Dao and De

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DAO AND DE , the "way" and "virtue," respectively, are basic Chinese philosophical concepts with particular relevance in the Daoist tradition. They are important separately as politico-philosophical and religious terms. Joined as a binomial, dao-de appears first in the third century bce and plays a key role in religious Daoist speculation. In modern Chinese, dao-de means "morality."

Dao is the word for "road" or "pathway." It has no other sense in the earliest textsthat is, in the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (c. 1200 bce). By the time of the Eastern Zhou (770256 bce), dao comes to mean the correct or natural way something is done, especially in the actions of rulers and kings (Vandermeersch, 1980). Used as a verb, dao also means to "show the way," "tell," or "guide," and hence gains the meaning "teaching" or "doctrine." In both these senses, the term is central to the various philosophical schools of ancient China and the formulation of political doctrines; it often designates a meta-way of talking about specific ideas or political measures (Hansen, 1992). A. C. Graham accordingly entitled his volume on ancient Chinese thought Disputers of the Tao (1989).

In the philosophical texts, dao means both "the way the universe operates" and "the teachings people follow." Thus, the Lunyu (the Analects or "Sayings of Confucius," dated to about 400 bce) speaks of the "dao of the ancient kings" and says a state "has dao " if it is well governed. A Confucian gentleman "devotes himself to dao " and people do not all "have the same dao " if they adhere to different principles. The classic of all texts on dao, the Dao de jing, states, "dao that can be dao' ed is not the eternal dao " (chap. 1), emphasizing the ineffable nature of the way that underlies existence.

Despite this, it is possible to create a working definition, such as that by Benjamin Schwartz in his The World of Thought in Ancient China (1985). He describes dao as "organic order"organic in the sense that it is not willful. It is not a conscious, active creator, not a personal entity, but rather an organic process that just moves along. It is mysterious in its depth and unfathomable in its essence.

Beyond this, dao is also order, clearly manifest in the rhythmic changes and patterned processes of the natural world. As such, it is predictable in its developments and can be analyzed and described in ordered patterns. These ordered patterns are what the Chinese call ziran, or "self-so," which is the spontaneous and observable way things are naturally. Yet while dao is very much nature, it is also more than nature. It is also the essence of nature, the inner quality that makes things what they are. It is governed by laws of nature, yet it is also these laws itself.

In other words, it is possible to explain the nature of dao in terms of a twofold structure. The "dao that can be dao' ed" and the "eternal dao." The latter is the mysterious, ineffable dao at the center of the cosmos; the former is the dao at the periphery, visible and tangible in the natural cycles. About the eternal dao, the Dao de jing says:

Look at it and do not see it: we call it invisible. Listen to it and do not hear it: we call it inaudible. Touch it and do not feel it: we call it subtle. Infinite and boundless, it cannot be named; Call it vague and obscure. (chap. 14; see LaFargue, 1992)

This dao is entirely beyond the perception of ordinary humans. It is so vague and obscure, so subtle and so potent, that it is utterly beyond all knowing and analysis, and cannot be grasped however much one may try. The human body, the human senses, and the human intellect are not equipped to deal with dao on this level, and the only way a person can ever get in touch with it is by forgetting and transcending his or her ordinary human faculties, by becoming subtler and finer and more potent, more like dao itself.

Dao at the periphery, on the other hand, is characterized as the give and take of various pairs of complementary opposites, as the natural ebb and flow of things as they rise and fall, come and go, grow and decline, are born and die. The Dao de jing says:

To contract, there must first be expansion. To weaken, there must first be strengthening. To destroy, there must first be promotion. To grasp, there must first be giving. This is called the subtle pattern. (chap. 36)

Things, as long as they live, develop in alternating movements, commonly described with the terms yin and yang. It is the nature of life to be in constant change, and of things to always be moving in one or the other direction, up or down, towards lightness or heaviness, brightness or darkness, and so on. Nature is in a continuous flow of becoming, latent and transparent, described as the alternation of yin and yang, complementary characteristics and directions, that cannot exist without each other. This is the nature of dao as it can be observed and followed in politics and self-cultivation. If practiced properly, following this aspect of dao will ultimately lead to a state of spontaneous alignment with the ineffable dao, the creative force at the center (see Roth, 1999). Attaining this state of perfect alignment is described as sagehood and being in complete nonaction (wuwei).

De as a term goes back further than dao. It has been identified in the oracle bones, where it seems to indicate a psychic quality of the king that is approved by the spirits and that gives him influence and prestige (Nivison, 19781979). Thus, in the Shang dynasty, heaven or the ancestors would recognize and "approve" the de of a sacrificer, preferring the "fragrance" of his offerings to those of others (Shangshu 30). The good king observes the religious duty to care for de in himself, seen as a psychic entity implanted in the person by heaven. Not unlike the concept of mana in Polynesian religions, de is thus the personal power inherent in a person that allows him or her to be vibrant and strong and rule in harmony with the wishes of the gods and ancestors. By extension, the word also came to mean a basic "goodness" or "generosity," as well as "to admire someone for his generosity," indicating the moral quality (virtue) and psychic force of a person (Munro, 1969).

Used frequently in the politico-philosophical texts of ancient China, de denotes an energy in the ruler that enables him to found or continue a dynasty. The theory was that heaven, surveying the world and finding the people suffering from disorder, conferred its mandate (ming ) on the person with the greatest de. His subsequent success attested to and supported heaven's choice. Usually, the first ruler of a dynasty is heavy with de and thus able to govern without effort (Lunyu 2.1). He does not need to use punishment to gain obedience; the wisest of the land are eager to serve him, knowing that he will heed their advice. Accordingly, the dialogue of Mengzi with the king of Qi is centrally concerned with the question: "What innate de does one need to be king?"

Following the establishment of a dynasty, the usual pattern was that the ruler's de diminished over time, until a new dynasty needed to be established and received the mandate of heaven. This diminishing, however, was not inevitable, but involved the active forfeiture and loss of de by subsequent rulers. It could be prevented through personal restraint and ritual correctness, and many political texts serve to advise rulers on just how to maintain these. If not prevented, a bad last ruler, who was entirely without de, would appear on the scene. He would neglect the proper rituals, engage in sensual indulgence, follow the advice of greedy counselors, exploit the people to build grandiose palaces, and govern by punishment and harsh measures.

The result of this vision of de is a paradox: the ruler who needs to be straightened out most lacks good counsel and would not listen if he had it, while the one who has good counselors and is wise enough to recognize their wisdom and listen to them is "virtuous" already. As the concept of de becomes more recognizably "virtue," which all people may have, it leads to a persistent difficulty in moral philosophy: the question of how de is to be imparted to the person who lacks it. The problem exasperated Confucius (e.g., Lunyu 5.9, 6.10). Later philosophers had various solutions, such as Mengzi and his famous principle of the inherent goodness of human nature.

Another paradox arises not from the aspect of de as moral virtue but from its aspect as psychic force. The person with de has prestige, effectiveness, and statusthings people desire. However, in order to acquire and strengthen de, one must be self-denying, sincerely generous, and generally good. Therefore, efforts to gain more de must be self-defeating, unless one seems to be trying to avoid it. The Dao de jing solves this issue by saying:

The person of superior de is not conscious of his de ; therefore he has de. The person of inferior de never loses sight of his de ; therefore he loses de. The person of superior de takes no action and has no ulterior motive for doing anything. The person of inferior de takes many actions and follows ulterior motives in doing so. (chap. 38)

Thus, the person with the greatest de is unassuming and unimpressive, follows the patterns of dao in nonaction, and comes to serve all. Again, the text says: "Strong de appears as if unsteady; / true substance seems to be changeable" (chap. 41).

The person in the Dao de jing who has perfect de is also most in line with dao : the sage, who can be, but does not have to be, the ruler. The sage is described as unobtrusive, inactive, and independent, free from all possessions or attachments and without a formal teaching or program of action. Because he is all these things, which match him to the natural forces of heaven and earth, "the sage is whole" (chap. 22) and his accomplishments are thorough and long-lasting. Part of his permeating effect is that he subtly and imperceptiblylike the dao spreads de by just being, imposing some of his psychic force and inherent goodness on others. Thereby he "causes people to be unknowing and free from desires, so that the smart ones will not dare to impose" (chap. 3). He is "always there to help the people, rejecting no one and no creature" (chap. 27), never puts himself forward in any way yet finds himself a nucleus of social and cosmic activity.

Not presenting himself, he is radiant. Not thinking himself right, he is famous. Not pushing himself forward, he is meritorious. Not pitying himself, he is eminent. (chap. 22)

The Dao de jing is a good example of a text where the political quality of de as virtue is conflated with the more psychological aspect of de as inherent life force. In this latter sense, de indicates the essential character of anyone or anything, effective in interaction with people and things. The same is also apparent in other philosophical texts. Thus, Confucius says that "the de of the ruler is wind; that of the people is grass" (Lunyu 12.19); and the correspondence system of the five phases, which fully developed in the Han dynasty, describes its different aspects as the wu de or the "five powers" (see Yates, 1997).

In the Zhuangzi (the Book of Master Zhuang, the second major text of ancient Daoism, compiled in the third century bce), this more physical yet intangible aspect of de is made clear in a chapter called "The Sign of Virtue Complete" (chap. 5), and particularly in the story of the suckling pigs. Told in the voice of Confucius, it tells of a group of little pigs nursing at the body of their dead mother. "After a while they gave a start and ran away, leaving the body behind, because they could no longer see their likeness in her. They loved not her body but the thing that moved her body"(i.e., her de ). By the same token, several other stories in the same chapter tell of people who have lost a part of their body (maimed in war or as punishment) but are in no way impaired in their de, their inherent life forcethe thing that moves the bodystill being complete.

To sum up, de means the inherent force and power that moves the world and makes people and animals come to life. It can be held to a greater or lesser degree, be purer or cruder, superior or inferior. When strong and radiant, it imparts itself to others and creates harmony and good government, thus resulting in a "virtuous" situation and imbuing its carrier with virtuein the original sense of virtus, the power that makes a man strong and valiant. When lost, it results in death or the loss of inherent integrityboth cosmic and moralwhich in turn causes political corruption and the downfall of dynasties.

Dao and de in combination occur mainly in Daoist texts. The Dao de jing is the classic example. Divided into eighty-one chapters, the text also has two major parts, a Dao jing, and a De jing. The former discusses the more cosmic dimensions of life and the larger perspective of Daoist thought; the latter focuses on the concrete activities and patterns of daily life. De here describes the activation of dao in the visible cycles of existence; that is, dao at the periphery. Both parts are of equal importance in the text, but while the standard version of the Dao de jing places the dao part first, the manuscripts found at Mawangdui (168 bce) reverse the order (see Henricks, 1989).

A fifth-century religious Daoist text that takes up the Dao de jing in its mystical dimension and links it to practices of ritual and self-cultivation also discusses the relationship between dao and de. Section 10 of the Xisheng jing (Scripture of western ascension) relates dao and de and connects both to the social virtues of Confucianism:

In dao, make nonbeing the highest; in de make kindness your master. In ceremony, make righteousness your feeling; in acting, make grace your friend. In benevolence, make advantage your ideal; in faith, make efficaciousness your goal.When kindness, social responsibility, ceremony, and faith are lost, dao and de are also discarded, they perish and decay. When social de is not substantiated by dao, it will be supported only by material wealth. (Kohn, 1991, p. 242)

In the same way, the texts suggests that "the way the good person acts in the world can be compared to the bellows: he never contends with others, his de always depends on dao. This is because he is empty and void and utterly free from desires" (sect. 18). Dao and de in this text are thus seen as closely related, and one cannot be cultivated without the other. More importantly, the concept of de is expanded to include the various specific virtues of Confucian society.

The most detailed Daoist discussion of the relation of dao and de is found in the Daoti lun (On the embodiment of dao ), a short scholastic treatise associated with Sima Chengzhen (647735), the twelfth patriarch of Highest Clarity (Shangqing) Daoism. According to the text, "dao is all-pervasive; it transforms all from the beginning. De arises in its following; it completes all beings to their end. They appear in birth and the completion of life. In the world, they have two different names, yet fulfilling their activities, they return to the same ancestral ground. Dao and de are two and yet always one. Therefore, there is no dao outside of the omnipresence of de. There is no de different from the completion of life through dao. They are one and still appear as two. Dao is found in endless transformation and pervasive omnipresence. De shines forth in the completion of life and in following along. They are always one; they are always two. Two in one, they are all-pervasive. All-pervasive, they can yet be distinguished. Thus their names are dao and de " (Daoti lun 1a; see Kohn, 1998, p. 130).

According to this, dao and de are two aspects of the underlying creative power of life; they need each other and depend on each other. They are different yet the same, separate yet one, nameless yet named, at rest yet in constant movement. Pervading all, penetrating all, they are indistinct, yet can also be distinguished and named, creating a particular vision of reality. Names and reality, then, raise the problem of epistemology and knowledge of dao. Both names and reality ultimately belong to the same underlying structure that essentially can never be grasped. But they are also an active part of the world.

The practical application of this concept of dao and de as two aspects of the same underlying power is realized in Daoist cultivation. Through mystical practice, adepts strip off all names and classifications in their minds, and allow the "chaos perfected" nature of dao to emerge. Chaos, as the text explains, means "without distinctions," something, not a thing, that cannot be called by any name. Perfected means "total and centered in itself," some not-thing that has no referent outside of itself. Speaking of self or beings as "chaos perfected" thus creates a dichotomy that is not there originally. Any name, even that attached to the human body, arises from a conscious self and is mere projection. The concept is a formal expression of a perceived differenceit is unrelated to the being as being, as chaos perfected (Daoti lun 5a).

Knowledge of dao is thus a contradiction in terms, yet that is precisely what Daoism is about, what adepts strive to realize. It can only be attained in utter so-being, a state that is both empty and serene and not empty and not serene at the same time. It thereby comes close to dao, which embodies emptiness and rests originally in serenity, yet is also actualized in the living world and moves along with beings and things (Daoti lun 5b).

The close connection of de to dao in this vision is applied to guide practitioners to an integrated mystical vision of the universe and lead them toward the attainment of sagehood and oneness with dao. De helps to explain why, "if there is no difference between all beings and dao, should one cultivate it at all?" The answer is that "cultivation makes up for the discrepancy, however minor, between the root and its embodiment, and leads back to original nonbeing" (Daoti lun 8b). De, the visible, tangible, and active part of dao in the world is the bridge that allows the first step in this directiona major stepping stone in the recovery of the original flow of life in dao.

See Also

Chinese Religion, overview article; Daoism, overview article.


Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Ill., 1989. Overview of ancient Chinese thought, discussing different dimensions of the concept of dao.

Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. New York, 1992. Presentation of dao as meta-language in relation to various philosophical discourses.

Henricks, Robert, ed. and trans. Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao ching. New York, 1989. Translation of the Dao de jing as found in several manuscript versions at Mawangdui.

Kohn, Livia. Taoist Mystical Philosophy: The Scripture of Western Ascension. Albany, N.Y., 1991. Translation and discussion of the fifth-century scripture Xisheng jing.

Kohn, Livia. "Taoist Scholasticism: A Preliminary Inquiry." In Scholasticism: Cross-Cultural and Comparative Perspectives, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón, pp. 115140. Albany, N.Y., 1998. Discussion of the speculative dimension of religious Daoism, including a presentation and partial translation of the Daoti lun.

LaFargue, Michael, trans. and ed. The Tao of the Tao-te-ching. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Translation and interpretation of the Dao de jing with particular attention to the vision of dao.

Munro, Donald J. "The Origin of the Concept of Te." In The Concept of Man in Early China, edited by D. J. Munro, pp. 185197. Stanford, Calif., 1969; reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich., 2001. On the earliest understanding of the concept of de.

Nivison, David S. "Royal 'Virtue' in Shang Oracle Inscriptions." Early China 4 (19781979): 5255. On the most ancient forms and meanings of de.

Roth, Harold D., trans. and ed. Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York, 1999. Translation and discussion of mystical chapters of the Guanzi, an ancient Daoist text.

Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass., 1985. Overview of ancient Chinese philosophy.

Vandermeersch, Leon. Wangdao ou La voie royale: Recherches sur l'esprit des institutions de la Chine archaique. 2 vols. Paris, 1980. Extensive discussion of the "dao " of the king in ancient China, examining historical and philosophical sources.

Yates, Robin D. S., trans. and ed. Five Lost Classics: Tao, Huang-Lao, and Yin-Yang in Han China. New York, 1997. Translation and discussion of proto-Daoist materials found at Mawangdui.

Livia Kohn (2005)