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Ten Translations of the
Dàodé Jīng 道德经


This page provides ten translations of the the opening lines (chapter 1) of the Dàodé Jīng, a central text of Daoism 道德经, attributed to the legendary sage Lǎo zǐ 老子.

The name Dàodé Jīng is usually translated "Scripture of the Way and its Virtue" or something similar to that or is merely transliterated (formerly spelled "Tao Teh Ching" in English). (For more on this text, click here. For more on Daoist texts in general, click here.)

Traditionally printed Chinese did not make use of punctuation, and therefore different readers might choose to punctuate a text differently, sometimes with a different meaning. The punctuation used here is a modern consensus, but could be wrong.


Each Chinese character potentially has several interpretations. The "glosses" shown here are not the only possibilities and are not intended to constitute a translation. Most importantly for this text, the word dào itself can refer to a path or road, but it can also be a verb meaning to say or tell.

All ten authors' attempts at an English rendering follow the Chinese text. Each of them is a respectable scholar and competent translator of Classical Chinese. It is easy to prefer one translation to another on the basis of the flow of its English, or on the basis of its internal consistency or clarity. But the reason they differ is that the Chinese text is inherently unclear.

As elsewhere on this site, the red characters are simplified and the blue ones traditional.

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The Chinese Text

Syllable-by-Syllable Gloss:

1. dào kě dào,fēi cháng dào. míng kě míng,fēi cháng míng.
way/tell can way/tell not lasting way/tell name can name not lasting name

2. wú míng tiān dì zhī shǐ﹔yǒu míng wàn wù zhī mǔ.
lack name sky earth its beginning have name 10,000 thing its mother

3. gù cháng wú,yù yǐ guān qí miào﹔
therefore lasting not desire holding see its wonderful;  

4. cháng yǒu,yù yǐ guān qí jiào.
lasting have desire holding see its boundary 

5. cǐ liǎng zhě,tóng chū ér yì míng,tóng wèi zhī xuán.
this two things together out but other name together speak its mysterious

6. xuán zhī yòu xuán,zhòng miào zhī mén.
mysterious its also mysterious wonderful its gate
玄之又玄, 众妙之门。 

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The Ten Translations

LIN Yutang [Lín Yǔtáng] 林語堂
1948 The wisdom of Laotse. New York: The Modern Library. Pp. 41-42.

Translation 1

The Tao that can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that can be given
Are not Absolute Names.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and earth;
The Named is the Mother of All Things.

Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion
In order to see the Secret of Life;
Oftentimes, one regards life with passion,
In order to see its manifest forms.
These two (the Secret and its manifestations)
Are (in their nature) the same;
They are given different names
When they become manifest.
They may both be called the Cosmic Mystery:
Reaching from the Mystery into the Deeper Mystery
Is the Gate to the Secret of All Life.
WALEY, Arthur
(1934) 1958 The way and its power: a study of the Tao Tê Ching and its place in Chinese thought. New York: Grove Press. P. 141.

Translation 2

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind.

Truly, only he that rids himself forever of desire can see the Secret Essences';
He that has never rid himself of desire can see only the Outcomes.
These two things issued from the same mould, but nevertheless are different in name.
This "same mould" we can but call the Mystery,
Or rather the "Darker than any Mystery',
The Doorway whence issued all Secret Essences.

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1961 The sayings of Lao Tzu. Taipei: Confucius Publishing Company. P. 2.

Translation 3

There are ways but the Way is uncharted;
There are names but not nature in words:
Nameless indeed is the source of creation
But things have a mother and she has a name.

The secret waits for the insight
Of eyes unclouded by longing;
Those who are bound by desire
See only the outward container.
Those two come paired but distinct
By their names.
Of all things profound,
Say that their pairing is deepest,
The gate to the root of the world.
WU John C.H.
1961 Lao Tzu: Tao Teh Ching. New York: St. Johns University Press. P. 3.

Translation 4

Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.
As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:
As "the Mother" of all things, it is nameable.

So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence;
As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.
These two flow from the same source, though differently named;
And both are called mysteries.
The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.

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BAHM, Archie J.
1958 Tao Teh King by Lao Tzu interpreted as nature and intelligence. New York: Frederick Ungar. P. 11.

Translation 5

Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of nature would have to duplicate Nature.

No name can fully express what it represents.

It is Nature itself, and not any part (or name or description) abstracted from Nature, which is the ultimate source of all that happens, all that comes and goes, begins and ends, is and is not.

But to describe Nature as "the ultimate source of all" is still only a description, and such a description is not Nature itself. Yet since, in order to speak of it, we must use words, we shall have to describe it as "the ultimate source of all."

If Nature is inexpressible, he who desires to know Nature as it is in itself will not try to express it in words.

To try to express the inexpressible leads one to make distinctions which are unreal.

Although the existence of Nature and a description of that existence are two different things, yet they are also the same.

For both are ways of existing. That is, a description of existence must have its own existence, which is different from the existence of that which it describes; and so again we have to recognize an existence which cannot be described.

Red Pine (pseud.)
1996 Lao-tzu's Taoteching. San Francisco: Mercury House. P. 3

Translation 6

The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
the maiden of Heaven and Earth has no name
the mother of all things has a name

thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings
YANG Chia-lo [Yáng Jiāluò ] 楊家駱
1962 老子 truth and nature. Hong Kong: 萬國書店. Pp. 2-3.

Translation 7

The truth that may be told is not everlasting Truth. The name given to a thing is not the everlasting Name.

Nothingness is used to denote the state that existed before the birth of heaven and earth. Reality is used to denote a state where the multitude of things begins to have a separate existence.

Therefore, when the mind rests in a state of Nothingness, the enigma can be understood; when the mind rests in the state of Reality, the bounds can be reached.

These two states, though bearing different names, have a common origin. Both are mysterious and metaphysical. They are the most mysterious, and form the gateway to all mysteries.

XǓ Yuānchōng 许渊冲
2006 Laws divine and human and pictures of deities. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press. P. 6.

Translation 8

The divine law may be spoken of, 
but it is not the common law. 
Things may be named, 
but names are not the things. 
In the beginning heaven and earth are nameless; 
when named, all things become known.

So we should be free from desires 
in order to understand the internal 
mystery of the divine law; 
and we should have desires 
in order to observe its external manifestations.
Internal mystery and external manifestations 
come from the same origin, 
but have different names. They may be called essence. 
The essential of the essence 
is the key to the understanding of all mysteries.
YÁNG Lìpíng 杨立平
2005 The Tao inspiration: essence of Lao Zi's wisdom. Singapore: Asiapac. P. 14.

Translation 9

Tao, if articulable, is not the eternal Tao. 
The name, if can be named,
      is not the eternal name. 
Heaven and earth start with no name. 
The named is the mother of everything under the sun.

Thus, with a detached mind, you see the secret. 
With an interested mind, you see the appearances. 
These two grow out of the same, 
But they are named differently.
They are both mysterious, 
Mysterious and ineffable. 
They are the essence of all secrets.
RICHTER, Gregory C.
1988 The gate of all marvelous things: A guide to reading the Tao Te Ching. South San Francisco: Red Mansions Publishing. Pp. 1-2.

Translation 10

The dao which one can explain is not the unchanging dao.

The name which one can name is not the unchanging name.

Nothingness is the name of the beginning of heaven and earth.

Existence is the name of the mother of all things.

Therefore one should always emphasize nothingness

If one desires to observe the marvelousness of the dao;

One should always emphasize existence if one desires to observe the limits of the dao.

These two have the same origin but different names;

One can call both of them profound.

More profound than profound,

They are the gate of all marvelous things.

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