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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Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 2

What follows is the second installment taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing, published by Enitharmon Press. More information and comments on the book can be found here. References to the traditional 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions. The first section (to read it click here) concluded by indicating how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with.


Proceeding to consider how such awareness (more commonly the absence of it) impacts on our personal (and hence political) lives is also a primary concern of the Daodejing. It comes as no surprise that our battle against the tyranny of the self, that intense, intoxicating selfishness that Coleridge calls “the alcohol of egotism” is the key (the phrase is from an unassigned lecture note, date unknown, on Milton’s Satan, specifically concerning his preference to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. See S. T. Coleridge, Collected Works, ed. Foakes (Princeton UP, 1987), Volume 5, Part 1, p. 427). This is where the untranslatable idea of wu-wei arises. The phrase is intended to characterise actions performed in accordance with, in harmony with the Dao; hence they are driven not by the blinkered and shuttered individual self, but by a more open awareness of the expansive, interconnected reality of the Dao. This is the significance of the recurring idea that the follower of the way should attend not to ‘that’ but to ‘this’. The former implies a divided world (self and other – ‘that’ out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one. Hence, the narrow intentionality, the forcefulness of the self is withdrawn from actions performed in accordance with wu-wei.


In translating these ideas, I have used the phrase ‘indirect direction’ to suggest the methods of our dealings with others and the ‘unacted deed’ in an attempt to characterise the pursuit of our own intentions. Both phrases are woefully inadequate, but I hope to convey as plainly as possible the paradoxical nature of these ideas. How they are played out in real human behaviours can be glimpsed through the ‘Three treasures’ (Chapter 67). These treasures are: to be compassionate, to be frugal, to lack personal ambition. In each behaviour, egocentricity is diminished through empathy and there is an inclination towards wise passivity. There is a corresponding reduction in the individual’s personally directed desires (‘Wishes’ (Chapter 3)); we are to act ‘Like water’ (Chapter 8), flowing passively, dispassionately towards lower ground in both personal and political spheres (‘Influence’ (Chapter 66)). We are being urged (to switch the metaphor as the Daodejing deliberately does) to work with the grain of the Dao.

This is what the sage pre-eminently promulgates and performs. I have consistently translated this figure as ‘teacher’, often ‘my teacher’ and (though literary Chinese does not mark gender) there is something unmistakably feminine about her behaviours. This is a point the poems declare insistently. The Dao itself has female qualities (‘Valley’ Chapter 6)) and the teacher also reflects this in her quietness, passivity, sensitivity, lack of overt force (‘Raw material’ (Chapter 27)). Stephen Mitchell’s much praised and popular version of the poems carefully uses ‘she’ at least as often as ‘he’ to refer to the teacher figure. (See Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: a New English Version (Harper and Row, 1988), p. xi). But I wanted to go further and have consistently feminised, even personalised this figure. Early on in the translation process, I felt a need to make this shadowy figure more manifest, to ground her pedagogic statements for our more liberal, democratic age with its absence of deference. As I set about this, it was clear she had to be female and she soon took on a dual role, both as representative or personification of the Dao itself and as its incarnation in actual human form, a mother figure, a female teacher, a friend.


The ways in which these teachings translate into the world of politics are summed up in the terse, witty, metaphor of ‘Recipe’ (Chapter 60). The art of good governance is like the art of cooking a delicate fish: don’t interfere, don’t force it, be watchful, assist, adapt, proceed only with the lightest of touches. Laozi’s politics are impossible to translate to our modern age but given the proviso that he is determined to preserve the simplicity and frugality of people’s lives, many of his sentiments read as politically anarchic, primitivist, conservative, environmentalist. For those of us from a Western tradition, there is a Rousseauistic quality to his thinking, a belief in the goodness of mankind as noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious (‘Codes of kindness’ (Chapter 18)). Laozi is certainly vigorously anti-war, the pursuit of which he regards as the quintessence of the over-determined masculine self in action in utter disregard of the Dao.


Historically, translators have approached these poems in many ways. Benjamin Penny’s recent review of the field shows how many early versions were motivated by a Western cultural imperialism, searching out affirmations of its own monotheistic tradition (See Benjamin Penny, Introduction to Laozi: Daodejing, tr. Edmund Ryden (OUP, 2008)). Later attempts were spurred by a contrasting desire to find something different, to revitalise moribund Western values in search of exoticism, anti-rationalism, the non-Christian. Still others, keeping a firm hold on a wide variety of already settled spiritual/religious beliefs, plumbed the frequent ambiguities and lacunae of the Daodejing to re-affirm those beliefs. More recently, scholars and academics have brought an ever-growing understanding of Chinese history and culture to bear on these delicate texts and it is surely impossible to avoid accusations of Westernisation in any English version of the Daodejing. Even Stephen Mitchell – who had “a fourteen-years-long course of Zen training” to draw on – has since been accused of colonial mis-appropriation (See Mitchell, ibid., translator’s Forward. For the vigorous accusation, see Russell Kirkland and his book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Routledge, 2004)).


In my case, it was as a long-standing teacher, poet and recent translator of Rainer Maria Rilke that I first came to the text. I found myself in astonishing sympathy with many of the things it has to say about language and poetry and especially about the pedagogic process, both formally and in our everyday interactions. Laozi suggests the teacher’s role is to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. We must be honest, be ourselves, give the tools, give opportunities, do our job well, but then let go, don’t dwell. We need to be someone to emulate, be quiet, still, attentive, be present, not absent, be mindful, be welcoming. Our role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Laozi knows that our teacherly interventions – whether physical or verbal – must inevitably alter the material we hope to engage with; we set in motion a swinging pendulum. Our actions call forth responses to the fact we act, plan, demand. Students may re-act to this (against this) simply because we are seen to act. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else. Laozi believes students come upon discoveries by themselves. So we must work via indirect direction and the unacted deed. Progress will be seen to happen of its own accord. The deed we desire will remain undone; this is the best way of getting it done.


Idealistic? Of course, as can be seen most vividly in ‘The commonwealth’ (Chapter 80) which is Laozi’s evocation of the contented society adhering to the ways of the Dao. For Western readers, this poem echoes Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in its turn lifted from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ (Montaigne, Essays (1580). Shakespeare read and paraphrased John Florio’s 1603 translation into English). Laozi’s original gift to the gatekeeper is not to be read as a handbook, not an instructional scripture, but as inspiration. Bearing that in mind, we ought correspondingly to resist the temptation to approach it with the dismissive cynicism of an Antonio or Sebastian, Shakespeare’s all-too-modern sounding cynical ‘evil men’. I think we ought to listen to these poems open-mindedly, mindfully. We ought to resist following the crowd so vividly portrayed in ‘Adrift’ (Chapter 20) who always say, “Prithee, no more; thou dost talk nothing to me” (The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1, l.169). When the true teacher stands in our house, no matter how detached, untidy, unimpressive, even muddled she may superficially appear, Laozi is reminding us “there are treasures beneath” (‘In your house’ (Chapter 70)).



Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Sarah Howe

Stop Press January 2016: Sarah Howe’s collection has just become the first ‘first collection’ winner of the TS Eliot prize. A fantastic achievement. What follows is the review I wrote of the book during the summer of 2015.

This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the last two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); author’s website.


Howe reading at the Southbank Centre:

Sarah Howe’s first full collection is packed with journeys, stories, bits of language, calligraphy, mothers and daughters – but mostly it should be admired for its readiness to experiment. The concluding poem, ‘Yangtze’, might be read as an evocation of the Daoist belief in the primacy of fluidity and the watercourse way. A moon glimmers uncertainly on water’s surfaces, a river flows, a diving bird vanishes into it, fishermen’s nets catch on something submerged, a bridge remains only “half-built”, a travelling boat merely “points” to its destination. What remains hidden and inarticulate predominates; as the Daodejing argues, our life’s journey often runs against the current because we mostly lack the proper perspective to see the world is really one, not the parts we think we know. Those 81 wonderful ancient Chinese poems also argue that our way forward is really backwards, to recover an understanding of what has always been: that sense of unity of being which underlies all phenomena. Their wisdom is a sort of nostalgia and this is what drives much of Howe’s work.


Two nostalgic tributaries flow into Loop of Jade – one philosophical, the other autobiographical. As in Daoist thought, words are not to be relied on and this is why Howe’s epigraph is by Borges, out of Foucault. It is a mock absurd taxonomy of the animal kingdom, sub-divided into a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, and so on to n) that from a long way off look like flies. The butt of the joke is language’s categories, organised perhaps in such quasi-random ways. Several poems play with the pleasant thought that Chinese calligraphy can bring us closer to the truth. A scholar sits in his study and “lends his brush the ideal pressure – / leaves his mind there, on the paper”. Jesuit missionaries arriving at Canton likewise thought they’d discovered “Adam’s perfect tongue”, the language of Eden, an “anchoring of sign to thing”. The poems address the risk that we “might forget // words’ tenuous moorings” but as we are all signed-up postmodernists nowadays the joke ends at the scholar-poet’s expense in the poem ‘(k) Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ when his poorly tethered boat drifts away and leaves him helplessly marooned upstream.


Yet Howe is poet enough (‘poet-scholar’ is more of a disjunction than a working synthesis) to allow a woman in a Bonnard painting to long for “someone who will teach her the names of trees” (‘Woman in the Garden’) and the technique of the banderole – those speech scrolls often included in paintings – makes an unusual subject for a poem because it is a way to “make / mute canvas speak” (‘Banderole’). Perhaps it even bears some resemblance to Chinese calligraphy. Certainly, we need names as a form of geography, “for knowing where we are and names / of fixed and distant things” (‘Islands’). Accordingly, Howe scatters brief lyric poems, mostly descriptive, through the book and these seem also to aspire towards the state of calligraphy – one way at least of negotiating with the recalcitrance, the difficulty of mooring words; but these are not among the most successful poems in the book.

Wumen Huikai

Instead, Howe’s experimentalism is more iconoclastic as shown in ‘(m) Having just broken the water pitcher’. This poem draws on a story from Wumen Huikai’s The Gateless Gate in which the sage Baizhang asks his pupil ‘If you cannot call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?’ The correct reply, we are told, is to kick the pitcher over and leave! There are some fascinating insights buried in this book about the rebelliousness of Chinese bloggers reinventing forms of language to avoid censorship and there’s no doubt they can be seen as partaking in the ancient traditions of their country. To paraphrase the opening chapter of the Daodejing: the words you are permitted to use are not the words that will remain. The kicked-over pitcher – to shift the metaphor as the Daodejing does – breaks the paradigm, returns us to the uncarved block of wood, the original state, before words, government, censorship.

SH photo

This original state is characterised in Laozi’s Dao poems as the ‘mother of all’ and the second nostalgic tributary flowing powerfully into Howe’s book is an autobiographical exploration of her Chinese mother’s life and culture. This is the more immediately accessible and marketable thread of the book that the Chatto blurb draws attention to and these poems are very vivid and moving. Most of them build in a documentary style, full of specific, often period, details to demonstrate yet another way of negotiating between words and things. ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ (a poem that might be usefully read beside Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Arrival at Santos’) has the narrator arriving on a paradoxically “strange pilgrimage to home”, trying to imagine her mother’s earlier life:

Something sets us looking for a place.

Old stories tell that if we could only

get there, all distances would be erased [. . . ]

This search is as much philosophical/spiritual as autobiographical: “Soon we will reach / the fragrant city”, though arriving at the putative destination, there is still so much “you can no longer see”. The title sequence of the book itself is in this mode, becoming even more documentary in its largely prose passages, interspersed with lyrical folk tale material and ventriloquistic evocations of the mother’s speaking voice. It ends with a more conventional poem on the jade pendent itself , given by the mother, blessed by a grandmother. It is worn to protect: “if baby // falls, the loop of stone – a sacrifice – / will shatter / in her place”. Curiously, the final line suggests some sort of fall has already taken place though the jade remains intact and I guess this is the fall from cultural roots torn up in Howe’s childhood move to the West: “And if I break it now – will I be saved?’


This is a fecund book, full of poetic ideas and a variety of forms. But it’s not exactly easy reading – Howe isn’t always inclined to swing her poems far across the chasm between writer and reader. But their richness derives from the twin sources of Howe’s thinking: on one side erudite and philosophical, on the other intimate and autobiographical and the use she makes of the myths, thinkers, stories and landscapes of her Chinese background means this is a book unlike any other.