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Source Materials About Freedom


The following is a modernized, hyperlinked transcription of parts of volume 39 of The Sacred Books of the East (1891), titled The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Tâoism, translated by James Legge, in particular of the section named The Tâo Teh King, pages 47 to 124. The section immediately following is from Chapter III of the same work's Introduction, pages 12 to 15. Footnotes have been added or updated to reflect modern usage.

Before each section of the English translation, we have added the corresponding text of the Dào Dé Jīng, in traditional Chinese characters, from the Wáng Bì commentaries. However, we have punctuated the Chinese text, as much as feasible, to match the Legge translation. In his preface, Legge states that he consulted first the Héshàng Gōng version, then Wáng Bì's and third various other commentaries. Legge discusses notable version differences in his comments. For additional information on the received texts, including the late twentieth century discoveries at Mǎwángduī and Guōdiàn, the interested reader can consult the Lǎozǐ entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Legge translation uses his own romanization for Chinese names. We have rendered those names using pinyin romanization. For example, (pinyin: dào) is shown by Legge as Tâo and we render it as Dào. The appendix is a list of some of the Chinese and other individuals and works mentioned by Legge for ready reference. Others are linked to the main Freedom Circle pages.

The chapter headings are not part of the original text. They are attributed to Héshàng Gōng and Legge included them, together with his English translation (except in two instances), at the beginning of each chapter commentary.

What is the Meaning of the Name Dào?

The first translation of the Dào Dé Jīng into a Western language was executed in Latin by some of the Roman Catholic missionaries, and a copy of it was brought to England by a Mr. Matthew Raper, F.R.S., and presented by him to the Society at a meeting on the 10th January, 17881,—being the gift to him of P. Jos. de Grammont, 'Missionarius Apostolicus, ex-Jesuita.' In this version Dào is taken in the sense of Ratio, or the Supreme Reason of the Divine Being, the Creator and Governor.

M. Abel Rémusat, the first Professor of Chinese in Paris, does not seem to have been aware of the existence of the above version in London, but his attention was attracted to Lǎo's treatise about 1820, and, in 1823, he wrote of the character Dào, 'Ce mot me semble ne pas pouvoir être bien traduit, si ce n'est par le mot λόγος dans le triple sens de souverain Être, de raison, et de parole.'2

Rémusat's successor in the chair of Chinese, the late Stanislas Julien, published in 1842 a translation of the whole treatise. Having concluded from an examination of it, and the earliest Daoist writers, such as Zhuāngzǐ, Héguānzǐ, and Héshàng Gōng, that the Dào was devoid of action, of thought, of judgment, and of intelligence, he concluded that it was impossible to understand by it 'the Primordial Reason, or the Sublime Intelligence which created, and which governs the world,' and to this he subjoined the following note:—'Quelque étrange que puisse paraître cette idée de Lǎozǐ, elle n'est pas sans exemple dans l'histoire de la philosophie. Le mot nature n'a-t-il pas été employé par certains philosophes, que la religion et la raison condamnent, pour désigner une cause première, également dépourvue de pensée et d'intelligence?'3 Julien himself did not doubt that Lǎo's idea of the character was that it primarily and properly meant 'a way,' and hence he translated the title Dào Dé Jīng by 'Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu,'4 transferring at the same time the name Dào to the text of his version.

The first English writer who endeavoured to give a distinct account of Daoism was the late Archdeacon Hardwick, while he held the office of Christian Advocate in the University of Cambridge. In his 'Christ and other Masters' (vol. ii, p. 67), when treating of the religions of China, he says, 'I feel disposed to argue that the centre of the system founded by Lǎozǐ had been awarded to some energy or power resembling the "Nature" of modern speculators. The indefinite expression Dào was adopted to denominate an abstract cause, or the initial principle of life and order, to which worshippers were able to assign the attributes of immateriality, eternity, immensity, invisibility.'5

It was, probably, Julien's reference in his note to the use of the term nature, which suggested to Hardwick his analogy between Lǎozǐ's Dào, and 'the Nature of modern speculation.' Canon Farrar has said, 'We have long personified under the name of Nature the sum total of God's laws as observed in the physical world; and now the notion of Nature as a distinct, living, independent entity seems to be ineradicable alike from our literature and our systems of philosophy6.' But it seems to me that this metaphorical or mythological use of the word nature for the Cause and Ruler of it, implies the previous notion of Him, that is, of God, in the mind. Does not this clearly appear in the words of Seneca?—'Vis illum (h.e. Jovem Deum) naturam vocare, non peccabis:—hic est ex quo nata sunt omnia, cujus spiritu vivimus7.'8

In his translation of the Works of Zhuāngzǐ in 1881, Mr. Balfour adopted Nature as the ordinary rendering of the Chinese Dào. He says, 'When the word is translated Way, it means the Way of Nature,—her processes, her methods, and her laws; when translated Reason, it is the same as ,—the power that works in all created things, producing, preserving, and life-giving,—the intelligent principle of the world; when translated Doctrine, it refers to the True doctrine respecting the laws and mysteries of Nature.'9 He calls attention also to the point that 'he uses NATURE in the sense of Natura naturans, while the Chinese expression wàn wù (= all things) denotes Natura naturata.' But this really comes to the metaphorical use of nature which has been touched upon above. It can claim as its patrons great names like those of Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, and Spinoza, but I have never been able to see that its barbarous phraseology makes it more than a figure of speech10.

The term Nature, however, is so handy, and often fits so appropriately into a version, that if Dào had ever such a signification I should not hesitate to employ it as freely as Mr. Balfour has done; but as it has not that signification, to try to put a non-natural meaning into it, only perplexes the mind, and obscures the idea of Lǎozǐ.

Mr. Balfour himself says (p. xviii), 'The primary signification of Dào is simply "road."'11 Beyond question this meaning underlies the use of it by the great master of Daoism and by Zhuāngzǐ12. Let the reader refer to the version of the twenty-fifth chapter of Lǎo's treatise, and to the notes subjoined to it. There Dào appears as the spontaneously operating cause of all movement in the phenomena of the universe; and the nearest the writer can come to a name for it is 'the Great Dào.' Having established this name, he subsequently uses it repeatedly; see chh. xxxiv and liii. In the third paragraph of his twentieth chapter, Zhuāngzǐ uses a synonymous phrase instead of Lǎo's 'Great Dào,' calling it the 'Great ,' about which there can be no dispute, as meaning 'the Great Path,' 'Way,' or 'Course13.' In the last paragraph of his twenty-fifth Book, Zhuāngzǐ again sets forth the metaphorical origin of the name Dào. 'Dào,' he says, 'cannot be regarded as having a positive existence; existences cannot be regarded as non-existent. The name Dào is a metaphor used for the purpose of description. To say that it exercises some causation, or that it does nothing, is speaking of it from the phase of a thing;—how can such language serve as a designation of it in its greatness? If words were sufficient for the purpose, we might in a day's time exhaust the subject of the Dào. Words not being sufficient, we may talk about it the whole day, and the subject of discourse will only have been a thing. Dào is the extreme to which things conduct us. Neither speech nor silence is sufficient to convey the notion of it. When we neither speak nor refrain from speech, our speculations about it reach their highest point.'14

The Dào therefore is a phenomenon; not a positive being, but a mode of being. Lǎo's idea of it may become plainer as we proceed to other points of his system. In the meantime, the best way of dealing with it in translating is to transfer it to the version, instead of trying to introduce an English equivalent for it.


In chapter 14, what were the third and fourth sentences of Legge's notes have been replaced by a corrigendum added to the second printing (1927).

In chapters 19, 32, 42, 57 and 75 we added the corresponding selections from David Boaz's The Libertarian Reader15. The translations are "from The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought by Arthur Waley (New York: Grove, 1958), with some revisions and additional translations by Kate Xiao Zhou, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Hawaii"16.

Murray Rothbard discusses Lǎozǐ in a couple of pages of volume I of An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought17. He quotes parts of the Dào Dé Jīng as found in Kung-chuan Hsiao's History of Chinese Political Thought, as translated by Frederick W. Mote18. We have included these in chapters 30, 57 and 75.

For a far different interpretation, we have included translations found in Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming's Qigong Meditation: Embryonic Breathing19 and Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation20. While Legge mentions the Daoist management of breathing in a few places, Dr. Yang looks at the Dào Dé Jīng as one of the basic texts of Scholar Qìgōng (for health maintenance, contrasted with religious or martial qìgōng). Both books offer one or more translations of selected passages. We added one of those interpretations from the second book to the following chapters: 1, 10, 16, 25, 42, 51 and 55. We also provide the translations of chapters 5, 6, 10 and 16 found in the first book.


  1. "Presents made to the Royal Society from November 1787 to June 1788", Philosophical Transactions, of the Royal Society of London, Vol. LXXVIII, 1788, p. 437. ↩︎

  2. Abel-Rémusat, Mémoire sur la vie et les opinions de Lao-Tseu, philosophe chinois du VI.ᵉ siècle avant notre ère, Paris: L'Imprimerie Royale, 1823, p. 24. "It seems this word cannot be well translated, except by the word λόγος ['lógos'] in the triple sense of sovereign being, reason and spoken word" [Freedom Circle translation, emphasis as in original] ↩︎

  3. Stanislas Julien, Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu, Paris: L'Imprimerie Royale, 1842, p. xiii, note 1. "However strange this idea of Lǎozǐ may seem, it is not without example in the history of philosophy. Has not the word nature been used by certain philosophers, that religion and reason condemn, to designate a first cause, equally devoid of thought and intelligence?" [Freedom Circle translation, emphasis as in original] ↩︎

  4. "The Book of the Way and the Virtue" [Freedom Circle translation] ↩︎

  5. Charles Hardwick, Christ and Other Masters: An Historical Inquiry into Some of the Chief Parallelisms and Contrasts between Christianity and the Religious Systems of the Ancient World, Second edition, Vol. II, London and Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1863, p. 67. ↩︎

  6. Rev. Frederic W. Farrar, Language and Languages, New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1878, pp. 184-185. ↩︎

  7. L. Annei Senecae, Naturalium quaestionum, Liber secundus, caput XLV, Venice: Aldi et Andreae Asulani, 1522, p. 20. ↩︎

  8. "If you want to call him (i.e., the god Jupiter) nature, you will not be wrong:—this is from which all things were born, by whose spirit we live". [Freedom Circle translation] ↩︎

  9. Frederic Henry Balfour, The Divine Classic of Nan-Hua; being the Works of Chuang Tsze, Taoist Philosopher, Shanghai and Hongkong: Kelly & Walsh, 1881, p. xxxv. ↩︎

  10. James Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory, Vol. I, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885, p. 286; and his whole "Conjectural History of Spinoza's Thought", pp. 272-277. ↩︎

  11. Balfour, op. cit., p. xviii. ↩︎

  12. is equivalent to the Greek ή οδός, the way. Where this name for the Christian system occurs in our Revised Version of the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles, the literal rendering is adhered to, Way being printed with a capital W. See Acts ix. 2; xix. 9, 23; xxii. 4; xxiv. 14, 22↩︎

  13. 大塗. The Kāngxī dictionary defines tú by , road or way. Medhurst gives 'road.' Unfortunately, both Morrison and Williams overlooked this definition of the character. Giles has also a note in loc., showing how this synonym settles the original meaning of Dào in the sense of 'road.' [Freedom Circle note: "in loc." refers to Herbert A. Giles, A Chinese-English Dictionary, London: Bernard Quaritch, 1892, p. 1194, character 12,113.] ↩︎

  14. This translation is somewhat different from Legge's own translation in volume 40 of The Sacred Books of the East, The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Tâoism, Part II, p. 130. ↩︎

  15. David Boaz, The Libertarian Reader, New York: The Free Press, 1998, p. 208. ↩︎

  16. Ibid., p. 207. ↩︎

  17. Murray Rothbard, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume I, Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006, p. 23-24. ↩︎

  18. Kung-chuan Hsiao, A History of Chinese Political Thought, Volume 1: From the Beginning to the Sixth Century A.D., F. W. Mote (translator), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 294-296. ↩︎

  19. Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, Qigong Meditation: Embryonic Breathing. Boston: YMAA Publication Center, 2003. ↩︎

  20. Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation. Boston: YMAA Publication Center, 2006. ↩︎