Daodejing Chapter 42 breakdown: the one

Richard Brown
3 min readJan 19, 2024

Chapter 42 of the Daodejing opens with a description of how the Dao created the universe and everything that comprises it and closes with a call for the end of violence. Curiously, it is the only chapter in the book that features the characters Yin (陰), meaning passive, receptive, and feminine, and its opposite Yang(陽), meaning active, creative, masculine.

Section 1
The Dao gave birth
To the one.
The one gave birth
To the two.
The two gave birth
To the three.
The three gave birth
To the myriad things.
The myriad things
Carry Yin on their backs,
And embrace Yang in their arms,
To harmonise these two vital forces.

The chapter begins with a cosmological sequence describing how the universe, heaven and earth, and the myriad things came about.

The sequence begins with the Dao, the fundamental and unnameable principle that underlies and unifies everything. The Dao then gives birth to the one, presumably the universe, which then divides into the two, comprising the Yin and Yang.

The constant interactions between these two opposing yet complementary female and male elements are integral to the Dao. Blending the two of them together leads to the emergence of a balanced state of harmony, namely the three, from which the myriad things are created.

Section 2
There is nothing people hate more
Than being orphaned,
Abandoned, and destitute.
Yet kings and princes
Call themselves these names.
Less can be more,
More can be less.

The second section of the chapter does not appear to be connected to the first part. It reprises a theme from Chapter 39 about kings and lords calling themselves “orphaned, abandoned, and destitute.”

One way of interpreting this is that the text is praising these men of high station for maintaining their humility and simplicity by describing themselves in such negative terms. However, it is equally possible that the passage is criticizing them for their hypocrisy in pretending to be what they are not. Take your pick!

Whatever its intention, the text goes on to challenge conventional notions of wealth and power and argue that simplicity and modesty can lead to a fuller, more meaningful life with its comment that “less can be more, more can be less.”

Section 3
What others teach,
I also teach.
The violent do not die
A natural death.
This the guiding principle
Of my teaching.

The chapter closes on a different tangent with the author warning against the dangers of violence and asserting that the pursuit of peace is the “guiding principle” of his teaching. These are admirable sentiments indeed, and in keeping with the anti-war sentiment of the Daodejing, but why they are included here is as much a mystery as the origin of the universe.

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Daodejing Chapter 39: attaining the one
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Daodejing Chapter 40: being and non-being
Daodejing Chapter 40 breakdown: the origin of existence
Daodejing Chapter 42: the origin the myriad things

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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.