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Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching (道德經, Pinyin: Dào Dé Jīng, thus sometimes rendered in recent works as Dao De Jing; archaic pre-Wade-Giles rendering: Tao Teh Ching; roughly translated as The Book of the Way and its Virtue (see dedicated chapter below on translating the title) is an ancient Chinese scripture originally named the Laozi. The work is traditionally said to have been penned about 600 BC by the famous sage called Lao Zi (WG: Lao Tzu, "Old Master"), who is said to have been a record-keeper of the Emperor's Court of the Chou Dynasty; but authenticity, dates and authorship are still debated.

This short and obscure book is one of the most influential on Chinese philosophy and religion , especially through Taoism, but also through Buddhism, because this Indian religion shared many Taoist words and concepts before developing into Chinese Buddhism. (Indeed, upon first encountering it, Chinese scholars regarded Buddhism as merely a foreign equivalent of Taoism.) Many Chinese artists, such as poets, painters, calligraphs and even gardeners have used this book as a source of inspiration. Its influence has also spread widely outside the Far East and, for now, it is probably the most translated Chinese book.

In the form we have it now, the Tao Te Ching is separated into two sections (Dao and De) and in 81 chapters. Each chapter is rather short, using few characters to express in a poetic way ideas that are not always clear. Some chapters could have three or more readings, from individual wisdom to advices aimed at a king, through medical recipies.

The rendering of the title in English is inconsistent. Very old translations used Tao Teh Ching. Wade-Giles became the predominant transliteration scheme for rendering Chinese words in English in the late 19th century, and is still popular in Taiwan. Based on further research, the People's Republic of China has promulgated the more accurate pinyin transliteration scheme, which leads to Dao De Jing in English. As English editions of the book first became well known in the English-speaking world before the development of pinyin, the Wade-Giles transliteration of the title has stuck, and current English editions of the book almost always title it Tao Te Ching. See also Daoism-Taoism romanization issue for further discussion.


The Tao that can be spoken of...

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.
(Tr. A. Waley)

These are the first words of the text in its present form. As stated here, it is not possible to explain with words what is the Tao, as developed by the author of the book. However, we can point at some characteristics of it. Tao is the core topic of the book, surrounded by related themes like De ("virtue", or "power"), emptiness, return, detachment and wu-wei ("non-action"). The Tao can be seen as a what is before and beyond all distinctions between different forms or essences of things. Everything comes from Tao and returns to Tao. Nameless and obscure source of everything, Tao "is like an empty vessel / That yet may be drawn from / Without ever needing to be filled." (Chapter IV, tr. A. Waley)

Even if Lao Zi said "My words are very easy to understand [...] yet no one under heaven understands them" (ch. 70), we will try in this article to introduce some of the main lines and concerns that are to be commonly found in this book.

The "Valley Spirit"

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.
(Chapter VI, Tr. A. Waley)

The Tao Te Ching can be seen as advocating mostly "female" (or Yin) values, emphasising "water" fluidity and softness (instead of the solid and stable "mountain"), choosing the obscure and mysterious aspect of things in order to be able to rule-without-ruling them. In this respect, this book can be understood as a kind of pamphlet against "male" (or Yang) values of clarity, stability, positive action, domination on nature, that are often referred to as Confucian values.

The Return

When he is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard... the hard and mighty are cast down; the soft and weak set on high. (ch. 76) shows again this focus on the softness but in another dialectic : the newborn baby and the old man. Rigidity is the attribute of the death, while weakness is the attribute of life. When things or beings are at their beginning, everything is possible. When things have not developped yet it is the right time to act on them with better chances to have a good result. So a kind of "return" to the beginings of thing, or to one's own childhood, is required. (Note that this idea is close to some assumptions of Psychoanalysis.)

The naturalistic aspect of this book is also a social concern. As in the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Tao Te Ching assumes that ancient times were those of happiness, purity of intentions, full communion with nature, "the times when anyone could look inside the nests of all the birds". Problems arose when humanity "invented" culture and civilisation. In an idealistic state as described in chapter 80, the people should "come back to the usage of knotted ropes" (in place of any other form of writing.)

However, the "Return" shouldn't be understood as a simple (and reactionary) way back to the past, but as a "contraction", a "reduction", a "withdrawal" or even a "retreat" in oneself, like in this anti-confucianist saying: Learning consists in adding to one's stock day by day; the practice of Tao consists in subtracting day by day (ch. 48) or in this strategy advice I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead. (ch. 69) Diminish one's ego instead of improve it by the mean of studies brings to real wisdom. Let the enemy do the first step (thus reducing its range of possiblities) is the way to get power on him.

Although this idea of a "Return", in its psychological side, is close to some modern pratices like introspection, what is to be reached is not the self but emptiness.

The Sage has no heart on his own...

Search of Vacuity is a common concern for many different Asian wisdoms like Taoism, Buddhism, and some aspects of Confucianism. In the Tao Te Ching, emptiness is the theme of many chapters and one could see the entire book as a suite of variations on "the Powers of Emptiness". An explanation on how emptiness has power is to be found in chapter 11:

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.
Chapter 11, tr. A. Waley

Looking at a Chinese landscape painting , one could understand also how emptiness (the unpainted parts) has the power of giving life to the beings (trees, mountains, rivers...) it surrounds. Being empty for a man means having no heart on his own, having no fixed preconceptions on how things should be, having no intentions, no agenda. For the ruler's point of view, emptiness is not far from the liberal laisser-faire: let things happen by themselves is the best way to help them growing.

Translations of the title

There are many possible translations of the book's title, as the meaning of the Chinese characters is somewhat wide.

  • 道 (dào) is usually translated into English as "the way ahead", "the path ahead", or simply "the Way". This term, used by all Chinese Philosophers (as Confucius, Mencius, Mo Zi, the Legalists,...), has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies an innate, nameless property of the universe.
  • 德 () has the approximate English equivalent of "virtue" or "righteousness". 德 can carry either of the same senses in Chinese that the word "virtue" does in English; that is, it may either mean "virtue" in the sense of a moral virtue, or it may also mean "virtue" in the somewhat archaic English sense of an inherent power (as in "healed by virtue of a medicine").
  • 經 (jīng) means "scripture," "great book," or "doctrine".

Thus, 道德經 could be translated as "The Scripture of the Way and the Virtue", "The Great Book of the Way and its Power", "The Doctrine of The Path and its Virtues", etc.

Though commonly referred to as the 道德經, the title is probably a fusion of the two books of scriptures, namely 道經 and 德經, and the latter has been found in first place in some recent discoveries. It is likely that the combined name of both books has no real intended meaning, though this is at present impossible to ascertain given the numerous revisions of the scriptures.

Historical authenticity

The existence of Lao Zi is historically supported by mentions of him in scrolls dating back to 400 BC, but the details of his life were not contemporaneously recorded. Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote a supposed "biography" of him in about 100 BC, indicating that his birth name was Li Erh. Studies on the language and the rhyme scheme of the work point to a date of composition after the Shi Jing or Book of Songs, yet before the writing of Zhuang Zi—some time in the late fourth or early third centuries.

Scholars debate the authorship of the current version of the Tao Te Ching. Sections of it in its current form have been found engraved on stone tablets dated to 300 BC. The 1973 archeological discovery of more or less complete Chinese "scrolls" (actually silk rolls called the Ma-wang-tui Texts after the village where they were found: Text A, with more lacunae, thought to have been written sometime before Text B which has been dated to 200 BC) reveals that our most common versions of the received text are substantially the same as that which was known in antiquity, thus limiting the time period during which the writings might have been substantially changed or contributed to.

As early as the 1930s, a way to resolve disputes over authorship without declaring who is right or wrong (a Taoist solution, if you will) may have been proposed. In an essay accompanying a translation by Wai-tao and Dwight Goddard , Dr. Kiang Kang-hu offers, "Three Taoist sages who lived two or three hundred or more years apart, according to history, are commonly believed to be the same man, who by his wisdom had attained longevity. The simpler and more probable solution of the confusion is to accept the historicity of all three but to give credit for the original writing to Lao zi and consider the others as able disciples and possibly editors. The book in its present form might not have been written until the third century BC, for it was engraved on stone tablets soon after that time". Credit for some verses might be conditionally given to later Taoists "without detracting from the larger credit that belongs to Lao Tzu".

Content and translation

Using around 5,000 Chinese characters, the Tao Te Ching points out some universal truths which have since been independently recognized in other philosophies, both religious and secular. Each modern language interpretation (including even interpretation of the three-character title), of which there are dozens, differs slightly or profoundly from the next.

The difficulties of translating classical Chinese

The Tao Te Ching is written in classical Chinese, which is in itself difficult even for normally educated modern native speakers of Chinese to understand completely. Furthermore, many of the words used in the Tao Te Ching are deliberately vague and ambiguous. At the time the Tao Te Ching was written, educated Chinese who could read it would have memorized a large body of fairly standard Chinese literature, and when writing it was common to convey meaning by making allusions to other well-known works that have been destroyed or lost. Few people today have the full command of the vast body of ancient Chinese literature that would have been common in Lao Zi's day, and thus potentially many levels of subtext are lost on modern translators.

There is no punctuation in classical Chinese, and thus often no way to conclusively determine where one sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a period 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 Chinese editors and some translators, indeed, argue that the text is so corrupted (as it was written on one-line bamboo tablets linked with a silk thread) that it's not possible to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.

Principles of the Tao Te Ching

Many variations of religious Taoism are replete with polytheism, ancestor worship, ceremony of various kinds, and alchemic efforts to achieve longevity. The obscureness of the book attributed to Lao Zi allows virtually anyone to find anything in its 81 concise and poetical chapters, but scholars often agree that its content focuses mainly on mystical; political; and practical wisdom.

Many chapters advocate quietism, harmonious living, unconditional love, and altruism, in common with later systems of belief and faith. However, many of these things which are promoted as virtues throughout Taoism are said by Lao Zi to be lesser goods with their complementary evils, (see Chapter 18) and they come because of man's deviation from the original 'Way' or Tao. Above all, the book celebrates simplicity as the way, the achievement of Tao.

It can be said that Lao Zi demonstrated an understanding of such principles as these:

  • Force begets force.
  • One whose needs are simple will find them fulfilled.
  • Wealth does not enrich the spirit.
  • Self-interest and self-importance are vain and self-destructive.
  • 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 will create for oneself.
  • The more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the ten thousand 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.
  • Stupidity leads to force.
  • The wise are responsible for the foolish.
  • The honest are responsible for the dishonest.
  • Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame.
  • The "feminine" qualities, or "water" qualities, of flexibility and suppleness are superior to "masculine" strength and rigidity.
  • Everything in its own time and place.

Behind all this, Lao Zi speaks of the ineffable Dao, or the "Way", which is described as the indivisible and indescribable unifying principle of the universe, from which all flows. It is without time, form or substance, and exterior/senior to these traits. The simpler one becomes, the greater hope one has of co-existing with the Dao, which is the only way one can truly understand it.


The Tao Te Ching is perhaps the most translated book written in the Chinese language, with over 35 different translations in English alone. The text is so mystically obscure that sometimes different translations have nothing in common. That's a good reason to rely on more than one. One way to do this is to pick two translations and read them side by side.

  • In English
    • An English translation by John Chalmers appeared in 1868.
    • James Legge in The Texts of Taoism, 2 vols (Sacred Books of China 39 and 40) Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1891/Humphrey Milford, London, 1891.
    • Arthur Waley The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Allen & Unwin, London, 1934.
    • J.J.L. Duyvendak Tao Te King: The Book of the Way and its Virtue. (Wisdom of the East) John Murray, London, 1954.
    • Robert G. Henricks Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts. Ballantine Books, New York, 1989.
    • Patrick E. Moran in Three Smaller Wisdom Books, University Press of America, 1993.
    • Aleister Crowley Tao Te Ching, Samuel Weiser Inc., York Beach, Maine, 1995.
    • Ursula K. Le Guin Lao Tzu : Tao Te Ching, a Book about the Way & the Power of the Way (a translation and commentary), Shambala, Boston & London, 1998.
    • Robert G. Henricks Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian, Columbia University Press, New York, 2000. (Contains only those chapters found in the Guodian Laozi .)
    • An online translation by Charles Muller is available at
    • Stephen Mitchell Tao te Ching, A New English Version (with forward and notes), HarperCollinsPublishers Inc, NY, NY, 1988.
  • In French
    • Léon Wieger Les pères du système taoïste, Cathasia, Paris, 1950.
    • J.J.L. Duyvendak Tao tö king, le livre de la voie et de la vertu, texte chinois établi et traduit avec des notes critiques et une introduction. Paris, 1953.
    • Stanilas Julien Le Livre de la voie et de la vertu, Paris, 1942; (Cercle du livre précieux) Paris, 1967.
    • Liou Kia-hway , Tao-tö King, Gallimard, 1969
  • In German
    • Victor von Strass made the first German translation in 1870.
    • Richard Wilhelm, Tao te king, das Buch des Alten vom Sinn und Leben, Düsseldorf, 1970. (Wilhelm is said to be the "Marco Polo of Chinese spirituality".)

See also

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45