Chuang Tzu. Chapter 11. Argument: The
natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids.
The evils of government. Failure of coercion. Tao the refuge.
Inaction the secret. The action of Inaction.*
There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has
never been such a thing as governing mankind.
Letting alone springs from fear lest men's natural dispositions
be perverted and their virtue laid aside. But if their natural
dispositions be not perverted nor their virtue laid aside, what
room is there left for government?
Of old, when Yao governed the empire, he caused happiness to
prevail to excess in man's nature; and consequently the people
were not satisfied. When Chieh governed the empire he caused sorrow
to prevail to excess in man's nature; and consequently the people
were not contented. Dissatisfaction and discontent are subversive
of virtue; and without virtue there is no such thing for an empire
When man rejoices greatly he gravitates towards the positive
pole. When he sorrows deeply he gravitates towards the negative
If the equilibrium of positive and negative is disturbed, the
four seasons are intrrupted, the balance of heat and cold is destroyed,
and man himself suffers physically thereby.
Because men are made to rejoice and to sorrow and to displace
their centre of gravity, they lose their steadiness, and are unsuccessful
in thought and action. And thus it is that the idea of surpassing
others first came into the world, followed by the appearance of
such men as Robber Che, Tseng, and Shih, the result being that
the whole world could not furnish enough rewards for the good
nor distribute punishments enough for the evil among mankind.
And as this great world is not equal to the demand for rewards
and punishments; and as, ever since the time of the Three Dynasties
downwards, men have done nothing but struggle over rewards and
punishments, ‹ what possible leisure can they have had for
adapting themselves to the natural conditions of their existence?
Besides, over-refinement of vision leads to debauchery in colour;
over-refinement of hearing leads to debauchery in sound; over-refinement
of charity leads to confusion in virtue; over-refinement of duty
towards one's neighbour leads to perversion of principle; over-refinement
of ceremonial leads to divergence from the true object; over-refinement
of music leads to lewdness of thought; over-refinement of wisdom
leads to an extension of mechanical art; and over-refinement of
shrewdness leads to an extension of vice.
If people adapt themselves to the natural conditions of existence,
the above eight may be or may not be; it matters not. But if people
do not adapt themselves to the natural conditions of existence,
then these eight become hindrances and spoilers, and throw the
world into confusion.
In spite of this, the world reverences and cherishes them, thereby
greatly increasing the sum of human error. And not as a passing
fashion, but with admonitions in words, with humility in prostrations,
and with the stimulus of music and song. What then is left for
Therefore, for the perfect man who is unavoidably summoned to
power over his fellows, there is naught like Inaction. By means
of inaction he will be able to adapt himself to the natural conditions
of existence. And so it is that he who respects the State as his
own body is fit to support it, and he who loves the States as
his own body, is fit to govern it. And if I can refrain from injuring
my internal economy, and from taxing my powers of sight and hearing,
sitting like a corpse while my dragon-power is manifested around,
in profound silence while my thunder-voice resounds, the powers
of heaven responding to every phase of my will, as under the yielding
influence of inaction all things are brought to maturity and thrive,
‹ what leisure then have I to set about governing the world?
Ts'ui Chü asked Lao Tzu, saying, 'If the empire is not to
be governed, how are men's hearts to be kept in order?'
'Be careful', replied Lao Tzu, 'not to interfere with the natural
goodness of the heart of man. Man's heart may be forced down or
stirred up. In each case the issue is fatal.
'By gentleness, the hardest heart may be softened. But try to
cut and polish it, ‹ 'twill glow like fire or freeze like
ice. In the twinkling of an eye it will pass beyond the limits
of the Four Seas. In repose, profoundly still; in motion, far
away in the sky. No bolt can bar, no bond can bind, ‹ such
is the human heart.'
'Of old, the Yellow Emperor first caused charity and duty to
one's neighbour to interfere with the natural goodness of the
heart of man. In consequence of which, Yao and Shun wore the hair
off their legs in endeavouring to feed their people. They disturbed
their internal economy in order to find room for charity and duty
to one's neighbor. They exhausted their energies in framing laws
and statutes. Still they did not succeed.
'Thereupon, Yao confined Huan Tou on Mount Tsung; drove the chief
of San-miao and his people into San-wei, and kept them there;
and banished the Minister of Works to Yu Island. But they were
not equal to their task, and through the times of the Three Princes,
the empire was in a state of great unrest. Among the bad men were
Chieh and Che; among the good were Tseng and Shih. By and by,
the Confucianists and the Mohists arose; and then came exultation
and anger of rivals, fraud between the simple and the cunning,
recrimination between the virtuous and the evil, slander between
the honest and the dishonest, ‹ until decadence set in,
men fell away from their original virtue, their natures became
corrupt, and there was a general rush for knowledge.
'The next thing was to coerce by all kinds of physical torture,
thus bringing utter confusion into the empire, the blame for which
rests upon those who would interfere with the natural goodness
of the heart of man.
'In consequence, virtuous men sought refuge in mountain caves,
while rulers of States sat trembling in their ancestral halls.
Then, when dead men lay about pillowed on each other's corpses,
when cangued prisoners and condemned criminals jostled each other
in crowds, ‹ then the Confucianists and the Mohists, in
the midst of gyves and fetters, stood forth to preach! Alas they
know not shame, nor what it is to blush!
'Until I can say that the wisdom of Sages is not a fastener of
cangues, and that charity of heart and duty to one's neighbour
are not bolts for gyves, how should I know that Tseng and Shih
are not the forerunners of Chieh and Che?
'Therefore I said, "Abandon wisdom and discard knowledge,
and the empire will be at peace".'
The Yellow Emperor sat on the throne for nineteen years, and
his laws obtained all over the empire.
Hearing that Kuang Cheng Tzu was living on Mount K'ung-t'ung,
he went thither to see him, and said, 'I am told, Sir, that you
are in possession of perfect Tao. May I ask in what perfect Tao
consists? I desire to avail myself of the good influence of heaven
and earth in order to secure harvests and feed my people. I should
also like to control the Two Powers of nature in order to protect
all living things. How can I accomplish this?
'What you desire to avail yourself of', replied Kuang Ch'eng
Tzu, 'is the primordial integrity of matter. What you wish to
control are the disintegrators thereof. Ever since the empire
has been governed by you, the clouds have rained without waiting
to thicken, the foliage of trees has fallen without waiting to
grow yellow, the brightness of the sun and moon has paled, and
the voice of the flatterer is heard on every side. How then speak
of perfect Tao?'
The Yellow Emperor withdrew. He resigned the Throne. He built
himself a solitary hut. He lay upon straw. For three months he
remained in seclusion, and then went again to see Kuang Ch'eng
The latter was lying down with his face to the south. The Yellow
Emperor approached after the manner of an inferior, upon his knees.
Prostrating himself upon the ground he said, 'I am gold, Sir,
that you are in possession of perfect Tao. May I ask how my self
may be preserved so as to last?'
Kuang Ch'eng Tzu jumped up with a start. 'A good question indeed!'
cried he. 'Come, and I will speak to you of perfect Tao.
'The essence of perfect Tao is profoundly mysterious; its extent
is lost in obscurity.
'See nothing; hear nothing; let your soul be wrapped in quiet;
and your body will begin to take proper form. Let there be absolute
repose and absolute purity; do not weary your body nor disturb
your vitality, ‹ and you will live for ever. For if the
eye sees nothing, and the ear hears nothing, and the mind thinks
nothing, the soul will preserve the body, and the body will live
'Cherish that which is within you, and shut off that which is
without; for much knowledge is a curse. Then I will place you
upon that abode of Great Light which is the source of the positive
Power, and escort you through the gate of Profound Mystery which
is the source of the negative Power. These Powers are the controllers
of heaven and earth, and each contains the other.
'Cherish and preserve your own self, and all the rest will prosper
of itself. I preserve the original ONE, while resting in harmony
with externals. It is because I have thus cared for my self now
for twelve hundred years that my body has not decayed.'
The Yellow Emperor prostrated himself and said, 'Kuang Ch'eng
Tzu is surely God ... '
Whereupon the latter continued, 'Come, I will tell you. That
self is eternal; yet all men think it mortal. That self is eternal;
yet all men think it mortal. That self is infinite: yet all men
think it finite. Those who possess Tao are princes in this life
and rulers in the hereafter. Those who do not possess Tao, behold
the light of day in this life and become clods of earth in the
'Nowadays, all living things spring from the dust and to the
dust return. But I will lead you through the portals of Eternity
into the domain of Infinity. My light is the light of sun and
moon. My life is the life of heaven and earth. I know not who
comes nor who goes. Men may all die, but I endure forever.'
The Spirit of the Clouds when passing eastwards through the expanse
of Air happened to fall in with the Vital Principle. The latter
was slapping his ribs and hopping about; whereupon the Spirit
of the Clouds said, 'Who are you, old man, and what are you doing
'Strolling!' replied the Vital Principle, without stopping.
'I want to know something', continued the Spirit of the Clouds.
'Ah! uttered the Vital Principle, in a tone of disapprobation.
'The relationship of heaven and earth is out of harmony', said
the Spirit of the Clouds; 'the six influences do not combine,
and the four seasons are no longer regular. I desire to blend
the six influences so as to nourish all living beings. What am
I to do?'
'I do not know!' cried the Vital Principle, shaking his head,
while still slapping his ribs and hopping about; 'I do not know!'
So the Spirit of the Clouds did not press his question; but three
years later, when passing eastwards through the Yu-sung territory,
he again fell in with the Vital Principle. The former was overjoyed,
and hurrying up, said, 'Has your Holiness forgotten me?'
He then prostrated himself, and desired to be allowed to interrogate
the Vital Principle; but the latter said, 'I wander on without
knowing what I want. I roam about without knowing where I am going.
I stroll in this ecstatic manner, simply awaiting events. What
should I know?'
'I too roam about', answered the Spirit of the Clouds, 'but the
people depend upon my movements. I am thus unavoidably summoned
to power; and under these circumstances I would gladly receive
'That the scheme of empire is in confusion', said the Vital Principle,
'that the conditions of life are violated, that the will of God
does not triumph, that the beasts of the field are disorganized,
that the birds of the air cry at night, that blight reaches the
trees and herbs, that destruction spreads about creeping things,
‹ this, alas! is the fault of government.'
'True', replied the Spirit of the Clouds, 'but what am I to do?'
'It is here', cried the Vital Principle, 'that the poison lurks!
'It is not often', urged the Spirit of the Clouds, 'that I meet
with your Holiness. I would gladly receive some advice.'
'Feed then your people', said the Vital Principle, 'with your
heart. Rest in inaction, and the world will be good of itself.
Cast your slough. Spit forth intelligence. Ignore all differences.
Become one with the infinite. Release your mind. Free your soul.
Be vacuous. Be Nothing!
'Let all things revert to their original constitution. If they
do this, without knowledge, the result will be a simple purity
which they will never lose; but knowledge will bring with it a
divergence therefrom. Seek not the names nor the relations of
things, and all things will flourish of thmeselves.'
'Your Holiness', said the Spirit of the Clouds, as he prostrated
himself and took leave, 'has informed me with power and filled
me with mysteries. What I had long sought, I have now found.'
The men of this world all rejoice in others being like themselves,
and object to others not being like themselves. Those who make
friends with their likes and do not make friends with their unlikes,
are influenced by a desire to differentiate themselves from others.
But those who are thus influenced by a desire to differentiate
themselves from others, ‹ how will they find it possible
to do so? To subordinate oneself to the majority in order to gratify
personal ambition, is not so good as to let that majority look
each one after his own affairs. Those who desire to govern kingdoms,
clutch at the advantages of the Three Princes without seeing the
troubles involved. In fact, they trust to luck. But in thus trusting
to luck not to destroy the kingdom, their chances of preserving
it do not amount to one in ten thousand, while their chances of
destroying it are ten thousand to nothing and even more. Such,
alas! is the ignorance of rulers.
For, given territory, there is the great thing - Man. Given man,
he must not be managed as if he were a mere thing; though by not
managing him at all he may actually be managed as if he were a
mere thing. And for those who understand that the management of
man as if he were a mere thing is not the way to manage him, the
issue is not confined to mere government of the empire. Such men
may wander at will between the six limits of space or travel over
the continent of earth, unrestrained in coming and in going. This
is to be distinguished from one's fellows, and this distinction
is the highest attainable by man.
The doctrine of the perfect man is to him as shadow to form,
as echo to sound. Ask and it responds, fulfilling its mission
as the help-mate of humanity. Noiseless in repose, objectless
in motion, it guides you to the goal, free to come and free to
go for ever without end. Alone in its exits and its entrances,
it rivals the eternity of the sun.
As for his body, that is in accordance with the usual standard.
Being in accordance with the usual standard it is not distinguished
in any way. But if not distinguished in any way, what becomes
of the distinction by which he is distinguished?
Those who see what is to be seen, of such were the perfect men
of old. Those who see what is not to be seen, ‹ they are
the chosen of the universe.
Low in the scale, but still to be allowed for, matter. Humble,
but still to be followed, ‹ mankind. Of others, but still
to be attended to, affairs. Harsh, but still necessary to be set
forth, the law. Far off, but still claiming our presence, ‹
duty to one's neighbour. Near, but still claiming extension, charity.
Of sparing use, but still to be of bounteous store, ceremony.
Of middle course, but still to be of lofty scope, virtue. One,
but not to be without modification, Tao. Spiritual, yet not to
be devoid of action, God.
Therefore the true Sage looks up to God, but does not offer to
aid. He perfects his virtue, but does not involve himself. He
guides himself by Tao, but makes no plans. He identifies himself
with charity, but does not rely on it. He extends to duty towards
his neighbour, but does not store it up. He responds to ceremony,
without tabooing it. He undertakes affairs without declining them.
He metes out law without confusion. He relies on his fellow-men
and does not make light of them. He accommodates himself no matter
and does not ignore it.
While there should be no action, there should be also no inaction.
He who is not divinely enlightened will not be sublimely pure.
He who has not clear apprehension of Tao will find this beyond
his reach. And he who is not enlightened by Tao, ‹ alas
indeed for him!
What then is Tao? There is the Tao of God, and the Tao of man.
Inaction and compliance make the Tao of God: action and entanglement
the Tao of man. The Tao of God is fundamental: the Tao of man
is accidental. The distance which separates them is great. Let
us all take heed thereto!
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Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition,
1889; second edition, 1923.