Daodejing Chapter 56 breakdown: valued by all-under-heaven

Richard Brown
4 min readAug 21, 2023

Chapter 56 of the Daodejing explores how to understand and interact with the world in order to achieve what the text calls a state of primal union (玄同/xuántóng) that aligns with the principles of the Dao.

Here is a breakdown of the three key sections of the chapter and a discussion of its main ideas.

Limitations of Language
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.

The first section of Chapter 56 opens with a common theme in the Daodejing: namely, that words can be more of a barrier than a boon for clear understanding and communication.

People who possess true knowledge not only refrain from bragging about their accomplishments out of modesty. They also recognize that words are inadequate for capturing and conveying deep wisdom, and therefore do not wish to risk leading others down the wrong path by throwing out ambiguous terms that are difficult to grasp.

In contrast, people who talk too much about a topic often do so with the intention that their verbal pyrotechnics will impress their peers and conceal their ignorance. Their overriding aim is to bludgeon others to submit their views rather than reach a deeper understanding of the subject through open and frank discussion.

Laozi does not suggest that you should not speak at all, but he does admonish you to keep the chit-chat to a minimum. “Nature rarely talks,” he declares in Chapter 23 of the Daodejing. By extension, of course, you should follow its example.

In Chapter 43 and Chapter 73, Laozi elaborates further on the theme, emphasizing the importance of providing the right model of behaviour for other people to follow.

Teaching without words,
The benefits of effortless action,
Few in all-under-heaven
Apply them.

The Dao of heaven
Does not contend and yet prevails,
Does not speak and yet responds…

Actions do indeed speak louder than words and have a much deeper and more fundamental impact.

Attaining Primal Union
Block the openings.
Close the gate.
Smooth the sharpness.
Unravel the tangles.
Soften the glare.
Blend with the dust.
This is called primal union.

The second section of Chapter 56 provides a list of metaphorical steps you need to take on the path to primal union. These entail the cultivation of a humble and harmonious approach to how you interact with the world around you.

Balance and Calm
Laozi’s admonitions to “block the openings” and “close the gate” underline the importance of preventing malign influences from disturbing you and preventing your vital energy from seeping out while you nurture your inner balance and calm.

Smoothness and Softness
When he counsels you to “smooth the sharpness” and “soften the glare”, Laozi emphasizes the need to eliminate extremes from your thoughts and focus on seeing the commonalities rather than differences. While a sharp edge can cut you and excessive brightness can blind you, moderation and gentleness in your actions and demeanour can lead to deeper and more meaningful connections with others and the world around you.

Unravel and Blend
Laozi’s advice to “unravel the tangles” and “blend with the dust” underscores the idea of simplifying complexities and blending into the natural order. By untangling complications and integrating yourself with the world, you can align with the flow of the way and interact more effectively with everyone regardless of their social status.

Primal Union
Anyone who attains this,
Is neither loved nor rejected,
Is neither favoured nor disgraced,
Is neither esteemed nor disdained.
But is greatly valued by all-under-heaven.

Attaining the state of primal union is not a cause for celebration. It results in an attitude of calm indifference that means you remain neutral and equanimous, unaffected by favouritism or rejection, and esteem or disdain.

Despite or perhaps because of your detachment from worldly judgments, the chapter concludes paradoxically that you are “greatly valued by all-under-heaven.” Even though you do not seek recognition or approval, your wisdom and balanced approach naturally lead others to appreciate and respect you. Instead of chasing after approval and acclaim, they come to you naturally because you are comfortable with your place in the world.

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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.