Notes on the Laozi and Yan Fu’s Theory of Dao
1. Introduction: A Shift in Perspective
I often think that only with a deep understanding of Western theories can we accurately interpret the classical literature of our forefathers because Western theories can give us certain inspirations and make us understand the theories of our forefathers more thoroughly.
The sage’s words are concise and profound. Therefore, it is necessary to understand Western learning before rethinking the sage’s words to perceive the subtlety and depth of the words and to understand the immutability of the sage’s words.
If one cannot understand both Chinese and Western learning, ancient and modern learning, how can one understand the wholeness, subtlety, and profoundness of Dao?
2. Dao: Unity of the Physical and Metaphysical
I always believed Lu Jiuyuan when he said “there will be sages in the East Sea and the West Sea with the same mind and principle (li 理).” Although what he said was much more intelligent than other scholars in the Song dynasty, I think it does not yet fully explain the sage’s implied meaning. Does it only include the East and West Seas? Hundreds of centuries in the past and hundreds of centuries in the future, mind and principle never vary.
Mystery (xuan 玄) metaphorically refers to the doorway whence all secret essences were derived in Laozi, and which is called summum genus by Westerners. Mystery equates to terms in the Book of Changes such as Dao tong wei yi 道通為一, Taiji 太極, and Wuji 無極.
Since Dao is the cause instead of the effect, it is said that “what it is originated from is unknown.” If a thing can be named, it originated from Dao. Zhongfu 眾甫, the father of all things, is known in Western philosophy as the First Cause.
It is called Dao in Laozi, Taiji in the Book of Changes, independence (zizai 自在) or the dharma-gate of non-duality (buer famen 不二法門) in Buddhism, and the First Cause in Western philosophy.
The unvarying Dao (changdao 常道) and unvarying Name (changming 常名) are independent of external things, inexpressible, and cannot be analyzed with rational thinking (buke siyi 不可思議).
Buke siyi is not the same as buke mingyan 不可名言 (inexpressible) or buke yanyu 不可言喻 (indescribable), and starkly different from buneng siyi 不能思議 (unthinkable). A peculiar thing that one encounters can be described as buke mingyan. Being trapped in extreme happiness or sadness beyond expression because of, for example, feeling comfortable to do what you desire to do, can be described as buke yanyu. People living in the tropics who have never seen ice suddenly hear that one can walk on water, or for example, people who do not know about gravity suddenly hear that the earth is trampled underfoot. They are confused, thinking there’s no such thing and even regarding it as nonsense, and that’s what buneng siyi means. What I mean by buke siyi is, for example, saying that there is a square shaped circle, death without birth, and a thing that appears in different places at the same time… Buddhist Nirvana is something that can be described as buke siyi.
Qi means definite particles that have mass, with attractive and repulsive forces between them, and whose mass and motion can be detected. Those chemical elements can be turned into qi when heated to the highest temperature.
There is such a saying about calculus: numbers originate from the infinitesimal, which cannot be perceived by human senses. Therefore, it is not impossible to regard it as non-being. Infinitesimals can accumulate to form objects that can be known by humans. And the origin of all things is within the infinitesimal.
One is “competition between living things” (wujing 物競) and the other is “natural selection” (tianze 天擇). The former refers to all things competing with each other for their own survival and the latter refers to natural selection where the stronger race survives natural competition. All things are competing for survival. In the beginning different races competed, and then groups competed against each other. The weak are often enslaved by the strong and the foolish by the wise. The species that are stable enough to survive… must be the fittest for a given time and space.
No matter who you are or what conditions you are under, general laws remain the same. That others can teach but I cannot, or that what I teach is different from what others teach are not general laws. Thus, [standards of] right and wrong that are not immutable are not included in general laws. It is auspicious to follow them and disastrous to violate them. So, we are talking about what Chinese thinkers and Western thinkers have agreed on separately. What are the same without prior agreement are general laws. They must be obeyed and cannot be violated. In addition, if Chinese thinkers and Western thinkers have opposite opinions on what is right or wrong, these are local customs that are formed in specific places and times, and they do not belong to general laws.
Xiong Jilian said, “All things have a certain order to follow in birth and development, which is the natural order beyond human knowledge.” Zhuangzi assumed, “What was simple in the beginning may become enormously complex in the end.” In Chapter 64 of the Laozi these ideas are expressed: the principle (li) of all things are the general laws of history.
If you do not know general laws, you cannot “use the ancient Dao to grasp what now exists” (執古道以禦今有) nor can you “know the ancient beginning” (知古始). The meaning of “use the ancient” is the same as “seeking the antique” in Mengzi, and all scientific and philosophical research engages in this. I once said Laozi was a historian who enjoyed a long life, and his attainment of Dao was completely reliant on his understanding of the laws of history. Now that I have read the above two phrases “use the ancient” and “grasp what is now,” I am even more convinced of my opinion.13
The qu 曲 mentioned in this Chapter  refers to a part from which the whole can be seen. Therefore, there is a saying in the Doctrine of the Mean (中庸) that an able and virtuous personage who is inferior to a sage devotes himself to one part. Only he who knows the whole from a small part can achieve [Dao]. Therefore, Westerners attach importance to analysis. Zhu Xi [朱熹 1130–1200] once said: “The failure of the whole is ultimately due to the failure of some part.”
Since there is already something missing and empty, how can I know the most perfect and the greatest fullness through them? The eyes are not covered, but we cannot rely on them to enumerate infinity or verify everything. For while we can observe great straightness, great skill or great eloquence, we must also carry out logical reasoning to do what the eyes cannot.
Being (you 有) refers to something that is visible, audible and perceptible. If being becomes non-being (wu 無), that is, something invisible, inaudible and unperceivable, how do such three names as elusive (yi 夷), rarefied (xi 希) and infinitesimal (wei 微) come up? Is it true that Dao will ultimately not be seen, heard or felt? The answer is affirmative but only for those who can achieve the elusive, rarefied and infinitesimal.
3. The Principle for Coping with All Things: Defending Zhong with Ximing
Only by defending zhong can we reach the endless and unlimited Dao. This is what Zhuangzi meant when he said “stay at the center (zhong) of the ring to cope with the infinite transformation of things” 得其環中,以應無窮. What is zhong? The essence of Dao.
Only by consciously being in a state of emptiness and quietness, removing desire, expanding vision and observing the transformations of all things, will one know that all things that depend on each other can be equal, and this is where I need to make the most efforts.
The pronunciation of the word qu 屈 (submit) is [actually] jue 掘, and it means jie 竭 (exhaust). Thus, xu er bu qu 虛而不屈 (empty but never submitting) [should be read as] xu er bu jie 虛而不竭 (empty and never exhausted).21
Emptying one’s mind, one is able to receive Dao; filling one’s belly, one’s body can get its needs; weakening one’s intelligence, all things can move following the natural law and not be disturbed by one’s will; toughening one’s sinews, one can undertake what one should do on one’s own.
Increased knowledge leads to modesty; increased understanding leads to caution. Only after engaging in self-cultivation, do I realize that I have made so many mistakes in my life. So, [Laozi] says, [Dao] “seems hard to understand,” “seems to retreat,” and “seems uneven.”
Abandoning learning to not worry does not really eliminate worries. It is like an ostrich in Africa being chased and attacked that just sticks its head in the sand. It deludes itself into thinking it is not hurt by not looking at how it has been hurt. The banishing of learning in Laozi and the ostrich case have no difference.
Perfect activity, perfect speech, perfect calculations, perfect seals, and perfect knots all depend on tianli 天理 (heavenly principles). The reason why they can rely on tianli is that is [the order under which] human affairs occur. Guan Yiwu 管夷吾 (723–645 BCE) realized this. Thus, orders flow as though from the original source, and one can turn a disaster into a blessing, a defeat into a victory. This is what Zhuangzi called yinming 因明 (according with the illumined) and Laozi called ximing. The meaning of yin (accord with) is the same as xi (follow)22 … When we reach ximing, we will surely succeed in doing things, maintaining stable relationships, and protecting things safely.
After the root is established, then the myriad phenomena can revolve around the root. The music of heaven is varied, but it is the same wind that makes different hollows produce different sounds. Each hollow produces its own sound. If they all stubbornly believe that they have the truth, then who is wrong?
4. The Application of Dao in Politics: Democracy
There are three forms of government: democracy, monarchy and despotism. The difference between the three is…Democracy means that the sovereignty of a country is not held in any single person’s hand but grasped by all or part of the country’s people. Monarchy refers to a system where a monarch governs a country with the people acting according to long established laws. Despotism also has a monarch that governs the country, but he does so according to his will alone.
Laozi’s idea “humbleness is the trunk upon which the mighty grows, lowliness is the foundation upon which the high is laid” relates to democracy.
The Dao of a Huang-Lao Emperor is what is used by democratic countries. This is how [a democratic government] “is chief among them, but does not oppress them,” “never does [anything] yet all things are done.”
Although the activity of establishing a new dynasty requires working hard, being combed by the wind and washed by the rain, and fighting intensely, just like Han emperor Liu Bang 劉邦 (256–195 BCE) and Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (599–649) did, the fundamental reason for the successful establishment of a new dynasty is actually avoiding governmental interference, not engaging in governmental interference. Just as it was for the rulers of the Qin and Sui dynasties, people can come to power but will lose it in the end if they do not avoid governmental interference. That is so true! [So as Laozi says,] “Had they interfered, they would never have won the adherence of all under heaven.”
Heaven and earth follow nature. Without action or creation, all things rule each other by themselves. Therefore, they are without kindness. Kindness creates, upholds, administers, and changes with grace and action. Being Created, upheld, administered, and changed, things will lose their true nature. With grace and action, things cease to co-exist. If things cease to co-exist, there is not enough to support them all. The earth does not grow straw for the beasts, but the beasts eat the straw. The heaven does not produce dogs for man, but man eats the dogs. Inaction in regard to all things means to let them do as they should. Then they will be self-sufficient. If one has to use wisdom, it will not work.
All under heaven is not impossible to gain. It likes a noble vessel, so only by ximing can it be obtained. If you do not follow ximing, you will fail. Laozi compared All under heaven to a vessel, and Spencer regarded the group of nations as an organism. They are both indeed wise.
The six questions mentioned in Chapter 10 of Laozi seem to be contradictory but actually complement each other. For example, one can not only rule the land and love the people, but also remain unknown. The senses can simultaneously both engage the outside world and guard stillness. One can know everything, but you do not have to scheme. Acting this way means to love the people and rule the land through sincerity. Enacting the feminine leads to the pinnacle of masculinity; by doing nothing, then there is nothing that is not done.
Invading other countries is not what democracies should do. If you invade another country, war will also hurt yourself. Why is that? Because invading another country is incompatible with the spirit of democracy.
An unjust attack is like a knife in a common cook’s hand. Even if [his hacking] does not break the knife, it will be damaged, and there is nothing [like this] that will not come to an early end. In ancient China, no one was more famous than Chiyou 蚩尤29 for having a powerful army. Bai Qi 白起 (?–257 BCE) of the Qin dynasty, Xiang Yu 項羽 (232–202 BCE) of the Chu state, Alexander, Hannibal, and Napoleon of Europe are all men who were good at fighting, but there was not a single one of them who did not die young. Laozi once said that such [violent] people soon perish. It can be seen that nothing Laozi said was unconvincing. Those who can have a good beginning and a good ending all achieve good results without violence. But the current situation in China requires the people to cultivate a martial spirit. But this is only a temporary measure, in the future we should still adhere to the principle of non-violence.
As Laozi emphasizes “return” and “reversion” to the simplicity of Dao, he locates his ideal society in the ancient past and calls for people to return to the “uncarved” natural state of things. Laozi is aware and critical of the failings of civilization. By contrast, for Yan Fu, there is an inevitable human evolution from simple community to complex civilization, and it is impossible to return to primitive society. Unlike Laozi, who put the ideal world in the past, Yan Fu believes that the future progress is what human beings should pursue. Therefore, Yan criticizes Laozi’s idea of returning to simplicity because it is contrary to nature; it is like trying to push river water back up a mountain.We must pay attention to the difference between Laozi’s philosophy and modern Western philosophy in the next three chapters. Today, from uncarved block to civilization, from simple into complex, from the hexagram qian 乾 and kun 坤 into hexagram weiji 未濟, this is a natural trend. Laozi’s desire to return to the state of the uncarved block is like driving water from a river to a high mountain. It will not succeed. Laozi opposes the development of human society towards civilization. At present, human beings have entered the stage of civilization, but Laozi still thinks that human society should return to the state of the uncarved block. This is wrong. Why is that? Because it’s against nature’s tendency, against the essence of Dao. Freedom means that all things themselves will be at rest. The one that competes with others and survives is the one that is most adapted to nature. If this principle is followed, the era of Great Peace will soon come.
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The book’s title was changed several times. Its first publication was named Hou Guan Yan’s Notes on the Laozi (侯官嚴氏評點老子), which was printed in Tokyo, Japan in August 1905 and published officially in December of the same year. It should be pointed out that Yan Fu did not write this book alone, something proven by the inclusion of the statement “Xiong Jilian said” in Chapters 25, 33, 53, 64, and 74. Later, in 1931, the Commercial Press reprinted the book on the basis of its Tokyo edition and changed the title, naming it Yan Fu’s Notes on Laozi Daodejing (嚴復評點老子道德經). Then, in 1970, in Yan Lingfeng’s 嚴靈峰 (1904–1999) collection, the Continuation of Wuqiu beizhai’s Complete Laozi (無求備齋老子集成續編), the book’s title was The Laozi with Notes (老子評點). In 1986, this part was titled Laozi Notes (老子評語) in a collection of books named Yan Fu’s Works (嚴複集) published by Zhong Hua Book Company, compiled by Wang Shi 王栻. In 2014, Fujian Education Publishing House published Notes on the Laozi (評點老子) but the title of Hou Guan Yan’s Notes on the Laozi (侯官嚴氏評點老子) was retained in the preface. Regardless of the title, the part written by Yan Fu is basically the same. Yan Fu’s interpretations on the Laozi quoted in this article are all from the 2014 edition, so the author here adopts the title of Notes on the Laozi.
In 1903, Yan Fu suggested that his disciple Xiong Yuan’e 熊元鍔 (1879–1906), who styled himself Jilian 季廉, write an interpretation of the Laozi. Yan Fu confirms Xiong Jilian’s work was the foundation of Notes on the Laozi in an unpublished letter to Xiong that states “when I was in the capital, you were kind enough to show me the Laozi. It was not until I was abroad that I thought deeply [on it] and added my own notes” (Wang 1998a, p. 47).
Yan Fu entered an old-style private school at the age of seven. What he learned was traditional classical literature. He studied from Confucian scholars including Yan Changkui 嚴昌煃 (1926–1950), Huang Shaoyan 黃少岩, and Huang Mengyu 黃孟侑 and gained some exposure to Western thought after entering the Fujian Ship Administration School 福建船政學堂. See Zhesheng Ouyang (2015, pp. 3–14).
There are many scholars that hold this view. See Linong Ai (1982); Shaojun Liu (2001); Tiangen Wang (2004); Cheng Li (2006); and Defeng Zhou (2006).
The “they” in Liu Sihe’s article refer to Wei Yuan 魏源 (1794–1857), Gao Yandi 高延第 (1823–1886), Chen Sanli 陳三立 (1853–1937), Yi Peishen 易佩紳 (1826–1906), Xu Shaozhen 徐紹楨 (1861–1936), and Yan Fu (Liu 2018). In addition, Chen Muqing, a Taiwanese scholar, expressed similar views after comprehensively investigating Yan Fu’s Notes on the Laozi (Chen 2017) The development of such a view also has its basis in Yan Fu’s thought. Liu Gusheng holds that Notes on the Laozi is a reinterpretation of the classics, that is, an innovation made on the basis of understanding the classic texts in line with the requirements of the times (Liu 2010). Yan Fu’s interpretation was extremely bold for China at that time, and the degree of innovation in the interpretation of the text was self-evident, which even made scholars think that it was divorced from the text. Notes on the Laozi is indeed not completely compatible with the Laozi. Sometimes it even criticizes the original text. For example, Yan Fu directly critiques Chapters 18, 19, and 20 of the Laozi, saying that they contradict nature and violate the essence of Dao. Such an unprecedented skeptical attitude made it easy for scholars to mistake Yan Fu’s goal to be the introduction of Western thought through traditional Chinese classical texts. Even Benjamin Schwartz said: “There can be no doubt, however, that one of the preoccupations of the marginal notes is to find in Lao-tzu, in particular, intimations of ‘democracy’ and ‘science’ as Yen Fu understands these terms” (Schwartz 1964, p. 199).
Yan Fu once said explicitly, “it was proposed by vulgar scholars and Confucians, confined to the times, constrained by the vapid, courted their private wisdom, and made as assumptions. Dao is defending but not blocking.” See (Yan 2014e, vol. 9, preface, p. 12).
Yan Fu’s exact words are, “If one wants to read ancient Chinese books and understand the profound meaning behind ordinary language, it is often necessary to know Western thought before one can do so” (Yan 2004, p. 73).
Global Laozegetics is a broader and complex network of interpretations that span the globe. It assumes both Laozi commentaries and translations belong within a single field of research and emphasized the value of commentators and translators. This certainly broke through the limitations of mainstream scholars in searching for the Laozi’s “original” text and its “original” meaning and expand scholarship on the Laozi text. For more on this concept, see Misha Tadd (2022).
For more on this, see Zhongjiang Wang (1998b).
The meaning of “the same mind and li” is there are thousands of things in the universe, but their minds are all the same. Since the mind is the same, so is the li. Li refers to principles or laws. Sometimes it is another name for Dao.
Kong is usually rendered in English as “emptiness,” but its actual meaning is much broader than that.
Kuan-yen Liu examined how Western science and evolutionary biology draw Yan’s attention to the latent concepts of “force” in the Laozi. See Kuan-yen Liu (2020).
See Fu Yan (2014e, vol. 9, p. 29). I employ a modified version of Mr. Waley’s translation for Yan’s quote of the Laozi’s original passage. See (Waley 1958, p. 159).
Chen Muqing similarly agrees that “although Laozi’s theory emphasizes the way of heaven and nature…it excludes any evolutionary thought.” See Muqing Chen (2017).
Anything in nature or human society, when developed to one extreme, will head toward the opposite (fan) extreme. That is to say, to paraphrase Hegel, everything contains its own negation. See Youlan Feng (2013, p. 19). Ren Jiyu 任继愈 also holds a similar view. He believes that “changing in the opposite direction is the movement of Dao”. See Jiyu Ren (1956, p. 32).
Fan has the meaning of “cycle.” See Heng Gao (2004, p. 130).
D. C. Lau interpreted fan as “reverse”. He thinks that all we are entitled to say is that, according to the Laozi, when a thing develops to the higher limit, it will necessarily reverse and begin to decline, but it is not stated that when a thing is at, or reaches, the lower limit, it will necessarily develop all the way to the higher limit. See D. C. Lau (1958).
The Laozi highlights the mysterious, ineffable, and superior nature of Dao. For example, in Chapter 1 of the Laozi, Dao may be called mystery. Dao is the ancestor of all things in Chapter 4, the shape of nothing and the image of nothing in Chapter 14, and existed before heaven and earth in Chapter 25. We can see that Laozi’s thought presents Dao as the quintessence which governs the universe; anything tangible in the universe is non-fundamental, such as in the “Tianxia” chapter of Zhuangzi. Cao Feng makes it clear that Laozi divided the world into the metaphysical world of Dao and the physical world of things and believes that the two are completely different. See Feng Cao (2013).
His concept zhong has multiple meanings, such as center, moderation, middle, mean, etc. To include this polysemy, this paper uses the transliteration zhong.
The three dimensions refer to emptiness, submission, and exhaustion as mentioned below.
The literal meaning of qu is loss and the literal meaning of jie is exhaust. Xu er bu qu(jie) means that “it is empty but gives a supply that never fails.”
Yinming refers to “observing with a tranquil mind.” The meaning of ximing is “resorting to the light.” It should be noted that the word yinming does not appear directly in Zhuangzi. The author thinks that the yinming mentioned by Yan Fu should be yiming以明. Zhuangzi not only directly mentions this word, but also talks about mo ruo yiming 莫若以明 (the best thing to do is to observe with a tranquil mind) many times.
See Jesse (2017). Schwartz summarized this democratic characteristic as “an austere self-abnegating virtue.” (Schwartz 1964, p. 203).
Chapter 46 of the Laozi is as follows: “When there is Tao in the empire, the galloping steeds are turned back to fertilize the ground by their droppings. When there is not Tao in the empire, war horses will be reared even on the sacred mounds below the city walls. No lure is greater than to possess what others want, no disaster greater than that men should be wanting to get more. Truly: ‘He who has once known the contentment that comes simply through being content, will never again be otherwise than contented’ ” (Waley 1958, p. 199).
Yang Dayong analyzed in detail the status of people and the relationship between people and freedom in Yan Fu’s thought. (See Dayong Yang 1992).
By wei, Xiong refers to all the hard work that the first monarchs of the Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties undertook to create a new dynasty, as mentioned in the above quotation.
Yan Fu said: “these four sentences given by Wang Bi summarize the new theory of Darwin at a high level” (Yan 2014e, vol. 9, p. 23).
Chiyou is a mythological warrior who fought with the Yellow Emperor.
Kuan-yen Liu has a detailed discussion on this subject. See Kuan-yen Liu (2020).
See Zhongjiang Wang (1998b) for discussions on the different views of Yan Fu and Lao Zi on history.
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Zheng, S. Notes on the Laozi and Yan Fu’s Theory of Dao. Religions 2023, 14, 447. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040447
Zheng S. Notes on the Laozi and Yan Fu’s Theory of Dao. Religions. 2023; 14(4):447. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040447Chicago/Turabian Style
Zheng, Suixin. 2023. "Notes on the Laozi and Yan Fu’s Theory of Dao" Religions 14, no. 4: 447. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14040447