The Politics of the ‘Daodejing’


I travelled north to Bradford earlier this week to read from my versions of the Daodejing. For the first time a reader of Mandarin was present to read from something approaching the original texts. Bradford artist Yan Wang read beautifully as well as providing the evening with a couple of large banner-scrolls of chapters from the text. The whole evening had been organised by an old friend, Bruce Barnes, a poet and tireless organiser and more recently translator of long-neglected work by Kosuke Shirasu, a Japanese proletarian writer from the 1920/30s. I read Bruce’s ‘interpretations’ of Shirasu’s work (done with the help of Jun Shirasu and published as Out of his struggles (Utistugu Press, Bradford) on the train back to London and it reminded me that I had wanted for a while to organise my thoughts about the political elements in the Daodejing poems. (Poem titles in brackets are those I have given to the individual ‘chapters’ of the text).


It’s generally accepted that one of the purposes of the collection of texts called the Daodejing is to instruct about good government. Chapter 46 (Annexation) argues that when government adheres to the Way – the teachings of the Daoist ideas – then its great parades of horses “are put out to grass to fertilise the ground”. It’s when government neglects the Way that its “war horses sire and foal / even on sacred ground”. Such neglect leads to personal and political “unsteadiness” which Chapter 26 (‘Breath-taking Scenes’) identifies as the “loss of all authority”. This is authority in its truest sense because in other poems we read of aggressive, power-grabbing behaviour which is also a way of neglecting Daoist ideas. Chapter 29 (‘What is Fixed’) describes those who grab at “earthly power” who are as liable to smash it as gain any advantage.

One of the key chapters, 67 (‘Three Treasures’) goes so far as to suggest that “only one reluctant to grasp power / is properly capable of government”. One clear attitude in these poems is that busy, hyperactive government – one that “grows brisk full of initiatives” – is an error:


those who hope

to rule by dishing out

press releases

a multiplicity of choices

are the con-men

of the nation

Chapter 65 (‘Blizzard’)


This distrust of big government is compounded when those with power try to ingratiate themselves with those they rule. With very little modernisation, the Daodejing is suspicious of those politicians who “style themselves ‘man of the people’ / sometimes ‘housewife’ / they like to say ‘we are all in this together’” (Chapter 39). What lies behind such cynical declarations is a real hunger for power as an exercise of ego (not true government). Laozi is very clear that such egoistic motives lead only in one direction for a nation: war.


–those who govern my teacher says

must oppose conquest by force of arms


such methods swiftly rebound

thorn and bramble where troops assemble

Chapter 30 (‘Scorched Earth’)


Leaders (and the Daodejing never really doubts that human society needs leaders of a sort) need to adhere to the Way and encourage their people to do the same. Chapter 37 (‘Dispassion’) puts it succinctly:


—the way enacts nothing yet through it all things are achieved

if the powerful

possessed themselves of it

the ten thousand would be transformed


once transformed if they begin

to demand action

they ought to be constrained

with the uncarved wood quality of namelessness


the unconditional quality of the nameless

evokes dispassion—

hence it is to be still


so the nation pursues its way in peace


This idea of ‘constraint’ begins to sound authoritarian again but elsewhere it appears our political leaders are being advised not to over-encourage our expectations. Chapter 19 (‘Fewer Wishes’) advises that a people’s restlessness ought to be dealt with by offering them “simplicity / to behold give them the uncarved block // give them selflessness give fewer wishes”. In our world of unconfined desire and acquisitiveness (the point of being alive?) this sounds suspect perhaps but is perfectly in line with those who choose to opt out of modern life towards simplicity, fewer possessions etc. The uncarved block is a recurring image representing the fullest presence of life and experience before we begin to hack away at it with our self-centred preconceptions. The three virtues of the Daodejing are to be compassionate, to be frugal and to lack ambition.


The point is that Daoist thinking is optimistic about human nature. There is a Rousseauistic quality to its belief in the goodness of mankind as a 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. Chapter 18 (Codes of kindness’) argues it’s only when the Way “falls into disuse / codes of kindness thoughts / of morality evolve”. Laozi argues we are better off without such rules of codified behaviour. This is not quite anarchism but certainly a powerfully libertarian thread runs through the work. In one of the most striking images in the whole sequence, Chapter 60 (‘Recipe’) compares true government to the cooking of a “delicate fish”. It requires the gentlest of touches:


no agitation

or any demon

or the fretting

of your own spirit


no shuffle or harm

or sudden injury

but aid and attend

gain advantage


the power to feed

the common purpose


It’s this delicacy, gentleness, almost passivity of government that leads Laozi to associate this approach with the stereotypically ‘female’. Early on, in Chapter 6 (‘Valley’) we are told the spirit of the Way is “[a] valley without end / it is female it is called mysteriousness”. This translates politically into government playing a largely passive role (as does the good teacher) to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. Government must be honest, give the tools, give opportunities, do its job well. Its role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Its actions call forth responses to the fact it acts, plans, demands. 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.



chapter 61


—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge

so their invitations issue from stillness

through quiescence they gather power

let’s call that female 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

Study of a Kneeling Boy Bending a Bow, for Dorchester House c.1860 by Alfred Stevens 1817-1875

Like the cooked fish, another memorable image is the bending of a bow. As it is bent the top (of society) descends earthwards while what is “nearest the earth is raised up”. This is the ideal process of government in the Daodejing. Only in Chapter 80 (‘The Commonwealth’) does Laozi give something of a portrait of the contentedly ruled society. It is small, hard-working, has basic needs met; it has the capability of greater luxury (and also weapons) but none of these are made use of. This little society is aware of others around it (perhaps run on different lines) but its people are so content they feel no desire to travel.

Idealistic without doubt. But does this even sound attractive? It’s unlikely to – given our absorption into our consumerist society, our expectations that government ought to provide and lead. But we don’t need to look far to see systems breaking down and at the least what the Daodejing offers is an alternative vision of the exercise of power in society. It’s a vision that is over 2000 years old which means it’s either well past its sell-by-date or that it contains some wisdom that we ought not to ignore.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Martyn and Yan Wang reading from the ‘Daodejing’ for Beehive Poets, Bradford

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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