The Tao Te Ching is a Chinese classic text. The oldest excavated portion dates back to the late 4th century BCE. The bulk of the text may have been compiled in the late 4th century BCE as well. It is worth noting that the dating of the Tao Te Ching has been debated by scholars for generations, although the findings of ancient bamboo, silk, and paper manuscripts in the twentieth century has helped the dating considerably.
The Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) are fundamental texts for both philosophical and religious Taoism, and strongly influenced other schools in ancient China. But there are many possible translations of text parts, including the book's title. "The Classic of the Way's Virtues" or "The Book of the Way of Virtue" are among the options.
The received Tao Te Ching consists of 81 brief chapters or sections. The chapter divisions may have been made later. The original text has two parts, the Tao Ching (chaps. 1–37) and the Te Ching (chaps. 38–81). The style is laconic, with room for contradictory interpretations. The style is poetic and rhetorical with memorable phrases
The Tao Te Ching is ascribed to Lao Tzu, "Old Boy", whether he lived or not. If he did, he flourished during the sixth century BCE according to Chinese tradition. Some modern scholars think he is legendary. Generations of scholars have debated the historicity of Laozi and the dating of the Tao Te Ching.
Legends tell that Laozi was "born old"; that he lived for 996 years, while some Western scholars have thought that the Tao Te Ching is actually the result of writings by various authors.
Transmittet Texts and Recensions
There are transmitted editions of the Tao Te Ching text, and early commentaries. Archeological discoveries of manuscripts got a boost in the 1920s and 1930s, when more than 50 partial and complete "Tao Te Ching" manuscripts were found. One of them was dated 270 CE.
Then, in 1973, archeologists found copies of early Chinese books in a tomb from 168 BCE. Two nearly complete copies of the Tao Te Ching were among them, and both of them put the Te Ching section before the Tao Ching. Scholars estimate that one of the two copies can be dated to about the first decade and the other to about the third decade of the 2nd century BC.
In 1993, the oldest known version of the text, written on bamboo tablets, was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian in Jingmen, Hubei, and dated to before 300 BCE. The Guodian Chu Slips comprise about 800 slips of bamboo with a total of over 13,000 characters. About 2,000 of them correspond with the Tao Te Ching, and includes 14 previously more verses than in the tradition-transmitted editions.
The discovered versions from 1973 and 1993 agree with the tradition-received texts but for differences in chapter sequence and graphic variants. Several recent Tao Te Ching translations include Henricks 1989 and 2000, and Roberts 2004.
The Tao Te Ching has been translated into Western languages over 250 times, mostly to English, German, and French. Holmes Welch, "It is a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved." (1971;7) Among the well liked versions is one by Lin Yutang, the Wisdom of Lao Tse (1948). It was later incorporated in Yutang's larger volume, The Wisdom of China.
Main translator problems include: (1) The Tao Te Ching is written in Classical Chinese, which relies much on allusions to other literary works in ancient China. (2) Many of the words that the Tao Te Ching uses are deliberately vague and ambiguous. (3) There are no punctuation marks in Classical Chinese. Hence it can be difficult to conclusively determine where one sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a full-stop a few words forward or back or inserting a comma can profoundly alter the meaning of many passages.
These problems and still others are to be determined by the translator. Some editors and translators hold that the received text is in part impossible to understand. Others seek to arrange the pieces of the puzzle to make sense.
[Main source: Wikipedia, "Tao Te Ching"]
Tao Te Ching and a Tradition, with Some More Detail
According to tradition, The Tao Te Ching was written by the ancient sage Lao Tzu or Laozi, "Old Master" or "Old Boy". He is assumed to have been a record-keeper at the Zhou dynasty court.
The text strongly influenced Chinese Buddhism, which was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts. A source of inspiration, its influence has also spread widely outside East Asia, and the short work is among the most translated works in world literature.
With regard to personal spiritual cultivation Daoism offers techniques of concentration and self-control. — In the West . . . the Dao De Jing enjoys a considerable public. It is the most popular and most frequently translated work of Chinese thought, with more than forty versions in English alone. — There is much of value in most of the English translations. (Moss Roberts, 2001:1 ,9, 2)
The transmitted versions and commentaries date back about two thousand years. The three primary transmitted editions of the Tao Te Ching text are named after early commentaries.
The recent findings
The latest discoveries of copies are (a) the Mawangdui Silk Texts and (b) the text found on bamboo slips in Guodian (from before 300 BCE). On the whole the Mawangdui and Guodian versions are in accord with the otherwise received versions that translators used earlier, but with many variant and/or archaic characters that yield different translations of some parts, and added verses too. Recent translations - e.g. Robert Henricks 1989 and Moss Roberts 2004 - make use of the Mawangdui and Guodian versions also. "The Guodian and Mawangdui manuscripts are certainly older than the received text of the Laozi, but this does not necessarily mean that they are therefore closer to the "original," if there was an original," [Alan Chan, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Laozi"].
More recent insights into the Tao Te Ching are due to archaeological discoveries of manuscripts. Some of them are older than any of the received texts.
Both the Mawangdui and Guodian versions are generally consistent with the received (traditional) texts, but with some differences in chapter sequence. Several recent Tao Te Ching translations, such as the one by Moss Roberts (2001) make use of these two versions. The translation by Robert G. Hendricks (1989) takes into account the Mawangdui versions.
Three variants of the Dao De Jing have been found buried in tombs: the Guodian text in a Warring States tomb dated to about 300 B.C.E., and in a Han tomb at Mawangdui, two texts that date to about 200 B.C. The version published by Fu Yi, a scholar of the Tang period, is also based on a Han tomb text. It is likely that more Dao De Jing manuscripts will be excavated. (Roberts 2001:vii)
- and What Do We Have Here?
This version welds three of the most welcomed English translations of Tao Te Ching - all three of them are from before the latest archeological findings of 1973 and 1993. If you are interested in translations that incorporate them, maybe the one by Moss Roberts might suit you. Now, since the latest archeological findings accords well enough with the received texts that Wing-tsit Chan, Arthur Waley and Lin Yutang translated, a welded version of their translations is not out of place. Here it is.
Sources used to weld this version
Chan, Wing-Tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Waley, Arthur, tr. The Way and Its Power. A Study of the Tao the Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. New York: Evergreen/Grove, 1958.
Yutang, Lin. The Wisdom of China. London: New English Library, 1963.
Some other sources
Lao-Tzu. Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts. Tr. Robert G. Henricks. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.
Roberts, Moss, tr. Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way. Laozi. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.
Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon, 1971.
WP (Wikipedia article) "Tao Te Ching".
Yutang, Lin, ed, tr. The Wisdom of Laotse. New York: Modern Library, 1948.
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