Fake Lao Tzu Quotes
False quotes of the Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu was the first Taoist, legendary writer of the Tao Te Ching. There are lots of quotes of him on the web, but far too many of them are false. Here I go through a bunch of them and discuss how to reveal that they are not authentic.
IntroductionIn this Internet era, it is important to keep a skeptical mind to the sensations appearing on the web. That also goes for quotes from famous people of the present and the past. A popular meme jokes about this: Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying that quotes on the Internet are often false.
Indeed they are. One legendary mind of the past has been the victim of it more than many others: Lao Tzu (also spelled Laozi), the first Taoist and author of the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing).
Some of the fake quotes are close to what Lao Tzu stated in his book, whereas others are absurdly impossible to put in his mouth with any credibility. So, he is a good example of how a skeptical reader can go about testing a quote's authenticity.
We can learn also from words falsely claimed to be his.
One True Source to Lao TzuJust about the only words of Lao Tzu we have are those in the Tao Te Ching (and it's not established beyond a doubt that the text had him or anyone else as the sole author). So, a quote claiming to be of Lao Tzu needs to be from that book – or explicitly from another source, if there is one.
Now, that book, composed somewhere between the 6th and the 4th century BC, is not an easy one to interpret – neither for the modern Chinese reader nor for those approaching it through a translation. Lao Tzu has a reputation of being cryptic, although he speaks quite plainly and directly in his text.
The obscurities of the Tao Te Ching have made the many translations of the text go in all kinds of directions. Its obscure nature has been an excuse for many translators to allow themselves deviations from the original wording, mostly with the excuse of making the book understandable to a modern audience.
In some cases it has gone so far, the word translation is inaccurate. The expression “loosely based,” used in fiction, would be more adequate.
Variations of the Very First Line of Tao Te ChingA good example of this variety of interpretations is evident already in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching – from the very first line.
If you want to get a hint on how reliable a translation of the Tao Te Ching is, just have a look at the very first line, and you'll get a very good indication.
On this website, I have a page with 76 English versions of the first chapter. They have many similarities, but they also differ a lot.
If we stick to just the first few words of the chapter, which can be said to be the first line (or two), the direct word by word translation reads:
Way can way, not eternal way.
That makes little sense, before knowing that the word Tao, Way, can be both a noun and a verb: a way or “waying”, which means using the way to go someplace. I translated it to “walking” in my version, but any means of transport on the way would be alright.
A fitting generic term is “travel”, but Lao Tzu – who made quite a few jokes in his text – enjoyed the wordplay, so the alliteration of walking the Way would be right up his alley, so to speak.
Some translators, James Legge being one of them, sticking with Tao instead of translating it, use “trodden”, which is pretty much the same aspiration.
Well, I chose to translate Tao to the Way, and therefore my version of that first line is:
The Way that can be walked is not the eternal Way.
I dare say it can't be that far from Lao Tzu's intention. He speaks about a way not for walking. Indeed, it's the very Way of the whole world, how it emerged out of a mysterious primordial state and still directs everything happening here.
A very common translation of the line is:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
That alternative is indeed possible for the complex term Tao and all that it suggests. I just feel it misses the pun.
Most translations play with this paradox of sorts, but they have very different wordings of it. For example (picking a few of the 76):
That's just the very first line of the Tao Te Ching. So, interpretations of Lao Tzu's words can take all kinds of turns.
What Makes Some Lao Tzu Quotes FakeStill, I would say some translations are more accurate than others. And some are so off, I must deem them fake.
For example, I expect a translation of any classic to stay true to its context and historical framework as much as possible. If a translation deviates so far from the original that it would be impossible to comprehend in the time it was originally written, then it may be accessible to modern readers – but what they read is a falsification.
Also, with such an obscure text as that of Lao Tzu, who can claim to know what would be a modern equivalent of it?
Better stay as close to the original wording as possible. A translation should be done with this principle always in mind: stay as close to the original wording as possible, and deviate from it only when the language it is translated to demands it.
The place to explain and clarify for the modern reader is not in the translated text, but in comments and footnotes to it.
This is important not only out of respect for the original text, but just as much for the modern reader. Who would not be furious when afterwards realizing that the version on which one has based a judgment and understanding of a text is really a very free “interpretation” of it?
A reader turning to Lao Tzu wants to get as near to his thoughts as possible – not the thoughts of another, claiming to know what Lao Tzu “really” meant. It is for the reader to make that judgment, based on as accurate a translation as possible. Any help with this process should be in comments and such. Not in the translation of the Lao Tzu text.
Sadly, I have found that many of the fake Lao Tzu quotes originate in books with flawed translations of his text. In their eagerness to either clarify what they think Lao Tzu meant or to squeeze his words into a modern context, they have gone so far from the original wording of the Tao Te Ching that their versions are misleading. They don't transmit the thoughts of Lao Tzu.
That's why quotes from their versions are falsely attributed to Lao Tzu. These quotes should instead be attributed to the translators in question.
I have also found a number of so-called Lao Tzu quotes that are not traceable to existing translations of the Tao Te Ching. Where they really originate is often hard to find. Well, I have not succeeded in several cases.
It would be interesting to know, but much more important is to establish that Lao Tzu is not the originator. His text is accessible in several very competent translations. There is no need to force new sayings into his mouth.
How to Know What's Fake and What's NotIt is not easy for the reader to decide what is and is not a genuine Lao Tzu quote. But I hope that the commented examples I give of fake Lao Tzu quotes will give some clues.
Generally speaking a Lao Tzu quote, without specifying which of the 81 Tao Te Ching chapters it is from, should be treated with initial doubt. If there is a chapter given, there is still reason for doubt. You need to know what translation has been used. Then there is the problem of many translations being sadly inaccurate...
Another way to go about it is to consider if the quote makes sense, coming from a Chinese thinker living more than two thousand years ago. Most fake Lao Tzu quotes can be revealed because they use modern concepts, or reek of psychology, New Age, greeting card sentiments, motivational speech, mindfulness, and so on.
Many fake Lao Tzu quotes sound much more like Buddhist sayings, often close to Zen. But he lived many hundreds of years before Buddhism was introduced to China.
Another giveaway is religion. Lao Tzu cannot be described as a religious thinker. He was quite down-to-earth. He mentions a divinity only once in the Tao Te Ching, and that's in passing. Nor did he have any words about the afterlife.
I have seen many fake Lao Tzu quotes suggest something you should do to improve your own life and develop your personal character. That's not really his thinking. His view was society as a whole, not some spiritual career of the individual. And he did not think, as we too often do, that some people got it while others don't and never will. He thought it was simply a question of understanding, and none would be inadequate to figure it out.
The best method to reveal fake Lao Tzu quotes is to start by having a look at a competent translation of his text. You will quickly get a sense of what he was all about. There are several of those. Check my commented list of Tao Te Ching literature.
I'd like to think my own translation, which you can find on this website, is one of them. But don't take my word for it.
April 2, 2017
I have chosen quotes that exist in meme form (images with text), because they tend to spread the most all over the web, especially in social media.
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About meI'm a Swedish author and aikido instructor. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism and other East Asian traditions. I'm also an historian of ideas, researching ancient thought and mythology. Click the image to get to my personal website.