One, Two, Three…Everything

In Taiji Quan Classics, the phrase “Dao begets the one, one begets two, two beget three, three beget ten thousand things” (道生一,一生二,二生三,三生万物) appears frequently. It’s a famous line by Laozi. And this is a classic example of literal translation being the wrong translation.

Whenever we translate something, we need to know the conventions of usage in addition to the meaning of individual words. Here one refers to Taiji – one entity with 2 opposite but complementary elements within. Two refers to Liang Yi – two separate entities, each possessing of just one pure quality (Taiji splits into pure yin and pure yang), and those two can produce the third entity (child), so on so forth. In Chinese 10,000, being a very large number, refers to everything.

So when Laozi said three leads to ten thousand, he doesn’t mean these three entities combine to produce 10,000 the same way the first two combined to make three. It’s actually an abbreviated way to say “so on and on…”, similar to what we do today in math to denote a series of numbers, for example Positive Integers [1,2,3…N]. Yin and Yang are general qualities thta can produce any number of offsprings (the first offspring created this way being entity no. 3).

This is a very common convention in Classical Chinese, but if we’re not careful it can lead to a lot of confusion.

Wang Xizhi, Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion, in which the author marveled at the sheer number and variety of nature’s creations.


1 Response to “One, Two, Three…Everything”

  1. 1 Alex
    2009-08-05 at 4:01 AM

    great post, awesome blog.


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