Daodejing Chapter 53 breakdown: the fields are choked with weeds

Richard Brown
2 min readJan 29, 2024

Chapter 53 of the Daodejing lashes out at the wanton greed and corruption of the ruling elite for stuffing their bellies in their finery while the fields are choked with weeds and the granaries are bare. By highlighting the social imbalances caused by material excess, the passage calls for a return to the simplicity and balance inherent in following the fundamental principles of the Dao.

Section 1
If I were sufficiently wise,
I would walk along the great Dao,
And my only fear would be straying from it.
The great Dao is smooth and straight,
But people prefer the byways.

The author of the chapter is bewildered that most other people prefer to take alternative paths to the Dao, even though it is clear and well-defined. He cannot understand why they are not worried about straying from the true path like he is.

Section 2
The court is arrayed in splendour,
But the fields are choked with weeds,
The granaries are bare,
But some wear fancy clothes,
Carry sharp swords,
Stuff their bellies with food and drink,
And enjoy excessive material wealth.
This is banditry.
This is not the Dao!

The author goes on to describe in vivid detail the cost of deviating from the Dao, contrasting the extravagant lifestyles of the rich and famous with the appalling neglect of the fields and granaries. It is only by returning to the simplicity of the Dao that the social polarisation and moral decay caused by the extreme concentration of material wealth can be reversed and order and stability be restored.

To emphasize his disgust, the author finishes the chapter with a satirical pun on the homonym “dao”, calling out the “banditry” (盜/dào) of the elite who rob their subjects in the name of the Dao (道/dào).

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Daodejing Chapter 53: the court is arrayed in splendour

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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.