Tao Te Ching


Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

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.

The Book

Tao Te Ching — The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Te Ching

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 (paid link).

       More about the book here.

       If you want to skip my introduction and go directly to my texts about the false Lao Tzu quotes, just scroll down or click this link:

Fake Lao Tzu Quotes


In 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 Tzu

Just 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.

Fake Lao Tzu Quotes — Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Now it's a book, too!

90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).

       More about the book here.

       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 Ching

A 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):

  • Who would follow the Way must go beyond words.
  • Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature.
  • Existence is beyond the power of words to define.
  • The Tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao.
  • A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path.
  • The Tao that can be understood cannot be the primal, or cosmic, Tao.
  • The Way that can be experienced is not true.
  • Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself.
  • The Tao that refers to here can never be the mundane Tao.
  • The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason.
  • There are many ways but the Way is uncharted.
  • The principle that can be enunciated is not the one that always was.
  • The infinity that can be conceived is not the everlasting Infinity.
  • A path is just a path.

       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 Fake

Still, 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 Not

It 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.

Stefan Stenudd
April 2, 2017

Fake interview with the author

Click the header to read a "fake" interview with Stefan Stenudd, the author of Fake Lao Tzu Quotes.

Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Here are some fake Lao Tzu quotes I have found, in alphabetical order (in the case of long quotes, only the first few words). Click the quote to get to the webpage where I comment it. I will add more false quotes, so do come back.

       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 — but many of them can also be found in books.

"A good traveler has no fixed plans."

"A man with outward courage dares to die..."

"Act without expectation."

"An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox."

"As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it."

"At the center of your being you have the answer..."

"Be careful what you water your dreams with..."

"Be content with what you have..."

"Because of a great love, one is courageous."

"Because one believes in oneself..."

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength..."

"Can you step back from your own mind..."

"Care about what other people think..."

"Countless words count less..."

"Do you imagine the universe is agitated..."

"Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing."

"Embrace all things as part of the Harmonious Oneness..."

"Emptiness appears barren, yet is infinite fullness."

"Every human being's essential nature is perfect..."

"Figure out the rhythm of life and live in harmony with it."

"From wonder into wonder existence opens."

"Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself."

"He who controls others may be powerful..."

"Health is the greatest possession..."

"Highly evolved people have their own conscience..."

"Hold your male side with your female side..."

"Hope and fear are both phantoms..."

"If a person seems wicked..."

"If there is to be peace in the world..."

"If you are depressed, you are living in the past..."

"If you do not change direction..."

"If you realize that all things change..."

"If you want to awaken all of humanity..."

"If you want to become whole..."

"If you would take, you must first give..."

"Kindness in words creates confidence..."

"Knowing others is wisdom..."

"Knowledge is a treasure..."

"Leadership is the ability..."

"Life and death are one thread..."

"Life is a series..."

"Loss is not as bad as wanting more."

"Love is a decision — not an emotion."

"Love is of all passions the strongest..."

"Man's enemies are not demons..."

"Marriage is three parts love..."

"Most of the world's religions..."

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe."

"My teachings are easy to understand..."

"Nature is not human-hearted."

"New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings."

"One cannot reflect in streaming water..."

"One who is too insistent on his own views..."

"Perfect kindness acts without thinking of kindness."

"Quarrel with a friend and you are both wrong."

"Respond intelligently even to unintelligent treatment."

"Silence is a source of great strength."

"Stop leaving and you will arrive..."

"Stop thinking, and end your problems."

"Success is as dangerous as failure..."

"The best fighter is never angry."

"The career of a sage is of two kinds..."

"The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long."

"The heart that gives, gathers."

"The key to growth is the introduction..."

"The moment truth is asserted it becomes false."

"The past has no power to stop you..."

"The reason why the universe is eternal..."

"The snow goose need not bathe..."

"The soul has no secret that the behavior does not reveal."

"The way to do is to be."

"There are many paths to enlightenment..."

"There is a time to live and a time to die..."

"There is no illusion greater than fear."

"Time is a created thing..."

"To hold, you must first open your hand..."

"To see things in the seed, that is genius."

"To the mind that is still..."

"To understand the limitation of things..."

"Violence, even well intentioned..."

"Watch your thoughts, they become your words..."

"What the caterpillar calls the end..."

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."

"When pure sincerity forms within..."

"When the student is ready the teacher will appear..."

"When you are content to be simply yourself..."

"When you find the way others will find you..."

"Why do you run around looking for the truth..."

"Your own positive future begins in this moment..."

BIBLIOGRAPHY — Tao Te Ching translations

My Taoism Books

Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).

Tao Te Ching — The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Te Ching

The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented.

       More about the book here.

Tao Quotes — the Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Quotes

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 (paid link).

       More about the book here.

Fake Lao Tzu Quotes — Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Fake Lao Tzu Quotes

Erroneous Tao Te Ching Citations Examined. 90 of the most spread false Lao Tzu quotes, why they are false and where they are really from. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).

       More about the book here.

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