“Remarks on Translation: Let Straw Dogs be Straw Dogs.” Presented at the Third International Research Conference in Asian and Comparative Philosophy, January, 1998
We know that on very many subjects different
people hold different and incompatible opinions;
hence some beliefs must be erroneous.
Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, p. 119.
Remarks on Translations:
Let Straw Dogs be Straw Dogs
When we compare alternative versions of passages of the Dao De Jing, we can only marvel at the wide range of “different and incompatible” translations. That is where I want to start, but after we have marveled a bit, I shall turn to some questions about this strange phenomenon. If we can apply Russell’s point to translations, we can ask what makes some translations erroneous, and how we distinguish between those that are erroneous and those that are not. If Russell’s point applies to translations then when we have contradictory translations of the same sentence at least one of them must be erroneous.
1. Humanity and Straw Dogs. There are many chapters of the Dao De Jing that would serve my purposes, but let us begin with Chapter Five.
天 地 不 仁
Tian (heaven) di (earth) bu (not) ren (humane),
以 萬 物 為 芻 狗
Yi (regard) wan (ten thousand) wu (things) wei (to be) chu (straw) gou (dog).
聖 人 不 仁
Sheng (sage) ren (man) bu (not) ren (humane),
以 百 姓 為 芻 狗
Yi (regard) bai (hundred) xing (names) wei (to be) chu (straw) gou (dog).
These lines appear to have a straightforward translation, even when there remain problems about how to understand ren, and about what it is to regard things and people as “straw dogs.” Henricks’ translation is as straightforward as they get:
Heaven and earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane;
He regards the common people as straw dogs. (Henricks #22)
Ren. If we don’t use the word ‘humane’, or some other standard translation for the Confucian term ren, we run the risk of losing the (apparent) contrast between the Daoist sage and the Confucian one. Like Heaven and Earth, the Daoist sage does not manifest or act from ren. (Legge #7) If part of ren involves observing the rules of propriety (the li), then again neither Nature nor the Daoist sage does that. This simple message is compromised when the passage is presented as saying that heaven and earth (and the sage) are “not benevolent” (Welch #4 and Chang #13), or that they are “ruthless” (Waley #9 and Lau #1), “inhumane” (Mair #12), “unkind” (Blakney #14), or “not kind” (Hansen #19).
The passage simply says that the sage is not ren. Of course what we think the sage is being said to lack is a function of what we think ren involves. But we can’t automatically conclude that someone who lacks a Confucian virtue, even this one, will also refrain from benevolent or kind behavior, or that he will be ruthless or wicked. This is why it is misleading to present the line as saying that the sage is “not Good” (LaFargue #16). If we wish to attack the sage who lacks ren, we will probably assume that lacking ren does lead to serious misbehavior. If we wish to defend that sage, we will either find some way to say he has ren, or we will insist that lacking ren is not necessarily a bad thing.
Straw Dogs. Next there is the question about how to render chu (straw) and gou (dog). One option is to be content with ‘straw dogs’ and then make sure the reader understands what a “straw dog” is and how it is treated. The alternative is to build some of that explanation into the translation, saying, for example, that the sage treats the people ruthlessly.
So what does it mean to regard (or to treat) the people as straw dogs? In the Zhuangzi, it is reported that “before the straw dogs are presented at the sacrifice, they are stored in bamboo boxes and covered over with patterned embroidery,” but after the ceremony “all that remains for them is to be trampled on, head and back, by passers-by, and to be swept up by the grass cutters and burned.” From this passage alone we cannot conclude that regarding (treating) people as straw dogs is all that bad. It depends on your values and on which part of the life of the straw dog you have in mind. At the beginning, and during its useful life, the straw dog is cared for, and then it serves its function on the stage like any other being. Naturally, if we are thinking only of the final act, and if we entertain Confucian ideas of post-mortem propriety, we will think that regarding (treating) people as straw dogs is a very bad thing.
I think that many translators and interpreters of the Dao De Jing do think that treating people as straw dogs is a bad thing. This leads some to criticize Daoism for recommending careless disrespect and other departures from ren. But it leads others to look for some way to protect Daoism from these charges. This may be what LaFargue is up to when he suggests that the passage that says that the sage “treats” the people as straw dogs is merely an exaggerated image introduced to provide a dramatic contrast to the Confucian emphasis on social responsibility. Since he thinks that this saying has “no parallel elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching,” and since “Laoists elsewhere advocate selfless devotion to the good of society,” LaFargue doubts that this passage “is a Laoist saying.” (35) Conclusion: The real Daoist sage does not treat people as straw dogs.
While this might amount to a defense of Daoism, a stronger defense would be to argue that there is nothing wrong with regarding (treating) people as straw dogs. Saying that the sage regards the people as straw dogs may be no more than one way to illustrate the claim that he lacks ren. When we have ren we regard or treat others according to the rules of propriety (the li). When we regard people as straw dogs, we abandon this complex of conventional rules, habits, and requirements. What “Heaven and earth” do is produce, sustain, use, and then recycle the ten thousand things. No corrections are made on the basis of the principles of humanity or propriety. And so with the Daoist sage, who is impartial, unconcerned with ren and li, and who does not protest or feel bad when Nature takes its course. Remember that when his wife died, Zhuangzi was found banging on a tub, singing, and philosophizing about the mystery of change.
We have not finished with translations that manifest the unwillingness of the translator to take seriously the claim that the world and the sage regard (treat) people as straw dogs. Two translations avoid the claim by reconstruing the grammar of the passage. Blakney (#14) turns it into a series of questions.
Is then the world unkind?
And does it treat all things like straw dogs used in magic rites?
The Wise Man too, is he unkind?
And does he treat the folk like straw dogs made to throw away?
Perhaps Blakney can’t bring himself to think that a “wise man” would be “unkind.” A similar (I believe misguided) application of the principle of charity might have been behind another translation, which goes so far as to reverse what seems to be the obvious meaning of the passage:
But for heaven and earth’s humaneness, the ten thousand
things are straw dogs. (Suzuki and Carus #5)
The authors make a point of having recently adopted this alternative in place of the more traditional one, which they once accepted. They made the switch because they were dissatisfied with a translation that suggests that the actions of heaven and earth “can not be measured by the usual standard of human benevolence,” and that “human lives serve their purposes best if they become sacrifices just as strawdogs are offered on the altars of heaven and earth.” This, they say, seems “too modern.”
When Suzuki and Carus consider the treatment of the straw dogs, they focus on the idea that the sacrificial dogs are burned in place of living dogs, and conclude that “the reference to them means treatment without regard or consideration.” They admit that it is possible that Laozi meant this, but prefer to believe that he meant the opposite. “The Chinese text,” they say, “seems to favor the first interpretation, but the first sentence may be conditional and then the latter rendering . . . would be correct.” In the end they make it a question of whether Laozi did or did not believe that heaven and earth and the Dao were endowed with sentiment. Carus (I presume) writes that he came to believe that Laozi was “more of a mystic than a philosopher,” and that “he recognized in the dispensation of the world a paternal and loving providence.” (p. 137)
Mitchell (#11), LaFargue (#16), Blakney, and Suzuki and Carus adopt interpretations and translations that avoid saying that the sage regards (treats) people as straw dogs. This is also the effect of the interpretation by Wangbi, who understood chu gou as “grass and dogs.” One who is humane, he says, “makes and transforms, dispenses favors and acts.” That is, he behaves like a Confucian administrator. He continues: “But when things are made and transformed, they lose their genuineness; when favors are dispensed and actions are taken, not all things may flourish.” The earth did not plan or act to produce the grass for the beasts, “and yet the beasts feed on the grass; it has not produced the dogs for humans and yet humans feed on the dogs.” Here Wangbi is emphasizing the unintentional character of the benefits produced by nature, and by the sage. The contrast is between spontaneity and planning. This is, of course, a good Daoist point, but I know of no support for this way of interpreting chu gou, and none of the translations I have seen follow Wangbi here.
We have seen that even when we might think it would be easy to provide a straightforward translation of some passage, we can still be faced with innumerable “different and incompatible” translations. Stylistic variations we can handle, but a question is not a statement, and an assertion of some claim is not the denial of that claim. Translators have to decide among these possibilities, and sometimes they make the wrong decisions. Readers of different translations face the same liabilities. Confronted with one translation that says that the sage has ren, and another translation that implies that he does not have ren, we are invited, as we are anytime the world provides us with incompatible alternatives, to make a choice. It might be either, but it can’t be both. Indeed, if Wangbi’s unique interpretation of chu gou is right, then isn’t everyone else who goes on about “straw dogs” laughably wrong? It is either “straw dogs” or “straw and dogs” isn’t it? How could it be both?
2. Yes and No or Yes and Yeah. We will return to these questions and to these lines from Chapter Five, but now I want to mention one more place in the Dao De Jing where different and incompatible interpretations cry out for us to choose among them. In Chapter Twenty we are told that if we will eliminate learning we will have no problem, and then we are asked what appear to be two rhetorical questions:
唯 與 阿 相 去 幾 何
Wei (yes/yeah) yu (from) a (no/yes sir) xiang qu (mutually separate) ji he (how much)
善 與 惡 相 去 若 何
Shan (good) zhi yu (from) e (bad) xiang qu (mutually separate) ruo he? (how much)
Here is Chen’s translation of this passage:
Yes [wei] and no [a], how far apart are they?
Good and evil, how far apart are they?
And here is an alternative translation by LaFargue:
‘Yeah’ and ‘Yes sir’– is there a big difference between them?
‘Excellent’ and ‘despicable’–what’s the real difference between them?
A third alternative is found in a translation by Ames and Hall.
How much difference is there really between a polite “yes and an emphatic “no”?
How much difference is there between what is deemed beautiful and ugly?
We must first decide whether to accept Chen’s translation of ‘a’ or the very different rendering of LaFargue.
‘a’ = ‘No’. Suppose we decide that a should be rendered as ‘no’. Then it appears that we are being asked how much difference there really is between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. My assumption, and that of many (but of course not all) translators, is that both this question and the one that follows are rhetorical questions, to which the expected answer is “Not much”. But there are other possibilities, and when you think about it, this one doesn’t make much sense. There certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and between ‘uh huh’ (yes) and ‘huh uh’ (no), which are the terms Chad Hansen uses in his internet translation. The idea that there is no difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ might be attractive to someone looking to give an anti-language mystical interpretation of the Dao De Jing. (This would not be Hansen.) The passage could then be seen as another way of rejecting the law of non-contradiction, or denying that it is possible to make sense with language. Maintaining the parallel, the second line could be seen as suggesting that there is really no difference between good and evil.
‘a’ = Yes. While Chen (and others) translate wei as ‘yes’ and a as ‘no’, LaFargue takes a as a conventionally polite affirmative (“yes sir”), and wei as a less respectful alternative (“yeah”). This is supported by Waley, who says that “wei and a were the formal and informal words for ‘yes’, each appropriate to certain occasions.” Henry Wei also adopts this alternative and renders the second line: “Between an abrupt ‘Yes’ and a gentle ‘Yea’, how much is the difference?” Legge concurs, though he confesses that he “cannot throw any light on the four lines about the ‘yes’ and the ‘yea’.”
One way to come to terms with the ‘yes’ and the ‘yea’ is to adopt the interpretation that says that both questions imply their own answer, and that the answer is “None,” or “Not much.” The first line points out that the difference between a polite answer and a rude one is conventional, and the second makes the parallel point about the difference between good and bad. This is the way LaFargue and Cleary understand the passage, and I am inclined to agree with them.
But this is not the only option for those who treat ‘a’ as a second affirmative. It is possible (but not likely) that both questions are emphatic–there is a great deal of difference between ‘yes’ and ‘yeah’ and a great deal of difference between good and bad. Or, perhaps we need a mixed translation–there is little or no difference between ‘yes’ and ‘yeah’, but much difference between good and bad. We have an example of this option in the translation by Waley:
Between wei and o what after all is the difference?
Can it be compared to the difference between good and bad?
Suzuki and Carus also make this choice when they render the two lines in this way:
The “yes” compared with the “yea,” how little do they differ!
But the good compared with the bad, how much do they differ!
It is possible that we should read one of these lines as emphasizing a small difference and the other a great one, but that may depend on how one understands ji he and ruo he. If we discover that there is a substantial difference between them, if it turns out that one means “how much” and the other means “how little,” I would have to rethink my evaluation of the translations, and my understanding of the message of this saying. Until I learn that, I remain a fan of the conventionalist double affirmative interpretation of the passages. This is compatible with a nonmystical Daoist who is unimpressed by the teachings of Confucius and aware of the conventionality of morality.
3. Dealing with the Differences. Now it is time to confront some of the questions mentioned at the beginning. What makes translations “erroneous” when (and if) they are, and how do we proceed when (and if) we are faced with the option and the invitation to choose among what appear to be “different and incompatible” translations of the same passage?
In translating it is often important to get a good match between the words in the original and the words in the translation. Supplying an English word that means something clearly different from the targeted Chinese term is one way to get things wrong. Anyone who has studied a second language is all too familiar with this mistake. In an early edition of the Gai-Feng and English edition of the Dao De Jing (#8), chu gou was translated as “dummies.” This was a bad match, and it was corrected in later editions.
If the ancients used gou to refer to dogs, then ‘dog’ is the right word to use to translate it. This is because ‘dog’ is the word we use to refer to dogs. Explaining the meaning of a word is explaining how to use that word, it is not doing anything that involves identifying some eternal abstract or private mental item called a meaning. If those who put together the Dao De Jing used chu gou to talk about straw statues of dogs, then when we translate the passage with ‘straw dogs’ we have matched correctly and our translation is on track.
In many cases when we find a variety of English words used to translate a word from another language the differences are stylistic or minor. Sheng ren, for example, has been rendered ‘holy man’, ‘sage’, or ‘wise man’. But when the words chosen differ widely, or significantly, when the range includes both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, as it does for translations of a in Chapter Twenty, we are no longer dealing with style.
In addition to trying to match words and phrases correctly, we want our translations to get the grammar right. We want to translate questions as questions, commands as commands, assertions as assertions, and hypotheticals as hypotheticals. When Blakney makes the statement about straw dogs into a question, and when Suzuki and Carus make the passage conditional, thereby reversing the meaning, they are, as far as I can tell, making grammatical choices without any textual justification. They may have their reasons for not wanting to read the text as saying that nature and the sage regard the people as straw dogs, but it is hard to avoid thinking that their grammatical innovations were motivated by their personal beliefs about how sages “really” regard people.
Our understanding of the lines of the Dao De Jing develops in parallel with our understanding of the dao offered by that work. If we believe the work is, among other things, an anti-Confucian document, we will insist on seeing what is said about ren in that light, and we will want to translate various passages in a way that makes this clear. Our choice as to whether to read wei as ‘no’ or ‘yea’ will be influenced by our opinion about whether the Dao De Jing expresses mysticism or naturalism, and about whether the text is a metaphysical work, a handbook for war and/or daily life, or a work about language. Recent scholars have been moving away from the mystical and metaphysical interpretations for a some years now, and the down-to-earth conventionalist interpretation gives us a sage we can relate to, one who is independent, flexible, and spontaneous, in tune with the world and unencumbered by status and superstition. Suzuki and Carus might think this sage also is “too modern” but many of us see this sage as one we can respect for having come to understand some very important truths about language, life, and morality. It would be easy to respond to Carus that his “mystical” Laozi seems “too Medieval.”
The Principle of Charity tells us to give the authors we read and interpret a break. If we have two equally plausible translations and one of them makes an author look foolish or obviously mistaken, then choose the other. This is a generous and often appropriate attitude. Of course our choices are rarely equivalent and there is no agreement about which ideas are foolish and mistaken. So we really shouldn’t let this principle take precedence over other conditions we want our translations to meet. There are mistaken beliefs and there is bad advice, and when we have to translate the sentences that express them, we want to preserve those elements, not to wash them out in the translation.
While some translations can be clearly and unequivocally wrong, most sentences will have a number of acceptable translations. Differences will depend on the translators’ purpose, beliefs, biases, knowledge, resources, skill, and intended audience. A translation of a passage could be good for one purpose or one audience and not for another–but always within some constraints that have to do with meaning. If a passage from the Dao De Jing is talking about water, then the translation has to make this clear. When we read the words “Have few desires,” we must hope that they are there because the translator realized correctly that the passage being translated was meant to express that particular recommendation.
I have been talking about translations–sentences in our language that purport to be fair replacements for sentences in some other language. But with a language as remote and full of possibilities as Classical Chinese, there may be no truth of the matter about which English sentence is the best translation of a given passage. What we really want is to understand the original, and sometimes this is made easier if we are able to look at two or three alternative, but not inconsistent, translations.
In recent years we in the West have made some progress in reforming our first naive opinions about Daoism. We have separated it from Christianity, from Buddhism, and from Hindu monism. A clarified, naturalized, and demystified Daoism speaks to many of us as perhaps no other Asian way of thought does. It offers a strategy for life that tells us to forget many of the things we have been taught. It teaches the strength of weakness and the joy of harmony. It asks us to transcend sophistical logical games. I think that it is easier to understand and explain many of the lines in the Dao De Jing than it is to understand and explain many Western philosophers, religious thinkers, or proponents of what the bookstores now call “metaphysics.” When we do think we understand the message of a text, we have grounds for making choices about translations of that text. Every sentence has a number of erroneous translations and a (smaller) number of correct ones. Part of what it is to understand a passage is to have an explanation of why some translations of that passage are erroneous.
The Ohio State University
Twenty-two versions of the Dao De Jing (道 得 經 ) Chapter 5
1. The Penguin translation is by D.C. Lau: tian 天 heaven
Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as di 地 earth
Straw dogs; The sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.
bu 不 not
2. Wing-tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (LLA)
ren 仁 humane
Heaven and earth are not humane; they regard all things as straw dogs.
The sage is not humane; he regards all things as straw dogs. yi 以 regard
3. Ellen M, Chen. The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with commentary wan 萬 10,000
Heaven and earth are not humane (jen) wu 物 thing
They treat the ten thousand beings as straw dogs. (c’hu kou)
The sage is not humane (jen) wei 為 to be He treats the hundred families as straw dogs. (c’hu kou)
chu 芻 straw
4. Holmes Welch, in Taoism, the Parting of the Way, cites Creel’s estimation
of the Daoist as a potential monster and says that this evaluation gou 狗 dog
is based on Section 5, which Creel renders:
Heaven and earth are not benevolent; treat the ten thousand creatures ruthlessly. The Sage is not benevolent sheng 聖 sage
He teats the people ruthlessly
ren 人 man Welch mentions other translations
(a) The sage does not own his benevolence. That is, bu 不 not
He doesn’t do it on purpose. Ch’u Ta-kao
(b) The sage is immoral Cheng Lin: ren 仁 humane
5. In one translation the meaning is completely reversed. This is the one made by
D.T. Suzuki and Paul Carus in The Canon of Reason and Virtue yi 以 regard
But for heaven and earth’s humaneness, the ten thousand things are straw dogs. bai 百 100
But for the holy man’s humaneness, the hundred families are straw dogs xing 姓 name wei 為 to be
6. For something different, see Witter Bynner, The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu: chu 芻 straw
gou 狗 dog
Nature, immune to a sacrifice of straw dogs, faces the decay of its fruits. A sound man,
immune to a sacrifice of straw dogs, faces the passing of human generations.
7. James Legge in his two volume The Texts of Taoism:
Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent;
they deal with all things as dogs of grass are dealt with; etc. etc.
8. The fancy Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (with photographs)
Heaven and earth are ruthless, they see the ten thousand things as dummies (later revised)
The wise are ruthless, they see the people as dummies.
9. Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power
Heaven and earth are ruthless. To them the ten thousand things are but as straw dogs.
The sage too is ruthless. To him the people are but as straw dogs.
10. Aleister Crowley:
Heaven and earth proceed without motive, but casually in their order of nature, dealing with all things carelessly, like used talismans. So the sages deal with their people, not exerting benevolence, but allowing the nature of all to move without friction.
11. Stephen Mitchell:
The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil
The Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners.
12. Victor Mair
Heaven and earth are inhumane; they view the myriad creatures as straw dogs.
The sage is inhumane; he views the common people as straw dogs.
13. Chang Chung-yuan, Tao: A New Way of Thinking. Comments on the verses and brings in Heidegger.
Heaven and earth are not benevolent; they treat ten thousand things indifferently
The wise man is not benevolent; he treats men indifferently.
14. Blakney’s translation is called The Way of Life, and he leaves the whole matter open:
Is then the world unkind? And does it treat all things like straw dogs used in magic rites?
The wise man too, is he unkind? And does he treat the folk like straw dogs made to throw away?
15. Addis and Lombardo
Heaven and Earth are not kind; the ten thousand things are straw dogs to them.
The sage is not kind; the people are straw dogs to him.
16. Michael LaFargue The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary.
He changes the order of the verses, but his comments are usually sensible and helpful.
Heaven and Earth are not Good, they treat the ten thousand things like straw dogs.
The Wise Person is not Good, he treats the hundred clans like straw dogs.
17. Cleary (who is very good on Verse One) is similar to Chan.
18. Also interesting is Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way. (Chinese language, Yin-yang, Zen too.)
“Various translations have called it the Way, Reason, Providence, the Logos, and even God, as in Ware, although he is careful to say in his introduction that God = Life and that the word is to be understood in its widest sense. . . . Yet the Tao is most certainly the ultimate reality and energy of the universe, the Ground of being and nonbeing.” (38)
19. Chad Hansen has an interesting translation in progress on the Internet: http://www.hku.hk/philodep/ch/Daoindex.html
Heaven-earth [the cosmos] is not kind. It treats the 10,000 natural kinds as straw dogs.
Sages are not kind. They treat the hundred surname-groups as straw dogs. (Link not now available.)
Heaven and earth are not benevolent.
They treat the myrad creatures as straw dogs. (fn.17 (is the point the same?))
21. Roger Ames and David Hall (2003)
The heavens and the earth are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They take things and treat them all as straw dogs.
22. Henricks in Lao-Tzu; Te-Tao Ching , 1989.
Heaven and earth are not humane; they regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane; he regards the common people as straw dogs.
 We could also include the Chinese term itself after the word chosen to translate it, as a number of translators do. See Chen #3)
 Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia, 1968. pp. 158-59.
 Michael LaFargue, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. ‘Laoist’ is a term used to distinguish the school of thought which shared the ideas expressed in the Dao De Jing. (p. 195.) Victor Mair (#12) puts the information about the treatment of the straw dogs into a footnote, but he does not mention the honored treatment before and during the ceremony, only the actual sacrifice and the indifferent discarding at the end of the ceremony. Victor Mair, Tao Te Ching, New York. Bantam, 1990.
 Watson, pp. 191-192.
 Note that the explication of what it is to treat people as straw dogs is here incorporated into the translation. The dogs are “made to throw away.” This is, of course, misleading, since the dogs are not made to throw away, they are made to serve a function. Alistair Crowley also puts information about how to understand the claim into the translation when, in his most unliteral translation, he says that heaven and earth deal “with all things carelessly, like used talismans.” (Crawley #10–I can’t give the reference here because some warlock borrowed this book and never returned it.)
 D. T. Suzuki and Paul Carus, The Canon of Reason and Virtue. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974, p. 137.
 Ellen M. Chen, The Tao Te Ching. New York, Paragon House, 1989, p. 65.
 On this interpretation the use of chu and gou is an accident‑‑any two natural objects that have a use (gold and fish) would have done as well.
 Chen, p. 102.
 Roger T, Ames and David L. Halll, Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. Ballantine, 2003.
 http://hkusuc.hku.hk/philodep/courses/EWEthics/ttc.htm#5 (possibly not available)
 I said that translations of Chapter Twenty that treat the passage as suggesting that there is little or no difference between yes and no were friendly to mysticism. It is significant that both Wing-tsit Chan and Ellen M. Chen (who adopt this alternative) do see Laozi as a mystic. There are other ways to understand this passage. We could continue to interpret a as ‘no’, but reject the idea that the questions are rhetorical. Perhaps they are both exclamations–emphasizing the great difference between both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and good and evil. This might even be considered a commonsense position because it seems to be what many people believe. But who wants to make Laozi into such an absolutist about ethics? Alternatively, we could maintain our rendering of a as ‘no’, and try a mixed translation. We might read the passage as saying that while there is much difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, there is not much between good and evil. This might be seen to express a kind of fact/value distinction.
 Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power. New York: Grove Press, 1958, p. 168.
 Henry Wei, The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1982, p. 153.
 James Legge, The Texts of Taoism, Vol. I, New York: Dover, 1962, pp. 62-63.
 But even if it is allowed that wei and a are both affirmatives, there are still unsolved problems. There is no consistency about which is the polite one, or about whether the real contrast is between a polite yes and a rude one. Matthews’ Chinese English Dictionary says that wei is a prompt and respectful affirmative, and a is a toadying one. That is not the same distinction as that between a polite answer and a rude one. But it is still a conventional distinction, and I think that is the important point.
 Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power, p. 168. I don’t know what Romanization Waley is using and why he uses ‘o’. I don’t think he has a different character in mind. In the Mawangdui manuscripts, there is a different character in place of a. According to Henricks, the manuscript found at Mawangdui in 1973 “has ho (‘angry rejection’) in place of a (‘no’), giving the present reading (“Agreement and angry rejection, how great is the difference between them?”) (p. 226.)
 Suzuki and Carus, pp. 85-86.
 Here I imply that this choice is unimportant or stylistic. Unfortunately this is not the best of examples. I think there is a serious difference between a wise man and a holy man. I go with ‘sage’ (with an implied ‘Daoist’), but I think that this term connotes a kind of secular wisdom rather than holiness. At least the difference is not as great as that between ‘yes’ and ‘no’.