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道德經: Classic on the Dào and its Virtue

The following is a modernized, hyperlinked transcription 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.

Before each section of the English translation, we have added the corresponding text of the Dao De Jing, in traditional Chinese characters, from the Wang Bi version. 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 Heshang Gong version, then Wang Bi'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 Mawangdui and Guodian, the interested reader can consult the Laozi entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Legge translation uses his own romanization for Chinese names. We have rendered those names mostly as found in modern reference material, usually pinyin romanization but without tone marks. For example, 道 (pinyin: dào) is shown by Legge as Tâo and we render it as Dao. The appendix includes a list of Chinese and other individuals and works mentioned by Legge for ready reference.

The chapter headings are not part of the original texts. They are attributed to Heshang Gong 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 Dao?

The first translation of the Dao De Jing 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, 1788,—being the gift to him of P. Jos. de Grammont, 'Missionarius Apostolicus, ex-Jesuita.' In this version Dao 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 Lao's treatise about 1820, and, in 1823, he wrote of the character Dao, '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.'1

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 Zhuangzi, Heguanzi, and Heshang Gong, that the Dao 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 Laozi, 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?'2 Julien himself did not doubt that Lao's idea of the character was that it primarily and properly meant 'a way,' and hence he translated the title Dao De Jing by 'Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu,'3 transferring at the same time the name Dao 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 Laozi had been awarded to some energy or power resembling the "Nature" of modern speculators. The indefinite expression Dao 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.'

It was, probably, Julien's reference in his note to the use of the term nature, which suggested to Hardwick his analogy between Laozi's Dao, 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 philosophy4.' 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 vivimus5.'6

In his translation of the Works of Zhuangzi in 1881, Mr. Balfour adopted Nature as the ordinary rendering of the Chinese Dao. 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.' He calls attention also to the point that 'he uses NATURE in the sense of Natura naturans, while the Chinese expression wan wû (= 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 speech7.

The term Nature, however, is so handy, and often fits so appropriately into a version, that if Dao 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 Laozi.

Mr. Balfour himself says (p. xviii), 'The primary signification of Dao is simply "road."' Beyond question this meaning underlies the use of it by the great master of Daoism and by Zhuangzi8. Let the reader refer to the version of the twenty-fifth chapter of Lao's treatise, and to the notes subjoined to it. There Dao 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 Dao.' Having established this name, he subsequently uses it repeatedly; see chh. xxxiv and liii. In the third paragraph of his twentieth chapter, Zhuangzi uses a synonymous phrase instead of Lao's 'Great Dao,' calling it the 'Great Thû,' about which there can be no dispute, as meaning 'the Great Path,' 'Way,' or 'Course9.' In the last paragraph of his twenty-fifth Book, Zhuangzi again sets forth the metaphorical origin of the name Dao. 'Dao,' he says, 'cannot be regarded as having a positive existence; existences cannot be regarded as non-existent. The name Dao 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 Dao. Words not being sufficient, we may talk about it the whole day, and the subject of discourse will only have been a thing. Dao 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.'

The Dao therefore is a phenomenon; not a positive being, but a mode of being. Lao'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 Reader, 1998, p. 208. 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".

Murray Rothbard discusses Laozi in a couple of pages of his Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume I, 2006, pp. 23-24. He quotes parts of the Dao De Jing as found in Kung-chuan Hsiao's A History of Chinese Political Thought, Volume 1: From the Beginning to the Sixth Century A.D. (translated by Frederic. W. Mote), 1979. 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 Breathing, 2003 and Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation, 2006. While Legge mentions the Daoist management of breathing in a few places, Dr. Yang looks at the Dao De Jing as one of the basic texts of Scholar Qigong (for health maintenance, contrasted with religious or martial qigong). 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. "It seems this word cannot be well translated, except by the word λόγος (Greek 'logos') in the triple sense of sovereign Being, reason and spoken word" [transcriber translation] ↩︎

  2. "However strange this idea of Laozi 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?" [transcriber translation] ↩︎

  3. "The Book of the Way and the Virtue" [transcriber translation] ↩︎

  4. Language and Languages, pp. 184, 185↩︎

  5. Natur. Quaest. lib. II, cap. xlv↩︎

  6. "If you prefer to call him (that is, the god Jupiter) nature, you will make no mistake; for it is he from whom all things derive being, and by whose breath we live". (translation by John Clarke in Physical Science in the Time of Nero, with parenthetical addition by transcriber) ↩︎

  7. Martineau's 'Types of Ethical Theory,' I, p. 286, and his whole 'Conjectural History of Spinoza's Thought.' ↩︎

  8. 道 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↩︎

  9. 大塗. The Kangxi dictionary defines thû 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 Dao in the sense of 'road.' ↩︎