A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man, they are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no–one uses them.
Though they have armour and weapons, no–one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbours
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.
All other texts read this entire chapter as a suggestion rather than a matter of fact. Lau's version, for example, says:
Reduce the size and population of the state. Ensure that even though the people have tools of war for a troop or battalion they will not use them; and also that they will be reluctant to move to distant places because they look on death as no light matter.
Even when they have ships and carts, they will have no use for them; and even when they have armour and weapons, they will have no occasion to make a show of them.
Bring it about that the people return to use of the knotted rope,
Find relish in their food
And beauty in their clothes,
That they are content in their abode
And happy in the way they live.
Though adjoining states are within sight of one another, and the sound of dogs barking and cocks crowing in one state can be heard in another, yet the people of one state will grow old and die without having any dealings with those of the other.
According to Henricks, there is both a military and a non–military interpretation for the 'tens and hundreds' in line 2. Some translators read it as Gia–fu Feng has, above, or as an idea of an abundance and overabundance of tools and utensils; others as does Lau in terms of troops (the 'tens and hundreds', as such) and weapons ('tools/utensils').
Apparently the second half of the text (from 'relish their food...' on) is cited by the great historian Ssu–ma Ch'ien in relation to the times of Shen–nung (a figure from Chinese mythology said to have invented the plough and taught man the art of agriculture as well as the cultivation of forests. He is also credited with the introduction of medicaments. Shen–nung is one of the three noble ones, called the San–huang. He is also considered to be the god of wind and the patron of pharmacists. He is sometimes portrayed with the head of an ox)(sez The Encyclopedia Mythica), and might ultimately stem from a 'Tiller' (nung–chia) source (cf., e.g.).
Wang Pi says:
If the state were small and the common folk few, it would still be possible to revert to antiquity, but how much less likely this is when the state is large and the common folk many in number!
In other words, if one supplied the common folk with only enough military equipment a company but gave them no occasion to use them, why would one ever need to worry that they were ill–equipped?
If the common folk are not used by the state for military purposes, since it is their own persons they will then cherish, they will not covet goods. Thus, finding contentment where they live, they would all take death seriously and not seek to journey far.
There would be nothing they crave.
Lynn notes that, in section 2 of The Commentary on the Appended Phrases, Part II, in the I Ching, it says (in part): 'In remote antiquity, people knotted cords to keep things in order. The sages of later periods replaced this with written tallies, and by means of these all the various officials were supervised, and the common folk kept under control'.
Professor Cheng's comment is: Such conditions were a dream even in Lao–tze's time. Today, when it is possible to travel tens of thousands of miles between dawn and dusk, this eventuality is out of the question. If we wanted to return to knotting ropes, we would have to start the world from its primitive beginnings again.
If internal proof were still needed that this is not a political text and that Taoism is not a political school, one need look no further than this 'hippy' day–dream... There is no going back. Everybody knows this, and they always have.
So what is Grandfather Lao trying to tell us here?
One thing he is certainly not telling us is that we should dumb–down. On the contrary! And yet, on the face of it, that's exactly what this chapter is saying.
If we stick with my 'meditative' reading, however, perhaps all he means here is : Keep it simple; keep it small; you don't have to use everything you've got. In fact, when you do, you lose it... You lose sight of its beauty and confuse yourself with what seems to be innovation and change.
Get on with your own business, don't meddle in the business of others, and don't be too taken in by their way of going about things, either... It's just 'a way of going about things', like yours.
As it says in the I Ching, 'a good team horse is not continuously glancing at its team–mate'...
Come back to 'this'; let go of 'that'.