UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon Presents Quote from Tao Te Ching to President Obama

Last week, on August 4, United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon (潘基文, 반기문, 1944-) presented calligraphy that he wrote himself for US President Obama’s birthday. The calligraphy reads “High virtue is like water” (上善若水, 상선약수). The message is a quote from the famous Chinese Daoist classic, the Dao De Jing (道德經, 도덕경), attributed to the Chinese philosopher Laozi (老子, 노자). While the President seemed thankful for the gift, the reaction on Korean social media was mixed: some had verbal fits complaining that foreigners would confuse Koreans with the Chinese; others praised UN Chief Ban Ki-moon for his erudition and showcasing of Eastern philosophy. Below is the excerpt from the Dao De Jing that the calligraphy alluded to, with the original text in bold and commentary to the side by Han Dynasty era (漢, 한, 206BC-220AD) scholar the “Riverside Sage” (河上公, 하상공, ?-?):

上善若水   上善之人, 如水之性.
상선약수   상선지인, 여수지성.

High virtue is like water. A man of the highest virtue is like the nature of water.

水善利萬物而不爭  水在天爲霧露, 在地爲源泉也.
수만리만물이불쟁  수재천위무로, 재지위원천야.

Water benefits all things well without quibble. When water is in the sky, it becomes fog and dew. When water is on the ground, it becomes a source of a stream.

處衆人之所惡   衆人惡卑濕垢濁, 水獨靜流居之也.
처중인지소오   중인오비습후탁, 수독정류거지야.

And resides in a place that the multitude of men disdain. The multitudes of men disdain the low, damp, dusty, and muddy [places]. Water alone quietly flows and lives there.

故幾於道   水性幾於道同.
고기어도   수성기어도동.

Therefore, [water] is almost like the Way. The nature of water is almost like the Way.

居善地   水性善喜於地, 草木之上則流而下, 有似於牝動而下人也.
거선지   수성선희어지, 초목지상즉류이하, 유사어빈동이하인야.

The virtue of a residence is in the land. The nature of water esteems happily the land. Above the grass and trees, [water] flows downward. Some are like through the valleys, moving below men.

心善淵   水深空虛, 淵深淸明.
심선연   수심공허, 연심청명.

The virtue of the mind is like that of the pond.  The waters that are deep are empty and hollow. A pond that is deep is clear and bright.

與善仁   萬物得水以生. 與虛不與盈也.
여선인   만물득수이생. 여허불여영야.

The virtue of associations is like that of benevolence. All things acquire water to live. They associate with the empty; but not with the full.

言善信   水內影照形, 不失其情也.
언선신   수내영조형, 불실기정야.

The virtue of speech is in trust. Within water, a shadow illuminates form and does not lose its state.

正善治   無有不洗, 淸且平也.
정선치   무유불세, 청차평야.

The virtue of rectification is in governance. There is nothing that is not washed: everything is clear and even.

事善能   能方能圓, 曲直隨形.
사선능   능방능원, 곡직수형.

The virtue of affairs is in ability. To be able to be square and to be able to be round, and to be crooked and to be curved is to follow form.

動善時   夏散冬凝, 應期而動, 不失天時.
동선시   하산동응, 응기이동, 불실천시.

The virtue of movement is in timeliness. To scatter during summer and to coalesce in winter is in response to time periods and movement, and does not lose track of celestial time.

夫唯不爭   壅之則止, 決之則流, 聽從人也.
부유불쟁   옹지직지, 결지즉류, 청종인야.

Generally, [virtue] does not quibble. If [the water] is blocked, then it will stop; if it is lifted, then it will flow. Listening, it will follow another.

故無尤   水性如是, 故天下無有怨尤水者也.
고무우   수성여시, 고천하무유원우수자야.

Therefore, [virtue] does not have any faults. The nature of water is like this. Therefore, underneath the heavens, there is nothing that has grievances and claims faults against water.

  • Korean translation of Dao De Jing and commentary available here.
  • The Riverside Sage was a scholar that lived sometime during the reign of Han Emperor Wen (漢文帝, 한 문제, 202-157BC). Not much is known about him personally: not even his original name. He is said to have lived in a thatched house near a brook where he enjoyed reading Dao De Jing. One day, the Emperor heard about the Sage’s abilities to interpret the workand requested him to write a commentary.
  • Other historic, influential commentaries of the Dao De Jing include those by Wang Bi (王弼, 왕필, 226-249), Lu Deming (陸德明, 육덕명, 550?-630?), and Jiao Hong (焦竑, 초횡, 1541-1620). Chosun dynasty scholars such as Yi I (李珥, 이이, 1536-1584) and Pak Sedang (朴世堂, 박세당, 1629-1703) also wrote commentaries.
  1. Alice Cheang said:

    In the commentary to the fifth line, 牝 has another gloss in addition to the one you cite. It can also mean 溪谷, as in “丘陵为牡,溪谷为~”。So uplands are thought of as “male” and low-lying stream and river beds as “female,” no doubt because their respective shapes resemble the male and female sexual organs (the root meaning of 牝牡).

    • 歸源 said:

      I have changed 牝 to mean “valleys.” The Korean translation had both of them. This confused me as to which one was the proper interpretation, so I went with the first definition. I did not know that about the etymology of the two characters.

  2. In the commentary to the sixth line, if we change the punctuation, we get 與虛不與盈也 (this is the usual way in which this line is read). The meaning would then be: “it associates with the empty 虚 and not with the full.” Actually, we can translate 與 as “to associate with,” but also as “to give to”– both meanings are included in this use, I think, because it is the nature of water to flow into empty and not filled spaces, but by going into the empty space it also fills that space up.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for the explanations. I would think for this phrase, both interpretations would be fine. I would point to 萬物 as the subject within that commentary. This is based on my general sense of interpreting commentaries from commentaries of Confucian works I’ve read — although admittedly, I am not familiar with the commentary by 河上公 or Tao Te Ching in general.

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