Sunday, April 15, 2007

What is the Dao De Jing?

I sometimes get asked to comment on manuscripts by authors who write about Daoism. Usually the person asks me just as they are about to send it to the printer, and just as usually I am a bit of a "wet blanket". This comes about when people read a rotten "version" of the Dao De Jing and then start making a lot of big assertions about the religion.

Please note that I didn't write "translation" but "version". This is because the most popular editions of the book are written by people who don't even read Chinese---let alone classical Chinese. The worst offender of this is Stephen Mitchell, who has written a "fortune cookie" version that blandifies and dumbs down the text.

Let me try to give a quickie intro to what the book is really about:

The title is "The Way" (Dao) "Power" (De) "Classic" (Jing)

There are two very important issues that most people do not understand about the text.

First of all, it is a collection of wisdom sayings from an oral tradition. As such, the chapters are often composed of two or more items that have very little to do with each other. If you don't understand this point it is common to do real violence to the text in order to make a chapter "hang together".

Secondly, it is primarily a book about amassing political power. The idea is that if you understand the principles that govern the universe (i.e. "the Dao") you will amass enough "power" (i.e. "De") to be able to govern a state effectively.

Of course, these general principles often can be applied to ordinary life which is why it has common appeal, but the problem comes when modern Westerners assume that the book is a book of pop psychology or sort-of Christian theology. If it is, it is only in the same way that all gnomic sayings act like mirrors to reflect back our assumptions. At this point, however, it ceases to be a book of ancient wisdom and instead becomes a literary Rorschack (i.e. inkblot) test.


misha said...

Is there an english translation you recommend? If the Dao De Jing is primarily about amassing political power, how is it also religious? What are the main texts of the daoist? After I read Ellen Chen's translation, I thought I feel this way about religion - I am a daoist.

I sent you an email last week - I wonder did you get it?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I encourage people to read scholarly versions of all religious texts. Academics are usually people who are completely and utterly interested in the books and have devoted their lives to learning about them. As a result, you can often benefit from their hard-won knowledge. In the case of the Dao De Jing, I would suggest Russell Kirkland and Victor Mair.

As to "how is it also religious?", that's a very good question. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be "religious" and have come to the conclusion that religion has always been to a large extent about what sort of society we live in. If you read the New Testament, Christ was involved in a lot of talk about how people should relate to each other---which is ultimately what political power is all about.

I'd suggest that to me the key texts of Daoism are: The Dao De Jing, the Zhuangzi, the Liezi, the Taiping Jing, and the Nei Yeh. Luckily, there are now good scholarly translations of all of these books.

If you feel that you have found yourself as a Daoist, then I bow to a fellow travellor on the Way.