Cooking a small fish, governing a country

Zhang Ciyun
Honoring the natural order of the universe is key to success in politics.
Zhang Ciyun
Cooking a small fish, governing a country
Li Chaoquan

Since ancient times, philosophers, statesmen, historians and scholars around the world have looked at government and governance from different political and theoretical perspectives.

For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle once observed: “Now it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), a Roman statesman, said he believed that “there is nothing that upholds a government more powerfully than its credit.”

But of all the famous quotations on the subject, the most interesting perhaps came from Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, who lived during the later years of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

In “Daodejing,” or “Tao Te Ching,” a Chinese classic text written around 400 BC, Lao Tzu wrote zhidaguo ru pengxiaoxian, or “govern a big country as you would cook a small fish.”


zhì dà guó rú pēng xiǎo xiān

In addition to mixing ingredients and controlling cooking time, the key here is not to move the fish too much or it will fall apart into small pieces.

The philosopher further explained: “Dao (or the natural order of the universe) always makes all things possible through non-interference. If the ruler can strictly follow this, then all things and creatures will grow of their own accord.”

Lao Tzu’s remark about state governance, now a popular Chinese proverb, has been widely quoted by many past and present world leaders. The only question here is how many of them have ever cooked a small fish.

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