Daodejing Chapter 70: brown sackcloth and jade

Richard Brown
2 min readOct 14, 2023

My words are very easy
To understand and to practice.
Yet no one in the world
Can understand and practice them.
My words have an ancestor.
My deeds have a lord.
Because so few people understand me,
The ones who model
Themselves on me are rare.
The sage wears brown sackcloth,
But has jade in his breast.

「吾言甚易知,甚易行。天下莫能知,莫能行。言有宗,事有君。夫唯無知,是以不我知。知我者希,則我者貴;是以聖人被褐懷玉」。

Just because you think your idea is blindingly obvious does not mean that other people will find it easy to grasp. Even if they do understand your idea, it does not necessarily mean that they will be interested in pursuing it either. Particularly if you make no effort to share the details of it with anyone and keep it hidden from view like a precious jewel.

Note
Laozi is said to have written the Daodejing after retiring from his position as the chief court librarian for the Eastern Zhou Dynasty out of despair at the decadence and corruption he saw around him. On the surface, therefore, Laozi appears to be justified in lamenting that virtually nobody has embraced his teachings even though they are, or so he claims, “easy to understand and to practice.”

The question he does not address, however, is why none of the feudal state rulers of his time even attempted to put them into practice in their governments. Perhaps a clue can be found in the last line of the chapter when he describes the sage as wearing a “brown sackcloth” but with “jade in his breast.” Rather than hitting the road and promoting his teachings like Confucius did, he preferred to remain the enigmatic outsider who was unwilling to get his hands dirty in the real world of politics.

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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.