Laozi’s Classic of Virtue and the Dao for the 21st Century

A Psychology Study

by David Y. F. Ho (Author)
Monographs XX, 210 Pages


A number of features mark this book apart from others. There is simply no book currently available on Daoism (Taoism) written primarily from a psychological perspective, covering topics on Laozi’s sociopolitical and psychological thoughts and their points of contact with Western psychology, particularly that of Carl Jung.
The book comprises an in-depth introduction and a considered translation of Laozi’s classic on virtue and the Dao (Way). The introduction covers Daoism as the counterculture in China and beyond; the originality and distinctiveness of Laozi’s thoughts; the classic’s influence and contemporary relevance to life in the 21st century; and insights on bilingualism that the author gained in the process of translation.
The book contains the very first English translation of the Beida Laozi (Peking University Laozi), in which the chapters on virtue precede those on the Dao. Accordingly, the classic is renamed The Classic of Virtue and the Dao. The author has given his best to honor both accuracy and poetic beauty by paying great attention to diction, clarity, and economy of expression.
The Classic of Virtue and the Dao is one of the most creative and thought-provoking texts of antiquity. All of the 77 chapters of the classic are categorized into 13 thematic groups, each of which begins with an introduction. This would make it easier for the reader to grasp its major viewpoints and concepts, such as virtue, humility, and selflessness. Titles for individual chapters, as well as comments and notes, have also been added.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Part I Philosophical Daoism and Laozi’s Thoughts
  • 1 Philosophical Daoism: The Counterculture of China and Beyond
  • Comparative Religion and Cultural Transmission
  • Theocentric Traditions and the Problem of Evil
  • East-West Contrasts in the Conception of Selfhood
  • Converging Constructions of Selfhood
  • Differences between Confucianism and Daoism on Selfhood
  • Zhuangzi on Selflessness, Egalitarianism, and Spontaneity
  • Psychological Decentering: An Antidote to Egocentrism
  • 2 Laozi’s Sociopolitical and Psychological Thoughts
  • What Is Laozi Like?
  • Laozi’s Political Philosophy
  • The Psychology of Actions and Nonactions
  • The Cognitive Dimension: Learning and Knowledge
  • Self-Conscious Emotions: Guilt and Shame
  • 3 Psychological Applications for the Enrichment of Life
  • Points of Contact with Western Psychology
  • The Eternal Mother as an Archetype
  • Integrating Carl Jung’s Shadow into Your Holistic Health
  • Spirituality and Transcendent Experiences
  • Transcendent Personal Experiences
  • 4 Complications in Translating Laozi’s Classic
  • The Significance of the Beida Laozi
  • Academic Debates about the Authorship of Laozi’s Classic
  • Competing Voices within and between Minds
  • Why Is Laozi’s Classic So Difficult to Comprehend—and to Translate?
  • Illustrations of Comparative Translations
  • Part II Language, Bilingualism, and Translation
  • Bilingual and Bicultural Competence
  • Questions Raised about Bilingualism-Biculturalism
  • 5 Self-Reflections on Language and Thought
  • The Deceptiveness and Limitations of Language
  • Language and Thought: Is the Speaking Tool Cognitively Neutral?
  • On the Bilingual-Bicultural Mind and Translation
  • Linguistic Determinism
  • Concluding Reflections
  • 6 Are Some Languages More Difficult to Learn than Others?
  • Determinants of Difficulty in Learning a Foreign Language
  • Practical Advice for Parents, Teachers, and Adult Learners
  • A Summation and a Question for the Reader
  • 7 Musings on How I Learn English: A Personal Case Study
  • Relearning to Speak My Native Tongue Properly
  • English Has Become My Linguistic Salvation of Dyslexia
  • Native-Speaker Competence?
  • Experimenting with Chinese and English
  • Concluding Thoughts
  • Part III Dedaojing (Classic of Virtue and the Dao)
  • 1 Virtue: Introduction
  • 1/38 Virtue
  • 14/51 The Dao and the Actualization of Life
  • 17/54 Pervasive Virtue
  • 53/10 Mystic Virtue
  • 2 The Dao: Introduction
  • 3/40 The Dao’s Generative Potential
  • 19/56 Union with the Mystic Oneness
  • 46/2 Being and Nonbeing
  • 48/4 Empty, yet Inexhaustible
  • 54/11 Being Is to Advantage as Nonbeing Is to Utility
  • 59/16 Tranquility in Constancy
  • 62/21 The Origin of All Things
  • 70/29 The Dao Does Not Dominate
  • 75/35 Insipid, yet Inexhaustible: That’s the Dao for You!
  • 3 Nature, Heaven, and Earth: Introduction
  • 6/43 Advantages of Nonaction
  • 15/52 The Mother of the World
  • 37/73 The Ways of Heaven
  • 49/5 We the People Are But Straw Dogs
  • 52/9 Know When to Withdraw
  • 66/25 Creation and Naming
  • 4 Action and Nonaction: Introduction
  • 11/48 Learning and Nonaction
  • 20/57 Governance through Nonaction
  • 26/63 Prepare Well for Difficulties
  • 27/64 Take Timely Actions
  • 28/64 Take Nonactions
  • 47/3 Act through Nonaction
  • 5 Words, Names, and Naming: Introduction
  • 5/42 The Dao Gives Birth to One
  • 45/1 The Dao Is the Origin of All Things
  • 57/14 The Dao Cannot Be Named
  • 73/32 Great Virtues Follow the Dao, Not Names
  • 6 Learning and Knowledge: Introduction
  • 10/47 Knowing without Going Out
  • 11/48 On Learning and Governance
  • 22/59 Where Is the Limit of What Can Be Known?
  • 35/71 To Know What One Does Not Know
  • 61/20 Being Alone and Different
  • 7 Sagehood and Selflessness: Introduction
  • 12/49 Practice Virtues Unconditionally
  • 31/67 On Greatness
  • 34/70 The Sage Is Rarely Understood
  • 36/72 Dwell in Self-Esteem, Not in Self-Importance
  • 41/77 On Equity
  • 42/79 The Sage’s Generosity
  • 50/7 Selflessness
  • 55/12 Discard Excesses or Indulgences
  • 56/13 Honor and Shame
  • 8 On Establishing and Conducting Oneself: Introduction
  • 7/44 On How to Long Endure
  • 9/46 Terrors Brought by Insatiable Desires
  • 44/81 Acting for and Giving to Others
  • 64/23 To Be One with the Dao
  • 67/26 On Personal Safety and Conduct
  • 68/27 On Being a Superb Teacher
  • 73/33 On the Mastery of Selfhood
  • 9 Humility: Introduction
  • 30/66 To Reign Supreme through Being Humble
  • 58/15 Humility in Tranquility
  • 63/22 The Potency of Humility
  • 65/24 To Be Full of Oneself Is the Antithesis of the Dao
  • 74/34 Achieve Greatness through Humility
  • 10 Politics and Governance: Introduction
  • 2/39 Nobility Must Have a Lowly Base
  • 16/53 Corrupt Governance
  • 21/58 When the Government Is Muddled
  • 23/60 Demons and Sages
  • 25/62 Worldly Treasures versus the Dao
  • 29/65 Two Modes of Governance
  • 38/74 Why Threaten People with Death?
  • 43/80 Primitive Utopia
  • 60/17-19 On Rulers and Their Governance
  • 60/17 Trust
  • 60/18 Consequences of the Dao’s Decline
  • 60/19 Pseudosageliness
  • 77/37 Restraining without Shaming
  • 11 Stratagems, War, and Peace: Introduction
  • 24/61 Go Beneath to Get What You Want
  • 32/68 The Art of Governing and of War
  • 33/69 The Art of War
  • 71/30 Avoid War
  • 72/31 Treat a Battle Won as a Funeral
  • 76/36 Stratagem
  • 12 Paradoxes and the Pairing of Opposites: Introduction
  • 4/41 The Dao Alone Excels
  • 8/45 Paradoxes of the Dao
  • 13/50 Life and Death
  • 39/75 Taking Death Lightly versus Seeking Life Avidly
  • 40/76 The Strong versus the Weak
  • 13 Females, Infants, and Water: Introduction
  • 18/55 The Newborn Babe Is a Natural
  • 42/78 In Praise of Water
  • 50/6 The Mystic Female
  • 51/8 Water
  • 69/28 Constant Virtue: The Male and the Female
  • References
  • Index

←xiv | xv→


Why is this book written? That is the first question I have to answer, given that there are translations of Laozi’s (Lao-tzu’s) classic already too numerous to count. The reason is highly personal. I am a native speaker of Chinese who has fallen in love with English as a duck takes to the water. Being bicultural, I have two cultural parents, one Chinese and one American. Writing this book affords me the opportunity to fulfill one of my lifelong aspirations to be an agent of East-West understanding.

Philosophical Daoism is characterized as the counterculture of China—an antithesis of the Confucian conservative ideology that upholds hierarchical sociopolitical institutions. In terms of the conception of selfhood, the Daoist self aims to reach for spontaneity, tranquility, and freedom from excessive desires, in contrast to the Confucian self subdued by observing obedience to authority and social conventions. Self-cultivation versus self-assertion captures succinctly the contrast between Eastern and Western conceptions of selfhood. The psychology of actions and nonactions is given extensive treatment to dispel the misconstrual of the Daoist idea of wuwei as “doing nothing.”

Several features mark my book apart from others. There is simply no book currently available on Daoism that has been written primarily from a psychological perspective, covering topics on Laozi’s sociopolitical and psychological ←xv | xvi→thoughts and how they may be applied to enrich one’s life. My book contains the very first English translation of the Beida Laozi (Peking University Laozi), in which the chapters on virtue precede those on the Dao. Accordingly, I have renamed the classic as Classic of Virtue and the Dao. The numbering system I use gives the correspondence between the chapter number of the Beida Laozi and that of the received text. Thus, for example 45/1 refers to chapter 45 in the Beida Laozi, corresponding to chapter 1 in the received text. This system is followed throughout the present offering.

I have given my best to honor both accuracy and poetic beauty by paying close attention to diction, clarity, and economy of expression. In this regard, the intensity with which I have devoted myself to learning how to write poetry in a language not my own has proven to be of great help. In short, this book is written with the conviction that it is not only desirable but also possible to combine academic rigor, intelligibility, and appeal. I have attempted to maintain an attitude of dialogical engagement with the reader, calculated to advance further questioning and pondering about diverse aspects of life and human affairs.

The Classic of Virtue and the Dao is one of the most creative and thought-provoking texts of antiquity. Inherently polysemous, it may be viewed as a deep mythological consciousness at its core, a profound mysticism, a work of philosophy, a metaphysical account of reality, a political principle of governance, a work on military strategies, a philosophy of life, or any combination of the above. For this reason, all of the 77 chapters of the classic are categorized into 13 thematic groups, each of which begins with an introduction. This would make it easier for the reader to grasp its major viewpoints and concepts, such as virtue, humility, and selflessness. Titles for individual chapters have also been added.

A self-revelation of my personal as well as academic background will help the reader to gain an understanding of how this book came into being. In addition to the goal of translating the Beida Laozi, I also want to make a modest contribution to several relevant topics in bilingualism-biculturalism.

I have always had great difficulty in memorizing how to write Chinese characters since I was a schoolboy. On a single page, there would be dozens of errors. My examination marks for writing essays in Chinese were always teetering on the verge of failing. As a professor, confusing one character with another resulting in mispronunciation evoked embarrassment in the classroom. The students might wonder, “What? How can the professor be so illiterate?”

Fortunately, I spent most of my academic career at the University of Hong Kong, where English is the official medium of instruction. English has indeed saved me from being a laggard in all walks of life! As a clinical psychologist, I ←xvi | xvii→know that mild orthographic dyslexia is the cause. Orthographic dyslexics have difficulty in storing the mental representation of Chinese characters. Largely unrecognized, it is a type of learning disability that causes misery to countless Chinese schoolchildren and their parents.

Taking advantage of my bilingual-bicultural background, I conducted a personal case study. The message I derived is that bilingual competence is essential to bicultural competence; and bilingual competence may be better achieved when a learner regards the target language, not merely as an instrument of communication imposed from exterior requirements, but as an inviting treasure house to enrich his life.

This book results from the blessing of personal circumstances. In separation, having two cultural parents, being a clinical psychologist steeped in a bicultural-bicultural background, and engaging in a literary project outside of one’s academic discipline may not be that uncommon. But the confluence of all these circumstances is rare, if not unique.

In a sense then, it has taken me my whole life to acquire the requisite skills necessary for confronting the challenges of writing this book, a task that has consumed more mental energy per word than any of my other academic writings. Fortunately, I have received help from encouraging and competent colleagues. In particular, Professor Michael H. Bond, an established scholar in cross-cultural psychology, offered his detailed, incisive comments on Part 1 of this book; the end result is a more polished manuscript.

Contemporary relevance has been a constant reminder in my mind in the writing process. Nothing stands out more than the unprecedented challenges that humankind faces in the 21st century. Exponential technological advances have outpaced our growth in wisdom; war between countries armed with thermonuclear capabilities threatens our survival; climate change poses an imminent existential crisis to humankind. As we look into the future, we may find wisdom in the ancient Laozi to give us guidance. The Classic of Virtue and the Dao will prove itself to be timeless.

David Y. F. Ho

←xviii | 1→

Part I Philosophical Daoism and Laozi’s Thoughts

“Dear is Confucius. But dearer still is thought liberation.”

“Do unto others as what others would have you do unto them”—The Golden Rule restated.





The influence of Daoism (Taoism) on Chinese culture and beyond is both deep and far-reaching. Over more than a millennium, Daoism has reached across East and Southeast Asia; it has shaped particularly the cultural development of Korea and Japan. Daoism remains a living tradition in the 21st century, for a much larger portion of humanity than any Western tradition may claim.

The theologian Karl Jaspers (1974) regards Laozi as an “axial” philosopher whose insights have shaped the course of human development. More recently, Clarke (2000) gives an account of how Daoist texts, ideas, and practices such as Fengshui (geomancy) and Taiji have been assimilated by the West; and how Chinese thinkers such as Laozi (Lao-tzu) and Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) have served as a source of inspiration in Western philosophy, politics, and religion. Clarke offers an insight into the historical Western encounter with this ancient tradition as well as issues arising from intercultural dialogues.

←1 | 2→

Taiji symbol

In popular culture, many are drawn to best-selling works such as The Tao of physics (Capra, 1975); The Tao of Pooh (Hoff, 1982); and A Taoist Cookbook (Saso, 1994), which comes with “meditations” from Laozi’s Classic of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing). A growing audience with diverse interests, such as nature lovers, management gurus, qigong and martial arts practitioners, is discovering that Daoism has something to offer them.

The question arises then, why have I undertaken the task of writing this book, given that there are already books aplenty published on Daoism in both the realms of academia and popular culture? One primary reason is that the publication of the Beida Laozi (Peking University Laozi) represents a major addition to the corpus on Laozi’s classic (Han, 2012). The Beida Laozi antedates the received or current text by several hundred years. My book contains the very first English translation of the Beida Laozi.

There is, however, a more compelling reason for me to write this book. To date there is an absence of books devoted to the study of Daoism from a psychological perspective. Academic books on Daoism are written mostly by sinologists, who have long recognized the relevance of philosophical Daoism for contemporary life. However, they have shown little interest in studying Daoism from a psychological perspective, a neglect which is symptomatic of academic compartmentalization. Traditionally, sinology is a discipline dominated by historians, philologists, and philosophers, who have largely ignored the psychological literature on Chinese society.

On the other hand, psychologists have largely neglected Daoism. Thus, in cross-cultural psychological research, investigators often implicitly treat all Chinese participants as “Confucianists,” ignoring the fact that Confucianism is only one of the major traditions of China. Markus and Kitayama (1991) state that “many Asian cultures have distinct conceptions of individuality that insists on the fundamental relatedness of individuals to each other” (p. 224). This fundamental relatedness is indeed central to Confucianism, but not to Daoism, Buddhism, or ←2 | 3→Hinduism! As I will explain below, conceptions of selfhood and otherness differ between Confucianism and these other traditions in some fundamental respects.


XX, 210
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (December)
Laozi’s Classic of Virtue and the Dao for the 21st Century: A Psychological Study David Y. F. Ho Daoism Laozi Classic of the Way and Virtue psychology of Daoism therapeutic applications of Daoism psychology of actions and nonactions metacognition guilt and shame language and thought cultural transmission translation bilingualism and biculturalism
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. XX, 210 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

David Y. F. Ho (Author)

David Y. F. Ho has held professorial appointments in psychology and cultural studies in Asia and North America. He has authored numerous contributions in psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and education. He was the first Asian to have served as President of the International Council of Psychologists.


Title: Laozi’s Classic of Virtue and the Dao for the 21st Century