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Discussion on “嗇” in Guodian Laozi B Strip One

In this paper, I try to find out what the mysterious graph in Guodian Laozi B strip one means.

1. Research Question: What word is the graph writing, and how to understand it?

The universally agreed transcription of the graph is “嗇”, and “嗇” appears in most versions of the received texts-Laozi Chapter Fifty-nine. According to the data collected by Shima Kunio, only Xiang er 想爾 versions tend to use “式” instead of “嗇”. Because the Xiang er zhu 想爾注 commented by Zhang Daoling 張道陵 and Zhang Lu 張魯 did not include any chapter from De jing, I could not study the comments on “式”. If we shift our attention to other manuscripts, the findings will not bring any surprise. This character was missing in both Maowangdui Laozi A and B in the corresponding chapter as they are badly damaged. It is a “嗇”,which looks exactly the same as in the received writing system, in Beida Laozi.

My question arises when trying to understand the chapter as a whole. Certainly, different readings of other characters would result in different understandings of the passage. Still, a decision has to be made concerning the words that are beyond my research interest for now. Thus, I give a transcription of the chapter:



Managing people and serving Heaven is nothing but like “啬”. Relying on this, one is to get ready ahead of time; this is called…does not overcome. One does not overcome, then no one knows its extremity. If no one knows its extremity, then we can have territory. The mother of having territory can…It is the Way of longstanding life and everlasting sight.

If we understand “嗇” as the same word “嗇” in the received writing system, the translation becomes: Managing people and serving Heaven is nothing but like being frugal. Relying on this, one is to get ready ahead of time; this is called…does not overcome. It is hard to associate “being frugal” to “getting ready ahead of time”, even for an abstruse text like Laozi. There are debates about “紿” and “備”, but altering our reading of these words do not solve the problem of “嗇”.

2. Two Possibilities:

1). “嗇” is writing the same word “嗇” in the received writing system but had a different meaning in the Guodian Laozi manuscript.

2). “嗇” is writing another word.

One way to explore and test the first possibility is to find the same word in early texts. A comprehensive textual study may give me clues; however, the risk or loophole is that the meaning of “嗇” here may not have a counterpart in the received texts (or at least in my accessible data).

The most efficient method to study the second possibility is to start from a phonological perspective. If “嗇” is a jiajie 假借 word, the original word is highly likely to be phonologically related to “嗇”. The method is not always reliable because the system of historical phonology is constructed based on the currently available data and is subject to modification or even reconstruction when new materials surface.

3. Explorations of the Two Possibilities

1) Possibility One













From the data listed above, we can see that “嗇” had more than one meaning in early usage. Those highlighted in green match with the modern Chinese understanding of “嗇”, which needs no explanation. Those highlighted in yellow are worth pursuing. In example d, Zheng Xuan’s 鄭玄 commentary was very useful. He says, “Autumn harvest is called ‘嗇’, and it is the word of using agricultural strength.” Example a also supports Zheng’s gloss, and “嗇夫” in example b and f clearly do not mean “frugal man”. “Farmer” would be the best translation for both sentences.

The second step is to test my findings. When understood as “harvest”, the translation of Guodian Laozi becomes: Managing people and serving Heaven is nothing but like harvest. Relying on this, one is to get ready ahead of time; this is called…does not overcome. Compared with “being frugal”, it seems to fit better into the context.

2) Possibility Two

According to Schuessler, 嗇 and 穡 share the same pronunciation:

Other words with similar pronunciation include 色 and 瑟, which do not fit into the context.

Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 also says, “穡,穀可收曰穡。从禾,嗇聲。”

According to Duan Yucai 段玉裁, “嗇” is a jiajie word for “穡”:

4. Scholarly Discussions

The last step is to find other discussions on the issue. Almost all scholars understand “嗇” as “being frugal”, and a few understand it as “式”. They argue that “嗇” is the jiajie word for “式”, which means “to follow”. I have only found the following argument that mentions the meaning of “to harvest” for “嗇”:

Gu Di 古棣and Zhou Ying 周英 explained that the meaning of “being frugal” was derived from “to harvest”, which I find unconvincing: “嗇” refers to farmer’s harvesting five grains, and it has three meanings: the first one is to collect; the second one is to store; the third one is to cherish. Farmers work hard so that they cherish the grains during harvest. They will never waste it. Excessive cherishing is called “being frugal”.[1]

5. Conclusion

The earliest occurrence of “穡” in the received texts (which I can find) was in 《孟子·滕文公上》: 后稷教民稼。Because the exact date of composition of both works remains unknown, we cannot infer from this that “穡” did or did not exist during Guodian Laozi’s time. However, judging from the structure of the words, it is safe to say that “穡” derived from “嗇”. Since the graph “穑” (with both ‘禾’ as a radical and ‘啬’) did not appear in manuscripts, no further argument can be made. Therefore, I propose that both of the two possibilities are possible. If the word “穑” did not exist at that time, then “啬” had two meanings, and it means “to harvest” in Guodian Laozi B stripe one. In this case, “穑” was invented later after the date of the manuscript, or it existed in other regions but not where the manuscript was found. It is also possible that “穑” was extant, but was written as “啬”. In either case, we should understand the graph as “to harvest” in the manuscript.

[1] Gu Di and Zhou Ying, “Laozi jiaogu” 老子校詁 in Laozi tong 老子通 (Changchun: Jilin renmin chubanshe 吉林人民出版社, 1991), 417


Axel Schuessler. ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007.

Duan Yucai 段玉裁. Shuowen jiezi zhu 說文解字注. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 1981.

Gu Di 古棣 and Zhou Ying 周英. “Laozi jiaogu” 老子校詁 in Laozi tong 老子通. Changchun: Jilin renmin chubanshe 吉林人民出版社, 1991.

Liao Mingchun 廖名春. Guodian chujian Laozi jiaoshi 郭店楚簡老子校釋. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press 清華大學出版社, 2003.

Shima Kunio 島邦男. Laozi jiaozheng 老子校正. Tokyo: Kyuko Shoin 汲古書院, 1973.

Teng Rensheng 滕壬生. Chuxi jianbo wenzibian 楚系簡帛文字編. Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe 湖北教育出版社, 2008.

Wang Hui 王輝. Guwenzi tongjia zidian 古文字通假字典. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 中華書局, 2008.

William G. Boltz. Lao tzu Tao te ching 老子道德經. Unpublished manuscript.

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