February 27, 2009


Do not honor the worthy
So that the people will not contend with one another.
Never prize rare treasures and people will not steal.
Never flaunt alluring things and the people won't be confused.

Therefore, in the government of the shèng rén:
He empties the minds of his people
And fills their bellies;
Weakens their ambition
And strengthens their bones.
He constantly keeps them without knowledge (zhī 知) and without desire,
Then those who know (zhì 智) are those who never presume to act.
Act by wú wèi
Then nothing is not in order.

COMMENTARY by Koeng S. Wan:
Division 3 is a summary prescription of the shèng rén's (sage's) approach to governance, which primarily consists of working to minimize people's ambitions and desires, and ensuring they are well-fed and physically strong. In admonishing the shèng rén that governs to empty people's minds, Lǎo Zǐ obligates him to teach the people how to obtain enlightenment. By doing so, the nation will be orderly.

The nature of people is to compete for honors (also see Division 13), to covet rare things of value, and to react to those putting on alluring displays. Respectively, these behaviors promote disorder by risking disputes, cheating, and strife; theft; and disturbances caused by misunderstanding of motives. Thus, the Lǎo Zǐ's dào is to not bestow any honors, prize rare things, or put on displays that incite desire.

Two central ideas not mentioned in this division are essential for understanding the Lǎo Zǐ's positions on good government. First, the objective of good government is to benefit the people by maintaining order (see Division 8). The second, articulated in Division 65, is that governing is hard because ordinary people are too knowledgeable, presumably, clever in seeking ways to fulfill the ambitions and desires that contribute to social disorder.

Furthermore, by admonishing the shèng rén to "Act by wú wèi" (or maybe more clearly, “Act without acting”), the shèng rén needs to be so skilled at governing that the act of governing is effortless. This would seem to rule out the use of force, as the Lǎo Zǐ articulates in Divisions 30 and 36. Given all these constraints, the Lǎo Zǐ's prescription to the shèng rén is to create and maintain a social order with the features described in this division below.

The shèng rén ensures that his people are well-fed and physically strong. He works to moderate their ambitions, and prevents them from becoming mischievous and desirous.

The shèng rén “empties minds,” which has two meanings that emanate from the use of two different words for knowledge – zhī (知) and zhì (智) that both appear concurrently in this division and Division 33, the latter noted by Chen[1]. The etymology of zhī (知) is to be wise in speech[2], i.e. it is the display of wisdom through the use of words. As zhī knowledge depends on words it is inherently distorted and untrustworthy (Divisions 1 and 2). The shèng rén is admonished in Division 2 to practice the teaching that uses no words, and so seeks to instill knowledge through other means. However, the ideograph zhì (智) is zhī (知) with the symbol of the sun (日 ) under it[3]. In this division, zhì (智) is the most legitimate form of knowledge recognized in the Lǎo Zǐ, which is the understanding of cháng (常), because when one understands cháng one becomes enlightened (Division 16). In particular, in order to understand cháng (常) one must empty one's mind (Division 16).

Finally, Division 27 says the shèng rén excels at saving people. Achieving enlightenment is the most important aspect of salvation in the Lǎo Zǐ. In saying the shèng rén who governs empties people's minds, the Lǎo Zǐ implicitly directs him to help his people attain enlightenment. Such efforts promote happiness and good social order since the enlightened don't act. The directions also implicitly make the shèng rén who governs an advocate and teacher of the Lǎo Zǐ's Dào.

[1] Chen, Ellen M., The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, Paragon House, St. Paul, MN, 1989, p.136.

[2] Sears, Richard, " (zhī)", Chinese Etymology. Accessed September 7, 2009.

[3] Sears, Richard, " (zhī)", Chinese Etymology. Accessed September 7, 2009.