A Ku Indeed!

Taoist Utopias

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Taoism by Chris on November 1, 2008

Tao Te Ching 80 is an interesting poem, one that seems to provide a description for what might appear to be a Taoist utopia. Like all utopian portraits, some of the ways in which things would “ideally be” turn out to be interesting, if not counter-intuitive.  Although TTC 80 contains a number of these, the one that sticks out the most to me is: a seemingly upturned nose towards travel.

TTC 80 reads:

A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man, they are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

Five lines stick out:

The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.

and

Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

I suppose there are lots of ways to read these lines, but one would be this: in the Taoist utopia, people no longer seem to travel much. The first two lines seem to have this sort of literal reading: people have boats and carriages, but don’t use them. People lives lives that find fulfillment using what is immediately around them; they no longer need to satisfy needs that require much travel, perhaps outside of a small rustic home community (not that Confucius differs on this point to a degree — one should not travel too far from one’s parents!).

The last three lines could give a different reading, suggesting not so much that people don’t travel, but that they don’t contend with one another, perhaps that the differences between people are no longer a cause for discord. Or one could see the “peace” as a result of the fact that people simply stay in their own communities. (I should note that I don’t know Chinese, and Derek Lin’s translation of the last line seems to make the meaning of the final three lines seem more to suggest that people literally don’t interact physically).

In any case, let’s say that the meaning is literal: in the Taoist paradise, people don’t travel very far, and tend to stick close to home.

Is this counter-intuitive to people? Do you think such a thing is ideal (I’m thinking here of the typical desire of liberal arts colleges — as a part to cultivate the ‘ideal student’ — to (a) get students to develop healthy curiosities about the world and (b) get those students to literally study abroad)? Why would not traveling be ideal? And is Laozi suggesting here that a true “Tao cultivator” (as Derek Lin puts it) would not be “curious” about what is different? Or is the claim that one can find much to be engrossed with right where one lives — in the “now” and “here” of one’s present experiences? Perhaps that curiosity with the different is a kind of addiction to the distraction of changing superficial experiences (like drugs, perhaps)?

And why is “not traveling far” linked to taking death seriously? Or is the “and” there not meant to link the two thematically?

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7 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on November 1, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Hi Chris,

    When I’m looking at translations of the DDJ to help me understand the original, the first ones I look at are by P. J. Ivanhoe and D. C. Lau. Regarding the last lines, I think you saw well through Lin’s translation: there’s no “peace” in the last line of the Chinese. It’s like this:

    民 min2 – (the) people
    至zhi4 – go to, arrive at
    老 lao3 – old
    死 si3 – die
    不bu4 – not
    相 xiang1 – each other
    往 wang3 – go
    來lai2 – come

    That is, the people grow old and die without having exchanged visits.

    The first line means either “States should be small and their people few” or, as Ivanhoe has it, “Reduce the size of the state, lessen the population.”

    In Lin’s “The people take death seriously and do not travel far,” the “and” does reflect something like “and so” in the Chinese. Travel was, I imagine, dangerous.

    I guess the DDJ envisions a world without long-distance trade, so that the main material reasons for thinking about far places would be military. When I strain to get my American students to think about people in far places, that’s in large part because the US messes with people in far places.

    These days there’s a conceptual difficulty about what it means to refrain from travel. One must also get off line. (Chapter 80 suggests doing without books and correspondence.) I’m in Hong Kong for a while, but I have frequent free video calls with people in other countries. By way of YouTube I’ve taken walking tours of Hadrian’s Wall and downtown Pyongyang, watched a street performer in Johannesburg, and become a fan of particular musicians in Tajikistan, New Zealand, and Benin. While listening to music I have fallen into brief casual conversations with people in England and Madagascar. I still chuckle when I think of a certain contestant in Kazakh Idol. In short, I can see Russia from my house. DDJ 47 says, “Without going out the door, one can know the whole world” (Ivanhoe), but I suppose it isn’t thinking of YouTube.

    Perhaps the idea is that staying home is to travel as books are to the internet: deeper, as Andrew Sullivan points out. If we skip around too much, we become fragmented and shallow. We know less what we’re doing.

    Travel can stand for seeking out the unknown, which suggests that one finds something unsatisfactory about how things are, which isn’t supposed to happen in utopia.

  2. Chris said, on November 1, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Hi Bill,

    Your reading of 80’s message towards the end is very similar to my own. I would guess that Laozi thinks that we can very easily be distracted by notions of what life “should be like” or by thoughts of what “an ideal world would look like” (odd, given the theme of 80). When we focus on these “ideal visions” of what our lives should be like, we stop paying attention to where we are now, to the realities of the here and now. We stop recognizing the deep mysteries of actual lived experience, _as_ it is lived. Instead, the “here and now” become things to “muddle through” while we are struggling to get “over there” (to the other country, where things are different, or to the other way of looking at things, which comes as a result of such travel). To be oriented towards travel does signal a kind of restless dissatisfaction with that here and now, and so might for Laozi be a symptom of a deeper illness.

    I agree with you that some of our focus on the need for travel (students, particularly) is oriented around the fact that we mess with those places, so we need to get acquainted with them. In the very least, we think it will be pragmatically useful for them (globalization, say).

    But there’s a message within the liberal arts that seems to resist these pragmatic explanations, or at least to strive for an independent rationale. Namely, that exposure to difference loosens the bonds within one’s conceptual scheme to make possible new ways of seeing things (very John Stuart Mill, I suppose — thinking of this “System of Logic”). And this kind of loosening seems to me to be closely linked to the need, or so Laozi seems to suggest, for a kind of freedom from what Xunzi calls “fixation”. Now, of course, Laozi (and Xunzi, for that matter), might think that freeing a person from fixation can come from simply learning to focus on one’s present experiences without the need for external difference being “piped in” (so to speak). I recall Zhu Xi talking about staring at bamboo for hours (or days) on end to accomplish the same end. He gave up, if I remember.

    If some of this makes sense, it is an interesting difference between the modern Western tradition’s view of how to go about curing fixation (which I take it is really encapsulated in folks like Mill, as I suggested) and the early Chinese.

  3. Bill Haines said, on November 2, 2008 at 1:01 am

    Well, right you are of course. I would add Mill’s “On Liberty,” and so perhaps would Devil’s Advocate.

    One reason for people to consider alternative ways is to find out how to progress. It’s understandable that one might not think that reason is operative in utopia, especially if one isn’t accustomed to the idea of constant change in the basic external conditions of life (technical progress, limited resources, etc.).

    Another reason is that without considering alternatives one loses track of the reasons for one’s ways. How compelling one finds this concern might depend on how far one thinks the ideal way to live is the working out of some natural inner imperative. If it is, then checking one’s views might not be as important. Keni commented very recently on a February 21 post of yours (can you lengthen your list of recent posts?). You had suggested that there might be similarities between Daoism’s idea that we should follow (our) nature and Carl Rogers’ idea that a person should get in touch with her “organismic self.” Aristotle might join the group, talking about actualizing one’s essence. I think keni thought Daoism really didn’t fit into the group.

  4. Chris said, on November 2, 2008 at 7:28 am

    Bill,

    Good points. Which makes me wonder: how then does Laozi think that one can achieve freedom from fixation without exposure to different views and perspectives? How exactly does the working out of the natural inner imperative (or having one’s “mirror clean” in Zhu Xi’s words) allow one to be open to difference?

    It could be — I’m not sure — that for Laozi, openness to difference isn’t a matter of “thinking” through anything at all (where this might require reason and concepts), but rather an emotive responsiveness to the already present diversity in any given “here and now” situation.

    I’ve expanded those sections (recent posts and comments).

  5. Bao Pu said, on November 3, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Hello Chris,

    I’m Scott, a.k.a. “Bao Pu.” I have a few comments I’d like to share.

    re: “People live lives that find fulfillment using what is immediately around them; they no longer need to satisfy needs that require much travel, perhaps outside of a small rustic home community”

    — I would say rather, that people, in this utopia, no longer possess the desires that require much travel. There’s plenty in the Laozi which criticizes desires, and which I believe do not include basic desires like the desire to satisfy hunger, thirst, shelter, companionship, etc. It seems to me that the author pictures a small self-sufficient community where trade (and hence travel) with other communities is unnecessary.

    re: “Is this counter-intuitive to people? Do you think such a thing is ideal?”

    — In a way, no, this is not ideal. Today, the more we learn about other cultures and people, (which can involve travelling), the more encompassing our perspective becomes. We can begin to see things in different ways, which is a positive thing, (although, I suppose there’s nothing “wrong” with being a frog in a well). But of course, travelling can be the result of not being satisfied with what we already have in front of us, which we often take for granted.

    In chapter 3 of the Laozi, we find a relevant passage:

    不貴難得之貨,
    Not valuing commodities that are difficult to obtain,
    使民不為盜。
    Makes the people not become thieves.
    不見可欲,
    Not displaying that which arouses people’s desires,
    使民心不亂。
    Ensures the people’s hearts and minds will not be dis-eased/discontent.

    It was perhaps the case that the authors of Laozi 80 were elders (“Old Masters” 老子) who watched the younger generation rushing off to see new sights, acquire new things, get involved in foreign affairs and felt compelled to suggest this was not ideal, this was not conducive to maintaining harmony in the community or the minds of the people. You seem to see this as well, when you write, “To be oriented towards travel does signal a kind of restless dissatisfaction with that here and now, and so might for Laozi be a symptom of a deeper illness.”

    One further comment I’d like to make is that the author of this chapter perhaps underestimates the curiosity of human beings. He may say: “curiosity killed the cat,” but I think curiosity is good in moderation. The wise course of action, we find in another chapter: “know when to stop” 知止 (ch. 32).

    Health, happiness and harmony,
    Bao Pu

  6. Chris said, on November 3, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Hey Bao Pu/Scott –

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I think we are pretty much in agreement, though I appreciate your application of points to other poems within TTC!

    A few things:

    I’d certainly agree that for Laozi, it shouldn’t be a problem to be a frog in a well. But, at the same time, said frog — I suppose — should be capable of freeing itself from its own destructive fixations without the need for the incorporation of new perspectives via the experiences that come from travel.

    How would the frog be capable of such a thing, simply by attending to its own natural imperatives? Is it that in being satisfied with what is before us (in the moment), we are immediately privy (in some epistemic sense) to the diversity contained within the moment? I’m not sure.

    I’m in agreement with you about the naturalness of at least a certain level of curiosity. To be sure, as you note, too much curiosity is certainly a symptom of an illness — it surely signals a kind of addictive attachment to continuing distraction (this makes me think of Kierkegaard’s apt description of the “field rotator” in Either/Or).

    I wonder, though: if Laozi would be led to agree with a certain level of natural curiosity, would this lead him to agree that being overly focused on the here and now is itself a form of excess stemming from unhealthy fixation?

  7. Bao Pu said, on November 5, 2008 at 6:10 am

    Hi Chris,

    re: “if Laozi would be led to agree with a certain level of natural curiosity, would this lead him to agree that being overly focused on the here and now is itself a form of excess stemming from unhealthy fixation?”

    Good question. “Know when to stop” 知止 ? 😉


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