Tao Te Ching
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Tao Te Ching, the Book on the Way and Virtue, has an
unclear origin in ancient China. It is said to be written by Lao
Tzu, a public servant of some dignity in the court of the
emperor, but it's not ascertained that he ever existed.
Legend has it that he was an older contemporary
of K'ung Tzu, Confucius, who lived 551 to 479 BC, and
whose existence is well documented in historical sources. The
life of Lao Tzu, on the other hand, was not explicitly
recorded until Shih chi, the book of Chinese history written by
Ssu-ma Ch'ien around 90 BC. He even describes a meeting
between Lao Tzu and K'ung Tzu, where the former is portrayed
as both older and wiser, giving the latter a lesson that is
Age equaled wisdom and superiority in ancient China,
and Confucianism was the leading philosophy already soon
after the death of its creator, so Taoists would have wished
for Lao Tzu to be the senior of the two. Thereby, his
thoughts would gain the prestige of being of older origin.
Taoism and Confucianism are sort of competing
philosophies, largely opposites of each another. Where
Confucianism preaches obedience and strict conformity to social
rules and human authorities, Taoism is almost indifferent to
formalized social order. Instead, it advocates the return to
a natural state of things, where the emperor and the
farmer must be equally yielding and hesitant to spring into action.
Also, Lao Tzu got his philosophy from how he
believed the whole world had emerged, in the beginning of time
and in accordance with the principle of Tao, the Way. To him,
the Way people must follow had its starting point at the
very creation of the universe, so no ideal could be older.
Therefore, he himself had to be older in some sense than other
significant thinkers of the time. He could not be as old as
the roots of his philosophy, but the older the better.
His name, Lao Tzu, simply means Old Master, again
to stress his seniority and the ancient origin of his
thoughts. Lao Tzu was also the name mostly used in ancient China
for the Tao Te Ching. It is still in wide use as the title for the book.
Whenever he actually lived his life, Lao Tzu's
philosophy was regarded as one of the most ancient.
The legend about him says that he worked as a
highly respected civil servant at the court of the emperor. At
old age, he had grown tired of all the deceit, politics, and
hypocrisy of the court, so he left the country riding on a
water buffalo. This is the far most common depiction of him,
heading for the border on a water buffalo.
At the western border, he stayed the night in the
house of a border guard, who was so impressed by his
wisdom that he urged Lao Tzu to write it down before leaving. So
Then he crossed the border, and nothing more is
known about his fate.
The Way and Virtue in 5000 Words
The result was a text of around five thousand words,
divided into two parts. The first one started with the word
, the Way, and the second with the word
, virtue. The word Ching
refers to a book that has become a classic, a
scripture revered as sacred, transmitting wisdom of old,
fundamental to Chinese culture and philosophy.
The existing versions of the Tao Te
Ching are still divided into two parts, and contain slightly more than five
thousand words, the sum differing somewhat from one manuscript
to the other. The presently known versions contain
between 5,227 and 5,722 words.
The division into 81 chapters, though, is a later
invention, probably made in the 1st century BC. The number
of chapters is chosen to create the symmetry of 9 X 9,
which has distinctive symbolic meaning in Chinese tradition.
In the book, this division makes good sense in some cases
and not at all in others.
In the original version, the text is not interrupted in
any other way than occasional punctuation marks, which are
not consequently used all through. Rhymes and other
structures of the text suggest specific chapters – or verses, to be
more accurate – as do the different subjects treated. Also,
some such verses seem to be grouped according to subject, or
related subjects. Still, none of this is done stringently
enough to ascertain any division into chapters or verses of the
This structure, or lack thereof, has resulted in two
main theories about the creation of the text. One is that its
author simply wrote in a flowing manner, treating subjects as
they occurred to him in the process, sort of like
improvisation. The other theory is that the Tao Te
Ching is a collection of traditional proverbs and other fragments of thought,
without one single author.
The latter of those theories has been the most
favored among Western experts. There are several reasons for it.
It's not uncommon among the classics that their
author is not the one whose words are written down. It's true
for the works of K'ung Tzu, Confucius, as well as for
many other greats of human history, such as Socrates and
Jesus. The words of most thinkers from ancient times have
been preserved by other writers, sometimes much later
than when they were supposed to have spoken them.
As for the Tao Te Ching, the text itself also seems to
argue for being a compilation from different sources. The
many short verses seem like proverbs, differing in style and
content, and lacking in consistency. Usually, that's a sign of
a work compiled from oral traditions.
Another argument for this is the fact that the whole
text lacks specifics, by which to place it firmly in history.
No emperors are mentioned, nor any historical events, not
even any cultural characteristics that would date the work
with some precision. It's unstuck in time. That, too, is often
the case with oral traditions put into writing at a later time,
especially in the case of proverbs, of course.
Most of the Tao Te Ching is written with rhymes,
which is quite easy in the Chinese language. Rhyming is far
from exclusive to oral tradition, but it's very common there.
It made memorizing even long texts much easier. So,
although it can't be used as evidence of an oral origin, it
definitely suggests the possibility. Without rhymes, an oral
origin would be much less likely.
Regarding the thoughts transmitted in the text,
their ethereal nature and abstract cosmology suggest very
old origins. This is far from certain, but philosophies of
agrarian societies tend to advocate strict order of conduct,
similar to books of law, and present a cosmology that is
distinctly earthbound. This would apply to the thoughts
of Confucius, but hardly to those of Lao Tzu.
Tao Te Ching presents a world order that has much
more in common with hunter-gatherer societies. Their
cosmologies are usually very complex and abstract, not to say
cryptic, and their ethics don't particularly stress hierarchy
and obedience. I wouldn't say that Lao Tzu's Taoism is
strictly pre-agrarian, but it gives an impression of such ideas
clashing with the ideals of agrarian society. Taoism can be
seen as an attempt of merging the two.
Now, if the verses in the Tao Te
Ching precede the agrarian era, it's highly unlikely that they have one single
author. They would be bits and pieces transmitted orally, from
generation to generation, before the invention of writing
made it possible to collect and preserve them.
On the other hand, there could very well be one
person who did that job. That would make the legendary Lao
Tzu the compiler of wisdom of old, where the proverbs
gathered were those containing the same message – that of the
Way and how it should be walked.
Actually, the text never claims anything else. It
repeats frequently that it transmits the wisdom of old, and the
sage it mentions so many times can also be a plural – all
those wise ones in ancient times, who knew about the Way.
Lao Tzu never claims to be the inventor of the ideas, but
insists that he repeats what was well known by the ancestors.
He states that he just compiles old material.
If Lao Tzu was the first to put the oral tradition
into writing, it's still not sure if he did so with the
Tao Te Ching in its entirety, as we know it today. He could have made
a first version, which was then molded through other
minds and added to by other contributors, before reaching
its present state.
Frequent repetitions and other inconsistencies of
the book suggest it. Some lines of the text are repeated,
others appear with minor alterations, and some whole
chapters seem to say the same as others, although with slightly
One single writer would probably edit such things
out, if not writing flowingly and ignoring an editing
procedure. Especially a writer as scarce with words as the
Tao Te Ching suggests, would avoid lengthy repetition.
So, if the Tao Te Ching is a collection of old proverbs,
it was probably initially collected by one person, whom
we can call Lao Tzu. But there would have been others
contributing, before the text reached its present form. The extent
of their contributions is difficult to ascertain. Probably,
they mainly added other variations of the old proverbs, in an
effort to make sure that nothing of this particular wisdom
They would have worked from a Taoist concept of
sorts, not to deviate from the ideas and principles of the
work. This suggests that the philosophy of Taoism was
established in some form before this process.
It would be. Taoism contains ideas and perspectives
that are very likely to have existed long before the beginning
of agrarian society. Its philosophy of non-action,
wu-wei, would make immediate sense in hunter-gatherer
societies. Maybe it was sharpened and put into words in the
clash with the emerging agrarian society, where so much in
life suddenly became important and complicated.
The other basic theory about the birth of this text is that
it was indeed written by one person, Lao Tzu, who did so
out of his own mind and not by merely assembling old
proverbs. If so, he was probably writing it in a flowing
manner, somewhat like a musician improvises, not pausing much
for editing or looking back at previous chunks of text.
This would actually fit quite well with the
legend, which states that Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te
Ching, at the request of a border guard, the moment when he was about
to leave China for good. Then he would not have
bothered much with editing, nor would he have spent any
significant amount of time on the text.
Five thousand words are not written in mere hours,
so Lao Tzu would in this case surely have stayed as the
guard's guest for at least a few days. That's not at all
improbable. The guard was obviously delighted with his company.
Considering his isolated job, he might have cheered at just
about any visit.
The theory of one original author is also supported
by the stringency of thought in the text and the consistent
style in which it is written. Tao Te Ching is so sparse with
words, and free of elaborate explanations, that it is partly
almost cryptic. This seems more in line with the approach of
one mind than the result of proverbs collected from all around.
The numerous examples of playing with words in
similar manners suggest a certain kind of humor, which is
also unlikely to be found in a mere collection of proverbs. So,
the style and the consistency of thought are indications of
a single mind behind the text.
Another thing that needs to be considered is the
originality of the thoughts and ideas of the text. If it's a
collection of old proverbs, it's unlikely to stand out from the
mindset of the time. I can't say that I have the competence to
consider this aspect with any confidence. It's not easy to
ascertain what perspectives people were familiar with,
some 2,500 years ago. But there are things that stand out.
Although Tao was a well-known concept in China
at Lao Tzu's time, it rarely stood on its own. There
was Heaven's Way, an expression he also uses, and the Way
of this and that, but a Way preceding every other way, even
the world as well as its possible creator – that must have
Also, the sharp criticism of authorities, all the way up
to the ruler of the country, was not likely to be repeated
by many, at least not in writing.
The disrespect, with which Lao Tzu spoke about
authorities, could be an explanation to the many missing
chapters of the Tao Te Ching manuscript found in Guodian.
Those that speak the most frankly about inadequate leadership
are absent. The manuscript belonged to the tutor of a prince.
He surely had to treat the subject delicately. Also chapters
that praise the female over the male are missing.
In the firm hierarchy of ancient China, Lao Tzu's
text was provocative, indeed.
The principle of non-action, wu-wei, might also
have seemed somewhat out of place in the blooming empire
of China, moving boldly towards increased splendor. Such
a magnificent country would cherish something less humble.
Nor is Lao Tzu's praise of the female and the
yielding very typical for any time or place. Actually, there's
nothing excluding the possibility that Lao Tzu was a woman.
That would explain the text's perspective from below and
persistent sympathy for the people at the bottom of the
ladder. Such emphasized empathy is not that common among
Well, none of these speculations have the weight of
evidence, but at least they support the possibility that the
Tao Te Ching was the work of one person's mind. The text
certainly gives that impression and has been regarded as
such, through most of history since its emergence. Its many
readers through time have felt what has also been my
impression: These words have the air of stemming from one
Still, the book might have gone through
significant changes, until it reached the form that we are familiar
with. Some of them we know, such as the division into 81
chapters, which may very well have included other alterations
in this process. There have also been some changes of
the wording, here and there, that altered the meaning of
these lines – or just clouded it.
This we know from recent discoveries of
manuscripts that significantly predate the versions we until then had
at our disposal.
The findings in Mawangdui and Guodian, in the late
century, have clarified a lot about the
Tao Te Ching
. What had been pure speculation and guesswork was with those
findings brought to conclusion. Some of these conclusions
were expected, but there were also several that took the
experts by surprise.
The biggest surprise was that these findings
showed that the text had mainly been the same since much
older times than previously assumed.
Until 1973, the manuscripts in existence didn't date
farther back than to the 3rd century CE. They were
commented copies, written by dignified Chinese scholars. The most
famous and widely used one was that of the young
genius Wang Pi, who lived in the 3rd century CE. It was the
one used in almost all English translations.
But in 1973, two manuscripts of the Tao Te
Ching were found in a Mawangdui tomb dating to 168 BC. These
versions were written around 200 BC, one slightly older
than the other. Both are practically complete, lacking only
minor parts where the silk they were written on had been
Oddly, they reverse the order of the two parts of the
text, putting Te, chapters 38-81, before
Tao, chapters 1-37. A few of the chapters within these parts are also placed
differently from the traditional order. Apart from these anomalies,
the Mawangdui manuscripts showed a text that was
surprisingly similar to the previously known versions.
So, here were two manuscripts, more than five
hundred years older than the ones previously in our possession,
and the deviations were quite minor. Obviously, this text
had been preserved with great care and accuracy through
the centuries. Also, it was clear that it had found its
present form no later than at the start of the
2nd century BC. Many experts had previously guessed that it was a
compilation done during that century or the next one.
After this finding, several experts revised their
assumptions, saying that the text had probably found its
present form in the 3rd century BC, most likely by the end of
it. Those experts were soon to be proven wrong, yet again.
In 1993, a manuscript dating back another
hundred years was found in a tomb in Guodian. It was written
on bamboo straps, the method of the time. This
manuscript, which is far from complete, is dated to around 300 BC,
and the chapters it does contain are almost identical with
Now, many experts claim that the text was
compiled somewhere during the 4th century BC, but I would
hesitate to make such a statement. Maybe it's time to accept the
legend, making Lao Tzu a senior contemporary of K'ung
Tzu, which would put him in the 6th century BC. That's
where Chinese scholars prefer to place him.
The consistent form and content of the Tao Te
Ching, already at 300 BC, strongly suggests that it was an
established classic way before that time. Future archeological
excavations will probably bring us older versions than the one
in Guodian. There are lots of those going on in China.
There would not have been a lack of old manuscripts
to begin with, if China had not been struck by systematic
book burnings, now and then through its history. The first
major one started already in 213 BC. There have been some
Chinese emperors seeming to take Lao Tzu's warnings
about knowledge literally, by trying to do away with literature.
Simple like uncarved wood
What the three newly found manuscripts have revealed
is not just that the Tao Te Ching
had been kept mainly
intact through all this time, but also that the text is indeed
written in a style signified by utter directness and clarity. Its
topic might be clouded, but its words are, as Lao Tzu says in
chapter, "very easy to understand."
Several strange lines, difficult to interpret, have
been clarified by the three older manuscripts. Their language
is as straightforward as their messages. Lao Tzu spoke
without poetic decoration or rhetorical roundabouts. Not that
it makes all of his cosmology and ethics clear as day, but
he had no intention of complicating matters. To him, what
he spoke about was probably self-evident.
Tao is the primordial natural law that the universe
conforms to, since its emergence out of chaos. Because this
is how things in the world are and should be, we need to
do very little to adjust, other than look for its patterns in
the small and seemingly insignificant details of existence.
That's where Tao is hiding.
If we try to improve the world, especially if we do
so without understanding Tao, we are sure to damage it. So,
we should practice non-action, wu-wei, and enjoy the
voyage that the Way offers. The less we aspire to accomplish,
the less our disappointment will be. True satisfaction is to
be found in accepting life as it is, instead of struggling
to change it into something we imagine that we wish.
It's probably truer now, than ever before in human
history. What we want is not what we need. What we long
for makes us blind to what we have. What we are is not
what we pretend to be. Only what we cease to cover up, we
can see as it really is. Lao Tzu tells us that there's nothing
we have to do to understand him. We will find the Way if
we stop searching for it. It's right here.
Reaching the West
The first translation to a European language of the
Tao Te Ching
was done by the French priest Francois Noël
(1651-1729), who had spent several years in China. He wrote it
in Latin, which was the common thing to do at the time.
This would have been in the beginning of the
His translation passed almost unnoticed. Another
Latin translation emerged in 1788, as a gift from India to the
Royal Society of England. Its fate was similar to that of Noël's
version. None of them was printed, so there were not
many readers they could have reached.
The first printed translation was released in 1842.
The French sinologist Stanislas Julien made it. After
another thirty years, the first printed English versions came, and
in 1891 James Legge's translation was published. Both his
and Julien's versions are still in print.
During the end of the 19th century, there was a
growing Western fascination with Eastern thought and culture, so
the number of Tao Te Ching translations grew rapidly. Early
in the 20th century, there were versions in just about every
language. Even the English occultist Aleister Crowley
made one, in his own incomparable way.
Today, the versions of Lao Tzu's text are almost
countless. In English alone, there are probably more than a
hundred. Some are made by accomplished sinologists, others
by academics of more or less relevant disciplines. There are
also versions made by poets, mystics, priests of different
confessions, and so on. For example, the American novelist
Ursula K. Le Guin, famous for her fantasy and science fiction
stories, published an elegant version in 1997, which she
made in collaboration with J. P. Seaton, a professor of Chinese.
Tao Te Ching has also been popularized by
numerous books applying its philosophy more freely to present
circumstances. Benjamin Hoff explored the Taoism he found
in A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh. His first book on the
subject, The Tao of Pooh, was published in 1982 and quickly
became a bestseller all over the world. In 1993 he followed up
with the unavoidable The Te of Piglet.
A few years ahead of Hoff, the physicist Fritjof
Capra wrote a book where he daringly compared the outskirts
of physics with the cosmological principles of Taoism
and other ancient traditions. The Tao of
Physics was published in 1975. In spite of its advanced subject, the book was a
It also inspired a stream of books popularizing
natural science by comparing it to ancient myths and beliefs.
Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters from 1979 had a
success similar to that of Capra's book.
Another bestseller writer in the field is Paul Davies,
with a number of books comparing religious beliefs to
modern physics, such as God and the New
Physics from 1983 and The Mind of God from 1992. There are so many books
dealing with this perspective, and so many writers behind
them, that it could be called a literary genre.
Not all of them focus on Taoist principles, but the
subtle cosmology of the Tao Te Ching makes it frequently
referred to in such works.
Lao Tzu's universe, governed by a sublime natural
principle instead of any gods, is attractive to speculating
scientific minds of today. The ease by which his ideas can be
applied to modern science makes his text more relevant
than he would ever have guessed if he had a glimpse of our
society, which must be as far from his modest ideal as
But opposites attract. Maybe our increased interest
in Lao Tzu's words stems from the urgent fact that we
have reached a point where we really need to listen to them.
Taoism may have been an oddity in ancient China, but in
our world it has become a necessity.
Words as pictures
Chinese writing is done by pictograms, simplified
pictorial representations of the words. Actually, a more proper
word for it, when used as a written language, is logogram, as
opposed to our Western phonogram that marks
pronunciation. It's a fascinating world of symbols, filled with meaning
and double-meaning. As the saying goes: A picture is worth
a thousand words.
According to legend, this system of writing was
invented already in the 27th century BC by Ts'ang-chieh,
who served under the Yellow Emperor. Before that, the
Chinese tied knots on ropes as a way of keeping certain records.
This is mentioned in Lao Tzu's 80th chapter.
The oldest documented Chinese writing is from the
late Shang Dynasty, around the 12th century BC, in the form
of oracle bones. The Chinese logograms combine different
uses of the simplified images they combine. There are basic
signs, called radicals, like that of the mouth, an eye, the sun, a
tree, and so on. Often in a word, they are combined with
other signs specifying the word's meaning with varied degrees
of abstraction, or with signs hinting at its pronunciation.
The results are very complex and suggestive.
For example, the word Tao combines the signs for a
step and a face, suggesting the notion of walking in the
direction you are facing. Among the many speculations on the
etymology of this logogram, is the drastic idea that it began
as a depiction of the skulls of enemies put on poles on the
way to towns, thereby warning visitors to beware.
The word ch'i, vital breath, combines the signs for
rice and steam. Rice was and is the main food for the
Chinese, but it needs to be boiled before consumption.
Te, virtue, is quite complicated, containing the signs for walking,
looking straight ahead, and the heart. We would call it walking
the narrow road of righteousness.
In this book, there are several other examples of
how Chinese words are combined, which is usually referred to
as their etymology. They reveal a lot about the traditional
Chinese mind and philosophy. Any learned Chinese will
find great joy in contemplating their meaning.
This was certainly true also for Lao Tzu, when he
used more than 5,000 words to write his book. For a proper
and adequate understanding of it, at least in its vaguest
expressions, one needs to take this into account. Lao Tzu
was aware of the complexity of the signs he used, and played
on it as he did on other aspects of the Chinese language.
Another thing that needs to be understood is how
repetition gives different impressions in logograms
compared to phonograms. Words written with pictures can be
repeated frequently, without the same irritation of the
reader as if it were done in a language of phonograms.
Lao Tzu's text is full of such repetition, starting from
the very beginning, where there are three Tao among the
first six words. In English, this is disturbingly repetitious,
but with imagery it is instead rather intriguing, since it needs
to be sort of deciphered.
It's a poetic riddle, comparable to Shakespeare's "To
be or not to be." Tao Te Ching is full of it.
When translating the text, a proper balance is hard
to find. If all those repetitions are included, there's a
lesser poetic impression than the original text deserves, but
editing them out would falsify the nature of the text.
In my translation, I have kept almost all of them.
Instead I have used line breaks in an effort to recreate the
simplicity with which one reads repetitions written by
pictograms. That makes it easier for the eye to capture the pattern
without having to drag through a lot of letters. It will also do
as a kind of substitute for the fact that most of the
Tao Te Ching is rhymed.
The transcription of Chinese, how to write its words
with Western letters, is not an exact science. Since Chinese
texts are written with pictograms, little is stated about the
actual pronunciation. That differs considerably through
China, both geographically and historically. Without
specifications of the sounds in their written language, this diversity
There are two major methods of transcription at use
today for Chinese words. Pinyin is the one presented by
the modern state of China in the 1950's as the official system
of transcription. Today, it's the system used almost
exclusively, especially for anything contemporary.
In the case of the Chinese classics, though, an older
system of transcription is well established and still in use.
It's called Wade-Giles after its two creators, the latter of
which published a Chinese-English dictionary based on it, in
1892. This system of transcription was the dominating one in
the English language for most of the
20th century, so all the translated classics of that period used it. Therefore, it's
the spelling we are still the most familiar with, especially in
the case of the Chinese classics and their terminology.
The Chinese language is far from homogenous all
over that great nation, and many of its pronunciations are
quite alien to Western tongues. So, any transcription is bound
to be imprecise. That goes for pinyin as well as Wade-Giles.
No wonder, then, that there is an ongoing debate about
what system to use for the Chinese classics, such as the
Tao Te Ching.
Already for the word Tao (in pinyin
Dào), much can be said against both transcriptions. The initial sound is
somewhere between T and D, but still not pronounced in the
way Western languages treats such sounds. Anyway, for most
of the words, the two systems of transcription don't get that
far apart. This can be seen in the examples below. If you are
familiar with one spelling, you can often recognize the
word also when spelled the other way.
In addition, Chinese is pronounced with a
distinct melody, so that a word might rise in tone, lie flat, or
fall. That's how the three words of Tao Te
Ching are spoken: up at Tao, still at
Te, and down at Ching, as if wording the
shape of a hill. Not an easy language to transcribe.
For a while, pinyin seemed to take over in the
new translations and the literature on the subjects, but I have
the impression that this development is halted. Wade-Giles
is still in use and seems even to be preferred for the
classics, at least outside purely academic writing.
In this book, I stick to Wade-Giles for all the words
in Lao Tzu's text, as well as for names and terms related to
it. If I'm not mistaken, only the names of the places where
the oldest Tao Te Ching manuscripts were found, Guodian
and Mawangdui, are spelled in the pinyin fashion. That's
simply because the excavations were made recently, so I
chose the established contemporary transcriptions.
Otherwise, I use Wade-Giles consistently. That way,
too, it's much easier for the reader to compare this version
to most of the previously existing ones in English.
Here are some examples of words and names, as
they are transcribed according to Wade-Giles and pinyin:
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching
Dào Dé Jing (or Daodejing)
Lao Zi (or Laozi)
Kong zi (or Kongzi)
Zhuang Zi (or Zhuangzi)
Yì Jing (or Yijing)
qì (or qi)
yin yáng (or yin yang)
tàijí (or taiji)
Mawángdui (or Mawangdui)
Guodiàn (or Guodian)
Tao Te Ching Explained
The 81 Chapters of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
translated and explained by Stefan Stenudd.
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