Taoteching: Chapter 53

Because Chapter 33 is a relatively short chapter it may illustrate better than some other chapters how apparently minor differences in wording subtly shift the meaning of a poem.

Here are, in order, Le Guin’s, John Wu’s, and Red Pine’s translations with selected commentary from Red Pine’s edition:

Kinds of Power

Knowing other people is intelligence,
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
overcoming yourself takes greatness.
Contentment is wealth.

Boldly pushing forward takes resolution.
Staying put keeps you in position.

To live till you die
is to live long enough.


HE who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.


Who knows others is perceptive
who knows himself is wise
who conquers others is forceful
who conquers himself is strong
who knows contentment is wealthy
who strives hard succeeds
who doesn’t lose his place endures
who dies but doesn’t perish lives on

SU CH’E says, “Perception means to distinguish. Wisdom means to remove obstructions. As long as our distinguishing mind is present, we can only know others, but not ourselves.”

WANG P’ANG says, “The natural endowment of all things is complete in itself. Poverty does not reduce it. Wealth does not enlarge it. But fools abandon this treasure to chase trash. Those who know contentment pay the world no heed. This is true wealth. Mencius said, ‘The ten thousand things are all within us”

WANG PI says “Those who strive with devotion reach their goal. Those who examine themselves and work within their capacity don’t lose their place and are able to endure. Although we die, the Tao that gave us life doesn’t perish. Our body disappears, but the Tao remains. If our body survived, would the Tao not end?”

KUIMARAJIVA says, “Not to live in living is to endure. Not to die in dying is to live on,”

Stylistically, I prefer Wu’s parallel structure, possibly because the repetition of “he who” places more emphasis on the individual than the other two versions.

It’s impossible for me to say which of the three versions is closer to the actual text. In fact, I’m a little intimidated by how different the Chinese character in Wu’s and Red Pine’s appear. There are, though, particular lines in each of them that seem “truer” to my view of life than the others.

For instance, my favorite lines from all three versions are: “To live till you die/is to live long enough.” Although it doesn’t suggest an “eternal” quality as the others do, it fits in better with my own personal philosophy. It also seems to fit in with Kuimarajiva’s interpretation, as suggested above. Of course, I might prefer this version simply because I’m more interested in a philosophy that allows me to live life to the fullest than in one that promises me some sort of barely-believable after-life.

If I had to decide whether knowing others is intelligent, clever, or perceptive, I would probably lean toward “clever,” but that might merely be my INTP bias coming out, as would suggesting that “wisdom” is the best description of knowing yourself.

If forced to choose between, “Contentment is wealth,” “He who knows when he has got enough is rich,” and “who knows contentment is wealthy, ” I would choose the simpler “He who knows when he has got enough is rich,” perhaps because that sounds like a line directly out of Thoreau or Emerson.

Though I can see no clearly superior version, reading all three versions certainly gives a good indication of what the main message of the chapter is, while at the same time revealing how personal values and word choice must inevitably color any interpretation.

All three versions remind the reader that the greatest, and most rewarding, task is to “Know thyself” as Plato suggested a few years later, and perhaps that is all that we can demand of any book.

It’s a little humbling and depressing to think that governments and leaders haven’t changed much since the 6th Century B.C. Perhaps that’s because human nature hasn’t changed much in that time. Be that as it may, it appears to be true judging from chapter 53 of the Taoteching, as translated by LeGuin, Wu, and Red Pine:


If my mind’s modest,
I walk the great way.
is all I fear.

The great way is low and plain,
but people like shortcuts over the mountains.

The palace is full of splendor
and the fields are full of weeds
and the granaries are full of nothing.

People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,
carrying weapons,
drinking a lot and eating a lot,
having a lot of things, a lot of money:
shameless thieves.
Surely their way
isn’t the way.


If only I had the tiniest grain of wisdom,
I should walk in the Great Way,
And my only fear would be to stray from it.

The Great Way is very smooth and straight;
And yet the people prefer devious paths.

The court is very clean and well garnished,
But the fields are very weedy and wild,
And the granaries are very empty!
They wear gorgeous clothes,
They carry sharp swords,
They surfeit themselves with food and drink,
They possess more riches than they can use!
They are the heralds of brigandage!
As for Tao, what do they know about it?


Were I sufficiently wise
I would follow the Great Way
and only fear going astray
the Great Way is smooth
but people love byways
their palaces are spotless
their fields are overgrown
their granaries are empty
they wear fine clothes
and carry sharp swords
they tire of food and drink
and possess more than they need
this is called robbery
and robbery is not the Way.

LU HIS SHENG says, “The Great Way is like a grand thoroughfare: smooth and easy to travel, perfectly straight and free of detours, and there is nowhere it doesn’t lead. But people are in a hurry. They take shortcuts and get into trouble and become lost and don’t reach their destination. The sage only worries about leading people down such a path.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, ‘A spotless palace refers to the height of superficiality. An overgrown field refers to an uncultivated mind. An empty granary refers to a lack of virtue.”

Is it revolutionary to suggest that we should hold our leaders to the same standards we would live our own lives by? That’s precisely what Lao Tzu seems to suggest here.

Though there seems to be considerable difference between having a “modest mind,” ” a tiniest grain of wisdom,” and being “sufficiently wise,” all three translators seem to agree that arrogance and greed in the government doom the country to hard times.

At first glance, the description seems to best fit a country like Saudi Arabia where a fabulously wealthy ruling family seems to have impoverished the nation, leading to a radicalism that threatens the whole world.

But our own leaders generally seem rich rather than poor, don’t they? A government that favors the rich and chooses to protect the interests of industries over its own citizens is unlikely to produce the ideal nation, or even one that serves the fundamental needs of many of its people.

Though our granaries are remarkably full and few people seem to be starving, it would be hard to argue that our government is following The Way or producing an ideal society.

Any doubt in your mind that Bush and his Conservative friends, despite their sanctimonious pronouncements, don’t follow the “Way?” Do you think they even understand the basic principles? They’d probably be on the same path if they followed in Christ’s footsteps, but, then, Christ’s example is nearly as hard to follow as Lao Tzu’s Way, isn’t it?

5 thoughts on “Taoteching: Chapter 53”

  1. This is a wonderful series. I wonder if the American way is the Way? Something tells me maybe not. Yet it provides a way (my head hurts with the paradoxes.)

  2. Personally, I think the American Way is the highway, which is probably not a higher Way.

    I’m off on the highway today, but doubt I’ll come back nearly as refreshed as I would if I’d spent the day at home meditating or just plain walking in the nearby forests.

  3. Really, enjoying this series. I’m not so sure that this is about politics though! I often hide behind a “palace” or present my judgements in a clean court… Need to stop worrying about the superficial stuff and get to grips with what is important.

  4. If anything, I’d guess that I’m downplaying the advice offered to the ruler in the Taoteching.

    Lao Tzu was supposed to be the Keeper of the Royal Archives and there is a long tradition of sages being promoted to royal offices in Chinese literature.

    In Chapter 74, Lao Tzu says, “If people no longer fear death/why do we threaten to kill them…” Referring to this section, Ming T’ai-Tsu said, “Truly, this book is the greatest teacher of kings.”

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