The ''Tao Te Ching'' is fundamental to the school of Chinese philosophy and strongly influenced other schools, such as and Neo-Confucianism. This ancient book is also central in Chinese religion, not only for Taoism but Chinese Buddhism, which when first introduced into China was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts. Many Chinese artists, including , , , and even 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 discussion at Daoism-Taoism romanization issue.''
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, owing to the polysemy of the component words:
*'''' literally means "way", "road", "path", or "route," but was extended to mean "path ahead", "way forward", "method", "principle", "doctrine", or simply "the Way". This term, which was variously used by other Chinese philosophers , has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnamable process of the universe.
*'''' basically means "virtue" in the sense of "personal character", "inner strength", or "integrity", but was used differently by Confucianists to mean "morality". The semantics of this Chinese word resemble English ''virtue'', which developed from a sense of "inner potency" or "divine power" to the modern meaning of "moral excellence" or "goodness". Compare the compound word ''dàodé'' .
*''Jīng/Ching'' originally meant "norm", "rule", "plan", "warp" and was semantically extended to mean "scripture", "canon", "great book", or "classic".
Thus, ''Tao Te Ching'' can be translated as "The Scripture/Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue", etc.
Note that there is in fact no "its" in the title, either explicitly or implicitly. Therefore, commonly accepted translations of the title such as "The Book of the Way and Its Power" are in fact adding an extra element that takes away from the accuracy.
The title ''Tao Te Ching'' is a honorific given by posterity, other titles include the amalgam ''Lǎozǐ Dàodé Jīng'' , the honorific ''Daode Zhen Jing'' , and the ''Wuqian wen'' .
The received ''Tao Te Ching'' is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections ]].
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.
Taoists venerate Laozi as ''Daotsu'' the founder of the school of Dao, the ''Daode Tianjun'' in the Three Pure Ones, one of the eight elders transformed from Taiji in the Chinese creation myth.
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 . The "Heshang Gong Version" is named after the legendary Heshang Gong who supposedly lived during the reign of Emperor Wen of Han. This commentary has a preface written by Ge Xuan , grand-uncle 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 was a famous Three Kingdoms period philosopher and commentator on the ''Tao Te Ching'' 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 is dated 270 AD and corresponds closely with the Heshang Gong version. Another partial manuscript has the Xiang'er 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 and Text B , 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 .
In 1993, the oldest known version of the text, written on bamboo tablets, was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian 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 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 ZhuanShu calligraphy style. It is difficult to obtain modern replicas of these styles except through specialty stores via stores offering . Most modern versions use the newspaper print style KaiShu.
Interpretation and themes
Depending on how the ''Tao Te Ching'' is interpreted, some ambiguous passages have multiple readings, ranging from political advice for rulers to practical wisdom for people. The following themes and concepts are central to interpreting the text.
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.
These famous first lines of the ''Tao Te Ching'' state that the Tao is ineffable i.e. Tao is nameless, goes beyond distinctions, and transcends language. In Laozi's Qingjing Jing 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.
Like the above description of the ineffable Tao as "the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures", the ''Tao Te Ching'' advocates "female" values, emphasizing the passive, solid, and quiescent qualities of nature , 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" , again amplified in Qingjing Jing . Yin and Yang should be balanced, "Know masculinity, Maintain femininity, and be a ravine for all under heaven."
: 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. "
Another theme is the eternal return, or what Mair 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." .
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."
If the same chapter is understood in the Taoist cosmogony, the last two verses re-state the creation of beings from ''you'' as in ''youji'' or Taiji which came from ''wu'' as in , 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.
Philosophical vacuity is a common theme among Asian wisdom traditions including Taoism , 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 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." . 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”.
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.
The ''Tao Te Ching'' praises self knowledge with emphasis on that knowledge coming with humility, to the extent of dis-acknowledging this knowledge. An interpretation on this knowledge being irrational in connection with Chapter 19 of Waley's translation on "Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, And the people will be benefited a hundredfold." seem to be inaccurate stemming from ''Feisheng qizi'' which is a reverse phrase meaning the truly exalted and intellectual never claimed they are, which might as well be abolishing the notions of exaltation and intellectuality, meaning humbleness and humility of one's enlightenment is crucial.
Knowledge, like desire, should be diminished. "It was when intelligence and knowledge appeared that the Great Artifice began." , similarly another examplar on lost in translation by a sinologist, the third and fourth stanzas reads ''Zihui zu You Dawei'', which should be read in reverse as the first and second stanzas, that when the world is full deceit and falsehoods , wisdom and intellectuality shall arise.
Here are some other themes inferred from the "Tao Te Ching" :
* Force begets force.
* One whose needs are simple can fulfill them easily.
* Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
* Self-absorption 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 creates for oneself.
* The more one acts in harmony with the universe , 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.
* Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame.
* The qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength.
* 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.
* 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.
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.
Since Christian missionaries were among the first Westerners to study the ''Tao Te Ching'', it is not surprising that they connected Taoism with Christianity. Assimilation of local religions often helped missionary efforts to convert the populace to Christianity. They drew many parallels between the New Testament and the ''Tao Te Ching'', for instance, "Do good to those who hate you" and "Requite injuries with good deeds" . Note that the Chinese Bible translates ''logos'' as ''Tao'' .
Two particular ''Tao Te Ching'' chapters are perceived as exemplifying Christian themes. Chapter 42 bears a resemblance to the Trinity doctrine: "The Way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures." .
Zhuangzi once stated in a passage from his famous work ''Inner Chapters'', that a great sage would come who would bring knowledge and peace to all men; though he didn't know if it would be in a thousand years or in a day. Naturally, this was interpreted by missionaries as a prediction or foreshadowing of Christ.
Going even further, in 1823 the French sinologist Jean-Pierre-Abel Rémusat suggested that Yahweh was signified by three words in Chapter 14; ''yi'' , ''xi'' , and ''wei'' .
We look for it but do not see it; we name it "subtle." We listen for it but do not hear it; we name it "rare." We grope for it but do not grasp it; we name it "serene." These three cannot be fully fathomed, Therefore, They are bound together to make unity."
James Legge 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.
Present day researchers, such as Damascene et al. , continue to explore the similarities between Taoist and Christian teachings. A newer book that explores the relationship is "A Tao te Ching for Christians" by Paul Brennan.
Critics point out that these "similarities" consist of taking select passages out of context of the text as a whole, and out of the history of Chinese textual interpretation and religious practice. Passages that are incompatible with Christian doctrines, such as Chapter 5 "Heaven and Earth are not Humane " are ignored. This approach was started by Christian missionaries, who were actively working to supplant Chinese religions.
The ''Tao Te Ching'' has been translated into over 250 Western languages, 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 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 fantasies, and represent the colonial appropriation of Chinese culture. 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.
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. 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 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 editors and translators argue that the received text is so corrupted that it is impossible to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.
Printed English translations
*John Chalmers, ''The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity and Morality of "The Old Philosopher," Lao-tze'', London, Trubner, 1868.
*Frederic H. Balfour, ''Taoist Texts: Ethical, Political, and Speculative'', London, Trubner, 1884.
*James Legge, ''The Texts of Taoism'', 2 vols Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1891; New York, Dover, 1962.
*I.W. Heysinger, ''The Light of China. The Tao Teh King of Lao Tsze; 604-504 B.C.'', Stationer's Hall, 1903; Kessinger, 2003.
*Arthur Waley, ''The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought'', London, Allen & Unwin, 1934, New York, Grove, 1958.
*Chung-Yuan Chang, ''Tao: A New Way of Thinking'', New York, Harper Colophon Books, 1975.
*Witter Bynner, ''The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu: An American Version'', John Day Company, 1944.
*Lin Yutang, ''The Wisdom of Laotse'', Random House, 1948.
* Lynn, Richard John, ''The Classic of the Way and Virtue'', Columbia University Press, New York, 1999.
*Eduard Erkes, ''Ho-Shang-Kung's Commentary on Lao-tse'', Artibus Asiae, 1950.
*J.J.L. Duyvendak, ''Tao Te King: The Book of the Way and its Virtue'', London, John Murray, 1954.
*John C.H. Wu, ''Tao Teh Ching'', St. John's University Press, 1961; Shambhala, 1989.
*D.C. Lau, ''Tao Te Ching'', Penguin Books, 1963; rev. ed. Chinese University Press, 1989.
*Wing-tsit Chan, ''The Way of Lao Tzu'', Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
*Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng, ''Tao Te Ching'', New York, Vintage Books, 1972, 1989.
*Paul Lin, ''A Translation of Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching and Wang Pi's Commentary'', University of Michigan, 1977.
*Ariane Rump and Wing-tsit Chan, ''Commentary on the Lao Tzu by Wang Pi'', University of Hawaii, 1979.
*R.L. Wing, ''The Tao Of Power'', Doubleday, 1986.
*Stephen Mitchell, ''Tao Te Ching'', New York, Harper Collins, 1988.
*Ellen M. Chen, ''The Te Tao Ching: A New Translation with Commentary'', New York, Paragon House, 1989.
*Robert G. Henricks, ''Lao-tzu: Te-Tao Ching, A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts'', Ballantine, 1989. ISBN 0-345-34790-0
*Victor H. Mair, ''Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, by Lao Tzu; an entirely new translation based on the recently discovered Ma-wang-tui manuscripts'', New York, Bantam Books, 1990.
*Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, ''Loa-tzu, Tao Te Ching'', Indianapolis, Hacket Publishing, 1993.
*Ko Hsuan , ''Tao Te Ching: Liber CLVII'', edited by Hymenaeus Beta, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1995. ISBN 0-87728-846-1
* , ''Lao-Tzu's Taoteching, With Selected Commentaries of the Past 2000 Years'', San Francisco, Mercury House, 1996.
*Ursula K. Le Guin, ''Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way'', Boston, Shambhala, 1998.
*Sarah Allan and Crispin Williams, ''The Guodian Laozi'', Berkeley, University of California, 2000.
*Robert G. Henricks, ''Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian'', New York, Columbia University Press, 2000.
*David H. Li, ''Dao De Jing: a New Millennium Translation'', Premier Publishing, 2001.
*Jonathan Star, ''Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition'', New York, Penguin Books, 2001.
*Moss Roberts, ''Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way'', University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0-520-20555-3
*Ralph Alan Dale, ''Tao Te Ching: A New Translation & Commentary'', Watkins Publishing, 2002
*David Hall and Roger T. Ames, ''Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation'', New York, Ballantine Books, 2003.
*Han Hiong Tan, ''The Wisdom of Lao Zi - Dao De Jing'', 2003. ISBN 0-9580067-2-5
*Rudolf G. Wagner, ''A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing: Wang Bi's Commentary on the Laozi With Critical Text and Translation'', State University of New York Press, 2003.
*John Bright-Fey, ''Tao Te Ching: An Authentic Taoist Translation'', Sweetwater Press, 2004
*Derek Lin, ''Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained'', SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2006. Author available online to answer questions about his translation.
*Sam Hamill, ''Tao Te Ching: A New Translation'', illustrated by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala Publications, 2007.
*Yanan Ju, "The Dao De Jing" , Harvard Square Publishing, 2008
Online English translations
*, James Legge
*, John H. McDonald
*, Charles Muller
*, Derek Lin. Author available online to answer questions about his translation.
*, Frederic H. Balfour
*, Stephen Mitchell
* , Stan Rosenthal
*, 3 translations: James Legge, D.T. Suzuki, and Dwight Goddard
*, Sanderson Beck
*, Raymond B. Blakney
*, Chad Hansen
*. Wayne L. Wang
*, Lin Yutang
* - Tao Te Ching translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng.
*, Daodejing translation by Lok Sang Ho
*, Aleister Crowley
*, Ron Hogan
*, Peter A. Merel
*, Nina Correa
*, Bureau of Public Secrets
*, WWW Virtual Library
* - circa 193 translations into English and other languages
*, LAO ZI in PDF & HTM format, contains 50 translations in 6 different layouts, by Sanmayce.
*, 29 translations, St. Xenophon Library
* Chinese-English-German, by Hilmar Klaus
*, narrated by Michael Scott
*, James Legge, Read by Eric S. Piotrowski - Librivox audio recording
* Dialectical monism