Walk-Reading Dao De Jing in Berlin: An Exercise
By Zheng Bo
Dao De Jing, attributed to the 6th Century BCE sage Laozi, is a foundational Chinese text about ecological thinking. Unlike Confucius (551-479 BCE), whose teachings were predicated on an anthropocentric worldview – humankind being the central element of existence – Laozi saw humans as just a small part of nature, equal to the myriad other beings who were also born into this universe, which itself emerged out of a cosmic dark hole.
Below are just some of the excerpts from the Dao De Jing that we shared in the exercise that I led on 7. September 2020 as part of my In House: Artist in Residence at the Gropius Bau. These are the thoughts that accompanied the practice:
To read Dao De Jing, we go to the Tiergarten. Trees, birds, soil and spores help us to breathe deeply and to sense expansively. We read aloud, together, alone and to the trees. In-between readings, we walk, so our bodies can push our minds to move, to twirl and to entangle. We inhabit the text for an hour and leave its residue to compost. Eventually we encounter a nameless scrap of unworked wood.
In “Chapter 1”, language – the nameless and the named – is described as the gateway of “manifold mysteries”. Humans will to want to fix references, paving the path towards meaning:
Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-
And naming (ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not
The nameless (wuming) is the fetal beginnings of everything that is
While that which is named is their mother.
Thus, to be really objectless in one’s desires (wuyu) is how one ob-
serves the mysteries of all things,
While really having desires is how one observes their boundaries.
These two – the nameless and what is named – emerge from the same
source yet are referred to differently.
Together they are called obscure.
The obscurest of the obscure,
They are the swinging gateway of the manifold mysteries.(1)
The notion of living for oneself and selfishness versus withdrawing from your own personhood is conjured in “Chapter 7”, caregiving and the longevity of existence enabled by the latter:
The heavens are lasting and the earth enduring.
The reason the world is able to be lasting and enduring
Is because it does not live for itself.
Thus it is able to be long-lived.
It is on this model that the sages withdraw their persons from con-
tention yet find themselves out in front,
Put their own persons out of mind yet find themselves taken care of.
Isn’t it simply because they are unselfish that they can satisfy their
This concept of withdrawing is framed as “emptiness” in “Chapter 16”, which becomes the route to “equilibrium” and, therefore, “way-making”:
Extend your utmost emptiness as far as you can
And do your best to preserve your equilibrium (jing).
In the process of all things emerging together (wanwu)
We can witness their reversion.
And each again returns to its root.
Returning to the root is called equilibrium.
Now as for equilibrium – this is called returning to the propensity
And returning to the propensity of things is common sense.
Using common sense is acuity,
While failing to use it is to lose control.
And to try to do anything while out of control is to court disaster.
Using common sense is to be accommodating,
Being accommodating is tolerance,
Being tolerant is kingliness,
Being kingly is tian-like,
Being tian-like is to be way-making,
And the way-made is enduring.
To the end of one’s days one will be free of danger.(3)
The “nameless” and the ability to find our “way-making” are in fact related, as “Chapter 37” suggests. Desire is marked as a quality that disturbs equilibrium, the possibility of realignment represented by a “nameless scrap of unworked wood” – nature unmediated by humans, and yet, perfect:
Way-making (dao) is really nameless (wuming).
Were the nobles and kings able to respect this,
All things (wanwu) would be able to develop along their own lines.
Having developed along their own lines, were they to desire to de-
part from this,
I would realign them
With a nameless scrap of unworked wood.
Realigned with this nameless scrap of unworked wood,
They would leave off desiring.
In not desiring, hey would achieve equilibrium,
And all the world would be properly ordered of its own accord.(4)
Zheng Bo is an artist and theorist. As this year’s In House: Artist in Residence at the Gropius Bau, he explores how plants practice politics. Past and future are the central parameters of his politically and scientifically informed artistic practice, in which he deals with socio-economic themes and the relationship between humans and nature.
1) Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, “Translation and Commentary” in Dao De Jing, A Philosophical Translation (New York: The Ballentine Publishing Group, 2003), 77.
2) Ibid., 86.
3) Ibid., 99.
4) Ibid., 134.