Verse 3 - Weaken the Ambition, Strengthen the Bones

Verse E03.jpg

Individual suffering, resulting from desire and comparison, as well as societal ills such as theft, both find remedy in verse three of the Dao De Jing.

The Master leads by emptying people's minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve.

Tr: Stephen Mitchell

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of 圣人 as ‘master’ feels a little lofty, and the often-used direct translation of ‘sage’ is a little dated, which is one of the reasons I liked Brian Browne Walker’s translation, where ‘wise person’ points to a trait attainable by all. At a time in Chinese history when Confucianism provided moral “cures for civilization” through strict rules governing social interaction, the Dao De Jing didn’t oppose a top-down doctrine, but rather presented individuals with pointers to help them recognize their own connection with the universe. This individualist approach is one of the reasons the text is so accessible to us today. Its teachings fit with the ideas we have around creating our own reality - the idea of each person’s reality being constructed within the bounds of their consciousness.

When exotic goods are traded and treasured, the compulsion to steal is felt.

Tr: Brian Browne Walker

Seen through the lens of current materialism, its clear that highly-prized goods and comparison with others do cause emotional, spiritual and financial suffering. And the advice given in verse three - to practice detachment - seems sound. Becoming aware of our desires and watching our thoughts, means that we will be better placed to practice non-action and curb the manipulation we endure from dopamine-loop-driven systems.

My response to verse three was to create a series of manipulated digital photographs with particular sections - products, adverts or objects of desire - censored using pixelation. Some of the images feature expensive products such as cars, which are over-priced in China and highly-prized, and often considered as prerequisite items when proposing marriage. But I found it interesting that other pixelated material, such as the toys and nick-knacks on display at a children’s flea market, also trigger in us that response to buy, consume, posses.

I also really enjoyed the action of pixelating the objects, the process of censorship. The resulting images are a collection of very everyday photos, at once colourful, but unsympathetic in the information they reveal. And its interesting to note that the desire we have as a species to consume, is in many ways very similar to the desire we have to know, to want to understand, to need to get all of the information.


It's the compulsive need to answer unanswerable questions that is, in Taoist philosophy, the mind's great dysfunction.

Damien Walter


And so the images i’ve presented here can be used as tools for your own practice of detachment and the ‘conquering of your own cunning.’




是以圣人之治,虚其心,实其腹, 弱其志,强其骨


翻译家斯蒂芬·米切尔(Stephen Mitchell)把此章节的“圣人”翻译为“master”,给现在英语读者一种过于高远的感觉,而另外比较普遍的翻译“sage”则挺老式,因此我蛮喜欢布赖恩·布朗·沃克(Brian Browne Walker)的翻译方式,他把“圣人”翻译成“wise person”(智者),指出所了有人可以习得的一个特质。在孔子思想派推出严格的社会法规时,《道德经》则没采用自上而下的层级规定,而给了大家比较客观的启示,让读者意识到个人跟宇宙的奥妙关系。




通过现代唯物主义可以很明显的看到,高价物品和跟其他人做攀比确实导致感性、灵性和财务的苦难。第三章的建议——实行“无欲”,听起来很有道理。我们越发觉自己的欲望、观察我们的思维,我们越能够实行无为,且更好地约束现代的多巴胺环从动系统(dopamine-loop-driven systems)。





达米安·沃尔特(Damien Walter)


Verse 2 – Recognise Beauty and Ugliness is Born

Verse E02.jpg

When the world speaks of beauty as being beautiful, ugliness is at once defined.

(Walter Gorn Old)

Here we learn that everything is relative – that there are no absolutes. It’s only in describing something as easy that the idea of difficult is created. And we’re told that by recognising this fact, and moving away from our subjective viewpoints, we’re able to employ ‘Non-action’ - the Daoist concept of ‘action without action’ or ‘effortless doing’.

Non-action (wu-wei 无为 in Chinese) is often erroneously understood as passivity. However, its better understood as taking just the right action at just the right time. Stephen Mitchell writes:

A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can't tell the dancer from the dance.

Through non-action, we allow things run their course, trusting in the natural processes that govern all things; and thereby moving closer to serenity and ultimately yielding the benefits our striving minds would have had us take miscalculated action to try and achieve.

I was inspired to create this piece in response to verse two when I came across an abandoned painting that had ended up in my apartment building’s waste area. It reminded me immediately of a different translation of the opening lines, which reads:

When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.

(John C. H. Wu)

In this reading of the ancient characters, a universal aesthetic standard is condemned, and beauty can be defined not by a common ugliness, but by a myriad of other individual definitions of beauty.

I decided to take action by hanging the painting on the wall of the dump where it was found. In doing so I like to think I’ve subtly re-evaluated its and the dump’s beauty, in some way.

tip painting07web.jpg

第二章 - 斯恶已


有时候,人们把“无为”误解为一个过分被动、懦弱、不能采取任何行为的概念。但它更加是指随时能够采取最合适的行为来面对事情的一种意识的状态。翻译家史蒂芬·米切尔(Stephen Mitchell)形容“无为”如下:




 When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.


译:John C. H. Wu



Verse 1 - The Door to All Essence

第一章 - 众妙之门 中文在下面

Verse E01.jpg

The first two verses of the Dao De Jing have been described as an introduction to the text as a whole, and there are a lot of ideas presented in this first verse.

Immediately, a key concept in Daoist thought is put forth – the disconnect between the universe itself and the words we use to describe it.

The Tao that can be stated is not the Eternal Tao. The name that can be named
is not the Eternal Name.

(Henry Wei)

Dao is described as the mother of all things, an eternal force that existed before the creation of the universe.

Another common theme is also put forth - the necessity to rid oneself of desire if one is to observe the wonders of the universe.

But I took the starting point for this first work from the last line. I loved the imagery of ‘[a] door to all essence’ (John C.H. Wu); ‘[a] gate of all mystery’ (Gong, Tienzen); ‘[a] gateway to all understanding’ (Kiyoashi). 

It alludes to the grandness and incomprehensibility of the forces that created the universe. And I thought it would be interesting to play with our human desire to open that door, and another lesson in the first verse which states: ‘rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets’ (D. C. Lau).

And so for this first work I created a video intervention where animations of the universe are partly visible through a projected half-opened door. Deep booming voices can be heard reading the first full verse in Chinese and English over a humming, other-worldly soundtrack.

Video 视频

Daodejing Verse 1 Chinese.jpg

第一章 - 众妙之门









Welcome to Works on the Way

Works on the Way is a new project and blog that will see me produce creative responses to individual verses of the ancient book of Chinese mysticism and one of the primary texts on Daoist thought, the Dao De Jing.

What is the Dao De Jing?

One of the most profound works that has issued from the mind of man.

Paul K. T. Sih.

The Dao De Jing is an ancient Chinese text commonly split into 81 short verses (also referred to as chapters or poems), in which wisdom on the nature of our world is presented. Themes explored throughout the text include virtue; non-action (wu wei); moderation; leadership and self-awareness.

The work is usually attributed to the Daoist thinker Laozi, who was probably a contemporary of Confucius; however, evidence as to Laozi’s existence is scarce, and the Dao De Jing may have in fact been authored by numerous hermits, mystics and dissidents in ancient China. Being written in classical Chinese, the original text is void of punctuation, it includes archaic characters, and was written in a time when other philosophical texts were widely read, and so may contain references to ancient cultural memes that are lost on the modern reader.

These elements, added to the fact that the authors employed a number of poetic devices, such as double meanings and puns; seem to encourage contradictory interpretations. Indeed, the Dao De Jing has been translated into Western languages over 250 times, each time differently and each translation falling short of the original. (You can read 76 versions of the first verse here.)

In spite, or perhaps because, of these characteristics, the Dao De Jing has been enjoyed by readers for thousands of years and has been called “ancient China’s great contribution to the literature of philosophy, religion, and mysticism”.

Why are you making this blog?

I have wanted to make work inspired by the Dao De Jing since I discovered the book whilst living in Chengdu, Sichuan, China in 2013 and found its content fascinating. It’s only now, having the time to devote to my personal art practice, that I’m able to approach the project with the time and resources it requires.

In presenting the project through the format of the blog, I hope to achieve a number of things. First and foremost, I hope that taking the time to research the Dao De Jing verse-by-verse will help me gain a deeper understanding of it and its ideas. Furthermore, I want to use the structure and rhythm of this project to test ideas as they come and develop my creative process, as well as my skills in different media. Additionally, in writing the blog in both English and Chinese I’ll be able to develop my Chinese vocabulary and writing style. And finally I hope that by making my work public through this blog, as well as presenting work in physical locations where possible, I’ll be able to share my creative practice with a wider audience in China and internationally.

My starting point for each work is going to be the original verse in Chinese. As these are written in classical Chinese, I’ll also be relying on modern Chinese interpretations to understand the text and gain insight. Once I feel I have a good grasp of the ideas in the verse, I’ll be creating an artistic response or ‘work’. I’ll then look to find an English translation that I feel does the original best justice, or one which best translates the ideas that I have taken as my inspiration for the work. Throughout the blog, translations from the text will be followed by the translator’s name in brackets.

Each post will include my response in the form of a work; a simplified Chinese version of the verse; an English translation; and a written explanation of the work and my thinking in English and Chinese.

Notes on the Title

As a Mandarin speaker, I’ve decided to use the pinyin version of the Chinese title of the book throughout this blog - Dao De Jing. The book’s title is also commonly translated as Tao Teh Ching/Tao Te Ching in the Wade-Giles Romanization of the language, and the title in simplified Chinese Characters is 道德经, which translate individually as:

道 Dao*/Tao**, path, road; method, way

德 ethics, morality, virtue

经 classic works

*The authors of the Dao De Jing believed that they had found that that had existed before heaven and earth, an eternal force that governs all in nature and beyond. In in order to write about this thing they had to choose a character to represent it. They decided on the character 道, which at the time was also used by Confucius and other thinkers to mean ‘the way [to do something]’. But Daoism’s Dao is more like ‘the eternal way’.

**The terms Dao and Tao seem to be used interchangeably and point to the same thing. I will be using Dao throughout this blog, however I will retain uses of Tao when presenting quotes or translations that have used it.

It’s from the translation of 道 as ‘the way’ that the title for this blog is derived.

I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the blog. Feel free to leave comments and please share the blog with your friends if you think they’ll find it of interest.

欢迎参观《道的经》(Works on the Way)

Works on the Way是一个新的艺术项目。在此博客上,我会对《道德经》的篇章分别做出艺术感应。



Paul K. T. Sih.

《道德经》是古代中国的哲学经典之作,即道教思想的主要道藏之一。在现代,它被后人分成八十一篇章。《道德经》的主题包括‘道’、美德、无为、修身、领导、节制等。虽然短,作者Brian Browne Walker认为《道德经》具有“对每个生活问题的答案、每个困境的解决办法、每种伤口的药膏。”










作为一个汉语学习者,我决定在此博客中,使用《道德经》的汉语拼音写法Dao De Jing。该书的名称用威妥玛式拼音法为Tao Teh Ching或Tao Te Ching。本项目的名称是Works on the Way,是可以翻译成“关于道的作品”。