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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers


Chinese-English Interlinear

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.



the Way

A Note

regarding the characters

used in this translation.

Lesson 36

Life's Subtle


​​​​​​​  弱ruò

( Two 弓  curved bows)

flexible, weak, soft, gentle


Line 1

If you wish to

gather something to you,

first give it space.


​​​  將jiāng    欲yù   拾shī    之zhī

(future action) desire   gather       (pron.) 

必bì   古gǔ   張zhāng   之zh

must     old/first   stretch/expand  (pron.) 

You desire to gather something,

fist you must expand it.





​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 1
Line 2

Line 2

If you wish to

weaken something,

first let it grow strong.


​​​  將jiāng    欲yù   弱ruò 之zhī

(future action)   desire   weak    (pron.)

必bì   古gǔ    強qiáng  之zhī

must     old/first        strong       (pron.)

You desire to weaken it,

must first strengthen it.  


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. ​​​​. . . . .




Line 3

Line 3

If you wish to

desert something,

first be its ally.


將jiāng     欲yù    去qù    之zhī

 (future action)     desire   separate/depart    (pron.)

必bì     古gǔ   與yǔ*    之zhī

must  old/first   with/give   (pron.)

​You  desire to leave it,

 must first be with it.


*In place of 與yǔ, "with," "give," the standard editions have a similar graph, 興xīng, "rise," "flourish."  That is the reason for translations having with sense of, "If you wish to overthrow something, first let build up."

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .





Line 4

Line 4

If you wish to

snatch something away,

first give it.


​​  將jiáng      欲yù    奪duó   之zhī 

(future action)   desire     snatch         (pron.)

必bì   古gǔ   予yǔ   之zhī

   must  old/first    give      (pron.)

​You desire to snatch it,

​must first give it.



Line 5

Line 5

This is the

subtle wisdom of life–

that the soft and the weak

overcome the strong.


​​​​​    是shì   胃wèi    微wēi*     明míng

​​  this     say     subtle/tiny    bright 

柔róu 弱ruò   勝shèng 強qiáng

soft     weak      victory    strong

This is called the subtle brightness;

the soft and weak are victorious over the strong.

​     Some may view this line as Lao Tzu's handy prescription for being victorious over others. But that would to view Lao Tzu's teachings as just one more self-serving means to a greedy endIt would also be to ignore Lao Tzu's understanding of what 勝shēng victory and 強qiáng strength really are. As he tells us elsewhere:

Lesson 33

To 勝shēng triumph over others

is to have power.

To 勝shēng triumph over

oneself is be 強qiáng mighty.

Lesson 45

Activity 勝shèng overcomes the cold.

Calmness 勝shèng overcomes the heat.

Lesson 61

Through constant tranquility,

the female energy 勝shèng overcomes

the male energy.

Lesson 67

Those who do battle with compassion

are 勝shèng victorious.

Those who hold on

become 強qiáng strong.

Rather than seeing this lines as a covert means to victory over others, consider that Lao Tzu is simply stating what is the case: That the soft and the weak overcome the strong.




*微wēi, has the sense of "subtle," "small," "hidden," "dark," and "obscure."  We saw this in Lesson 14, where Lao Tzu tells us:


Look for it,

and you won't see it.

Call it 微wēi 'imperceptible.'


And in Lesson 15:


Of old, sages

in accord with the Way

were so 微wēi profound in their

insight, that it cannot be fathomed.


​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .



Line 6

  The line above is a fitting close to this lesson.  But there's a sixth line which appears to be unrelated to the previous five. 


    As already mentioned, Lao Tzu’s writings originally had no lesson breaks. When the text was segmented into lessons (believed to be in the first century A.D.), what we know of a Line 6 may have been wrongly appended to this lesson. Perhaps it originally stood alone, as its own chapter; or it may be a later commentary by the Chinese Legalists who sought to usurp Lao Tzu's teachings for their own rigid and harsh system of governing.   

Line 6

Just as fish should not be taken

from their deep waters,

so too the potent weapons

of the state should not

be displayed to the people.


​​​​​​   魚yú     不bù    脫tuō   於yú   瀟xiāo

fish         not        remove   prep.    deep water

邦bāng  利lì    器qì   

country sharp instruments

 不bù 可kě    以yǐ    視xhì  人rén

not    can/able    by means   show    person

As for fish, not remove them from deep water;

as to a country’s sharp instruments,

should not be used for people to look at.

     What good does it do for a ruler to put a nation's weapons on display to its people?  This only invites fear and foreboding, and these only invite conflict. Let the people be.

     And as for an enemy, this is also practical advice. What is unknown is more fearsome than what they know. If there is an enemy, let them be afraid of what they cannot see. If they do choose to attack, let them be surprised.

​​​​​​.​ ​​​​. . . . .



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