De 德 Zhuangzi 莊子

edited by O Society September 23, 2019


Chi Hsing-tzu was training gamecocks for the king. After ten days the king asked if they were ready.

“Not yet. They’re too haughty and rely on their nerve.”

Another ten days and the king asked again.

“Not yet. They still respond to noises and movements.”

Another ten days and the king asked again.

“Not yet. They still look around fiercely and are full of spirit.”

Another ten days and the king asked again.

“They’re close enough. Another cock can crow and they show no sign of change. Look at them from a distance and you’d think they were made of wood. Their virtue (De 德) is complete. Other cocks won’t dare face them, but will turn and run.”

~ Zhuangzi Mastering Life


De 德 as Inner Peace 成和

Not all thinkers in ancient China interpreted the attractive or influential power of De 德 as being based on moral excellence/authority or beneficence. Other types of excellence and other qualities can be attractive to others and influence them. In the fifth chapter of the Zhuangzi 莊子, the unsightly Aitai Tuo had an unexpected magnetism about him such that both men and women wanted to be around him. His word was trusted before he said anything; he lacked merit and accomplishments but was well-liked. He simply possessed an inviolable inner calm: the usual worries and concerns “were insufficient to disrupt his inner harmony” (不足以滑和).

The text defines De as the condition of possessing “complete/perfect (inner) harmony” (Chenghe 成和). A tranquil disposition and inner calm was a virtue for “Zhuangzi,” (as it was for authors of the Laozi and Xinshu texts of the Guanzi), which is best kept intact (全). Therefore it is fitting that De, a word denoting excellence of some sort, would carry this meaning in the book bearing his name.

With regards to Aitai Tuo’s physical form, this inner peace could not be discerned from looking at him; hence, the text says his “De does not take (visible) shape” (德不形) and is similar to what the Laozi 老子 calls “subtle De” (玄德).


In bringing your spiritual and bodily souls to embrace the One,
Can you never depart from it?
In concentrating your breath to attain softness,
Can you be like an infant?
In cleansing your mirror of the dark,
Can you make it spotless?
In opening and closing heaven’s gate,
Can you be the female?
In being enlightened and comprehending all,
Can you do it without knowledge?
In loving the people and governing the state,
Can you practice non-action?
To give birth, to nurture,
To give birth yet not to claim possession,
To act yet not to hold on to,
To grow yet not to lord over,
This is called the dark virtue (玄德 xuán dé).

~ Laozi 

Both inner calm and inner strength are underscored in a number of passages in the Zhuangzi that mention De:

“To succeed or not succeed and yet come away lacking anxiety, only one who has Inner Peace (De) can do this.” (Zhuangzi 4)

“In the affairs of one’s own heart, when sorrow and joy do not easily come to the fore, to know that one cannot do anything but acquiesce to one’s fate, this is the ultimate in Inner Peace (De).” (Zhuangzi 4)

Zhuangzi 15 reveals that sages who embody Inner Peace are characterized by the condition of serenity or equanimity (澹然) and their Inner Peace kept intact when “anxieties cannot enter” (憂患不能入). Thus we find:

“Sorrow and joy are defects of Inner Peace … likes and dislikes are deficiencies of Inner Peace. Therefore, the heart-mind lacking anxieties and indulgences represents the ultimate in Inner Peace.”

People rarely talk about De 德 having this meaning in (early) Daoism.

(header image: Ayam Cemani)


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