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Dao De Jing

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The Dao De Ding (《道德經》 Pinyin dao4 de2 jing1; in the older Wade-Giles transliteration, Tao Te Ching, which is usually the title of English editions of the work; and in pre-Wade-Giles, Tao Teh Ching) is an ancient Chinese writing originally named Lao Zi (Wade-Giles: Lao Tzu), traditionally said to have been penned about 600 BC by a fellow called Lao Zi ("Old Master"), who was reputed to be a record-keeper of the Emperor's Court of the Chou Dynasty. The existence of Lao Zi is historically supported by mentions of him in scrolls dating back to 400 BC, but the details of his life were not contemporaneously recorded. Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote a supposed "biography" of him in about 100 BC, indicating that his birth name was Li Erh. Studies on the language and the rhyme scheme of the work point to a date of composition after the Shih-ching[?] or Book of Songs, yet before the writing of Zhuang Zi -- some time in the late fourth or early third centuries.

There are many possible translations of the book's title, as the meaning of the Chinese characters is somewhat ambiguous. 道 is usually translated into English as "the way ahead", "the path ahead", or simply "the way". This term has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies an innate property of the universe that cannot be named. 德 means approximately "virtue" in Chinese. Coincidentally, 德 can carry either of the same senses in Chinese that the word "virtue" does in English; that is, it may either mean "virtue" in the sense of a moral virtue, or it may also mean "virtue" in the somewhat archaic English sense of an inherent power (as in, "healed by virtue of a medicine"). 經 means "great book". Thus, 道德經 may be translated as "the great book of the virtues of the Way," or "the great book of Virtue and the Way", or even "the great book of the power of the Way."

Scholars debate the authorship of the current version of the Dao De Jing. Sections of it in its current form have been found engraved on stone tablets dated to 300 BC. The 1973 archeological discovery of complete Chinese "scrolls" (actually silk rolls called the Ma-wang-tui Texts after the village where they were found: Text A, with more lacunae, thought to have been written sometime before Text B which has been dated to 200 BC) reveals that the Dao De Jing as modernly reported is the same form as that which was written in antiquity, thus limiting the time period during which the writings might have been changed or contributed to.

As early as the 1930s, a way to resolve disputes over authorship without declaring who is right or wrong (a Daoist solution, if you will) may have been proposed. In an essay accompanying a translation by Wai-tao[?] and Dwight Goddard[?], Dr. Kiang Kang-hu[?] offers, "Three Taoist sages who lived two or three hundred or more years apart, according to history, are commonly believed to be the same man, who by his wisdom had attained longevity. The simpler and more probable solution of the confusion is to accept the historicity of all three but to give credit for the original writing to Lao zi and consider the others as able disciples and possibly editors. The book in its present form might not have been written until the third century BC for it was engraved on stone tablets soon after that time". Credit for some verses might be conditionally given to later Daoists "without detracting from the larger credit that belongs to Lao Tzu".

Many variations of religious Daoism (Wade-Giles, Taoism) are replete with polytheism, ancestor worship, ceremony of various kinds, and alchemic efforts to achieve longevity.

What is attributed to Lao Zi contains none of the above.

Instead, the Dao De Jing is concise, if poetical; purely mystical; and exceedingly practical.

The Dao De Jing points out universal truths which have since been independently recognized in other philosophies, both religious and secular. Each English language interpretation (including even interpretation of the three-character title), of which there are dozens, differs slightly or profoundly from the next. Suffice it to say that Lao Zi demonstrated an understanding of such principles as these:

Force begets force. One whose needs are simple will find them fulfilled. Wealth does not enrich the spirit. Self-interest and self-importance are vain and self-destructive. Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned. The harder one tries, the more resistance one will create for oneself. The more one acts in harmony with the universe, the more one will achieve, with less effort. The truly wise make little of their own wisdom--for the more they know, the more they realize how little they know. It is wise to repay kindness with kindness and to repay evil with kindness. We are our brothers' keepers. Skill averts waste. When we lose the fundamentals, we supplant them with increasingly inferior values which we pretend are the true values. Stupidity leads to force. The wise are responsible for the foolish. The honest are responsible for the dishonest. The teacher is responsible for his student. Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame. The "feminine" qualities of flexibility and suppleness are superior to "masculine" strength and rigidity. Everything in its own time and place.

Behind all this, Lao Zi speaks of the ineffable Dao, or the "Way", which is described as the indivisible and indescribable unifying principle of the universe, from which all flows. It is without time, form or substance, and exterior/senior to these traits. The simpler one becomes, the greater hope he has of co-existing with the Dao, which is the only way one can truly understand it.

In contrast to his near-contemporary Confucius, who was steeped in the importance of propriety and form, Lao Zi eschewed appearance and ceremony in favor of meaning and substance. He valued the "fruit" above the "flower".

See also Eastern philosophy.


The Dao De Jing is perhaps the most translated book written in the Chinese language, with over 35 different translations in Englsih alone. It was first partially translated into French in 1823, and Stanislas Julien[?] made a complete French translation in 1842. An English translation by John Chalmers appeared in 1868. Victor von Strass[?] made the first German translation in 1870.

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