Dao De Jing

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Dao De Jing

Selections from Tao Te Ching, available online from Chinese Cultural Studies at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html

Compiled around the third century bce

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Published in 1988 by Harper Collins

The Dao De Jing (also known as Tao Te Ching) is a religious text of Daoism (Taoism, pronounced DOW-ism). The text is short, made up of 81 brief chapters. Its shortness, however, does not reflect its importance in the history of Chinese philosophy. Philosophy is a branch of study that looks for a general understanding of values and reality. Traditionally, the Dao De Jing was thought to have been written by the Chinese sage, or wise man, Laozi (also spelled Lao-tzu; 604–531 bce). Laozi, a name that means "Old Master," is believed to have been a record keeper and librarian in the court of the Zhou Dynasty (also called the Chou Dynasty, c. 1100–256 bce). The details of the authorship of the Dao De Jing, however, are still questioned. Little is known, for example, about the life of Laozi, primarily because no records about him survive from that time. The earliest mentions of him date to about 400 bce, and it was not until about 100 bce that a biography of him was written. Some scholars believe that the author of the Dao De Jing may, in fact, have been several men who composed the book over the years.

"The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities."

The title of the Dao De Jing can be translated in many ways, but it is usually given as something like "The Book of the Way and Its Virtue." Chinese written words are referred to as "characters." The first character in the Dao De Jing, dao, means "the way ahead" or "the way." De means "righteousness" or "virtue." Virtue here refers to both the values of proper, honest living and to power, as in the healing virtue, or power, of medicine. The third character, jing, is often translated as "doctrine," which is a set of guidelines.

The center of the Dao

The views expressed in the Dao De Jing are similar to views that have been voiced in other religions and philosophies, both Eastern and Western. The core of the book is the dao, or the way, suggesting a path to virtue (de). Virtue is the condition of being morally good. The path also leads one toward a state of spiritual understanding. What distinguishes Daoism from most other world religions is its emphasis on nothingness or detachment. It promotes acceptance and openness to achieve harmony with all things. To do this, one should be detached, not involved in worldly matters or desiring material goods and instead focused on improving virtue and improving one's understanding of the Dao. One should also practice nonaction, known as wu wei. A person can do this by being detached and not responding to things in an aggressive manner. Wu wei was seen as a balance to the social turmoil that troubled China at a time when local rulers were competing for power and influence in the various regions of the country.

Daoism emphasizes a belief that all things, living and not living, are connected. The tradition says that the differences between physical objects are an illusion, or false impression, and that the universe exists independently of this illusion. All creation is part of the dao, and this will never change. Because the dao is infinite, or never-ending, and all of creation; it is beyond our understanding.

In this respect, Daoism as reflected in the Dao De Jing is different from many other religions, particularly Western religions. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, for example, do not believe that the physical world is an illusion. They believe that it is real and that it was created by the will of God. Additionally, these and other religions, including Baháʾí, with its emphasis on social justice and service, have different guides for living. Rather than teaching detachment, they teach involvement with the world in an effort to make it a better place. They believe that in carrying out the commandments, or instructions, of God in their daily lives, they are fulfilling God's will and helping God to perfect His creation.

Other themes of the Dao

Other themes run through the Dao De Jing. One is an emphasis on the value of the feminine principle, with its qualities of fluidness and softness, like water (as opposed to the male principle of solidity, represented by the mountain). In this way, the Dao De Jing challenges its readers to reject such "male" traits as action, force, command, and ruling in favor of such "female" traits as dependence, intuition (the ability to know instinctively, without having to discover something) and recognizing the mysterious and obscure, or unclear, aspects of creation.

Another theme has to do with return. On the face of it, this has been simply interpreted to mean something like a return to nature, or to a simpler, more natural state of existence before the beginning of civilization. In Daoism, though, the concept is more complex. Returning to an earlier time of existence is really a kind of stripping away, or shrinking, of one's existence and retreating into the core of one's being. The goal is to lessen ego, or the emphasis on the self and its concerns, which is glorified by action in the world, and instead seeking enlightenment and salvation (saving from sin).

    The Dao De Jing develops a number of other themes as well:
    that force gives rise to force;
    that beauty, power, and wealth bring about envy, shame, and crime;
    that exerting effort creates resistance;
    that the simpler a person's needs are, the more they will be fulfilled;
    that achievement comes from acting in harmony with the universe, especially the female principle of flexibility.

Each of these themes is reflected in the excerpts given here, and each provides followers of Daoism with a set of principles that they apply in their daily lives. Still, these principles are not always entirely clear. For example, the Dao De Jing says, "When people see some things as good, other things become bad." This sentence tells readers that they cannot know evil unless they know the good. The question is how a person might apply this principle in everyday life. One possibility among many is that good and evil are both part of the same scale used to measure the value of things. People cannot know either good or evil, or any opposite, without thinking deeply about both. In doing so, they are likely to better understand them and follow the good, whatever that may be in a particular circumstance.

Although little is known about the circumstances surrounding how the Dao De Jing was written, the text itself has survived with few of the kinds of changes and additions that were often made by scribes (people who copy manuscripts or documents by hand) who passed down ancient texts. The earliest form of the Dao De Jing that exists, as far as is known in the early twenty-first century, was written on stone tablets that date to about 300 bce. In 1973 silk scrolls were discovered with two versions of the text, one dating to about 200 bce. The oldest known version was discovered in 1993 and is believed to be from roughly the same time period as the other two, only slightly earlier. It, too, was written down, but on strips of bamboo.

One challenge that runs throughout the entire Dao De Jing is that of how to translate it. There are many translations, at least one hundred in English, and all differ from one another in ways that are both large and small. The problem is made worse by a number of factors. One is that the Chinese characters make indirect references to other Chinese texts that were widely read at the time but that are lost in modern times. A second is the absence of punctuation marks in ancient Chinese texts, making division of the lines into phrases and sentences a matter of the translator's own choice. The most important factor, though, is that the language of the text, both in the original and in translation, tends to be abstract, meaning that it refers not to objects but to ideas, feelings, or qualities. As a result, the text is open to different ways of reading and understanding. This abstractness has turned out to be an advantage. Both Daoism and the Dao De Jing have survived for centuries, providing people with a guide for living. Interpretations of the Dao De Jing can change and adapt as people's circumstances and the nature of the world change. In this way, the book can continue to serve as a guide for living over the course of long periods of time without seeming outdated.

Translation from Chinese

A major challenge for the English-speaking world is changing Chinese characters into. English using the Latin alphabet. Two systems are used. Under the older one, called the Wade-Giles system, the title of the work would be written "Tao Te Ching," its author's name would be written "Lao Tzu," and the religion would be written "Taoism." The more modern system, called Pinyin, Produces "Dao De jing" (or Daodejing), "Laozi," and "Daoism," respectively, These differences are largely caused by the differences in the sound systems of the English and Chinese, which make it difficult for translators to find exact English equivalents for Chinese pronunciations Agreat many Western translations of the book continue to use the form Tao Te Ching, Because that was the form Commonly used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Contemporary standards of translation, however, are more often adopting the pinyin system, which is the system used by the People's Republic of China,

The Dao De Jing is written in two sections and is probably a combination of two different texts. The Dao section includes chapters 1 through 37; the De section consists of chapters 38 through 81. Many of the chapters are quite short, as few as a handful of lines. The language of the book is simple, consisting of only about five thousand different Chinese characters. There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, but only a few thousand are commonly used. This simplicity has made the Dao De Jing a book with wide appeal. Over the centuries it has been a source of inspiration to artists, military leaders, poets, corporate executives, and even gardeners, because of its practical wisdom. It is an important text in China not only to Daoists but to Chinese Buddhists as well, for many of the ideas in Daoism are similar to those found in Buddhism. Both, for example, believe in some form of reincarnation, or the belief that people are reborn into a new existence. Some early scholars have seen Daoism and Chinese Buddhism as similar religions, though most modern scholars see them as distinct.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the Dao De Jing:

  • Dao De Jing brings together the basic and most important points of ancient Chinese wisdom. It was designed to promote a stable social order at a time of great political and social unrest, primarily because warlords were competing with one another. These warlords were military rulers who controlled the people in their local region by force. They often battled with neighboring warlords for power and influence. The basic message of the book is that the natural order, the boundlessness of the universe, is more stable and enduring than any political order. Human learning, in contrast to rest and meditation, is an uncertain path to salvation and enlightenment.
  • Dao is sometimes seen as a feminine principle, a mother that is the source of all things. This distinction between masculine and feminine is often seen as a stereotype in modern times, but at the time the Dao De Jing was written, masculinity was associated with action, purpose, drive, aggressiveness, and the like. Femininity, in contrast, was associated with feelings, emotion, thought, and especially being passive and nonaggressive. Daoism valued feminine principles over masculine ones.

Excerpts from the Dao De Jing

1    The tao [dao] that can be told
   is not the eternal Tao.
   The name that can be named
   is not the eternal Name.
   The unnamable is the eternally real.
   Naming is the origin
   of all particular things.
   Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
   Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
   Yet mystery and manifestations
   arise from the same source.
   This source is called darkness.
   Darkness within darkness.
   The gateway to all understanding.
2   When people see some things as beautiful,
   other things become ugly.
   When people see some things as good,
   other things become bad.
   Being and non-being create each other.
   Difficult and easy support each other.
   Long and short define each other.
   High and low depend on each other.
   Before and after follow each other.
   Therefore the Master
   acts without doing anything
   and teaches without saying anything.
   Things arise and she lets them come;
   things disappear and she lets them go.
   She has but doesn't possess,
   acts but doesn't expect.
   When her work is done, she forgets it.
   That is why it lasts forever.
4 The Tao is like a well:
   used but never used up.
   It is like the eternal void:
   filled with infinite possibilities.
   It is hidden but always present.
   I don't know who gave birth to it.
   It is older than God.
5 The Tao doesn't take sides;
   it gives birth to both good and evil.
   The Master doesn't take sides;
   she welcomes both saints and sinners.
   The Tao is like a bellows:
   it is empty yet infinitely capable.
   The more you use it, the more it produces;
   the more you talk of it, the less you understand.
   Hold on to the center.
7 The Tao is infinite, eternal.
   Why is it eternal?
   It was never born;
   thus it can never die.
   Why is it infinite?
   It has no desires for itself;
   thus it is present for all beings.
   The Master stays behind;
   that is why she is ahead.
   She is detached from all things;
   that is why she is one with them.
   Because she has let go of herself,
   she is perfectly fulfilled.
12 Colors blind the eye.
   Sounds deafen the ear.
   Flavors numb the taste.
   Thoughts weaken the mind.
   Desires wither the heart.
   The Master observes the world
   but trusts his inner vision.
   He allows things to come and go.
   His heart is open as the sky.
14 Look, and it can't be seen.
   Listen, and it can't be heard.
   Reach, and it can't be grasped.
   Above, it isn't bright.
   Below, it isn't dark.
   Seamless, unnamable,
   it returns to the realm of nothing.
   Form that includes all forms,
   image without an image,
   subtle, beyond all conception.
   Approach it and there is no beginning;
   follow it and there is no end.
   You can't know it, but you can be it,
   at ease in your own life.
   Just realize where you come from:
   this is the essence of wisdom.
16 Empty your mind of all thoughts.
   Let your heart be at peace.
   Watch the turmoil of beings,
   but contemplate their return.
   Each separate being in the universe
   returns to the common source.
   Returning to the source is serenity.
   If you don't realize the source,
   you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
   When you realize where you come from,
   you naturally become tolerant,
   disinterested, amused,
   kindhearted as a grandmother,
   dignified as a king.
   Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
   you can deal with whatever life brings you,
   and when death comes, you are ready.
17 When the Master governs, the people
   are hardly aware that he exists.
   Next best is a leader who is loved.
   Next, one who is feared.
   The worst is one who is despised.
   If you don't trust the people,
   you make them untrustworthy.
   The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
   When his work is done,
   the people say, "Amazing:
   we did it, all by ourselves!"
25 There was something formless and
   before the universe was born.
   It is serene. Empty.
   Solitary. Unchanging.
   Infinite. Eternally present.
   It is the mother of the universe.
   For lack of a better name,
   I call it the Tao.
   It flows through all things,
   inside and outside, and returns
   to the origin of all things.
   The Tao is great.
   The universe is great.
   Earth is great.
   Man is great.
   These are the four great powers.
   Man follows the earth.
   Earth follows the universe.
   The universe follows the Tao.
   The Tao follows only itself.
28 Know the male,
   yet keep to the female:
   receive the world in your arms.
   If you receive the world,
   the Tao will never leave you
   and you will be like a little child.
   Know the white,
   yet keep to the black:
   be a pattern for the world.
   If you are a pattern for the world,
   the Tao will be strong inside you
   and there will be nothing you can't do.
   Know the personal,
   yet keep to the impersonal:
   accept the world as it is.
   If you accept the world,
   the Tao will be luminous inside you
   and you will return to your primal self.
   The world is formed from the void,
   like utensils from a block of wood.
   The Master knows the utensils,
   yet keeps to the block:
   thus she can use all things.
33 Knowing others is intelligence;
   knowing yourself is true wisdom.
   Mastering others is strength;
   mastering yourself is true power.
   If you realize that you have enough,
   you are truly rich.
   If you stay in the center
   and embrace death with your whole heart,
   you will endure forever.
34 The great Tao flows everywhere.
   All things are born from it,
   yet it doesn't create them.
   It pours itself into its work,
   yet it makes no claim.
   It nourishes infinite worlds,
   yet it doesn't hold on to them.
   Since it is merged with all things
   and hidden in their hearts,
   it can be called humble.
   Since all things vanish into it
   and it alone endures,
   it can be called great.
   It isn't aware of its greatness;
   thus it is truly great.
38 The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
   thus he is truly powerful.
   The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
   thus he never has enough.
   The Master does nothing,
   yet he leaves nothing undone.
   The ordinary man is always doing things,
   yet many more are left to be done.
   The kind man does something,
   yet something remains undone.
   The just man does something,
   and leaves many things to be done.
   The moral man does something,
   and when no one responds
   he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
   When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
   When goodness is lost, there is morality.
   When morality is lost, there is ritual.
   Ritual is the husk of true faith,
   the beginning of chaos.
   Therefore the Master concerns himself
   with the depths and not the surface,
   with the fruit and not the flower.
   He has no will of his own.
   He dwells in reality,
   and lets all illusions go.
51 Every being in the universe
   is an expression of the Tao.
   It springs into existence,
   unconscious, perfect, free,
   takes on a physical body,
   lets circumstances complete it.
   That is why every being
   spontaneously honors the Tao.
   The Tao gives birth to all beings,
   nourishes them, maintains them,
   cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
   takes them back to itself,
   creating without possessing,
   acting without expecting,
   guiding without interfering.
   That is why love of the Tao
   is in the very nature of things.
60 Governing a large country
   is like frying a small fish.
   You spoil it with too much poking.
   Center your country in the Tao
   and evil will have no power.
   Not that it isn't there,
   but you'll be able to step out of its way.
   Give evil nothing to oppose
   and it will disappear by itself.
78 Nothing in the world
   is as soft and yielding as water.
   Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
   nothing can surpass it.
   The soft overcomes the hard;
   the gentle overcomes the rigid.
   Everyone knows this is true,
   but few can put it into practice.
   Therefore the Master remains
   serene in the midst of sorrow.
   Evil cannot enter his heart.
   Because he has given up helping,
   he is people's greatest help.
   True words seem paradoxical.

What happened next …

Daoism began originally as a combination of philosophy and psychology (the study of the human mind and behavior) and as seen as an alternative to Confucianism. It became a religion in 440 bce, when it was adopted as the state religion of China. Along with Confucianism and Buddhism, it remained for centuries as one of the three major religious traditions of China. When the Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty ended in 1911, support for Daoism began to decline. In the decades that followed much of the Daoist heritage was destroyed. The situation worsened after the communist takeover of China in 1949, when religious freedom was severely restricted. Communists are people who follow the political theory of a classless society where all people are equal, property is owned in common, and work is done for the benefit of the entire group. Communists believe that religion is not good for society. In the early twenty-first century about 20 million people practice Daoism, most of them living in Taiwan.

Did you know …

  • Unlike religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, Daoism does not believe in a single God. Daoists do not worship God; their goal is to find harmony with the dao. The dao represents the sum of all that is right and harmonious. When people complicate their lives with selfishness, ambition, and the desire for fame, they lose harmony, fail to become enlightened, and are unhappy.
  • Daoism has had a growing impact on the Western world. Many Westerners, for example, are turning to acupuncture (the treatment of certain disorders by inserting needles into the skin to release blocked energy) to cure disease, relieve pain, and even deal with such problems as alcoholism and smoking. Acupuncture developed from the Daoist belief that physical distress is the result of an imbalance in qi (chi), which literally means "air" or "breath" and represents a person's life force or energy. Similarly, taijichuan, also known as tai chi, is a form of exercise increasingly practiced in the West. It is based on rhythmic movements that bring about relaxation, lower blood pressure, and improve digestion and circulation.
  • Daoists do not pray as Westerners probably understand the term. Westerners typically, but not always, address prayers to a single God, often to ask for forgiveness, a solution to a problem, or God's blessing. In contrast, Daoist prayer is more like meditation and reflection. Daoists see the universe as eternal and infinite, and they believe that meditation rather than prayer is the answer to life's problems.
  • The People's Republic of China, or the Chinese mainland, prevented the spread of Daoism, particularly during the early decades of the nation's founding in the late 1940s and 1950s. The communist leadership that took power in 1949 believed that Daoism was passive, or lacking in will, and fatalistic, meaning that they have the belief that people are powerless against destiny. These views were at odds with the communist ideal of reconstructing society through labor. Some observers believed that by the end of the twentieth century, as the communist leadership in China was relaxing its grip on the people, it was becoming somewhat more tolerant of Daoism and the other religions practiced within the country's borders.

Consider the following …

  • Respond to the point of view that Daoism does not believe in God.
  • Using Daoism and the Dao De Jing as examples, explain why certain types of religious beliefs might arise as a response to social disorder and other historical circumstances. In ancient China during the period when the Dao De Jing was composed, many competing warlords were trying to build kingdoms. They tried to build economic and military power. To that end, they needed large numbers of literate teachers and civil servants. As a result, many new ideas and philosophies arose, leading historians to refer to the era as the Warring States period or the Hundred Schools of Thought period. Compare these types of events in ancient China with similar events in other cultures. For example, consider how Islam arose as a way of uniting the Arab peoples at a time when they were divided into competing clans and tribes.
  • Choose one image from the Dao De Jing, such as the image of the bellows, and discuss what the image reveals about Daoist beliefs.

For More Information


Le Guin, Ursula K. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1997.

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. Tao Te Ching. New York: HarperCollins, 1988. This extract can also be found online at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html.

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Star, Jonathan. Tao Te Ching. New York: Tarcher, 2003.


Berling, Judith A. "Dao/Taoism: The Way." Focus on Asian Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 9-11. This article can also be found online at http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/r000005.htm.


Chan, Alan. "Laozi." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/stanford/entries/laozi/ (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Giri, Nirmalananda. "The Ineffable Tao." Spiritual Writings. http://www.atmajyoti.org/sw_Tao_Teh_King_1.asp (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Manifestations: Outward expels Or appearances.

Void: Empty space.

Bellows: A device that draws in air and blows it back out.

Subtle: Difficult to understand.

Conception: Forming of an idea.

Immersed: Wrapped up, absorbed.

Luminous: Bright, radiant, glowing