Tao Te Ching
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Tao Te Ching Explained
Here is my translation and explanation of the Chinese Taoist classic Tao Te Ching, chapter by chapter, starting with the preface. From the book Tao Te Ching: The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained
My first meeting with the Tao Te Ching
was in my late
teens. It was Toshikazu Ichimura, my Japanese teacher of
the peaceful martial art aikido, who gave me a copy of it –
the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English version with beautiful
calligraphy, which is still in print. He thought that my
impatiently inquisitive mind would benefit from studying it.
Already by reading the first chapter, which
compares desire and the freedom from desire without seeming
judgmental, I was hooked. That appeals to a teenager.
The book remained with me, far beyond my teen
years. It spoke of so many other things that I found relevant.
Contrary to most reading experiences of my youth, I found
Lao Tzu's work to increase its relevance, as if written in a
future that we still have not reached. That alone is an enigma
making it impossible to let the book gather dust in the shelf.
It contains many others.
Tao Te Ching, which is the major source of Taoism, has
a clouded origin. It was composed no earlier than the
6th and no later than the
4th century BC. According to legend,
its writer was Lao Tzu, a high official of the Chinese
empire, who left his work and his country in dismay, fed up with
the charade of government.
He is said to have departed riding on a water buffalo.
A border guard, impressed by his wisdom, pleaded him
to write down his thoughts before leaving China. So he
did. Then he crossed the border, never to be seen again.
His text is around five thousand words long,
divided into two parts. One of them begins with the word
Tao, the Way, the other with the word
Te, virtue. The Tao Te Ching, the Book on the Way and Virtue, is a text as difficult to
interpret as its origin is to ascertain. It speaks with simple
directness, but conveys ideas so elusive that they have been
discussed for over two thousand years, without any
consensus reached as to their meaning.
Although clear about presenting a worldview and
arguing for it, the book is written with the elegance and
artistry that makes it most appropriate to call it a poem. Also,
most of it is rhymed. That's not very difficult with Chinese
rules for rhyme, but it still indicates that the author
intended more than to pursue a line of reasoning.
Probably, the subtleties included were only possible
to put into words with the added sophistication of
poetry. What was to be said needed an artistic approach, just
like some complex truths about the conditions of life need
fiction to be pointed out.
To be understood at all, the text needs to be
contemplated and interpreted by several minds. This has
indeed been done, through the centuries, and that process is not
at all slowing down.
Tao Te Ching has had countless Chinese
commentaries through its circa 2,500 years of existence. The text
reached the West rather late, but we've more than made up for
that by an accelerating number of Western translations in the
last hundred years. They keep coming.
That's necessary. The text is far too vague and unclear
to be trusted to just one translation. There must be several
perspectives in which to see it and several shapes in which
to form its wordings in English and other languages.
No doubt, although the text has been kept faithfully
intact through all this time, each generation needs its
renewed interpretations in order to approach it and grasp its
That's true for any classic. In a constantly
changing world, it's necessary to reinterpret the classics in order
to have a chance of grasping them. That way, we may
even succeed to reveal new things about them, and come
closer to a definitive understanding of them. Even if we don't,
it's by reexamination that we keep them alive and carry
them with us into the future. The words of Lao Tzu definitely
belong to those that deserve our continued attention and
So, here is my version of the Tao Te
Almost twenty years ago, I made a Swedish
translation of Lao Tzu's text, the first edition of which was
published in 1992. Actually, the project started with another goal
In the 1980's, I was writing a novel and got the idea
to begin each chapter with a quote from the Tao Te
Ching. That would fit my story in an intriguing way. But the few
existing Swedish versions of the Chinese classic didn't appeal
to me as much as the English versions I had come across.
After some struggle, I came to the conclusion that I needed
to make my own translations of the quotes I wanted to use.
The job was mesmerizing, so I found myself
translating the whole book. I was still in doubt about it, until a
prominent Chinese poet, Li Li, who lives in Sweden, agreed
to proof read. He approved of my version, with some
kind words about it that made me confident enough to have
it published. My novel was published later the same year.
Since then, I have reexamined and reworked my
Swedish version of the Tao Te Ching in several editions. It has
become an obsession.
For this English edition, though, I started all over.
I wanted to avoid following old trains of thought and
any preconceptions. The translation into another
language needed a fresh approach.
Sure enough, it made me discover new things about
the text and coming to new conclusions about its content. So,
for me it was again a wonderful journey. I hope the reader
will share some of my delight.
In this version, I have returned to a very old tradition
in dealing with the classics, practiced in the East as well as
in the West. I let each chapter be followed by my
comments about it. That way, the reader will have me as a close
companion all through the Tao Te Ching. Those who prefer to
do the voyage through Lao Tzu's words all by themselves
can simply skip my comments and go directly from chapter
to chapter of the translated text.
As for my comments, I mainly try to explain what I
believe Lao Tzu to be pointing out in each chapter. I
frequently use modern phenomena as references, so that it's
obvious how much Lao Tzu still has to teach us. I have no doubt
Where needed, I also explain some circumstances of
the Chinese context in which Lao Tzu was writing. But most
of his text deals with matters that are just as true now, in
the Western world, as they were in China some 2,500 years ago.
As for my translation of the Tao Te
Ching chapters, my main effort has been to make the text direct, to the
point, without additional poetic clouding or any attempt of
decorating it in a manner common for sacred texts. That's
how I perceive the original.
Lao Tzu spoke with amazing simplicity and
clarity, using almost no decorations or other intricacies in his
language. Although the meaning behind them is often
vague, maybe even cryptic, his words are easy to understand.
That's what I have tried to accomplish in this
translation. Lao Tzu's message is far too important for his
words to be covered in archaic artistry that was not present to
Like many other supreme works of literature, his
words remain here and now, no matter how many years
have passed since they were written. In translating them,
we should not try to cover them in dust, as a futile method
of dating them, but brush them off and present them in the
purity and relevance they seem never to lose.
Tao Te Ching is one of those books that forever stay
Tao Te Ching Explained
The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
My Taoism Books:
The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained.
The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.
More about the book here.
The Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.
389 quotes from the foremost Taoist classic, divided into 51 prominent topics. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.
More about the book here.
My Other Websites:
The 64 hexagrams of the Chinese classic I Ching
and what they mean in divination. Try it online for free.
The ancient Chinese life energy qi
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Other Books by Stefan Stenudd:
The Greek philosophers and what they thought about cosmology, myth, and the gods. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.
The life energy qi
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Basic Concepts of the Peaceful Martial Art
Aikido principles, philosophy, and basic ideas. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.
A brunch conversation slips into the mysterious, soon to burst beyond the realm of possibility. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.
I'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.