Understanding Daodejing


Laozi’s thought is nowhere close to a religion and Laozi was not religious at all. In fact, Laozi preferred freedom, equality, respect, rationality and open-mindedness rather than disciplines.

Many people found many verses in Daodejing《道德經》to be contradictory or even to not make sense at all. However, when we believe that Laozi (老子c.570BC – c.490BC) was a rational man and believe he tried to deliver a message to the public, this skepticism is cleared away. The message in Daodejing about fighting poverty and inequality is so clear. It is only a matter of comprehension and ability to master the ancient Chinese syntax.

In fact, Laozi did have his own extraordinary way of expressing himself. One reason, perhaps, was, due to his high speed of thinking. His speed of thought was much faster than his speaking and writing. Therefore, something between the lines could be understood or omitted unconsciously. When we read Daodejing synchronously with Laozi’s speed of thinking, all these omitted or understood parts become apparent.

Hints to Understanding Daodejing

Take “zhi ren zhe zhi” (知人者智), the first line of Chapter 33, for example. Apparently, it means ‘Knowing people well is wisdom’ and this is the widely adopted explanation for this line. However, after understanding Laozi’s criticisms of the crafty mindset used by people with the word zhi (), we then find that this conventional explanation is wrong. The word ren () in this line does not mean people but means ‘the human way’ as described in Chapter 77. Then, the correct meaning of this line should be “Taking the human way is crafty and it is an abuse of intelligence.” It was saying that such a crafty mindset was unnatural due to limited scope of life and society. Such wrong interpretation is a galaxy away from the original meaning.

As a matter of fact, Laozi’s extraordinary way of expressing himself is commonly found among people today. You might say these people difficult to communicate with. They usually do not respond directly in a conversation with others and seem to be speaking non-sense. In fact, they just jump ahead to respond three five steps in advance.

The ‘live reporting method’ might help. This method is intended to train children to speak and write fluently. This simple method only requests the children to speak out loud and clear about anything that they come across in front of them without interruption like a reporter reporting live from the scene for as long as one minute. They can say anything. The aim is to hold the mind of the child so it can synchronize with his tongue. The rule of uninterrupted speaking is to force the children to exercise their brains in order to pick up anything in their surroundings and talk about it. In the beginning level, they are allowed to say things of no significance. Sometimes, it may be found to be a bit funny too. The reason for that is because this may help the children overcome their shyness in speaking in front of a crowd. Usually, children are requested to speak and make sense. Some children may find it difficult since they have to take time to recollect all the necessary logical segments to construct an expression consciously that makes sense before they speak. While preparing their speech, they may have to search over many things in their mind and sometimes they may be lost along the way and become tongue-tied. This method will help them to collect logical segments quickly enough to construct an expression and get used to preparing their speech subconsciously. After sufficiently mastering their speech this way, the children can advance to the next level to coherently and concisely speak, taking it to a higher level each time. This will help children improve their communication skills in order to express themselves better. Most of all, it will enhance the children’s awareness of the barely noticeable but crucial information around them. Such awareness is the basis of creativity and motivation of learning.

Second, it is important to note that most of the ambiguity in Daodejing is a result of misleading by Confucius (孔子551BC – 479BC). Under the domination of Confucianism (儒家) for several centuries, it is not easy for today’s people to realize the original meaning of many words before him. Take ren () for example. The original meaning of it according to Guanzi《管子》was to sit in other people’s position and be considerate without any personal gain (先人而自後而無以為,仁也). Its meaning in the political aspect according to Daodejing was for the ruler to sit in the general public’s position and be considerate about caring for the people (上仁為之而無以為). However, Confucius changed the reciprocal relationship the other way around and requested the general public to sit in the emperor’s position and be ‘considerate’ to obey and conform to the feudal class system and the feudal courtesy (克己復禮). It is found now that Confucius’ ren () was nothing related to benevolence. It definitely meant blind loyalty. Without comprehension of Daodejing, it is hard for anyone to have clarity about such ambiguity. Vice versa, with only the Confucian interpretation of words, it is hard for one to comprehend Daodejing and the genuine ancient Chinese culture.

Third, Laozi’s use of words was very sophisticated. Every word used in Daodejing was well defined. In order to clarify the ambiguity caused by Confucius, Laozi used the same written forms of words in different contexts to identify the difference. Appendix I lists out a table of differences. Without such clarification, it is hard for one to realize Daodejing.

Fourth, after 25 centuries, some meanings of words have changed. If we use our current adaptation to read ancient literature without understanding the social context of the time, we will be lost. For example, the current adaptations for the words xue () and jiao () are learning and educating respectively. In fact, when we go back 25 centuries, we will then realize the meaning of xue () specifically narrowed down to ‘learning the feudal courtesy’ and the meaning of jiao () was ‘disciplining the subject to the feudal rules and orders’. It was just a tool of enslaving people’s mind. It was far from the meaning of education.

Fifth, unlike English, Chinese words of different parts of speech still bear the same written form. Without understanding this, one may take certain text of Daodejing out of grammatical context. Take the following words for examples. Da (), xiao (), shang () and xia () are usually used as adjectives meaning large, small, upper and lower respectively. Yet, when they are used as verbs, they will mean enlarge, diminish, lead and be humble respectively. When shang (), xia () and xiao () are used as nouns, they will mean superior, subordinate and people of the lower class respectively. When xia () is used as an adverb, it will mean downward.

Sixth, some words bear several layers of meaning. We need to dig out which layer the word represents in the context. Like pu (), it is the Chinese word for bark. Yet further on, the first layer of it means something easily to be ignored. The second layer of it means information that is easily to be ignored. The third layer of it means the information reflecting what was happening in the lower echelons of society, which the lord usually ignored. The fourth layer of it means the lower-class people. The deeper layers are what Laozi actually meant for the word most of the time. Without knowing this, this word pu () is so misleading and people often misinterpret it as living a very plain life.

Seventh, some words have several explicit meanings. Like the word ming (), it has four meanings including 1) name, 2) fame, 3) status and 4) definition. Even in English, the word name will mean reputation in certain cases.

Eighth, some words in Daodejing actually were abbreviations. Words like you () and wu () in Chapter 2 actually stood for you wei (有為), i.e., the monarchic system, and wu wei (無為), i.e., the republic system. Yet, you () and wu () in Chapter 40 stood for you ming (有名), i.e., the world of knowledge, and wu ming (無名), i.e., the world beyond knowledge. The words you () and wu () were not stand-alone philosophical concepts at all. That has caused the greatest misunderstanding of Daodejing all these years. It is absurd and ridiculous to take the line “you wu xiang sheng” (有無相生) literally and misinterpret it as ‘fullness and emptiness mutually generated’ while the major concern of the book was talking about poverty, equality and human rights.

Finally, some crucial terms of Daodejing apparently had been misunderstood ever since Laozi finished his book. It is because Laozi preferred ‘subconscious education’ to verbal instruction and there was not too much detailed explanation to elaborate on the subject. It is also possible for the message to have been lost in interpersonal transmission with only the text in hand after Laozi. It is even found in Zhuangzi《莊子》that the term wu wei (無為) was not quite correctly interpreted despite the fact it conveyed a strong political preference for Zhuangzi (莊子c.369BC – c.286BC) against the imperial ruling. In fact, most Laozi’s followers in the Warring States Period (戰國475BC – 221BC) understood that the term you wei (有為) stood for the imperial system and also understood how the imperial system was hurting people badly. Indeed it is well known that there had been a strong confrontation between the Confucian School and the Natural School in that period. However, history showed that the Natural School also unfortunately misinterpreted the meaning of wu wei (無為) and took a pessimistic attitude to stay away from the regime to live an eremitic life in the countryside. Such a pessimistic attitude of the Natural School had been passed on with Zhuangzi’s followers in the following few centuries till the Jin Dynasty (晉朝266AD – 420AD). In the Jin Dynasty, some of Zhuangzi’s followers began to advocate certain democratic reform and proposed a kind of republic system for the country. Yet the voice was weak. Ever since then, Taoism transformed and became a religious form after the Jin Dynasty under the influence of Buddhism.

Yet, some early form of Taoist organization in the Han Dynasty (漢朝202BC – 220AD) did exist and that was more like a political system rather than a religion. There had been an organization called Wudoumi Dao (五斗米道) organized by Zhang Lin (張陵34AD – 156AD) in ancient Si Chuan Province. It could be seen as a republic state independent of the Han Dynasty but it did not last long. Succession of the leadership might have created a problem for them since it was Zhang Lin’s son and grandson to succeed the head title. After that, Wudoumi Dao surrendered to the Wei () regime in the Three Kingdoms Period (三國220AD – 280AD). No matter what, after the religious form of Taoism emerged, it would just cast another veil over Daodejing. Thereafter, misinterpretation of Daodejing in terms of non-doing and living a plain life became a type of behavioral confinement and Daodejing fell asleep in the following 1600 years or so.

Guan Zhong – A Forgotten Political Giant

Along with the recovery of Daodejing, there came another important historic recovery of the book of Guanzi《管子》and a forgotten political giant Guan Zhong (管仲c.720BC – 645BC). No one had had a thought to relate Daodejing to Guanzi. In fact, many important opinions from Daodejing, including ‘non-possession administration’, ‘fundamental human rights’, ‘authority social responsibility’, ‘pre-logical thinking’, ‘society leveraging’ and social harmony, were all coming from Guanzi. Daodejing can be considered as a summary of Guanzi. That is why Daodejing is so precise and written in point-form.

Guan Zhong (管仲) was indeed a shengren (聖人) or an extraordinary leader. He was not only a shengren for his great leadership in governance but also a great man of humanism. Guanzi《管子》can be regarded as a reference book of governance in the ancient time that elaborates how sophisticated the way that Guan Zhong governed the State of Qi (齊國) when he was the Prime Minister there at that time. The book includes a lot of topics like leadership training, ‘pre-logical thinking’, humanistic concern, ‘society leveraging’, social science, infrastructure and diplomatic relationship. The book was written more than 26 centuries ago but these gems of governance are still applicable today.

Guan Zhong (管仲) introduced the idea of a ‘non-possession administration’ and proposed to the lord to give up possession of property. To Laozi, the lord possessing the country still posed a threat to the equality of people. Laozi advanced one more step to propose to the ruler to give up possession of the country. The ultimate goal of the ‘non-possession administration’ is to eliminate any thoughts of ruling and of having special rights. In addition, Laozi also broadened the concept of harmony from harmony of society to harmony of the Great Nature.

“When all people follow you willingly even if you do not deem yourself as Lord, this kind of fame of being a true leader will then be reckoned as magnificent. Not self-proclaiming your greatness thus makes you great.” (Ch.34)

Laozi was a great man. It is not because Laozi wrote the book of Daodejing. It is because what he had written 25 centuries ago is still crucial today for reversing the aggravation of poverty.

Social Harmony and Economy

Economy is not about making money. It is about making a living for all people. Adam Smith’s free market theory was supposedly intended to provide necessary funds in order for people of every nation to buy necessities and have the conveniences in life. That meant full employment.

That is what Adam Smith remarked with the opening statement of his book Wealth of Nations. He said, “THE annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations.”

However, Adam Smith miscalculated since he was unaware of the development of extremes. Charles Dickens’ world has gone but the problems of poverty still remain. Extremisms are exactly the problem of our world economy today due to the emphasis of absolute freedom causing the market to develop without any constraint and without any human concern. Without human concern, is thus, one of the loopholes of Capitalism. Daodejing points out that anything going extreme needs to be weakened in order to preserve harmony. Most importantly, Daodejing also points out that it is solely the people ourselves to be responsible to make changes by counter-acting.

“When we understand the nature of a mother, we will know what it is required for her son to live. When we understand the destiny of a son, we will know the way for him to live is by inheriting the nature of his mother.” (Ch.52)

The ancient Chinese tradition of social harmony theory is a hope for the world today to fight poverty and to restore world peace. We won’t need to go to any other planet as Prof. Stephen Hawking suggested if we observe our due responsibility to maintain a harmonious environment for ourselves. Otherwise, what is the point of prolonging life of the human species somewhere else? What is the point of prolonging life of the human species if humans end up destroying one planet after another? What is the point of only thinking of escaping instead of being responsible to correct problems here this very minute as soon as we realize that we have done something wrong? What is the point of prolonging life of the human species anyway? Isn’t it a shame that the history of the human species, having lived millions of years on earth, may come to an end in just another 200 years by our own hands?

Daodejing is not asking people to comply with any new canonicals. Daodejing is only asking people to open their minds to think of a new way to tackle any difficulty for the sake of survival of mankind. The criterion is to abide by the way of Nature so we can be in harmony with It.

Authority Social Responsibility

“As a leader, you need to realize the whole picture of society. You need to reach down to the bottom of it to realize how poor is the way the people live. When the bottom of society does not suffer anymore, this society will then be regarded as stable, peaceful and happy.” (Ch.35)

After Laozi defined it with a definition of living in harmony by the way of Nature in Chapter 25, then the meaning of dao () became rigorous. There is nothing mysterious, metaphysical or religious about the word dao. The mysterious part only means the unlimited power of creativity of human beings to create and make things change. That makes dao so magnificent.

“Anything which is able to yield will ensure its integrity.” (Ch.22)

“Therefore, being hard and rigid is the way to die. Being fragile and lithe is the way to live.” (Ch.76)

“Understanding a little means the beginning of enlightenment. Holding fast to staying lithe means strong.” (Ch.52)

“Staying lithe” and “to yield” do not mean to surrender. Instead, it is the attitude for opening up our minds to be prepared and to find ways for changing. Many people deal with adversity by subduing it. Why would we simply change the reality ourselves? People always say, ‘Nothing is impossible’. Shall we be strong enough to turn a cliché into action?

Daodejing emphasizes four things to achieve social harmony and world peace in the natural way: 1) ‘fundamental human rights’, 2) ‘authority social responsibility’, 3) ‘pre-logical thinking’ and 4) ‘society leveraging’. Another book of mine, By the Way of Nature《老子.道德經.道法自然》written in Chinese, reiterates more about economy, politics and education by the way of Nature. The concepts of ‘authority social responsibility’ and ‘society leveraging’ are not new. They just have been forgotten for millennia.

All of the explanations and arguments in this book are widely supported by an abundance of references from literature during and before the Han Dynasty (漢朝202BC – 220AD) including The Five Canons《五經》,Analects of Confucius《論語》, The Canon of Filial Piety《孝經》, Xunzi《荀子》, The Book of Li《禮記》and The Elder Dai’s Book of Li《大戴禮記》of the Confucian School and Guanzi《管子》, Zhuangzi《莊子》, Liezi《列子》, Hanfeizi《韓非子》and The Book of Shang Jun《商君書》of the Natural School. It is surprising to note that the thought of Mencius (孟子372BC – 289BC) was very independent of the Orthodox Confucian School and more inclined to the Natural School to support ‘fundamental human rights’ and ‘authority social responsibility’. Mencius had been deemed as treacherous by the early Confucians in the Han Dynasty. Nevertheless, it was Mencius’ humanistic mindset which gave birth to Neo-Confucianism (新儒家) in the Song Dynasty (宋朝960AD – 1279AD). Unfortunately, the Neo-Confucians were totally lost in finding the original meaning of ren () indicated by the book of Mencius《孟子》. Please refer to my other two Chinese books By the Way of Nature《老子.道德經.道法自然》and Superficiality of Dao《道之華而愚之始》for details. By the time I realized what Laozi was trying to say, I was stunned. Laozi was absolutely correct in predicting what would happen to the country in the following centuries after him.

This is a historic finding of the true meaning of Daodejing, that Laozi, in fact, had launched a silent and non-violent pro-republic movement by trying to eliminate such an inhumane feudal political system. The finding matches all the historical, cultural and social backgrounds of his time. The explanation of all 81 chapters is clear and complete now. The message that Daodejing delivers is clear and complete. Most of all, the message of Daodejing is extremely important to the world today in regards to fighting poverty and recovering ‘fundamental human rights’.

Conflicts between Taoists and Confucians

It is well known that there has been conflict between Taoism and Confucianism for almost 25 centuries. Now, it is clear that Laozi did have entered a fight with Confucius for the difference in political preferences.

Confucius said he no longer heard discord after the age of 60. That was the year of 491BC. Confucius was still amidst his 14 years of exile and there was nothing unusual happening to him that year according to records in various ancient literatures. Confucius’ self-blessing could have implied that that was the year Laozi retired, and also the year Laozi retired from arguing with him as well. It is known that Daodejing was written shortly after Laozi retired as requested by Guan Yinzi (關尹子) by the time Laozi was leaving the Capital heading westbound. The year of 2010 is very possibly the 2500th anniversary of Daodejing.

“The shengren does not accumulate his wealth. The more he can actuate the people to produce, the more he feels he possesses. The more he can actuate the people to have, the more he feels he has much to own. The way of dao is to benefit but not to harm. The way of shengren is to actuate but not to contend.” (Ch.81)

Dao treats everyone equally disregarding any relationship. Those who follow dao well enough will always succeed.” (Ch.79)