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Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu) - A Comparative Study


Given the sense of Lao Tzu's opening line, "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao", some commentators feel obliged to speculate as to why it was thought necessary to write the rest of the book. The following explanations are perhaps among the more common -

  • the Tao Te Ching is a collection, an anthology, consisting of various odds and ends - some poetry (much of the original text rhymes), many mottos and sayings, scraps of anecdotes, all interspersed with pieces of traditional folk wisdom and references to esoteric traditions

  • given that philosophers of the Warring States Period of the Eastern Chou Dynasty played a similar role in the running of the state to that of economists and political advisors in the European societies of today, the Tao Te Ching can be seen not only as a detailed exposition on how to run the Empire, but also as containing within it rebuttals of the numerous criticisms of Taoist ideas, including logical attacks on its rivals and humorous parodies of other schools of thought

  • as the traditional Buddhist saying would have it: "the words are fingers pointing at the moon; if you watch the finger you can't see the moon"; this was expressed very eloquently by Arthur Waley, one of the outstanding translators of Chinese literature and poetry whose commentaries are invariably fascinating and perceptive: "Not only are books the mere discarded husk or shell of wisdom, but words themselves... are irrelevant to the deeper experience of Tao, the 'wordless doctrine'. If the Taoist speaks and still more if he writes, he does so merely to arouse interest in his doctrines, and not in any hope of communicating what another cannot be made to feel, any more than you can feel the pain in my finger"
This unusual situation, where uncertainty about the purpose of a book can lead to different approaches towards its translation, is compounded by having to make a further and more familiar choice: whether to use contemporary idioms which are understandable now, or whether to reproduce the original phrases many of which would be obscure to the modern reader and require copious footnotes. It is perhaps illustrative of the book's underlying theme that whilst Lao Tzu's ideas are still meaningful, not all the analogies have withstood the test of time.

A problem common to all translators is how to preserve the original style without changing the content. A scholarly approach towards the Tao Te Ching may prefer a more exact correspondence in vocabulary and not attempt to match the rhythm and rhyme nor the sounds of the words themselves, despite any contribution they make towards the sense of the verse.

However, variations in the available texts indicate that decisions such as these have already been made many times. The Chinese language, written and spoken, has changed. Commentaries have been appended, both to clarify and reinterpret. Though the text associated with Wang Pi (AD 226-249) has been the one most widely followed by translators, it is often used in conjunction with readings from other versions. Yet even the Ma-wang-tui texts, the two oldest known, are themselves thought to have been copied from different sources.

Selecting an older text decreases possible copying errors, but it may be incomplete because of missing or defaced ideograms. The interpretation of those that are there may be uncertain because the meaning of a particular ideogram is no longer known. Even when known, there may be an equivalent word for only one of an ideogram's multiple meanings. The association of a small number of written pictures with a large number of spoken sounds allows for sophisticated figures of speech and subtle puns, which could remain unrecognised should they refer to ancient customs practises and beliefs about which little or nothing is remembered.

Although there are many variant texts, it is surprising how similar they are, most of the differences being fairly minor ones. As might be expected it is the translations which often vary more. And in this there is a richness, for by using several interpretations to supplement each other it may be possible to gain a better understanding than from one alone. As Lao Tzu himself said, "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao".

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revised 7 March 2019
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