Article abstract: Written sometime between the sixth and third centuries b.c.e. and traditionally attributed to the sage Laozi, the Dao De Jing is a central text of Daoism, a Chinese philosophy and popular religion that advocates the need for living in accordance with the dao, the animating force of the natural world.
Authorship and Context
So little is known of Laozi, to whom the Dao De Jing is often attributed, that some scholars think he is a purely legendary figure. His name, which means Old Master, does little to establish a credible identity. The earliest literary reference to him can be found in Sima Qian's Shi-ji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993), one of the earliest extant volumes of Chinese history. According to this work, Laozi was born sometime in the late sixth century b.c.e. and served as official archivist in the capital Zhou. Renowned for his knowledge of ritual, he was purportedly visited by his younger contemporary Confucius, who was much impressed by his wisdom. After retiring from his civil career, however, Laozi decided to lead a hermit's life. As he was leaving for the frontier, a gatekeeper asked him to write a book that would preserve his vast store of wisdom; he therefore composed the poetic treatise that has come to be known as the Dao De Jing. He divided the book into two sections: one devoted to explicating the nature of the dao and the other analyzing de, its power or effects. After completing the work--reputedly at a single sitting--he disappeared into the wilderness, where, the historian writes, Laozi lived to the advanced age of 160 or perhaps 200 years. As if plausibility has not been strained enough, Sima Qian then speculates that Laozi may even have lived into the fourth century b.c.e.--more than one hundred years after the death of Confucius---when he returned to civilization to serve as Grand Historian to the duke of Zhou. Complicating matters even further is Sima Qian's possible identification of Laozi with an obscure figure named Lao Lai Zi, who is mentioned in the other major work of Chinese Daoism, the Zhuangzi (c. 300 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991).
Although early Chinese historiography willfully mixed fact and legend, it seems unlikely that Laozi is a complete fabrication. Sima Qian's reference to Laozi's reputation as a master of traditional rites militates somewhat against the argument that the “Old Master” was a product of Daoist propaganda because Daoists were ordinarily dismissive of such practices. Moreover, while Daoist folklore is replete with legendary immortals who are able to shape-shift and perform miracles, the figure of Laozi, the humble civil servant who founded the creed, is positively mundane by comparison. (Stories of legendary encounters between Laozi and Confucius, usually at the latter's expense, do exist--most notably in the Zhuangzi; yet, even there Laozi remains very much a mortal figure.) Certainly Laozi's position as an official archivist would qualify him to be the author of the work attributed to him. Whether a contemporary of Confucius in the fifth century b.c.e. or an adviser to the duke of Zhou in the fourth, an archivist would be one of the few individuals in China at that time with the ability to read and write. Finally, in an era in which no distinction was made between a literary work and its author, the work's original title was simply the Laozi, a term that most scholars continue to use. Its subsequent title, Dao De Jing, literally the classic of dao and de, was not adopted until the first century b.c.e.
Dating Dao De Jing is as perplexing as identifying its reputed author. Traditional scholarship, which assumed Laozi to have been the author, dated the manuscript to the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 b.c.e.), making it as old as such classics as the Confucian Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects, 1861) and the I Ching (Yi Jing, eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986). However, modern scholars who have debated the identity of Laozi and questioned his authorship of the Dao De Jing have generally placed its composition in the Warring States period (403-222 b.c.e.). A number of strong arguments, based on internal and external evidence, seem to point to the latter period. For instance, the work's preoccupation with the individual's survival in a chaotic world seems to reflect the political instability of the Warring States period. Moreover, the work's identification of dao with the Creator is certainly atypical of the Spring and Autumn period, in which tian, or Heaven, most often serves in that capacity. Its use of rhyme and lack of dialogue also differentiate it from older wisdom books such as the Analects and the Mozi (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ethical and Political Works of Motse, 1929; also known as Mo Tzu: Basic Writings, 1963). The dearth of contemporary references to the Dao De Jing in works belonging to the Spring and Autumn period would also seem to weigh against the earlier date (although one can argue that if the Analects do not refer to the Dao De Jing, neither does the Dao De Jing refer to the Analects). The earliest references to the Dao De Jing are quotations from the work included in the Zhuangzi, a product of the Warring States period. However, even this supposed “fact” is at best ambiguous because the Zhuangzi is itself most likely a redaction of earlier works.
Whether written by Laozi or compiled by a latter-day Daoist, the Dao De Jing is ultimately a product of China's fervent intellectual climate of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e., a period often referred to as the “one hundred schools” for its philosophic diversity. This period witnessed the rise of competing schools of thought centered on charismatic expositors such as Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, and Yang Zhu. At times the Dao De Jing seems bewildering, if not perverse, unless this philosophic context is taken into account. Indeed, the work alternately affirms and rejects positions and even the terminology of the competing schools. For instance, its famous first line, “the dao that can be named is not the true dao,” seems a deliberate rebuke to the fa jia, or Legalist, school, which sought to remedy contemporary social ills through accurate naming. Similarly, chapter 3 borrows the Mohist phrase “worthy men” to make a decidedly anti-Mohist point--that not praising worthy men is the best way to keep from stirring the ambitions of the common people. Chapter 31's advocacy of defensive warfare finds the author in agreement with Mozi, but in opposition to Yang Zhu's more extreme pacifism. Even the emphasis on dao (or “Way”), a common word in the philosophic parlance of the time, seems a calculated attempt to undermine the authority of the other schools- -as if to imply that the Daoist is the ultimate school of thought.
The reflexive nature of the Dao De Jing is perhaps the best argument for late authorship because the other schools' positions and terminology presumably would have to have been well established in order for the work to subvert them. If one accepts the late authorship, then the figure of Laozi becomes a necessary fiction to an emergent school of thought competing with other schools centered on a sage philosopher. On the other hand, a sixth century b.c.e. Laozi may have anticipated the philosophic debate of the “one hundred schools period”--or perhaps the positions and terminology of the period themselves belong to an earlier, largely preliterate society.
Some scholars entirely reject the premise that the Dao De Jing is the work of a single author, whether Laozi or a latter-day scribe writing under his name. Instead they explain the unusual work as a collection of sayings belonging to Daoist oral tradition. According to this hypothesis, the social unrest of the Warring States period produced a subclass of disaffected gentlemen, or shi, who withdrew from the chaos of their culture into Laoist communities based upon the quietist principles attributed to Laozi. The Dao De Jing thus becomes the work of a Laoist editor (or editors) who collected and perhaps elaborated upon the traditional Daoist proverbs attributed to Laozi. Certainly the Dao De Jing is full of statements with memorable images and a proverblike ring, such as “To rule a country is like cooking a small fish” (that is, it is easy to spoil) and “Heaven and Earth are not kind--to them all things are straw dogs” (insignificant items burned in ritual sacrifice). Such utterances seem to owe less to literary metaphysics than to the practical affairs of an oral culture. This may explain the seemingly haphazard nature of some chapters, in which groups of proverbs seem artificially stitched together. For instance, the line about cooking a small fish is juxtaposed to the lines “When dao brings everything into harmony/Demons have no power.” The Dao De Jing also includes a number of similar lines that seem to be based upon oral formulas. For instance, the line “dao endures without name” (in Chinese, Dao chang wu ming) reappears in a later chapter as “dao is hidden without name” (Dao yin wu ming).
Whether such formulas were originally used by Laozi, who would have been writing in the context of a predominantly oral culture, or by latter-day Laoists adapting traditional oral proverbs, both the individual chapters and the work as a whole have a collage effect--as if the author or Laoist editors were deliberately trying to subvert the discursive nature of the literary medium. Indeed, the power of the Dao De Jing, and its freshness to modern readers, seems to come from its informal ability to speak directly to them, seemingly bypassing the conventions and limitations of the manuscript or printed page. Even in translation, the work at times seems less like proverbial wisdom or literary poetry than a collection of song lyrics--a connection underscored by the rhyming structure of some chapters, which makes them reminiscent of Daoist hymns like those scattered throughout the Zhuangzi.
No original manuscript of the Dao De Jing exists. If it was a product of the fifth century b.c.e., it may have been written on bamboo stalks rather than paper--which may explain the lack of an extant copy. The earliest available complete text of the Dao De Jing is the edition of Wang Bi (226-249 c.e.), which includes his commentary. Although this continues to serve as the standard text, it suffers from some obvious errors. For instance, some of Wang Bi's commentaries refer to Chinese characters that are different from those in the passages glossed, while others refer to passages not included in the text. Subsequent editors, including Fu Yi, Ma Xulun, and Chen Zhu, have attempted to resolve these errors and eliminate obscurities in the text with the hope of restoring it to Laozi's original. Such redaction has led at times to rather extreme practices. For instance, guided by the belief that an older contemporary of Confucius authored the work, some editors have substituted older forms of Chinese characters in use in the sixth century b.c.e. for the newer variants in the Wang Bi text. Other editors with an eye on numerology have even reduced the number of characters in the Wang Bi text from 5,250 to an even 5,000.
Whether Wang Bi first divided the work into two books with a total of eighty-one chapters (thirty-seven devoted to dao and forty-four to de) remains unknown. However, most editors have agreed that the original text (or anthology) was not divided into chapters at all, allowing them to divide and rearrange the work as they have seen fit. If the dao that can be named is not the true dao, then it would seem that the Dao De Jing that can be definitively identified is not the true Dao De Jing. As if following Daoist principle, the book remains very much a living document, a work in progress as editors and scholars continue to debate not only the meaning of...