古之善為士者,微妙玄通,深不可識。夫唯不可識,故強為之容。

1. The skilful masters (of the Dao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men's knowledge. As they were thus beyond men's knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

豫兮若冬涉川;猶兮若畏四鄰;儼兮其若容;渙兮若冰之將釋;敦兮其若樸;曠兮其若谷;混兮其若濁。

2. Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

孰能濁?以靜之徐清。孰能安?以久動之徐生。

3. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

保此道者不欲盈。夫唯不盈故能蔽不新成。

4. They who preserve this method of the Dao do not wish to be full (of themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.

Legge's Comments

顯德, 'The Exhibition of the Quality,' that is, of the Dao, which has been set forth in the preceding chapter. Its practical outcome is here described in the masters of it of old, who in their own weakness were yet strong in it, and in their humility were mighty to be co-workers with it for the good of the world.

The variety of the readings in par. 4 is considerable, but not so as to affect the meaning. This par. is found in Huainanzi (XII, 23 a) with an unimportant variation. From the illustration to which is is subjoined he understood the fulness, evidently as in ch. 9, as being that of a vessel filled to overflowing. Both here and there such fulness is used metaphorically of a man overfull of himself; and then Laozi slides into another metaphor, that of a worn-out garment. The text of par. 3 has been variously tampered with. I omit the 1 of the current copies, after the example of the editors of the great recension of the Yongle period (A.D. 1403–1424) of the Ming dynasty.


  1. The character omitted by Legge has been retained in the Chinese rendition.