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Tao Te Ching

The Dao De Jing 道德經 (Pinyin Dod Jīng; in the older Wade-Giles transliteration, Tao Te Ching, which is usually the title of English editions of the work (see Daoism versus Taoism); and in pre-Wade-Giles, Tao Teh Ching) is an ancient Chinese writing originally named the Laozi (Wade-Giles: Lao Tzu). The work is traditionally said to have been penned about 600 BC by a sage called Lao Zi ("Old Master"), who was reputed to be a record-keeper of the Emperor's Court of the Chou Dynasty.

Table of contents
1 Translations of the title
2 Historical Authenticity
3 Content and translation
4 External links

Translations of the title

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

Thus, 道德經 could be translated as "The Scripture of the Way and the Virtue" or "The Great Book of the Way and it's Power".

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 (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 Shih-ching 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 Dao De Jing. Sections of it in its current form have been found engraved on stone tablets dated to 300 BC. The 1973 archeological discovery of 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 the Dao De Jing as modernly reported is in substantially the same form as that which was written in antiquity, thus limiting the time period during which the writings might have been changed or contributed to.

As early as the 1930s, a way to resolve disputes over authorship without declaring who is right or wrong (a Daoist 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 Daoists "without detracting from the larger credit that belongs to Lao Tzu".

Content and translation

Using around 5,000 Chinese characters, the Dao De Jing points out some universal truths which have since been independently recognized in other philosophies, both religious and secular. Each English 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 Dao De Jing is written in classical Chinese, which is difficult even for modern native speakers of Chinese to understand completely. Many of the words used in the Tao Te Ching are deliberately vague and ambiguous. At the time the Dao De 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. 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 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 sil thread) that it's not possible to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.

Principles of the Dao De Jing

Many variations of religious Daoism (Wade-Giles, Taoism) are replete with polytheism, ancestor worship, ceremony of various kinds, and alchemic efforts to achieve longevity.

What is attributed to Lao Zi contains none of the above. Instead, the Dao De Jing is concise, if poetical; mystical; political; and practical.

Suffice it to say that Lao Zi demonstrated an understanding of such principles as these:

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 he has of co-existing with the Dao, which is the only way one can truly understand it.

See also Eastern philosophy.


The Dao De Jing is perhaps the most translated book written in the Chinese language, with over 35 different translations in English alone. It was first partially translated into French in 1823, and Stanislas Julien made a complete French translation in 1842. An English translation by John Chalmers appeared in 1868. Victor von Strass made the first German translation in 1870.

External links