TheDaode 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
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
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 Laoziand 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
See also Dao, Daoism, Daojia, Philosophical Daoism, Popular Western Taoism, Scripture,