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Tao Te Ching

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Tao Te Ching
Ink on silk manuscript of the Tao Te Ching, 2nd century BC, unearthed from Mawangdui
AuthorLaozi (trad.)
Original title道德經
LanguageClassical Chinese
Publication date
4th century BC
Publication placeChina
Published in English
Original text
道德經 at Chinese Wikisource
TranslationTao Te Ching at Wikisource
Tao Te Ching
Traditional Chinese道德經
Simplified Chinese道德经
Literal meaning"Classic of the Way and Virtue"
Laozi's Tao Te Ching
Traditional Chinese老子《道德經》
Simplified Chinese老子《道德经》
Daode Zhenjing
Traditional Chinese道德真經
Simplified Chinese道德真经
Literal meaning"Sutra of the Way and Its Power"
Other names
Wade–GilesLao3 Tzŭ3
Hanyu PinyinLǎozǐ
Literal meaning"Old Master"
5000-Character Classic
Wade–GilesWu3 Ch'ien1 Wên2
Hanyu PinyinWǔqiān Wén
Literal meaning"The 5000 Characters"

The Tao Te Ching[note 1] (traditional Chinese: 道德經; simplified Chinese: 道德经) is a Chinese classic text and foundational work of Taoism traditionally credited to the sage Laozi,[7][8] though the text's authorship, date of composition and date of compilation are debated.[9] The oldest excavated portion dates to the late 4th century BCE,[10] but modern scholarship dates other parts of the text as having been written—or at least compiled—later than the earliest portions of the Zhuangzi.[11]

The Tao Te Ching is central to both philosophical and religious conceptions of Taoism, and has had great influence beyond Taoism as such on Chinese philosophy and religious practice throughout history. Terminology originating in the Tao Te Ching has been reinterpreted and elaborated upon by Legalist thinkers, Confucianists, and particularly Chinese Buddhists, which had been introduced to China significantly after the initial solidification of Taoist thought. It is comparatively well known in the West, and one of the most translated texts in world literature.[10]


In English, the title is commonly rendered Tao Te Ching, following the Wade–Giles romanisation, or as Daodejing, following pinyin. It can be translated as The Classic of the Way and its Power,[12] The Book of the Tao and Its Virtue,[13] The Book of the Way and of Virtue,[14][15] The Tao and its Characteristics,[5] The Canon of Reason and Virtue,[6] The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way,[16] or A Treatise on the Principle and Its Action.[17][18]

Ancient Chinese books were commonly referenced by the name of their real or supposed author, in this case the "Old Master",[19] Laozi. As such, the Tao Te Ching is also sometimes referred to as the Laozi, especially in Chinese sources.[10]

The title Tao Te Ching, designating the work's status as a classic, was only first applied during the reign of Emperor Jing of Han (157–141 BC).[20] Other titles for the work include the honorific Sutra of the Way and Its Power (道德真經; Dàodé zhēnjing) and the descriptive Five Thousand Character Classic (五千文; Wǔqiān wén).


The Tao Te Ching has a long and complex textual history. Known versions and commentaries date back two millennia, including ancient bamboo, silk, and paper manuscripts discovered in the twentieth century.[citation needed]

Internal structure[edit]

The Tao Te Ching is a text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections (). There is some evidence that the chapter divisions were later additions—for commentary, or as aids to rote memorisation—and that the original text was more fluidly organised. It has two parts, the Tao Ching (道經; chapters 1–37) and the Te Ching (德經; chapters 38–81), which may have been edited together into the received text, possibly reversed from an original Te Tao Ching. The written style is laconic, has few grammatical particles, and encourages varied, contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style is poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces the reader to reconcile supposed contradictions.[21]

The Chinese characters in the original versions were probably written in seal script, while later versions were written in clerical script and regular script styles.[citation needed]


The Tao Te Ching is ascribed to Laozi, whose historical existence has been a matter of scholarly debate. His name, which means "Old Master", has only fuelled controversy on this issue.[22]

Laozi riding a water buffalo

The first biographical reference to Laozi is in the Records of the Grand Historian,[23] by Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC), which combines three stories.[24] In the first, Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius (551–479 BC). His surname was Li (), and his personal name was Er () or Dan (). He was an official in the imperial archives, and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the West; at the request of the keeper of the Han-ku Pass, Yinxi, Laozi composed the Tao Te Ching. In the second story, Laozi, also a contemporary of Confucius, was Lao Laizi (老莱子), who wrote a book in 15 parts. Third, Laozi was the grand historian and astrologer Lao Dan (老聃), who lived during the reign of Duke Xian of Qin (r. 384–362 BC).[citation needed]

The pronunciation of Old Chinese spoken contemporaneously with the Tao Te Ching's composition has been partially reconstructed. Approximately three-quarters of the lines of Tao Te Ching rhymed in the original language.[25]

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 Classic of Poetry, yet before the Zhuangzi. Legends claim variously that Laozi was "born old" and that he lived for 996 years, with twelve previous incarnations starting around the time of the Three Sovereigns before the thirteenth as Laozi. Some scholars have expressed doubts over Laozi's historicity.[26]

Many Taoists venerate Laozi as the founder of the school of Tao, the Daode Tianzun in the Three Pure Ones, and one of the eight elders transformed from Taiji in the Chinese creation myth.[citation needed]

The predominant view among scholars today is that the text is a compilation or anthology representing multiple authors. The current text might have been compiled c. 250 BCE, drawn from a wide range of versions dating back a century or two.[27]

Principal versions[edit]

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 BC – 10 AD). The "Heshang Gong" version is named after the legendary Heshang Gong ('legendary sage'), who supposedly lived during the reign of Emperor Wen of Han (180–157 BC). This commentary has a preface written by Ge Xuan (164–244 AD), granduncle of Ge Hong, and scholarship dates this version to c. the 3rd century AD. The origins of the "Wang Bi" version have greater verification than either of the above. Wang Bi (226–249 AD) was a Three Kingdoms-period philosopher and commentator on the Tao Te Ching and I Ching.[citation needed]

Tao Te Ching scholarship has advanced from archaeological 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 more than 50 partial and complete manuscripts. One written by the scribe So/Su Dan (素統) is dated to 270 AD and corresponds closely with the Heshang Gong version. Another partial manuscript has the Xiang'er commentary, which had previously been lost.[28]: 95ff [29]

Mawangdui and Guodian texts[edit]

In 1973, archaeologists discovered copies of early Chinese books, known as the Mawangdui Silk Texts, in a tomb dated to 168 BC.[10] They included two nearly complete copies of the text, 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, which is why the Henricks translation of them is named "Te-Tao Ching". Based on calligraphic styles and imperial naming taboo avoidances, scholars believe that Text A can be dated to about the first decade and Text B to about the third decade of the 2nd century BC.[30]

In 1993, the oldest known version of the text, written on bamboo slips, was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian (郭店) in Jingmen, Hubei, and dated prior to 300 BC.[10] The Guodian Chu Slips comprise around 800 slips of bamboo with a total of over 13,000 characters, about 2,000 of which correspond with the Tao Te Ching.[10]

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 utilise these two versions, sometimes with the verses reordered to synthesize the new finds.[31]


The Tao Te Ching describes the Tao as the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act "unnaturally", upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching intends to lead students to a "return" to their natural state, in harmony with Tao.[32] Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point.[33]

Wu wei, literally 'non-action' or 'not acting', is a central concept of the Tao Te Ching. The concept of wu wei is multifaceted, and reflected in the words' multiple meanings, even in English translation; it can mean "not doing anything", "not forcing", "not acting" in the theatrical sense, "creating nothingness", "acting spontaneously", and "flowing with the moment".[34]

This concept is used to explain ziran, or harmony with the Tao. It includes the concepts that value distinctions are ideological and seeing ambition of all sorts as originating from the same source. Tao Te Ching used the term broadly with simplicity and humility as key virtues, often in contrast to selfish action. On a political level, it means avoiding such circumstances as war, harsh laws and heavy taxes. Some Taoists see a connection between wu wei and esoteric practices, such as zuowang ('sitting in oblivion': emptying the mind of bodily awareness and thought) found in the Zhuangzi.[33]

Versions and translations[edit]

The Tao Te Ching has been translated into Western languages over 250 times, mostly to English, German, and French.[35] According to Holmes Welch, "It is a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved."[36] The first English translation of the Tao Te Ching was produced in 1868 by the Scottish Protestant missionary John Chalmers, entitled The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of the "Old Philosopher" Lau-tsze.[37] It was heavily indebted[38] to Julien's French translation[14] and dedicated to James Legge,[4] who later produced his own translation for Oxford's Sacred Books of the East.[5]

Other notable English translations of the Tao Te Ching are those produced by Chinese scholars and teachers: a 1948 translation by linguist Lin Yutang, a 1961 translation by author John Ching Hsiung Wu, a 1963 translation by sinologist Din Cheuk Lau, another 1963 translation by professor Wing-tsit Chan, and a 1972 translation by Taoist teacher Gia-Fu Feng together with his wife Jane English.

Many translations are written by people with a foundation in Chinese language and philosophy who are trying to render the original meaning of the text as faithfully as possible into English. Some of the more popular translations are written from a less scholarly perspective, giving an individual author's interpretation. Critics of these versions claim that their translators deviate from the text and are incompatible with the history of Chinese thought.[39] Russell Kirkland goes further to argue that these versions are based on Western Orientalist fantasies and represent the colonial appropriation of Chinese culture.[40][41] Other Taoism scholars, such as Michael LaFargue[42] and Jonathan Herman,[43] argue that while they do not pretend to scholarship, they meet a real spiritual need in the West. These Westernized versions aim to make the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching more accessible to modern English-speaking readers by, typically, employing more familiar cultural and temporal references.

Challenges in translation[edit]

The Tao Te Ching is written in Classical Chinese, which generally poses a number of challenges for interpreters and translators. As Holmes Welch notes, the written language "has no active or passive, no singular or plural, no case, no person, no tense, no mood."[44] Moreover, the received text lacks many grammatical particles which are preserved in the older Mawangdui and Beida texts, which permit the text to be more precise.[45] Lastly, many passages of the Tao Te Ching are deliberately ambiguous.[46][47]

Since there is very little punctuation in Classical Chinese, determining the precise boundaries between words and sentences is not always trivial. Deciding where these phrasal boundaries are must be done by the interpreter.[46] Some translators have argued that the received text is so corrupted due to[citation needed] its original medium being bamboo strips[48] linked with silk threads—that it is impossible to understand some passages without some transposition of characters.[citation needed]

Notable translations[edit]

  • Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu (in French), translated by Julien, Stanislas, Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1842
  • The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of the "Old Philosopher" Lau-tsze, translated by Chalmers, John, London: Trübner, 1868, ISBN 978-0-524-07788-7
  • Müller, Max, ed. (1891), The Tao Teh King, Sacred Books of the East – Sacred Books of China, vol. XXXIX:V, translated by Legge, James, Oxford University Press – via Project Gutenberg.
  • Giles, Lionel; et al., eds. (1905), The Sayings of Lao Tzu, The Wisdom of the East, New York: E. P. Dutton
  • Suzuki, Daisetsu Teitaro; et al., eds. (1913), The Canon of Reason and Virtue: Lao-tze's Tao Teh King, La Salle: Open Court.
  • Les Pères du Système Taoiste, Taoïsme, Vol. II (in French), translated by Wieger, Léon, Hien Hien, 1913
  • Wilhelm, Richard (1923), Tao Te King: das Buch vom Sinn und Leben (in German), Jena: Diederichs
  • Duyvendak, J.J.L. (1954), Tao Te Ching: The Book of the Way and Its Virtue, John Murray
  • Waley, Arthur (1958) [1934], The Way and Its Power, New York: Grove Press
  • Chan, Wing-tsit (1963), The Way of Lao Tzu: Tao-te ching, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill
  • Houang, François and Leyris, Pierre (1979), La Voie et sa vertu: Tao-tê-king (in French), Paris: Éditions du Seuil
  • Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, translated by Mitchell, Stephen, New York: Harper Collins, 1988, ISBN 978-0-06-180739-8.
  • Henricks, Robert G. (1989), Lao-tzu: Te-tao ching. A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts, New York: Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-34790-0
  • Tao Te Ching, translated by Lau, D. C., Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1989, ISBN 9789622014671
  • Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, translated by Mair, Victor H., New York: Bantam, 1990, ISBN 978-0-307-43463-0.
  • Tao-Te-Ching, translated by Bryce, Derek; et al., York Beach: Samuel Weiser, 1991, ISBN 978-1-60925-441-4
  • Addiss, Stephen and Lombardo, Stanley (1991) Tao Te Ching, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.
  • Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of Way, translated by Le Guin, Ursula K., Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1998, ISBN 978-1-61180-724-0.
  • Chad Hansen, Laozi: Tao Te Ching on The Art of Harmony, Duncan Baird Publications 2009
  • Red Pine, (2009) Lao-tzu's Taoteching, Copper Canyon Press, ISBN 9781556592904
  • Sinedino, Giorgio (2015), Dao De Jing (in Portuguese), São Paulo: Editora Unesp

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Standard Chinese: [tâʊ tɤ̌ tɕíŋ] ; in English often UK: /ˌt t ˈɪŋ/,[1] US: /ˌd dɛ ˈɪŋ/;[2]
    Less common romanisations include Tao-te-king,[3] Tau Tĕh King[4] and Tao Teh King.[5][6]



  1. ^ "Tao-te-Ching", Lexico UK English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, archived from the original on 29 July 2020
  2. ^ "Tao Te Ching". Dictionary.com Unabridged (Online). n.d. Retrieved 23 June 2020.
  3. ^ Julien (1842), p. ii.
  4. ^ a b Chalmers (1868), p. v.
  5. ^ a b c Legge & al. (1891).
  6. ^ a b Suzuki & al. (1913).
  7. ^ Ellwood, Robert S. (2008), "Lao-tzu (Laozi)", The Encyclopedia of World Religions, Infobase, p. 262, ISBN 978-1-4381-1038-7
  8. ^ "The Tao Te Ching by Laozi: ancient wisdom for modern times", the Guardian, 27 December 2013, retrieved 28 January 2022
  9. ^ Eliade (1984), p. 26
  10. ^ a b c d e f Chan (2013).
  11. ^ Creel (1970), p. 75.
  12. ^ Waley, Arthur, ed. (1958), The Way and its Power, New York: Grove, ISBN 0-8021-5085-3, OCLC 1151668016
  13. ^ Kohn & al. (1998), p. 1.
  14. ^ a b Julien (1842).
  15. ^ Giles & al. (1905), Introduction.
  16. ^ Mair (1990).
  17. ^ Wieger (1913), p. 3.
  18. ^ Bryce & al. (1991), p. ix.
  19. ^ Chalmers (1868), p. ix.
  20. ^ Seidel, Anna (1969), La divinisation de Lao-tseu dans le taoïsme des Han (in French), Paris: École française d'Extrême‑Orient, pp. 24, 50
  21. ^ Austin, Michael (2010), Reading the World, New York: W. W. Norton, p. 158, ISBN 978-0-393-93349-9
  22. ^ Cao Feng (20 October 2017), Daoism in Early China: Huang–Lao Thought in Light of Excavated Texts, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-137-55094-1
  23. ^ Records of the Grand Historian, vol. 63, tr. Chan 1963:35–37.
  24. ^ Sima, Qian; Sima, Tan (1959) [c. 90 BC], 老子韓非列傳, Records of the Grand Historian 史記 (in Literary Chinese), Zhonghua Shuju
  25. ^ Minford, John (2018), Tao Te Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Book of the Tao, New York: Viking Press, pp. ix–x, ISBN 978-0-670-02498-8
  26. ^ Tao Te Ching, translated by Lau, D. C., Penguin, 1963, p. 162, ISBN 978-0-14-044131-4, The tentative conclusion we have arrived at concerning Lao Tzu the man is this. There is no certain evidence that he was a historical figure.
  27. ^ Chan, Alan, "Laozi", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), retrieved 3 February 2020
  28. ^ Boltz, William G. (1982), "The Religious and Philosophical Significance of the Hsiang erh Lao tzu 相爾老子 in the Light of the Ma-wang-tui Silk Manuscripts", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 45, JSTOR 615191
  29. ^ Zandbergen, Robbert (2022), "The Ludibrium of Living Well", Monumenta Serica, 70 (2): 367–388, doi:10.1080/02549948.2022.2131802, S2CID 254151927
  30. ^ Loewe, Michael (1993), Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, Society for the Study of Early China, p. 269, ISBN 978-1-55729-043-4
  31. ^
  32. ^ Van Norden & Ivanhoe (2005), p. 162.
  33. ^ a b Chan (2000), p. 22
  34. ^ Watts & Huan (1975), pp. 78–86.
  35. ^ LaFargue & al. (1998), p. 277.
  36. ^ Welch, Holmes (1966), Taoism: The Parting of the Way, Beacon Press, p. 7, ISBN 978-0-8070-5973-9
  37. ^ Chalmers (1868).
  38. ^ Chalmers (1868), p. xix.
  39. ^ Eoyang, Eugene (1990), "Review: Tao Te Ching: A New English Translation by Stephen Mitchell", The Journal of Religion (book review), vol. 70, no. 3, University of Chicago Press, pp. 492–493, doi:10.1086/488454, JSTOR 1205252
  40. ^ Kirkland, Russell (1997), "The Taoism of the Western Imagination and the Taoism of China: De-Colonizing the Exotic Teachings of the East" (PDF), University of Tennessee, archived from the original (PDF) on 2 January 2007
  41. ^ Russell, Kirkland (2004), Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Taylor & Francis, p. 1, ISBN 978-0-203-64671-7
  42. ^ [1][dead link]
  43. ^ Herman, Jonathan R. (1998), "Reviewed work: Tao te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, Ursula K. Le Guin", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 66, no. 3, pp. 686–689, doi:10.1093/jaarel/66.3.686, JSTOR 1466152
  44. ^ Welch (1965), p. 9
  45. ^ Henricks (1989), p. xvi
  46. ^ a b Record, Kirby (March 2022). "On Translating the Dark Enigma: The Tao Te Ching". Translation and Literature. 31 (1): 52–65. doi:10.3366/tal.2022.0494. Retrieved 9 April 2024. The problem of intentional ambiguities in the original work lies at the heart of all poetry translations but is particularly challenging in the case of ideographic texts of antiquity...
  47. ^ Chan, Alan K. L. (October 1993). "Review: On Reading the Tao Te Ching: Mair, Lafargue, Chan". Philosophy East and West. 43 (4): 745–750. doi:10.2307/1399212. Retrieved 9 April 2024.
  48. ^ Shen, Andrea (22 February 2001). "Ancient script rewrites history". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved 9 April 2024.


Further reading[edit]