Building a Better Wall, Bigly: The Art of the Dao

Since wall building appears to be a hot topic these days, it’s probably worth noting that one of the greatest Chinese books of  wisdom ever written is tied intimately to a wall. Only, this was a wall a wise person used to escape from China, not to sneak into it, which was precisely the opposite purpose it was designed for. Before delving into the myth of Lao-Tsu and the Dao Teh Ching, it is probably worth considering some of his advice on leadership:

Leaders are best
When people barely know that they exist,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim them,
Worst when they despise them.
‘Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you;’
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When their work is done, their aim fulfilled,
The people will all say, ‘We did this ourselves’. (poem 17)

This is from poem seventeen of the Dao Teh Ching, and they are words that should not be dismissed out of hand, especially by anyone in a position of power. Unfortunately, this message appears to have as little traction today as it did in the time of Lao Tsu, which is why he decided to leave.

As the story goes, frustrated that people did not intuit the Dao, or the Way of Life, Lao-Tsu left for the Wastelands beyond the wall. Maybe he hoped to find better reception among the “barbarians”,  or maybe he just wanted to get a way from it all. Either way, he made his way to China’s famous Great Wall, the great barrier between “us” and “them” in his day, only to be stopped by a guard.

The guard was perplexed at first; people were always trying to sneak their way in; no one in their right mind wanted to actually leave. He questioned the Old Man. “What business could possibly take you outside of our Golden Paradise? We represent the perfection of Law and Order”.

The Old Man laughed, but with little joy.

A realm is governed by ordinary acts,
A battle is governed by extraordinary acts;
The world is governed by no acts at all.
And how do I know?
This is how I know.
Act after act prohibits
Everything but poverty,
Weapon after weapon conquers
Everything but chaos,
Business after business provides
A craze of waste,
Law after law breeds
A multitude of thieves.


Therefore a sensible man says:
If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves,
If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves,
If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves,
If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves.  (poem 57)

The guard responded, “Do you not place trust in our Great Leader?”

The Old Man responded:

The less a leader does and says
The happier his people,
The more a leader struts and brags
The sorrier his people. (poem 58)

“You are insolent, but you are wise, Old Man. However, there is no way to cross my gate without payment. What have you to offer?” asked the guard.

“My only wealth are my thoughts, my only currency, my words. I can talk all day; will that suffice?”

The guard responded, “Let me write them down, so future generations will understand”.

And so, as the story goes, the Dao Teh Ching, the Way of Life, came to be written, and Lao-Tsu, the Old Man, was able to leave, never to be heard from again, except for 81 short poems.

Does any of this matter?

Today, possibly more than ever.

To ignore his words is easy; to heed them requires humility.

That, in and of itself, is the Art of the Dao.

(All quotes selected/modified from Witter Bynner’s The Way of Life, which remains one of my personal favorites translations of the Dao Teh Ching).

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