“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’” (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?”
Regardless your opinion of John Lennon or his song, “Imagine,” I think the lyrics to that song are very similar to the imagining Lao-tzu invites us all to do in today’s verse. Wait, I think I may be already regretting that analogy. Does it leave some of my readers with a negative image? A positive one? Well, whichever it does, even if that analogy had a neutral effect on you, today’s verse probably got a similar reaction out of you.
I have always thought of today’s verse in positive terms. Maybe it is because it has always reminded me of Tolkien’s Shire, from his Hobbit books. “Imagine a small state with a small population.” Actually, I have no idea how small the population of the Shire was, in Tolkien’s mind. I just know it was filled with small folk.
Yet, I hear the criticism of those who read today’s verse, and complain that Lao-tzu was wanting us all to abandon modernity, to live primitively.
Certainly Lao-tzu taught that living simply was one of the keys to true contentment. But Lao-tzu, just as certainly, wouldn’t be about forcing everyone to live the way he envisioned to be for the best. Actually, I think those who dismiss Lao-tzu’s teachings, over his admittedly Utopian dream, are missing Lao-tzu’s whole point.
It isn’t about where you live, though I will admit, this is exactly the kind of place I’d like to live. And it isn’t even about how you live, though Lao-tzu does go on and on about how the people in this imagined place live – just imagine it. It is about whether or not you are content.
Let there be no arguments about the benefits of labor-saving tools. I happen to enjoy them, too. And would be loath to give them up.
Let there be no arguments about the benefits of traveling, of experiencing new and different cultures. I, too, agree we are enriched by diversity of peoples, places, and things. Sameness can get stale, stagnant. It’s good to shake things up every now and then.
And, please, let there be no arguments about the need for armor and weapons. Lao-tzu has already made clear both his disdain for violence and the tools of violence, weapons, while always acknowledging, we will have to resort to using them, when forced.
Can we please set all the arguments aside for just a moment, and just imagine a state of true contentment. Maybe what you imagine won’t be anything like what Lao-tzu imagines. That’s okay. Just imagine what true contentment would mean for you.
Does it involve being satisfied with the food you have to eat? Being pleased with the clothing you have to wear? Being content with your home? Being happy with your customs?
Can we set aside our petty differences, and just imagine being content with our lives? And then, having imagined it, can we make it a reality by being content with our lives?
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.