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October 23, 2008


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Hola amiga,

One should read an old text as though skating on thin ice.

While you were cooking up your lovely post over there I was scratching out my terra-cotta screed over here, hum.

I think you have made room for yi 亦 by spiriting away line 6 entirely!

I think for grammar’s sake your ‘each’ should be ‘the’ in the penultimate line, but I appreciate the gesture!

One person who never said “I want to be alone” is the Great Gialbo. His friend Dan is an occasional contributor here, a young scholar of Chinese phil, a rising star in the field. (Big barley in the sky?)

You’re right, the cooking metaphor doesn’t absolutely require that the fish stand for anything. But I want to insist that the fact that it’s a metaphor doesn’t rule that out either. Anyway the interpretive glosses I threw into the early lines of #54 are plenty fishy.

I think if we say careless drivers risk hurting people we aren’t saying they aren’t people. I think ren in the text suggests people in general, but I don’t see that it should be read strictly as the collective “the people.” (I did use “the people” rather than “people” in some lines somewhere above, but I didn’t mean it.)

“I must insist that we remove all the Western translators (unless you find someone more contemporary)” –You don’t think we should even consider their ideas? As for authority, my impression is that scholarship on each side of the water has its unique merits. (Ivanhoe published his translation in 2002, Ames&Hall theirs in 2003.)

Haunt (其鬼不神) is a problem. Japanese reads 神ならず

And Ideas??

Hi! By "here" above I meant "there" and vice versa.

I can't read Japanese, so I'm not sure I understand your question about 'haunt'; and I don't know how classical Chinese uses 'shen' 神 in this sort of context. The idea would seem to be that the "gui" comes to life somehow -- but a gui is already some kind of ghost, right? and a shen isn't an embodied ghost, so the difference would seem to be in degree of liveliness or presence, or something like active haunting ??

I mean, if we're talking about ancestral spirits.

I've never seen the Japanese and there were very few google hits so I will post to my translator's association and report back to you! Thanks again for a very, very enjoyable discussion!!

Hi! I've come from Peony's "translator's association" at her request :)

I tried my hand at translating the above too, and this is what I came up with:


Governing a large kingdom is like cooking a small fish. When one approaches the world with the Tao, the malicious spirits of the world do not work their malice. It is not that they do not do so, but their effects will not harm people. And when their effects do not harm people, the Sage will not harm the people (by having to punish them as the State).

The State and its people do not harm each other. Hence, they both return to a state of Virtue.


鬼(き, gui3) are the spirits of the departed who remain in the mortal realm instead of moving on towards reincarnation or another further stage of existence, usually because of unfinished business during their mortal lives. The belief, as I understand it, is that they quickly lose their grasp on the mortal world (their humanity) such that if they do not settle their affairs within a certain period from their deaths, they forget everything about their mortal lives, including the nature of their unfinished business (which is the very reason for their existence in this state) and any morality, affinities and memories they once had, and even the way to reincarnate. All they retain is the... emotion/drive that made them stay on in the first place. If this is very strong anger or a strong sense of injustice, these 鬼 are capable of manifesting direct physical phenomena (these are the ones called 怨霊). But those who are not as strong can only assert themselves by possessing humans when their will is weak (such as when potential offenders face temptation).

In American or English television, we often see scenes in which a character's eyes go green with envy/lust/greed/etc. In bad Chinese drama, the character's eyes literally turn green (or blue or yellow) as a lighting effect to indicate that supernatural forces are swaying him or her. This is often accompanied by claims of not being oneself after the character is caught for the wrong.

All this is not the result of academic study, but rather from personal observation growing up within Chinese culture, so I could have remembered wrongly or just be wrong. The bad Chinese drama, of course, is from childhood memories.

Peony then asked, "Does that mean you're sticking with your "won't do malice" for 神ならず ??", to which I replied:

Well, strictly speaking, "malicious spirits" is not a completely accurate rendering because many of the 鬼 I mention above are not malicious per se (being amoral), and sometimes their "unfinished business" is simply a very strong attachment to a person or place. I also considered "do mischief", but somehow that does not really carry the right tone. In the end, I decided that since the original passage was dealing with governance and more concerned with evil plots and machinations and their worldly effects, it was fine to represent 鬼 as malicious/malevolent spirits (and by extension, their "deeds", しわざ(=神)as "doing malice").

Incidentally, when Googling in Chinese for references, I also came across 鬼 being interpreted as "evil-doers(悪人)and their plans to do evil (by metaphor)" and "ghosts and demons(鬼怪=鬼と妖怪)".

Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" is my recommendation for finding out more about 鬼 (they are called "ghosts" in her book).

With regard to cooking small fish, I read an interpretation that goes like this: Cooking a small fish requires much more care and attention with regard to heat control as compared to cooking a large fish. As long as there is equal heat distribution, the heat takes a longer time to spread across the entire body of a large fish, whereas changes in a small fish's texture/consistency/flavour/etc occur much more quickly, and so it is much harder to cook a small fish well. In a similar vein, the same type and amount of care and attention (and quick reaction time) is also needed in governing a large kingdom.

Pure speculation about the 神, but another source glosses this as "the acts/deeds of the 鬼; not used as a noun here" -- this informed my attempt at translation. I understood it to mean "what ghosts do", or "what malicious spirits do" in this context. Perhaps this is similar to the usage of "spirited" or "spirit away" in English (and perhaps it is echoes of this we see in 神隠し). Personally, I don't like 神ならず for 不神, although it seems to be the accepted canon in Japanese.

Hi Derek,

Thanks so much for your comment, and I am curious about why you don't like 神ならず I would love to hear more...

And Bill send me this from the other Derek Lim's book! I personally think it has huge problems-- first and foremost "its demons" (ie "the demons of the world"); second and secondmost: "its gods do no harm..."

Like you though, he saw the heat being the main issue at work in cooking small fish (while I saw flipping and too much prodding!)

The inner demons too-- am I the only one who sees this as being a big problem? (or is that just my inner demons acting up?)

Derek Lin’s Chapter 60

Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish.
Using the Tao to manage the world
Its demons have no power
Not only do its demons have no power
Its gods do not harm people

Not only do its gods not harm people
The sages also do not harm people
They both do no harm to one another
So virtue merges and returns


If you use too much heat, you will overcook the fish; if you keep turning the fish over and over, it will fall apart. Similarly, if a ruler constantly meddles in the affairs of the people with excessive rules and regulations, the country becomes chaotic and everyone suffers.
Similarly, when we manage our lives we also need to be careful not to second-guess ourselves too much. People who frequently change their minds (turn their decisions over) tend to fail in life.

[to line 3] The demons of negativity still exist, but they cannot exert their harmful influence. On a personal level, this means that when the Tao is present in your heart, your inner demons have no power over you.

[to line 5] This means the gods keep to their proper places and do not disrupt people’s lives out of misguided benevolence. When we apply this concept to everyday cultivation, it means the wisdom of the Tao prevents us from taking foolish actions out of good intentions—actions that, although well-meaning, still end up making things more complicated and more difficult.

“Harming” in this context means meddling in people’s lives. When we act in congruence with the Tao, we are able to relax, let things be, and simply enjoy the process.

“Returning in this context means going back to the source; the Tao.

Susan, another translator in the association--sends this link --to the passage translated into several european languages... anyone who can read them might glean some interesting variations?

The "other" Derek sends me this email on ghosts because I mentioned the ghosts in Genji. And no :) I don't give the Japanese scholar more weight because he's a scholar, but probably because like him I too have been informed by Genji so it just makes more intuitive sense to me.

The thing is, it's "these" 鬼 not just 鬼 in general but 其鬼... That makes a difference. But what difference exactly it's hard to say.... However, in Genji or in aeschylus the "furies" are particular beings; in that opposed to Gods, the furies and ghosts are more "clan" or family or tribe based? Their are associated to particular people or families, I think.

This is at the base of my own interetation that the ghosts are the ghosts of the people who are being governed by the Sage...

What do you think?

Derek's mail:

I also find the similarities between Chinese ghosts (gui) and those in Tale of Genji fascinating as well. My Japanese literature training wants to point this out as part of China's influence on the Japanese psyche before they started developing their own identity and from there, or perhaps because of, their own flavour of literature. But I have no evidence for this theory. It is my impression, though, that the Chinese ghosts are more plebeian and petty.

Marc Adler has responded to the list. It seems like someone at Tokuma decided that 神ならず means the ghosts will simply stop doing miraculous things, and therefore come to be forgotten and eventually fade out of existence as a result of being forgotten. And that 鬼 refer to all spirits of dead people, not just malicious ones. And you should probably give more weight to what the Japanese translator says, *grin* because he's a scholar of Chinese philosophy and I'm not. My ghosts are more like Kingston's ghosts, my translation informed more by my own personal experiences than any academic study. While this makes for good literature, it probably makes for bad philosophy.

Hi Derek,

When you translate 非其神不傷人 as "And when their effects do not harm people," are you hypothesizing that the fei 非 doesn't belong in the text?

From miscellaneous web sites of mixed authority:

The Manes are the spirits of the dead ancestors. When the deceased receives the due honours and rites, he is allowed to ascend from the Underworld to protect his family. This is in contrast with the Lemures or Larvae, evil ghosts which are the souls of the dead who the Dii Inferi refused to receive in the Underworld.

mānēs, in Roman thought, the spirits of the dead, named euphemistically the ‘kindly ones’ (from the old Latin adjective mānus, ‘good’). From a sense of their collective divinity they were worshipped as the di manes (‘the divine dead’) at the festivals of the Feralia, Parentalia, and Lemuria. By extension the name manes was applied by the poets first to the realm of the dead, the Underworld, and secondly to the gods of the Underworld (di inferi), Dis, Orcus, Hecatē, and Persephonē. Later the di manes were individualized and identified with the di parentes, the dead of the family. The individual tomb led to the conception of each dead person having an individual spirit, and manes, although a plural noun, came to be used of a single spirit. Graves were originally dedicated to the dead collectively and were inscribed dis manibus sacrum (‘sacred to the divine dead’); under the empire it became customary to add the name of the dead person, as if the meaning was ‘sacred to the divine spirt of so-and-so’.

The Manes were offered blood sacrifices. The gladiatorial games, originally held at funerals, may have been instituted in the honor of the Manes.


This is surprisingly similar to Japanese thought. The spirits of the deceased could be riled and come back and cause problems ("haunt") as well.... still, I'm not crazy about the word haunt.

That last paragraph was written by Lady Rokujo, not by me!

Didn't you read Derek's post about bad Chinese dramas?? Lady Rokujo is very adept at stuff like that!

Hi everybody :)

I don't like 神ならず because there is a mismatch in part of speech between the Chinese and the Japanese. 不 is usually used to negate 用言, parts of speech that declense, whereas 非 is used for 体言, parts of speech which do not. Hence, 不神 sounds to me like it should be 神ぜず、神じず instead of 神ならず。In fact, this blogger--


--clearly states that

[备注] 神-鬼怪的作用,这里神不作名词用。

神ならず/神にあらず implies 神ではありません(なり in Classical Japanese is often used as a one-for-one automatic replacement for Classical Chinese's 也). If なり has the ability of contemporary Japanese's する to directly append itself to a noun and make it a verb in Classical Japanese, then our problem would be solved. But a quick look in my 古語辞典 indicates otherwise. I guess it's a minor point general meaning-wise, but it bugs me.

其 is more "that" than "this"... my (modern) Chinese dictionary gives it as "那個、那様: 査無〜事、不厭〜煩". (Mental note: buy a proper Classical Chinese dictionary, instead of relying on "archaic" glosses.) Hence, "those ghosts" instead of "these ghosts". But saying "When one approaches the world with the Tao, those ghosts do not work their malice" makes no sense. ("Those ghosts? Which ghosts???") Going by the flow of the sentence, I decided that 其 was a 代詞 for 天下 (having the 其 refer to something that came *after* it would be a rhetorical, 反語的 kind of construction, which I didn't think was the case), therefore "ghosts of the world". I'm not sure if this makes it specific enough for your liking, Peony, or at all, actually.

Hi Bill :) I was more concerned with the readability and flow of the entire passage as a whole than faithful representation of each word and phrase, so that might have given the impression that I left out the 非. This is certainly not the case. My reading of this phrase was "it is not(非)that those acts-of-ghosts(其神)do not harm people(不傷人)". But this does not flow, meaning-wise, to the next phrase, 聖人亦不傷人. I'm not sure about the 聖人 -- my guess is he is a rhetorical vehicle through which Lao Zi espouses his views. Looking at the flow of the entire passage,


it seems that the rhetoric here is going: "When blah, A... well, not exactly A, but rather B (=an elaboration of what is meant by A)... in fact, not exactly B either, but rather C...". This might explain the 〜ばかりか、〜 construction used by the Tokuma translation which Marc Adler posted on our list. This all implies that 聖人亦不傷人 is an elaboration of what is meant earlier by 其神不傷人, with the 亦 for emphasis and indication that this is the final phrase in the chain. What this means *exactly*, I can't say without more context (and reading up), but as this was a chapter about good governance and with the meaning of the last two phrases (the conclusion to his exposition) being what it is , I reached the conclusion I did (as reflected in my translation attempt). I mean, Peony's post did say "for fun", so I gave myself 20 minutes, did it "for fun", and moved on :-p

On a side note, I do hope Marc gets round to posting that chapter like he said he would.

Also, I was asked to post this here, so here it is, edited for clarity:

相 by itself can mean both "mutually" as well as "for one to do/perform/act on another". The following site (although in Chinese) agrees with [Peony] -- it interprets 兩 as "both learned men who practise the Tao and ghosts" and 相傷 as "not harming people/the people":


Derek, as soon as this stops being fun, by all means drop it! 

I think I understand your reply to me.

As a philosopher, my interest is primarily in understanding the original passage, not in producing a translation for anglophone consumers. But one does both, of course. I want to see if I understand your interpretation of the passage, so I’ll present your interpretation in English more awkward than yours, simplifying some of your phrasing to avoid distraction from the central thing I’m worried about, which is the structure of the argument from 3 thru 8:

1 Governing a large kingdom is like cooking a small fish.
2 Approach the empire with the Way,
3 And bad ghosts will not have power.
4 What I mean is not really “bad ghosts will not have power,” but rather
5 Their power will not harm people.
6 What I mean is not really “their power will not harm people,” but rather
7 Sages (yes, that’s what I mean!) will not harm people (by having to punish them as the State).
8 The State and its people do not harm each other.
9 Hence, they both return to a state of Virtue.

What’s interesting to me here, and what I haven’t seen in any other interpretation, is that on this reading line 6 does not in any way suggest that the power of the ghosts harms people or might harm people, nor does it say “if they don’t not harm people”. Rather it simply withdraws all comment on whether they harm people.

This reading raises two questions:

A. Why are lines 3-6 in the chapter at all?
B. Why does line 8 think the people aren’t harming the state?

The pair of questions suggests the following answer to both:

The ghosts stand for the people. But since what the people do is just a reflection of what the sage does, they don’t fully count as agents. So we can mention them or leave them out, just as in the following lines written by someone in another discussion of this chapter: “if I am or have been slow to respond, it’s the grading that has harmed me; not that the grading has harmed me but the time spent has harmed me; not that the time spent has harmed me but my own procrastination in the past week has harmed me…”

Is that how you see the passage?

Peony, regarding the basic point of the chapter, is there a significant difference between the reading I (and maybe Derek) have just sketched and the bogeyman reading?


I don't care at all above about whether to render 神 as "power" or "actions" or "effects" or "haunting". I forget why I chose "power".

Here's one for the anglophone consumers:

Governing a large kingdom is like cooking a small live fish.
Follow the Way in dealing with the world, and its ghosts will not become demons.
Or rather, the demons won’t hurt people.
Or rather, the sage herself doesn’t hurt people.
Both sides refrain from hurting.
Hence relations return to Virtue.

First, my dear Epicurus, the bogeyman reading was my favorite reading so far (I just didn't like the word bogeyman). Also, the anglophile readership is very important-- as we want to present an accurate as possible rendition of the passage in as elegant as possible manner to reflect that aspect of the text. Think of Su Shi's cold food festival. The style and feeling of his calligraphy reflects the content. This is essential to the task-- for I would suggest that within the elegance of the prose, therein also lies the philosophy (as another aspect of the expression of the ideas)

Problems: the ghosts are not bad. (Derek will probably disagree-- too many bad Chinese dramas and all!)

They are spirits that can be riled to fury.

Derek will disagree and say that spirits do not concern themselves with the human world in this way. Why then will a sage's virtuous leadership then have any affect on them if they are not concerned with our world??

Line 8 is incorrect I think as the people do not have the ability to harm the state in the passage. It's the spirts not harming the people in tandem with the sage not harming the people that leads to "an increased state of virtue"

Concerning the Anglophile rendition-- because you have taken away my powers of the death penalty, I say it should be boiled in a bronze ding for soup!

Or perhaps steeped into submission?

Tonite was fish again. Sashimi.

You tease, you like Manyul's reading better.

You raise a good point about 8. I've tried to answer it some, over by the Great Gialbo.

Sashimi. Damn your eyes.

To Whom It May Concern,

I apologize for my intemperate reaction to your dinner.
I agree that it’s also important to put the thing into nice English. Absolutely!
Only I’m worried that I don’t understand the original yet.
It might be interesting to try to translate the chapter (or this or that understanding of the chapter) into a short story.
Or an episode of Twilight Zone.

OK, I do like Manyul's reading better-- but I prefer mine above all!!! Derek is the only one who is complaining about my interpretation by the way. I am going to copy the reason why he doesn't like my interpretation in tomorrow's post about ghosts so stay tuned!! What about Red Pine?

Look what I found:

Peony has asked my to cross-post this here:

Regarding the difference between 鬼 and 神:

This is not an easy question to answer, especially with regards to Shen 神,and more especially since guishen 鬼神 was a common compound. Shen can refer to Nature Spirits, as in “the spirits of mountains and rivers” (山川之神) which were regularly sacrificed to. These spirits were never called Gui that I know of. And contrary to what I wrote earlier, many human-animal hybrids were called Shen. Around the mid-Warring States period Shen also came to be understood as something inside each person (Zhuangzi 12: 形體保神), but distinct from one’s two-part souls, Hun 魂 and Po 魄. As Harold Roth says, Shen can represent “a profound level of consciousness.” Shen can refer to an indescribable and mysterious potency of efficacy, as in Zhuangzi 13’s: “Nothing is more Shen than Tian-Heaven/Nature” (莫神於天). Anything considered covert and very effective was called Shen. Natural phenomena appeared to ancient peoples to be directed by unseen powers – Shen – and so relationships were attempted with these natural forces and phenomena. Sacrificing to them and asking for guidance was a central and ancient practice and ritual. (Why? So they could have more control and power over their lives = personal welfare.) Early Daoists discovered that we had, or could have, this efficacious power within us. Moreover, they discovered that it was during periods of psychological calmness that we experience this covert efficacy. It seemed to require an emptiness of mind and an un-coloured awareness. Blah Blah Blah . . .
Gui are human ghosts, hungry or malevolent ghosts, demonic spirits. I'm afraid I do not know much details about them ;)

Peony, thanks for the link to the huge pile of translations and the link to Dreyfus’ lectures.

Derek isn’t the only one who has complained about your interpretation! (See first comment on this string)

You, Red Pine, and Derek all seem to suppress line 6 in some sense (“It’s not that the haunting/powers don’t harm people”). For a translation I think it can be OK to do that sort of thing if we’re confident about the line of thought in and behind the work – in this case the line of thought animating the discussion of gui and shen. Not just what they are literally, but what the point is of talking about them, especially if (as might be the case) the text retracts pretty much everything it says about them!

OK, I need to think about that, what do Scott do with that line? I will be back after I re-check your's, Scott's and Manyul's attempts.

Scott handles 6 differently for the Wang Bi text and the Mawangdui text. I think it's just that he is attracted by both approaches, not that he is responding to a difference in the texts.

W6 It’s not that their potency cannot harm humans,
M6 It’s not (only) that their potency will not harm humans,

Both have the effect of making 6 not retract 5 in any sense, and I think that has to be wrong.

Here’s one of mine, slightly newer than my similar Gialbo post.

1 Governing a large kingdom is like cooking a small live fish.
2 When one manages the world by this Way,
3 Ghosts do not rise up.

4 It is not that they do not rise up;
5 It is that they do not harm people.

6 It is not that ghosts do not harm people;
7 It is really that a sage does not harm people.

8 As these two do not partner in harming,
9 Their relations grow in moral strength.

Hi again :)

It is said that only when one can express an idea in one's own words does one truly begin to understand what is meant by that idea. Let me try again (incorporating what I have learnt in the meantime).

From limited personal exposure, but mostly from accounts of people more well read in Chinese than myself, it seems that a commonly used method of argument in Chinese is to start off with the world view/opinion that the listener holds. The argument then goes on to point out fallacies or discrepancies in that world view, one by one and in a certain order (the order is important), such that the world view that the argument wants the listener to arrive at is attainable in a *very guided logical progression*. In these cases, the intermediate steps should not be examined in terms of the big picture, as they are tools of convenience first before they are pronouncements of universal truth.

Applying this to our conversation, you seem to think that what I meant was:

"A applies f(x) to p (the people)"

Cancel above

"actually, it's B that performs f(p), sorry"

Cancel above

"Erm, sorry, it's C that performs f(p)"

--but what I actually meant is that the whole equation is being rewritten in a very fundamental way with each step.

Which is all a very long and academic-sounding way of saying that I have no idea of what is being said *exactly* but this *might* be how it is being said.

I'm afraid I can't engage the text and the meaning behind it on any deeper level than this -- my Classical Chinese, or Chinese philosophy, for that matter, fails me. This is all very abstract, but I hope it helps somewhat.

I can't answer your question on what Line 6 attempts to do. I haven't even reached a conclusion on what the original text intends by 鬼 -- whether it is literally ghosts, a metaphor for the bad and evil that goes on in the world, or something else entirely.

To answer your questions directly:
A. To me, this question sounds like "Why are there 14 lines in a sonnet?" or "Why are 和歌 5-7-5-7-7?". I don't question this. They just are. (And sometimes they are not.) It sounds like you are more interested in the meaning of this particular passage rather than the history of the evolution of Chinese rhetoric, though, so I have attempted to share what I do know above.
B. I'm not sure it does. A Chinese blog I linked to above thinks line 8 means "both the ghosts and the Sage will not apply harm to the people", but it doesn't say why. I'm suspending judgment until presented with more conclusive evidence.

Actually, I'm very interested in Marc's Tokuma translation. It seems to suggest that it is not the elimination of impetuses to do wrongs (supernatural, metaphorical or otherwise) that will lead to a virtuous state, but the elimination of Superstition. I wonder if he'll ever post it...

Lady Rokujo:
"Virtue" (as what it means to the people), then, sounds like a very passive thing. If I am not a ruler or dead, then there is nothing I need to do to attain 徳。 Or, to look at it from the other side, there is *nothing* I *can* do to attain 徳 (except to incite a rebellion and instate myself as the next emperor, or die *and not haunt people*). In fact, being passive is not the answer either, since what ghosts or my ruler does affects my state of 徳。 The next question to ask, then, is this: A samurai's Honour, "face" in Chinese society, etc -- these qualities all serve a particular function in their respective societies. What function would this particular brand of 徳 serve in Lao Zi's contemporary society? And is this portrayal of 徳 consistent with how 徳 is portrayed in the rest of the 徳経 (of which I have no idea, actually... but, just asking)?

And I think the people do have the ability to harm the state. They could riot. They could rise up against local authorities. They could be corrupt local magistrates, who in turn bribe and tempt central officials of flexible moral fibre. They could refuse to pay their taxes (or do the antique equivalent of under-declaring). They could simply *not cooperate* and frustrate a ruler's plans for his kingdom -- and if we remember the metaphor of cooking small fish, if the kingdom is a large one, the balance between being laissez faire and intervention is accordingly fragile and sensitive.

Something I started thinking about recently is the rendition of 傷 as 'harm'. 傷害 is a common phrase in modern Chinese which means 'harm', but the 害, more than the 傷, is 'harm', I think. 傷 is more... 'injurious', maybe. Somewhere to start looking up if anyone is interested x)

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