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TAO-TE CHING, DAO DE JING SYMBOL 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.

  1. The "Yan Zun Version" is only extant for the Te Ching, and derives from a commentary attributed to Han Dynasty scholar Yan Zun (fl. 80 BC-- 10 AD).
  2. The "Heshang Gong Version" is named after Heshang Gong ("Riverside Sage") who supposedly lived during the reign (202-157 BC) of Emperor Wen of Han. Scholars date this version to around the 3rd century AD.
  3. The "Wang Bi Version" has more verifiable origins than either of the above. Wang Bi (226-249 AD) was a well-known philosopher and commentator on the Tao Te Ching (tr. Lin 1977, Rump and Chan 1979) and the I Ching.

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.

  1. 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 "Tao Te Ching" manuscripts. One of them is dated 270 AD and corresponds closely with the Heshang Gong version.
  2. In 1973, archaeologists discovered copies of early Chinese books, known as the Mawangdui Silk Texts, in a tomb dating from 168 BC. The texts contained two nearly complete copies of the text, referred to as Text A and Text B. Both of them put the Te Ching section before the Tao Ching, and that is why one recent translation, by Robert G. Henricks, is named "Te-Tao Ching". Text A can be dated to about the first decade of the 2nd century BC and Text B can be dated to about the third decade of that century BC, scholars think.
  3. In 1993, the oldest known version of the text was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian in Jingmen, Hubei, and dated prior to 300 BC. It was written on bamboo tablets; the Guodian Chu Slips comprise about 800 slips of bamboo with a total of over 13,000 characters, and bout 2,000 of them correspond with the Tao Te Ching. The Guodian text also contains 14 previously unknown verses.

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)

The first of these new discoveries was made in 1973 at Mawangdui in the tomb of an official's son; that tomb has been dated to 168 B.C. The Mawangdui Laozi was published in 1976. Inscribed on silk, it consists of two texts, A and B, the former dating from about 205–190 B.C., the latter slightly later. These two texts differ from the received version in significant details, but the only major structural difference is that they begin with chapter 38 and end with chapter 37. In other words, the second half of the text comes before the first. Found together with Laozi A and B was . . . the Four Classics of the Yellow Emperor. " (Roberts 2001:4)

The Guodian Laozi, inscribed on bamboo slips, was found in 1993 and published in 1998. The text was unearthed from a royal tutor's tomb at Guodian, near the city of Ying, the capital of the southern kingdom of Chu. This area contains many graves, and fresh discoveries can be expected. . . . the time of [its] burial, approximately 300 B.C. . . . The Guodian Laozi consists of only about two thousand characters, or 40 percent of the received version, covering in their entirety or in part only thirty-one of the received text's stanzas. The order of the stanzas is utterly different from any later versions. Moreover, it is yet to be determined whether the Guodian Laozi represents a sample taken from a larger Laozi or is the nucleus of a later five-thousand-character Laozi. A current working hypothesis is that the Guodian Laozi should be attributed to Laozi, also called Lao Dan, a contemporary of Confucius who may have outlived him, and that the remainder, the non-Guodian text, was the work of an archivist and dates from around 375 B.C. (Roberts 2001:4-5)

According to the research of one of the leading contemporary Laozi scholars, Yin Zhenhuan, it is likely that the true number of individual stanzas is not eighty-one but as many as 112. (Roberts 2001:3)

- 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.


Tao Te Ching, Dao De Jing, Tao-te Ching, Daodejing, Literature  

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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