Glossary of terms in the Daodejing

The Daodejing is full of rich and complex philosophical terms that by their very nature are almost impossible to translate adequately into English. Here is a list of these terms together with a short explanation of each one.

They are listed in the order they first appear in the text of the Daodejing.

道/Dào: Way
Dao (often rendered in English as Tao) literally means “way” or “path”. In ancient Chinese thought, the term was widely used in the metaphorical sense of the “way of man” to signify human conduct and morality. Laozi took this concept one step further by defining it as the origin of the universe and the law of natural change that governs all things.

The term dao appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 4, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 18, 21, 23, 24, 25, 30, 32, 34, 35, 37, 38, 40, 41, 42, 46, 47, 48, 51, 53, 55, 59, 60, 62, 65, 67, 73, 77, 79, 81.

名/Míng: Name
Ming literally means “name”. In Chapter 1 of the Daodejing it is used as another title for the Way. However, as Laozi ruefully admits in Chapter 25, he regarded neither dao nor ming as adequate for capturing the full majesty and mystery of the Way.

Used in this context, the term ming appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 25, 31, 34, and 41.

無/Wú: Intangible
Wu literally means “no”, “not” or “nothing”. In the Daodejing, Laozi uses the term in tandem with you (有) to define the intangible and tangible aspects of the Way. Wu is invisible, empty, and ethereal, and represents the essence and creative potential of the Way. Without it, you wouldn’t exist. Since it is such an ambiguous term, wu has been translated in many different ways, including “being-without-form”, “formless”, “shapeless”, “without substance”, “non-existence”, and “non-being”.

Used in this context, the term wu appears in tandem with you in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 2, 11, and 43.

有/Yǒu: Tangible
You literally means “have”, “be”, or “exist”. In the Daodejing, Laozi uses the term in tandem with wu (無) to define the tangible and intangible aspects of the Way. You represents the physical manifestations of the Way that are embodied in the Mother of all Things. Like wu, you has been translated in many different ways, including “being-with-form”, “formed”, “shaped”, “with substance”, “existence” and “being”.

Used in this context, the term you appears in tandem with wu in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 2, 11, and 43.

天地/Tiāndì: Heaven and Earth
Tiandi literally means Heaven and Earth. In Chinese, it is used to mean “nature”, the “world” or the “universe”.

The term tiandi appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 5, 7, 23, 25, and 32.

萬物/Wànwù: All Things
Wanwu literally means “ten thousand things”, though when used figuratively it means numerous, uncountable, and infinite. In the Daodejing, Laozi uses the term to describe all things or everything, including humanity, animals, and plants. Some translations use the more poetic term “myriad of things”.

The term wanwu appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 16, 32, 34, 37, 39, 40, 42, 51, 62, 64, and 76.

萬物之母/Wànwùzhīmǔ: Mother of all things
Wanwuzhimu literally means “the mother of the ten thousand things”. In Chapter 1 of the Daodejing, it is the name given to the tangible aspect of the dao. The term is also translated as the Mother of the Myriad Things.

The term wanwuzhimu only appears in Chapter 1 of the Daodejing.

妙/Miào: Essence
Miao variously means “subtlety”, “wonder”, or “essence”. It describes the intangible aspect of the dao that is so miniscule that it cannot be touched, seen, smelled, or even imagined.

The term miao appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 15, and 27.

玄/Xuán: Subtle and Profound
Xuan variously means “mysterious”, “mystical”, “dark”, “deep”, “secret”, and “profound”.

The term xuan appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 1, 6, 10, 15, 51, 56, and 65.

無為/Wúwéi: Effortless Action
Wuwei literally means “no action” “non-action”, or “without action”, and has been variously translated as “non-doing”, “without effort”, “without control”, “action without action”, “effortless doing”, and even “managing without interfering”. To draw a modern parallel, it can be likened to athletes who have trained so well for a particular event that when the starting gun fires they are so much “in the zone” that their muscles and limbs don’t even have to think as they fly off the blocks. In other words, their action is effortless because the athletes have put in so much preparation beforehand that they expend only the energy and effort that is required.

The term wuwei appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 2, 3, 10, 37, 38, 43, 48, 57, 63, and 64.

谷神/Gǔshén: Spirit of the Valley
Gǔshén only appears in Chapter 6 of the Daodejing and literally means “spirit of the valley”. Most commentators agree that it used as another name for the Way.

牝/Pìn: Female
Pìn literally means “she”, “female”, or “feminine”. In Chapter Six of the Daodejing, it is combined with the character 玄/xuán to mean “subtle and profound female”. Some commentators take this to represent the female sex organ.

The term pìn appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 6, 55, and 61.

天之道/Tiānzhīdào: Way of Heaven
Tiānzhīdào literally means “Way of Heaven” or “Heavenly Way”, and is another term Laozi uses to describe the Way.

The term tiānzhīdào appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 9, 73, 77, and 81.

德/Dé: Virtue
Dé literally means “virtue” though is quite often translated as “moral power” or simply just “power”.

The term dé appears in the following chapters of the Daodejing: 10, 21, 23, 28, 38, 41, 49, 51, 54, 55, 59, 60, 63, 65, 68, and 79.

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