Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2012. Vol.2, No.4, 151-158
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 151
Water Metaphors in Dao de jing: A Conceptual Analysis
Yanying Lu
Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Received September 24th, 2012; r evised October 24th, 2012; accept ed No ve mber 3rd, 2012
This paper focuses on the use of water metaphors in the ancient Chinese text Dao de jing (168 BC), which
is the foundational text of Daoism and a primary source of modern Chinese ideas about life and politics.
The paper analyses how the image of water is used in the text to facilitate the conceptualization of the
core philosophical concepts. The analysis is based on the theoretical framework of the Conceptual Meta-
phor Theory (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Kövecses, 2002). Water is discovered as occupying an essential
position in the conceptualization of the Daoist worldview, which is manifested in notions of dao and
de. It demonstrates that a cognitive approach offers an effective way to explore the cognitive basis of
the text’s views on the eternal cosmological processing and of the application of morality in the human
Keywords: Water Metaphors; Dao de jing; Conceptual Metaphor Theory; Conceptualization
Metaphor is pervasive in our everyday life, in the way we
express our ideas, actions, and experiences. Recently, cognitive
linguistic research on metaphors reflects a renewed interest in
the study of metaphor and focuses the attention on conceptual
metaphors, for conceptual metaphors are believed to play a
significant role in shaping the process of thinking itself (e.g.,
Goddard, 2002; Fauconnier & Turner, 1998, 2002; Kövecses,
2005; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999; Reddy, 1979; Wierzbicka,
1992, 1999; Yu, 1998, 2007, 2009). It has been argued by cog-
nitive linguists that rather than being just a type of metaphor,
conceptual metaphors actually occupy a central position as the
most basic set of correspondences within the human conceptual
system (e.g., Lakoff, 1987, 1992, 1993; Lakoff & Johnson,
1980; Lakoff & Turner, 1989; Gibbs, 1994). Human thought is
deemed as an interactive process and conceptual metaphors are
believed to form a basic cognitive structure that permits the
understanding of a relatively abstract concept by virtue of a
more concrete concept (Gibbs, 1994; Johnson, 1987; Lakoff &
Johnson, 1980, 1999; Lakoff & Turner, 1989).
Since the emergence of conceptual metaphor theory, numer-
ous works have sought to explain its working mechanism in the
English language (e.g., Lakoff, 1987, 1992, 1993; Lakoff &
Johnson, 1980; Lakoff & Turner, 1989; Gibbs, 1994). Much
research has been done across different languages into the
working mechanisms of metaphorical thinking patterns (e.g.,
Goddard, 2002; Fauconnier & Turner, 1998, 2002; Kövecses,
2002, 2005; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999; Reddy, 1979;
Wierzbicka, 1992, 1999; Yu, 1998, 2007, 2009). Metaphor
studies in Chinese linguistics, in particular on Chinese philo-
sophical discourse, however, are comparatively rare. Mean-
while, extensive linguistic research has been done in Chinese to
explain the significance of figurative language in the ancient
Chinese classics (Garrett, 1993a, 1993b; Lu, 1994; Ma, 2000).
Only a few studies (e.g., Slingerland, 2003; Yu, 1998, 2007,
2009) focus on the workings of metaphors as such. These Chi-
nese linguistic studies offer philosophical insights into the use
of metaphorical language that tend to confirm Lakoff and
Johnson’s view (1980: p. 180) that human understanding of the
world is largely based on people’s interactions with their im-
mediate environment. This perspective is useful in considering
the use of conceptual metaphors in Chinese philosophical texts.
In this paper, I focus on water metaphors as they appear in
德經 Dao de jing “the classic of the way and the virtue”, an
ancient Chinese philosophical text that has exercised enormous
influence on Chinese culture and remains frequently quoted
inside and outside of China to this day. It is a foundational text
for Daoism as well as for Chinese thought. It can be said that
Dao de jing includes discussions of various aspects of the
meaning of human life and the relationship between human
existence and nature; many of its arguments and stances are
prescribed with water metaphors. The image of water is be-
lieved to be the most outstanding symbol of dao (Chan, 163: p.
113) and the metaphors that draw on the image of water convey
Dao de jing’s main philosophical proposition and political doc-
trine (Chen & Holt, 2002: p. 155). A conceptual analysis of the
water metaphors will be followed by a discussion that focuses
on the cognitive basis for Dao de jing’s central argument of
strength-through-weakness through the physical weakness and
the flowing-downwards tendency of water. In addition the im-
age-schematic feature of the cyclical movement of water will
be explored, which, I argue, provides a cognitive model to
conceptualize Daoist eternity.
Approaching Dao de jing from a Cognitive
Linguistic Perspective
Dao de jing touches upon such issues as cosmology, morality
and politics with a wide discussion of the relationship between
human beings and nature, as well as the relationship between
human beings and society. It describes and discusses various
philosophical notions, such as dao “the way”, de “the
virtue”, zhen “authenticity” and 無為 wu wei “noncoercive
action”. It also describes concrete objects, including natural
substances and entities, artificial crafts and human body parts,
Y. Y. LU
e.g., shui “water”, yuan “deep pool”, pu “uncarved
block”, su “raw silk”.
Recurring metaphorical statements can be found in the text to
describe the features of these notions. I will focus on water
metaphors found in Dao de jing, which, it is argued, are the
root metaphor (Allan, 1997) through which a whole set of con-
ceptual schemes about dao can be induced. As an empirically
observable natural substance, water invokes a structure that
helps people come to grips with the thought in the book (Chen
& Holt, 2002: p. 155). In the current study, this text will be ana-
lyzed in terms of how these metaphors are conceptually con-
Conceptual Metaphor Theory defines conceptual metaphor as
understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another con-
ceptual domain. We draw metaphorical expressions from the
source domain, the more concrete sphere, to understand the
more abstract domain of knowledge from the target domain
(Kövecses, 2002: p. 4). This process of understanding meaning
can be described as a set of correspondences that is formed at
the conceptual level between the entities in the two domains
through cross-domain mappings and metaphorical entailment.
In the analysis, I shall follow two following procedures: first,
a lexical semantic and morphological analysis of the metapho-
rical expressions in the text will be given, accompanied by a
discussion of the properties of the source domain concept,
based on their descriptions from the text. Second, correspond-
dences between the philosophical connotations of the design-
nated target domain concept and the properties of the source
domain concept will be established mainly on the basis of cross-
domain mapping and metaphorical entailment.
Water Metaphors in Dao de jing
Throughout Dao de jing, the features of the two core phi-
losophical notions, dao and de, are described mostly in terms of
shui “water” and water-related images such as yuan “deep
pool” and gu “mountain valley”. The analysis starts with
water-based metaphors that have dao as the target concept.
Next, the analysis turns to metaphors with de as the target con-
Dao is Water
In Dao de jing, the term dao appears in the title of the
work. This indicates the special importance of dao as a notion
in this text. In the text, dao is described in metaphorical lan-
guage as the ultimate reality which exists prior to the emer-
gence of the physical universe and everything in it (Hansen,
1992: p. 229), and it reflects the mythological consciousness or
the cosmological ideal that Dao de jing is upholding. It is found
that dao is manifested in a number of water-related imageries,
invoking the conceptual metaphor, which is advised here: dao
is water.
Dao de jing gives both explicit descriptions of the properties
of water and of dao, offering rich contextual information about
the two respectively. Water is explicitly described as sustaining
the growth of 萬物 wan wu “everything in the world” but will-
ing to dwell at the lowest places. For this reason, it resembles
the features of dao:
In other chapters, it is described as flowing from higher to
lower places and the lower it goes, the greater the power it
gathers (see example 2); it appears to be soft and weak, but it
can overcome the hard and strong (see example 3):
(1) 水善利萬物而不争,处众人之所恶,故几於道 1 8
It is because water benefits everything without contentiousness,
dwellingin places loathed by the crowd. That it comes nearest to
proper dao.
(2) 江海之所以為百谷王者,以其善下也 66
What enabl es t he r iver s an d th e seas to be k ing o ver all th e v alleys
is that they are good at stay ing lower than them.
(3) 天下莫柔弱於水,而攻堅強者莫之能先,以其無以易之 78
Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water and yet in at-
tacking what is hard and strong, there is nothing that can surpass
As noted above, dao can be explained as suggesting some
cosmo-relational facts. In the following examples, dao is non-
metaphorically described as the spontaneous origin of vigor and
the ultimate reality that gives rise to the physical universe and
everything in it (Ames & Hall, 2003: p. 143) (example 4). It
acquires an ontological dimension of being, vacuous yet sus-
tainable, and cannot be designated by fixed reference (example
5). It is formless (6), vague and indefinite (7); though it appears
as weak and gentle (7), it is inexhaustible (8); and, it always
returns (9):
(4) 道生一,一生二,二生三,三生萬物 42
Dao gives rise to continuity (one-ness), continuity gives rise to
difference (two-ness), difference gives rise to plurality (three-
ness), and plurality gives rise to the manifold of everything that is
happening (ten-tho usand things).
(5) 道恒無名,萬物將自化 37
Dao is really nameless; all things would be able to develop along
their own lines.
(6) 是謂無狀之狀無物之象 14
This is (dao) what is called the form of the formless and image o
(7) 道之物唯恍唯惚,惚呵恍呵中有象呵 21
As for the process of dao, it is ever so indefinite and vague.
Though vague and indefinite, there are images within it.
(8) 綿綿呵若存,用之不勤 6
Wi s p y and delicate, it (dao) only seems to be there, yet its
productivity is bottomless.
(9) 反者道之動也,弱者道之用也 40
Returning is how dao moves; weakening is how dao functions.
By comparing the metaphorical and nonmetaphorical state-
ments about dao and the descriptions of water, it can be seen
that, based on the similarities between the two, the properties of
dao in Dao de jing are described in terms of those of water.
Dao flows like water; it offers revitalizations like water; and
like water it appears to be weak and soft. On the basis of these
correspondences, it can be argued that dao is water is the guid-
ing metaphor in Dao de jing. Next the analysis of dao is water
shall be presented from the following three aspects: dao in the
form of water, dao flows as a river and dao preserves as a deep
pool of water.
1Examples throughout this paper are formatted in two tiers. The first tie
presents the Chinese character, based on the richly annotated version o
ao de jing, first published by Zhonghua Book Company, titled The sil
text Laozi with annotations (Gao, 1996); the corresponding chapter number
is provided. The second tier provides the English free translation
ased on
Ames & Hall
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Y. Y. LU
Dao in the Form of Water
Water, as a liquid substance, takes various forms, which I
suggest, is mapped onto dao’s formless feature (example 6).
They share the ability of going in any direction as can be no-
ticed from the example below:
(10) 道泛呵,其可左右 34
Dao flows ea s ily which can run in any direction.
fan “to flow easily” signifies the movement of water. Wa-
ter, which cannot be attributed to any fixed form, can thus aid
the metaphorical conceptualization of dao as dynamic and
Water, with its ability to nourish everything on earth, as ex-
emplified in (example 1), can be thought of as a metaphor for
the ability to “give rise to continuity” of dao (example 4). Dao
is the origin from which everything on earth draws vigor, just
as all living beings need water to sustain their growth:
(11) 道者萬物之注也 62
Dao is the pouring together of all things .
In this example zhu “to pour together”, similar to the
character fan “to flow easily”, can also be argued as evoking
the image of water, for they both contain a water radical (on
the left of each character). This nourishing feature of water, I
suggest, is mapped onto dao’s feature of providing vigor to all
things, as metaphorically indicated by zhu “pour”.
Further, beyond the basic mappings mentioned above, as
water takes various forms, it occurs everywhere: as clouds in
the sky or as the blood inside an animal’s veins. With its omni-
presence, water carries a feature of offering nourishment and in
this resembles dao, which exerts its influence widely and per-
It can be explained from the physical perception that water,
though it appears to be soft compared to other elements found
in nature such as stone and metal, becomes great in power when
it gathers to a great amount. This feature can also be understood
as a metaphorical representation of the pervasiveness of dao. It
can also be inferred from this set of correspondences that the
influence of dao on 萬物 wanwu “everything in the world” is
in a manner that is characterized by 無為 wuwei “noncoercive
action”. Without coercion, dao allows everything in the world
“to develop along their own lines” (example 5). Such noncoer-
cive functioning of dao can be thought of as corresponding to
water, which appears to be weak and gentle.
Dao Flows like a River
Water flows continuously. Streams gather together and flow
to the sea, as stated in example 2. Moreover, dao exerts its in-
fluence by flowing from higher to lower places. Dao de jing
suggests a similarity between this downward flowing tendency
of water and the movement of dao.
(12) 大邦者下流也 61
A great state (the state that masters the art of dao) is the lowe
reaches of water’s downward flow.
Drawing from our own experience, it is not difficult to ob-
serve the direction of the water when it flows, which is down-
wards. As explicitly pointed out in Dao de jing, what enables
rivers and seas to be king over all the valleys is that they always
stay lower than the valleys (example 2). As shown in example 1,
Dao de jing explicitly draws a correspondence between dao and
water for the way water functions “comes nearest to proper
dao” (example 1 in bold). Although Dao de jing does not claim
that dao appears in the form of water, it does inform the reader
that the best way to comprehend dao is in terms of water. It can
thus be further inferred that the dynamic and vigorous dao is
manifested in the image of flowing wate r.
Dao Preserves as a Deep Pool of Water
In addition to the explicit and indirect reference to dao as
water, a liquid substance and a flowing entity, dao is also de-
scribed as pool of water that is both deep and mysterious: a
metaphysical bottomless water container. The linguistic sign
that occurs in the text is yuan “deep pool” as a noun or
“deep” as an adjective as shown in the following example:
(13) 道沖而用之有弗盈也,淵呵似萬物之宗,湛呵似或存 4
Dao being empty , the use of it ca n n ot be filled up .
So deep, i t seems the pred ecessor of ever ything that is h ap
So deep, it only seems to persi st.
The character yuan “deep”, according to the oldest Chi-
nese character dictionary, 說文解字 Shuo wen jie zi (Duan,
1815), is formed pictographically2. This character is picto-
graphic because of the component on the right, which is com-
prised of an image of water with two shores on each side. When
used as an adjective, it describes the depth of a pool of water.
Alternatively, it can be used as a noun to signify a pool of water
characterized by its depth3 (e.g. chapter 36).
The character chong, which appears in the same example
(see also chapters 4 and 45), denotes “empty” and is contrasted
to ying “overflowing”. Morphologically speaking, the char-
acter chong “empty” has on the right, which means mid-
dle (part). According to 說文解字 Shuo wen jie zi (Duan,
1815), chong as an adjective means “empty” and is con-
trasted with ying “overflowing”. The character ying in-
cludes a container radical at the bottom part. In 說文解字 Shuo
Wen Jie Zi (Duan, 1915), it is explained as a compound word
that is made up of two parts: and , signifying a filled
container. According to the Ancient Chinese Dictionary (Chen,
2009), ying describes the state of something that is over-
flowing, e.g., water overflowing from its container.
In example 14, adjectives such as 微妙 weimiao “subtle and
mysterious”, 玄達 xuanda “dark and profound” and shen
“deep or profound” are used, which seem to portray dao as
some kind of water reservoir characterized by an enormous
2This dictionary summarized six categories of Chinese characters六書 liu
shu: self-explanatory characters, pictographs, picto-
honetic characters,
associative compounds, mutually explanatory characters and phonetic loan
3This character is translated as “abyss” by Ames & Hall (2003: 83). How-
ever this notion “abyss”does not successfully evoke the Chinese term’s
connotations of water, the translation “deep pool” is used instead in analysis.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 153
Y. Y. LU
(14) 古之為道者微妙玄達, 深不可識 15
Those of old who w ere good at forgin g dao in the world, subtle an
mysterious, dark and profound. Their profundity was beyon
Therefore, it can be said that dao can also be metaphorically
conceptualized as yuan “deep pool”. yuan “deep pool”,
which can be image-schematically conceived as a container
with a structure characterized by its vacant middle part that can
hold water. Perceptually, it remains still all the time; the more
water it holds, the darker it gets. Furthermore, the amount of
water it can hold depends on the size of the vacant middle part.
Given the metaphorical description of dao as being empty
and deep, it can be said that the vacant middle part of a deep
pool corresponds to that empty aspect of dao; the imperceptible
bottom maps the greatness of dao. Dao, which is also described
as being vague and indefinite yet possessing a limitless dyna-
mism, can, therefore, correspond to the capacity of the deep
In summary, the conceptual metaphor dao is water can be
seen as providing the conceptual basis for the notion of dao,
prescribing the ontological status and features of dao.
De is Water
Besides the cosmological ideal that is suggested through the
metaphorical description of dao in terms of water, morality is
frequently discussed through the notion of de, translated as
“virtue” or “efficacy”. de, which also appears in the title, is
the central topic in the second half of the original Chinese text:
德經 de jing, which mainly deals with the social, political and
philosophical applications of dao. Moeller suggests that de, as
opposed to dao, is t he a u ra of a perfect functioni ng (2006: p. 43)
or to put it another way, of the art of governing everything on
earth in accordance with the true way. Ames and Hall (2003: p.
107) out analyze the relationship between dao and de by inter-
preting de as the character of any particular disposition within
the totality of experience, which is determined by dao’s perva-
sive influence. This can be inferred from chapter 21, in which
Dao de jing says that “de is committed to dao alone”. Thus, the
notion of de can be thought of as the moral application of the
dao (Roberts, 2001: p. 19), i.e., the entity which is in accor-
dance with the true dao. Some of the nonmetaphorical descrip-
tions of de are listed as follows:
(15) 上德不德是以有德,下德不失德是以無德,上德無為而無
以為也 38
It is because the most excellent de does not strive to excel, that
they are o f de, and it is because the lea st excellent does not leave
off striving to excel that they have no de. Persons of the highest de
neither do things coercively nor would they have any motivation
for doing so.
(16) 天地不仁 4 5
Nature is not partial to institutionalized morality.
(17) 弱者道之用也 40
Weakening is ho w dao functions (de, as discussed, can be deemed
to be the functioning of dao).
It can be found from example 15 that de has a passive and
noncompetitive character with great potential and does things
by exerting little coercion, displaying a supreme impartiality. In
chapter 8, shan is used as an alternative notion of de,
translated as “efficacy”, which is explicitly likened to water:
(18) 上善 5若水 8
Highest efficacy is water.
The conceptual metaphor that is advised here is de is water,
which is believed to have formed the conceptual basis to the
understanding of Daoist morality. With the presentation of de
through water, Dao de jing argues that to act without coercion
is virtuous. Next, de is water will be explored from the follow-
ing two aspects: de applies as water and de is water running
through a deep valley.
De Applies to W a t er
By comparing the physical properties of water with the on-
tological characteristics of de, some metaphorical correspon-
dences can be suggested. As shown in example 15, the most
outstanding ontological characteristic of de lies in this manner
of concealing rather than displaying. In the cultivation of one’s
own character (de), to display what is in accordance with a
premeditated morality is at the cost of one’s natural moral ten-
dency (Ames & Hall, 2003: p. 136). De, instead, should be non-
pretentious and noncompetitive, and is marked with a sense of
nonworldliness. This nonworldliness of de can be interpreted
with reference to water’s tendency to dwell at lower places (see
example 1).
As has been pointed out above, de signifies the ideal applica-
tion of dao. Therefore, as dao functions in the world without
imposing any coercion (example 5), de, from a socio-moral
perspective, implies that the relationship between the ruler and
the ruled should also be featured by noncoerciveness. In chapter
66, Dao de jing explains that no one in the world is able to
contend with the rulers who master the art of de because they
strive without contentiousness. This application of de by using
accommodation rather than coercion (Ames & Hall, 2003, p.
182), correspondingly, can be metaphorically understood in
terms of water following its natural tendency of flowing down-
For Dao de jing, premeditated morality is a sham (Ames &
Hall, 2003: p. 136). As shown in example 16, the most appro-
priate manner of conduct in accordance with dao lies in non-
human or superhuman excellence, for the natural world gener-
ated by dao is not “partial to institutionalized morality” (exam-
ple 16). With this claim, Dao de jing suggests that nature does
not run in a way that reflects human expectation. In Dao de
jing’s description of water (see example 1), water is said to
nourish 萬物 wan wu “everything in the world”, good or bad.
Therefore, another mapping correspondence of de and water
can be drawn as such: the impartial nonhuman excellence of de
is mapped onto water’s trait of giving nourishment without
discrimination, and flowing everywhere disdaining nothing.
4ren, a core philosophical notion in Confucian values, is interpreted here
as institutionalised morality by Ames & Hall (2003: p. 206). I agree with
their interpretation that by denying ren, the Dao de jing shows a suspicious
attitude towards Confucian values, as manifested in ren, which only emer-
ges when genuine moral feeling has been conventionalised. This ren also
appears in other chapters (e.g., chapters 8, 18 & 19); these chapters make up
ao de jing’s counter-attack on Confucian mora lit y.
De is Water Running Through a Dee p Valley
Among many of its metaphorical descriptions in the text,
5shan, in other chapters (e.g., 49, 54 and 68), also denotesthe meaning
of “being good at” or “well established”.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Y. Y. LU
Dao de jing proposes gu “mountain valley” as an image of
de where de is explicitly likened to gu “mountain valley”
(see examples 20 & 21 below). The character of gu “moun-
tain valley” is made up of two parts. According to 說文解字
Shuo wen jie zi (Duan, 1815), it depicts water coming out of a
passage that cuts through the mountain in which the upper part
is derived from shui “water” and the lower part signifies a
mountain passage.
When de is metaphorically presented in terms of mountain
valley, it is sometimes described as xuan “dark” and
shen “deep” (see example 19 below):
(19) 玄德深矣远矣,与物反矣乃至大顺 65
Dark de runs so deep and distant only to turn back along with
other things to reach the great flow.
(20) 上德若谷,大白如辱 41
The highest de is like a valley6, the most brilliant white seems
(21) 為天下谷,恒德乃足 28
As a valley to the world, your constant de will be ample.
Similar to water, which “dwells in places loathed by the
crowd” (example 1), the valley is endowed with a willingness
to occupy the lower position and it always remains still regard-
less of the manner of how the water runs through, be it wild or
quiet. This low-positioning and stillness can be mapped onto
the noncompetitive character and the supreme impartial excel-
lence of de. The valley serves as a water passage by letting
things go through without obstruction. Such a characteristic of
the mountain valley, abided by the interpretation of de’s non-
coercive application through the previous analysis, can also be
regarded as corresponding to de’s noncoercive character.
Although lying in the lowest place, the mountain valley,
metaphorically and metaphysically presented by Dao de jing,
denotes an imperceptible depth and distance. In the text, de is
repeatedly referred to as玄德 xuan de “dark de” (e.g., chapters
10, 51 & 65). I believe the darkness of de should be interpreted
in terms of gu “mountain valley”, which evokes a sense of
depth and darkness. Although, the depth and darkness of the
mountain valley is not described explicitly, further inference
can be made to correspond this feature, as gained though hu-
man perception of mountain valleys, to that of de in the form of
metaphorical entailment. The mountain valley’s great depth
connotes the capacity of itself, and thus can be deemed as a
metaphorical presentation of the unpredictable and yet powerful
potential of de.
Water, as a shared target domain concept, I argue, provides a
conceptual basis for understanding the relationship between the
notions of dao and de. This section will discuss how dao is
water and de is water can be argued as jointly establishing the
cognitive basis for Dao de jing’s central argument of strength-
through-weakness through the physical weakness and the flow-
ing-downwards tendency of water. In addition, as many studies
show (e.g. Ames & Hall, 2003; Schwartz, 1985), by affirming
strength-through-weakness, Dao de jing tacitly negates the
positive, which is constantly praised by Confucian teachings. It
proposes to optimize the creative possibilities of the opposing
elements to allow both of them to transform noncoercively.
This section will also discuss the image-schematic feature of
the cyclical movement of water, which I argue, provides a cog-
nitive model to conceptualize Daoist eternity.
As analyzed previously, dao and de are both metaphorically
represented by water, yet two different sets of correspondences
can be generated in, which features of dao and de are mapped
onto different aspects of water. Although dao prescribes the
cosmological ideal held by Dao de jing, de deals with the social
and moral application of dao, as discovered above, while the
noncoercive sense is what they share in common.
In the previous analysis of dao is water and de is water, some
points were made to identify the noncoercive sense of dao and
de that maps the features of water as soft and weak and flowing
downwards without contentiousness. This noncoercive sense
can also be argued to map the mountain valley’s feature of ac-
commodating life while exerting little coercion on things that
grow inside or run through it.
Many studies show that the noncoerciveness described by
Dao de jing is presented in an anti-Confucian manner (e.g.,
Ames & Hall, 2003; Schwartz, 1985). Dao de jing sidesteps the
Confucian moral emphasis on good as opposed to evil and fo-
cuses instead on forces at work in nature, which lies in the con-
tinuity of process that is featured by the mutual entailing and
transformation of opposites. Based on this understanding, the
weak and the soft, which is usually treated as the negative, can
and ultimately will defeat the strong and the hard.
In Dao de jing, it says that weakening is how dao functions
(example 9) and the soft and weak vanquish the hard and strong
(chapters 36 and 43). Chen & Holt (2002: p. 163) identify this
argument from Dao de jing in which weakness is not only
treated as “the function of dao” (example 9), but also advocates
the superiority of weakness over strength. Therefore, in an ab-
stract sense, this noncoerciveness, it can be argued, demonstrate
the strength-through-weakness.
Metaphorically, the realization of strength-through-weakness
should be based on the proper conceptualization of the strength-
gaining process in Dao de jing’s terms. The best way to com-
prehend it is through water again. Water is featured by its soft-
ness when it is in a small amount. This, as introduced previ-
ously, can be thought of as corresponding to dao’s noncoer-
civeness. Water flows to low places, following its natural
course; it is deemed as virtuous and set as the best example to
metaphorically represent the noncoercive application of de.
This strength-gaining process can be pictured and thus concep-
tualized as numerous small amounts of water converging into a
greater whole. Although considered as being weak, water pos-
sesses great potential in terms of accumulating in quantity as a
result of its fluidity. This is exemplified in Dao de jing as “what
enables the rivers and seas to be king over all the valleys is that
they are good at staying lower than them” (example 2) and “a
great state is like the lower reaches of water’s downward flow”
(example 12). The lower the water flows, the more it grows in
quantity; correspondingly, the less coercion one display, the
more virtuous and powerful one becomes. Thus, noncoercive-
ness, equated with the notion of strength-through-weakness can
6gu is translated by Ames & Hall as both valley (2003: p. 140) and rive
gorge (2003: 120). This paper has chosen valley as the English translation
for this notio n.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 155
Y. Y. LU
be thought of as metaphorically corresponding to the downward
flowing of water.
Eternity as a Conti nuum
To account for the relationship of the polarities, Dao de jing
optimizes the creative possibilities of the opposing elements to
allow both of them to transform noncoercively. Based on this
understanding, it can be inferred that the focus should not be on
the comparison, but should be on the transformational process
of the weak and the strong in a manner of noncoercive natural
Weakness and strength can be thought of as two opposing
states. Dao de jing points out several times that dao moves in
the manner of 複歸 fu gui “to re tur n” (c hapters 14 and 28), which
suggests that the two opposites operate in a mutually transfor-
mative manner. With the dynamic continuity of its circulation
and its ability of self-renewal, dao becomes perpetual and eter-
nal (Ames & Hall, 2003: p. 83). To create a pictographic inter-
pretation of Daoist eternity first requires us to establish meta-
phorical correspondences between water and eternity in the
sense that they both signify self-renewal.
Dao de jing states that dao works pervasively, without any
pause, and this is an ongoing process, without a primary begin-
ning or a termination (e.g. chapters 2, 14, 22 & 25). Based on
this understanding, eternity, for Dao de jing, cannot be pictori-
ally viewed as a linear process but should be viewed as circular.
It is characterized by the circulation of the opposite polarities,
weakness and strength, for instance. The mutual in-taking of
the polarities happens in the manner of gradual transformation
as suggested by a cyclical conduit which allows circulation.
On the one hand, as discussed previously, dao is indetermi-
nate and vague, yet serves as the origin of the ultimate creative
vigor. To go back is thus to regain indeterminacy and vague-
ness; once it goes back, its potential is renewed. On the other
hand, according to our observation of seasonal changes, water
can be seen circulating in the world: spring rain revitalizes the
plant by pouring vigor into its body; when water is on the
ground, it flows to lower places to merge with a larger body of
water; once it flows away, new water will fall from the sky.
Thus, the conceptualization of Daoist eternity can be achiev-
ed through the projection of the cyclical movement of water.
Thus, the image-schematic feature of the latter provides a cog-
nitive model for the former to fit into. This can be confirmed
with Ames & Hall’s (2003: p. 116) argument that in Daoist
terms the flow of experience has no beginning and no end, for
whatever is most enduring is ultimately ove rtaken in the cease-
less transformation of things (2003: p. 83) and with the oppos-
ing categories mutually entailing one another (2003: p. 81),
none of them would come to a stop.
Water, as a natural element, can be viewed as a manifestation
of softness and powerlessness. When used in metaphors in Dao
de jing, water denotes a potential to take new forms and to
overthrow the powered because of its softness compared with
other natural substance. By analyzing the conceptual metaphor
dao is water, dao can be understood more concretely by view-
ing water as a moving or flowing entity oriented in a certain
direction, with an ability to penetrate and to exercise power
with subtlety. Through de is water, the notion of 無為wu wei
“noncoercive action” also finds a more physical ground that
should be understood as following the way water does. The
weakness and yieldingness of water is singled out as the meta-
phorical basis for the understanding of this ideal ethical con-
A conceptual analysis of the water-related metaphors central
to the notion of dao and de demonstrate the conceptualization
ground for these two concepts through water. It also helps to
conceptually explore strength-through-weakness, which is one
of the central arguments of Dao de jing, through the image of
water flowing downwards to gather its strength. Moreover,
strength-through-weakness can be thought of as supporting Dao
de jing’s view on the relationship between the two opposites.
To account for the relationship of the polarities, Dao de jing
optimizes the creative possibilities of the opposing elements to
allow both of them to transform continually, thus permitting the
eternal working of the two. A conceptual analysis of im-
age-schematic pattern reflected by the water metaphors can be
argued to offer an effective way to visualize this Daoist view on
the eternal cosmological process.
My heart felt thanks go to Professor Farzad Sharifian from
Monash University for his support and valuable suggestions on
this paper.
Special thanks also go to Mr Stephen Manteit for his gener-
ous help in proof reading my paper.
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Appendix 1. Translation7
[2:8] 先後之相隨恒也。
Before and after lend sequence to each other, this is how
it works.
[4:1] 道沖,而用之有弗盈也,淵呵,似萬物之宗。湛呵似或
Dao being empty, the use of it cannot be filled up. So
deep, it seems the predecessor of everything that is hap-
pening. So deep, it only seems to persist.
[5:1] 天地不仁。
Nature is not partial to institutionalized morality.
[6:1] 綿綿呵若存,用之不勤。
Wispy and delicate, it only seems to be there, y et its pro-
ductivity is bottomless.
[8:1] 上善若水。水善利萬物而又争处众人之所恶,故几於道。
It is because water benefits everything without conten-
tiousness, dwelling in places loathed by the crowd. That it
comes nearest to proper dao.
[10:8] 生而弗有长而弗宰,是謂玄德。
Giving life without managing them, and raising them
without lording it over them, this is called dark de.
[14:5] 繩繩呵不可名也,復歸於無物,是謂無狀之狀無物之
Ever so tangled, it defies discrimination and reverts to
indeterminacy. This is what is called the form of the
formless and image of indeterminacy.
[14:7] 隨不見其後,迎不見其首。
Following behind you will not see its rear; encountering
it, you will not see its head.
[15:1] 古之為道者微妙玄達,深不可識。
Those of old who were good at forging dao in the world,
subtle and mysteriou s, dark and profound. Their profun -
dity was beyond comprehension.
[21:1] 孔德之容唯道是从,道之物唯恍唯惚,惚呵恍呵,中有象
Those of magnificent de are committed to dao alone. As
for the process of dao, it is ever so indefinite and.
Though vague and indefinite, there are images within it.
[22:2] 洼则盈敝则新。
Hollow then full, worn then new.
[25: 3] 周行而不殆。
All pervading, it does not pause.
[28:5] 為天下谷,恒德乃足,恒德乃足,複歸於樸。
As a valley to the world, your constant de will be ample.
With ample constant de, you return to the state of un-
worked wood.
[34:1] 道泛呵,其可左右。
Dao flows easily which can run in any direction.
[36:6] 柔弱勝強,魚不可脫於淵。
The soft and weak vanquish the hard and strong. Fishes
should not relinquish the depths.
[37:1] 道恒無名,萬物將自化。
Dao is really nameless… all things woul d be able to de-
velop along their own lines.
[38:1] 上德不德是以有德,下德不失德是以無德,上德無為而
It is because the most excellent de does not strive to ex-
cel, that they are of the highest de, and it is because the
least excellent do not leave off striving to excel that they
have no de. Persons of the highest de neither do things
coercively nor would they have any motivation for doing
[40:1] 反者道之動也,弱者道之用也。
Returning is how dao moves; weakening is how dao
7Translat io n for lines taken as ex amp l es from the Dao de jing is listed in th e
format of
ter numbe r: line number
.[41:9] 上德若谷,大白如辱。
Y. Y. LU
The highest de is like a valley, the most brilliant white
seems sullied.
[42:1] 道生一,一生二,二生三,三生萬物。
Dao gives rise to continuity (one-ness), continuity gives
rise to difference (two-ness), diffe rence give s rise t o plu-
rality (three-ness), and plurality gives rise to the mani-
fold of everything that is happening (ten-thousand
[43:1] 天下之至柔,馳騁天下之至堅。
The softest things in the world ride roughshod over the
hardest things.
[45:2] 大盈若沖,其用不窮。
What is fullest seems empty , yet using it does not use it
[49:2] 善者善之,不善者亦善之,得善也。
To not only treat the able as bale, but to treat the unable
as able too.
[51:6] 生而弗有也,為而弗恃也,长而弗宰也,是謂玄德。
(Dao) gives things life yet does not manage them, it as-
sists them yet makes no claim upon them. It rears them
yet does not lord it over them. It is this that is called dark
[54:1] 善建者不拔,善抱者不脫。
What has been well-planted can not be uprooted, what is
embraced tightly will not escape one’s grasp.
[61:1] 大邦者下流也,天下之牝也。
A great state (the state that masters the art of dao) is the
lower reaches of water’s downward flow.
[62:1] 道者,萬物之注也。
Dao is the flowing together of all things.
[65:7] 玄德深矣,远矣,与物反矣,乃至大顺。
Dark de runs so deep and dista nt only to turn back along
with other things to reach the great flow.
[66:1] 江海之所以為百谷王者,以其善下也。
What enables the rivers and the seas to be king over all
the valleys is that they are good at staying lower than
[66:6] 非以其無爭與,故天下莫能與之爭
It is because they (the virtuous ruler) strive without con-
tentiousness that no one in the world is able to contend
with them.
[68:1] 善用人者為之下,是謂不爭之德。
Those who are good at employing others place them-
selves beneath them; that is called having nonconten-
tious de.
[78:1] 天下莫柔弱於水,而攻堅強者莫之能先,以其無以易
Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water and
yet in attacking what is hard and strong, there is nothing
that can surpass it.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.