Chapter 80 – Knotted Cords

With a small State, sparsely populated,
supposing that I had weapons for a thousand men, I would not use them.
I would rather teach my subjects to think seriously of death, and not to emigrate to a distance.
Then, though they might have ships and chariots, nobody would mount them;
though they might have armour and weapons, nobody would set them in array.
I would make them return to the use of the quipu,
render their food toothsome,
beautify their clothes [by cultivating the silkworm],
live tranquilly at home,
be happy in their domestic usages,
keep watch with neighbouring states for their mutual safety,
and let the crowing of cocks and barking of dogs be heard by one another [from their numbers and proximity].
Thus the people would die of old age without ever coming into [hostile] collision with each other.

Translation by Frederic Henry Balfour (1884)


Knotted Cords from Meyers Konversationslexikon of 1888

Knotted Cords from Meyers Konversationslexikon of 1888

Chapter 80 is one of those parts of the Tao Te Ching that is sufficiently ambiguous as originally written that several differing interpretations arise based upon the way it is translated.  A reasonable “word-for-word” translation (taken from seems to be something like:

Small country, few people.
Enable the existence of various tools, yet never need them.
Enable the people attach importance to death, yet not travel around.
Although there exist boats and carriages, there is no place to ride them.
Although there exist weapons, there is no place to deploy them.
Enable the people to again use the knotted rope.
Find their food sweet, their clothes beautiful.
Peaceful in their lives, happy in their customs.
Neighboring countries mutually seen in the distance,
Of chicken and dog sounds mutually heard.
People until death not mutually come and go.

Let us begin by looking at some of the ways in which the first few lines are translated by others than Balfour.  In Arthur Waley’s 1934 translation, he begins “Given a small country with few inhabitants, He could bring it about that though there should be among the people contrivances requiring ten times, a hundred times less labour, they would not use them.  He could bring it about, [etc.]”  Waley continues writing in the third person rather than the first, changing the focus of the entire chapter.

D. C. Lau’s 1963 translation takes a different tact. He begins, “Reduce the size of the population and the state. Ensure that even though the people have tools of war for a troop or a battalion they will not use them. . . .” This seems like the writer is giving advice or direction to someone else, which is a different approach than Balfour’s or Waley’s.  Another consideration here is that Lau and Balfour both consider the “tools” mentioned in the word-for-word translation to be weapons or other instruments of war, while Waley sees them as labor-saving devices.

Lin Yutang’s 1948 translation begins this chapter as follows:  “[Let there be] a small country with a small population, where the supply of goods are ten or a hundredfold, more than they can use.”  This is yet another approach.  By saying “let there be,” he may be invoking the God of Genesis who created the world by issuing commands such as, “Let there be light.”  Or, perhaps, the language represents a plea or a prayer; or even a vision of some Taoist Utopia.  This is very similar to Wing-Tsit Chan’s 1963 translation:  “Let there be a small country with few people.  Let there be ten times and a hundred times as many utensils but let them not be used.”  In a footnote Lau states that what he translates as “utensils” could mean “military weapons.”

Now let us look at the end of this chapter in these same translations.*

Waley:  “The next place might be so near at hand that one could one could hear the cocks crowing in it, the dogs barking; but the people would grow old and die without ever having been there”.

Lau:  “Though adjoining states are within sight of one another, and the sound of dogs barking and cocks crowing in one state can be heard in another, yet the people of one state will grow old and die without having had any dealings with those of another.”

Yutang:  “So that they can hear the barking of dogs and crowing of cocks of their neighbors, and the people till the end of their days shall never have been outside their country.”

Chan:  “Though neighbouring communities overlook one another and the crowing of cocks and the barking of dogs can be heard, yet the people there may grow old and die without ever visiting one another.”

These are all much the same and indicate that if the population is satisfied, there is no reason to travel elsewhere.  Chapter 47 tells us essentially the same thing – that true knowledge lies within and “one may know the world without going out of doors.”  Balfour, though, takes a different tact in saying that people may die of old age without coming into hostile collision with their neighbors; and that interpretation reinforces the military references earlier in the chapter.

Rather than trying to resolve the various possible meanings of this whole chapter, I think I will take what is probably the coward’s way and look at the line that Balfour translates, “I would make them return to the use of the quipu.”  That is actually inexact phrasing because “quipu” is a system used by the Incas of what is now Peru more than a thousand years ago.  A more satisfactory translation is Wing-Tsit Chan’s:  “Let the people again knot cords and use them (in place of writing).”

A good starting place to understand what this means is Appendix III of the I Ching.  That is a commentary that is attributed to Confucius, and it tells us, “In the highest antiquity, government was carried on successfully by the use of knotted cords (to preserve the memory of things).  In subsequent ages the sages substituted for these written characters and bonds.”  (Legge translation (1899), Appendix III, Section II, Chapter 2, Paragraph 23).

The precise use of the knotted cords is open to some conjecture, but they seemed to have had primarily an accounting or a mnemonic function.  The size and number of knots could represent economic transactions, or could help a person remember some event that had occurred or a thing to be accomplished.  That would be similar to the more modern suggestion to tie a string around your finger so as not to forget something important.

It may appear a bit strange that Lao Tzu, who had written thousands of characters up to this point in the book, would suggest that society abolish the written word.  Of course his fingers may have been tired, but that does not seem to be the main reason for returning to knots and cords.

Words, by their nature are abstract concepts – essentially providing “names” for “thoughts”.  When they are written and passed from person to person, century after century, in various languages, they become even more abstract.  As the various translations of this chapter illustrate, meanings are ultimately the result of machinations of the human mind.  The knotted cord, on the other hand is present, concrete and has a specific meaning at a given time and place.

We know that the Tao that can be named or spoken of is not the true Tao, so it easy to see why the Sage favors the experiential over the abstract and see Chapter 43 on teaching without words) .  Nevertheless, since I never Lao Tzu, I am glad that he did put some words to good use, and in a form that could be passed on to those of us who are able to read – here – today – colored as they may be by our times and prejudices and experiences..



*An excellent discussion of some other translations of this Chapter 80 may be found at


4 thoughts on “CHAPTER 80 – KNOTTED CORDS

  1. It does sound as though the Sage is offering a vision of some Taoist Utopia where simple ways “ …Enable the people to again use the knotted rope, find their food sweet, their clothes beautiful – peaceful in their lives, happy in their customs…”

    I think it’s a description of a possible practical reality, neither Utopian nor a distant, hoped-for vision. The Sage describes a way of living which honors the integrity and independence of each individual life, a place where people live in agreement and tolerance in their own ways and are not crowded or encroached upon – i.e., warred upon, or subject to coercion – by the belief systems and actions and desires of others. It just seems utopian because when people live in a dystopian, dysfunctional social environment long enough they tend to spend more time dealing with it as a reality rather than recognizing that it is an unreality and spending their time on transcending that locality.

    I’ve been doing some research on Ralph Waldo Emerson in connection with my mother’s recent stroke. Emerson is one of her favorite, maybe even most favorite, Sages. She is currently involved in the early stages of therapy for regaining language and communication abilities. She is present and alert within, but just can’t get her own thoughts and observations out to the rest of us. I’ve been gathering some quotes from Emerson for her, and plan to share them with her. I know that when I do there will be a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face, and perhaps even a laugh here and there. Some of the quotes are relevant here, so here goes.

    Since I’m using quotations, I think it only right to start out with this one:

    “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” I love this quote. It’s like saying, “Forget about all the knots (words) that have been added to your quipu by others, and tell me only about the knots you yourself have tied, and what they recall and signify for you.”

    Emerson observes the nature of the encroaching, crowded way:

    “Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.”

    And he observes this in the same vein: “Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you and all men and all events.”

    I take this to mean that the responsible thinker and actor which is in each of us is both universal and individual, and within the individual defines a unique experience which is to be honored and respected and allowed to be as it is, rather than made subject to the will and coercions of others.

    Here’s another Emerson observation about the slow, unrelenting coercions of the crowded society, and the result. “Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.”

    And Emerson observes the nature of the independent way which honors the integrity and sanctity of the individual and others, and does not encroach upon the ways of others but rather allows them to, at a distance, live the way they will. It’s very similar to the Way described by the Sage here in the TTC.

    Emerson says, “I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I must be myself. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions.”

    And finally, for this particular consideration, Emerson wryly observes the end result of the way which crowds in and encroaches upon the individual and replaces the natural way with its own requirements; “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

    The Sage here and Emerson also agree upon their considerations of traveling, which, expressed by Emerson in one aspect, observes, “Travelling is a fool’s paradise. We owe to our first journeys the discovery that place is nothing. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern Fact, the sad self, unrelenting identical that I fled from.”

    The Sage of the TTC observes a facet of the same thing, as you noted, in that “… if the population is satisfied, there is no reason to travel elsewhere. Chapter 47 tells us essentially the same thing – that true knowledge lies within and “one may know the world without going out of doors.” Here are a couple of quotes from Emerson describing what I regard to be true “travel”, in the world and within the self:

    In the world: “Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much.”

    “I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”

    That “distant line of the horizon” which Emerson regards as a simple observable fact of the uncrowded life, rather than what it becomes when we are crowded in upon with the idea that it is a goal of attainment to be striven for and conquered, is a great observation.

    You also noted that “words, by their nature are abstract concepts – essentially providing “names” for “thoughts”… The knotted cord, on the other hand is present, concrete and has a specific meaning at a given time and place.”

    So true, as we have spoken of often here. And, really there is no new thing to be spoken of under the sun. Emerson says, “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.” The thing to be passed along, then, is not the knowledge within which has always been present. What we best offer in our words is our own experience, the knots in our quipu which we have personally tied, and what they signify to us.

    Yet here I am, borrowing the words attached to the knots of the quipus of the Sage, and Emerson, and you, and me. It’s a reflection of our community, our connection of each to the other in the midst of our own individuality. Not a conflict, just a simultaneity, as we have observed in other commentaries here.

    Perhaps there is some solace to be taken in being inconsistent, to know, as Lao Tzu said, “I confess that there is nothing to teach no religion, no science, no body of information which will lead your mind back to the Tao. Today I speak in this fashion, tomorrow in another, but always the Integral Way is beyond words and beyond mind.”

    One of the most recognizable quotes of Emerson reflects upon the changeable inconsistencies of humanity. Emerson says, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

    Enough for now, although I could go on much further. I guess the thing for me is to cherish the knots tied in my own quipu, and rejoice that in the words we all attach to those knots we discover that we share those knots, each in our own individual way.

    I’ll leave a couple more Emerson quotes as I go.

    “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal, that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.”

    “Be good to your work, your word, and your friend.”

    “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

    “When you were born you were crying and everyone else was smiling. Live your life so at the end, you are the one who is smiling and everyone else is crying.”

    “Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward.”

    • Sometimes I wonder what I do know – but I know a good quotation when I see one. In one of Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self-Reliance,” there is a line that says, “There are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.” He was speaking of something completely different, but the words remind me of this part of the Who’s rock opera, Tommy: “Sickness will surely take the mind where minds can’t usually go.”

      I can only imagine how difficult many things must be for someone who has experienced a stroke; and you are learning how it affects those who are close to the one suffering the stroke. In 2012, I read a book called Dying To Be Me, by Anita Moorjani. It is the story of Ms. Moorjani’s miraculous recovery from a deadly cancer when literally all hope had gone away and most of her organs had shut down. This was several months after my brother’s stem cell transplant and we were waiting to find out if the procedure had been successful. I wanted the book to bolster my confidence and make me feel optimistic. I found the book inspirational, but was disappointed that Ms. Moorjani did not seem to have much to teach or tell us after her return to life, other than that she realized her inherent self-worth.

      Now I have begun to think that perhaps that realization may be enough for any of us.

      I do not know what voices your mother is hearing now that will later become faint and inaudible, but am certain you and your family recognize her unique value and position as a human being. I continue to offer whatever support I can to you all.

      • Thank you Louis, you are a good friend. And because of that, and because you have the heart and mind to know what I mean when I speak, I’m going to share the following with you, and Amy, and Rudy, and any lurkers here and anyone else who has the same heart and mind.

        I agree with the observation made by some writers that when you speak of something it slips away from the conscious individual mind where words are, and goes to reside in deeper consciousness as a part of the greater gestalt of an individual’s experience. If you’re going to try to write something it’s best not to speak of it until the words are written. Until the knot tied in one’s personal “quipu” has words attached to it, it is unshareable and pure and whole and universal and inchoately perfect.

        Writing, speaking, thinking are all part of a process whereby we try to catch the essence of such things for our own personal, separate understanding – and the means we use to connect our personal separation with our common humanity. A gift given from the self to others, a sharing, a connection offered.

        Language is the matrix of personal understanding, an overlay we apply to the fact of things, a part of our particular individual identity. It becomes the mechanism through which we share our own experience. It’s a tool of separate, individual consciousness and the means by which we connect with one another in that particular aspect of humanity which is our individual separation.

        There is a new knot in my quipu, and this is me writing about it, catching what essence of it I can, so that I can share it with you. The words are shadows, momentary glimpses, reflections in the dark glass of mind of a bright, timeless, perfectly whole thing.

        The fact of a thing. That’s what this is about. My Mom’s stroke is the most recent knot tied on her personal quipu, and while she has words within for it, those words emerge garbled and unintelligible to those who only listen for the words. But there is still an essence there, and still a language, and still an intelligence speaking.

        The language is in her reactions, in her eyes, in smiles and frowns and eye rolls, in nods and shakes of her head, in nuanced laughs from the wry to deep belly laughs, in an outreached hand and a firm grip and a hand squeeze, and with it all she communicates to me both the essence of her experience, and the personal understanding and regard she has of it, and what she wants me to know about it in particular, and what she wants me to know about how she regards us, two people, mother and son, who have been connected together for all my life and for most of hers.

        I visited her yesterday after not seeing her for 10 days or so. Lenore and I have been here in our mountains, recovering from an arduous trip to Florida and dealing with the physical depletion we willingly took on to meet the goal of the trip, which was to move Lenore’s folks from their home of 57 years to her sister’s home. I managed to aggravate an abdominal hernia in the process and have been dealing with that as well. About that I will say that the ability we acquire when we are younger to physically work (and play) beyond the thresholds of pain and exhaustion, in that state of “mind over matter,” is not necessarily a thing to be expected or practiced lightly as our bodies age and the overwork we subjected them to comes home to roost in the bones and joints, and other places as well…

        So we have been here in the mountains attending to our own recovery, and while not able to travel for awhile I’ve been serving Mom and the family with updates of information and news gathered by the many, many family members who have been with her from the very beginning of all this. I’ve been able to serve well, if at a distance, in several other ways too, and it’s proven to be a good thing that I’ve been able to do that for Mom and the family.

        The previous time I’d seen her she was in the hospital, still laboring under the effects and damage of the blow, emerging from time to time from the fog, slipping back under again, and there were only brief moments when “she” –the identity and presence of her – could be seen. But “she” was there. And yesterday she was there a lot.

        I went with some questions, and all got answered. Is she still here? What do I say? How will I say it? Will we connect? Will we find our way to meet and share and be who we are each to the other? And along with the questions and uneasiness of an unknown future there was a grace in me as well, that thing which comes when I’m submitted to whatever comes next, accepting that no matter whether I do well or poorly, or have the answers I seek or they go begging, or succeed in my desire to bring light and serve rather than fail that desire, I will let it all be what it is, and accept that.

        When we got there she was in bed resting, and my brother was there making an entry in a log of visits the family keeps in her room. There were photographs from her home all hung along one wall where she could see them, framed collages and single frames of every family member including at least 14 great-grandchildren. There was a Christmas tree in front of her window and Christmas lights my niece had brought strung around the perimeter of the window, and Mom was wearing a red elf’s stocking cap and resting under a blanket of her own.

        She heard us and opened her eyes, and she reached out as I went over to give her a kiss and a hug. I sat down beside her and chatted with her for awhile. I’d brought a letter sent to me by her sister for her, and I read that to her. I’d gathered some quotes from Emerson for her, and shared those with her, and she was right there with me on those, nodding and smiling, her eyes telling me she knew this one, and liked that one, telling me another was a favorite and she knew it well.

        I told her that while I was looking up the quotes I kept running into myself, finding things which expressed my own thoughts and feelings, and she nodded and smiled an affirmation, letting me know that she knew I was that way, and she was too.

        Sometimes it went well, and sometimes, especially in the beginning, there were awkward moments when I couldn’t think of anything to say and would find myself staring at the wall, searching for the next topic, waiting for the next thing that would come to mind, just sort of going with it all, telling her the pure truth, that I was trying to figure this whole deal out, and she smiled and nodded and encouraged me to keep going, and I did.

        Finally I thought about it all for a moment and then just looked over at her and said, “Well. What a predicament, huh?” She nodded, and rolled her eyes, and then she smiled. In her eyes there was an acknowledgement of it all, and an acceptance, and a humorous response that said yeah, it is, but it’s what we got – might as well just take it like we do, one more strange and funny thing about this whole life, and just another part of all the stuff that happens in it.

        That’s the essence of our relationship. My Mom and I have been through a lot of shit in this life, and made our share of mistakes trying to find our way through it.

        We’ve seen a lot of pain and loss and adversity, had a lot of confusion and done a lot of thrashing about as we found ourselves lost, or imprisoned, or broken in heart and spirit. A lot of the lingering, ongoing effects of repetitive, deep life-traumas. Some of the circumstances of those experiences we shared, taking the hits together but in our own ways, while other circumstances were ours alone, part of our personal paths.

        Some of our pains were of the type visited upon us all as a part of life, things falling suddenly from the skies which strike everyone sooner or later. Some of our pains came at the hands of others. Some of our pains were subsequently self-inflicted as we thrashed around in the ongoing after effects of those early pains and flailed our way through them, hurting people we didn’t wish to hurt.

        And because of all that, and because there was such a lot of it in each of our lives, we share that deep well of wisdom and mutual understanding which people often find as a result of an uncommon number of such experiences. I think it’s a thing only shared by people who have had a lot of adversity to deal with, and are somehow constituted in such a way as to keep on moving, and keep on thinking, and who keep on learning and seeking until they find what it is they’re looking for. Peace. Reconciliation. Understanding. Acceptance. Happiness.

        During our visit there was a moment when Mom thought I was leaving, and she reached out her hand and just implored me not to go with everything she had. I thought at first it was that she didn’t want to be left alone, wanted me to stay until the next family member arrived. But it wasn’t about that at all.

        When it did come time for us to leave, and I told her we were going now, she reached out to me as I got up from the chair next to her bed to give her a kiss and tell her I loved her. She took my hand as I did so and when I looked at her she looked up at me and started speaking to me earnestly and directly and at length, not stopping because her words weren’t present and the sounds she was making weren’t words, they were gibberish, and had no meaning. She didn’t care about that at all, she just kept on speaking forcefully and earnestly, she wanted to speak her meaning to me, her heart, her knowing, and she was giving it all she had. And she did it. It was all there, clear as it’s ever been, and I understood exactly what she was saying. I leaned forward when she was done, and kissed her on the forehead, and whispered, “I know, Mom. Me too…”

        Next time I see her, that’s what we’ll talk about. We love each other, and each of us knows that. We’re proud of each other, of what we’ve learned and how we’ve lived and what we’ve become going through it all. And no matter what happens next, no matter where it goes or what we meet there, we’ll be all right with it because that’s who we are.

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