1. When one is about to take an inspiration, he is sure to make a (previous) expiration; when he is going to weaken another, he will first strengthen him; when he is going to overthrow another, he will first have raised him up; when he is going to despoil another, he will first have made gifts to him:—this is called 'Hiding the light (of his procedure).'
2. The soft overcomes the hard; and the weak the strong.
3. Fishes should not be taken from the deep; instruments for the profit of a state should not be shown to the people.
The gist of the chapter is to be sought in the second paragraph, where we have two instances of the action of the Dao by contraries, supposed always to be for good.
But there is a difficulty in seeing the applicability to this of the cases mentioned in par. 1. The first case, indeed, is merely a natural phenomenon, having no moral character; but the others, as they have been illustrated from historical incidents, by Han Fei and others at least, belong to schemes of selfish and unprincipled ambitious strategy, which it would be injurious to Laozi to suppose that he intended.
Par. 3 is the most frequently quoted of all passages in our Jing, unless it be the first part of ch. 1. Fishes taken from the deep, and brought into shallow water, can be easily taken or killed; that is plain enough. 'The sharp instruments of a state' are not its 'weapons of war,' nor its 'treasures,' nor its 'instruments of government,' that is, its rewards and punishments, though this last is the interpretation often put on them, and sustained by a foolish reference to an incident, real or coined, in the history of the dukedom of Song. The lì qì1 are 'contrivances for gain,' machines, and other methods to increase the wealth of a state, but, according to the principles of Laozi, really injurious to it. These should not be shown to the people, whom the Daoistic system would keep in a state of primitive simplicity and ignorance. This interpretation is in accordance with the meaning of the characters, and with the general teaching of Daoism. In no other way can I explain the paragraph so as to justify the place undoubtedly belonging to it in the system.