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In the time of troubles that was China’s Warring States (Zhànguó 战国) period (476-256 BC), nothing good was happening. In fact, in the preceding period, called Spring & Autumn (Chūnqiū 春秋, 770-476 BC), things were not a lot better. (It should actually be called “Springs & Autumns” because it takes its name from Confucius’ year-by-year chronology of his home state, but most English writers say “Spring & Autumn.”)
Spring & Autumn and the Warring States make up the Eastern Zhōu (Dōngzhōu 东周) dynasty (770-256 BC). In general, the Eastern Zhōu was an entirely unsatisfactory half-millennium in which to live.
The Eastern Zhōu and the earlier Western Zhōu (Xīzhōu 西周) make up the Zhōu dynasty, China’s longest one: 1046-256 BC, or roughly that, period 4 in the numbering system used on this web site (link). The two parts of the Zhōu are called western or eastern depending upon where the “capital” was, i.e., the seat of the most powerful hegemon in a deteriorating feudal system in which the subordinates gradually became ever more restive, and the authority of the central “king” became ever more attenuated. (You may have noticed a gap between 256 and 222 BC. Chaos reigned.)
Iron. Almost certainly, a very big part of the problem was the emergence of the iron age, since iron technology was making it cheap to equip huge peasant armies and use them to engage in massive killing, rather than conducting warfare with a handful of wealthy aristocrats sporting elegantly tooled bronze weaponry. The prospect of massive slaughter opened up new possibilities for world domination, and there were plenty of petty lordlings attracted to the idea.
Writing. As it happens, the Eastern Zhōu period is also the time when Chinese writing came into its own, and our textual record, formerly consisting mostly of rather fragmentary and uninteresting divination texts, fairly explodes with philosophical and literary works that have been considered critical to Chinese education clear down to the present. This was the age of Confucianism, Daoism, and Moism, and the time when Master Sūn 孙子 wrote The Art of War. (Link to Major Philosophers) We do not normally have actual manuscripts dating from the Zhōu period, but for the most part editions carefully produced in later centuries are considered to be accurate copies of them.
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In the Zhōu period there were countless literate people who left us texts, most of them associated in some way with warfare and government, the great issue of the times: What is to be done to stop all the warfare and killing? Or to escape from it? Or to exploit it? Or to understand it?
Confucius (551-479) lived at the end of the Spring & Autumn Period, and spent much of his life lamenting the passing of the Western Zhōu days, when, he imagined, people behaved properly, especially toward kings and nobles, who he believed to be, for the most part, virtuous. (He was particularly taken with a certain Duke Dàn 旦, a courtier and general who had saved the neck of the young King Chéng 成 in the late 1100s and did not try to usurp the throne for himself, unlike the moral degenerates Confucius could easily name from his own time.)
Lǎozǐ. The same tumultuous Eastern Zhōu Period saw the initial consolidation of Daoism, a complex combination of lines of thought and belief later associated with a mysterious character named Lǎozǐ 老子. Lǎozǐ is usually assumed to be a single historical figure, traditionally named LǏ Ěr 李耳 and often called by the posthumous name Lǎo Dān 老聃, but the name Lǎozǐ literally means “old sage(s).” Where Confucius sought to restore the social hierarchies and their supporting ritual from a romanticized past, Lǎozǐ (if “he” existed) sought to escape hierarchy (and all other artificiality) and to seek that simplicity which, he imagined, benevolent nature had “originally” intended.
Although lots of later people wrote texts attributed to Lǎozǐ —one example is available in full on this web site (link)— the only text reliably associated with his name is the famous Dàodé Jīng 道德经, which means Scripture of the Way and its Virtue or possibly Scripture of the Virtue of the Way. (It was formerly spelled “Tao Teh Ching” or even “Tao Teh King” in English).
In 1973 a much older copy of the text turned up with the title Dédào Jīng 德道经, The Scripture of the Way of Virtue (Henricks 1989). The newly discovered text dated from 168 BC, over 300 years after Lǎozǐ and about 500 years before the earliest of the copies known previously. But the revised text has not yet made its way into World Civ courses.
The Dàodé Jīng is very brief and very quotable, and it occupies an important place in the history of Chinese philosophy in general and of Daoism in particular. This means it has been translated (and “translated”) hundreds of times and is widely available in English.
The Dàodé Jīng is also maddeningly ambiguous most of the time. It is probably correct to say that nobody has understood it (or translated it) perfectly since it was written two and a half millennia ago. Here are four of the challenges:
1. Traditionally, written or (later) printed Chinese did not make use of punctuation, and therefore different readers might choose to punctuate a text differently, sometimes with a different meaning.
2. Each Chinese character potentially has several meanings, sometimes unrelated ones. For example, the critical term dào 道, “way,” can refer to a road or path or freeway lane or pedestrian underpass, but it can also refer to a method or procedure for doing something, or the characteristic behavior of a thing or animal. And it can also mean “to say.” Sometimes words with separate characters in later Chinese were written identically in antiquity.
3. Good Chinese written style has always involved short sentences (and even impresses English readers as “choppy”). Thus it is unclear whether each chapter of the Dàodé Jīng should be thought of as a series of proverb-like expressions, or as a poem, or as an essay with an internal structure that often escapes us. The third assumption is most usual for English readers.
4. At the time of its composition or compilation, writing was done on strips of bamboo, which were sewn beside each other and rolled into scrolls for storage. Sometimes the string would break, dumping the slips of bamboo all over the place. Some specialists believe that this probably happened to the Dàodé Jīng, possibly more than once. It certainly seems that way.
A broad theme does come through, taking the text as a whole and considering what most educated Chinese have thought over the centuries that it meant. That message, directed especially to society’s leaders (just as Confucius’ message was), is that we can never fully understand the nature of nature, and that interfering with natural processes carries a very high risk of making matters worse. It is tempting to translate the famous keyword dào as something like “natural law,” but that is far too modern; most Chinese interpreters have noted that the idea carries a sense of an inherently moral universe, not merely a clockwork one of the kind that the idea of “natural law” tends to imply.
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On this web site there is a page of different authors’ attempts at an English rendering of the first chapter of the Dàodé Jīng (link). Each of them is a respectable scholar and competent translator of Classical Chinese, but their translations differ dramatically as they struggle to create an intelligible flow of ideas. The reason they differ, of course, is that the Chinese text is not at all clear. Perhaps it was not clear even to Lǎozǐ.
Here is my reasonably “uncontroversial” translation for the opening lines, traditionally regarded as chapters 1-3. My interpretations generally follow those of John C. H. Wu (1961) and Lin Yutang (1948). If you can read Chinese, you will no doubt disagree with the translation.
Ways which can be spoken of are not the eternal way. Names which can be spoken are not eternal names.
What is nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. What is named is the mother of all things.
And so it is always without desire that one perceives its marvels,
but always with desire that one perceives its limitations.
These two things are the same in their nature, but differ in names.
Both are called mysterious, or more mysterious than mysterious: the gate of all mysteries.
All the world knows that to be beautiful beauty depends upon ugliness. All know that to be virtuous virtue depends upon iniquity.
Similarly, presence and absence are produced together, difficulty and ease are complementary. Long and short define each other in shape, high and low define each other in measure.
Voice and instruments define each other in harmony. Before and behind define each other in position. There is balance.
This is how a sage manages things without action and teaches without words,
does everything, but initiates nothing, produces but does not possess, acts but is not dependent,
accomplishes but claims no credit, and claiming no credit, cannot lose it.
Do not reward the competent [as Confucius wrongly suggests], and the people will not compete. Do not value what is hard to obtain, and people will not be thieves.
Do not display what is desirable, and the people’s hearts will not be troubled.
This is why a sage empties the people’s minds, but fills their bellies; weakens their ambitions, but strengthens their bones.
This makes the people have neither knowledge nor desires, and those with knowledge dare not act. Through such non-intervention, no one is ungovernable.
常使民无知无欲。 使夫智者不敢为也。 为无为则无不治。
Here are several short chapters from later in the work, arranged in order of length. In each chapter, the lines are out of order (alphabetized, actually), as though the strings had broken and scattered the bamboo pieces. The translation is a very literal one by Gregory Richter (1998) that deliberately does not try to link the lines under the influence of any particular interpretive scheme.
Your challenge as a reader is to work out the correct ordering by which the lines should be strung back together to restore the standard text. (The answers are given at the end of this page. Each chapter is alternatively available in an interactive form if you prefer.)
What you will (probably) discover is that there is very little by way of a logical thread running through most chapters, even if certain themes emerge from understanding the lines of the whole work as, say, a set of proverbs. And that is why this text is so difficult to use.
1. Because he acknowledges his shortcomings as shortcomings.
2. Not to know that one knows is a shortcoming.
3. Since he acknowledges his shortcomings as shortcomings, he has no shortcomings.
4. The sage has no shortcomings.
5. To know that one does not know is best.
1. Fame or life: which is more intimately desired?
2. Gain or loss: which is more harmful?
3. Life or commodities: which is greater?
4. Therefore those who know when they have enough will not be disgraced.
5. Those who hoard many things must lose profoundly.
6. Those who know when to stop will not be harmed; they can long continue.
7. Those who love extremely must pay dearly.
1. Great achievement seems deficient, but if one uses it it will not be harmed.
2. Great argumentation seems inarticulate.
3. Great fullness seems empty, but if one uses it, it will not be exhausted.
4. Great skill seems awkward.
5. Great straightness seems crooked.
6. Impetuous motion conquers cold; calm conquers heat.
7. Tranquility acts to set right all things under heaven.
1. My affairs have a sovereign.
2. My words are very easy to understand and very easy to apply.
3. My words have a master.
4. Since people do not understand my words, they do not understand me.
5. This is why the sage wears coarse cloth but holds jade.
6. Those who follow me are rare.
7. Those who understand me are few.
8. Under heaven no one can understand them and no one can apply them.
1. All things depend on it to live and it never departs.
2. All things return to it but it does not act as their master.
3. It accomplishes meritorious acts but does not possess.
4. It can be called great.
5. It can be called small.
6. It clothes and cares for all things, but does not act as their master.
7. It is able to achieve its greatness.
8. Since in the end it does not intentionally act great,
9. The great way is a flood; it can flow left or right.
1. Abandon benevolence and reject righteousness.
2. Abandon cleverness and reject advantage.
3. Abandon scholarship and there will be no worry.
4. Abandon the sagacious, reject wisdom.
5. Reduce selfishness and have few desires.
6. See the plain and embrace the simple.
7. The benefit for the people will be a hundred times greater.
8. The people will return to filial piety and kindness.
9. There will be no bandits and thieves.
10. Therefore there must be subordination.
11. To take these three as a guiding principle is not sufficient.*
- HENRICKS, Robert G.
- 1989 Laso-tzu: Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts. New York: Ballantine Books.
- LIN Yutang (= LÍN Yǔtáng 林语堂)
- 1948 The Wisdom of Laotse. New York: Random House.
- RICHTER, Gregory C.
- 1998 The gate of All Marvelous Things: A Guide to Reading the Dao Te Ching. South San Francisco: Red Mansions Publishing.
- WU, John C. H. (WÚ Jīngxióng 吴经熊)
- 1961 Lao Tzu: Tao Teh Ching. New York: St. John’s University Press.
* Answers: Chapter 71: 5, 2, 4, 1, 3. Chapter 44: 1, 3, 2, 7, 5, 4, 6. Chapter 45: 1, 3, 5, 4, 2, 6, 7. Chapter 70: 2, 8, 3, 1, 4, 7, 6, 5. Chapter 34: 9, 1, 3, 6, 5, 2, 4, 8, 7. Chapter 19: 4, 7, 1, 8, 2, 9, 11, 10, 6, 5, 3.
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