The Tao Te Ching is a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi.
The text’s authorship, date of composition and date of compilation are debated. The oldest excavated portion dates back to the late 4th century BC, but modern scholarship dates other parts of the text as having been written—or at least compiled—later than the earliest portions of the Zhuangzi.
The Tao Te Ching, along with the Zhuangzi, is a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism. It also strongly influenced other schools of Chinese philosophy and religion, including Legalism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, which was largely interpreted through the use of Taoist words and concepts when it was originally introduced to China.
Many artists, including poets, painters, calligraphers, and gardeners, have used the Tao Te Ching as a source of inspiration. Its influence has spread widely outside East Asia and it is among the most translated works in world literature.
The Tao Te Ching has a long and complex textual history.
Known versions and commentaries date back two millennia, including ancient bamboo, silk, and paper manuscripts discovered in the twentieth century.
It is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections. There is some evidence that the chapter divisions were later additions—for commentary, or as aids to rote memorization—and that the original text was more fluidly organized.
It has two parts, the Tao Ching and the Te Ching, which may have been edited together into the received text, possibly reversed from an original Te Tao Ching. The written style is laconic, has few grammatical particles, and encourages varied contradictory interpretations.
The ideas are singular; the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces the reader to reconcile supposed contradictions.
The Chinese characters in the original versions were probably written in zhuànshū, while later versions were written in lìshū and kǎishū styles.
The historical authenticity of the author
The Tao Te Ching is ascribed to Laozi, whose historical existence has been a matter of scholarly debate. His name, which means “Old Master“, has only fueled controversy on this issue.
The first reliable reference to Laozi is his “biography” in Shiji (63, tr. Chan 1963:35–37), by Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC), which combines three stories. In the first, Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius (551–479 BC). His surname was Li, and his personal name was Er or Dan. He was an official in the imperial archives, and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the West; at the request of the keeper of the Han-ku Pass, Yinxi, Laozi composed the Tao Te Ching.
Second, Laozi was Lao Laizi (“Old Come Master”), also a contemporary of Confucius, who wrote a book in 15 parts. Third, Laozi was the grand historian and astrologer Lao Dan (“Old Long-ears”), who lived during the reign (384–362 BC) of Duke Xian of Qin.
Generations of scholars have debated the historicity of Laozi and the dating of the Tao Te Ching. Linguistic studies of the text’s vocabulary and rhyme scheme point to a date of composition after the Shijing yet before the Zhuangzi.
Legends claim variously that Laozi was “born old“; that he lived for 996 years, with twelve previous incarnations starting around the time of the Three Sovereigns before the thirteenth as Laozi. Some Western scholars have expressed doubts over Laozi’s historical existence, claiming that the Tao Te Ching is actually a collection of the work of various authors.
Many Taoists venerate Laozi as Daotsu, the founder of the school of Dao, the Daode Tianjun in the Three Pure Ones, and one of the eight elders transformed from Taiji in the Chinese creation myth.
Among the many transmitted editions of the Tao Te Ching text, the three primary ones are named after early commentaries. The “Yan Zun Version“, which is only extant for the Te Ching, derives from a commentary attributed to Han Dynasty scholar Yan Zun.
The “Heshang Gong Version” is named after the legendary Heshang Gong who supposedly lived during the reign (180–157 BC) of Emperor Wen of Han. This commentary has a preface written by Ge Xuan, granduncle of Ge Hong, and scholarship dates this version to around the 3rd century AD.
The “Wang Bi Version” has more verifiable origins than either of the above. Wang Bi was a famous Three Kingdoms period philosopher and commentator on the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching.
Tao Te Ching scholarship has advanced from archeological discoveries of manuscripts, some of which are older than any of the received texts. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, Marc Aurel Stein and others found thousands of scrolls in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang.
They included more than 50 partial and complete manuscripts. One written by the scribe So/Su Dan is dated 270 AD and corresponds closely with the Heshang Gong version. Another partial manuscript has the Xiang’er commentary, which had previously been lost.
Mawangdui and Guodian texts
In 1973, archeologists discovered copies of early Chinese books, known as the Mawangdui Silk Texts, in a tomb dating from 168 BC. They included two nearly complete copies of the text, referred to as Text A and Text B, both of which reverse the traditional ordering and put the Te Ching section before the Tao Ching, which is why the Henricks translation of them is named “Te-Tao Ching“.
Based on calligraphic styles and imperial naming taboo avoidances, scholars believe that Text A can be dated to about the first decade and Text B to about the third decade of the 2nd century BC.
In 1993, the oldest known version of the text, written on bamboo tablets, was found in a tomb near the town of Guodian in Jingmen, Hubei, and dated prior to 300 BC. The Guodian Chu Slips comprise about 800 slips of bamboo with a total of over 13,000 characters, about 2,000 of which correspond with the Tao Te Ching.
Both the Mawangdui and Guodian versions are generally consistent with the received texts, excepting differences in chapter sequence and graphic variants. Several recent Tao Te Ching translations utilize these two versions, sometimes with the verses reordered to synthesize the new finds.