UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Tao Teh King

Lao-TzuTaoist believe that Lao-Tze wrote a book which is still extant under the title of Tao Teh King. The book was not divided into so many chapters, but simply into an "upper" and a "lower" scroll; the "upper scroll" beginning with the passage on the nature of the Tao and the "lower scroll" with that of the Teh, just as moderns have them in the present Tao Teh King. A dwindling minority still believe that moderns possess that ancient book in the well-known Tao- Te- Ching.

Lao-tze, "the old one," once Keeper of the Royal Archives of the Tchou dynasty, may have worked upon Hindu ideas and suggestions when he taught to his disciples, his Tao teh King, a work unique in character, and the most abstruse of Ancient Chinese literature. When he had resigned his post, and going away through the (Han-ku) passage (of S.W. Honan, therefore going westwards) he left with the keeper of the gate his work of a little over 5000 words in two parts on the Tao and Teh.

It must be stated that throughout what are generally believed to be the writings of Confucius the name of Lao Tzu is never once mentioned. It is not mentioned by Tso of the famous commentary, nor by the editors of the Confucian Analects, nor by Tseng Ts'an, nor by Mencius. Chuang Tzu, who devoted all his energies to the exposition and enforcement of the teaching of Lao Tzu, never once drops even a hint that his Master had written a book. In his work will now be found an account of the meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, but it has long since been laughed out of court as a pious fraud by every competent Chinese critic. Chu Hsi, Shen Jo-shui, and many others, declare emphatically s against the genuineness of the Tao-Ti-Ching; and scant allusion would indeed have been made to it here, were it not for the attention paid to it by several more or less eminent foreign students of the language.

The Tao Teh King is a collection of aphorisms and not a systematic treatise on philosophy. Is this, however, reasonable ground for assuming that Lao-Tze wrote his work when his health was broken down, and does this fact account for his somewhat unintelligible style of writing? The probability is that LaoTze was not so careful in writing as modern writers are, and that he simply put down his thoughts as they flashed through his mind, however incoherent they were. Chinese philosophers, before the introduction of Buddhism, were as a rule very unsystematic. As for Lao-Tze, this irregularity was in full accord with his character and mode of thinking.

Several copies of his teachings, varying in accuracy, completedness, and subsequent additions, out of which has been edited the present work about the third century BC, seem to have circulated at first between his disciples. The text has obviously suffered in the transcriptions of one style of writing to another.

About the middle of the 2nd century BC a book of Lao's was a favorite with the widowed empress of the second Han emperor. The emperor King (156-143 BC) is said to have made it a 'classic.' Still further back than Si-ma Ch'ien we have in Hwainan (t 122 BC), Han Fei (t 230 BC), and Chwang-tse (4th cent. BC) many quotations from Lao-tse (or Lao Tan) which are to be found in the Tao-Teh, King. According to Legge, the first two of these authors quote the whole or parts of 71 out of the 81 chapters of that book. On a review of the evidence thus summarized, Legge concludes that he does not know of any other book of so ancient a date of which the authenticity of the origin and genuineness of the text are so well substantiated.

Criticism, however, has been busy both with Lao-tse and with his book. Founding upon the name Lao-tee, which may mean equally well "old philosopher" or "old philosophers," an extreme criticism has resolved him into a number of ancient thinkers, some of whose savings are preserved in the Tao-Teh King. For this view there is no ground except the ambiguity of the name.

A less drastic criticism, of which Herbert A. Giles of Her Majesty's Consular Service in China [the pioneer of the Wade-Giles Romanization system for the transliteration of Chinese] is representative, allows that at a remote period Lao-tse lived and thought and taught, and that some fragments of his teaching are preserved in the Tao-Teh King, in which we have those fragments pieced together by a not too skilful forger of the 2nd century BC with padding of his own. Giles, one of the ablest Chinese scholars then living, vehemently called into question [in " The Remains of Lao-tze retranslated" in the China Review for the months of March and April, 1886] the age to which the has been assigned, and the truth of its authorship by Lao-tze to whom it has been ascribed.

The translator wanted the work to be undoubtedly a forgery, containing much that Lao-tze said, but more that he did not. His canons of criticism are as follows, he considers as gibberish, rigmarole or nonsense all passages that he cannot understand, and as forgeries all those which in a non-exhaustive enquiry he has not found quoted in later authors of the following centuries. According to Giles, "It is interesting as a collection of many genuine utterances of Lao Tzu, sandwiched however between thick wads of padding from which little meaning can be extracted except by enthusiasts who curiously enough disagree absolutely among themselves.... That there was such a philosopher as Lao Tzu who lived about the time indicated, and whose sayings have come down to us first by tradition and later by written and printed record, cannot possibly be doubted. The great work of Chuang Tzu would be sufficient to establish this beyond cavil, while at the same time it forms a handy guide to a nearer appreciation of this elusive Tao."

Chinese scholars, especially those ancient writers in whose times the art of printing was yet unknown, were notoriously careless with their quotations; they rarely took pains to cite the original as literally and as faith fully as modern writers do; they even went so far as to twist the real meaning of a quotation so as to make it suit their own purposes. Add to this the vagueness of Chinese syntactical construction, and there is left the widest scope for misquotations. Giles's statement that "many of Han Fei Tze's quotations make sense where the corresponding sentences in the Tao Teh King make nonsense," proves nothing. Han Fei Tze had his own way of interpreting Lao-Tze's sayings, which, however, we are by no means bound to accept as true. Han Fei Tze's "Explanations" and "Illustrations" are not a text-commentary to Lao-Tze, but a collection of comments. He picked up from Lao-Tze those passages which suited his purpose.

The criticism, however, by which it is attempted to establish this conclusion is somewhat crude. Giles is right when he says that Lao-Tze's writing was not known in SzeMa Ch'ien's time under the present title of Tao Teh King. Like many other philosophers' works in those days, it is highly probable that the work which we at present know as Tao Teh King was then known simply as Lao-Tze. The work of Chuang Chou is called Chuang-Tze; that of Mencius, Mencius; that of Lieh-Tze, Lieh-Tze, and so forth. Only the work of Confucius was not named after its author, for it was not written by him, but compiled by his disciples.

The external evidence at least does not support it; nor is it warranted by the occurrence in early Taoist writers of sayings ascribed to Lao-tse which do not appear in the Tao-Teh King and of sayings ascribed to Hwang-u which do appear there, or by the evidence adduced from the Tao-Teh King itself (repetitions, quotations, late characters, rhyme), while the discrimination of what is admitted as genuinely from Lao-tse from what is rejected as compiler's padding is too subjective to be convincing. In favor of the earlier date of the Tao-Teh King it may be noted that, in its general type of teaching and In the avoidance of technical terms current in later Taoist authors it leaves on the reader the impression that it belongs to a less developed stage of Taoist thought than is found in them.

Tao Teh King is a collection of aphorisms, not an exposition of systematic thoughts. Lao-Tze was a child of the sixth century BC and had therefore no ambition to present his philosophical views of life and the universe after the manner of Kant or Hegel in accordance with the strict logical process of thinking of European thinkers. As a mystic he merely wrote down the thoughts with which he was inspired by his wonderful intuitive knowledge. If we accept the present division into chapters as a guide to their meaning, we may not infrequently find ourselves at sea, but the lack of coherency and the obscurity of the Tao Teh King have nothing to do with its authenticity.

The Tao-Teh King still awaits a thorough application of sound critical principles.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:12:21 ZULU