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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers


Chinese-English Interlinear

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.


A Note

regarding the characters

used in this translation.

Lesson 17

The 4 Types

of Leaders




(亻person + 言words)

trust, faith, believe


     It is sometimes said that Lao Tzu’s writings are meant only as advice to rulers. That is questionable in my view. But here he doe address leadership, noting the four types of rulers—from the sage-ruler to the despot. Little commentary is needed because we  recognize these men and women immediately in our own time.

     The first line and the last one reveal how we can discern the finest leaders who are with us today.


Note: The following two lessons, 18 and 19, appear to be a continuation of this one. They can easily be read together.

(Originally, there were no chapter divisions. Those came much later, perhaps as teachers separated Lao Tzu’s words into sections or lessons that could be more easily studied or memorized independently.)   


Line 1


Line 1

The best leaders are those

whose subjects only

know of their existence.

​大dà  上shàng  下xià  知zhī   有yǒu   之zhī

great     above, top      under    know   have/exist     (pron.)

​As to the highest,

below know the existence of them.



  In this commentary, Wang Bi (226-249 AD) identifies this leader as the 聖shèng sage who who manages the affairs of the state through 无wú 為wéi "not doing," and who goes about his teaching with 不bù no 言yán words.

. . . . . .


Line 2

Line 2

Next, some the leaders

who are loved and praised.

​​​​其qí    次cì    親qīn   譽yù  之zh

(pron.)  sequence  affection  praise  (pron.)

Its sequence,

affection and praise them.

​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .

Line 3

​​Line 3

Then come the leaders

who are feared.


其qí    次cì   畏wèi  之zhī

(pron.) sequence   fear   (pron.)

​​Its sequence,

​is fearing them.

​​ ​​

. . . . . . 

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Line 4

Line 4

The lowest are leaders

whose subjects

ridicule them. 


​​​其qí    下xià     侮wǔ*   之zhī

      (pron.)  low/inferior  insult    (pron.) 

Its least, is insulting them


*Regarding 侮wǔ, "insult."  Both MWT editions have 母mǔ, "mother."  侮wǔ "insult," is the found in the later Wang Bi, Fu Yi, Heshang Gong and Guodian editions. Note that 母mǔ, a partial graph of 侮wǔ, "insult." This may be an example of a scribe taking a shortcut, being lazy, or simply being unfamiliar with the character that was dictated. It’s also possible that the writing of the character for “insult” was still fluid in the state where the MWT editions were transcribed.

     On the other hand, if the MWT character is authentic, then the line would convey that the lowest kind of leader is one who "mothers," the people, perhaps by overprotecting and pampering them. Such "mothering" would be no more than another sort of interfering with the people, and a lacking respect for them.

​​. . . . . .


Line 5

Line 5

When are leaders words

are unreliable,
the people will have not trust.

信xìn*  不bù  足zú   案àn**  有yǒu  不bù   信xìn

true words    not    enough  rely/guide     have        not      true words

​True words insufficient to rely,

have no true trust.


*信xìn, has the meanings of "trust," "believe," "confidence."

**案àn, has the meanings of "guide," "judicial decision," "reasoned judgment."


​​. . . . . .



Line 6

Line 6

To lead, the leader's words

must be valued.


猷yóu    呵hē    其qí    貴guì   言yán 也yě

​plan/map out   exclaim  (pron.)  expensive  words   (part.)

​​​Map out! His/her words are of value.


​​​​​​. . . . . .


Line 7

Line 7

When the best leaders

complete their work,

everyone says,

"It just happened happened like this."


成chéng   功gōng   遂suì  事shì   而ér

complete     merit      progress     duty     and 

百bài 姓xìng 胃wèi

    100    family    say      

我wǒ 自zì  然rán

I      oneself  just so

Completes duties meritoriously,

a hundred families say, “I self-so-ness.”


     Referring back to Line 1, when the people "only know of the existence" of a ruler, implies that there is no interference by the state, no schemes and plans. The natural conditions are permitted to return. This is what Lao Tzu has called, 自zì 然rán


*Note: The use of 自zì 然rán, "self-so-ness" here, may be another of Lao Tzu's plays on words. The most frequent translation of this line has the sense of, "I did it myself," which implies personal agency on the part of the person. This is not the proper sense of the term in Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu.


    As a double meaning, 自zì 然rán also has the implication of, "I am myself," that is, "I have attained to self-so-ness." Put differently, "It happened naturally," or "It just happened." 


     Again, this use of  自zì 然rán to refer the spontaneous way of things, is found throughout Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, as when Chuang  Tzu [Lesson 16] says:, 


At that time (of old), no one did anything,

and things were ever themselves.

當dàng  是shì  時shí  也yě

same   time   this hour  (part.)

莫mò 之zhī  為wèi  而ér  常cháng 自zì  然 rán

no one  (pron.)  act/do  and constant   self-so-ness.

​​​​​​​​. . . . . .


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