For the interview with Tony in Winter 2000

For more of Tony's translations from the Chinese

Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.

(C.Fourth—Third Centuries B.C.)

Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

Laozi was the legendary author of the Dao De Jing, a collection of prose and verse wisdom literature that is considered the seminal and essential work of Daoism. Yet about Laozi and the Dao De Jing mysteries abound. It is by no means certain that a historical personage named Laozi ever existed. The title Dao De Jing (Classic of the Way and Its Power) is a later name for the collection that originally was called simply Laozi. Since Laozi also means “old man,“ and there is evidence of a body of wisdom literature whose various book titles all translate as “elder“ or “old man,“ it may be that this collection is the lone survivor of this lost genre. It may be that the Dao De Jing is an anthology of sayings by diverse authors linked by common themes or the work of one author augmented by later redactors. The traditional Laozi is said to have been an older contemporary of Confucius (551 - 479 B.C.) who instructed the younger sage in the rites, but this story seems not to have circulated until the third Century B.C. It is now thought that the text dates from no earlier than the third or fourth centuries B.C. In the first century B.C., the famous historian Sima Qian recounted the Confucius encounter and other stories about Laozi, which he gathered from sources now lost. The story about Laozi's writing the Dao Dejing follows:
Laozi cultivated the way and virtue, and his teachings aimed at self-effacement. He lived in Zhou for a long time, but seeing its decline he departed; when he reached the Pass, the Keeper there was pleased and said to him, “As you are about to leave the world behind, could you write a book for my sake?” As a result, Laozi wrote a work in two books, setting out the meaning of the way and virtue in some five thousand characters, and then departed. None knew where he went to in the end.
          The book itself has more than the five thousand characters mentioned by Sima Qian and is divided into eighty-one chapters in two sections. Unlike the other great source of Taoism, the Zhuangzi text, the Dao Dejing is not a work of anecdotes and parables; it is a general, didactic work of great poetic beauty, mystery, and ambiguity. Central to the work and to Daoism is the concept of the Dao, which means the way, method, or reason. The Dao is ineffable — it can't be captured in words; it is as small as the essential nature of the smallest thing and as large as the entire universe. The term DeJing means “classic,“ and thus the title of the book translates as The Classic of the Dao and the De. The Dao in this work is seen as the source of the world, as everything and, at the same time, nothing. It is fluid, weak, and passive, yet it conquers all and is the source of all action. Its nature is paradoxical because it is so large that it contains both ends of all oppositions. The Dao is also a contemplative method for understanding oneself and for merging with the Dao. Different interpreters see it either as a method of survival through passive resistance written in a time of great insecurity and turmoil or as a more mystical treatise. In any case, a number of passages treat the proper behavior of citizen and ruler and suggest that true self-interest lies in selflessness (thus, the ruler must humble himself before the people in order to rule, follow in order to lead).
          Like Confucianism, Daoism took on magical elements as it developed, and the longevity of the follower of the Dao (who would live longer in turbulent times) was interpreted as physical immortality. Daoism resembled Western alchemy in its quest for the secret of immortality and, later, came in part to blend with Buddhism. Throughout Chinese literature and intellectual history, Daoism has been a liberating counterbalance to the dogmatic order of Confucianism.

From The Dao De Jing


The Dao that can be told is not the timeless Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
Heaven and earth emerged from the nameless.
The named is the mother of all things.
Lose desire to see the Dao's essence.
Have desire to see the Dao's manifestations.
These two have the same source but different names.
Their sameness is a mystery,
mystery of mysteries,
gateway of untold secrets.


Dao is an empty vessel,
used without ever being filled,
unfathomably deep, the source of all things,
where sharpness blunts,
knots untangle,
glare mellows,
dust coalesces. So hidden, in nonbeing it is being.
Who knows whose child it is,
this ancestor of the gods?


Thirty spokes joined at one hub;
emptiness makes the cart useful.
Clay cast into a pot;
the emptiness inside makes it useful.
Doors and windows cut to make a room;
emptiness make the room useful.
Thus being is beneficial
but usefulness comes from the void.


Warp to be whole,
twist to be straight,
hollow out to be full, fray to be new,
have less and gain more,
have much and be perplexed.
Therefore the sage embraces the One
and is a model for all under heaven.
Not exhibiting himself, he stands out.
Not full of himself, he is acclaimed.
Not boasting, he succeeds.
Not vain, his works maintain.
He doesn't strive
and so nothing under heaven strives with him.
The ancients say “warp to become whole.”
These are not empty words.
Return to the source and be whole.


Know others for wisdom
but enlightenment is knowing yourself.
Master others to gain power
but true strength is mastering yourself. Wealth is to know you have enough.
Acting with force is willpower,
but stay still to endure.
To die without expiring is longevity.


The softest thing in the world
can inundate the hardest thing under heaven,
formless slipping in where there is no breach.
This is why I know non-action is valuable.
But the lesson taught without words,
the value of doing nothing
can be understood by few under heaven.


Without walking out the door,
know the whole universe.
Without looking out the window, see the Way of heaven.
The further you go, the less you know.
Thus the sage knows by staying still,
fathoms without seeing,
achieves through non-action.


The sage doesn't have his own heart.
The people's heart is his heart.
He is kind to the kind
and kind to the unkind since virtue is kind.
He has trust in the trusting
and trust in the trustless since virtue is trust.
He breathes carefully, not to scare those under heaven.
He seems muddled when he does things for the world
and in the eyes and ears of all
he seems to act like a child.


Soft and weak at birth,
a man is rigid hard at death.
Trees and plants are soft and supple alive,
brittle and withered when dead.
Thus the hard and brittle belong to death
and the soft and weak belong to life.
An adamant army may be decimated.
A tree that's too strong will be crooked.
Thus the hard and strong are subjugated
and the soft and weak triumph.


Nothing is softer and more yielding than water
yet nothing is better in attacking the solid and forceful
because nothing can take its place. Weak conquers strong,
soft conquers hard,
no one doesn't know this,
yet who practices it?
Thus the sage says
The state's true master takes on
the country's disgrace
and by taking on the country's misfortunes
is king under heaven.
Straight speech may seem like paradox.