Daodejing Chapter 5 breakdown: like a bellows!

Richard Brown
3 min readDec 10, 2023

Chapter 5 of the Daodejing challenges artificial human constructs of kindness and benevolence by highlighting how nature treats everyone and everything with equal indifference. Mirroring this cosmic impartiality, the sage shows no favouritism to anyone, transcending conventional moral judgments and emotional attachments.

By likening the space between heaven and earth to a bellows, the passage highlights the dynamic and inexhaustible nature of the Dao. By staying aligned with the essential, unadorned truths of the Dao, you can avoid getting lost in the superficial or extraneous and maintain your calm, clarity, and vital energy.

Section 1
Heaven and earth are not humane.
They treat the myriad things as straw dogs.
The sage is not humane.
He treats the masses as straw dogs.

The chapter begins with a striking statement about the impartiality of heaven and earth, noting that they are “not humane” and treat all things as “straw dogs” (a term referring to ceremonial objects used in ancient Chinese rituals, which were treated with great reverence during the ceremony only to be discarded afterwards). This metaphor suggests that nature operates on its principles without partiality or emotional attachment, treating all things with equal indifference.

The text extends this theme of impartiality to the sage, who is also described as “not humane” in the sense of not being sentimentally attached or partial. The sage, like nature, treats people without personal bias, indicating a state of being that transcends conventional moral or emotional responses. This perspective is not about being cruel or unkind, but about embodying the natural, unbiased order of the Dao.

The character 仁/ rén also represents the supreme Confucian virtue of humaneness, benevolence, or kindness. Some commentators view the use of this term as a swipe at artificial Confucian values and rituals that caused people to lose their true simple and honest natures and become hypocritical and contentious.

Section 2
The space between heaven and earth
Is just like a bellows!
It is empty,
But inexhaustible.
The more it moves,
The more it yields.

The text goes on to compare the space between heaven and earth as a bellows, emphasizing the idea of emptiness that is dynamic and productive. Just as a bellows is empty yet creates a powerful force when in motion, the Dao, represented by the space between heaven and earth, is empty yet inexhaustible in its capacity to produce and nurture life.

This metaphor highlights the Daoist concept that true power and potential often lie in what appears empty or void. But in the same way that the more the bellows moves the more it yields, the Dao is not a static void but a dynamic, generative force in a universe that is constantly in motion, ever-changing, and endlessly creative.

Section 3
Many words dissolve into nothing.
Better to hold fast to the centre.

The chapter concludes with a warning against unnecessary speech and action followed by a call to embrace the Dao, which is the central principle and source of balance and harmony. It advocates a focus on the fundamental, unchanging essence of reality, as opposed to the transient and often chaotic surface of life.

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Daodejing Chapter 5: straw dogs

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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.