Explaining Water Images in the ‘Daodejing’

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).


The Daodejing uses water images in two ways. Firstly as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies at the heart of all its thinking – imagine the vastness of the ocean, the unfixable flux of flowing water, never the same river twice. The texts also use water images to suggest aspects of our behaviour (personal and political) if we are acting in accordance with the Dao or Way. Many use metaphors of water in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined because in its nature indefinable in language or figures.

So Chapter 1, ‘Nursery’ (I’ll give my titles as well as traditional Chapter numbers), introduces water images while giving a clear indication of the short-comings of all language. It deploys a metaphor that immediately undermines the efficacy of its own figurative language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through a further metaphor: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomena of our world can only be suggested through additional metaphors such as a “mould”, a “source”, a “mystery”. Even this is not enough; more than a mystery it is “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. In my version I introduced a watery context for the source itself (indefinably, untrackably “adrift”). I then developed this to image it as a body of water held behind a “flood-gate” which only in release and inundation delivers “greater truth”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains just beyond our grasp.


A similar image of a body of water occurs in Chapter 4, ‘Something greater’. The tenor of the metaphor is again reduced to “it” in the opening line.  The context indicates that “it” is the Dao itself, the One that precedes and contains all things, that state of wholeness and plentitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. Here the tentative nature of the metaphor is indicated firstly through the opening imperative – “imagine” – and then because the text itself consists of proposed alternatives to this very image. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource: “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. This image of a bottomless water source is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry” yet this follows 4 other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects:


fretted edges are smoothed within it


knots untangled all dazzle eased

all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared


And the poem calmly goes on to declare its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin, or beginnings, is not adequate to convey the full force of the Dao but the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – seems to come close.

The second way in which water images are used in the Daodejing is as a gesture towards actual human behaviours which occur when we are influenced by the Dao: in knowing that the truth of the Dao is like a watery flood, we behave in a water-ish fashion. So ‘The great rivers’ (Chapter 32) reminds that the Dao “has no name” and uses one of the other recurring images of it (the uncarved block of wood). If “the powerful” would attend to the nature of the Dao they would be successful “without recourse / to compulsion or law”. One of the recurring political beliefs of these texts is that if society is organised and governed in accordance with the Dao then people will live in “harmony” without even trying (indeed it is the trying that causes the harm – see wu wei below). Metaphorically, this translates as a society knowing “when to call a halt” to our distancing from truth (the hacking of the block, the reliance on naming/language, our remoteness from the ‘water’ source that is the Dao). The poem ringingly concludes with the image of right human behaviours being likened to the natural flow of water:


all things come to those

who follow the way

as all wild streams

and all unruly torrents

drive eventually

to great rivers the sea


Water is also the image used to consider more individual behaviour. ‘Best teaching’ (Chapter 43) opens rhetorically, alluding again to water:


—what of all things is most yielding

tell me what overwhelms the hardest


without solid form itself what flows

penetrates even the smallest gap


This understanding of the action of water in its pliability and fluidity, its erosion effects and its penetrability, reminds the poet of the concept of wu wei, or non-action, another untranslatable but key idea in the whole sequence. This is the wise person’s ability to achieve actions or goals without determined or intended pursuit of them. I have translated this as “unacted deed” and this poem immediately links this to the art of teaching, the best of which “occurs in the absence of words” (show not tell?). Water is an appropriate image for this in its passivity yet power, its pliability yet ineluctable nature. The poem ends almost with a shrug at the difficulty of grasping such concepts or behaviours:


the unacted deed the indirect

direction—it’s hard to comprehend


The text of ‘Clearest words’ (Chapter 78) reinforces the image of water as a key aid to understanding Daoist thought:


—there is nothing in the world more soft

more yielding than water

yet in conflict with hard resistant things

there’s nothing better

and there is no way to alter this

what is yielding will defeat what resists

these are facts clearly known to all

why don’t we make better use of them


In these final lines we can perhaps hear Laozi’s legendary disgruntlement with the parlous state of the real world – why don’t we put known truths into action? Yet here again, the poem concludes by recognising how difficult such simple principles can be to grasp: “even clearest words are contradictory”.

Chapter 61, ‘Tributaries’, returns to a more political perspective with its comments on how “strong nations” ought to behave. The action of water in relation to both geography and gravity is the figure used on this occasion:


—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge


This ensures that any exercise of power by such nations will “issue from stillness” and “quiescence” (according to the principle of wu wei) rather than self-assertion, anxious, fearful imposition, bullying. It’s this (former) sort of behaviour that the Daodejing repeatedly returns to and characterises as “female” and what follows is one of the most beautiful passages where water images are integral to the meaning:


[ . . . ] and the male cannot

resist he brings his watery tributes

and she gains adherents he procures favour

as she looks to embrace and empower

he finds himself part of a greater thing

in this way becomes part of creation

so both thrive both discovering bliss—

real power is female it rises from beneath


This coincidence of water images and female images and the description of the passive exertion of power, nourishment, subtlety, irresistibility, is wholly characteristic of these poems. The image of water collecting at its lowest point – power exerted by doing nothing – is likewise the focus of ‘Influence’ (Chapter 66) which explicitly links such calculated passivity with virtuous potency:


—how do rivers and seas secure mastery

over the hundreds of lesser streams

through lying lower than they do


so to govern or teach you must stand

and acknowledge you are beneath the people

to guide them put yourself at the rear


only in this way can true leaders rise

not stifling people with their being on top

not bullying them into harm’s way


only this way all things under heaven

are content to range under your influence

not find instruction provocative—


a teacher achieves not by trying to achieve

and because she does not strain to succeed

there’s no-one comes forward to compete

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