Daodejing Chapter 6: the mysterious female

「谷神不死,是謂玄牝;玄牝之門,是謂天地根;綿綿若存,用之不勤。」
The spirit of the valley never dies;
It is called the mysterious female.
The gateway of the mysterious female,
Is called the root of Heaven and Earth.
Like a fine slender thread,
It appears to go on forever;
No matter how much it’s used,
It’s never exhausted.

The way is the mother of all things. She is the “spirit of the valley” who “never dies” and the “mysterious female”. Heaven and earth stand at the entrance to her womb, which is so deep and fertile that “no matter how much it’s drawn upon, it’s never exhausted.” Her essence is so fine and slender that it can barely be discerned because it is a universal principle rather than a physical object.

Since the nature of the way more closely resembles the female (陰/yīn) than the male (陽/yáng), Laozi advised that the sage should adopt the same principle in leading his people. That means staying open and receptive to them like a valley rather than towering above them like a mountain, and serving them with kindness and humility rather than dominating them though arrogance and fear.

Laozi was genuinely radical in evoking the spirit of the “mysterious female” as the ultimate source of creative power in the world. However, given the patriarchal society that he lived in, it should come as no surprise that this idea was not taken up by the ruling elite of the time (or indeed afterwards).

This is a pity, for all of us would do well to adopt a more humble and open-minded approach to how we lead our lives and interact with other people.

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