Daodejing Chapter 31: instruments of doom

Richard Brown
2 min readJun 4, 2023

Even the finest weapons
Are instruments of doom.
Everyone hates them.
The Daoist avoids them.
When at home,
The gentleman favours the left.
When waging war,
The gentleman favours the right.
Weapons are instruments of doom,
Not the instruments of a gentleman.
The gentleman does not use weapons,
Except as a last resort.
In victory there is no glory.
Celebrating victory
Is to enjoy killing others.
Anyone who enjoys killing others
Must never be allowed
To impose his will
Over all-under-heaven.
On auspicious occasions,
The left takes precedence.
On inauspicious occasions,
The right takes precedence.
In times of war,
The junior commander
Is positioned on the left.
The senior commander
Is positioned on the right.
This is how funeral rites are conducted.
When masses of people are slaughtered,
We should mourn them
With heartfelt grief.
When a war is won,
We should observe the victory
With funeral rites.

「夫佳兵者,不祥之器。物或惡之,故有道者不處。君子居則貴左,用兵則貴右。兵者,不祥之器,非君子之器。不得已而用之,恬淡為上。勝而不美,而美之者,是樂殺人。夫樂殺人者,不可得志於天下。吉事尚左,凶事尚右。偏將軍居左,上將軍居右。言以喪禮處之,殺人眾多,以悲哀泣之。戰勝以喪禮處之。」

Although Laozi recognized that war may be necessary in extreme circumstances, that did not stop him from condemning it in very strong and emotional terms — describing weapons as “instruments of doom” because they are designed to kill people and raging against those who enjoy killing others.

To him a victory should be marked in the same way as funeral not as a cause for celebration, with everyone who fell — no matter which side they were on — being mourned with equal heartfelt grief.

Laozi’s call for restraint is every bit as relevant today as it was on the day he wrote it — and sadly just as honoured in breech. The only difference is that our own “instruments of doom” are infinitely more sophisticated and deadly than the ones used in the late Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history.

Note
I took this image at Longhu (Dragon Tiger) Mountain, a famous Daoist site about ten miles south of Yingtan in Jiangxi Province. A great place to visit!

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.