The Best is Like Water

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Hong Kong Apostasy

 

The exhortation ‘be water’ — that is remain fluid, flexible and fast-moving — encapsulated the approach of protesters during the Hong Kong Uprising of 2019. Although Bruce Lee (李小龍, 1940-1973), the martial arts hero of Hong Kong cinema, is quoted as the modern source of this strategy, water as symbol, metaphor and meaning has a venerable history in Chinese thought and culture. Water is, in particular, central to meditations on the Tao 道 and it features prominently in many chapters of The Tao and the Power 道德經, a work attributed to Laozi 老子 (fifth or fourth century BCE).

Previously, China Heritage has introduced chapters from a translation of that classical text by John Minford. The full work, introduced, translated and annotated by John, with extensive commentaries was published in 2018 by Viking Random House in New York under the title Tao Te Ching — The essential translation of the ancient Chinese book of the Tao by Lao Tzu. Below, we quote from this new version of an ancient work with the kind permission of its translator.

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The Hong Kong Uprising has been an inspiration to protesters in other climes. In mid October it was reported that demonstrators in Catalonia, where independence activists have a long history of both peaceful and more aggressive agitation, were drawing lessons from Hong Kong. Some believed that the tide of change should now take the form of a tsunami. We are grateful to Seán Golden and Marisa Presas for permission to quote their Catalan translation of Chapter Eight of Tao Te Ching.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 October 2018

‘Be Water, My Friend’

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Bruce Lee, quoted in Canny Leung Chi-Shan 梁芷珊,
‘Like Water, Boiling Water’China Heritage, 15 August 2019

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Further Reading:

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‘The Best is Like Water’ in the hand of Zhu Yunming (祝允明, 1461-1527)

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Also in China Heritage:

And:


Water 

This is the Prime Symbol of the Tao. Water is close to the Tao. It resembles the Woman who lies Beneath the Man. Dammed it comes to a Halt, released it Flows. It follows and obeys. This is its Nature. None can find fault with Water. Whosoever sees by the Light of the Primal Mother, Understands this Truth, Knows that Water is the Exemplar of the Tao. The Heart-and-Mind finds Excellence in Calm and in Freedom from Desire, in Depth, just as Water finds Calm in a still, unruffled pond. Just as Water brings moisture to every place, so too the Taoist sees all as equals, close friends and distant persons alike, brings Peace to the elderly, Cherishes the young. Water wends its way gently round every obstacle, avoids height, sinks to depths, bends with curves, fills and pours, fits into Square and Circle, into Small and Great, into springs and rivers, smooths the Surface of things, accepts all manner of filth, contains gold, extinguishes fire, brings Life to plants and trees, softens and moistens the soil, brings Benefit to the Myriad Things, never Contending, always lower, always beneath All-under-Heaven, Supremely Soft and Gentle.

from ‘A Taoist Florilegium’ by
John Minford in Tao Te Ching, p.317

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The Best is Like Water

— Chapter Eight of 
The Tao and the Power
in the hand of
Zhao Mengfu (
趙孟頫, 1254-1322)  

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Water

The Best is like Water.
Water Benefits the Myriad Things.
Water does not Contend.
It abides in that
Which the Multitude abhor.
It is close to the Tao.
The Best Dwelling
Depends on Terrain,
Best Heart-and-Mind
Depends on Depth.
Friendship on Kindness,
Words on Good Faith,
Government on Order,
Practical Matters on Competence,
Movement on Timing.
Wheresoever there is no Contending,
There is no Fault.

The River Master

In Heaven Water forms mist and falling dew. On Earth it forms springs and lakes. The Multitude abhor the low-lying, abhor all that is damp and muddy. But Water Flows quietly through these very places and settles in them.

Dammed
It comes to a Halt,
Released
It Flows,
It follows and obeys.
This is its Nature.
None can find fault
With Water.

In its Nature it is close to the Tao. It brings Benefit to plants, Flowing beneath them. It Resembles the Woman lying beneath the Man.

Magister Liu

Through Not-Contending, Water Benefits the Myriad Things. Therein lies its Excellence. True Excellence (in dwelling, in Heart-and-Mind, in friendship, in Words) Resembles Water, which does not Contend. Not-Contending is Non-Action, it is the Inner Power of the Tao, which resembles Water. The Multitude prize the high and abhors the low, but the Taoist abides in that which the Multitude abhor and is thereby close to the Tao. The Heart-and-Mind finds Calm and Freedom from Desire in Depth, just as Water finds Calm in a still, unruffled pond. Just as Water brings moisture to every place, so too the Taoist sees all as equals, close friends and distant persons alike. The Taoist brings Peace to the elderly, Cherishes the young. The Taoist follows the Promptings of the Heart-and-Mind without ever committing a fault or transgression [Magister Liu is here quoting the Confucian Analects].

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‘Be Water’ in Catalan

La bondat més alta és com l’aigua. L’aigua és benèfica per a les coses i no lluita amb elles. Viu allà on ningú no vol viure; per tant s’acosta al dao.

L’emplaçament fa la bondat de la llar, la profunditat fa la bondat de la ment, la generositat fa la bondat del soci, la sinceritat fa la bondat de la parla, l’ordre fa la bondat del govern, la capacitat fa la bondat dels afers, l’oportunitat fa la bondat de l’acció.

Qui no lluita no s’exposa als capricis del poder.

— Laozi, Daodejing, El Llibre del “dao” i del “de”
Seán Golden and Marisa Presas, ed. & trans., 2006
Barcelona: Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat

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Water is Invincible

— Chapter Seventy-eight of 
The Tao and the Power
in the hand of
Zhao Mengfu
趙孟頫  

The Gentle Prevails

In All-under-Heaven
Nothing is
Softer and Gentler
Than Water.
And yet it Prevails over
The Hard and Strong,
It is invincible.
Nothing Prevails
With such Ease,
Gentle over Strong,
Soft over Hard.
All-under-Heaven
Knows this Truth,
And yet no one
Practises it.
So the Taoist says:
‘Whosoever is willing to
Accept the Nation’s Filth,
Will be Lord
Of the Earth-Altar;
Whosoever is willing to
Absorb the Nation’s Misfortune,
Will be King
Of All-under-Heaven.
Truths like these
Sound paradoxical.

The River Master

Contained within a circle, Water is round. Within a Square, it is square. When dammed, it is Still. When unleashed, it Moves. Water, softest of all things, wraps itself round mountains, it causes hills to move. It wears through iron and dissolves copper.

Nothing Prevails
Over Water.
Water
Extinguishes fire.
Yin dissolves Yang.
The tongue is Soft,
The teeth are Hard,
The teeth Perish
Before the tongue.
Soft and Gentle Endure.

All-under-Heaven knows this to be True, but is too ashamed of being humble, is too attached to Pride and Power, and so refuses to Practise it.

Magister Liu

Soft and Gentle
Prevail.
Water wends its way
Gently
Round every obstacle,
Avoids Heights,
Sinks to Depths,
Bends with curves,
Fills and pours,
Fits into Square and Circle,
Into Small and Great,
Into springs and rivers,
Smoothing the Surface of things,
Accepting all manner of Filth,
Containing gold,
Extinguishing fire,
Bringing Life
To plants and trees,
Softening and moistening
The soil,
Bringing Benefit
To the Myriad Things,
Never Contending,
Always lower,
Always beneath
All-under-Heaven,
Supremely
Soft and Gentle.
Solid Earth
Collapses
When infiltrated by Water.
Weighty Mountains
Crumble
Under a flood of Water.
Fierce Fire
Is extinguished
By Water.
Nothing Prevails
Against Water.

The Taoist is Soft and Gentle as Water, lying Beneath not Above, absorbing Filth, accepting Misfortune and Calamity. Unexpected Hardships overwhelm Others, but are overcome by the Soft and Gentle Taoist. This is the paradox, the Truth: that Soft and Gentle Prevail over Hard and Strong. The Multitude admire the Hard and Strong. But whosoever sees by the Light of the Primal Mother, Understands this Truth, Knows that Water, Softest of all things, is the Exemplar of the Tao.

from John Minford, trans., Tao Te Ching
New York: Viking, 2018

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