Daodejing Chapter 42: the origin of the myriad things

Richard Brown
2 min readJul 8, 2023

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

「道生一,一生二,二生三,三生萬物;萬物負陰而抱陽,沖氣以為和。人之所惡,唯孤寡不穀,而王公以為稱;故物或損之而益,或益之而損;人之所教,我亦教之。強梁者不得其死,吾將以為教父。」

What is the origin of heaven, earth, and all things? This is the question that Laozi explores in the first half of Chapter 42 of the Daodejing.

I use the word “explore” on purpose, because he approaches this question in a symbolic rather than a literal sense and gives no explanation of what he means by terms such as the one, the two, and the three.

The one probably refers to the universe after the Dao unified it from the void and thus set in motion the creation of heaven and earth. Confusingly, it may stand for the Dao itself as well because nothing came before the Dao and the Dao thus created itself.

The two represents the vital forces of 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.

The second part of the chapter clearly does not belong with the first one. Its first four lines reprise a theme from Chapter 39 about kings and lords calling themselves “orphaned, abandoned, and destitute” in order to boost their reputation among the masses. Whether Laozi is praising them for their modesty or criticising them for their hypocrisy is open to question.

Laozi was notably anti-war, which explains the sentiment expressed in the final three lines of the chapter. Although why they are included here is as much a mystery as the origin of heaven, earth, and the myriad things.

Note
I took this image at Longhu (Dragon Tiger) Mountain, a famous Daoist site about ten miles south of Yingtan in Jiangxi Province. A great place to visit!

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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.