Tao Te Ching

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Philosophy

"Tao Te Ching"
Traditional Chinese: 道德經
Simplified Chinese: 道德经
Pinyin romanization: Dào Dé Jīng
Wade-Giles romanization: Tao Te Ching
Zhuyin transcription: ㄉㄠˋ ㄉㄜˊ ㄐㄧㄥ
The Wade-Giles title Tao Te Ching dates back to the first English translations in the late 19th century, and some people continue using it. The pinyin title Dao De Jing originated in the late 20th century, and this romanization is becoming increasingly popular. See discussion at Daoism-Taoism romanization issue.

The Tao Te Ching ( Traditional Chinese: 道德經 [ Listen ]), roughly translatable as The Book of the Way and its Virtue (see below), is a Chinese classic text. According to tradition, it was written around 600 BCE by the Taoist sage Laozi (or Lao Tzu, "Old Master"), a record-keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court. A careful reading of the text, however, suggests that it is a compilation of maxims sharing similar themes. The text's authenticity, authorship, and date of composition or compilation are still debated.

The Tao Te Ching is fundamental to the Taoist school (Daojia 道家) of Chinese philosophy and strongly influenced other schools as well, such as Legalism and Neo-Confucianism. This ancient book is also central in Chinese religion, not only for Taoism (Daojiao 道教) but Chinese Buddhism, which when first introduced into China was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts. Many Chinese artists, including poets, painters, calligraphers, and even gardeners have used the Tao Te Ching as a source of inspiration. Its influence has also spread widely outside East Asia, aided by hundreds of translations into Western languages.

The text

The Tao Te Ching has a long and complex textual history. On one hand, there are transmitted versions and commentaries that date back two millennia; on the other, there are ancient bamboo, silk, and paper manuscripts that archeologists discovered in the last century.


There are many possible translations of the book's title, owing to the polysemy of the component Chinese words:

  • Dào/ Tao 道 literally means "way", "road", "path", or "route," but was extended to mean "path ahead", "way forward", "method", "principle", "doctrine", or simply "the Way". This term, which was variously used by other Chinese philosophers (including Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, and Hanfeizi), has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnamable process of the universe.
  • Dé/Te 德 basically means "virtue" in the sense of "personal character", "inner strength", or "integrity", but was used differently by Confucianists to mean "morality". The semantics of this Chinese word resemble English virtue, which developed from a (now archaic) sense of "inner potency" or "divine power" (as in "healing virtue of a drug") to the modern meaning of "moral excellence" or "goodness". Compare the compound word dàodé (道德 "ethics", "ethical principles", "morals," or "morality").
  • Jīng/Ching 經 originally meant "norm", "rule", "plan", "warp" (vs. "woof") and was semantically extended to mean "scripture", "canon", "great book", or "classic".

Thus, Tao Te Ching can be translated as "The Scripture/Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue", etc.

Besides Daode Jing, other titles include the eponymous Laozi (老子 "Old Master[s]"), the amalgam Laozi Daode Jing (老子道德經), the honorific Daode Zhen Jing (道德真經 "Perfect Classic of the Way and the Power"), and the Wuqian wen (五千文 "Five thousand character [classic]"; see next).

Internal structure

The received Tao Te Ching is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections (). It has two parts, the Tao Ching (道經; chaps. 1–37) and the Te Ching (德經; chaps. 38–81), which may have been edited together into the received text, possibly reversed from an original "Te Tao Ching" (see Mawangdui texts below). The written style is laconic, with few grammatical particles, frequently ambiguous, occasionally rhymed, and expressing often difficult ideas poetically.

The Chinese characters in the original versions were probably written in zhuànshū (篆書 seal script), while later versions were written in lìshū (隷書 clerical script) and kǎishū (楷書 regular script) styles. Daoist Chinese Characters contains a good summary of these different calligraphies.

Historical authenticity

The Tao Te Ching is universally ascribed to Laozi, who may, or may not, have been a historical person ("Old Master"), or people ("Old Masters"). No one can be certain; indeed, Laozi "was a hidden sage" (Kaltenmark 1969:10).

The first reliable reference to Laozi is his "biography" in the circa 100 BCE Shiji (63, tr. Chan 1963:35-37), by Chinese historian Sima Qian, which combines three stories. First, Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BCE), his surname was Li ( "plum") and personal name was Er ( "ear") or Dan ( "long ear"). He was an official in the imperial archives, and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the West. Second, Laozi was Lao Laizi (老來子 "Old Come Master"), also a contemporary of Confucius, who wrote a book in 15 parts, and lived to an age of more than 160 (or 200) years. Third, Laozi was the Grand Historian and astrologer Lao Dan (老聃 "Old Long-ears"), who lived during the reign (384-362 BCE) of Duke Xian (獻公) of Qin). Boltz (1993:270) concludes this biography "contains virtually nothing that is demonstrably factual; we are left no choice but to acknowledge the likely fictional nature of the traditional [Laozi] figure."

Generations of scholars have debated the historicity of Laozi and the dating of the Tao Te Ching. Linguistic studies of the text's vocabulary and rhyme scheme point to a date of composition after the Shi Jing yet before the Zhuangzi — around the late 4th or early 3rd centuries BCE.

Some supporters of Taosim attribute this debate to the folkloric age of Laozi of over 900 years old who had thirteen incarnates starting around the time of the Three Sovereigns, a view obviously rejected by scholars.

Principal versions

Among the many transmitted editions of the Tao Te Ching text, the three primary ones are named after early commentaries. The "Yan Zun Version," which is only extant for the Te Ching, derives from a commentary attributed to Han Dynasty scholar Yan Zun (巖尊, fl. 80 BCE-10 CE). The "Heshang Gong Version" is named after the legendary Heshang Gong (河上公 "Riverside Sage") who supposedly lived during the reign (202-157 BCE) of Emperor Wen of Han. This commentary (tr. Erkes 1950) has a preface written by Ge Xuan (葛玄, 164-244 CE), grand-uncle of Ge Hong, and scholarship dates this version to around the 3rd century CE. The "Wang Bi Version" has more verifiable origins than either of the above. Wang Bi (王弼, 226 – 249 CE) was a famous Three Kingdoms period philosopher and commentator on the Tao Te Ching (tr. Lin 1977, Rump and Chan 1979) and the Yi Jing.

Tao Te Ching scholarship has lately advanced from archeological discoveries of manuscripts, some of which are older than any of the received texts. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, Marc Aurel Stein and others found thousands of scrolls in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. They included over 50 partial and complete Tao Te Ching manuscripts. One written by the scribe So/Su Dan (素統) is dated 270 CE, and corresponds closely with the Heshang Gong version. Another partial manuscript has the Xiang'er (想爾) commentary, which had previously been lost. In 1973, archeologists discovered copies of early Chinese books, known as the Mawangdui Silk Texts, in a tomb dating from 168 BCE. They included two nearly complete copies of the Laozi, referred to as Text A () and Text B (), both of which reverse the traditional ordering and put the Te Ching section before the Tao Ching. Based on calligraphic styles and imperial naming taboo avoidances, scholars believe that A and B can be respectively dated to about the first and third decades of the 2nd century BCE (Boltz 1993:284). In 1993, the oldest known version of the text, written on bamboo tablets, was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian and dated prior to 300 BCE. The Guodian Chu Slips comprise about 800 slips of bamboo with a total of over 13,000 characters, about 2,000 of which correspond with the Tao Te Ching, including 14 previously unknown verses. Both the Mawangdui and Guodian versions are generally consistent with the received texts, excepting differences in chapter sequence and graphic variants. Several recent Tao Te Ching translations (e.g., Lau 1989, Henricks 1989, Mair 1990, Henricks 2000, Allan and Williams 2000, and Roberts 2004) utilize these two versions, sometimes with the verses reordered to synthesize the new finds.

Interpretation and themes

Many believe the Tao Te Ching contains universal truths that have been independently recognized in other philosophies, both religious and secular. Depending on interpretation, some ambiguous passages have multiple readings, ranging from political advice for rulers to practical wisdom for people. The following themes and concepts are central to interpreting the text.


The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind. (chap. 1, tr. Waley )

These famous first lines of the Tao Te Ching ironically state that the Tao is ineffable. Wikipedia's List of snowclones includes "The X that can be Y is not the true X" and cites the original as "The Tao which can be spoken of is not the true Tao."

Tao is nameless, goes beyond distinctions, and transcends language. Perhaps the Tao, like the Dharma, is what physicist David Bohm means by "that which is", perfectly being what is, both all and nothing. "My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice. Yet no one under heaven understands them; no one puts them into practice" (chap. 70, tr. Waley )

The Mysterious Female

The Valley Spirit never dies
It is named the Mysterious Female.
And the doorway of the Mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.
It is there within us all the while;
Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry. (chap. 6, tr. Waley )

Like the above description of the ineffable Tao as "the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures", the Tao Te Ching advocates "female" (or Yin) values, emphasizing the fluid and soft qualities of water (which can overcome the solid and hard), and "having without possessing". This theme challenges "male" (or Yang) values such as stability, positive action, and domination of nature, which can be referred to as "Confucian values." Yin and Yang should be balanced, "Know masculinity, Maintain femininity, and be a ravine for all under heaven." (chap. 28, tr. Mair)


In Tao the only motion is returning;
The only useful quality, weakness.
For though all creatures under heaven are the products of Being,
Being itself is the product of Not-being. " (chap. 40, tr. Waley )

Another theme is the eternal return, or what Mair (1990:139) calls "the continual return of the myriad creatures to the cosmic principle from which they arose."

There is a contrast between the rigidity of death and the weakness of life: "When he is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard. The ten thousand creatures and all plants and trees while they are alive are supple and soft, but when and dead they become brittle and dry." (chap. 76, tr. Waley ). This is returning to the beginning of things, or to one's own childhood.

The Tao Te Ching focuses upon the beginnings of society, and describes a golden age in the past, comparable with the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Human problems arose from the "invention" of culture and civilization. In this idealized past, “the people should have no use for any form of writing save knotted ropes, should be contented with their food, pleased with their clothing, satisfied with their homes, should take pleasure in their rustic tasks." (chap. 80, tr. Waley )

However, "returning" is not a simplistic reactionary retreat. Two illustrations are the anti-Confucianist saying that, "Learning consists in adding to one's stock day by day; The practice of Tao consists in 'subtracting day by day'." (chap. 48, tr. Waley ); and this strategic advice “If you doubt your ability to advance an inch, then retreat a foot”. (chap. 69, tr. Waley ) Diminishing one's ego, instead of "improving" it through study, is the path to real wisdom. Letting the enemy take the first step (thus reducing his range of possibilities) is the way to gain the upper hand. This theme is similar to psychological practices such as introspection or meditation, but one returns not to oneself but to nothingness, to "that which is".


We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not. (chap. 11, tr. Waley )

Philosophical vacuity is a common theme among Asian wisdom traditions including Taoism (especially Wu wei "nonaction"), Buddhism, and some aspects of Confucianism. One could interpret the Tao Te Ching as a suite of variations on the "Powers of Nothingness". This resonates with the Buddhist Shunyata philosophy of "form is emptiness, emptiness is form."

Looking at a traditional Chinese landscape, one can understand how emptiness (the unpainted) has the power of animating the trees, mountains, and rivers it surrounds. Emptiness can mean having no fixed preconceptions, preferences, intentions, or agenda. Since "The Sage has no heart of his own; He uses the heart of the people as his heart." (chap. 49, tr. Waley ). From a ruler's point of view, it is a laissez-faire approach:

So a wise leader may say:
"I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves."
But from the Sage it is so hard at any price to get a single word
That when his task is accomplished, his work done,
Throughout the country every one says: “It happened of its own accord”. (chap. 17, tr. Waley )


Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self requires strength;
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of will power.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present. (chap. 33, tr. Feng and English)

The Tao Te Ching praises self knowledge but criticizes rational understanding. For example: "Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, And the people will be benefited a hundredfold." (chap. 19, tr. Waley ) Knowledge, like desire, should be diminished. "It was when intelligence and knowledge appeared that the Great Artifice began." (chap. 18, tr. Waley ).

Connections with Christianity

Since Christian missionaries were among the first Westerners to study the Tao Te Ching, it is not surprising that they connected Taoism with Christianity. There are many parallels between the New Testament and the Tao Te Ching, for instance, "Do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27, tr. NASB) and "Requite injuries with good deeds" (chap. 63, tr. Waley ). Note that the Chinese Bible translates logos as Tao.

Two particular Tao Te Ching chapters are perceived as exemplifying Christian themes. Chapter 42 bears a resemblance to the Trinity doctrine: "The Way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures." (tr. Mair 1990:9). In 1823, the French sinologist Jean-Pierre-Abel Rémusat suggested that Yahweh was signified by three words in Chapter 14; yi ( 夷 "calm; level; barbarian"), xi ( 希 "rare; indiscernible; hope"), and wei ( 微 "tiny, small; obscure").

We look for it but do not see it; we name it "subtle." We listen for it but do not hear it; we name it "rare." We grope for it but do not grasp it; we name it "serene." These three cannot be fully fathomed, Therefore, They are bound together to make unity." (chap. 14, tr. Mair 1990:74)

James Legge (1891:57-58 ) dismissed this hypothetical yi-xi-wei and Yahweh connection as "a mere fancy or dream". According to Holmes Welch:

It is not hard to understand the readiness of early scholars to assert that the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed in the Tao Te Ching and that its fourteenth chapter contains the syllables of "Yahveh." Even today, though these errors have been recognized for more than a century, the general notion that Lao Tzu was Christ's forerunner has lost none of its romantic appeal. (1965:7)

Present day researchers, such as Damascene et al. (1999), continue to explore the similarities between Taoist and Christian teachings.

Other themes

Here are some other topics related to the Tao Te Ching:

  • Force begets force.
  • One whose needs are simple can fulfill them easily.
  • Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
  • Self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive.
  • Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned.
  • The harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself.
  • The more one acts in harmony with the universe (the Mother of the ten thousand things), the more one will achieve, with less effort.
  • The truly wise make little of their own wisdom for the more they know, the more they realize how little they know.
  • When we lose the fundamentals, we supplant them with increasingly inferior values which we pretend are the true values.
  • Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame.
  • The qualities of flexibility and suppleness are superior to rigidity and strength.
  • Everything is in its own time and place.
  • Duality of nature that complements each other instead of competing with each other — the two faces of the same coin — one cannot exist without the other.
  • The differences of opposite polarities — i.e. the differences between male and female, light and dark, strong and weak, etc. — helps us understand and appreciate the universe.
  • Humility is the highest virtue.
  • Knowing oneself is a virtue.
  • Envy is our calamity; overindulgence is our plight.
  • The more you go in search of an answer, the less you will understand.
  • To lift something, first push down on it.
  • When many people are killed in battle, it is no time for celebration. Treat your victory like a funeral.
  • Know when it's time to stop.
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