Tao Te Ching

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Author: Eric Reinders
Editor: Wade Clark Roof
Date: 1999
Contemporary American Religion
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching (also Daodejing, Tao Te King) is a Chinese text dating from the fourth or third century B.C.E. and attributed to the obscure figure Lao Tzu ("The Old Master" or "The Old Boy"). It is foundationalPage 719  |  Top of Article for all forms of Taoism, though interpretations of the text vary widely. Tao is literally "way" or "the way," as in "the way things are." Te is the "power" or "virtue" that comes through attunement with the Tao. Ching means a book or "classic." The text is divided into two halves, the Tao section and the Te section. However, a version of the text, dating from before 168 B.C.E. and found in 1973 at Ma-wang-tui, has instead the Te Tao Ching.

Among the many ideas articulated in this rather rambling collection of poetic aphorisms are a polarity (though not a dualism) of yin and yang motifs such as male/female, powerful/powerless, famous/unknown, and mountain/valley. The epistemology here is relativist, and no absolute positions are tenable. Meaning is produced in terms of contrasts (high/low, good/bad, etc.) that divide our experience. Extremes of any kind are only temporary, just as one reaching the mountain peak can only go downward. Extremes are thus momentary and lead inexorably to their opposites. The Tao Te Ching posits a fruitful, chaotic union of opposites, embracing all potential differences. This is one way to conceive of the Tao. The practical advice for survival in violent times is to yield, take the lower position, and be obscure. Some of the appeal for American readers, especially those in "countercultures," lies in the rejection of egotistical self-promotion or the aggressive domination of others. The monopoly of this one text in the American image of Taoism is almost without precedent, to the point that for many Americans, this text equals Taoism. It is often said that the Tao Te Ching has been translated into English more than any other text. "Translations" have been made by people who do not actually know Chinese. The ambiguity of the original text, together with its relative brevity and the cumulative tradition of repeated translation, lends it a mirroring or Rorschach-test quality: Translators diverge wildly from the letter of the text in pursuit of its spirit, which (as it turns out) usually corresponds closely to their own notions and ideals. Partly this is true of all translations, but in this case the traditional text is also corrupt and highly ambiguous. Even a very responsible translation steeped in Chinese commentarial tradition, such as that of D. C. Lau, must include many arbitrary resolutions of irresolvably ambiguous prose. A selection of translations of the first verse of the first chapter indicates this hermeneutic plenitude. Laus's fairly literal translation runs: "The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name." This verse introduces the theme of the limits of language, a theme that develops into a polarity of the nameless, womblike chaos (the Tao) contrasted to the phenomenal world of names, distinctions, and order.

Anachronistically interjecting the notion of eternality, Paul Carus's translation runs: "The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason. The name that can be named is not the eternal name." In his introduction, Carus compared Lao Tzu to Jesus, and the concept of Tao to the New Testament logos. The Christian analogy is repeated in E. H. Parker's 1904 translation: "The Providence which could be indicated by words would not be an all-embracing Providence, nor would any name by which we could name it be an ever-applicable name." He also translates the term Te as "grace." His candid willingness to read freely into the text without concern for philological rigor is clear: "I totally ignore all that both Chinese and foreigners have hitherto said as to Lao Tzu's meaning" (pp. 3–4).

Dwight Goddard's 1919 translation does not translate the word Tao. "The Tao that can be understood cannot be the primal, or cosmic, Tao, just as an idea that can be expressed in words cannot be the infinite idea." In his introduction Goddard remarks: "Laotzu saw in a glass darkly what Jesus saw face to face in all his glory, the Divine Tao, God as creative and redemptive Love" (p. 6). Although the Tao Te Ching has been used as a foil to critique the aggression of twentieth-century Western culture, the essentializing impulse to reduce difference to sameness informs the recent work of Stephen Mitchell, who claims that his lack of training in the Chinese language is overcome by fourteen years of Zen meditation, "which brought me face to face with Lao-tzu" (p. 14). He claims to have translated the "mind" of Lao Tzu. (The inter-changeability of Taoism and Zen Buddhism is a common anachronistic assumption in popular writing.) Another modern interpreter, Brian Walker, considers the text "less a book than a living, breathing angel" (foreword). He considers Lao Tzu "less as a man who once lived and more as a song that plays, eternal and abiding." Mitchell and Walker among others claim that the Tao Te Ching is a feminine text, since "of all the great world religions the teaching of Lao-tzu is by far the most female" (Mitchell, p. ix). However, the possible feminism of the Tao Te Ching is somewhat ironic; the position of the female or the "spirit of the valley" is praised because it is lower, hidden, and yielding. The text thus leaves intact the patriarchy and gender construction of its milieu. The Tao Te Ching is now a fixture of mainstream American culture, having been quoted by Ronald Reagan ("governing a state is like frying a small fish") and appearing on greeting cards and calendars, in films and science-fiction novels.


Browne, Brian Walker, trans. The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. 1995.

Carus, Paul, trans. The Canon of Reason and Virtue. 1909.

Goddard, Dwight, trans. Laotzu's Tao and Wu Wei. 1919.

Kohn, Livia, and Michael LaFargue, eds., Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. 1998.

Lau, D. C., trans. Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. 1963.

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. Tao Te Ching. 1988.

Parker, E. H., trans. The Tao-teh King, or "Providential Grace" Classic. 1904.

Pas, Julian. A Select Bibliography on Taoism. 1997.

Eric Reinders

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3401300467