Tao Te Ching
James Legge, Translator
(Sacred Books of the East, Vol 39) 
Scholars of the highest class, when they hear about the Tao,
earnestly carry it into practice. Scholars of the middle class, when
they have heard about it, seem now to keep it and now to lose it.
Scholars of the lowest class, when they have heard about it, laugh
greatly at it. If it were not (thus) laughed at, it would not be fit
to be the Tao.
Therefore the sentence-makers have thus expressed themselves:–
‘The Tao, when brightest seen, seems light to lack;
Who progress in it makes, seems drawing back;
Its even way is like a rugged track.
Its highest virtue from the vale doth rise;
Its greatest beauty seems to offend the eyes;
And he has most whose lot the least supplies.
Its firmest virtue seems but poor and low;
Its solid truth seems change to undergo;
Its largest square doth yet no corner show
A vessel great, it is the slowest made;
Loud is its sound, but never word it said;
A semblance great, the shadow of a shade.’
The Tao is hidden, and has no name; but it is the Tao which is
skilful at imparting (to all things what they need) and making them
The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three;
Three produced All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity
(out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the
Brightness (into which they have emerged), while they are harmonised
by the Breath of Vacancy.
What men dislike is to be orphans, to have little virtue, to be as
carriages without naves; and yet these are the designations which
kings and princes use for themselves. So it is that some things are
increased by being diminished, and others are diminished by being
What other men (thus) teach, I also teach. The violent and strong
do not die their natural death. I will make this the basis of my
The softest thing in the world dashes against and overcomes the
hardest; that which has no (substantial) existence enters where there
is no crevice. I know hereby what advantage belongs to doing nothing
(with a purpose).
There are few in the world who attain to the teaching without
words, and the advantage arising from non-action.
Or fame or life,
Which do you hold more dear?
Or life or wealth,
To which would you adhere?
Keep life and lose those other things;
Keep them and lose your life:–which brings
Sorrow and pain more near?
Thus we may see,
Who cleaves to fame
Rejects what is more great;
Who loves large stores
Gives up the richer state.
Who is content
Needs fear no shame.
Who knows to stop
Incurs no blame.
From danger free
Long live shall he.
Who thinks his great achievements poor
Shall find his vigour long endure.
Of greatest fulness, deemed a void,
Exhaustion ne’er shall stem the tide.
Do thou what’s straight still crooked deem;
Thy greatest art still stupid seem,
And eloquence a stammering scream.
Constant action overcomes cold; being still overcomes heat. Purity
and stillness give the correct law to all under heaven.
When the Tao prevails in the world, they send back their swift
horses to (draw) the dung-carts. When the Tao is disregarded in the
world, the war-horses breed in the border lands.
There is no guilt greater than to sanction ambition; no calamity
greater than to be discontented with one’s lot; no fault greater than
the wish to be getting. Therefore the sufficiency of contentment is
an enduring and unchanging sufficiency.
Without going outside his door, one understands (all that takes
place) under the sky; without looking out from his window, one sees
the Tao of Heaven. The farther that one goes out (from himself), the
less he knows.
Therefore the sages got their knowledge without travelling; gave
their (right) names to things without seeing them; and accomplished
their ends without any purpose of doing so.
He who devotes himself to learning (seeks) from day to day to
increase (his knowledge); he who devotes himself to the Tao (seeks)
from day to day to diminish (his doing).
He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing
nothing (on purpose). Having arrived at this point of non-action,
there is nothing which he does not do.
He who gets as his own all under heaven does so by giving himself
no trouble (with that end). If one take trouble (with that end), he
is not equal to getting as his own all under heaven.
The sage has no invariable mind of his own; he makes the mind
of the people his mind.
To those who are good (to me), I am good; and to those who are not
good (to me), I am also good;–and thus (all) get to be good. To
those who are sincere (with me), I am sincere; and to those who are
not sincere (with me), I am also sincere;–and thus (all) get to be
The sage has in the world an appearance of indecision, and keeps
his mind in a state of indifference to all. The people all keep their
eyes and ears directed to him, and he deals with them all as his
Men come forth and live; they enter (again) and die.
Of every ten three are ministers of life (to themselves); and three
are ministers of death.
There are also three in every ten whose aim is to live, but whose
movements tend to the land (or place) of death. And for what reason?
Because of their excessive endeavours to perpetuate life.
But I have heard that he who is skilful in managing the life
entrusted to him for a time travels on the land without having to shun
rhinoceros or tiger, and enters a host without having to avoid buff
coat or sharp weapon. The rhinoceros finds no place in him into which
to thrust its horn, nor the tiger a place in which to fix its claws,
nor the weapon a place to admit its point. And for what reason?
Because there is in him no place of death.
All things are produced by the Tao, and nourished by its
outflowing operation. They receive their forms according to the
nature of each, and are completed according to the circumstances of
their condition. Therefore all things without exception honour the
Tao, and exalt its outflowing operation.
This honouring of the Tao and exalting of its operation is not the
result of any ordination, but always a spontaneous tribute.
Thus it is that the Tao produces (all things), nourishes them,
brings them to their full growth, nurses them, completes them, matures
them, maintains them, and overspreads them.
It produces them and makes no claim to the possession of them; it
carries them through their processes and does not vaunt its ability in
doing so; it brings them to maturity and exercises no control over
them;–this is called its mysterious operation.
(The Tao) which originated all under the sky is to be
considered as the mother of them all.
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.
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.
The perception of what is small is (the secret of clear-
sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is (the secret
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.
If I were suddenly to become known, and (put into a position
to) conduct (a government) according to the Great Tao, what I should
be most afraid of would be a boastful display.
The great Tao (or way) is very level and easy; but people love the
Their court(-yards and buildings) shall be well kept, but their
fields shall be ill-cultivated, and their granaries very empty. They
shall wear elegant and ornamented robes, carry a sharp sword at their
girdle, pamper themselves in eating and drinking, and have a
superabundance of property and wealth;–such (princes) may be called
robbers and boasters. This is contrary to the Tao surely!
What (Tao’s) skilful planter plants
Can never be uptorn;
What his skilful arms enfold,
From him can ne’er be borne.
Sons shall bring in lengthening line,
Sacrifices to his shrine.
Tao when nursed within one’s self,
His vigour will make true;
And where the family it rules
What riches will accrue!
The neighbourhood where it prevails
In thriving will abound;
And when ’tis seen throughout the state,
Good fortune will be found.
Employ it the kingdom o’er,
And men thrive all around.
In this way the effect will be seen in the person, by the
observation of different cases; in the family; in the neighbourhood;
in the state; and in the kingdom.
How do I know that this effect is sure to hold thus all under the
sky? By this (method of observation).
He who has in himself abundantly the attributes (of the Tao) is
like an infant. Poisonous insects will not sting him; fierce beasts
will not seize him; birds of prey will not strike him.
(The infant’s) bones are weak and its sinews soft, but yet its
grasp is firm. It knows not yet the union of male and female, and yet
its virile member may be excited;–showing the perfection of its
physical essence. All day long it will cry without its throat
becoming hoarse;–showing the harmony (in its constitution).
To him by whom this harmony is known,
(The secret of) the unchanging (Tao) is shown,
And in the knowledge wisdom finds its throne.
All life-increasing arts to evil turn;
Where the mind makes the vital breath to burn,
(False) is the strength, (and o’er it we should mourn.)
When things have become strong, they (then) become old, which may
be said to be contrary to the Tao. Whatever is contrary to the Tao
He who knows (the Tao) does not (care to) speak (about it); he
who is (ever ready to) speak about it does not know it.
He (who knows it) will keep his mouth shut and close the portals
(of his nostrils). He will blunt his sharp points and unravel the
complications of things; he will attemper his brightness, and bring
himself into agreement with the obscurity (of others). This is called
‘the Mysterious Agreement.’
(Such an one) cannot be treated familiarly or distantly; he is
beyond all consideration of profit or injury; of nobility or
meanness:–he is the noblest man under heaven.
A state may be ruled by (measures of) correction; weapons of
war may be used with crafty dexterity; (but) the kingdom is made one’s
own (only) by freedom from action and purpose.
How do I know that it is so? By these facts:–In the kingdom the
multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the
people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people
have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more
acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange
contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the
more thieves and robbers there are.
Therefore a sage has said, ‘I will do nothing (of purpose), and the
people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping
still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take
no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I
will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to
the primitive simplicity.’
The government that seems the most unwise,
Oft goodness to the people best supplies;
That which is meddling, touching everything,
Will work but ill, and disappointment bring.
Misery!–happiness is to be found by its side! Happiness!–misery
lurks beneath it! Who knows what either will come to in the end?
Shall we then dispense with correction? The (method of) correction
shall by a turn become distortion, and the good in it shall by a turn
become evil. The delusion of the people (on this point) has indeed
subsisted for a long time.
Therefore the sage is (like) a square which cuts no one (with its
angles); (like) a corner which injures no one (with its sharpness).
He is straightforward, but allows himself no license; he is bright,
but does not dazzle.
For regulating the human (in our constitution) and rendering
the (proper) service to the heavenly, there is nothing like
It is only by this moderation that there is effected an early
return (to man’s normal state). That early return is what I call the
repeated accumulation of the attributes (of the Tao). With that
repeated accumulation of those attributes, there comes the subjugation
(of every obstacle to such return). Of this subjugation we know not
what shall be the limit; and when one knows not what the limit shall
be, he may be the ruler of a state.
He who possesses the mother of the state may continue long. His
case is like that (of the plant) of which we say that its roots are
deep and its flower stalks firm:–this is the way to secure that its
enduring life shall long be seen.
Governing a great state is like cooking small fish.
Let the kingdom be governed according to the Tao, and the manes of
the departed will not manifest their spiritual energy. It is not that
those manes have not that spiritual energy, but it will not be
employed to hurt men. It is not that it could not hurt men, but
neither does the ruling sage hurt them.
When these two do not injuriously affect each other, their good
influences converge in the virtue (of the Tao).
What makes a great state is its being (like) a low-lying, down-
flowing (stream);–it becomes the centre to which tend (all the small
states) under heaven.
(To illustrate from) the case of all females:–the female always
overcomes the male by her stillness. Stillness may be considered (a
sort of) abasement.
Thus it is that a great state, by condescending to small states,
gains them for itself; and that small states, by abasing themselves to
a great state, win it over to them. In the one case the abasement
leads to gaining adherents, in the other case to procuring favour.
The great state only wishes to unite men together and nourish them;
a small state only wishes to be received by, and to serve, the other.
Each gets what it desires, but the great state must learn to abase
Tao has of all things the most honoured place.
No treasures give good men so rich a grace;
Bad men it guards, and doth their ill efface.
(Its) admirable words can purchase honour; (its) admirable deeds
can raise their performer above others. Even men who are not good are
not abandoned by it.
Therefore when the sovereign occupies his place as the Son of
Heaven, and he has appointed his three ducal ministers, though (a
prince) were to send in a round symbol-of-rank large enough to fill
both the hands, and that as the precursor of the team of horses (in
the court-yard), such an offering would not be equal to (a lesson of)
this Tao, which one might present on his knees.
Why was it that the ancients prized this Tao so much? Was it not
because it could be got by seeking for it, and the guilty could escape
(from the stain of their guilt) by it? This is the reason why all
under heaven consider it the most valuable thing.
(It is the way of the Tao) to act without (thinking of) acting;
to conduct affairs without (feeling the) trouble of them; to taste
without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great,
and a few as many; and to recompense injury with kindness.
(The master of it) anticipates things that are difficult while they
are easy, and does things that would become great while they are
small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a
previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one
in which they were small. Therefore the sage, while he never does
what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest
He who lightly promises is sure to keep but little faith; he who is
continually thinking things easy is sure to find them difficult.
Therefore the sage sees difficulty even in what seems easy, and so
never has any difficulties.
That which is at rest is easily kept hold of; before a thing
has given indications of its presence, it is easy to take measures
against it; that which is brittle is easily broken; that which is very
small is easily dispersed. Action should be taken before a thing has
made its appearance; order should be secured before disorder has
The tree which fills the arms grew from the tiniest sprout; the
tower of nine storeys rose from a (small) heap of earth; the journey
of a thousand li commenced with a single step.
He who acts (with an ulterior purpose) does harm; he who takes hold
of a thing (in the same way) loses his hold. The sage does not act
(so), and therefore does no harm; he does not lay hold (so), and
therefore does not lose his bold. (But) people in their conduct of
affairs are constantly ruining them when they are on the eve of
success. If they were careful at the end, as (they should be) at the
beginning, they would not so ruin them.
Therefore the sage desires what (other men) do not desire, and does
not prize things difficult to get; he learns what (other men) do not
learn, and turns back to what the multitude of men have passed by.
Thus he helps the natural development of all things, and does not dare
to act (with an ulterior purpose of his own).
The ancients who showed their skill in practising the Tao did
so, not to enlighten the people, but rather to make them simple and
The difficulty in governing the people arises from their having
much knowledge. He who (tries to) govern a state by his wisdom is a
scourge to it; while he who does not (try to) do so is a blessing.
He who knows these two things finds in them also his model and
rule. Ability to know this model and rule constitutes what we call
the mysterious excellence (of a governor). Deep and far-reaching is
such mysterious excellence, showing indeed its possessor as opposite
to others, but leading them to a great conformity to him.
That whereby the rivers and seas are able to receive the homage
and tribute of all the valley streams, is their skill in being lower
than they;–it is thus that they are the kings of them all. So it is
that the sage (ruler), wishing to be above men, puts himself by his
words below them, and, wishing to be before them, places his person
In this way though he has his place above them, men do not feel his
weight, nor though he has his place before them, do they feel it an
injury to them.
Therefore all in the world delight to exalt him and do not weary of
him. Because he does not strive, no one finds it possible to strive
All the world says that, while my Tao is great, it yet appears
to be inferior (to other systems of teaching). Now it is just its
greatness that makes it seem to be inferior. If it were like any
other (system), for long would its smallness have been known!
But I have three precious things which I prize and hold fast. The
first is gentleness; the second is economy; and the third is shrinking
from taking precedence of others.
With that gentleness I can be bold; with that economy I can be
liberal; shrinking from taking precedence of others, I can become a
vessel of the highest honour. Now-a-days they give up gentleness and
are all for being bold; economy, and are all for being liberal; the
hindmost place, and seek only to be foremost;–(of all which the end
Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle, and firmly to
maintain its ground. Heaven will save its possessor, by his (very)
gentleness protecting him.
He who in (Tao’s) wars has skill
Assumes no martial port;
He who fights with most good will
To rage makes no resort.
He who vanquishes yet still
Keeps from his foes apart;
He whose hests men most fulfil
Yet humbly plies his art.
Thus we say, ‘He ne’er contends,
And therein is his might.’
Thus we say, ‘Men’s wills he bends,
That they with him unite.’
Thus we say, ‘Like Heaven’s his ends,
No sage of old more bright.’
A master of the art of war has said, ‘I do not dare to be the
host (to commence the war); I prefer to be the guest (to act on the
defensive). I do not dare to advance an inch; I prefer to retire a
foot.’ This is called marshalling the ranks where there are no ranks;
baring the arms (to fight) where there are no arms to bare; grasping
the weapon where there is no weapon to grasp; advancing against the
enemy where there is no enemy.
There is no calamity greater than lightly engaging in war. To do
that is near losing (the gentleness) which is so precious. Thus it is
that when opposing weapons are (actually) crossed, he who deplores
(the situation) conquers.
My words are very easy to know, and very easy to practise; but
there is no one in the world who is able to know and able to practise
There is an originating and all-comprehending (principle) in my
words, and an authoritative law for the things (which I enforce). It
is because they do not know these, that men do not know me.
They who know me are few, and I am on that account (the more) to be
prized. It is thus that the sage wears (a poor garb of) hair cloth,
while he carries his (signet of) jade in his bosom.
To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest
(attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease.
It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this
disease that we are preserved from it. The sage has not the disease.
He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he
does not have it.
When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, that which
is their great dread will come on them.
Let them not thoughtlessly indulge themselves in their ordinary
life; let them not act as if weary of what that life depends on.
It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not
Therefore the sage knows (these things) of himself, but does not
parade (his knowledge); loves, but does not (appear to set a) value
on, himself. And thus he puts the latter alternative away and makes
choice of the former.
He whose boldness appears in his daring (to do wrong, in
defiance of the laws) is put to death; he whose boldness appears in
his not daring (to do so) lives on. Of these two cases the one
appears to be advantageous, and the other to be injurious. But
When Heaven’s anger smites a man,
Who the cause shall truly scan?
On this account the sage feels a difficulty (as to what to do in the
It is the way of Heaven not to strive, and yet it skilfully
overcomes; not to speak, and yet it is skilful in (obtaining a reply;
does not call, and yet men come to it of themselves. Its
demonstrations are quiet, and yet its plans are skilful and effective.
The meshes of the net of Heaven are large; far apart, but letting
The people do not fear death; to what purpose is it to (try to)
frighten them with death? If the people were always in awe of death,
and I could always seize those who do wrong, and put them to death,
who would dare to do wrong?
There is always One who presides over the infliction death. He who
would inflict death in the room of him who so presides over it may be
described as hewing wood instead of a great carpenter. Seldom is it
that he who undertakes the hewing, instead of the great carpenter,
does not cut his own hands!
The people suffer from famine because of the multitude of taxes
consumed by their superiors. It is through this that they suffer
The people are difficult to govern because of the (excessive)
agency of their superiors (in governing them). It is through this
that they are difficult to govern.
The people make light of dying because of the greatness of their
labours in seeking for the means of living. It is this which makes
them think light of dying. Thus it is that to leave the subject of
living altogether out of view is better than to set a high value on
Man at his birth is supple and weak; at his death, firm and
strong. (So it is with) all things. Trees and plants, in their early
growth, are soft and brittle; at their death, dry and withered.
Thus it is that firmness and strength are the concomitants of
death; softness and weakness, the concomitants of life.
Hence he who (relies on) the strength of his forces does not
conquer; and a tree which is strong will fill the out-stretched arms,
(and thereby invites the feller.)
Therefore the place of what is firm and strong is below, and that
of what is soft and weak is above.
May not the Way (or Tao) of Heaven be compared to the (method
of) bending a bow? The (part of the bow) which was high is brought
low, and what was low is raised up. (So Heaven) diminishes where
there is superabundance, and supplements where there is deficiency.
It is the Way of Heaven to diminish superabundance, and to
supplement deficiency. It is not so with the way of man. He takes
away from those who have not enough to add to his own superabundance.
Who can take his own superabundance and therewith serve all under
heaven? Only he who is in possession of the Tao!
Therefore the (ruling) sage acts without claiming the results as
his; he achieves his merit and does not rest (arrogantly) in it:–he
does not wish to display his superiority.
There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water,
and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing
that can take precedence of it;–for there is nothing (so effectual)
for which it can be changed.
Every one in the world knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and
the weak the strong, but no one is able to carry it out in practice.
Therefore a sage has said,
‘He who accepts his state’s reproach,
Is hailed therefore its altars’ lord;
To him who bears men’s direful woes
They all the name of King accord.’
Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical.
When a reconciliation is effected (between two parties) after a
great animosity, there is sure to be a grudge remaining (in the mind
of the one who was wrong). And how can this be beneficial (to the
Therefore (to guard against this), the sage keeps the left-hand
portion of the record of the engagement, and does not insist on the
(speedy) fulfilment of it by the other party. (So), he who has the
attributes (of the Tao) regards (only) the conditions of the
engagement, while he who has not those attributes regards only the
conditions favourable to himself.
In the Way of Heaven, there is no partiality of love; it is always
on the side of the good man.
In a little state with a small population, I would so order it,
that, though there were individuals with the abilities of ten or a
hundred men, there should be no employment of them; I would make the
people, while looking on death as a grievous thing, yet not remove
elsewhere (to avoid it).
Though they had boats and carriages, they should have no occasion
to ride in them; though they had buff coats and sharp weapons, they
should have no occasion to don or use them.
I would make the people return to the use of knotted cords (instead
of the written characters).
They should think their (coarse) food sweet; their (plain) clothes
beautiful; their (poor) dwellings places of rest; and their common
(simple) ways sources of enjoyment.
There should be a neighbouring state within sight, and the voices
of the fowls and dogs should be heard all the way from it to us, but I
would make the people to old age, even to death, not have any
intercourse with it.
Sincere words are not fine; fine words are not sincere. Those
who are skilled (in the Tao) do not dispute (about it); the
disputatious are not skilled in it. Those who know (the Tao) are not
extensively learned; the extensively learned do not know it.
The sage does not accumulate (for himself). The more that he
expends for others, the more does he possess of his own; the more that
he gives to others, the more does he have himself.
With all the sharpness of the Way of Heaven, it injures not; with
all the doing in the way of the sage he does not strive.
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