The Valley Spirit

A translation of the TAO TE CHING chapter six

谷神不死, Gū shén bùsǐ,
是謂玄牝。 Shì wèi xuán pìn.
玄牝之門, Xuán pìn zhī mén,
是謂天地根。 Shì wèi tiān dì gēn.
綿綿若存, Miánmián ruò cún,
用之不勤。 Yòng zhī bù qín.

The valley spirit is undying [/ immortal],
It is named the mysterious female [/ deep/dark gorge].
The mysterious female [/ deep/dark gorge]’s gate,
It is named [as] Heaven and Earth’s basis.
Uninterrupted like existence,
Its usefulness is not constant.

Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching, my translation

This was one of the verses that grabbed my attention all those years ago, and certainly one of the ones that got me interested in translations and fascinated with the linguistic word-plays in ancient Chinese.

“The mysterious female”

是謂玄牝 shì wèi xuán pìn

Xuán means ‘dark, mysterious’, but also ‘deep or profound’. It is an adjective used in context of our senses, or how we perceive.

pìn interestingly is used to denote the female of a species, so it’s not quite correct to translate it as ‘woman’, especially as there is another character for that. I’ve always wondered if modern Western translators have been displaying their biases here, wanting to try to show Taoists as Goddess-worshippers, or perhaps to clearly differentiate the tradition from the patriarchal Christianity in that sense.

But there is another interesting thing about this word — it also means a ‘deep gorge’! Given in the previous line there is mention of “the undying spirit of the valley”, it seems obvious to me to go with this translation.

This verse is part of what is referred to as the ‘mystic’ stream within the whole text. It uses the metaphor of a valley or gorge to signify an empty space; this draws our attention to a conceptualisation of the Tao, which — as was explained in previous verses — is not able to be truly conceptualised. 

Certainly, in the texts from the much later Quánzhēndào school, this idea of a ‘Void’ is used to explain what there was(?) before existence came into being— somethingness can only emerge out of nothingness, in the same way that only an empty cup can be filled. This is referenced in the following line of the verse:

玄牝之門 xuán pìn zhī mén 

The ‘gate of the dark/deep gorge’ is where Heaven & Earth — as the original, primal polarity —emerged from. The cosmology continues to explain that it is this first polarity that create the conditions from which the 10,000 things (signifiers for the infinite diversity of existence) also emerge.

I think it’s very easy to see how a culture can use the metaphor of ‘females’, who give birth to life, acts as the model to explain something, which by its very nature cannot be described: the ‘Void’. I think the characterisation of the ‘Void’ as feminine is modelled on human experience, not the other way around. Pregnancy and birth are the actual, lived experiences which these sages then used as the model to explain how the universe works.

There is a certain irony here also. It could be seriously argued that this verse is an example of explicit matrifocal cosmology; and yet during this period, China was so incredibly patriarchal (and has remained so). I wonder if Taoists held slightly different perspectives to traditional Confucianists in this matter. This may explain some of the animosity between adherents of the two schools of thought. Did Taoism pose a threat to Confucian patriarchalism?

Uninterrupted and yet not constant

The final two lines of the verse are yet another example of using similar metaphors to present a paradox.

The valley spirit is “uninterrupted like existence”. As we were told in the first line, it is “undying”, i.e. immortal. One would think that this uninterruptedness would serve us in some way, and yet we are told that in fact it is not something we can depend on a regular basis.

Yes, whatever is being referred to in this verse serves a purpose which we can draw upon. However, its usefulness — how it can be employed — is not dependable or constant, even when its very existence is.

Early Taoism drew heavily on the paradigm described in the much earlier I Ching, the Book of Changes. In that text, there is a consistent emphasis on pointing out that the appropriateness of actions or decisions was based mostly on timing. A certain action may be correct in one instance, but incorrect in another context altogether. I feel that the paradox of these two lines presupposes this idea. There will be times when the valley spirit can be drawn upon, and times when it cannot be.

The valley spirit

So what is the “valley spirit”?

Taoists love modelling nature, and so natural metaphors are perfect for conveying the ‘natural’ way. The valley is the empty space between mountain ranges, similar to a ravine or gorge. And yet, even though it is ‘empty space’, it contains so much. Its existence (or at least the perception of it) is based on its emptiness, unlike the mountains that surround and in effect create the space for space to exist.

Heaven & Earth — the primordial polarity — are said to have been born from this ‘Void’, emerging out of its gate. Again, this suggests to me the use of the metaphor of birth to describe the cosmology of emanation of somethingness from nothingness.

A highly enigmatic verse, this exemplifies the mysteriousness and poetic beauty of the Tao Te Ching.

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