In praise of menial tasks (and literal translations)

LKY Sweeping

There’s a line in the Tao Te Ching that reads “治大國若烹小鮮” and which – with the exception of “thou shalt not kill” – must be the most frequently misconstrued piece of advice ever written down.

It translates as “governing a large country is like cooking a small fish”. Lao Tzu, being a cryptic sort of fellow, left it there, and went on in an entirely different direction talking about hungry ghosts. This left the way open for generations of befuddled academics to puzzle over the precise meaning of the phrase, while their wives and servants watched over the dinner in the next room, taking great care not to prod the small fish unless absolutely necessary.

Because that – of course – is what Lao Tzu meant. (If you’re wondering why a small fish is specified, it’s because you don’t turn big fish when you’re cooking them. Unless you’ve cut them into steaks first, you either chop and boil them, or bake them, neither of which requires you to prod at them during any part of the cooking process. For fish small enough to be fried, you cook them presentation side down first, turn them quickly and deftly when instinct and experience tells you it’s looking good, and then cook the non-visible side at a slightly lower heat to make sure the whole thing is done to a turn. Quite the gourmet, our Old Philosopher.)

The first time I ran into a misinterpretation of this phrase was years ago in an academic paper (sadly I can no longer find it online), which speculated in the footnotes that Lao Tzu could possibly have been recommending that you avoid burning it. Which, even in an era of spectacularly brutal leadership, seems to be setting the good governance bar pretty low.

Another clanger occurs in W.K. Liao’s otherwise good and useful translation of the Han Feizi, which uses a version of Lao Tzu that renders the fish line as “Govern a big country as you would fry small fish: (neither gut nor scale them).”

Not gutting one’s subjects would seem to be an idea that most of us subjects could get behind, but abstaining from scaling them? The applicability seems limited to certain kingdoms in particular.

King Triton

Now we know what the trident is for.

At least this Taoist blogger has the excuse of not eating fish:

To be quite candid, I didn’t understand the first stanza of this verse the first one hundred times I read it. As a vegetarian, I neither cook nor eat fish and so the metaphor was completely lost on me. I kept trying to ascertain what the difference was between cooking a large fish and a small fish!!

Later, after reading several commentaries, I realized that the SIZE of the fish wasn’t the operative element at all. The metaphor probably would work as intended if Lao Tzu had referred to a large fish, a pig or a cow. ; )

So, what does this famous phrase mean? As Nina Correa explains,

“If the natural progression of Dao is accepted throughout the world, the rulers can patiently allow things to take their natural course. When cooking a tender piece of fish or meat, one has to wait patiently for the flesh to congeal before trying to turn it with a fork. If one is too impatient and tries to move the tender piece of flesh too soon, it will just fall apart.”

Carl Abbott of Center Tao views the first stanza from a more personal perspective.

“The state that I’m most responsible for is myself. This directly effects how Igovern my external responsibilities. As I mature and become more gentle and patient with myself I likewise do so in my interactions with the world.

It is easy to fall into rushing. The desire to get things done pushes me to ‘turn up the heat’ and force the issue. I focus on the ‘end’ and go too fast to notice the Way (the means to the end). I trade off the Joy of doing for the promised joy of a fleeting success. I rush to get the fish cooked when I forget what I really want out of my life.”

In other words, whether speaking of a great nation or simply ourselves as individuals, the thrust of the first part of this verse highlights a recurrent theme — don’t force things; learn patience! Force generates unneeded tension and, once the tension is released, it’s almost always difficult to control and may flow off in several directions which will result in unintended consequences.
For those of you who’ve never prepared food before: no, beef does not fall apart if you poke it with a fork before it’s had time to “congeal”.

Even a lot of the inspirational quote gifs get it wrong:

Lao Tzu inspirational quote

I’m not sure what overdoing government looks like. This, possibly.

Muammar Gaddafi

If you prod him too much, your foreign policy falls apart.

I’m not saying that every interpreter of the passage has got it wrong. Even a lot of the inspirational quote gifs do, in fact, put the correct spin on the phrase. Moreover, it is difficult to entirely blame even those who do mess it up. They are probably relying upon translations. The Chinese classics tend to be laconic and abstruse by design, and there is a strong temptation for translators to paraphrase what they think the writer meant. The problem, however, is that they are not always right in their interpretations.

Basically, if you’re looking for a good translation, pick the shortest one. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, for example, is frequently rendered into English in such a way that the result fills a (shortish) book. In fact, the original fits on a few sheets of A4, and by far the best translation is Lionel Giles’ extremely literal version.

And if you’re thinking that it’s extremely difficult to parse, you’re right. So is the original; that’s the point. The choice isn’t between a good-and-comprehensible translation and a bad-and-confusing one. It’s between a good-but-confusing translation and a bad-but-comprehensible one.

Nevertheless, bad translations should not take all of the blame. If you know how to cook a fish, all of the mistranslations and expert misinterpretations in the  world won’t make you misunderstand what Lao Tzu is getting at. If you don’t know how to cook a fish, well that’s your business. However, you also need to bear in mind that a sceptical audience is likely to be severely disinclined to accept dicta on leadership from someone who apparently considers learning how to do basic household chores beneath him.


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