The Uncarved Block vs. Simplicity


The Uncarved Block vs. Simplicity

It is interesting to compare the lines in the Tao Te Ching that refer to the ‘uncarved block’ with the Chinese original Chinese character to see what this character actually translates as.

For example, in our last chapter (19), the last two lines of D.C. Lau’s translation go like this:

These three, being false adornments, are not enough
And the people must have something to which they can attach themselves:
Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block,
Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible.

The more literal goes like this:

“These three, considering culture, are not enough.
For this reason, make something to belong to;
See simply, embrace the plain, and have few personal desires.”

The characters and their meanings for these last lines go like this:

this three (several) (者), think (believe; consider) language (culture; civil) no (not) foot (enough; ample).
incident (cause; hence) command (decree; make; cause) have (there is; exist) what one belongs to,
see (catch sight of) simple (quiet; vegetable) embrace (hug) simple (plain) few (little; lose) personal (secret) few (scant; tasteless) desire (wish; want).


D.C. Lau’s phrase, “embrace the uncarved block” I translate as “embrace the plain” i.e., embrace (hug) simple (plain). The two characters involved, 抱朴, translate as 抱 (bào) hold or carry in the arms; embrace; hug; 朴 (pǔ) simple; plain. These are common run of the mill characters used in daily speech.

Referring to simple and plain as an uncarved block is all fine and well — poetic license, as it were. However, does using poetic license get the point across better, or does it obfuscate the simple thrust of the Tao Te Ching somewhat? For me, it is the latter.

This tendency to obfuscate is most noticeable in chapter 71, where D.C.Lau, V.Mair, R.Henricks translate the character for disease (病) as difficulty, defect, flaw respectively. Now this character, 病 (bìng), translates as ill; sick; disease; fault; defect. These men are not ‘wrong’ per se, they just dance around the disease. Why? If one is not of Taoist mind, calling it a disease probably feels too weird. In a sense, they don’t actually believe what they are translating. They don’t need to because their duty is to translate the Tao Te Ching, not to have the Tao Te Ching serve as “something to belong to”, as chapter 19 puts it. By the same token, their mission is to make their translation palatable to the public, and not too blunt or off-putting. Of course, this is very useful because it provides an entry point for a beginner into ‘the way’. Perhaps at some point a few beginners yearn for something less comfortable, more simple and raw. As chapter 19 says, “See simply, embrace the plain, and have few personal desires”.

Here are all the other references to D.C. Lau’s uncarved block followed by a more literally way of putting it.

Chapter 15

Thick like the uncarved block; Vacant like a valley;

Honest such as simple; broad such as the valley;

Chapter 28

If you are a valley to the empire,
Then the constant virtue will be sufficient
And you will return to being the uncarved block.
When the uncarved block shatters it becomes vessels.
The sage makes use of these and becomes the lord over the officials.
Therefore the greatest cutting
Does not sever.

Being a valley for all under heaven,
Constant virtue will be only then sufficient,
And you will again return to simplicity.
Simplicity loosens normalcy and allows a wise person to be a public elder.
This is how even the greatest control never cuts

Chapter 32

The way is forever nameless.
Though the uncarved block is small
No one in the world dare claim its allegiance.

The way constant is without name.
Simple! Though small, nothing under heaven can subjugate it as well.

Chapter 37

I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord

Press it down using nameless simplicity.
Of nameless simplicity, man also supports without desire.
No desire and still, all under heaven will settle themselves.

Chapter 57

Hence the sage says,
I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves;
I prefer stillness and the people are rectified of themselves;
I am not meddlesome and the people prosper of themselves;
I am free from desire and the people of themselves become simple like the uncarved block

For this reason, the holy person says,
I do nothing and the people change themselves.
I love stillness and the people straighten themselves.
I am without responsibility and the people thrive themselves.
I am without desire and the people simplify themselves.

Final Thoughts

In the end, I think of true understanding as being intuitive. So, if one really knows what "simple" or "plane" imply, one knows these words describe an essence of nature; they strike at the heart of the matter being addressed. The 'uncarved block' is a more romantic allusion to this; it is a way to give form to the more invisible reality, so to speak. Of course, I always loved the term, but then realize now how the term avoids the truth by using the artistic device, i.e., you can picture in you mind an uncarved block. I find it puzzling that serious translators would 'cheat' us out of the actual and most direct meaning. My only theory to why is that they are borrowing from some distant source commentary/translation that took hold because it went over better on non-taoist minds. So again, in the end, I think one must have a taoist mind first in order to understand what the Tao Te Ching is saying. Of course, that is not saying there shouldn't be points of entry into the shallow end of the pool, e.g., The Tao of Pooh, Stephen Mitchell, Alan W. Watts, Wayne Dyer, etc. The more the merrier.


Very interesting information. Thanks, Kirk and Carl. I checked out the Wikipedia article on Pu and found this perspective, which I feel explains a lot:

Returning to the central Daoist meaning of pu, Pas and Leung (1998:351) challenge the stereotyped “uncarved block” translation of pu: “The idea implied in it comes closer to “wholeness,” which is also contained in “uncarved block,” except that “uncarved block” has been reified. As a result, what was an excellent analogy of the Tao has become sterile and counterproductive.”