Laozi and I Ching View on Governance
Since the establishment of formal governance systems, there has been always a concern on the most effective ways of administering people. Actually, the democratic and communal systems, which are currently in use, are a refinement of forms of governance that existed in the past. Although systems of government are bound to keep on changing due to various forms of social and economic progress, the underlying principles on how the society should be administered are static. I Ching’s text, The book of change, which has been translated by John Minford, and Laozi’s book, The Daodeijing of Laozi, which was translated by Philip Ivanhoe, provides insight on ancient views on governorship. This paper compares the views of these two authors and examines their applicability in the current society.
The Daodejing (or Dao De Jing abbreviated as DDJ) is an ancient Chinese text that was traditionally regarded as a Daoist classic. One of the major issues discussed in the book is on governance. In particular, Wang notes that the information in the book can help in curing a corrupted government, which is mired with social chaos, self-gratification, and greed. Ivanhoe takes the traditional view that the Daodejing is a book focused on the art of administering and ruling a society. Chapter 20 to 24 of the book, as well as sections of chapter 3 talk on how governments should administer their subjects. Laozi advices rulers not to elevate the quest for treasures or those who are wealthy. He asserts that this method can prevent the emergence of social chaos and greed. Laozi says,
(21) and the dismissal of skills and utility as well as the despising of precious goods
(22) all have only the purpose of preventing the people’s craving [for fame] and desires [for goods] from being born, but they do not emphasize attacks on their being depraved. Therefore, manifesting simplicity and being unadorned for the benefit of cutting off wisdom and intelligence, reducing egotism (100).
Laozi is of the view that people are naturally greedy and competitive. Accordingly, he asserts that rulers should establish an environment that does not promote unnecessary competition, such as by eliminating the quest for acquisition of wealth. Laozi says,
Therefore, manifesting simplicity and being unadorned for the benefit of cutting off wisdom and intelligence, reducing egotism and desires for the benefit of discarding skill and profit interests these are all but styles for “emulating the root by way of bringing to rest the stem and branches” [growing from it] (101).
From a modern perspective, Laozi’s views do not promote freedoms, such as that of competition. Thus, they can be considered as prohibitive, backward, and ones that prevent social progress. It is worth noting that a society that is not characterized with forms of competition has low productivity and low living standards. Therefore, Wang’s view on the need to eliminate competition is traditional, and does not lead to an increase in social opportunities.
In the I Ching’s text, The book of change, Minford translates the poem Hexagram XIX Lin/Approach Kun/Earth above Dui/Lake: Judgement (203-204). This poem is on governance and gives insight about Ching’s view on how an ideal government should function. Just like Laozi, Ching talks about the relationship between rulers and their juniors. Ching uses symbolism to illustrate the relationship between the governed and their masters. In particular, the title of the poem, “Earth above the Lake” symbolizes the domination of superior individuals over their juniors and also the need of having team spirit in governorship.
According to Ching, the earth dominates the lake by determining weather patterns and climatic conditions. In practice, this form of domination is similar to the control and influence that seniors have over their juniors. Besides leaders ruling over their juniors, the statement “Earth above Lake” also illustrates of the mutual relationship between members in an organization. Just as member in an organization and their leaders must have high levels of teamwork to succeed, the earth and lake work in perfect harmony by the lake supplying the earth water and the earth forming clouds. In the poem, Ching states, “The Firm penetrates… Firm is Centered (203)” This statements show that leaders should rule and dominate their juniors for them to establish a stable government.
Another major issue discussed in the poem is on corruption. The poet says that the elimination of corrupt practices can result in a successful government. Ching writes, “There is Great Fortune in Truth.” The word ‘truth’ in the statement refers to performing various activities in an open and genuine manner, without corruption. An important aspect of having a strong and corrupt free government is shown by its ability to overcome various disasters. Ching further notes, “…any calamity that may happen is always short-lived (204).”
Overall, both the original texts of Laozi and Ching note that leaders set the tone of the kind of administration in their community. In particular, these individuals can eliminate corruption in their areas by establishing a strong and firm leadership. Accordingly, these books are great sources of information on how leaders should administer their communities.
I Ching. The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom. Translated by John Minford, Penguin Publishers, 2015.
Laozi. The Daodejing of Laozi. Translated by Philip Ivanhoe, Hackett Classics, 2003.