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The Daode jing 道德經 (Tao-te ching; Scripture on the Dao and Inner Power) is a Daoist scripture (jing 經), sections of which date back to at least the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Its original title was the Laozi 老子 (Lao-tzu; Book of Venerable Masters), named after the pseudo-historical Laozi 老子 (Master Lao). Recent scholarship has shown that Laozi was a composite figure lacking historicity, but many Daoists nonetheless revere him as the “founder” of Daoism and as the author of the Daode jing. The text was first recognized as a jing during the Early Han dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE).



Opening Lines of the Received Daode jing


The title of the Daode jing refers to the classical Daoist emphasis on the Dao and de. The Dao is the sacred or ultimate concern of Daoists. De, usually rendered as “virtue” or “inner power,” is the Dao made manifest in human beings, specifically as embodied activity in the world.


Dating to the Warring States period (480-221 BCE), the Daode jing is written in classical Chinese, with much of its terminology and grammatical patterns resembling Chu 楚 dialect. The standard received versions consist of eighty-one verse chapters, which were compiled from earlier oral sayings and master-disciple communities. The composite nature of the text, the fact that it is multivocal and lacks a single author, is supported by both recent archeological discoveries and revisionist scholarship on classical Daoism.


The earliest extant manuscripts are those of Guodian 郭店 (Jingmen; Hubei), consisting of bamboo slips, and of Mawangdui 馬王堆 (near Changsha; Hunan), consisting of silk manuscripts. The former dates to circa 300 BCE and was discovered in 1993, while the later dates to circa 168 BCE and was discovered in 1973.



Mawangdui Silk Manuscripts of the Dedao jing 德道經


The Mawangdui version is similar to the received editions. In addition to character variants and grammatical clarification, the main departure is that the two main textual divisions are reversed: the so-called dejing 德經 (chs. 38-81) is first, while the so-called daojing 道經 (chs. 1-37) is second.



Guodian Bamboo Slips of the Laozi


In contrast, the Guodian version has major departures in organization and content. The arrangement of the passages differs significantly from the received version, and there are numerous variant and/or archaic characters. In terms of content, it is noteworthy that many of the polemical and anti-Ruist (Confucian) passages are absent. One explanation is that the “Bamboo Laozi” represents an earlier phase of composition. The Guodian slips point towards the fact that the organization and content of the received text was in flux at least as late as the end of the fourth century BCE.


The Daode jing is largely an anthology of earlier sayings and teachings, which Michael LaFargue (University of Massachusetts) has referred to as “saying collages.” It consists of textual layers from a variety historical periods. It is the most well known text from the seminal phase of Daoism, namely, the “classical period” (480 BCE.-9 CE). In particular, it is one of a number of “classics” that survive from the Warring States (480-222 BCE.), a time of immense political strife, violent social upheaval, and philosophical diversity. The text is usually associated with the so-called “Daoist school” (daojia 道家), a loosely knit group of individual practitioners and cultivation communities that Harold Roth (Brown University) has labeled “inner cultivation lineages.” These were master-disciple communities that emphasized mystical unification with the Dao through quietistic meditation. This moment in Daoist history is sometimes inaccurately referred to as so-called “philosophical Daoism.” The texts most commonly associated with the early Daoist inner cultivation lineages or Warring States “Daoism” are the Laozi and Zhuangzi 莊子 (Book of Master Zhuang). However recent revisionist scholarship would add the so-called “Xinshu” 心術 (Techniques of the Heart-mind) chapters of the Guanzi 管子(Book of Master Guan), chapters thirty-six through thirty-eight and chapter forty-nine, as well as parts of the Huainanzi 淮南子 (Book of the Masters of Huainan) and Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋 (Spring and Autumn Annals of Mister Lü).


The standard, received version of the Daode jing is the redaction by Wang Bi 王弼 (226-249 CE), a member of the Xuanxue 玄學 (Profound Learning) school. It consists of eighty-one chapters and includes Wang Bi’s commentary. That commentary reads the text in terms of cosmology and metaphysics. It has been translated into English numerous times, partially on account of the way that it satisfies modern desires for a “philosophical” (“non-religious”) reading. Such philosophical readings, Wang Bi’s included, systematically neglect the historical context in which the text was compiled as well as the actual religious content in the text. Some of the most challenging passages in this regard appear in chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 14, 15, 16, 20, and so forth.


In the Daoist tradition, the Daode jing is read as a scripture and as a manual for self-cultivation. In terms of being a scripture, it is understood to be “sacred” or an emanation of the Dao. Placed in the whole of Daoist history, the Daode jing is probably the most influential text. Evidence for this is found in the numerous Daoist commentaries contained in the Ming-dynasty (1368-1644) Daozang 道藏 (Daoist Canon). There are hundreds of extant Daoist commentaries, both partial and complete, and they continue to be written by contemporary Daoists. The text has received diverse interpretations depending on changing socio-historical contexts and religious concerns.


The Daode jing, in various general-audience “translations” and adaptations, has also become part of popular Western culture. There it is most often translated and read as part of some universal wisdom tradition, alternative spirituality, pop psychology, and/or laissez-faire and libertine lifestyle. As produced and marketed by the “Tao-te-ching translation industry,” it is a highly profitable commodity. As consumed and interpreted within Popular Western Taoism, it fulfills the desire for a “ancient philosophy” and (trans-religious) “spirituality” that requires no commitment or practice. Fundamentally flawed “translations,” which have been produced by individuals who do not know classical Chinese, include those of Ursula LeGuin, Stephen Mitchell, and so forth. Equally problematic are popular appropriations by individuals like Wayne Dyer, Benjamin Hoff, and so forth. (Note that Hoff’s work has recently been appropriately recategorized as “humor”.) Few of these authors and their readers appear to have reflected on the sacred standing of the Daode jing in the Daoist tradition or the ethical and political dimensions involved in such appropriation and profiteering. Such contemporary cultural productions are best understood as expressions of alternative hybrid spirituality. The situation may be compared to certain evangelical Christians who read flawed English translations of the Bible (written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and make claims about the “word of God.” The various popular versions have little relation to the Daode jing as Daoist scripture (sacred text written in classical Chinese) or as part of classical Chinese literature. One is thus well advised to remember that the Daode jing is written in classical Chinese and that every translation is an interpretation, interpretations which derive from specific influences, motivations, and contexts.



Calligraphy based on the Daode jing


Some reliable translations include those of Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, Robert Henricks, Philip Ivanhoe. Michael LaFargue, D.C. Lau, and Victor Mair.


Further Reading: Handbooks for Daoist Practice/Louis Komjathy; Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching/Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue (eds.); Original Tao/Harold Roth; Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi/Marc Csikzentmihalyi and Philip Ivanhoe (eds.); Taoism: The Enduring Tradition/Russell Kirkland; Teaching the Daode jing/Gary DeAngelis and Warren Frisina (eds); The Tao of the Tao Te Ching/Michael LaFargue; Two Visions of the Way/Alan Chan.


See also Dao, Daoism, Daojia, Philosophical Daoism, Popular Western Taoism, Scripture, and Translation.