What would a Daoist society look like?

Updated: Aug 31

Many people in modern society are curious about Daoism and how to incorporate it into their lives. But Daoism isn't about only the individual. That's why Laozi spent so much of the Daodejing writing about governing. He also wrote about what a Daoist society would look like.


In Laozi's penultimate chapter, he writes what he envisions for those who would live together while following Dao. The title of the chapter is 独立. The first character means "solitude" and the second character means "to establish" An interpretation of this is to "establish solitude."


Laozi continues:


小国寡民。

A small state with few people.


使有什伯之器而不用;

Let there be tens or hundreds of tools but not use them.


使民重死而不远徙。

Let the people treat death seriously and not migrate far.


虽有舟舆,

Although they have boats and carriages,


无所乘之,

they don't make use of them.


虽有甲兵,

Although they have armor and arms,


无所陈之。

they don't display them.


使民复结绳而用之。

Let the people return to the art of knot tying[1].


甘其食,

Sweet--their foods,


美其服,

beautiful--their clothing,


安其居,

peaceful--their homes,


乐其俗。

joyful--their customs.


邻国相望,

Neighboring states are within sight,


鸡犬之声相闻,

the sounds of chickens and dogs are heard between them,


民至老死,

the people arrive into old age and death,


不相往来。

having never visited one another.


The village that Laozi describes would certainly not look anything like how people live today. This is by far the biggest impediment to anyone in today's world living deeply as a Daoist. How can we be Daoists in our modern society that is preoccupied with producing, accomplishing, growing, being efficient, achieving, etc?


Laozi saw the corrupting influence of technology including writing. He thought that the virtue of people was lost by cultivating knowledge and that the sage leaders should try to minimize it within society. What Laozi describes is a return to total simplicity where all technology is local technology. Whatever excess technology exists, particularly military technology, would not be used. People would spend their time engaging in the simple pleasures of life: cooking delicious food, making lovely clothing, participating in enjoyable cultural events, and little else.


Laozi saw that people were better off when they stayed close to one another but in groups that are small. Laozi saw that when people lived intimately with each other and focused on relationships and customs within the village, people lived into old age and had no motivation to go far from home.


One can see that compared to today's post-industrial, modern world of global consumption and economic exploitation, Laozi's Daoist society exists on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. In fact, today's world could hardly be less Daoist with it's fixation on information, data, complexity, technology and creating dense population centers full of people with no relationships with one another.


Laozi lived during a time of great change in China, when the time of high antiquity was being replaced with a new civilization. Laozi saw that the emergence of private property and the subsequent taxation and military conquests were ruining humanity. In 9 A.D., a high official who sought to try to do the impossible--return the people to the society of the sages--wrote this:


The Chin Dynasty was without The Way. It increased taxation to supply itself with services. It exhausted the people's strength in order to take its desires to the extreme. It destroyed the system of the sages. In consequence, the accumulation of property began. Greed and vice came into being. The powerful counted their fields in thousands, while the weak had not even the space in which to insert the point of an awl. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, worked all year without gaining enough to live on. The rich had dogs and their horses fed on more grain and vegetables than they could eat, and acted in a manner that was haughty and depraved. The poor could not get their fill of dregs, and were driven by poverty to crime.

Sound familiar? This is what Laozi saw coming to humanity in his time a few hundred years before this was written. And it continued. The results of the new social order in China was written about in the early 200's A.D.

The houses of the powerful are compounds where several hundreds of ridge beams are linked together. Their fertile fields fill the countryside. Their slaves throng in thousands and their military dependents can be counted in tens of thousands. Their boats, carts and merchants are spread throughout the four quarters. Their stocks of goods held back for speculation fill up the principal cities. Their great mansions cannot contain their precious stones and treasure. The upland valleys cannot hold their horses, cattle, sheep, and swine. Their elegant apartments are full of seductive lads and lovely concubines. Singing-girls and courtesans are lined up in their deep halls.

It sounds like the sprawling compounds of billionaires. We know that today, nothing much has changed except the increase in inequality. Bill Gates is the largest owner of farm land in the United States while tens of millions are homeless. Jeff Bezos is making toys to fly into outer space while tens of millions labor incessantly to maintain his wealth. This is the progression of society that Laozi warned against and why he eventually had enough and retreated into the mountains after leaving behind the text of the Daodejing on his way out.


For us to truly live as Daoists, we must be prepared to return to a vastly different way of living, a more ancient way of living, one that is simpler, more satisfying, more in harmony with the ecosystem, and more humane. For thousands of years now, The Way has been lost. To try to be a Daoist in this society is impossible. We can try to keep the spirit of The Way alive, but society and subsequently our own lives are cut off from The Way as Laozi described. It will only be after society and humanity have been pushed to the extreme that humanity will revert to the other pole. We don't know how far away that time is, whether it is years or hundreds of years away. The signs coming from nature and humanity indicate the time will be sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we need only embody the Three Treasures of kindness, moderation, and not putting ourselves first. When the time is right, we will be ready to live in the type of society Laozi described.


[1] During Laozi's time, knot tying was a traditional way of recording information about events and agreements. What is being suggested here is that Laozi saw even the writing of characters as corrupting people and that communication should be simplified away from writing by reverting to the ancient art of knot tying.



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