Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
A Message of Ancient Days

Understanding Primary Sources:
What the Tao Te Ching Says About Leaders

Objective: Students read and analyze selected portions of the Tao Te Ching to understand the Daoist perspective on what makes a good leader.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2 hours

Building Background:
Give students a brief background on Daoism and the expression of Daoist thought in the Tao Te Ching, written by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who may have lived around 200 B.C. Historians debate whether Lao Tsu was a real person. Tell students that they will read a short section of the Tao Te Ching and analyze how it advises a ruler or leader to rule.

What To Do:

1. Give students access to a translation of the Tao Te Ching. One translation which is a contemporary, poetic translation that is easy for students to understand is Stephen Mitchell's Tao Te Ching: A New English Version.

Tao Te Ching
Here you will find a translation of this ancient Chinese text.

2. Tell students that the Tao Te Ching is divided into short numbered sections called chapters. Each addresses a separate idea. Have students briefly read to themselves chapters 17, 30, 31, 57, 58, 59, and 61, and then choose one to study more closely. Each of these chapters is about ruling or leading. Distribute the Reading the Tao Te Ching worksheet. Have students study their chosen chapter and complete the worksheet.

3. When students have finished their worksheet, have them take on the role of a Daoist wise man who has been called before the first Emperor. He asks his wise men for advice on building the Great Wall. Should he do it? If so, how should he motivate the people to do the actual work? What should he do if they resist? What is the best way for him to lead in this situation? Raise these questions, and have students work on their own to write a letter to the Emperor with their answers.

4. Have the class share their recommendations, by verbal report or reading their letter to the Emperor aloud. Discuss their choices and reasons. Ask students to speculate about how a Daoist leader would lead people to do something unpleasant but necessary.

Ask students to contrast the potential difficulties of leading as the Daoists advise, or more autocratically. In what ways is it easier or harder to do either? Discuss students' responses.


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