The Tao of Odds and Ends
Part two: Laozi and the Daode Jing
Laozi is the man credited with writing the Daode Jing. His dates
are traditionally given as 604-531 BC, although he may actually have lived
in the fourth century BC. But Laozi has a very interesting biography in
that he may never have existed at all! Nevertheless, he is the man credited
with writing the Daode Jing, and he is supposed to have done this
under the following circumstances. A custodian of historical archives,
he retired when he reached old age, and, in dismay at the direction society
was taking, left his home in what is now Henan province and travelled
West.Yin Xi, the Keeper of the Han'gu Pass in the Zhongnan mountains (60
kilometres South-west of Xi'an in Shaanxi province), requested that Laozi
write down a book of his dao, before he left the known world behind
him. Laozi may have had no choice in the matter; he may not have been
able to pass without appeasing Yin Xi. Laozi is said to have written the
Daode Jing there and then, and when he finished, he departed into
the West, where he wandered, never to be heard from again.
The Daode Jing, written in Classical Chinese, uses parallelisms;
that is, sentences have similar structures. This clarifies the syntax
and helps avoid ambiguities, particularly important in philosophical texts.
In English, this makes the work look like a book of poetry, but it isn't;
it is not classed as a shi (poem) in China . It is divided into
eighty-one sections, which seem to be compiled in no particular order.
However, the first section is undeniably the most important. A literal
translation of the first line of section 1 of the Daode Jing reads,
"dao can dao not constant dao." Remembering
that a dao is a system for guiding behaviour, this line can be
rendered understandable as "to guide what can be guided is not constant
guiding". Laozi was saying that no dao can provide constant
guidance. The philosophical debate of the Classical period was about which
dao was the correct dao to guide society. Laozi rejected
the notion that any dao could be an absolute guide.
One part of Laozi's argument involves undermining the conventional dao
of his society. Much of the Daode Jing is an exercise in 'reversal'.
Section 40 states "That which is converse is the action of a guide"
(another translation of the same line is "Reversion is the action
of Tao"). The text contains many unusual aphorisms that
reverse all the conventional values, values such as the preference of
strength over weakness, or of something over nothing, etc. . Aphorisms
like "The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things
in the world" (section 43)  dictate that the opposite of the usual
preference can achieve the same result as the usual preference would.
Section 11 shows how 'nothing' can be valuable: "Thirty spokes together
make one hub. Where the nothing is, lies the cart's use" . It
was contrary to convention to see the value of nothing. 'Something' was
the conventional preference, but here Laozi points out the utility of
the hole in the hub. Similarly, section 76 shows the value of weakness:
When man is born, he is tender and weak.
Not only does the text show the value of weakness, but also it attacks
the conventional preference for strength. Section 30 is particularly critical:
The use of force usually brings requital.
The Daode Jing shows how the opposite of the conventional dao
can be the correct dao to use. Adopting the principle of reversal
can yield results, as mentioned in section 36:
In order to weaken, it is necessary first to strengthen.
These particular lines have left Laozi open to much criticism, for appearing
to advocate deceitful action. However, it is important to realize that
this 'reversal' is not itself a 'constant' dao which will work
all the time. The exercise of reversal only serves to show that reverse
preferences are possible. By showing how the opposite of a dao can
guide just as well as that dao, Laozi was questioning the usefulness
of any dao. He was questioning the very activity of making value-judgements
Laozi was recommending wu-wei instead of action. Wu-wei is
sometimes translated as 'non-action' or 'actionless action'. The latter,
as an oxymoron, indicates the difficulty of translating wu-wei into
English. To wei is to act according to the conventions of society
. Putting wu (which literally translates as "does not
exist") before wei indicates that wei should be done
without. Laozi encouraged his readers to disregard all social conventions,
but furthermore to take no dao as guidance, and avoid all forms
of social conditioning. If people do this, Laozi presumed their only actions,
then, will be natural, and not socially imposed. By 'natural actions'
he meant those actions that people do to survive, and to propagate the
species. These actions take place spontaneously, and are not transmitted
through a social dao. So, wu-wei does not literally mean
taking no action. Laozi was not recommending passivity. Both sections
37 and 48 refer to "nothing" being "left undone" in
relation to wu-wei . The sage, or wise man, uses wu-wei
when, as stated in the final line of section 64, "he supports all
things in their natural state"  Examples of supporting things
in this way are outlined earlier in section 64:
Deal with things before they appear.
It can be seen from the range of activities mentioned here, that wu-wei
involves avoiding social conditioning, rather than avoiding deliberative,
purposive, or voluntary action.
For Laozi, social conditioning came in many forms. Language was one of
these, and the Daode Jing advocates that people "revert to
knotting string" , as they did before writing was invented. This
stance against language is explicable when it is observed that language
in Classical China was seen as a social tool that people use to co-ordinate
group activities, rather than as a tool for describing reality, as it
was for the Indo-Europeans. A dao would be transmitted through
Laozi also saw desires as examples of social conditioning (this highlights
again the contrast with Indo-European culture, in which desires were associated
with the conflict between the physical body and the mind). Section 3 advises,
"Do not display objects of desire," lest people "be disturbed,"
and "Do not value rare treasures, so that the people shall not steal"
. Desires are socially imposed; people will only desire such objects
and treasures if it is socially expected of them, or if they are socially
excluded from having them. The sage, therefore, in section 64, "desires"
only "to have no desire".
In his book, Laozi was rejecting guidance, which meant rejecting socially
imposed language, desires, and much of the culture in which he was
living - or its entirety. According to Laozi, if people were free from these, they
would revert to a natural state, and be content in small-sized agrarian
societies, like the one he described in section 80:
Let there be a small country with few people.
To Laozi, all daos were unnatural. The Daode Jing was Laozi's
guidebook to rejecting guidance. This is, of course, paradoxical. It is
a piece of writing that advocates knotting string instead of writing.
Perhaps Laozi did have a dao of his own, but it could not be expressed
in the book, and was extra-lingual, ineffable, something of the language
of pure silence. Perhaps there is some meaning behind the myth that Laozi
only wrote the Daode Jing to appease the Keeper of the Pass on
his journey out of the known world. This would mean that the existence
of this guidebook against guidance could be explained as an ingenious
response to the ridiculous demand on Laozi to write down his dao.
His disappearance into the West would then signify that the book could
only be followed by an absence, a silence, and a position beyond language,
culture and social control.