Daodejing Chapter 11 breakdown: the emptiness inside

Richard Brown
2 min readDec 16, 2023


Chapter 11 of the Daodejing highlights the paradoxical idea that emptiness or nothingness has intrinsic value. It uses three metaphors to illustrate this: the space in the centre a wheel hub, the hollow in a pot, and the open space in a house. Each example demonstrates that while physical objects are necessary for creating something, it is the emptiness or space within that makes them useful or functional.

Thirty spokes converge
To form a wheel hub.
But it is the emptiness inside the hub
That makes the carriage useful.
Clay is kneaded
To form a pot.
But it is the emptiness inside it
That makes the pot useful.
Doorways and window bays are chiselled
To form a house.
But it is the emptiness inside it
That makes the house useful.
Substance brings benefits.
Emptiness brings usefulness.

The chapter subtly points out the interdependent relationship between substance (material) and emptiness or nothingness (space). Without the material components, the space cannot be defined, and without the space, the material components lack functionality. This interdependence is a key concept that is explored in the Daodejing, highlighting how apparent opposites are intrinsically connected and reliant on each other.

The emphasis on the usefulness of emptiness invites a deeper understanding of reality beyond materialism. Understanding and appreciating the non-material aspects of existence such as space, silence, or the intangible, is as important as recognizing the material or tangible elements. By valuing emptiness, the text suggests that often less is more, and it is the simple, uncluttered, and blank aspects that can provide the most significant utility and meaning.

On a deeper level, the chapter provides insights into the nature of existence itself. It suggests that what is not seen or what does not exist materially can have as much, if not more, impact than what is seen or exists. This can be extended metaphorically to concepts like the importance of wuwei, effortless action, the value of silence, and the power of potential or unmanifested possibilities.

By highlighting the balance between the tangible and intangible, material and non-material, and the seen and unseen aspects of life, the chapter urges a reconsideration of our conventional understanding of usefulness and substance.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.