; when he is going to overthrow another, he will
first have raised him up; when he is going to despoil another, he will
first have made gifts to him:--this is called 'Hiding the light (of
2. The soft overcomes the hard; and the weak the strong.
3. Fishes should not be taken from the deep; instruments for the
profit of a state should not be shown to the people.
1. The Tao in its regular course does nothing (for the sake of
doing it), and so there is nothing which it does not do.
2. If princes and kings were able to maintain it, all things would of
themselves be transformed by them.
3. If this transformation became to me an object of desire, I would
express the desire by the nameless simplicity.
Simplicity without a name
Is free from all external aim.
With no desire, at rest and still,
All things go right as of their will.
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