Crooked, then whole; bent, then straight;
low, then full; battered, then new;
lacking, then apt; endowed, then perplexed.
Therefore, the sage keeps to the whole because that is how it is in the land below heaven.
Not being self-promoting, he shines.
Not being self-asserting, he stands out.
Not being boastful, he gets results.
Not being proud of himself, he endures.
As he does not contend
there is nobody in the land under Heaven who can contend with him.
The ancients used to say, “Bent but intact.”
How could they be wrong?
Be honest and return to being like them.
It is possible to translate the first three lines in two alternative ways. Some translate them as meaning the the humble shall be vindicated, the poor rewarded and so on, giving a rather similar message to the beatitudes in the Christian gospel.
I am inclined to the other alternative which seems more in keeping with the general tenor of Taoism. This is to take it as meaning that being bent and crooked and so on is our existential condition and if we are straight about it, we accept that this is the case and do not dissimulate. To be straight is to admit one’s crooked nature. We are all ruins in a certain way. We present ourselves to the world as something new and unique precisely because our uniqueness is the product of the damage of many previous encounters. This, therefore, is a counsel to not be abashed about what we are and not regard our humanity as something to hide and dissemble.
This interpretation is confirmed by the following line which tells us that this is how things are in the land below heaven. If we lived in heaven we might not be bent, low and lacking, but here below, this is how it is, and the sage is a person who conforms to how things actually are. This seems to me a more apt translation. Some are inclined to take the latter part of this sentence, which literally says “for the form of here under heaven” as meaning the the sage becomes a model for everyone under heaven, but I think that this misrepresents the sentiment of the passage which is not about how high and great the sage is, but about how straight he is about how things are.
The next four lines assert the paradoxical way of things. Pride comes before a fall and the humble endure and prosper. Without being boastful or self-asserting, he gets real results. The results obtained by self-assertion are hollow and do not endure. The person who boasts sets himself up for ridicule.
The sage is not in competition with others. He does not contend. He stands aside from the rat race. He rejoices in the successes of others. He is not trying to be top. He is not top heavy. In fact, the sage benefits others without really trying, simply by not trying to defeat or out do them. He thus naturally creates fertile space within which all can prosper.
In Taoism, the ancients are the model for everything. The Taoists did not see things as getting better and better, but rather as in decline from an earlier golden age. In that remote time when all was well people did not pretend to be what they are not. They did not over-reach themselves nor brag, but accepted the whole of human nature.
Taoists like stories about how all the straight trees get cut down and used for timber, while the gnarled old one that is bent and twisted as a result of having endured wind, rain, snow and gale is not taken, but lives to a ripe old age. The bent one is preserved by the very fact that from the worldly perspective he is useless. Yet this is the most beautiful tree. Taoists thus appear as tricksters who up-end the values of the world. Taoists took care not to be drawn into competitive society, but rather valued character, restraint and modesty.