On the Taoist Utopia:
Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching

Chapter 80

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They'd have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They'd have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They'd enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close
the people could hear the cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they'd get old and die
without ever having been there.

— translated by Ursula K. Le Guin (p. 100) —


The first time I read Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching was December of 1997. I was trekking around Europe alone, traversing eight countries and thirteen cities in only three weeks. Wonderful people and fascinating adventures filled this period of ferocious traveling. Even so, there in Rome, I felt horrible: disconnected, lonely, confused, overloaded by stimuli. This amount of solo globe-trotting was simply too much for someone who had neither been outside of the United States nor out on his own.

For solace and for therapy, I would find a chapter of the Tao Te Ching to mull over as the day progressed. Chapter 80 came to me on my second day in Rome. Its relevance shocked me. Though there were glimpses of the Tao in my wanderings, I knew that they were fewer and further between than they had ever been before. And here was my trusty Tao Te Ching, telling me why.

When looking for a chapter for this paper, I stumbled upon it again. And I chose to write on it, for this was the first passage of Lao Tzu that lucidly explained something I acutely felt. So without further preamble, I will begin.


"Let there be a little country without many people." With this command begins the Le Guin version of this chapter. It recalls the utterances of God in Genesis, but reads equally well as a prayer from Lao Tzu. Or perhaps he is instructing us in something to imagine, or even build. Le Guin seems to intend all of these meanings, and I suspect that Lao Tzu may have as well. Each of these interpretations gives the chapter a different tone, but the urgency and message remains the same. In the first line's spare language, I find a wistfulness for a time and a place in which things are different—I like to think of it as a Taoist Utopia. As the chapter continues, details are revealed to us. It is small, in area and population. Its people are restrained: they do not use their technology; they abstain from travel; have no pride for their weapons; perhaps they do not even write things down. They ponder death; they relish their culture. With these few elements, Lao Tzu paints a portrait of a wondrous state indeed.

Why a little country with few people? The poem opens with this point; it seems to be of great importance. My guess is that it has to do with simplicity: the smaller the state, the more manageable it is for a government; the fewer the people, the easier for a community feeling to form. Possible reasons for Lao Tzu's inclination towards small, simple states are apparent: if tiny enough, they cannot tear themselves apart; also, the smaller the communities, the wider the diversity that arises. (Supporting this proposition is beyond the scope of this paper, but for an example, compare the New World's small tribes and broad variety of cultural traditions to the larger and more homogeneous nations of Europe.)

The next four lines begin to tell us of this little country's populace. "Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred, / and never use them. / Let them be mindful of death / and disinclined to long journeys." As further description of the country mentioned in line one, these lines follow quite logically after it. However, I don't understand why they are ordered in this way; a wide variety of other arrangements seem to work just as well. (For example: "Let them be disinclined of long journeys / and mindful of death. / Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred, / and never use them.")

While I can't tackle the order, the meaning seems clear. This passage begins by telling us that these people restrain themselves from using their advanced tools. Le Guin reads this as warning us to beware being used by technology (p. 125). There are those who would claim that we have not yet fallen into that trap, that our industrialization makes life both less difficult and more rewarding. My guess is that Lao Tzu would not fully disagree with these people, but would yearn for the simple joy, the basic pride, the tight-knit communities and the great craftsmanship that existed before work became the menial task of telling the machine or computer what to do. And I agree—I would certainly spurn raising a barn with several large construction machines when I could do the same with a few dozen Amish farmers.

Line four is something of a mystery to me. "Let them be mindful of death." Henricks' comment on Chapter 74 reiterates this Taoist tenet: "Note that Lao-tzu feels that people should (or naturally do) fear death." (p. 174) But why? Are the people in this Utopia mindful of death so as to better attend to the cycle of life? Do they need to see the transience of life before comprehending its beauty? Lao Tzu often talks of death in undesirable ways, but it seems more to be something to ignore. (See Chapters 50 and 33.) That the Utopia's populace is to be mindful of it leaves me flummoxed indeed. I am certain there is wisdom in this line, yet I am hard pressed to understand what it is.

The lack of inclination for long journeys from line five makes more sense to me. It is a concrete example of being without desire, a desire so common nowadays that we cannot imagine the time in which it was not practical to travel the world. It is also a litmus test for the livability of the country: if it is truly a Utopia, why would people want to leave? What could they possibly need outside of their home?

This line appeals to me mostly because of my voyage through Europe. I have witnessed the disorienting and decentering nature of travel that Lao Tzu seems to be getting at. What are Lao Tzu's reasons for finding this pastime discombobulating? I venture the following guess. The traveler surrounds himself by an alien culture. He must learn the customs of this strange new land. Knowing new customs seem to distance people from their own; once one has borne witness to a new tradition, it is harder to be immersed in the old. Of course, my reasoning as to why Lao Tzu says this is only conjecture. All we truly know is that he does. As Chapter 47 has it:

You don't have to go out the door
to know what goes on in the world.
You don't have to look out the window
to see the way of heaven.
The farther you go,
the less you know.
(Le Guin, p. 62)

Moving on with Chapter 80: "They'd have ships and carriages, / but no place to go. / They'd have armor and weapons, / but no parades. / Instead of writing, / they might go back to using knotted cords." The theme of restraint from lines two and three continues: don't do things just because you can. As the passage continues, the difficulty crescendos—it is easiest not to travel and bury one's wanderlust, harder to resist violence and the impulse to show one's strength, and extremely difficult not to rely on the technologies so basic we do not even consider them technologies any more.

We can muse on the reasons Lao Tzu has for depicting these people's restraint in these areas. For instance, why not parade one's armor and weapons? The logic I can find is that a country that parades its weapons develops a pride in them. Perhaps it even strikes fear into the populace of its neighbors, causing it to think of itself as fearful and therefore strong. It is easy to see how this pride and this imagined strength can make countries into bullies. By this reasoning, displaying one's weapons greatly increases the probability that one will use them.

Things get more interesting with these lines: "Instead of writing, / they might go back to using knotted cords." Up until now, the chapter did seemed not to be against technology, only against the non-meditative use of it. Yet here it seems the old master is endorsing an end to all writing. Where's he coming from?

Two notes assisted me greatly in my attempts to answer that question. Le Guin says, "The eleventh line ... might be read as saying it's best not to externalize all our thinking and remembering (as we do in writing and reading), but to keep it embodied, to think and remember with our bodies as well as our verbalizing brains." (p. 125) However, this interpretation softens the meaning, and as Le Guin herself points out, "Lao Tzu is tough-minded. He is tender-minded. He is never, under any circumstances, squashy-minded." (p. 110) Besides, it seems to me that if he had meant what she indicates in her note, he would have penned something more like, "Instead of writing all the time, / they might once in a while use knotted cords."

Waley's musings help here: "One knots ropes as an aid to one's own memory (compare our 'tying a knot in one's handkerchief') ... I doubt whether the quipus of South American Indians are relevant." (p. 241) If the Chinese did not have a knotted-cord writing system, it seems unlikely that they would imagine one exists. Given this, Waley's interpretation is reasonable and concrete, meaning that Lao Tzu is inviting us readers to revitalize the craft of story-telling and memorization of epic poetry instead of relying on the technology of writing to remember everything for us. While using these methods to pass texts from generation to generation allows errors and revisions to creep in, I would note that they are a small price to pay for the texts' remaining acutely relevant as they change organically over the years. Besides, the original version would still have some say—when, from time to time, an ancient copy of a cherished text is found, the scholars would weigh in on what seemed to work better in the old version and perhaps even incorporating it into the new. At the moment we only find this sort of dialogue in translation and criticism; what value of having it weaved into the text itself!

The chapter goes on: "They'd enjoy eating, / take pleasure in clothes, / be happy with their houses, / devoted to their customs." Does this not seem shockingly hedonistic? Upon reading it, I recalled Chapter 53:

People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,
carrying weapons,
drinking a lot and eating a lot,
having a lot of things, a lot of money:
shameless thieves.
Surely their way
isn't the way.
(Le Guin, p. 68)

However, Chapter 53 does not advocate asceticism; rather, it admonishes greed. In Chapter 80 the people are not greedy—they are only relishing what they have. Perhaps it is hedonistic, but Lao Tzu is not against hedonism in moderation. How could he be? As Bobby McFerrin says, "Simple pleasures are the best."

Yet why is the hedonism here, in this chapter? How do these pleasures play a role in the Taoist Utopia? Reading carefully, I feel that these lines illustrate people rejoicing in the customs of their own community, dancing in the rainbow of local color. I see the food as local cuisine and the clothes as local costumes; the customs and homes are obviously local as well. Devotion to, love for and interest in their own customs: these are what keep life lively in our little country, these are what quell the wanderlust of the human spirit. These are what make the customs more complex, more intricate, more beauteous. These are even what make the people more at home in their provincial world. With these feelings wrapped up in the very food and drink, Lao Tzu may reason, who could ever bear to leave?

Here begins the second stanza. "The next little country might be so close / the people could hear the cocks crowing / and dogs barking there, / but they'd get old and die / without ever having been there." Lao Tzu expands on the disinclination to travel discussed in lines four through six, giving us a wonderful image of the restraint of the Utopia's populace. Even the small desire to stroll into the neighboring country—so close that we can see its blades of grass—is not yielded to. Our local ways customs are so filled with intriguing complexity that wandering into the next country does not even enter our minds. One thinks of the Dartmouth students who spend four or more years here and never cross the bridge into Vermont. The temptation—to see whether the forests are thicker, whether the girls are prettier, whether they really have statues of Karl and Groucho Marx in the town square—never strikes them. For them, there is simply too much to be involved with in the little town of Hanover. (Of course, then they go to New York City on breaks...)

I love this last passage. It is different from the rest of the chapter: its images more specific, more tangible. Lao Tzu gives us a brief glimpse of the Taoist Utopia, a glimpse so vivid that it locks the wisdom of this poem in our minds. And this seems to me to be reason enough for Lao Tzu to end the chapter with it.

Translation Comparison

Now we must shift our focus from interpretation of one translation to a comparison between translations. In this section, I consider the renditions of Robert Henricks, D. C. Lau, Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur Waley. They differ slightly in the descriptions of the details of the Taoist Utopia and widely in their implicit portrayal of the writer who describes it. The Waley for me reads as if Shakespeare was representing a Utopia through a character sketch of a remarkable king in a distant land. Lau's seems to be a speech from a minister of the US Cabinet that begins with sound advice and descends into wild predictions. Henricks' sounds to me like a John Lennon song: a flowery patchwork that shines with a golden braid of wisdom. I find in Le Guin's a retired prophet; his deceptively simple words lull us into imagining with him the future that he wistfully envisions.

I find it difficult to follow the synthesis of the microscopic differences among the translations into these general impressions. As such, I will discuss small variations and observe their tiny effects, letting alone the mystery of how they come together to make my general impressions.

As I indicated before, Le Guin is ambiguous in her first line. "Let there be a little country without many people," can be read as the word of God, a prayer from the author or an invitation for the readers to imagine or build. Henricks' construction (p. 156) is similar to Le Guin's, however, in making the word "states" plural, the passage feels less exact in its imagery. The other two translations are more specific in the color they give to the chapter. Waley begins, "Given a small country with few inhabitants, he could bring it about that..." (p. 241) His translation is a description of the Utopia's ruler, not of the Utopia itself. The opening command in D. C. Lau's (p. 115) makes the chapter feel like a set of instructions for emperors (though it, too, is possible to read as a prayer). The translation of this opening line is vital. It alters not only the meaning of the poem, but also our understanding of who Lao Tzu is. In the Waley, I perceive an author focused on the rulers and their politics, akin to Shakespeare; in the Lau, I see an almost Confucian interest in government; in the Henricks and the Le Guin, I find a visionary and dreamer. (I am most partial to the portrayal in these last two versions.)

In the very next line we hit another separation between the texts. Le Guin has, "Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred." The "tools" become "contrivances" in Waley, "tools of war" in Lau and "weapons" in Henricks. Lau even mentions troops and battalions. Henricks' note sheds some light on this disparity: "There is a military and non-military interpretation of the 'tens' and 'hundreds' in line 2, and most translators seem to prefer the latter.... I am persuaded to read the 'tens' and 'hundreds' as designations of troops or platoons, and the 'utensils' (ch'i) as 'weapons' not because of new evidence in the Ma-wang-tui texts but rather because I find the argument that ties together lines 2 and 5 and 3 and 4 very convincing: that is, the 'carriages and boats' would be used by people who want to migrate, and the armor and spears would be used by troops in battle." (p. 156) I find this argument compelling, and yet I am still partial to the broadness and the elegance of Le Guin's version. I also wonder if Lao Tzu would not have made a closer parallel structure if that had been his meaning. That is, instead of writing 2, 3, 4, 5, would he not have used 3, 4, 2, 5 or 2, 5, 3, 4? (Here I use Henricks' verse numbers.)

Le Guin's lines four and five ("Let them be mindful of death / and disinclined to long journeys.") find disparate interpretations as well. Again, Henricks' is similar: "Have the people regard death gravely and put migrating far from their minds." Neither of these two translators establishes a causal link between the lack of wanderlust and the mindfulness of death. Waley and Lau do. Waley has "... the people would be ready to lay down their lives and lay them down again in defense of their homes, rather than emigrate." Lau's rendition is "... they will be reluctant to move to distant places because they look on death as no light matter." I find it intriguing that Waley and Lau tie these two lines together so differently: Waley talks of the people dying for their homes and Lau indicates that they do not migrate because they have something resembling a fear of death. Given the counsel against fearing death in Chapters 50 and 33 of the Tao Te Ching, I find Lau's take unlikely to be accurate. On the other hand, Waley's fascinates me. It explains something I had great difficulty interpreting in the Le Guin and Henricks versions: the willingness to die is another demonstration of these people's great love for their community.

The next interesting difference has Henricks and Lau on one side and Le Guin and Waley on the other. It is regarding this passage (from the Le Guin): "They'd have ships and carriages, / but no place to go. / They'd have armor and weapons, / but no parades." Where Le Guin and Waley say "they'd have" or "they have", Henricks and Lau say "they might have". The chief effect of this subtle disparity is in our view of Lao Tzu. With the former two renditions he seems to be seeing the Utopia clearly before him; with the latter two he seems to be hypothesizing on how it might work. How does this refine my image of each translator's Lao Tzu? I said before that the Waley colors him as an ancient Chinese Shakespeare; the forcefulness and presentness of these two lines seem to strengthen that image. Lau's image of Lao Tzu shifts from some sort of Confucian to a theoretical politician, perhaps a government professor. The Henricks and Le Guin now separate in their portrayal of Lao Tzu—the Henricks seems to show Lao Tzu as a dreamer; the Le Guin seems to portray Lao Tzu the visionary.

It is interesting to note that Le Guin couches the next two lines in the conditional, whereas Waley does not. Compare: Le Guin has "Instead of writing, / they might go back to using knotted cords," while Waley has "... the people should have no use for any forms of writing save knotted ropes ..." I am unclear about what Le Guin is up to here. Perhaps she weakens Lao Tzu's most difficult advice so that it is easier to swallow? Perhaps she is trying to recapture some of the dreamer in her visionary? I'm really not sure.

However, on these lines Le Guin and Waley are close to one another compared to Henricks and Lau. Henricks has "Have the people return to knotting cords and using them"; Lau has "Bring it about that the people will return to the use of knotted rope." Neither mentions writing at all, making it difficult to figure out what they're talking about. We are left asking the old master what knotting ropes has to do with anything.

The shades of meaning in the next four lines differ widely from translation to translation. They are reproduced below, and then discussed.

Bring it about that the people ...
will find relish in their food
And beauty in their clothes,
Will be content in their abode
And happy in the way they live.
They will relish their food,
Regard their clothing as beautiful,
Delight in their customs,
And feel safe and secure in their homes.
He could bring it about that the people ... should be contented with their food, pleased with their clothing, satisfied with their homes, should take pleasure in their rustic tasks.
They'd enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.
(Le Guin)

To me the most interesting axis on which to consider this passage is that of the strength of the words. By this I mean the forcefulness that the words carry with them. For example, relishing something implies more feeling than enjoying the same thing; being happy is more than being satisfied. Though these interpretations are to some extent subjective, I believe that meaningful analyses can be made.

With four concepts and four authors, the following inequalities seemed the best way to present the information. Please excuse their tackiness.

Food: be contented < enjoy < relish
(Waley) (Le Guin) (Lau and Henricks)

Clothes: take pleasure < find beauty
(Waley and Le Guin) (Lau and Henricks)

Homes: be satisfied < be content < feel safe and secure < be happy
(Waley) (Lau) (Henricks) (Le Guin)

Customs: take pleasure < be happy about < delight < be devoted
(Waley) (Lau) (Henricks) (Le Guin)

Assuming one agrees with my rankings of the words, this chart makes it clear that of Waley, Lau and Henricks, Waley chooses the weakest word, Lau picks somewhat stronger words, and Henricks finds the strongest. Le Guin's word choices, however, begin as weak and become stronger throughout the four lines. I think is because she is trying to weave a crescendo into these lines. Why? It seems to me the order of the concepts Lao Tzu chose (notably different in the Ma-wang-tui texts) is in increasing importance what defines a culture. Or to put it in another inequality, as far as the aspects of cultures go, cuisine < costumes < architecture < customs—though all are quite important. My guess is that Le Guin is getting at this shade of meaning.

What consists of the final stanza in Le Guin is comparable across all of the translations. As Le Guin has it: "The next little country might be so close / the people could hear the cocks crowing / and dogs barking there, / but they'd get old and die / without ever having been there." The only two differences that I find interesting are in the word "country" and the last line.

Where Le Guin has "the next little country" and Waley has "the next place", Lau has "adjoining states" and Henricks has "neighboring states". The plural intrigues me. In Le Guin and Waley, with "country" and "place" (both singular), I find myself imagining the crows of the cocks, the barks of the dogs and the river that separates me from them. In the Lau and the Henricks, the plural "states" transports me to a geography classroom where I watch someone pointing to a color-coded map of an entire continent. Probably this is because with the singular I need only imagine one border, yet with the plural I must consider many borders between a host of countries. It may seem small and silly, but to me the feel changes entirely.

Of more obvious importance are the two interpretations of the final line. Le Guin has "but they'd get old and die / without ever having been there"; Waley has nearly the same. Yet Lau's ends with "... yet the people of one state will grow old and die without having had any dealings with those of another." The former two renditions deal with travel, a theme within the chapter, the latter with trade. This slight disparity doesn't seem to have much specific effect other than altering the image that one ends the poem with. (Henricks' rendition of these lines is ambiguous in whether it means travel between the two states or interaction of their populaces. Perhaps he means to imply both.)

The formal elements have some differences from translation to translation. While Le Guin and Henricks render the entire chapter as poetry, Waley has it all in prose and Lau uses a combination of the two. Also of note is the stanza break in the Le Guin, which does not appear in any of the other versions. While it probably has little basis in the Chinese, I must admit that I am partial to it—setting off those last five lines serves to increase their vividness and beauty.

A Final Word

We have now gone through Chapter 80 twice with a fine-toothed comb. In the end, what can be said of the Taoist Utopia? To throw adjectives at it, I read it as libertarian, probably socialist, ecologically-minded, provincial, patriotic, non-violent, and wary of the spread and influence of technology. As for the author, I cannot glean much about him, but I feel assured that he remembers, sees and envisions a great humankind.

This last statement is worded carefully, as I cannot tell the answer to a fundamental question: when is this Utopia meant to be? Is it lost in the distant past? Is it a way of reading the present? Or is it a hope for the remote future? Waley tells us that it can be read as any of the three, as the reader desires. (p. 242)

Let us meditate a little on this point. How evident is this society in the past? Though it is beyond the scope of this paper to support this argument, I would hold that it greatly resembles "the first leisure society" of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In a temperate climate, they would need only two to four hours a day of work to feed and manage their people—they possessed time and lacked stress, they were fully able to enjoy the small pleasures of their lives. They were mindful of death. Their communities were small, their states non-existent. The only point in which they may diverge from the Taoist Utopia is that of restraint, but we may overlook this point as they lived in a time before restraint was needed. It seems at least once the Taoist Utopia reigned supreme. (Of course the Taoist Utopia, like all those ever proposed, has serious drawbacks when put into practice. For an interesting fictional book on an ancient hunter-gatherer societies, warts and all, I recommend Clan of the Cave Bear (Bantam Books, 1980) by Jean M. Auel.)

How imaginable is this society in the future? It is difficult to fathom how we would transition to the state of which Lao Tzu speaks; as such, it is near impossible to see the specifics of what this place would look like. Fortunately, though, we have science fiction authors to do some of our imagining for us. Re-reading Chapter 80 to write this paper, what most struck me was its similarities to The Dispossessed (Avon Books, 1974), written by the same Ursula K. Le Guin whose translations of the Tao Te Ching this paper has featured so prominently. In this novel, she portrays a desert moon that has spawned a society resembling the Taoist Utopia.

The story is that in a world much like our own, the followers of a woman named Laia Asieo Odo (who resembles a mixture of Lao Tzu, Jesus of Nazareth and Vladimir Lenin) began a powerful anarchic socialist—and Taoist—movement. The authorities could not kill the entire movement; they were too many. Instead, they bought them off with the chance to make a new civilization on their barely inhabitable moon. The book traces in flashback the Odonians' development into a society that could be well described by this chapter of the Tao Te Ching. (Again, Odonianism is not all roses, but I will leave that for Le Guin to describe.)

We have dealt with the past and the future; now we are left with the one more question: can we see the Taoist Utopia in our present? I would answer a rousing no; we need to alter our society, our planet, until we have what Lao Tzu has described. With Chapter 29 Lao Tzu reprimands me:

Those who think to win the world
by doing something to it,
I see them come to grief.
For the world is a sacred object.
Nothing is to be done to it.
To do anything is to damage it.
To seize it is to lose it.
(Le Guin, p. 40)

If we are not to change the world, then what are we to learn from the Taoist Utopia? My only thought is that we must transform ourselves into the populace Lao Tzu describes. Perhaps then our society will seem to be that that the old master describes, perhaps it will even transform to become so. It is not an easy path, certainly. But maybe it is the way.

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