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.

       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.

       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 Lao Tzu Quotes

Here are some fake Lao Tzu quotes I have found, in alphabetical order. Click the quote to get to the webpage where I comment it. I plan to add more false quotes in the future, 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.

       Click the quote to get to the webpage about it.

“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

“He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the moment.”

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.”

“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”

“Man's enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself.”

“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

“Respond intelligently even to unintelligent treatment.”

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

“There are many paths to enlightenment. Be sure to take the one with a heart.”

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

“When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”

My Taoism Books:

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.

       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.

       More about the book here.

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Other Books by Stefan Stenudd:

Cosmos of the Ancients. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Cosmos of the Ancients

The Greek philosophers and what they thought about cosmology, myth, and the gods. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

QI - increase your life energy. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Qi - Increase Your Life Energy

The life energy qi (also chi or ki) explained, with exercises on how to awaken, increase and use it. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

Aikido Principles. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Aikido Principles

Basic Concepts of the Peaceful Martial Art
Aikido principles, philosophy, and basic ideas. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

Life Energy Encyclopedia. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Life Energy Encyclopedia

Qi, prana, spirit, ruach, pneuma, and many other life forces around the world explained and compared. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

Stefan Stenudd, Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction. Stefan Stenudd

About me

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.