25.1 (Chapter 41)
25.1 (Chapter 41)
When the highest type of shi hear of the Dao,
They diligently practice it.
When the average type of shi hear of the Dao,
They half-believe it.
When the lowest type of shi hear of the Dao,
They laugh heartily at it.
If they did not laugh at it,
It would not be the Dao.
Therefore there is the established saying:
The Dao that is bright seems to be dark;
The Dao that advances seems to retreat;
The Dao that is level seems to be uneven.
Thus the great De appears empty like a valley;
The far-reaching De appears insufficient;
The vigorous De appears inert;
The simplistic De appears clumsy;
The whitest appears soiled;
The greatest square has no corners;
The greatest vessel is unfinished;
The greatest music sounds faint;
The greatest form has no shape;
The Dao is hidden and nameless.
Yet it is the Dao that initiates all things
And brings them to completion.
The Chinese term shi means a man of learning. It refers here to a special social class in the pre-Qin period (before 221 B.C.). It finds no English equivalent. “Literati” as a collective, term partly conveys its connotation. Here it has been transliterated rather than translated.
Being empty like a valley, the great De can eternally have more space to fill, and accordingly be enriched. The far-reaching De is not concretely visible, so that people think it is insufficient.
Since the vigorous De does not demonstrate its strength or power, it looks as if it is inert or slack.
The simplistic De is so plain, innocent and unsophisticated that it looks as slow, naive and foolish.
“The whitest” means the purest De in this context. Being so pure, it has no intention of displaying itself. Hence it looks like something that concealing disgrace or humility.
The greatest square knows no boundaries or edges, so that it seems to have no corners at all.
The line da qi mian cheng is modified according to one of the two Mawangdui versions of the Dao De Jing, for it fits better in the context. The greatest vessel as an instrument would be too large to have any fixed form or function. It is thus beyond human capacity to either use it or complete it. In most of the popular versions of the Dao De Jing, the line reads: Da qi wan cheng and it is thus translated as “The greatest vessel is always completed last.”
The greatest music is in fact the most fascinating and beautiful music that only exists in one's imagination. In practice what is composed can not fully express what is imagined; and what is performed can hardly be any better than what is composed. This is merely because the original beauty and charm get more or less lost during the transition from creative imagination to mstrumental performance. For this reason, Tao Yuanming preferred to play the Chinese lute without cords. Coincidentally, Join Keats remarks in one of his poems titled “Ode on a Grecian Urn”as follows:
“Heard melodies are sweet,
But those unheard are sweeter;
Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone...“
As the form is too great to be seen as a whole, it looks as if it is shapeless.