A version of this chapter does appear in our earliest source, the Guodian corpus, and the Guodian version maps onto the entire received version as a single unbroken and untruncated chunk, though with some interesting variants to be discussed below. Here is a literal character by character rendering of the received version:
Under-Heaven all know beauty’s being beauty. This-then ugliness done.
All know good’s being good. This-then not-good done.
Thus being nonbeing mutually generate. Difficult easy mutually complete. Long short mutually compare. High and low mutually lean. Tone sound mutually harmonize. Front back mutually follow.
This using sage stays-in-place-in nondoing’s deed, moves-in/practices nonword’s teaching.
Ten-thousand things begin in/from/through-it and yet not decline, generate/birth/live and yet not possess, do and yet not depend,
Accomplishment completed and yet not dwelling.
As for just not dwelling, this using not going-away.
Lines 1 and 2 are rendered in our translation as follows: “When all in the world know the beautiful to be beautiful, / there already is the ugly. / When all know the good to be the good, / there already is the bad.” This is meant to exploit a fortuitous ambiguity in the English to convey an ambiguity in the Chinese: “there already is the ugle” can mean either “right there, in what is identified as beauty,” or “in the very fact of identifying beauty as beauty, in the identifying of beauty as beauty, is ugliness” or else the (third) quite different meaning, “ugliness is already there—i.e., it already exists (elsewhere).” The first meaning would be unambiguously rendered: “When all in the world know beauty as beauty, that beauty itself has become ugly.” The second, “When all in the world know beauty as beauty, this very fact, the identification of beauty, is ugly, so ugliness is already there in this act of identification.” The third would be, “When all in the world know beauty as beauty, ugliness has thereby already appeared in the world too, in contrast.”
We have three related ideas suggested here: 1) by understanding a particular concept, the opposite concept is also necessarily understood, as a contrast; 2) Knowledge of a value, clear awareness of it, the specifying of it as a definite goal or ideal, undermines the value of that value, makes it bad, for by making it the object of deliberate pursuit, “nondoing” becomes “doing”: hypocritical fakery and artificial effort attempt to force behavior to conform to the ideal, thereby undermining the true source of the value, which is assumed to lie in spontaneous nonpurposivity; 3) What generates the problem is not just a single individual’s awareness of the ideal, but the fact that all under heaven agree about these ideals, these values: the meaning in this case is that the very fact that all people agree to a value concept is itself what generates the anti-value, not merely conceptually but pragmatically and concretely, and not merely as an individual undermining of the true source of virtue (nonpurposivity) but on a social level. For then everyone strives for the same goal, they fight for the attain the same rare goods (see Chapter 3), to attain the same small space at the top of the hill, or the same few positions of reputation (name, fame) earned for pre-eminence in this particular virtue. Their fighting for it, as much as their deliberate efforts for it, falsify, undermine, contravert the stated value. Everyone knowing the good makes the world into a constant war—undermining the good. (This of course assumes that “war” is not what was conceived of as “good.” But let’s say “war” is designated as the good. Everyone agreeing to it still undermines it—for their agreement itself would be in this case the larger “peace” that subtends all their warfare, the “evil” they cannot escape!) The meaning of these opening lines of Chapter 2, then, is at once cognitive, ethical, and social. The point is not merely that establishing a concept simultaneously establishes its anti-concept, but also that there are self-undermining effects of becoming aware of a concept of value, and further, that when all agree to a shared concept of value, precisely when alternate concepts of value are forgotten, this itself is bad and ugly. This involves the structural feature sometimes later epitomized as wujibifan 物極必反 (“when a thing reaches its extreme, it reverses”), and also accords well with the proclamation in Chapter 40 that “reversal, opposition, is the activity of the course,” as well as with the logic of the chapter to follow (Chapter 3): making a value recognized, and then further universally recognized, is what causes everyone to strive for the same goal, and this is intrinsically bad (causing competition and mutual antipathy among them on the one hand and unnatural conformity to a single standard on the other). All these senses of the principle of value reversal would then apply also to the following lines about mutual generation and indivisibility of opposites. The rich ambiguity of the line in the original, then, is best maintained by keeping in mind all three meanings: that 1) establishing any concept requires the conceptual presence of its opposite, such that establishing a standard of goodness always implicitly calumniates whatever falls outside it, and also posits a possible alternative vision of the good (a direction developed in some parts of the Zhuangzi), and also that 2) deliberately trying to be good makes one bad; and finally 3) the success of the attempt to universalize a value even further undermines its value. We can now see how this develops the ideas already foreshadowed in summary form in Chapter 1: a guiding course or a name, a method or a value, that can be taken explicitly and normatively as guide, as value, ceases for that very reason to be a reliable course or value. When a value is always recognized, when it becomes constant either for an individual (meaning 2) or worse, for everyone in a society (meaning 3), it ceases to be valuable and instead generates the opposite. Anything brought to full awareness, and then to universal recognition, undermines itself: the more a “name” or determinate entity successfully becomes itself, the more it becomes its opposite.
Another set of intriguing interpretive issues arises with lines 4 and 5. Our main translation renders these lines:
This is why the sage abides in the work of nondoing,
practicing the teaching of noninstruction.
Through this the ten thousand things arise,
none declining it and none declined;
through this all get their birth and have their life,
none possessing it and none possessed;
through this all move and act and become,
none counting on it and none it counts on:
The word ci 辭 found in line 5, rendered “decline,” means to turn away or take leave of something. The sense might be either that nothing is refused by it (“it” being “the work of nondoing, the teaching of noninstruction”—i.e., the course of the sage), or that, even when produced from it, nothing ever really departs it (as suggested by one reading of the last lines of the chapter)—or both, as we take it here.
Since ci can also mean “words,” some take this to be another reference to not speaking. We should note also that the Tang dynasty Fu Yi manuscript has weishi 為始 instead of ci here, and Wang Bi’s commentary suggests that this was also what was in the text he was actually working from (as opposed to the received version now commonly associated with his commentary). The meaning would then be, “All the ten thousand things get started up in it though it never begins them, it never endeavors to make a start for them, they are never begun by anything.” The distinction is between something simply beginning (intransitive) and its being begun by something (transitive). As Wei Yuan 魏源 (1794-1854)has suggested, these two textual variants can actually be read, with some ingenuity, as converging in a single meaning: the things begin themselves, and are not begun by the Dao, which however then never “refuses” (ci) to follow along with any of them in their self-initiated existences. The meaning of this combined reading would then be that it gives rise to all the ten thousand things precisely by not controlling them, letting them do as they do of their own accord and following along with them rather than taking the role of an initiating first cause that would determine how they must be.
Focusing on this weishi variant alone, the translation for these lines together thus might be:
The ten thousand things arise through it without its doing anything to begin them–
Generating all without taking possession of them
Letting all become what they are without claiming them.
This translation reads the “it” (again, the work of nondoing and the teaching of noninstruction, which can be construed as a way of saying “the course of the sage” itself) as the subject through which things arise, generating them, letting them become what they become. But it is perhaps possible to read the subject instead as the “ten thousand things” that are given rise to by it, generated (and live) through it, becoming and acting in it. That reading would suggest the following translation, putting it all in the passive voice:
The ten thousand things arise in it though no beginning is instigated,
thrive in it though no ownership is claimed,
become in it though no demands are made.
A more venturesome version, adopting the ci variant but reading it in the sense of “taking leave,” would be:
The ten thousand things begin there, though never departing from it.
All are born and live there, though never possessed.
All is done there, though never used to serve any end.
This ambiguity concerning which is the subject of the verb, and whether it is to be construed in the active or the passive voice, obtains whether we follow the ci (“decline”) or the weishi (“make a beginning”) variant of line 5. This ambiguity applies also to the you 有 (“possess, own, exist, presence”). If the subject of this verb is the “it,” as we construe it here, the meaning is that it does not “own” or “possess” them. If the subject is the ten thousand things rather than the “it,” however, the meaning might be construed as the quite radical and intriguing claim that they are not to be regarded as “existing” or are not simply “present”—the same meaning this word has as the first of the series of interdependent pairs listed in line 3, i.e., “presence” or “being,” the antonym of wu 無, “absence” or “nonbeing.” A bit less daringly, it can also be read to mean that the ten thousand things never own or possess the “it”—the course is not something that can be possessed by anyone—the option we adopt here. Our translation follows the ci variant, and double translates the entire sequence, interpreting the verbs as applying in both directions, to both subjects, actively and passively—a blanket negation that applies in all relevant cases: it doesn’t decline them and they don’t decline it; it doesn’t possess them, they don’t possess it; it doesn’t count on them for anything and they don’t count on it for anything (i.e., it doesn’t demand anything of them and they don’t demand anything of it). The point is that the relation is bilateral between the course and the ten thousand things: the course does not decline to give rise to any thing, it does not possess what it generates, it does not make any claim on (take credit for) what it does—but in addition, none of the things decline or turn away from the course, none possesses it, and none need count on it or depend on it. The last claim may strike some as odd: do not all things depend on the course? The point, however, is that they do so without any awareness of doing so, without any intention to worship it or pay fealty to it, and this is precisely what allows the real support to occur. Forgetting the course is a way of allowing its real operation, a point that seems unproblematically consistent with many of the claims of the Daodejing corpus and other Daoist works. In particular, see Chapter 34, where it is just because the course is “small,” i.e., unnoticed, that it is “large,” i.e., depended on by all, and Chapter 17, where the proper effect of the work of the highest is that the people do not even know it has occurred, are unaware of any dependence on it, saying instead that they did it themselves. A similar point seems to be made in Chapter 51, where it is claimed that all the ten thousand things honor the course and its virtuosity, but not through any command and again through their own ziran, what is so of themselves, without the sense of any external agent doing it—they are unaware of honoring the course, and this unawareness of the course is this highest honor they can give it.
This “count on” or “demand” of line 6 also requires some further comment. Shi 恃 (here translated as “count on,” taken to mean “claim for one’s own, make claims on, make demands on, have expectations of”) does mean literally “rely upon,” but is generally used not in the physical sense of one object depending on another for its existence but in the sense of expecting something to serve a reliable function for one for example, to rely on one’s wealth or rank or on people’s goodwill for guaranteeing one’s future wellbeing]. We invoke this sense with the term “count on” to further imply calculation and keeping track in general. But this character appears with varying disambiguating semantic radicals in our available sources. Dr. Chia-yu Hsu has on this basis made the intriguing suggestion that it be read in accordance with the core element of the character, the bare si 寺, which would allow us to read it in sense of “standard, regulation.” Our translation of line 5 would then be something like, “It acts on them without regulating them” (taking the course of the sage as the subject) or “they act without being regulated” (taking the things as the subject)—in many ways among the most philosophically attractive alternative, and one which also accords with the general sense of the line as outlined above.
The same sort of ambiguity concerning the subject also applies to lines 6-7. Line 6 seems rather unambiguously to refer to the course of the sage (or the course per se, or the sage per se): when its or his achievements are completed, it or he does not “dwell” in them. Jugoing 居功 has become a standard expression in modern Chinese to mean “to take credit for achievements,” and it is very natural to read line 6 that way. But this idiom occurs nowhere in pre-Qin literature, and we have to consider the possibility that this line right here, applying a newly-coined metaphor, is the source of that by now inevitable-seeming idiom, and thus must be interpreted with more attention to the literal meaning from which this live meaning is being forged before our eyes. Indeed, the Guodian version of this passage (to be considered below) has no mention of “achievements” at all, but does still use the ju, “dwelling.”
This opens the possibility that the subject here too can be read either as the course or the achievements, i.e., that the claim is either “when its achievements are complete, it does not dwell on them (i.e., claim credit for them)” or “when achievements are completed, they do not dwell.” The following line could then equally apply to either: “Precisely because it does not claim credit (or in some other sense ‘dwell’ in its achievements), it never goes away” or “Precisely because these achievements do not dwell, they never go away.” Indeed, we could read this crosswise: “Precisely because its achievements do not dwell, it (the real source of continued achievement) never goes away” or, perhaps the most intuitive reading, “Precisely because it doesn’t dwell on its achievements, these achievements are enduring.” We could even read the qu (“go away”) in its sense of “separate”; the line then would mean simply that the two sides, the maker of the achievements and the achievements themselves, are never separated: “Precisely because it does not dwell in them, they are never separated from it”—in harmony perhaps with the reading of ci as “to take leave” in line 5: the ten thousand things are never separate from that which gives rise to them, because it never dwells in them.
This invites us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of “dwell” here. If it is the course that does not dwell on its achievements, not to dwell on what is achieved could mean to no longer keep working on them once they are complete, but to move on to new activities. This could of course include not taking credit for them, but would not be restricted to that meaning. If the subject is the achievements themselves, it would imply that these achievements are not expected to persist as monuments to be in effect for all time—they are temporary expedients that achieve something for a particular time, but are not meant to be models applying for all the future (a familiar Daoist and Legalist motif, often used as a critique of Confucian conservatism with respect to the cultural norms established in the past by ancient sages). The punchline would then be that precisely because of this non-dwelling, the achievements persist, or the achieving persists—that is the real achievement persists, i.e., goes on, creating anew, forever. This would be an example of what we have described in the Afterword of “B as the true A.”
With a nod toward the now common interpretation of “dwell” as “to claim credit” where appropriate, the lines could thus be rendered either:
Its achievements complete, it claims them not,
Never dwelling on what it has accomplished—
Precisely because it never dwells on them, it never departs from them.
Works are completed but they do not dwell
And precisely because they do not dwell, they are never gone.
Works are completed but not dwelt on,
And precisely because never dwelt on, they are never gone.
Leaving it all maximally ambiguous, then, perhaps the rendering would be:
Works are completed by it but it claims no merit, never dwells on its deeds—
and because free of all dwelling, never departing.
This can be construed to mean either that “it” (the work of nondoing, the teaching of noninstruction, abided in and practiced by the sage) never goes away or alternately that “they” (the achievements completed by this nondoing and noninstruction) never go away.
Of course, this entire passage can also be construed as referring to the sage and not the course he practices. The meaning would then be something like:
The ten thousand things start up through him, and he never refuses any;
He produces and gives them life, but never possesses them.
He does his deeds but does not rely on them,
Completing the task but never dwelling on what he’s accomplished.
It is just because he never dwells there that it never departs him.
Lastly, we should note that in the place of lines 4-7, the Guodian version has simply 萬物作而弗治也，為而弗志也，成而弗居: 夫唯弗居也，是以弗去也. The translation might be: “All the ten thousand things arise without being governed; become and are active without being willed, come to completion without dwelling. Just because not dwelling, never departing.” The ambiguities concerning the subject (the course or the things) apply here as well, although it should be noted that the yan焉 (“in it”) is entirely lacking here, which may tilt us closer to reading “the ten thousand things” as the subject throughout. But we can still read all the verbs in the passive voice, which throws us back effectively to reading “the course of the sage” as the subject of the verbs. The three steps are here not “1) beginning-2) life (birthing or living)-3) doing” but “1)beginning-2)doing-3) completion,” aligning more intuitively with the phases of the process of formation of things, beginning and middle and end. The respective negations here are not “1) no declining (or no making a beginning)-2) no possessing-3) no counting on” something, but “1)no governing-2) no willing-3)no dwelling.” The idea would seem to be that in their beginnings all things are not controlled or governed, in becoming what they are and becoming active they follow no will, and when they reach their completion, they do not remain there–or, if we do read the course as the implicit subject here, it does not control them, does not will them, does not dwell in them—and thus it, or they, never depart(s).