Tao give rise to one, one gives rise to two, two gives rise to three, three gives rise to a multitude.

Everyone puts yin behind and embraces yang,
Mix the qi to conserve (yi wei) peace

What people find worst is to be alone, friendless and without resources,
yet princes and lords are restrained (yi wei) like this.

Something might occur that involves loss, yet nonetheless yield a benefit.
Sometimes a benefit entails a loss.

What people teach, I also teach:
"A strong beam” person cannot remain inflexible."
My religion is restraint (yi wei).


This chapter is about yi wei (以為) which is not easy to translate. Nowadays it means “to believe” or “to be under the impression that” but it probably originally referred to action that is restrained. Wei (為) is a central term in the Tao te Ching and is found in such expressions as wei wu wei - act without acting. Yi (以) is an operational term that places some limit on something. To act without acting is to avoid being carried away, to avoid excess. This is very Taoist. I therefore conclude that in this chapter the term yi wei refers to such restraint.

The chapter is telling us that what may seem obvious, is not as reliable as it may seem. Lao Tzu is an advocate of the importance of the yin side of life. Things have a tendency to escalate. One becomes two. Two becomes three. Soon there is a mulitude. However, the person of Tao turns back, from the multitude to duality, from duality to singularity, from singularity to the Tao itself. This is a matter of holding back.

Ordinary people neglect the yin aspect. They surge forward pursuing the yang, the assertive, creative, “progress”. The non-assertive, acceptant, quiet “dark” aspect is neglected. Lao Tzu, however, says that real life energy (qi) is a matter of mixing yin and yang together. Then there is peace and harmony. This mixing together is yi wei, in which the urge to action (yang) is checked by the yin aspect.

He points out that to be alone, friendless and without resources is the average person’s idea of hell, yet it is the actual position of the most successful people who go out on a limb. The prince cannot always trust those around him and must stand alone. To sustain such a position requires great self-control.

Things do not work out as we expect. There is something deeply ironic about how life unfolds. Ambitions often lead to disaster, yet every cloud has a silver lining.

The phrase “What people teach, I also teach,” introduces the sentence that follows, which, presumably, was a well known adage to the effect that the strong and hard cannot endure.

A “strong beam person” may mean a ruffian or a person with a forceful approach to life. Some translators render this phrase as “a bad man comes to a bad end”, which is certainly one of the implications, but there is within it the image of a horizontal beam that must hold up a lot of weight. The Taoist tries not to put him or herself into such a stressful position.

“Yi wei is my religion” sums up Lao Tzu’s approach. Don’t rush in, don’t get carried away by ambition or over blown ideas about oneself. Mix the yin with the yang and you will live long.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank you, I’m really enjoying reading these translations. Did they start at chapter 33? If not can I find the earlier chapters with translations anywhere please or perhaps someone can recommend other commentaries on the earlier chapters?

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Mo Henderson said:

Thank you, I’m really enjoying reading these translations. Did they start at chapter 33? If not can I find the earlier chapters with translations anywhere please or perhaps someone can recommend other commentaries on the earlier chapters?

Thank you, wonderful.

Another take on this might come from Chinese medicine and the Neijing where they talk about Biàn transformations which are about growth, and development or the yang movement, and Huà transformations which take place by breaking down. A very concrete example of this would be eating. When we eat food, it goes into our stomach and breaks down. It's only after that Hua transformation that it then begins a building up process or Bian transformation in which bones and muscles are built up. I find this a very helpful and practical teaching. So instead of the usual translation of wu wei as "non action" it might be translated as "enacting absence". 

Thanks.  That's interesting.


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