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Tao Te Ching

Pinyin: Do D Jīng
Wade-Giles: Tao Te Ching
Archaic pre-Wade-Giles: Tao Teh Ching
Vietnamese: Đạo Đức Kinh
The Wade-Giles rendering of the title became predominant in the late 19th century, and is still common in Taiwan as well as much of international academia, but the People's Republic of China has promulgated the pinyin transliteration scheme, which results in the title Dao De Jing. As English editions of the book first became well known in the English-speaking world before the development of pinyin, the Wade-Giles transliteration of the title has stuck, and current English editions of the book almost always title it Tao Te Ching. See also Daoism-Taoism romanization issue for further discussion.

The Tao Te Ching (Chinese: 道德經, Do d jīng), roughly translated as The Book of the Way and its Virtue (see below on translating the title) is an ancient Chinese scripture. Tradition has it that the book was written around 600 BCE by a sage called Laozi (WG: Lao Tzu, "Old Master"), a record-keeper in the Emperor's Court of the Zhou Dynasty. A careful reading of the text, however, suggests that it is a compilation of maxims sharing similar themes. The authenticity of the date of composition/compilation and the authorship are still debated.

This short work is one of the most important in Chinese philosophy and religion, especially in Taoism, but also in Buddhism, because the latter – an Indian religion – shared many Taoist words and concepts before developing into Chinese Buddhism. (Upon first encountering it, Chinese scholars regarded Buddhism as merely a foreign equivalent of Taoism.) Many Chinese artists, including poets, painters, calligraphers and even gardeners have used the book as a source of inspiration. Its influence has also spread widely outside the Far East, aided by many different translations of the text into western languages.

Translations of the title

There are many possible translations of the book's title, as the meaning of the Chinese characters is somewhat wide.

  • 道 (do) is usually translated into English as "the way ahead", "the path ahead", or simply "the Way". This term, used by all Chinese Philosophers (including Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, the Legalists, etc.), has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnamable process of the universe.
  • 德 (d) has the approximate English equivalent of "virtue" or "righteousness". 德 can carry the same connotations 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 "healing virtue of a plant").
  • 經 (jīng) means "scripture", "great book", or "doctrine".

Thus, 道德經 could be translated as "The Scripture of the Way and the Virtue", "The Great Book of the Way and its Power", "The Doctrine of The Path and its Virtues", etc.

Though commonly referred to as the 道德經 (Tao Te Ching), the title is probably a fusion of the two books of scriptures, namely 道經 (Tao Ching) and 德經 (Te Ching). In fact, the latter book has been found among some recent discoveries. It is likely that the combined name of both books has no real intended meaning, though this is at present impossible to ascertain given the numerous revisions of the scriptures.

  • Note: As mentioned above in the sidebar, "Taoism" is also spelled "Daoism" in the pinyin system.*


In the form we have it now, the Tao Te Ching is in two sections (Tao, containing chapters 1–37; and Te, chapters 38–81), and uses around 5,000 Chinese characters. Each chapter is rather short, using few characters to express its often difficult ideas poetically.


Many believe that the Tao Te Ching contains some universal truths which have since been independently recognized in other philosophies, both religious and secular. Each modern language interpretation (including even interpretation of the three-character title, of which there are dozens) differs at least slightly and occasionally profoundly from the next. Depending on how one reads them, some chapters could have three or more interpretations, ranging from practical wisdom for the common man to advice intended for kings to even the odd medical recipe. The following are some concepts and principles which may facilitate understanding of the text.

The Tao that can be spoken of...

The [Tao] that can be told of is not an Unvarying [Tao];
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.
(tr. A. Waley)

These are the first words of the text in its present form (Waley translates "Tao" as "Way"). The Tao Te Ching does not specifically define what the Tao is. Laozi himself reportedly said, "My words are very easy to understand [...] yet no one under heaven understands them." (chapter 70) However, we can point to some of the Tao's characteristics. Tao is the core topic of the book, supplemented by related themes such as Te ("virtue", or "power"), nothingness, return, detachment, and wu-wei ("non-action"). The Tao can be seen as all being, before and beyond all distinctions between different forms or essences of things. Everything comes from Tao and returns to Tao.

The "Valley Spirit"

The Valley Spirit never dies
It is named the Mysterious Female.
And the doorway of the Mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.
It is there within us all the while;
Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry.
(Chapter VI, Tr. A. Waley)

The Tao Te Ching can be seen as advocating mostly "feminine" (or Yin) values, emphasising the qualities of water — fluidity and softness (instead of the solid and stable mountain), choosing the obscure and mysterious aspect of things, and controlling things without ruling them. In this respect, this book can be understood as challenging "male" (or Yang) values such as clarity, stability, positive action, and domination of nature; such values are often referred to as Confucian values.

The Return

"When he is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard... the hard and mighty are cast down; the soft and weak set on high." (chapter 76) This quote shows again Laozi's focus on softness, but in another pair of counterparts: the newborn baby and the old man. Rigidity is the attribute of death, while weakness is the attribute of life. When things or beings are at their beginning, everything is possible. When things have not yet developed, it is the right time to act on them with a better chance for good results. A kind of return to the beginning of things, or to one's own childhood, is required.

This focus on the importance of beginnings also has social ramifications. As in the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Tao Te Ching assumes that ancient times were those of happiness, purity of intentions, and full communion with nature: "the times when anyone could look inside the nests of all the birds". Problems arose when humanity "invented" culture and civilisation. The Tao Te Ching proposes a return to the more natural state, for example in chapter 80, where the text argues the people should "come back to the usage of knotted ropes" in place of any other form of writing.

However, the "Return" shouldn't be understood as a simple or reactionary way back to the past, but as a "contraction," a "reduction," a "withdrawal" or even a "retreat" in oneself. This is illustrated in the anti-Confucianist saying: Learning consists in adding to one's stock day by day; the practice of Tao consists in subtracting day by day (ch. 48) and in this strategic advice I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead. (ch. 69) Diminishing one's ego, instead of "improving" it through studies, is the path to real wisdom. Letting the enemy take the first step (thus reducing his range of possiblities) is the way to gain the upper hand.

Although this idea of a "Return" is close to some modern psychological practices such as introspection, what is to be reached through "Return" is not the self but nothingness.

The Sage has no heart on his own...

The Search for Vacuity is a common concern for many different Asian wisdoms including Taoism, Buddhism, and some aspects of Confucianism. In the Tao Te Ching, nothingness is the theme of many chapters and one could see the entire book as a suite of variations on "the Powers of Nothingness". An explanation on how nothingness has power can be found in chapter 11:

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is,
we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
Chapter 11, tr. A. Waley

Looking at a Chinese landscape painting, one can understand also how nothingness (the unpainted parts) has the power of giving life to the beings - the trees, mountains, and rivers - it surrounds. Being nothing for a man means having no heart on his own, having no fixed preconceptions on how things should be, and having no intentions or agenda. For the ruler's point of view, nothingness is not far from the liberal laissez-faire approach: letting things happen by themselves is the best way to help them grow.

"Knowing oneself"

The pursuit of the knowledge of the self appears in many variations throughout the Tao Te Ching. One example in chapter 33:

Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self requires strength;
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of will power.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.
Chapter 33 tr. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

Other themes

Here are listed some other topics related to the Tao Te Ching:

  • Force begets force.
  • One whose needs are simple will find them fulfilled.
  • (Material) wealth does not enrich the spirit.
  • Self-absorption 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 Mother of the ten thousand things), 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.
  • When we lose the fundamentals, we supplant them with increasingly inferior values which we pretend are the true values.
  • Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame.
  • The qualities of flexibility and suppleness are often superior to rigidity and strength.
  • Everything is in its own time and place.
  • The contrast of opposition — i.e. the differences between male and female, light and dark, strong and weak, etc. — helps us understand and appreciate the universe.
  • Humility is the highest virtue.
  • Knowing oneself is a virtue.
  • Envy is our calamity; overindulgence is our plight.


The difficulties of translating classical Chinese

The Tao Te Ching is written in classical Chinese, which is in itself difficult even for normally educated modern native speakers of Chinese to understand completely. Furthermore, many of the words used in the Tao Te Ching are deliberately vague and ambiguous. At the time the Tao Te Ching was written, educated Chinese who could read it would have memorized a large body of fairly standard Chinese literature, and when writing it was common to convey meaning by making allusions to other well-known works which now may have been lost. Few people today have the full command of the vast body of ancient Chinese literature that would have been common in Laozi's day, and thus many levels of subtext are potentially lost on modern translators.

There is no punctuation in classical Chinese, and thus often no way to conclusively determine where one sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a period a few words forward or back or inserting a comma can profoundly alter the meaning of many passages, and such divisions and meanings must be determined by the translator. Some Chinese editors and some translators, indeed, argue that the text is so corrupted (as it was written on one-line bamboo tablets linked with a silk thread) that it's not possible to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.


The Tao Te Ching is perhaps the most translated book written in the Chinese language, with over 100 different translations into English alone. The combination of being mystical and obscure means that sometimes different translations have nothing in common, suggesting that getting a deep understanding of the text requires reading more than one. A common way to do this is to pick two translations and read them side by side.

In English

Online versions

Printed versions

  • An English translation by John Chalmers appeared in 1868.
  • James Legge in The Texts of Taoism, 2 vols (Sacred Books of China 39 and 40) Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1891/Humphrey Milford, London, 1891.
  • Arthur Waley The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Allen & Unwin, London, 1934.
  • Witter Bynner, The Way of Life According to LaoTsu: An American Version, John Day Company, 1944.
  • J.J.L. Duyvendak Tao Te King: The Book of the Way and its Virtue. (Wisdom of the East) John Murray, London, 1954.
  • D.C. Lau Tao Te Ching Penguin Books, England, 1963
  • Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng Tao Te Ching Vintage Books, New York, 1972; new introduction by Jacob Needleman, 1989.
  • Stephen Mitchell Tao te Ching, A New English Version (with forward and notes), HarperCollinsPublishers Inc, NY, NY, 1988.
  • Robert G. Henricks Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts. Ballantine Books, New York, 1989.
  • Ellen M. Chen The Te Tao Ching: A New Translation with Commentary. Paragon House, New York, 1989.
  • Victor H. Mair, Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way (translation and annotations, based on the recently discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts), Bantam Books, New York, 1990.
  • Patrick E. Moran in Three Smaller Wisdom Books, University Press of America, 1993.
  • Aleister Crowley Tao Te Ching, Samuel Weiser Inc., York Beach, Maine, 1995. (from his 1923 typescript, based on earlier English translations since he knew little or no Chinese)
  • Red Pine (Bill Porter) Lao-Tzu's Taoteching, With Selected Commentaries of the Past 2000 Years, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1996.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin Lao Tzu : Tao Te Ching, a Book about the Way & the Power of the Way (a translation and commentary), Shambhala, Boston & London, 1998.
  • Robert G. Henricks Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian, Columbia University Press, New York, 2000. (Contains only those chapters found in the Guodian Laozi.)
  • Jonathan Star Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition (translation and commentary), Penguin Books, NY, NY, 2001.
  • David H. Li, Dao De Jing: a New Millennium Translation. Premier Publishing, 2001.
  • David Hall and Roger T. Ames Dao De Jing: Making This Life Significant, a philosophical translation including the 1993 Guodian texts. Ballantine Books, New York, 2003.
  • Moss Roberts, Dao De Jing : The Book of the Way. University of California Press, 2001 and 2004. This translation claims the goal of both improving upon previous translations of Dao De Jing and providing a translation to subsequently improve upon. The book attempts to "reproduce the condensed aphoristic force [of the Dao de Jing], the appeal of [it's] intriguing and often indeterminate syntax, and the prevelence of rhymed vers in [its] original [form]" by avoiding prose and keeping close to the actual text. The book includes per-stanza notes on the 1973 Mawangdui versions and 1993 Guodian version of the texts as well as translation issues and an analysis in the "context of the philosophical debates that raged from the time of Confucius down to the unification of the empire in 221 B.C."

See also

External links

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