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)
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 http://www.centertao.org/tao-te-ching/carl/chapter-80/) 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 http://benguaraldi.com/writinghtml/003.html.