Daodejing Chapter 79 breakdown: holding the left tally

Richard Brown
2 min readNov 19, 2023

Chapter 79 of the Daodejing examines how to handle a situation in which one party is indebted to the other. Rather than insisting on repayment of the debt, Laozi recommends that you simply keep a record of it in order to avoid becoming embroiled in a nasty feud that will tear what is left of the relationship apart.

Section 1
When a bitter dispute is settled,
Some bitterness is sure to linger.

In the opening section, Laozi notes that even when a heated argument or disagreement has been resolved, it is likely that a certain level of resentment will remain.

Section 2
How can this be resolved?
The sage holds the left tally,
But never makes a claim on the debtor.
Those who have inner power hold the tally.
Those who lack inner power call in their debts.

In response to his own question of how to fix this problem, Laozi uses the analogy of a contract in which the creditor keeps the left tally, and the debtor retains the right one.

By refraining from asserting their claim on a debt, a person with “inner power” shows the capacity to forgive and let go. Someone who lacks inner power, on the other hand, risks becoming too preoccupied with seeking repayment and retribution to the exclusion of everything else.

Section 3
The Dao of heaven has no favourites.
But it stays consistently on the side of the good.

Although Laozi concludes that heaven has no favorites, he adds that it consistently aligns itself with what is good and just. In the context of conflict resolution, this suggests that even though the universe does not show partiality, it inherently supports actions and attitudes that are morally upright and harmonious.

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Daodejing Chapter 79: a bitter dispute

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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.