Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching or Dao De Jing (simplified Chinese: 道德经; traditional Chinese: 道德經; pinyin: Dàodéjīng), originally known as Laozi (simplified Chinese: 老子; traditional Chinese: 老子; pinyin: Lǎozǐ), is a Chinese classic text. Its name comes from the opening words of its two sections: 道 dào "way," Chapter 1, and 德 dé "virtue," Chapter 38, plus 經 jīng "classic." According to tradition, it was written around the 6th century BC by the sage Laozi (or Lao Tzu, "Old Master"), a record-keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court, by whose name the text is known in China. The text's true authorship and date of composition or compilation are still debated.
The Tao Te Ching is fundamental to the Philosophical Taoism (Dàojiā 道家) and strongly influenced other schools, such as Legalism and Neo-Confucianism. This ancient book is also central in Chinese religion, not only for Religious Taoism (Dàojiào 道教) but Chinese Buddhism, which when first introduced into China was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts. Many Chinese artists, including poets, painters, calligraphers, and even gardeners have used the Tao Te Ching as a source of inspiration. Its influence has also spread widely outside East Asia, aided by hundreds of translations into Western languages.
The Wade–Giles romanization, Tao Te Ching, dates back to early English transliterations in the late 19th century, and many people continue using it, especially for words and phrases that have become well-established in English. The pinyin romanization Daodejing originated in the late 20th century, and this romanization is becoming increasingly popular, having been adopted as the official system by the Chinese government. See Daoism–Taoism romanization issue for more information.
The Tao Te Ching has a long and complex textual history. On one hand, there are transmitted versions and commentaries that date back two millennia; on the other, there are ancient bamboo, silk, and paper manuscripts that archeologists discovered in the last century.
There are many possible translations of the book's title:
Dào/Tao 道 literally means "way", or one of its synonyms, but was extended to mean "the Way". This term, which was variously used by other Chinese philosophers (including Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, and Hanfeizi), has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnamable process of the universe.
Dé/Te 德 basically means "virtue" in the sense of "personal character", "inner strength", or "integrity." The semantics of this Chinese word resemble English virtue, which developed from a (now archaic) sense of "inner potency" or "divine power" (as in "healing virtue of a drug") to the modern meaning of "moral excellence" or "goodness". Compare the compound word dàodé (道德 "ethics", "ethical principles", "morals," or "morality").
Jīng/Ching 經 as it is used here means "canon", "great book", or "classic". Thus, Tao Te Ching can be translated as "The Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue", etc.
The title Tao Te Ching is an honorific given by posterity, other titles include the amalgam Lǎozǐ Dàodé Jīng (老子道德經), the honorific Daode Zhen Jing (道德真經 "True Classic of the Way and the Power"), and the Wuqian wen (五千文 "Five thousand character [classic]".
The received Tao Te Ching is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections (章). There is some evidence that the chapter divisions were later additions - for commentary, or as aids to rote memorization - and that the original text was more fluidly organized. It has two parts, the Tao Ching (道經; chaps. 1–37) and the Te Ching (德經; chaps. 38–81), which may have been edited together into the received text, possibly reversed from an original "Te Tao Ching" (see Mawangdui texts below). The written style is laconic, has few grammatical particles, and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style poetic.
The Chinese characters in the original versions were probably written in zhuànshū (篆書 seal script), while later versions were written in lìshū (隷書 clerical script) and kǎishū (楷書 regular script) styles. Daoist Chinese Characters contains a good summary of these different calligraphies.
The Tao Te Ching is ascribed to Laozi, whose historical existence has been a matter of scholastic debate. His name, which means "Old Master", or "old masters" has only fueled controversy on this issue. (Kaltenmark 1969:10).
The first reliable reference to Laozi is his "biography" in Shiji (63, tr. Chan 1963:35-37), by Chinese historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BC), which combines three stories. First, Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BC). His surname was Li (李 "plum"), and his personal name was Er (耳 "ear") or Dan (聃 "long ear"). He was an official in the imperial archives, and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the West. Second, Laozi was Lao Laizi (老來子 "Old Come Master"), also a contemporary of Confucius, who wrote a book in 15 parts. Third, Laozi was the Grand Historian and astrologer Lao Dan (老聃 "Old Long-ears"), who lived during the reign (384-362 BC) of Duke Xian (獻公) of Qin).
Generations of scholars have debated the historicity of Laozi and the dating of the Tao Te Ching. Linguistic studies of the text's vocabulary and rhyme scheme point to a date of composition after the Shi Jing yet before the Zhuangzi — around the late 4th or early 3rd centuries BC. Legends claim variously that Laozi was "born old"; that he lived for 996 years, with twelve previous incarnations starting around the time of the Three Sovereigns before the thirteen as Laozi. Some Western scholars have expressed doubts over Laozi's historical existence, claiming that the Tao Te Ching is actually a collection of the work of various authors. By contrast, Chinese scholars hold that it would be inconceivable within the context of ancient Chinese culture for Sima Qian the historian to have engaged in confabulation. Chinese scholars by and large accept Laozi as a historical figure, while dismissing exaggerated folkloric claims as superstitious legend.
Among the many transmitted editions of the Tao Te Ching text, the three primary ones are named after early commentaries. The "Yan Zun Version," which is only extant for the Te Ching, derives from a commentary attributed to Han Dynasty scholar Yan Zun (巖尊, fl. 80 BC-10 AD). The "Heshang Gong Version" is named after the legendary Heshang Gong (河上公 "Riverside Sage") who supposedly lived during the reign (202-157 BC) of Emperor Wen of Han. This commentary (tr. Erkes 1950) has a preface written by Ge Xuan (葛玄, 164-244 AD), granduncle of Ge Hong, and scholarship dates this version to around the 3rd century AD. The "Wang Bi Version" has more verifiable origins than either of the above. Wang Bi (王弼, 226 – 249 AD) was a famous Three Kingdoms period philosopher and commentator on the Tao Te Ching (tr. Lin 1977, Rump and Chan 1979) and the I Ching.
Tao Te Ching scholarship has lately advanced from archeological discoveries of manuscripts, some of which are older than any of the received texts. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, Marc Aurel Stein and others found thousands of scrolls in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. They included more than 50 partial and complete "Tao Te Ching" manuscripts. One written by the scribe So/Su Dan (素統) is dated 270 AD and corresponds closely with the Heshang Gong version. Another partial manuscript has the Xiang'er (想爾) commentary, which had previously been lost.
Mawangdui and Guodian texts
In 1973, archeologists discovered copies of early Chinese books, known as the Mawangdui Silk Texts, in a tomb dating from 168 BC. They included two nearly complete copies of the Laozi, referred to as Text A (甲) and Text B (乙), both of which reverse the traditional ordering and put the Te Ching section before the Tao Ching. Based on calligraphic styles and imperial naming taboo avoidances, scholars believe that A and B can be dated, respectively, to about the first and third decades of the 2nd century BC (Boltz 1993:284).
In 1993, the oldest known version of the text, written on bamboo tablets, was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian (郭店) in Jingmen, Hubei, and dated prior to 300 BC. The Guodian Chu Slips comprise about 800 slips of bamboo with a total of over 13,000 characters, about 2,000 of which correspond with the Tao Te Ching, including 14 previously unknown verses.
Both the Mawangdui and Guodian versions are generally consistent with the received texts, excepting differences in chapter sequence and graphic variants. Several recent Tao Te Ching translations (e.g., Lau 1989, Henricks 1989, Mair 1990, Henricks 2000, Allan and Williams 2000, and Roberts 2004) utilize these two versions, sometimes with the verses reordered to synthesize the new finds.
Tao Te Ching in Chinese
The Tao Te Ching was originally written in ZhuànShū calligraphy style. It is difficult to obtain modern replicas of these styles except through specialty stores. Most modern versions use the newspaper print style KǎiShū.
Interpretation and themes
The passages are ambiguous, and topics range from political advice for rulers to practical wisdom for people. Because the variety of interpretation is virtually limitless, not only for different people but for the same person over time, readers do well to avoid making claims of objectivity or superiority. Also, since the book is 81 short poems, there is little need for an abridgement.
- Ineffability or Genesis
The Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names. It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang; The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind. (chap. 1, tr. Waley)
These famous first lines of the Tao Te Ching state that the Tao is ineffable, e.g., Tao is nameless, goes beyond distinctions, and transcends language. In Laozi's Qingjing Jing (verse 1-8) he clarified the term Tao was nominated as he was trying to describe a state of existence before it happened and before time or space. Way or path happened to be the side meaning of Tao, ineffability would be just poetic. This is the Chinese creation myth from the primordial Tao. In the first twenty-four words in Chapter one, the author articulated an abstract cosmogony, in what would be the world outside of the cave before it took shape by Plato in his allegory of the cave.
- The Mysterious Female
The Valley Spirit never dies
It is named the Mysterious Female. And the doorway of the Mysterious Female Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang. It is there within us all the while; Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry. (chap. 6, tr. Waley)
Like the above description of the ineffable Tao as "the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures", the Tao Te Ching advocates "female" (or Yin) values, emphasizing the passive, solid, and quiescent qualities of nature (which is opposed to the active and energetic), and "having without possessing". Waley's translation can also be understood as the Esoteric Feminine in that it can be known intuitively, that must be complemented by the masculine, "male" (or Yang), again amplified in Qingjing Jing (verse 9-13). Yin and Yang should be balanced, "Know masculinity, Maintain femininity, and be a ravine for all under heaven." (chap. 28, tr. Mair)
- Returning (Union with the Primordial)
In Tao the only motion is returning;
The only useful quality, weakness. For though all creatures under heaven are the products of Being, Being itself is the product of Not-being. " (chap. 40, tr. Waley)
Another theme is the eternal return, or what Mair (1990:139) calls "the continual return of the myriad creatures to the cosmic principle from which they arose."
There is a contrast between the rigidity of death and the weakness of life: "When he is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard. The ten thousand creatures and all plants and trees while they are alive are supple and soft, but when dead they become brittle and dry." (chap. 76, tr. Waley). This is returning to the beginning of things, or to one's own childhood.
The Tao Te Ching focuses upon the beginnings of society, and describes a golden age in the past, comparable with the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Human problems arose from the "invention" of culture and civilization. In this idealized past, “the people should have no use for any form of writing save knotted ropes, should be contented with their food, pleased with their clothing, satisfied with their homes, should take pleasure in their rustic tasks." (chap. 80, tr. Waley)
If the same chapter is understood in the Taoist cosmogony, the last two verses re-state the creation of beings from you (有) as in youji or Taiji which came from wu as in Wuji, a state of union with the primordial. This concept is also outlined in two other texts Xishen Jing and Qingjing Jing attributable to Laozi.
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends. We turn clay to make a vessel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends. We pierce doors and windows to make a house; And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not. (chap. 11, tr. Waley)
Philosophical vacuity is a common theme among Asian wisdom traditions including Taoism (especially Wu wei "effortless action"), Buddhism, and some aspects of Confucianism. One could interpret the Tao Te Ching as a suite of variations on the "Powers of Nothingness". This resonates with the Buddhist Shunyata philosophy of "form is emptiness, emptiness is form."
Looking at a traditional Chinese Landscape, one can understand how emptiness (the unpainted) has the power of animating the trees, mountains, and rivers it surrounds. Emptiness can mean having no fixed preconceptions, preferences, intentions, or agenda. Since "The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart." (chap. 49, tr. Waley). From a ruler's point of view, it is a laissez-faire approach:
So a wise leader may say:
"I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves." But from the Sage it is so hard at any price to get a single word That when his task is accomplished, his work done, Throughout the country every one says: “It happened of its own accord”. (chap. 17, tr. Waley)
- Knowledge and Humility
Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment. Mastering others requires force; Mastering the self requires strength; He who knows he has enough is rich. Perseverance is a sign of will power. He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present. (chap. 33, tr. Feng and English)
The Tao Te Ching praises self-gained knowledge with emphasis on that knowledge being gained with humility. When what one person has experienced is put into words and transmitted to others, so doing risks giving unwarranted status to what inevitably must have had a subjective tinge. Moreover, it will be subjected to another layer of interpretation and subjectivity when read and learned by others. This kind of knowledge (or "book learning"), like desire, should be diminished. "It was when intelligence and knowledge appeared that the Great Artifice began." (chap. 18, tr. Waley) And so, "The pursuit of learning is to increase day after day. The pursuit of Tao is to decrease day after day." (chap. 48, tr. W.T. Chan)
Here are some other themes inferred from the "Tao Te Ching" (with examples of instances):
- Force begets force.
- Living simply.
- Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
- Self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive. (22, 24)
- Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned.
- The harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself.
- The more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the myriad things), the more one will achieve, with less effort.
- The truly wise make little of their own wisdom for the more they know, the more they realize how little they know.
- When we lose the fundamentals, we supplant them with increasingly inferior values which we pretend are the true values. (18)
- Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame. (vanity)
- The qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength. (8, 40, 55, 78)
- Everything is in its own time and place.
- Duality of nature that complements each other instead of competing with each other — the two faces of the same coin — one cannot exist without the other.
- The differences of opposite polarities — e.g., the differences between male and female, light and dark, strong and weak, etc. — help us to understand and appreciate the universe.
- Humility is the highest virtue.
- Knowing oneself is a virtue. (33)
- Envy is our calamity; overindulgence is our plight.
- The more you go in search of an answer, the less you will understand.
- Know when it's time to stop. If you don't know then stop when you are done. (9)
Interpretations in relation to religious traditions
The relation between Taoism and Buddhism and Chan Buddhism is complex and fertile. Similarly, the relationship between Taoism and Confucianism is richly interwoven, historically.
In 1823 the French sinologist Jean-Pierre-Abel Rémusat suggested a relationship between Abrahamic faiths and Taoism; he held that Yahweh was signified by three words in Chapter 14; yi (夷 "calm; level; barbarian"), xi (希 "rare; indiscernible; hope"), and wei (微 "tiny, small; obscure"). James Legge (1891:57-58) dismissed this hypothetical yi-xi-wei and Yahweh connection as "a mere fancy or dream". According to Holmes Welch:
It is not hard to understand the readiness of early scholars to assert that the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed in the Tao Te Ching and that its fourteenth chapter contains the syllables of "Yahveh." Even today, though these errors have been recognized for more than a century, the general notion that Lao Tzu was Christ's forerunner has lost none of its romantic appeal. (1965:7)
The Tao Te Ching has been translated into Western languages over 250 times, mostly to English, German, and French. According to Holmes Welch, "It is a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved."
Most translations are written by people with a foundation in Chinese language and philosophy who are trying to render the original meaning of the text as faithfully as possible into English. Some of the more popular translations are written from a less scholarly perspective, giving an individual author's interpretation. Critics of these versions, such as Taoism scholar Eugene Eoyang, claim that translators like Stephen Mitchell produce readings of the Tao Te Ching that deviate from the text and are incompatible with the history of Chinese thought. Russell Kirkland goes further to argue that these versions are based on Western Orientalist fantasies, and represent the colonial appropriation of Chinese culture.
To be fair, the great scholar of religions Huston Smith, who grew up in China, said of the Mitchell version, "This translation comes as close to being definitive for our time as any I can imagine. It embodies the virtues its translator credits to the Chinese original: a gemlike lucidity that is radiant with humor, grace, largeheartedness, and deep wisdom." —Other Taoism scholars, such as Michael LaFargue and Johnathan Herman, argue that while they are poor scholarship they meet a real spiritual need in the West. Others say that Laozi communicated colloquially and simply, and a true translation will do the same in its place and time. If Laozi attempted to communicate eternal truths, it is the translator's work to do so as well.
The Tao Te Ching is written in classical Chinese, which can be difficult to understand completely, even for well-educated native speakers of modern Chinese. In fact, in learning classical Chinese, native speakers can be at a disadvantage relative to non-native speakers, as native speakers often have difficulty with Chinese characters whose older meaning differs from the modern language. Classical Chinese relies heavily on allusion to a corpus of standard literary works to convey semantic meaning, nuance, and subtext. This corpus was memorized by highly-educated people in Laozi's time, and the allusions were reinforced through common use in writing, but few people today have this type of deep acquaintance with ancient Chinese literature. Thus, many levels of subtext are potentially lost on modern translators. Furthermore, many of the words that the Tao Te Ching uses are deliberately vague and ambiguous.
Since there are no punctuation marks in classical Chinese, it can be difficult to conclusively determine where one sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a full-stop a few words forward or back or inserting a comma can profoundly alter the meaning of many passages, and such divisions and meanings must be determined by the translator. Some editors and translators argue that the received text is so corrupted (from originally being written on one-line bamboo strips linked with silk threads) that it is impossible to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.
- Eliade (1984), p.26
- Texts of Taoism (SBE 39): The Tao Teh King, Part I: Chapter 14
- LaFargue, Michael and Pas, Julian. On Translating the Tao-te-ching in Kohn and LaFargue (1998), p. 277
- Welch (1965), p. 7
- Boltz, William G. Lao tzu Tao te ching. In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, edited by Michael Loewe. *Berkeley: University of California, Institute of East Asian Studies. 1993. pp. 269–92.
- Damascene, Hieromonk, Lou Shibai, and You-Shan Tang. Christ the Eternal Tao. Platina, CA: Saint Herman Press, 1999.
- Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 2. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
- Kaltenmark, Max. Lao Tzu and Taoism. Translated by Roger Greaves. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1969.
- Kohn, Livia and Michael LaFargue, eds. Lao-Tzu and the Tao-Te-Ching, Albany: State University of New York Press. 1998.
- Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1957). Boston: Beacon Press. 1965.
- Klaus, Hilmar Das Tao der Weisheit. Laozi-Daodejing. English + German introduction, 140 p. bibliogr., 3 German transl. Aachen: Mainz 2008, 548 p.
- Klaus, Hilmar The Tao of Wisdom. Laozi-Daodejing. Chinese-English-German. 2 verbatim + 2 analogous transl., 140 p. bibl., Aachen: Mainz 2009 600p.
- The Authorship of the Tao Te Ching, John J. Emerson
- Tao Te Ching at the Open Directory Project
- Daode jing (Isabelle Robinet), entry in The Encyclopedia of Taoism
Online English translations
- Tao Te Ching, James Legge
- The Tao Te Ching, Frederic H. Balfour
- Tao Te Ching, J. H. McDonald
- Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell
- The Tao Teh King, Aleister Crowley
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, 3 translations: James Legge, D.T. Suzuki, and Dwight Goddard
- 老子 Lǎozǐ 道德經 Dàodéjīng new verbatim + analogous translations by Hilmar Klaus
- The Tao by Lao-tse, interactive character-by-character pinyin and definitions
- Tao Te Ching, Ron Hogan (in American vernacular)
- Multiple English Translations of the Tao Te Ching Compare translations side-by-side