TAO TE CHING 30: Non-coercion








Use Tao to assist the rulers of the people.
Don’t use armies upon the land under Heaven,
that kind of thing rebounds.

Where armies camp
thorns and thistles grow.
Where armies have been
famine follows.

Goodness bears fruit, that’s all;
it does not dare to use force in pursuit of power

It bears fruit, yet does not brag
It bears fruit, yet does not boast,
It bears fruit but is not proud
It bears fruit naturally
It bears fruit without coercion.

Things that flourish briefly and then pass
cannot be called the Tao that endures.


This passage brings together the principles of, on the one hand, modesty and unassumingness and, on the other, non-violence and non-coercion. While force can get results, these are short term and do not accord with the Tao. The the land under Heaven is, in a certain way, sacred, and not to be tampered with rashly.

Taoist sages were sometimes in the position of advising the secular powers, even the emperor. The correct Taoist approach would be to achieve desirable ends with the minimum of disturbance, avoiding the use of force as much as possible. Rulers who assert themselves in harsh ways commonly end up as victims of the oppression they themselves created. For an instance closer to our times, those who introduced the guillotine in the French Revolution, mostly ended up being executed upon it.

One cannot claim Taoism as a completely pacifist ideology. Quite a number of armed struggles have been inspired by the Taoist desire to create a more ideal society. This is the big dilemma of living in the land under Heaven - ideals do not work out in simple ways. The Taoist has to be willing to rise to the yang position sometimes even though he would much rather remain in the shadow as yin. Nonetheless, the text asserts that gentle goodness gets results. Persistence in goodness bears fruit. Armies should be a last resort.

The little verse “Where armies camp thorns and thistles grow. Where armies have been
famine follows” makes its point strongly. While sometimes armed struggle may be the only way forward, there is always massive disadvantage attached to it. Taoism, as ever, is practical. War is costly in money, time, lives, culture, and just about everything we value. Avoid it if one possibly can.

Thus there is a need to cultivate modesty. The ideal here is the quietly confident person who does not need to brag and who does not lay claim to fame, but retires when the job is done. Such a person contemplates the bigger picture and the longer time frame. Grasping after short term advantage is not the way of the Tao. The Tao flows from the ancient past and puts everything into perspective.

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