The Dao De Jing (possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing) is the name of a slim volume from China’s classical era that forms a principal text of the Daoist school of philosophy. The title literally means “Old Master,” and the book has traditionally been ascribed to the “Old Master” himself—or, at least, it has been thought to reflect faithfully the philosophy of someone known as Laozi (low-dzih). This Laozi is, however, the most shadowy of all classical Chinese philosophers, and nothing at all can be said with any certainty about him.
The earliest attempt to write a biography of Laozi was made in the first century b.c.e. by the great historian Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien; c. 145-c. 86 b.c.e.), but even at that early date the historian was only able to assemble a few scraps of information concerning Laozi, many of which are mutually contradictory. Sima Qian attempted to merge the stories of at least three different individuals into his biography of Laozi, since he was uncertain which one was “the real Laozi,” and in the end the various stories proved impossible to reconcile. As Sima Qian concluded, “Laozi was a reclusive gentleman,” and it is perhaps fitting that he remain forever elusive.
Among the few facts that are alleged about Laozi are that his family name was Li, his given name Erh, and his “style” Dan. He was supposedly born in the southern state of Chu; indeed, Laozi’s thought does typify the lush, mystical, romantic, and sometimes erotic southern side of ancient Chinese culture that contrasts so starkly with the stern moralism of northern Confucianism.
Sima Qian says that Laozi served as Historian of the Archives in the court of the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256 b.c.e.) and that Confucius (Kong Qiu; 551-479 b.c.e.) personally sought instruction from him in the rites. At age 160, or perhaps 200, disappointed with the decline of civilization in China, Laozi departed. The Keeper of the Xiangu Pass detained him on his way out and required him to commit his wisdom to writing in the book that came to be known as the Dao De Jing, before permitting him to continue his westward journey. According to a later legend, Laozi subsequently went to India, where his teachings gave birth to Buddhism.
None of this information is historically reliable, however, and many modern scholars doubt that Laozi is a historical figure at all. It seems more likely that there were several “old masters” in ancient China who taught ideas similar to those of the Dao De Jing than that no such man ever existed at all. In either case, however, it ceases to be meaningful to say that Laozi wrote the book that is sometimes called by his name.
The best evidence indicates that the Dao De Jing was compiled sometime during the fourth or third century b.c.e., probably incorporating earlier fragments, and that it did not settle into its present form until the middle of the second century b.c.e. It may be that it is largely the product of one hand, but it can also be plausibly viewed as a jumble of anonymous Daoist sayings assembled by an editor or editors during this period.
The Dao De Jing has been translated into English more often than any book except the Bible, and in China hundreds of commentaries have been written on it. The explanation for all this attention is that, aside from the great intrinsic appeal of the work, it is a very cryptic book that defies definitive interpretation. Each reader finds something different in the Dao De Jing, and, despite deceptively simple grammar and vocabulary, it is often possible to argue at great length even about the meaning of individual sentences.
For example, the famous opening line of the Dao De Jing could read, in English, “Any way that you can speak about is not The Constant Way.” Alternatively, it could also read: “The way that can be treated as The Way is not an ordinary way,” or, “The way that can be treated as The Way is an inconstant way.” Multiply this kind of ambiguity by the more than five thousand Chinese characters in the book, and it becomes easy to understand why so many different translations of the Dao De Jing are possible.
The work is divided into two sections and eighty-one brief chapters; more than half of it is written in rhyme, and it is suffused throughout with a distinct poetic atmosphere. There appears to be no particular order to the chapters, and even individual paragraphs may be unrelated to their context, thus reinforcing the impression of the Dao De Jing as an anthology of Daoist maxims rather than a systematic treatise.
Interpretation of the Dao De Jing must hinge, in part, on the date one chooses to assign for its composition. Its pointed ridicule of Confucian sanctimoniousness, for example, is puzzling if the legend is true that Laozi was older than Confucius, but...
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