Where Is This Place?

“Imagine a small state with a small population
let there be labor-saving tools
that aren’t used
let people consider death
and not move far
let there be boats and carts
but no reason to ride them
let there be armor and weapons
but no reason to employ them
let people return to the use of knots
and be satisfied with their food
and pleased with their clothing
and content with their homes
and happy with their customs
let there be another state so near
people hear its dogs and chickens
but live out their lives
without making a visit”

(Taoteching, verse 80, translation by Red Pine)

HUANG-TI says, “A great state is yang. A small state is yin.”

SU CH’E says, “Lao-tzu lived during the decline of the Chou, when artifice flourished and customs suffered, and he wished to restore its virtue through doing nothing. Hence, at the end of his book he wishes he had a small state to try this on. But he never got his wish.”

YAO NAI says, “In ancient times, states were many and small. In later times, they were few and great. But even if a great state wanted to return to the ancient ways, how could it?”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When sages govern great states, they think of them as small states and are frugal in the use of resources. When the people are many, sages think of them as few and are careful not to exhaust them.”

HU SHIH says, “With the advance of civilization, the power of technology is used to replace human labor. A cart can carry thousands of pounds, and a boat can carry hundreds of passengers. This is the meaning of ‘labor-saving tools.’”

WANG AN-SHIH says, “When the people are content with their lot, they don’t concern themselves with moving far away or with going to war.”

THE YICHING CHITZU says, “The earlier rulers used knots in their government. Later sages introduced the use of writing” (B.2).

WU CH’ENG says, “People who are satisfied with their food and pleased with their clothes cherish their lives and don’t tempt death. People who are content with their homes and happy with their customs don’t move far away. They grow old and die where they were born.”

CH’ENG HSUAN-YING says, “They are satisfied with their food because they taste the Tao. They are pleased with their clothing because they are adorned with virtue. They are content with their homes because they are content wherever they are. And they are happy with their customs because they soften the glare of the world.”

TS’AO TAO-CH’UNG says, “Those who do their own farming and weaving don’t lack food or clothes. They have nothing to give and seek nothing. Why should they visit others?”

Red Pine wonders, “Where is this place?” And, I would have to echo him. In his penultimate verse, Lao-tzu is done (not literally, but figuratively). Lao-tzu imagined a better world for us all. One where people are content. Don’t get too caught up in the description, your mind may start raising all sorts of objections. And, Lao-tzu wasn’t interested in arguing. Lao-tzu’s point, I think, is that all these things, we don’t think we can live without, have failed in their purpose to make us content. Does Lao-tzu have a problem with labor-saving tools? Not at all. He says, “Let them be.” He just thinks we would be much happier if we had them, but never saw the need in using them. Boats and carts (in his time) had made life so much better. Look at how much easier it is to move people and products from place to place! Look at all your choices regarding food, regarding clothing, regarding homes, and even customs… You have so much! Yet, you don’t know how to enjoy them. Lao-tzu isn’t meaning to limit our choices. He is wanting us to be happy. Wouldn’t it be far better to have armor and weapons with no reason to ever employ them, than to live in a constant state of war? Lao-tzu did seem to think his dream of a people content could never be realized in a large state. This is why he envisioned a small one. The lesson I draw from today’s verse, “The reason you aren’t content isn’t because you have too many choices, it is because you aren’t satisfied with all that you have.”

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

HUANG-TI (27TH C. B.C.). Known as the Yellow Emperor, he was the leader of the confederation of tribes that established their hegemony along the Yellow River. Thus, he was considered the patriarch of Chinese civilization. When excavators opened the Mawangtui tombs, they also found four previously unknown texts attributed to him: Chingfa, Shihtaching, Cheng, and Taoyuan.

YAO NAI (1732-1815). One of the most famous literary figures of the Ch’ing dynasty and advocate of writing in the style of ancient prose. His anthology of ancient literary models, Kuwentzu Leitsuan, has had a great influence on writers and remains in use.

THE YICHING CHITZU (APPENDED JUDGMENTS ON THE BOOK OF CHANGES). Attributed to Duke Wen. The YICHING (BOOK OF CHANGES). Ancient manual of divination based on a system of hexagrams invented by Fu Hsi (ca. 3500 B.C.) with judgments attributed to Duke Wen and the Duke of Chou (c. 1200-1100 B.C.), and commentaries added some 600 years later, reportedly by Confucius.

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