Tao Te Ching - Chapter 78
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water.
Yet, to attack the hard and strong,
Nothing surpasses it.
Nothing can take its place.
The weak overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.
Everybody in the world knows this,
Still nobody makes use of it.
Therefore the sage says:
To bear the country's disgrace
Is to rule the shrines of soil and grain.
To bear the country's misfortunes
Is to be the king of the world.
True words seem false.
Water Surpasses All
Lao Tzu returns to what must be his favorite metaphor
for the primary quality of Tao, the Way. Water is
yielding, which is exactly what makes it superior. As the Roman
poet Ovid pointed out: Dripping water hollows out the stone,
not through force but through persistence.
Water embraces instead of confronts, it caresses
instead of beats, but it still subdues, eventually.
Of course, water can sometimes be a mighty
striking force, but Lao Tzu refers to its yielding quality and its
nature to seek the lowest place. That's what he admires in it,
and that's what he wants us to learn, in just about everything
Not only water is soft and weak in its behavior
towards its surroundings, and still overcomes resistance.
Many things in nature show the same traits and get the same
results. The air even surpasses water in softness and
weakness, but it tends to travel upwards, aiming for the sky.
Otherwise it would surely become Lao Tzu's ideal example.
Anyway, nature tells us repeatedly to trust the soft
and the weak, but we don't learn. As soon as we are eager
to accomplish something, we go for the hard and strong.
We lack the persistence that Ovid mentioned.
Persistence is a recurring theme in another Chinese
classic, I Ching, the Book of Change. It states several times
that persistence in a righteous course brings reward.
Ancient China was a country cherishing tradition
and values of old, so the patience to persist was highly
appreciated and recommended. We may not have the same
ideal today, it seems.
Lao Tzu doesn't state that persistence is the essence of
what he advocates. Instead, he points out the yielding. If we
can accept instead of oppose, and let go instead of confront,
we can accomplish anything.
There are few obstacles that need to be destroyed.
Most of them can simply be circumvented. Often when we
choose the path of confrontation, we do so because of
irrelevant factors, such as our pride and our impatience. Although
we regard ourselves as the reasoning species, Homo
sapiens, many of our actions are induced by our bad temper.
We would all gain by yielding and humbling
ourselves. Thereby we would overcome our pride, which feeds
our temper, which triggers our impatience. This is even
more necessary in a ruler. So, the sage begins by lowering
himself and accepting the suffering that may be inevitable.
He expects disgrace rather than praise, which is why
he is apt to rule the old shrines of offerings to soil and
grain. Those were places for important agricultural rituals in
ancient China, so their ruler would be the ruler of the
The sage is also willing to share the misfortunes of
the country, instead of using his power to isolate himself
from them. That makes him fit to rule the whole world.
There are far too many rulers who use their power
first and foremost to get personal benefits, and who blame
everyone and everything for what might go wrong. That's
just as true now as it was in the time of Lao Tzu.
He knew in what way they needed to change, but
it seems neither he nor we have found out how to make
them go through with that change. Nor have we learned how
to avoid such rulers getting into power. Our problem might
be that people who would as rulers live up to Lao Tzu's
ideal are so rare.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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