The Tao emphasis on the soft is based on observations of nature. Sages note that while people are alive, their bodies are supple and flexible. When they are dead, their bodies become stiff and unyielding.
It’s the same with all living things. Whether animals or plants, they possess softness while alive, and become hard, even brittle, after they die.
When we apply this idea to our world, we can see that a dogmatic mind-set, incapable of change, is more aligned with death. On the other hand, an adaptive mind-set, one that responds to changing conditions, is more aligned with life. There is no question which one we would find more preferable.
In this perspective, a powerful army may be at a disadvantage if it relies on brute force and cannot change its approach quickly. A tree that grows strong may be cut down to be used as timber. In both scenarios, the softer way is superior — and being flexible is of the paramount importance.
The audio recordings below are provided for your convenience. Please note that they are extracted from YouTube videos, with visual elements that cannot always be clearly conveyed through audio.
- Part 1: download from Google Drive
- Part 2: download from Google Drive
- Part 3: download from Google Drive
In modern Mandarin, 堅強 means strong and resolute in a positive sense. This is completely different from Lao Tzu’s usage, which means unyielding in a negative sense. Someone who knows modern Mandarin but not classical Chinese may be confused by this disparity.
The final two examples, the powerful army and the strong tree, are Lao Tzu’s way of driving home his message. One translation leaves them out completely, and ends the chapter with “The soft and supple will prevail.” This is not accurate — the original says the soft occupies a higher position — but the even bigger issue is that the omission deprives the reader of valuable words from the original.