The large country, representing the more powerful party in a given situation, should be humble, like the lowest river that smaller streams flow into. Humility lets you receive abundantly; an open mind lets you learn new knowledge and wisdom; the yin principle lets you overcome aggression through serenity.
The more powerful person, like the teacher in a classroom, or a client in a business setting, should be gracious and generous in initiating interactions. This establishes a positive harmony for both sides. The less powerful side, like a student or a service provider, can then follow the lead in approaching the exchange with a similar attitude of humility. This is the beginning of diplomacy for countries, and the starting point of courtesy among people.
Although both sides utilize the Tao of humble and receptive openness, their goals are different. The large country’s intent is encompassing and embracing, while the small country wishes to to serve and to learn. Both sides benefit — and it all starts with the gesture of goodwill.
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The character 牝 in this chapter warrants special attention. It usually means “female animal.” Here, in the context of interactions between large and small states, its meaning is not any particular female entity, but the more abstract feminine essence of existence — yin energy, if you prefer.
The overall context is clear: by embracing this essence, by remaining open and receptive, the large country becomes the nexus — the focal point of resources and assets flowing in from everywhere. In ancient times, China had often played this role. In the modern world, the United States, in past decades, has been the destination of top talents from all over the world, seeking education or the fulfillment of a personal dream.
In view of the above, it should be clear how not to translate 牝. One translation renders it as “wife” as in “the wife always through quietude conquers her husband.” This is simply incorrect — and sticks out like a sore thumb in a chapter devoted to international dynamics.