Opening of the "Daode Jing"

Here's a bit from Laozi (Lao-Tzu.) When I say Laozi, I am talking not about a person, but the title of a text. The Taoist work originally titled Lǎozǐ ("Old Master", or perhaps more idiomatically "Wise Old Man") came to be ascribed to a person of that name, and the work itself came to be known as the Dàodé Jīng (known also as the Tao te ching.) The supposed author Laozi was also given the status of the state founder of Taoism, (in much the way Confucius is credited with the founding of later systems of thought known as "Confucianism.") My translation of the first passage of Laozi follows below, along with a couple footnotes. Then, after that, there's a discussion containing some information that I dearly wish more people knew of, along with the rationale for why I'd bothering to translate this thing at all.

Laozi: First Argument
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in William Baxter's reconstruction of Old Chinese
Click to hear me recite it in modern Mandarin pronunciation

A way that can be weighed is not the Way1
A name that can be named is not the Name,2
The mainspring of the Cosmos has no name
The mother matrix of Nature has a name.

be without desire
to behold its inner beginning
And be within desire
to behold its outer end.
They are one and the same,
Emerging the same,
Diverging in name.3
The same is the riddle
Riddled beyond riddles,
Outright door to all beginnings.


1- Given that Confucianism and Taoism were in competition with one another in the Warring States period, this comes off as a reaction against, and an attempted refutation of, Confucianism by using the word Tao (here rendered as "Way") which in Confucian discourse had a semantic range more in the neighborhood of "virtue" and "truth" and "principledness." Thus in its first lines the Laozi, to me, appears to be offering the readership an authentic and unencumbered chance to achieve the actual Tao-as-Reason. In so doing it challenges Confucianism at the very groin. In fact the whole opening argument has the effect of working up the visionary authority to make that challenge.  

2 and 3- This suggests a further subversion of Confucian ideas about the appropriateness of words, delegitimizing Confucianism by suggesting that it doesn't even adhere to its own precepts. Note the following from the Analects (13.3):
When names are incorrect, what is said will not sound sensible; when what is said does not sound sensible, duties are not carried out successfully; when duties are not carried out successfully, rites and music will not flourish; when rites and music do not flourish, punishments will not fit crimes; when punishments do not fit crimes, the masses will not know what proper behavior even is. Which is why when a Noble Man names a thing, he is sure to speak the appropriate name, and when he says a thing, he is sure that it can be successfully carried out. When it comes to precision of speech, the Noble Man is never careless. 
(translation mine)

The Original:

老子: 第一章



The Laozi (like the Zhuangzi, the other seminal early Taoist text) was essentially about ways to survive and succeed in a dangerous, unpredictable human world. More importantly, it argued for a form of kingship using unconventional and subversive tactics. In Disputers of the Tao (pub. 1992) A.C. Graham noted, for example, that it seemed to be written mostly for potential rulers, high officials and others for whom governance was a part of life. The Tao so portrayed was (to give a huge oversimplification) basically a posited pattern fundamental to the universe, intuited via the complexity of that universe, which when grasped could help one decide whether or not to do or think a given thing. Individual readers might, or might not, have known that the sagely voice dispensing the information was not necessarily an honest-to-god reflection of authorial enlightenment, but rather a way to suggest authorial sincerity, a rhetorical strategy for masking one's rhetoric, operating at a level of debate the reader may be less equipped to recognize as such. Graham aptly refuted the idea of guilelessness on the part of the author(s) of the Laozi when he called it "a masterpiece of a kind of intelligence at the opposite pole from the logical."

Though the book uses highly imaginative and symbolic language to make its points and accomplish its tasks, later unimaginative and symbol-blind neo-Taoists took the "ultimate truth" posture and ran with it. The Laozi (and Zhuangzi) came to be seen as actual guides to mystical escape, and the metaphysics became the focus. It was likely then that Taoism, perhaps under the syncretizing influence of Buddhism, stopped being merely an ideology and philosophy with aspects of religion, and became full-blown religious doctrine. The Tao was no longer a posited fundamental pattern whose understanding could be used to survive the ordeals of society or maintain political hegemony. Instead, Tao came to be construed as a numinous, ubiquitous cosmic Force (and I mean Force in the Star Wars sense) by which one could advance to a level of superhuman awareness, and, as many adherents believed, live forever in an altered state. The escape was no longer from intrigue or political jeopardy, but from the bounds of worldly consciousness.

While most contemporary readers are unlikely to read the Laozi as a handbook for would-be supermen, it is the omphaloskepsis of the mystical oriented Taoism that modern readers (including many scholars) seem likely to read into the Laozi. Chad Hansen, in his article "Linguistic Skepticism in the Lao Tzu" (Philosophy East and West, Vol. 31, No. 3 [Jul., 1981], pp. 321-336) puts it thusly:

...the main line of thought used in the interpretation of Taoism has frustrated understanding of the interesting philosophical core of Taoism and should be regarded as a failure. The reason, simply put, is that the scholars, looking at Taoism through the ideological filters of either Buddhism, superstitious Taoism, Han Confucianism, and eventually Christian mysticism, have clung to an assumption that the main topic is the metaphysical Tao/way-a monistic and mystical absolute.

The fact that pure sagely transcendence seemed at odds with what the texts seemed to be mainly focused on could (as Hansen goes on to mention) just be dismissed with the claim that Taoist philosophers approved of contradiction, despite the circular nature of an argument that defends an interpretation by citing that interpretation itself as evidence.

Though actual scholarly work on early Taoism is still in its infancy, the problems I've just mentioned are no news to religious historians or sinologists. Scholarly literature these days often discusses "philosophical/political Taoism" in contrast with "religious/superstitious Taoism," and where (if anywhere) the Laozi might fall between the two. With new archeological evidence in the form of recently excavated variants of the Laozi (which predate the canonical text by centuries and make the ideological intent even more obvious,) it has become clear that the traditional account of the text's one-person origin can be discarded as myth. Alan Cole, who views the Laozi as a form of propaganda that succeeds using literary excellence, puts his view nicely when he says:

The text is not the product of a mystical mind but, rather, the effect of increasingly clever modes of argumentation developed over several centuries of increasingly agonistic debates about authority, discourse, and government. Thus, the poetry evoking the know-it-all sage and his all-natural minimalist government gains much of its power from appearing not only guileless but a stranger to contemporaneous debates on power and discourse. Like modern advertisements that make fun of advertisements even while they function perfectly well as advertisements, the Daode jing’s effort to appear above or below the fray is a function of the fray...The text’s mystical effect on more than two millennia of readers in no way replicates its literary and polemical origins, and thus there is no happy at-one-ment between author and audience that modern scholars still seem so intent on recovering.

The sobering and interesting ramifications of things like this have had scant effect on the nature and methodology of new translations of the Laozi. The overwhelming majority of translations into Western languages (that I've read) either accept the full-fledged mystical interpretation without question, or at least see it as the real reason the text has value. The translations are done as if the metaphysics were an end in and of itself rather than a means to either seduce with, or argue for, a particular policy and philosophy. The reason for this, I suspect, is that these days the people who are actually motivated to produce new translations of the Laozi tend to either be drawn to it because of the barnacle-like religiosity that has accrued to it over millenia, or uncurious about scholarship that appears to efface or problematize what they like about the text- this is all assuming the translator knows any Chinese in the first place.

That the text was the product of artifice and a very un-transcendent ability to wield literary tactics to great effect means that its brilliance would best be served by a translation that seeks to be faithful to the artistry rather than to the Tao. The Laozi calls for a translation that is literary, not exegetical. And the many pestilential translations that do otherwise, blighting readers' eyes with pages that sound like they were ghostwritten by a surprise team-up of Meher Baba and Yoda, are at once a disservice to the rhetorical artistry of the original, and an embarrassment to the translator for falling pray to that artistry by not noticing it. A text as artfully and artistically disarming as the Laozi deserves to be respected for what it is.


  1. Alternatively, the Laozi calls for a translation that is philosophical, as in the work of Roger Ames and David Hall.

  2. My tangential exposure to Taoism and the Tao Te Ching (mainly from The Tao of Pooh and comparisons to Heraclitus and Panta Rei, but to a lesser extent also pop culture and the book Christ the Eternal Tao) very quickly led me to conclude that there was a disconnect between "original" Taoism, which is a beautiful philosophy, and "folk" Taoism which seems to be an animistic religion. I am simultaneously surprised that this isn't the standard interpretation and glad that at least some people are working in the vein of viewing the Tao Te Ching as a work of ancient philosophy.

    Please post something if you ever stumble on a good non-mystical translation of the Tao Te Ching.

  3. A nice translation; I like what you do with the rhyming. I also like the play with weigh / way, but for that, so much of the point of what you point out to be Laozi's "very un-transcendent ability to wield literary tactics to great effect" is rooted in his foregrounding of language, that I wish there were a way your translation could retain the fact that 道 means "to speak," and its implicit criticism that so much of what later became known as Confucianism was just so much empty verbiage.

    Also, there's an ambiguity that modern punctuation has to find a way to reconcile: is it 無名,天地之始;有名,萬物之母 or 無,名天地之始;有,名萬物之母? In other words, is it "The mainspring of the Cosmos has no name / The mother matrix of Nature has a name," or, say, "Absence names the mainspring of the Cosmos / Presence names the mother matrix of Nature"? I'd like a translation that could accommodate that ambiguity.