Daodejing Chapter 78: soft and gentle

Richard Brown
2 min readNov 13, 2023

Nothing in all-under-heaven
Is softer and gentler than water.
Yet it overcomes
The hard and strong.
Nothing can replace it.
The gentle overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.
All-under-heaven
Knows this truth,
Yet no one applies it.
This is why the sage says:
Whoever is willing to
Accept the filth of the state,
Will be lord of the altar
Of earth and grain.
Whoever is willing to
Accept the misfortune of the state,
Will be king of all-under-heaven.
Truths like these
Sound paradoxical.

「天下莫柔弱於水,而攻堅強者莫之能勝,其無以易之。弱之勝強,柔之勝剛,天下莫不知、莫能行。是以聖人云:受國之垢,是謂社稷主;受國不祥,是為天下王。正言若反。」

Like water, an effective leader assumes the lowest position, quietly overcoming even the toughest obstacles through patience and persistence. By tackling the “filth” and “misfortune” of the organization, the leader gains authority and respect without having to resort to table-thumping theatrics. No task is too difficult or too thankless for the leader to take on.

Like water, an effective leader freshens the soil of the organization and enables its people to grow. By permeating the darkest and most distant corners of the organization with clarity and calm, the leader makes sure everyone thrives.

Notes
Laozi uses the metaphor of water in the Daodejing to illustrate key Daoist principles such as humility, flexibility, gentleness, and the power of yielding. The image of water effectively communicates the Daoist ideal of effortless action (wuwei) and the natural flow of life’s events. The key qualities of water include:

Water flows effortlessly around every barrier, shunning heights while embracing the depths.
Water naturally conforms to the shapes it encounters, be it square or circular, vast or confined, filling valleys and coursing through rivers.
Water smooths and calms surfaces, extinguishes fire, nurtures plants and trees, and remains persistently gentle and humble. See also:

Daodejing Chapter 8: like water
This chapter compares the virtue of a good person to the qualities of water, emphasizing how water benefits all things without striving for conflict or contention.

Daodejing Chapter 28: an uncarved block of wood
In this chapter, the idea of retaining your feminine qualities, associated with water’s receptiveness and flexibility, is encouraged as a means to stay whole.

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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.