Images of the Child in Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’

Most images of the child in Laozi’s Daodejing appear as metaphors. For a text that has a strongly backward-looking, even primitivist tendency there is surprisingly little of our own post-Romantic fetishisation of childhood. For Wordsworth, the child could be seriously considered father of the man and the loss of childhood an event from which we never recover. But for Laozi (almost as paradoxically) the child is more often used as an image of the state of being towards which the wise man or woman strives.


For example in Chapter 20, the narrative voice compares himself to a child (all translations in what follows are from my forthcoming book (Spring 2016)). This is one of the few parts of the Daodejing where we hear a reasonably consistent lyric voice (not the figure of the teacher) expressing a troubled state of mind because he tries to adopt the teachings of Laozi. Though opening optimistically, “—in putting by what / passes for knowledge / truth is there are / fewer reasons to grieve”, the narrator is soon perturbed by his observations of “the grinning crowd”. What follows is a vivid description of the worldly mob, intent on their own petty, material lives, their narrow purposes:


as if celebrating

closing some deal


about to embark

on a summer vacation


This is the world that Laozi (the putative author of the Daodejing) is said to have despaired of in his own time. The story goes that he vanished from Chinese society sometime in the sixth century BCE, leaving behind only the 81 Chapters of the Daodejing as a kind of despairing, if consolatory handbook. In Chapter 20, the narrator reaches for the image of a child in trying to characterise himself:


I live in solitude

I’m like a quiet child


though one who’s yet

to take his first steps

I’m like an infant

incapable of smiling


I dither and droop

find no place to belong

[. . . ] I seem

to have let things slip


His contrast to the determined mob is vivid and for most of the poem it seems not strongly in his favour. However, the concluding lines present a more satirical tone, a more defiant effort at self-confidence, declaring that he finds:


no significance

in those things

that do not drive roots

deep in the way


On several occasions, the poems present those who follow the way, the teachings of Laozi, as ill-adjusted to the world as we find it. Chapter 28 begins to explain why. The follower of the way does not divide or discriminate; her vision of life is comprehensive:


—know the male

yet hold to the female

become a valley

in receipt of all things


in becoming a valley

know the power

that cannot be

called on in vain


In achieving such a state of perception (we might say vision), the poem again calls on the image of a child: “this the reprise / to the child-like state”. That this is a reprise, a return of some sort, is an idea repeated throughout the 81 Chapters of the Daodejing. I think this sounds more Wordsworthian than it really is. Laozi is more concerned to draw his readers’ attention back to the wisdom of a previous age rather than one innately the preserve of childhood and subsequently lost as the bars of the prison house fall. But perhaps both images really ought to be read as no more than metaphors. Interestingly, Chapter 28, deploys an alternative metaphor in its effort to convey the wholeness of vision:


be the reversion

to the uncarved block

when the block is cut

shaped for use


by the teacher’s hand

a controlling force

the truth is who carves

best carves least


Reprise here becomes “reversion” but the “uncarved block” represents the oneness of being that Laozi’s teaching is founded on. The resort to the figurative suggests the basic inadequacy of language to encompass this oneness – just one of the very modern-seeming themes of these wonderful poems.

The premise of this oneness yields the (again modern-sounding) corollary that even our individual selves are provisional at best. The opening of Chapter 49 suggests:


—the true teacher is like a poet

who has no self to speak of

using the self of others as his own


And Laozi is under no illusions about how such beliefs distance the believer from the world as it is lived. The sage, or master, or (as I have translated it) the teacher, inevitably seems a square peg in a round hole. But it is ironically she who perceives the underlying truth of things:


in the way she deals with the world

the teacher may seem dazed

confused as if her wits were dull


yet even as the nation’s households

strain ears and eyes she listens

she watches in the guise of a child


The most developed consideration of the image of the child comes in Chapter 55. Those who manage to follow the way possess a child-like innocence that William Blake would recognise as built not on narrowness, naivety and ignorance but on a fullness of knowledge beyond what most of us can aspire to and such transcendent innocence is like a protective charm. In Chapter 55, images of children include indications of sexuality and pain suggesting a world undivided by conventionally shallow ideas of morality or ‘happiness’, a world of profound harmony discovered in the recognition of the oneness of all things. The poem also powerfully argues that to be ignorant of this truth breeds egotism and greed which, under the guise of acquisition and self-aggrandisement, turn out to be nothing less than a primrose path to a form of extinction.


Dead inflexibility

chapter 55


—the immunity of one pursuing the way

is like the charm of innocence about a child


winged insects will not sting nor beasts

attack sharp beaks do not swoop to peck


though bones may be soft and sinews weak

yet the grip of the child is powerful still


and though the sexual life is still remote

the boy’s prick stands stiff as a thumb


despite the hungry child’s keening all day

she sleeps with no rawness in her throat


the body of a child has such harmony—

to know harmony is to find the ever-here


finding the ever-here is enlightenment

but cramming life to the brim is foolish


when such a person asks so much of life

the resulting glut is dead inflexibility


such irritable reaching only ends in decay



One thought on “Images of the Child in Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’

  1. […] Daoism has been referred to as the Watercourse Way because of the importance of water images in its key source, the Daodejing. I thought much about these images in translating/versioning these ancient Chinese texts and I want to record a few thoughts systematically here. However, as you’ll see, trying to ‘fix’ something runs counter to the Way – yet even if what we seek runs through our hands, the effort to consider the role of such images is worthwhile. (I have blogged about other images in the Daodejing here). […]


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