Daodejing Chapter 80: a primordial age of innocence

Richard Brown
2 min readNov 21, 2023

Let a state be small
And its population sparse.
Let it have powerful tools
That never need to be used.
Let its people be so mindful of death
That they never journey far.
Let it have boats and carriages
That never need to be ridden in.
Let it have weapons and armour
That never need to be deployed.
Let its people return to:
Using knotted cords for writing,
Tasting sweetness in their food,
Finding beauty in their clothes,
Experiencing contentment in their homes,
Taking joy in their customs.
Neighbouring states can be seen,
Crowing cocks and barking dogs can be heard,
But the people grow old and die,
Without ever meeting each other.

「小國寡民,使有什伯之器而不用,使民重死而不遠徙,雖有舟輿,無所乘之;雖有甲兵,無所陳之;使人復結繩而用之,甘其食、美其服、安其居、樂其俗,鄰國相望,雞犬之聲相聞,民至老死不相往來。」

There is nothing wrong with yearning for a return to simpler and gentler times as long as you take a reality check before you rush off to purchase a remote ranch on a picture-perfect mountainside so that you can escape the pressures of modern life. Curling up in front of a roaring log fire after eating a delicious venison stew cooked using the meat of a deer that you hunted looks very appealing, assuming of course you have the time, skills, and patience required to chop the wood and dress, skin, and butcher the animal before you put it in the pot.

Notes
1.) Laozi’s lyrical call for a return to a primordial age of innocence is understandable given the violence, greed, poverty, and hunger that characterized the late Spring and Autumn period he lived in when rulers from multiple states were vying with each other for supremacy. Whether such a time of universal peace and prosperity ever existed is of course open to question, as is the practicality of his vision of small, self-sufficient communities operating in splendid self-isolation.

2.) Note that Laozi is not a total Luddite in his attitude to new military, agricultural, and transportation technologies. Rather than prohibiting new equipment and weapons outright, he is realistic enough to appreciate the need to keep them in reserve for times when they may be needed, such as when an invasion is imminent.

3.) Knotted cords were said to have been used by government officials as tallies to record simple transactions before the written script was invented. By calling for their usage to be restored, Laozi is aiming to prevent excessive bureaucratic interference in people’s lives. All I can say is, good luck with that!

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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.