modern-world.jpg

The Modern World

In the old days, the best influencers were a bit mysterious, strangely reasonable, definitely inscrutable. In fact, being inscrutable is what made them so popular.

They were careful, like a winter crossing, and reserved, like respectful neighbours. They were as serious as they were popular, but chill, like melting ice. They were as true as timber, as wide as valleys, as messy as mud.

Who else would quietly clean up by calming us down, and who else would quietly steady us by keeping us moving?

These days, people with that kind of clout don't care about reach. In fact, not drawing attention to themselves is what makes them so good at protecting us, not promoting themselves.

Notes

This poem is another description of what Dao looks like as someone who leads from a position of weakness without anyone even knowing it.

There's a lot of variation in the poem between different versions, especially in the section that compares , the old-school gentleman, to various activities, attitudes and natural phenomena. Some words have double meanings, definitions specific to Daoism, and entries in the Yijing, so it's obscure, like the inaudible, invisible, ineffable influence it describes.

The little ditty before the punchline could more accurately be rendered as something like, Who can gradually clean filth by stilling it? Who can gradually make peace by consistently promoting it?

In the punchline saying, it's not easy to reconcile , and to each other and to the context of the poem, so there's not much agreement between translations, though I've gone, more or less, with the interpretation in Heshang Gong's commentary.

As verbs, is increase, enlarge, and fits the poem's theme as cover over, conceal, protect, shelter. appears pretty often in ctext as an adjective meaning something like newly built.

To make sense of , I noticed that ctext's Guodian substitutes for . appears three times in ctext, once in this poem, once in the Guodian version of Daodejing chapter 20, where it's clearly a synonym for , and once in Guanzi, where Allyn Rickett reads it as (and cites Jin) and translates it as quick (Rickett, Guanzi, 1998).

It's an unorthodox stretch, but given Rickett's reading, I'm pretty sure that (or ) is meant to contrast of the previous saying in order to tie the punchline clearly to the rest of the poem. If so, vs is the difference between calm incrementalism and passionate evangelism. Cancel one, claim the other.

Vocabulary

口 30 + 2
old, classic, ancient
zhī
丿 4 + 3
marks preceding phrase as modifier of following phrase; it, him her, them; go to
shàn
口 30 + 9
good, virtuous, charitable, kind
wèi
火 86 + 5
do, handle, govern, act; be
shì
士 33 + 0
scholar, gentleman; soldier
zhě
老 125 + 4
that which; he who; those who
wēi
彳 60 + 10
small, prefix micro-, trifling
miào
女 38 + 4
mysterious, subtle; exquisite
xuán
玄 95 + 0
deep, profound, abstruse; KangXi radical 95
tōng
辵 162 + 7
pass through, common, communicate
shēn
水 85 + 8
deep; depth; far; very, extreme
一 1 + 3
no, not; un-; negative prefix
口 30 + 2
may, can, -able; possibly
shí shì
言 149 + 12
recognize, understand, know
大 37 + 1
man, male adult, husband; those
wéi
口 30 + 8
only; yes
攴 66 + 5
ancient, old; reason, because
qiáng
弓 57 + 8
strong, powerful, energetic
róng
宀 40 + 7
looks, appearance; figure, form
豕 152 + 9
relaxed, comfortable, at ease
八 12 + 2
exclamatory particle
ruò
艸 140 + 5
if, supposing, assuming; similar
dōng
冫 15 + 3
winter, 11th lunar month
shè
水 85 + 7
ford stream, wade across
chuān
巛 47 + 0
stream, river; flow; boil
yóu
犬 94 + 9
like, similar to, just like, as
wèi
田 102 + 4
fear, dread, awe, reverence
囗 31 + 2
four
lín
邑 163 + 12
neighbor; neighborhood
yǎn
人 9 + 20
grave, respectful, majestic
八 12 + 6
his, her, its, their; that
huàn
水 85 + 9
scatter; scattered, dispersed
bīng
冫 15 + 4
ice; ice-cold
jiāng
寸 41 + 8
will, going to, future; general
shì
釆 165 + 13
interprete, elucidate; release
dūn
攴 66 + 8
esteem; honest, candid, sincere
木 75 + 12
simple, honest; plain; rough
kuàng
日 72 + 15
extensive, wide, broad; empty
谷 150 + 0
valley, gorge, ravine
hùn
水 85 + 8
to mix, blend, mingle; to bumble along
zhuó
水 85 + 13
muddy, turbid, dirty, filthy
shú
子 39 + 8
who? which? what? which one?
néng
肉 130 + 6
to be able; can, permitted to; ability
人 9 + 3
by means of; thereby, therefore; consider as; in order to
jìng
靑 174 + 8
quiet, still, motionless; gentle
彳 60 + 7
slowly, quietly, calmly; composed, dignified
qīng
水 85 + 8
clear, pure, clean; peaceful
ān
宀 40 + 3
peaceful, tranquil, quiet
jiǔ
丿 4 + 2
long time (ago); time passage, grow late
dòng
力 19 + 9
move, happen; movement, action
shēng
生 100 + 0
life, living, lifetime; birth
bǎo
人 9 + 7
protect, safeguard, defend, care
止 77 + 2
this, these; in this case, then
dào
辵 162 + 9
path, road, street; method, way
欠 76 + 7
desire, want, long for; intend
yíng
皿 108 + 4
fill; full, overflowing; surplus
艸 140 + 12
cover, hide, conceal; shelter
xīn
斤 69 + 9
new, recent, fresh, modern
chéng
戈 62 + 2
completed, finished, fixed
shàng
小 42 + 5
still, yet; even; fairly, rather
yǐng
水 85 + 7
chěng
辵 162 + 7
indulge oneself; brag, show off