天下有始以為天下母。

1. (The Dao) which originated all under the sky is to be considered as the mother of them all.

既得其母,以知其子。既知其子,復守其母,沒身不殆。

2. When the mother is found, we know what her children should be. When one knows that he is his mother's child, and proceeds to guard (the qualities of) the mother that belong to him, to the end of his life he will be free from all peril.

塞其兌,閉其門,終身不勤。開其兌,濟其事,終身不救。

3. Let him keep his mouth closed, and shut up the portals (of his nostrils), and all his life he will be exempt from laborious exertion. Let him keep his mouth open, and (spend his breath) in the promotion of his affairs, and all his life there will be no safety for him.

見小曰明;守柔曰強。

4. The perception of what is small is (the secret of) clear-sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is (the secret of) strength.

用其光,
復歸其明,
無遺身殃,
是為習常。

5. Who uses well his light,
    Reverting to its (source so) bright,
    Will from his body ward all blight,
    And hides the unchanging from men's sight.

Legge's Comments

歸元, 'Returning to the Source.' The meaning of the chapter is obscure, and the commentators give little help in determining it. As in the preceding chapter, Laozi treats of the operation of the Dao on material things, he seems in this to go on to the operation of it in man, or how he, with his higher nature, should ever be maintaining it in himself.

For the understanding of paragraph 1 we must refer to the first chapter of the treatise, where the Dao, 'having no name,' appears as 'the Beginning' or 'First Cause' of the world, and then, 'having a name,' as its 'Mother.' It is the same thing or concept in both of its phases, the ideal or absolute, and the manifestation of it in its passionless doings. The old Jesuit translators render this par. by 'Mundus principium et causam suam habet in Divino , seu actione Divinae sapientiae quae dici potest ejus mater.'1 So far I may assume that they agreed with me in understanding that the subject of the par. was the Dao.

Par. 2 lays down the law of life for man thus derived from the Dao. The last clause of it is given by the same translators as equivalent to 'Unde fit ut post mortem nihil ei timendum sit,'2—a meaning which the characters will not bear. But from that clause, and the next par., I am obliged to conclude that even in Laozi's mind there was the germ of the sublimation of the material frame which issued in the asceticism and life-preserving arts of the later Daoism.

Par. 3 seems to indicate the method of 'guarding the mother in man,' by watching over the breath, the protoplastic 'one' of ch. 42, the ethereal matter out of which all material things were formed. The organs of this breath in man are the mouth and nostrils (nothing else should be understood here by and ;—see the explanations of the former in the last par. of the fifth of the appendixes to the Yi in vol. xvi, p. 432; and the management of the breath is the mystery of the esoteric Buddhism and Daoism.

In par. 4 'The guarding what is soft' is derived from the use of 'the soft lips' in hiding and preserving the hard and strong teeth.

Par. 5 gives the gist of the chapter:—Man's always keeping before him the ideal of the Dao, and, without purpose, simply doing whatever he finds to do; Dao-like and powerful in all his sphere of action.

I have followed the reading of the last character but one, which is given by Jiao Hong instead of that found in Heshang Gong and Wang Bi.


  1. "The world has its origin and cause in the divine 有, or the divine wisdom that can be called its mother" (the untranslated 有 is the third character in the original). [transcriber translation] 

  2. "Hence it is the case that, after death, there is nothing to fear". [transcriber translation]