"The state's weaponry should not be displayed."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 36
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
What should be shrunken must first be stretched.
What should be weakened must first be strengthened.
What should be abolished must first be cherished.
What should be deprived must first be enriched.
This is called understanding the hidden.
The soft and weak overcome the hard and strong.
The fish cannot leave the deep waters.
The state's weaponry should not be displayed.
One Postulates the Other
Ancient Chinese thought is often done in polarities, like
yin and yang. They are not alone in that. In many
traditions around the world, existence is seen as the dynamics
between two opposites. They may be light and dark, high
and low, hot and cold, life and death, good and bad, and so
on. Lao Tzu is also fond of it, although he sees a single
unity, Tao, at the very root of it all.
In this chapter he mentions examples of opposite
directions or actions, instead of opposite fixed states.
Stretching is one direction, shrinking is its opposite. What he
claims about their relation implies mutual dependence,
comparable to what happens in our breathing. We must inhale
before we can exhale, and exhale before we can inhale.
There is no ideal middle point, between exhalation and
inhalation. If we remain there we suffocate.
The opposites are interacting continuously. It's
never just one or the other, not even a resting place between
them. Things shrink or expand, they are weakened or
strengthened, but never completely still. People are cherished
or abolished, enriched or deprived, but never stay for long
in one solid state of affairs. The whole universe is all
about movement and change.
Not even in death is stillness achieved. What dies
will start to decay and decompose, later to reappear as
material in a new creature. We may die, but we don't stop
moving. That's the kind of immortality we know for certain.
Nothing ever halts.
Considering this, we can look at the processes Lao
Tzu mentions, and other similar examples, with different
eyes. If we are to accept how Tao makes the world progress,
we should not seek for balance between opposites. We
should adapt to the revolving changes, since they are
unavoidable. Whatever stops changing ceases to exist, if that's at all
When we are cherished we should be aware that
the opposite is near at hand. The more you are praised
above others, the higher the risk that they get tired of it and
turn their backs to you.
People even allow themselves to do that for puny
reasons, because they have praised the person previously, as
if that is an excuse. The less you are elevated, the less your
fall will be.
There will be moments when we are elevated, be it
minutely, and moments when we fall from that height.
We should avoid getting carried away by the former or
getting desperate when the latter occurs. We can't expect to
escape it completely in life.
The same goes for being enriched and deprived.
The more we get, the more we risk losing. Certainly,
nobody goes through life without ever getting or losing
something, so again we just have to treat these occurrences with the
If we don't strive for the highest seats or the
greatest riches, but relax and remind ourselves that few things
last, then the turns of fate have less effect on us. We soften, so
we don't break, and we weaken, so we don't fight too
hard against events that unfold.
It might seem like surrendering, and somehow it is,
but most things we can give up without actually losing
much. One should choose one's battles carefully.
Hide the Weapons
Battle leads us to the last lines of the chapter, with the
advice to hide the state's weaponry, like the fish hides deep
in the sea.
It seems out of place in this chapter, and it might
very well be. As mentioned before, the 81 chapters of the
Tao Te Ching are a later division. The original text had no
such thing. There were period marks here and there, through
the text, but no chapters. When this division was made,
inevitably some lines were grouped in ways that Lao Tzu
This may be one such example. The two bottom
lines, about fish and weaponry, make a perfectly
Any experienced soldier would agree that it's
good strategy not to flaunt one's weapons and all one's
military power. What is unknown raises more fear than even
the largest army does. Unseen weapons are more threatening
to the enemy than the sharpest and shiniest swords.
Also, who is sure of having military superiority?
The enemy, too, might hide some of his forces, maybe even
most of them.
When you can count your enemies, you dare to
confront them. You are much more reluctant to do so when
their numbers are unknown.
In European history it was common to regard the
number of the population as a state secret, especially in
countries where they assumed that neighboring countries were
more populated – or when they had learned that their own
numbers were overestimated by the neighbors.
All through history, the militaries have been quite
secretive, for this or other reasons. The less the enemy knows,
There is a personal side to this strategy. The
cherished and enriched should avoid displaying this, or they
might invite a forced change to the opposite. If they are hard
and strong, they should for the same reason try to present
themselves as soft and weak. Nobody is mighty enough to
afford provoking those who surround him.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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