“Imagine a small state with a small population
let there be labor-saving tools
that aren’t used
let people consider death
and no 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’” (Chung-kuo che-hsueh-shih ta-kang. p. 64).
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?”
In this penultimate verse of the Taoteching, Lao-tzu invites us to imagine a small state with a small population. It took quite a bit of imagination to conjure up such an image, even in Lao-tzu’s day. By then, as Yao Nai notes in his commentary, states were no longer “many and small” they were now “few and great.” Power does tend to consolidate, just as it tends to corrupt.
Lao-tzu envisioned a place where people were content; so content, they never would want to leave their homes. Lao-tzu saw his own lack of contentment, in how his own state was governed, and he was itching to leave. But, where could he go? Where is this place, with a small state and a small population? And, if this place exists, point me in the right direction, I find myself itching to leave for it, as well.
If it exists, it sounds like “paradise” to me. It actually has always reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, filled with hobbits just minding their own business. It was a strange hobbit, indeed, who ever traveled far, seeking adventure. Why would any sane hobbit ever want to do that? You might miss “second breakfast.” And quite a few other meals. Food is definitely something with which we ought to be satisfied.
Can you imagine it? It may seem strange, even foreign to us, in this day and age. Being satisfied with our own food. Being pleased with our own clothing. Being content with our own home. Being happy with our own customs. Never wanting more…
I can already hear the objections to this idyllic picture. “What is wrong with wanting to travel? What is wrong with enjoying other people’s cultures?
Why, nothing. Nothing at all. But is it possible, even a little bit, that the reason we all have that itch is because we aren’t truly content. And, maybe, just maybe, we might be surprised with how happy we could be, if we could find true contentment no farther away than our own backyard gardens?
I certainly don’t think Lao-tzu’s intention is to diss traveling, or enjoying other cultures. After all, he was getting ready to “get the hell out of Dodge,” himself. What he is bemoaning is the way we are being governed. It produces discontentment in our lives. Great states with large populations, how could people be expected to be content with that?
The reality for most of us, me included, is that exit is not a very viable option. We are going to have to make do pretty much where we are. But, there is something for those of us that have to stay, here in today’s verse, as well.
At least, I found it here. So here is what I am doing. Understanding that there isn’t much that I can do about how I am being governed, externally. I decided that there was a heck of a lot that I could do about how I am being governed, internally.
I have ordered, and continue to order my life in such a way that I am as little affected by the external government as I can possibly be. I have established my own Shire in my own home, my own backyard. I have trained myself to be content with less. I have food enough, clothing enough, home enough, and customs enough. And I am happy with less. Less, I have found through experience, is truly more!
I hope this has been helpful for all of you. And good luck with your own personal Shire.
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. Lao-tzu chang-chu.
YICHING CHITZU (APPENDED JUDGMENTS ON THE BOOK OF CHANGES). Attributed to Duke Wen.