Lao-tze frequently quotes proverbs of the people and sayings of his predecessors. Of the latter he has a very high opinion which he here expresses.
Lao-tze says that the sages of yore behave like guests, alluding to the Chinese
custom for guests to be always reserved and modest. They are elusive as the Tao is elusive (see Chapter 21), which means that their words admit of more than one interpretation and frequently conceal a deeper meaning. In the same sense the Tao is called elusive because it has never been grasped in its full significance. A philosopher may think he has fathomed its meaning, and afterwards may find out that his view is only one aspect and there is more to it. So a search for truth can never be completed. Like melting ice the old masters have more depth than the surface shows.
Further, the sages are simple, without the polish of artful elegance, and thus they are compared to "rough wood." They are empty because they make no show, and they are like the valley, which is Lao-tze's favorite simile to indicate an attitude of lowliness. The more lowly a river flows the larger and broader will it be, and the most lowly valley will become the main stream, the ocean river, of an entire system with many tributaries.
The last sentence of this chapter is difficult to interpret, and had perhaps better be translated:
"Without being fashionable he is perfect,"
which would mean "though not in style he is as he ought to be." The last three words read in literal translation "not-new-perfected" which may mean "not newly formed," that is to say, "he is not of a modern fashion"; or we may translate, "he is not fashionable and yet perfect"; or "without being renewed he is complete," which would imply that the sage can grow old without standing in need of rejuvenescence, viz., natural or artificial means of recuperating his vitality. But it may mean, as we have translated it in a former edition, "without reform he is perfect." Finally the two last words may be synonyms, and the three may mean, "without being renewed and completed."
Happily the passage is not of much consequence, and there is no great harm if we can not decide which interpretation is preferable.