About Chapter One of the Daodejing (Supplement to Liveright Edition, 2023)

Nothing corresponding to this chapter appears among those parts of Daodejing discovered at the Guodian site, which is our earliest source (fourth century BCE) for Daodejing materials.   This does not necessarily mean the chapter was a later addition; the Guodian material could conceivably be an excerpt from an already existing larger corpus.   But it is attractive to read this chapter as an introductory essay or header added to the collected pre-existing materials to follow, attempting to summarize their main import—what seems to have been a common ancient practice, also seen in many chapters of the Zhuangzi (e.g., Chapter 19)This would be so even in the Mawangdui ordering (2nd Century BCE), sometimes known as the Dedaojing, which separates the text into two parts, the first dealing with de (Chapters 38-81 of the received version), and the seconddealing with dao (Chapters 1-37 of the received version).   In that case, Chapter 38 (also not represented in the Guodian materials) would be the introductory summary of 38-81 and Chapter 1 the introductory summary of the 1-37 (which is the first half in the received version).

There are many controversies about how to parse some of the key phrases in this important chapter.   In this translation, for example, I have followed the Mawangdui texts rather than the received version in several important details.   First, the Mawangdui text is parsed in various places with the particle 也, which is entirely lacking in the received version of this chapter.   This is important for the interpretation of several controversial lines of the text.  I will here indicate the particle, which breaks the line into clauses, or even full statements, with (stop), and give a literal “translation.”  First, in the opening lines, the Mawandui texts have:


道可道也  非恆道也 : Dao can dao (stop).  Not constant dao (stop).

名可名也  非恆名也:  Name can name (stop).   Not constant name (stop).


Recalling that there is no distinction between singular and plural nouns in this language, and no definite or indefinite article (i.e., “a” or “the”), this tilts us toward reading the first three characters either as a full affirmative sentence, “daos can be dao’ed,” or possibly as a conditional, “if a dao can be dao’ed…” or “in those cases where a dao can be dao’ed….”    Dao as a verb means “to guide,” or possibly “to speak (and thereby give guidance),” and the transitive use of this verb “dao,” to “dao something,” would mean either “to guide it” or “to take it as one’s guide, to be guided by it.” Here we take the meaning to be the latter: “Guiding courses can be taken as guides” or “if guiding courses are taken as guides.”   The second phrase then carries over the subject from the first: “(but) these are [in that case] not constant guides” or “then it is not a constant guide.”

This might mean that no such course—a guiding course, a normative course, regarded as such—is the course that is really getting things going this way or that: not everything that happens happens under the control of some intention or evaluative preference.  It could also imply that it is the very fact of taking them as guides that makes their guidance not always reliable: making the purpose explicit and trying to eliminate whatever is in discord with that purpose is what makes the desired outcome unsustainable.  This is an attractive reading because so much of the rest of the Daodejing makes similar points about how singleminded pursuit of a desired outcome undermines that outcome’s sustainability (in other words, the very central Daoist theme of wuwei 無為; see the Afterword for a full explication).

The second line, about names, works in exactly the same way.   We make take the parallelism between names and courses to suggest that these two terms have the same presumed valence: names and courses being what we described in the Afterword as the most global available terms for the “A” category: things that are valued or that are presumed to lead one to something valued.   Recalling especially that “name” means “social identity, role” as well as “defined character,” but also, and perhaps primarily, “fame, renown” in texts of this period, the first four characters of the second line here would mean, “Names can be named—instructions can be issued, determinations can be determined, identities can be identified, values can be valued.”   The remaining four characters would then be a comment on the same subject: “but [in that case] these determinations, values, identities, are not constant determinations, values, identities.”   Or, reading the first phrase as a conditional: “If a name can be named, it is not a constant name; if a value is valued, it is no longer a sustainable valuation.”   Again, the implications is that it is the very fact of identifying them as valuable that makes them not truly (reliably, sustainably) valuable.  If we assume the first two lines are a parallelism, as they seem to be formally, this perhaps also strengthens the attractiveness of the second of the two proposed interpretations of the first line suggested above (the two were: 1) no course taken as a guide is the real guide always making things happen, which may be operating all the while beyond our thought or speech, perhaps a cosmic ineffable course; and 2) it is our very speaking or thinking it, our taking it as a guide, or embrace of it as a norm, that causes any proposed guide to fail to effectively guide).  For in the case of names, it is harder to imagine any conception of an unchanging cosmic ineffable name in the context of early Chinese thought; we seem to be talking about the effect of certain operations of language and its effects on human cognition, valuation and behavior.


In contrast, the received version has no particles to parse it:





It is easier here than in the Mawangdui version to read the first three characters in each line as a conditional rather than as an affirmation: “If a dao can be dao’ed, it is not a/the constant dao.   If a name can be named, it is not a/the constant name,” which easily becomes “The dao that can be known as dao is not the constant dao.  The name that can be named is not the constant name”—converting the conditional into a relative clause (“…that can be known as dao”), though this is not technically what we have here (i.e., we do not have 可道之道, or as the “Jielao” 解老(“Explaining Laozi”) chapter of the Hanfeizi has it, 道之可道: “among daos, those that can be dao’ed”).  We might also take this as a topic and comment statement: “As for dao: if it can be dao’ed, it’s not the constant dao.”   This version tilts a little closer to the implication of “the” constant dao, intending to exclude the possibility of speaking it or taking it as a guide—bringing the text slightly more into line with many traditions of apophatic mysticism, where the absolute exists, but is beyond any description or predication.  But we don’t have to go cosmic here even with the received version; the assertion is still simply that any dao that is dao’ed will ipso facto not be what can constantly dao. The question is really to what extent the primary meaning of “guide” in its general sense remains front and center in each usage of “dao.”   In the Mawangdui version, an affirmative statement is made: dao can be dao’ed, which suggests that the topic here is all daos in general, many of which can indeed be spoken of or taken as guide, but which, if so, cease to reliably guide.  The multiple senses of dao are here still prominent, implying the introduction of a new “ironic” meaning of dao, the dao which, unlike all other daos, is no guide—that is, which doesn’t tell anyone what to do about anything.   In this case, we are seeing this irony about the meaning of dao—the idea of being guided by a non-guide–being explicitly invoked as the summation of the material that follows.   The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the following line about names, values, identities.


I have just referenced in passing another important difference in wording between the two versions, which can be found in lines 3 and 4.  The received version presents the nameless as the beginning of heaven and earth, and the named as the mother of the ten thousand things: 無名天地之始,有名萬物之母The Mawangdui version of this chapter has no mention of heaven and earth;  it speaks instead in both instances of the ten thousand things, of the nameless beginning of “the ten thousand things” on the one hand and the named mother of those same “the ten thousand things” on the other:


無名萬物之始也;有名萬物之母也: Nameless: the beginning of the ten thousand things.  Named: the mother of the ten thousand things.


This suggests that the named and the nameless, the beginning and the mother, can both be considered the direct source of all things—and indeed, that these two actually refer to the same thing, the only difference between them being the naming or the lack thereof: “mother” is a name given to substantialize the nameless beginning.   This is confirmed by the Mawangdui version of the final lines of the chapter: 兩者同出,異名同胃,玄之又玄,眾眇之門
“The two emerge together as one: they are different names for the same meaning.  An obscurity beyond obscurities, the gate to all subtleties.”

In contrast, again, the received version has “heaven and earth” instead of the first “ten thousand things”:


無名天地之始;有名萬物之母:Nameless: the beginning of heaven and earth.  Named: the mother of the ten thousand things.


This suggests a progression: first the beginning of heaven and earth, and then, once that is there, the further mothering of the ten thousand things.   This seems to echo the progression seen in Chapter 40 of the received version: “All the ten thousand things under heaven were generated from being, and being was generated from nonbeing,” and perhaps also the progression in Chapter 42, “Dao generates one, one generates two, two generates three, three generates the ten thousand things.”  (The Guodian version of the equivalent phrase from Chapter 40, however, has: 天下之物生於有,生於亡, “All the things under heaven are generated from being, are generated from nonbeing.”  Here no progression is suggested.)  For the final lines of the chapter, the received version is expanded into a more complex parsing and somewhat softened implication: 此兩者,同出而異名,同謂之玄,玄之又玄,眾妙之門: “These two emerge the same but are differently named.   Their sameness is called an obscurity.   An obscurity beyond obscurities, the gate to all subtleties.”   They “emerge the same” could mean they emerge as one and the same thing, or perhaps less radically, simply that they emerge simultaneously, or that they are the same only in that both emerge.  In any case, it seems to soften the full beginning-to-end identity of the two implied by the Mawangdui version, where even if two contrasting names are given to the same thing, these two differing names really, when thought through, actually always have the same referent, or—even more radically–even the same meaning.

We have been interpreting the topic here to be names, in contrast to namelessness–the topic of the previous line (line 2).   But many readers over the centuries have taken ming (name) here to be a verb, and the real topic to now be the you (“being”) and wu (“nonbeing”) which are the names given:  “ ‘Nonbeing’ names the beginning of heaven and earth; ‘being’ names the mother of the ten thousand things.”     “To name” would here imply “to identify as, to assign a particular role or identity.”

Another very important consequence of the added punctuation in the Mawangdui versions comes in fifth and sixth lines, where a ye is placed after the word yu, meaning “desire.”  The Mawangdui version (conflating the two versions, each of which has lacunae due to deterioration of the silk manuscripts) has:



Thus constantly without desire, to view their smallness.

Constantly with desire, to view that which they cry.

In the received version we again have no particles and thus no definite determination about parsing:

故常無欲以觀其妙; 常有欲以觀其徼:


This leaves an ambiguity about whether to break the sentences after you (having, existence, presence) and wu (lacking, nonexistence, absence) or after yu (desire).   These two alternate parsings would leave us with two alternate topics for these two sentences.  If the break comes after you and wu, a claim is being made about “being” and “nonbeing” (existence and nonexistence, presence and absence, having and lacking).   If after yu, the topic is “having desires” and “not having desires.”  Both of these possibilities have good contextual arguments to support them.   Self-standing references to you and wu, and also to youyu and wuyu, are indeed found in the other Daodejing chapters.  Moreover, the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi, in summarizing the teaching of Lao Dan, the mythical author of this text, speaks of his key idea as focusing on chang wuyou 常無有, “constant nonbeing [and] being,” which would support the claim that the text was read this way at least by some in early times.  This would line up nicely with the alternate parsing of lines 3 and 4 discussed above, punctuating after wu and you (non-being and being) instead of wuming and youming (nameless and named).  Following this parsing, the meaning of lines 5 and 6 would be: “Wanting to contemplate the unseen mystery, we orient towards ‘nonexistence’ as our constant.  Wanting to contemplate the manifest forms, we orient towards ‘existence’ as our constant.”

We see another important difference between the two versions at the end of the sixth line.   The received version has 徼,  which can mean “to seek” and by extension, “tendency,” but also, “outermost reaches, frontier, boundary, surface.”  In contrast, the Mawangdui version adds a localizer before the verb, and it is a different verb, with the “mouth” rather than the “walking” radical:  所噭.  This nominalizes the phrase to mean “what is crying out” or “what they cry out for.”  Though the two versions converge around the sense of “seeking,” the latter sense helps us again fix the referent of the relative pronoun qi 其, which refers back to the previous two lines, line 3 and 4, about the nameless as the beginning and the named as the mother of the ten thousand things, or of heaven and earth.  This qi could be pointing either to the course as nameless beginning or as named mother, or to the ten thousand things born therefrom (or, in the received version but not in the Mawangdui version, to heaven and earth).  It might make sense to say the “the constant course” has “tendencies”—ways of manifesting, functions—but it is a bit harder to see it as “crying out for” something, given the other characterizations of it as being without desire.  (In contrast, it makes immediate sense to say “the ten thousand things” are each crying out for something—indeed, it pairs nicely with the image of the “mother,” the named version of the nameless beginning, now available as an object of a certain kind of inchoate desire (perhaps the desire of the “stomach” as opposed to the “eye,” or the infant rather than the adult erection, to use the tropes found in Chapters 12 and 52).  We might also see it as a sly reference to naming considered as a verbal expression.)

Taking up the received version and adopting these alternate parsings and variants, we would have an interesting and relevant summing up some of the main themes found in the rest of the text, tending toward what we might call a “maximalist” metaphysical reading:


Any course that can be specified as a course is not the constant Course.

Any identification that can identify it is not the constant Identity.


“Nonbeing” is a name identifying whence heaven and earth begin.

“Being” is a name identifying the mother of all things.


Wanting to contemplate its unseen wonder, we treat “nonbeing” as its constant [name, identity].

Wanting to contemplate its manifest forms, we treat “being” as its constant [name, identity].


These two emerge as one but are given these different names,

thereby assigned different identities.


Their oneness may be called obscure,

More obscure than any obscurity:

the gateway into all its wonders.



This is a perfectly legitimate way to interpret the text, lending itself easily to being read as the classic of apophatic metaphysics it has become in much world culture, very relevant to comparisons with Neo-Platonic, Indic and theistic traditions of negative theology, of the sort that posit an absolute as the source and sustainer of the world but see also that this absolute must be beyond all description, beyond all predication of any kind—even, according to some of them, beyond the predication that it is a “being.”   Experience of this absolute would then require a thoroughgoing turning away from ordinary desires and activities and cognitions. This way of the reading the text thus often chooses to read lines 5 and 6 not as a call to balance “having desires and not having desires” or “the mystery and the manifestation,” but to be a kind of warning: to see the really important thing, the mystery, we should be without desire, or focus on nonbeing; otherwise, if we have desires, or focus on being, all we will see are the superficial, deceptive manifest forms—and that is something we should at all costs avoid.

Our translation, in contrast, yields a “minimalist” metaphysical reading, following the “desire” parsing of the Mawangdui versions, focusing on the question of guiding, value and valuation, seeing the first two lines as describing a process: any course is made unreliable, inconstant, precisely through the act of taking it as the course to be taken—by naming it and making it an explicit object of valuation meant to serve as a guide, an object of “eye-desire.”   We also adopt the Mawangdui variant of “ten thousand things” in both lines 5 and 6, reading the “beginning” and “the mother” as referring to the same thing, first as unnamed, then as named; first as unavailable to form any kind of object of desire, second as a concretization of this very lack but now as an object of desire, what is cried out for—the “mother.”   The final lines are read as remarking upon this double meaning: “different names for the same meaning.”

The three main topics in this chapter, read in this way, are desires, goals (literally “names” meaning “values”), and method.   The structure linking these three terms is assumed to be as follows: A desire (yu 欲) aims at a specific goal (ming 名), in order to attain which one adopts a method (dao 道).   (It should again recalled that “name” in early texts implies also “fame,” i.e., a positively valued reputation as well as a definite identity that can be recognized as a socially approved role for a person or object.  It thus always has a value implication as well as the more general meaning of something that can noticed, defined, and identified.  The term is also used to denote the roles themselves, as well as the ethical ideals they denote, or ideal job-descriptions against which actual performance could be measured in a social hierarchy.   For example, in of Confucian idea of zheng ming 正名 (“the rectification of names”), a ruler is to be a ruler, a minister a minister, a father a father and a son a son: the “name” father is thus the delineated ideal to which someone who has been put in the role of father ought to live up, e.g.. to educate, direct, support and care for his children in their youth. The name “son” indicates what a son should do: be filial and bring honor to his father, and care for him in his old age.)   The term dao which is generally taken as central to this text, and the school of thought it represents, originally denotes a road, and by extension a particular course of study or practice by which a pre-designated destination or goal is to be reached, as discussed in the Introduction to this volume.  The term means first and foremost method, or purposive action undertaken with the explicit and specific intention of reaching a pre-specified goal (whether that goal is the attainment of a skill or virtue, or a material or practical result) Here the meaning of this term for goal-oriented action is being played against to explicate a built-in paradox entailed in the very structure of goal-oriented behavior in general, yielding a paradoxical new meaning for the term dao: precisely non-goal-oriented activity.   But as discussed in the Afterword, this doesn’t imply dismissing name, valuation, what is cried for, manifestations, or being—rather, on this reading, the text is advocating a way of properly utilizing both desire and non-desire, both being and non-being, both valuation and non-valuation, both name and namelessness—the two that emerge together and are ultimate two ways of viewing the same total thing, the entire A-B curve which we can with equal legitimacy name “A” or name “B” or name “neither A nor B,” or name “both A and B”–or leave unnamed entirely.   On this reading, we are to make available to ourselves all of these options, rather than choosing some and excluding others.



But any one way of reading this chapter can feel like a radical constraint on its full abundance, leaving almost everything out.  Lines One and Two alone (i.e.,道可道非常道,名可名非常名), even within the confines of the interpretative choices we have spelled out above, could be rendered into English in quite a few ways, drawing out the various implications through even very slight tweaks in connotation embodied in the English words.  Reading through the following freer and more expansive (not to say manic) renderings, all in quick succession, will perhaps give a panoramic sense of the full semantic scope of the original lines:



Line One: Proposed courses of action, if permitted to guide action, are not reliable guides of action.  Guiding courses can guide us, but their guidance is not constant.   We can discourse the course of things, but then it is not the course of all things.  We can set up a right way to go, we can set out for ourselves a right thing to do, but no way of doing things, once specified, is always right.   Precisely the specifying of a right way to go destabilizes its rightness as a way to go.  Those ways of getting things done which can be specified as a particular way to get things done are not always the way things get done. Those courses of action that can be taken as the specific course to take are not consistently reliable courses.  Those guiding paths that allow of being specified as guides are not paths that reliably guide. It is just those guiding paths from which explicit guidance can be gleaned that provide no consistent guidance.  Whatever way can be described as the way of things is not their invariant way. The guidance provided by any guiding course is destabilized when turned into an explicit normative guide. Roads can be taken, but no road is always to be taken.   When you speak of the way, it ceases to be the constant way.  When a way to go is taken as the way to go, it ceases to consistently be the way to go. There is no harm in following a course as long as one does not do so consistently. Proposed ways to go, if permitted to determine how we go, are not reliable indicators of how to go.   Proposed ways to go can show a way to go, but then the ways they propose going are not always what gives things their goings, their ways to go.   The ways of going for all things can be set up for them to go, but then they are not the ways of going of all things.



Line Two: Values and identities that are assigned to things, if permitted to signify their values and identities, do not reliably signify their values and identities.  We can name what is significant about things, but then it is not what is significant about things.  We can set up the right names for things, indicating how they should be to count as that thing, but no way of naming them, once specified, is always right.   Precisely the specifying of what a thing is or should be destabilizes its being what it is or should be. Those things to do that can be specified as a particular thing to do are not always the done thing. Those specific goals that can be specified as a particular goal are not always the goal. Those goals that can be taken as the specific goal to pursue are not consistently worth pursuing. Those ideals that allow of being specified as ideal are not always ideal. It is just those ideals that can be definitely idealized which deliver nothing consistently ideal. Any name that can be named is not a name that applies invariantly. When a name is made famous, the source of its fame is destabilized. Identities can be identified, but no identity is always to be identified.  When you identify an identity, it ceases to be the constant identity. When a determinate ideal is named, it ceases to consistently determine an ideal. There is no harm in identifying an identity as long as one does not do so consistently. Proposed values, if permitted to determine what we value, are not reliable indicators of value.   The names of all things can be named, but then they are not the names of all things.




Lines Three and Four (無名萬物之始,有名萬物之母), following the same unconstrainedly chatty impulse, might look like this:



The valueless, the nameless, the indeterminable, what matches no criterion, what fits no definition, is the beginning of the ten thousand things.

But we have just named it by saying this.   We have just pointed it out.  We have just identified it.   That same indeterminability can also be named, that void can be concretized, the very embodiment of a void that is granted no value and no name, but which is nonetheless the primal source, a name for generative namelessness itself: the mother of all things.



We can continue the experiment with the remainder of the chapter, (故常無欲以觀其妙,常有欲以觀其徼,此兩者,同出而異名,同謂之玄。玄之又玄,衆妙之門):


Thus the inescapability of our desireless side, attuned to the nameless and valueless, allows us to attend to the imponderable in which things have their origin, the unseen side of each thing.

And the inescapability of our desiring side, attuned to names and values, allows us to observe the contours of the outer limits towards which they are always pressing.

The two—nameless and named, desire and desirelesssness, presence and absence– are thus one and the same when they first emerge, but come to be named as two different things.

The sameness that they had as they emerged then becomes something obscure indeed—more obscure than obscure!  But it is also a gateway into the manifoldness of the always unseen.


The above can sketch for the reader what a freer and more expansive version of the translation of this chapter might look like.  We can also imagine an equally free-handed but more laconic option, a more minimalist version that is stylistically and tonally very different from all of the above and from our main translation, but drawing out some of the same implications and their interconnections, which might go like this:



Specifying a way of doing things destabilizes it.

Specifying the value of things destabilizes it.

At their beginning, all things are unspecifiable.

But as specified, this unspecifiability is named the mother of things.

Stable in desirelessness we come to see the unspecifiability, the imponderable side of things.

Stable in desiring, we come to see the contours toward which they develop.

These two are initially one and the same; they are merely different names of the same thing.

This sameness of the many-named is thereafter obscure, more than obscure—but it is also the gateway to the multifariousness of that imponderability.


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