The Tao Te Ching is a Chinese ancient text, one of the famous classics of the world. It is often called simply Lao Tzu (also Laozi or Lao-Tze) after the name of its author. . It’s a book discussing the Tao and the Te, and it is divided into 81 chapters; the first 37 chapters are also called the Tao Ching, and the next 44 chapters the Te Ching. Although in modern Chinese, Tao and Te have been combined into one word TaoTe (道德) to stand for morality or ethics, in the book of Tao Te Ching, they are two closely related separate terms. The Tao literally means “way”, but is of a dual meaning of “the knowledge of the truth” and “the ultimate energy in the universe” in the book, and the Te is the fundamental attribute (or virtue) of the Tao, which is of behavioral significance, in addition to the cognitive and physical significances.
The Tao Te Ching is the most translated classic in the world over the past couple of millenniums. Today if you go online to search for “Tao Te Ching” or “Lao Tzu” or “Laozi” or “Lao-Tze” or “道德经” or “老子”, you could find thousands different versions of translation of the Tao Te Ching in many different languages, mostly in English, and then in Chinese (the original language of the Tao Te Ching). Although the Bible is the most printed book, but the translation of the Bible is very restricted, the same for other religious books, and thus the Tao Te Ching somehow becomes the most translated classic, or even the most translated book, in the world.
Unfortunately and ironically, the Tao Te Ching is also at least one of the most misunderstood classics, if not the most misunderstood, in both western and eastern history.
Section 1 Lao Tzu was a naturalist
Despite that there are many myths or legendary stories about Lao Tzu, it is still not very certain among the scholars about when and where he was living, but many believed that he lived in 6th-century BC in the northern part of China.
As the central notion of the Tao Te Ching, the Tao (or translated as the Way) seemingly points to the supernatural domain, and Lao Tzu was also portrayed as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. Nonetheless, from his discourse in the Tao Te Ching, especially in Chapter 28, one of the most misinterpreted chapters so far, we can see that Lao Tzu was actually a naturalist, who did not believe any afterlife, but believed that human reproduction and nurturing of kids is the only channel for the ceaseless continuation of life as well as human the general societal operation.
In fact, one strange thing about knowing Lao Tzu is that, when chasing the shadow of Lao Tzu from the myths, all the scholars who study Lao Tzu seem to have overlooked one fact that, in comparison to the speculations based on the myths or legendary stories, Lao Tzu actually talked quite a lot about himself in the Tao Te Ching,
According to the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu did not live a socially active life as some legendary stories tell us, but lived a lonely life in the midst of a socially active community, which could be clearly seen from Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching:
People all like to hang out with friends, for things like celebrating sacrificial feasts, or ascending high places in spring. But I alone wander around, without knowing where to go. Undiscerning and innocent, I am like an infant; exhaustedly drifting around, I seem to have no place to return. All others are accompanied by friends, but I am alone as if abandoned. My heart is like that of a fool. Others all live for their goals, only am I dull; others all look around and talk to each other to find out what are going on, only am I staying quiet.
Besides, Lao Tzu felt sadly sorry for the fact that with no one could he share his mastery of the Tao (i.e. knowledge of the truth), as is expressed in Chapter 70 of the Tao Te Ching:
My words are easy to understand and easy to follow, yet no one in the world understands or follows what I have said.
Unfortunately, these self-descriptions of Lao Tzu have not only been ignored but even often been contradicted with opposite comments in those mythological style or legendary style stories about him. This phenomenon indeed reflects the current awkward status of the general scholastic comprehension of Lao Tzu.
Section 2 The structure of the Tao Te Ching
As we will see a little later, the No. 1 root cause for misunderstanding the Tao Te Ching is not its difficulty of language as has been claimed by many, but its philosophical profundity. As the direct consequence of that root cause, the misunderstanding of the original text due to its philosophical profundity has been first manifested in the large number of tremendous errors with the literal meanings in the text in all translations (including all Chinese translations) so far. However, the impact of those errors goes far beyond the sheer “controversial about the literal meanings” as has been claimed by the scholars in the field.
In fact, the most misunderstood part of the Tao Te Ching so far is its overall structural arrangement. The Tao Te Ching has been considered by many to be an anthology of separate essays without any logical structure across different chapters. This is because it is not easy to identify the structure within the Tao Te Ching without a careful examination by delving into the text. This ignorance of the internal logical connections between different chapters of the Tao Te Ching has entailed more serious peremptory claims about the chapter organization of the book or even the number of authors of the book.
In 1973, a copy of the Tao Te Ching was found during the famous archeological discovery of a Han Dynasty tomb from more than 2000 years ago. When that copy was unearthed, instead of the Tao Ching before the Te Ching as expected, the Te Ching was placed above the Tao Ching. Even though the placement of the Tao Ching and the Te Ching in that particular case could be simply according to the personal favoritism of the buried person, some scholars in the field of the Tao Te Ching began to claim that the original order should be the Te Ching before the Tao Ching, which means the currently supposed Chapter 38 should be Chapter 1, and the currently supposed Chapter 1 should be Chapter 45. Another even bolder claim about the Tao Te Ching is that it was not written by a single author but by many authors over a span of long time. We might easily reject the first one for its scantiness of the archeological particulars as Hegel commented against the third form of Reflective History in his “Philosophy of History”, and disapprove the second for the reason that the involvement of many people in its composition over a period of history is basically impossible if no one has truly comprehend the text as attested by the existence of severe mistakes in the translations by all the well-known figures so far in history. Besides, both claims are against the currently best accepted knowledge about the Tao Te Ching,
Nonetheless, as long as the Tao Te Ching is truly an anthology of independent essays, then any of the above claims would still have its ground of argument. But the existence of any structural arrangement through the text across chapters could be the best proof of an overall design by a single author, and also serve to invalidate the claim that the Tao Te Ching is truly an anthology of independent essays without an overall consistent logic through the text. In fact, as one example, we might find a clear structural arrangement from the meaningful response given in the ending chapter (Chapter 81) to the opening statement of Chapter 1, in addition to what I mentioned earlier about the response to the contents in Chapter 25 and from within Chapter 28, and many other instances (as I have demonstrated in my self-published book and online articles). But the ignorance of the structural arrangement is by no means the only failure for understanding the Tao Te Ching during the past two and a half millenniums. Chapter 28 provides a good example for which the naturally meaningful message delivered by the original text has been skewed by all the past translations.
Section 3 One example of the most mistranslated chapters --- Chapter 28
As one of the important classics of the world, unfortunately, the original text of the Tao Te Ching has been surprisingly misunderstood to a great degree in the past 2500 years, which includes the ignorance of the existence of some structural arrangement through the text, the missing of the extremely valuable knowledge about “knowing” in the opening chapter, the confusion about some quite straightforward description of natural processes, the lack of understanding of some ontological statements, and so on, in all translations so far. Of course, the problems in the translations of all other languages are rooted in the mainstream Chinese translations in the past.
We might get a sense of the severity of this unbelievably defective situation of translating the Tao Te Ching from the English translation of Chapter 28 as an example. Here a critical challenge is how to interpret a term, “perpetual virtue (常德)”, in the original text, which appears three times in Chapter 28: “perpetual virtue (常德) stays (不离)”, “perpetual virtue (常德) grows to its full (乃足)”, “perpetual virtue (常德) suffers no problem (不忒)”. One important point that has been ignored so far by all the past deciphers of the Tao Te Ching is that a replacement of “perpetual virtue (常德)” by the word “life” would perfectly fit in the contexts of those three places, while the meaning of “virtue” does universally exist in “pure life” for any language in the sense that when we speak of “pure life” we do sense its virtue. With this replacement, it becomes obvious that a very confusing term in that chapter, “stream of the world (天下溪)” is actually referring to seminal fluid, and thus the meaning of the whole Chapter 28 becomes logically clear. But so far I have not seen anyone else give a correct interpretation of it.
Before we further delve into Chapter 28, it’s worth knowing that, with Chinese logogram, sometimes a sentence might be formed with some implicated meanings. For example, in English when we say “he recovers from the sickness”, the only subject is clearly “he (or his health)”; but in Chinese, the same sentence could be translated into “他的(his)病(sickness)好了(is well)”, which literally says “his sickness is well”, but obviously, it should mean “his sickness is gone and he is well”. This works the same for both modern and ancient Chinese.
To save space, let’s have a close look at the English translation only for the first two sentences of Chapter 28. Those two sentences are originally formed by connecting the following groups of words together (dash sign “–” is used here within each group of words to show how the original sentences were formed with Chinese characters):
“知(know)”-“其(its)”- “雄(masculine)”, “守(keep, adhere)”-“其(its)”-“雌(feminine)”, “为(being)”-“天下(of the world)”-“溪(stream)”. “为(being)”-“天下(of the world)”-“溪(stream)”, “常德(perpetual virtue)”-“不离(stay with it)”, “复归于(return to)”-“婴儿(infant)”.
A meaningful straightforward translation should be as follows (my translation):
Knowing the masculine, but staying in the feminine, it is a stream of the world;
Being a stream of the world, it carries life, and thus it will be reincarnated into an infant.
Here the “Knowing” can also be replaced by “Coming from”. Now let’s compare the above translation to one of the Barnes & Noble Classics, translated by Charles Muller:
Know the Masculine, cleave to the Feminine, be the valley for everyone.
Being the valley for everyone, you are always in virtue without lapse, and you return to infancy.
Obviously, my translation is not only closer to the meaning of the original text but also makes a lot more sense than that of Muller. My translation of the whole Chapter 28 could be found in Section 4 of this article, and Muller’s translation of the whole Chapter 28 could be found in Section 5. Because of his misunderstanding, Muller even reversed the order of some sentences in Chapter 28, as is done in some of the past Chinese translations.
Although the deciphering measure of replacing “perpetual virtue” with “life” could critically help to understand Chapter 28, the main cause for the misinterpretations of Muller and all others so far has been indeed the philosophical confusion about that chapter. Since the Tao Te Ching has been portrayed as a text of moral teachings by many, people often try to push their translations into an atmosphere of moral significance and thus ignored the fact that the whole Tao Te Ching is a discussion about the Tao, not just moral or natural, and Chapter 28 offers an insight about how the Tao circulates in human society in the form of perpetual Te (life), which serves as an important fundamental part for knowing the Tao. As a matter of fact, in Chapter 25, Lao Tzu describes the Tao as, “ceaselessly repeating its own cycle, could be the mother of the universe”, which is manifested in Chapter 28 in a particular way.
A common blunder in the existing translations of Chapter 28 is the missing of the sense of “pure nothing” for the word “无极” which is the combination of “无(nothing)”and “极(extreme)”. Accordingly, some Chinese philosophers even claim that there is no such thing of “pure nothing” as in the western philosophy. This is one consequence of lacking a good understanding of Chapter 28. What Lao Tzu expresses in Chapter 28 is his view about how life is continued in the human world. By using the “无极(extreme of nothing)” he tells that no afterlife exists once a person dies, and thus the only way for the Tao to have life to continue in the world is through the process that he described in Chapter 28. Therefore, the “无极(extreme of nothing)” in Chapter 28 indeed refers to “nothing at all” (even not relating to the decaying corpus), which is the essence of “pure nothing”.
Therefore, from his discourse in the Tao Te Ching, we can see that Lao Tzu was actually a naturalist, even though his Tao seemingly points to the supernatural domain, and he was later portrayed as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.
Section 4 My English translations of four sample chapters
Since we don’t have the original text of Lao Tzu, current (both English and Chinese) translations are all based on the so-called “original text” from different versions of Chinese translation from long time ago. That means, although different modern translators might provide their own translations of the original text which might be very different from those ancient versions, the contents of the so-called “original text” have all been taken from this or that “original text” used by different ancient translators.
The problem is that there are some variations in the contents of those different versions of the “original text” (while basically they might all look close to each other), and unfortunately, some variations change the meanings of the translations. That alone tells the misunderstandings of the Tao Te Ching can be traced back to a couple of thousand years ago.
Because of the above reason, for my translation, I have decided to use a compilation of different commonly circulating versions of the Tao Te Ching for the text of the original work. I have made decisions on which version to follow for a specific part of the text whenever I see some critical discrepancies with the so-called “original text” between those versions.
The following are my English translations of four sample chapters (Chapters 1, 20, 25, and 28) of the Tao Te Ching:
The following original text for Chapter 1 is a compilation of that used by the famous HeShangGong (River’s old man, 河上公) and that used by the famous Nan HuaiJin (南怀瑾):
The next block shows how the original text of Chapter 1 is formed with groups of words in the Tao Te Ching (dash sign “–” is used here within each group of words to show how the original sentences were formed with Chinese characters):
“道(Tao)”-“可道(can be spoken of)”, “非(not)”-“常(true, normal, long)”-“道(Tao)”;
“名(name)”-“可名(can be named)”, “非(not)”-“常(true, normal, long)”-“名(name)”.
“有(having)”-“名(name)”-“万(tens of thousands)”-“物(things)”-“之母(mother of)”.
“故(so)”-“ 常(true, normal, long)”-“无(nothing)”- “欲以(intend)”-“观(see)”-“其(its)”-“ 妙(effect, nature)”,
“常(true, normal, long)”-“有(being, existence, having)”-“欲以(intend)”- “观(see)”-“其(its)”-“徼(boundary, border)”.
“此(this, these)”-“两(two)”-“者(things)”-“同(same)”-“出(out of)”-“而(but)”-“异(different)”-“名(name)”， “同(same)”-“谓之(call is)”-“玄(deep, mystery, dark)”.
“玄(deep, mystery, dark)”-“之又(then again)”-“玄(deep, mystery, dark)”，“众(many)”-“妙(effect, nature, secret)”-“之门(door of)”.
The following is my English translation of Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be said is not an eternal Tao,
The name that can be given is not an eternal name;
There was no name at the beginning of the universe,
Naming things is how we start to know them (i.e. the mother of the knowledge of things);
So without a name, we would only perceive the nature of a being,
With a name, we could discover the details and limits of that being (or notion);
Those two things come from the same one but differ in terms of name (neither “differ by name” nor “differ in name”, since one of them is “no name”),
So both are called mystery;
One mystery after another,
That’s the gate to the unknown knowledge of all things.
Special notes about the translation:
Note 1: Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching has been the most cited part of the Tao Te Ching, but also one of the most misunderstood parts of the book. Chapter 1 has been considered by many as about what is the Tao. When I started to translate the Tao Te Ching in 2007, I had not seen even a single Chinese translation correctly tell us that Chapter 1 is about the role of language in the creation of human knowledge system and accordingly the role of language in the learning and thinking processes of each individual. Even after I self-published my own Chinese book of translating the Tao Ching in 2011, and published one paper in a Hong Kong online philosophical journal in 2015, and posted many relevant blog articles, I still don’t see anyone who has ever learnt the true significance of Chapter 1 from my translation.
Obviously, the main blocker for people to understand Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching is its philosophical profundity concerning the human learning and thinking process. In fact, the essential role of language (through naming) in the process of learning (and thinking) was not clearly noticed by the western philosophers (scientists) until the late 19th or early 20th century, even though naming things is part of the very first chapter of the book Genesis; ironically, Chinese scholars were not aware of the relevant knowledge until they were taught by western philosophers.
Note 2: The Chinese character “徼(boundary, border)” has been generally considered the most confusing part in Chapter 1 by many. That is because many people are not aware that a name of an object could help us to notice the limit of our knowledge for that object (or notion).
Note 3: The third section of Chapter 1 tells that there are two basic ways of thinking: language based thinking and language-less thinking. In fact, these two ways of thinking correspond to the different essences of arts and philosophy.
The following original text for Chapter 20 is a compilation of that was found from the famous Mawangdui (马王堆) tomb, and that used by the famous HeShangGong (River’s old man, 河上公), and that used by the famous Wang Bi (王弼), and that used by the famous Nan Huijin (南怀瑾):
The next block shows how the original text of Chapter 20 is formed with groups of words in the Tao Te Ching (dash sign “–” is used here within each group of words to show how the original sentences were formed with Chinese characters):
“唯(agree, obey)”-“之(it, him, her, them, me)”-“与(and)”-“诃(blame, rebuke)”，“相( relative to)”-“去(distance)”-“几何(how much)”. “美(beauty)”-“之(it, him, her, them, me)”-“与(and)”-“恶(ugly)”，相(relative to)”-“去(distance)”-“若何(how much)”.
“人(man)”-“之(of)”-“所畏(feared by)”，“不可(should not)”-“不(not)”-“畏(fear)”. “荒兮(so barren)”，“其(is)”-“未(not yet)”-“央(end)”- “哉(ahh)”.
“众人(the multitude of people)”-“熙熙(happily gathering, crowded)”，“如(like, such as )”-“享(sacrifice)”-“太牢(royal ritual of sacrifice)”，如(like, such as)”-“春(spring)”-“登(ascend)”-“台(high place)”. “我(I)”-“独(alone)”-“泊兮(wandering ahh)”，“其(it)”-“未(not yet)”-“兆(sign, indication)”.
“沌沌兮(so undiscerning, innocent)”，如(like)”-“婴儿(infant)”-“之(of)”-“未(not yet)”-“孩(child)”. “儽儽兮(so exhausted)”，若(as if)”-“无(no)”-“所归(place to return)”.
“众人(the multitude of people)”-“皆(all)”-“有(having)”-“余(more)”，“而(but)”-“我(I)”-“独(alone)”-“若(like)”-“遗(abandon)”. “我(I)”-“愚人(fool)”-“之(of)”-“心(heart)”-“也哉(ahh)”.
“俗(worldly, ordinary, common, secular)”-“人(men)”-“昭昭(smart, sharp)”，“我(I)”-“独(alone)”-“昏昏(dull)”. “俗人(ordinary men, all others)”-“察察(looking and peeking around)”，“我(I)”-“独(alone)”-“闷闷(quiet)”.
“澹兮(so undulating like water)”-“其(it)”-“若(like)”-“海(sea)”，“飂兮(so floating)”-“若(like)”-“无止(no stop)”.
“众人(the multitude of people)”-“皆(all)”-“有(having)”-“以(that to be relied on, to be proud of)”，“而(but)”-“我(I)”-“独(alone)”-“顽(stubborn)”-“且(and)”-“鄙(not agreeable)”.
“我(I)”-“独(alone)”-“异于(different from)”-“人(people)”，“而(and)”-“贵(value, appreciate)”-“食(food)”-“母(mother)”.
The following is my English translation of Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching:
Being respected or being blamed,
how much different are they!
Beauty or ugliness,
how far from each other are they!
What all others fear
cannot be treated without fear.
So hopeless, no end ah!
People all like to hang out with friends,
for things like celebrating sacrificial feasts,
or ascending high places in spring.
But I alone wander around,
without knowing where to go.
Undiscerning and innocent,
I am like an infant;
Exhaustedly drifting around,
I seem to have no place to return.
All others are accompanied by friends,
but I am alone as if abandoned.
My heart is like that of a fool.
Others all live for their goals,
only am I dull;
Others all look around and talk to each other to find out what are going on,
only am I staying quiet.
Undulating like water, I seem to be at sea;
Floating with the wind, I seem to never stop.
People are all proud of something,
but I am alone stubborn and despise what they are proud of.
Different from others,
I value only the essentials.
Special notes about the translation:
Note 1: In Chapter 20, starting from the fourth sentence, Lao Tzu offers a self-description of his own life in contrast to the general culture of the community around him, from which we can see that he was not very social in the community, and he felt very lonely.
Note 2: The original text for the sentence “All others are accompanied by friends” in the above translation has often been translated as something like “People all have extra things” by some translators because the Chinese character “余” means extra; however, that translation does not get along with the next sentence “but I am alone as if abandoned” (as in the above translation). Therefore, that Chinese character “余” should be considered as “extra people (i.e. other people)” instead of “extra things”.
Note 3: The part before the sentence “So hopeless, no end ah.” (the first three sentences in the original text) is a bit tricky. They have been often translated (by both Chinese and English translators) with a tone that sounds like Lao Tzu asks people to ignore the differences between “being respected” and “being blamed” or “beauty” and “ugliness”. However, if we carefully sense the tone of the whole chapter, we could find that Lao Tzu was neither encouraging nor discouraging people to ignore those differences or what are feared by all others; instead, he was just tell his own natural feeling about the hopeless and meaningless situation in terms of those differences and the common fears. Yes, he lived a very different life from others in what he considered as hopeless environment, but obviously he did not simply ignore those differences, for otherwise he would not have said “What all others fear cannot be treated without fear.” In general, the philosophy of Lao Tzu does not encourage people to fight against the mainstream, even though he seemed to live in quite a different way from the mainstream.
The following original text for Chapter 25 is a compilation of that used by the famous Wang Bi (王弼), and that used by the famous Nan Huijin (南怀瑾):
The next block shows how the original text of Chapter 25 is formed with groups of words in the Tao Te Ching (dash sign “–” is used here within each group of words to show how the original sentences were formed with Chinese characters):
“有(there is)”-“物(thing)”-“混 (blurrily mixed)”-“成(formed)”，“先(before)”-“天(heaven)”-“地(earth)”-“生(birth)”.
“寂兮(so quiet)”-“寥兮(so lonely)”，“独立(independent)”-“而(but)”-“不(not)”-“改(change)”，“周(periodically)”-“行(moving)”-“而(and)”-“不(not)”-“殆(die)”，“可以为(could be)”-“天(heaven)”-“地(earth)”-“母(mother)”.
“吾(I)”-“不(not)”-“知(know)”-“其(its)”-“名(name)”，“强(manage to do)”-“字(naming)”-“之(it)”-“曰(calling)”-“道(Tao)”，“强((manage to do)”-“为(for)”-“之(it)”-“名(naming)”-“曰(calling)”-“大(big, great)”.
“大(great)”-“曰(is said)”-“逝(going away)”，“逝(going away)”-“曰(is said)”-“远(far)”，“远(far)”-“曰(is said)”-“反(reverse, return)”.
“域(domain, universe)”-“中(inside)”-“有(there are)”-“四(four)”-“大(great)”，“而(and)”-“人(man)”-“居(occupy, take)”-“其(of)”-“一(one)”-“焉(ahh)”.
“人(man)”-“法(law, restriction)”-“地(earth)”，“地(earth)”-“法(law, restriction)”-“天(heaven)”，“天(heaven)”-“法(law, restriction)”-“道(Tao)”，“道(Tao)”-“法(law, restriction)”-“自(self)”-“然(this way)”.
The following is my English translation of Chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching:
Something misty was formed before the birth of heaven and earth.
So quiet and so lonely,
independent and unchanging,
ceaselessly moving in its own recurring cycles,
it’s capable of being the mother of heaven and earth!
I don’t know its name,
so I name it as Tao, and also urged to call it as Great.
Being so great that it keeps moving away from me,
moving away makes it afar,
yet it always comes back from afar.
So the Tao is great, heaven is great, earth is great, and man is also great.
In the universe, there are the great four, and man is one of them.
Man is restricted by earth,
earth is restricted by heaven,
heaven is restricted by the Tao,
but the Tao acts at will.
Special notes about the translation:
Note 1: One frequently made mistake by modern translators with Chapter 25 is to mistranslate the “自然” in the last sentence of the original text as Nature. This is because in modern Chinese, the word “自然” means Nature, but in Chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching, “自然” means “as is its (the Tao’s) own way”.
Note 2: The central theme of Chapter 25 is about the great, unchanging, autonomous, and endlessly recurring nature of the Tao.
Note 3: Those three sentences of “Being so great that it keeps moving away from me, moving away makes it afar, yet it always comes back from afar.” might sound a bit confusing. They are actually used to describe the feeling when facing the greatness of the Tao: it’s so great that it won’t stay with us; however, it will then come back later. In Chapter 28, Lao Tzu shows one manifestation of “moving afar and then coming back” with the coming back of the Te through reproduction while the old people keep leaving for the complete nothing (death).
The following original text for Chapter 28 is a compilation of that used by the famous Wang Bi (王弼), and that used by the famous Nan Huijin (南怀瑾):
The next block shows how the original text of Chapter 28 is formed with groups of words in the Tao Te Ching (dash sign “–” is used here within each group of words to show how the original sentences were formed with Chinese characters):
“知(know)”-“其(its)”- “雄(masculine)”, “守(keep, adhere)”-“其(its)”-“雌(feminine)”, “为(being)”-“天下(of the world)”-“溪(stream)”. “为(being)”-“天下(of the world)”-“溪(stream)”, “常德(perpetual virtue)”-“不离(stay)”, “复归于(return to)”-“婴儿(infant)”.
“知(know)”-“其(its)”- “荣(honor, glory)”, “守(keep, adhere)”- “其(its)”- “辱(shame, humiliation)”, “为(being)”- “天下(of the world)”- “谷(valley, basin)”.
“为(being)”-“天下(of the world)”-“谷(valley, basin)”, “常德(perpetual virtue)”-“乃足(then to its full)”, “复归于(return to)”- “朴(unprocessed log, kid)”.
“知(know)”-“其(its)”- “白(white)”, “守(keep, adhere)”- “其(its)”- “黑(black)”, “为(being)”-“天下(of the world)”-“式(pattern, manner)”.
“为(being)”-“天下(of the world)”-“式(pattern, manner)”, “常德(perpetual virtue)”-“不忒(error, problem)”, “复(again)”- “归于(return to)”- “无极(extreme of nothing)”.
“朴(unprocessed log, kid)”- “散(spread, disperse)”- “则(then)”- “为(become)”- “器(implement)”, “圣人(sage, leader)”- “用之(use it)”, “则(role model)”- “为(become)”- “官长(officer)”, “故(so)”-“大制(grand system)”-“不(no)”-“割(cut)”.
The following is my English translation of Chapter 28 of the Tao Te Ching:
Knowing (or Coming from) the masculine, but staying in the feminine,
it is a stream of the world;
Being a stream of the world, it carries life,
thus it will be reincarnated into an infant.
Knowing the glory (of life), yet enduring the humiliation by itself,
it is the holder of the world.
Being in the holder of the world, life grows to its full term,
and then is reincarnated to a baby (or an unprocessed log, meaning a kid).
Knowing the white (or People with white hair working outside in the day time),
and keeping the black (or Protecting and nurturing the kids of black hair who stay at home),
it is the common way of life.
In this common way,
life continues without being ruined,
and the carriers of life would go back to the extreme of nothing (i.e. pure nothing).
The kids (or the unprocessed log) will leave home (or spread out) and become implements for the society,
the leaders will use them,
and the outstanding ones will become officers in the society;
In this way, the systematic functioning of the world is not interrupted.
Special notes about the translation:
Note 1: Chapter 28 offers an insight about how the Tao circulates in human society in the form of perpetual Te (life), which serves as an important fundamental part for knowing the Tao. In the text, it also serves as a response to the comment he made in Chapter 25 about the Tao as, “ceaselessly moving in its own recurring cycles, capable of being the mother of heaven and earth!.”
Note 2: As introduced earlier, a key measure taken in the translation is to replace the “常德(perpetual virtue)” with “life” in three places.
Note 3: When the character “则” appears at its first place in Chapter 28, it means “then”, and at its second place, it means “role model”.
Note 4: As previously pointed out in Section 1, from the description of how “perpetual virtue (常德)” (life) is circulated in human world through the reproduction and nurturing, as well as the use of the term “无极” (pure nothing), we could see that Lao Tzu was actually a naturalist.
Section 5 Samples of Existing Published Translations of the Tao Te Ching:
The following are sample published translations by three different translators for the sample chapters in the above Section 4:
1) Translation of Charles Muller:
The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
While naming is the origin of the myriad things.
Therefore, always desireless, you see the mystery
Ever desiring, you see the manifestations.
These two are the same ------
When they appear they are named differently.
This sameness is the mystery,
Mystery within mystery;
The door to all marvels.
2) Translation of Ursula K. Le Guin
The way you can go
isn't the real way.
The name you can say
isn't the real name.
Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name's the mother
of the ten thousand things.
So the unwanting soul
sees what's hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
3) Translation of James Legge
The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven
and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all
Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.
Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development
takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them
the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that
is subtle and wonderful.
1) Translation of Charles Muller:
Get rid of "learning" and there will be no anxiety.
How much difference is there betwee "yes" and "no"?
How far removed from each other are "good" and "evil"?
Yet what the people are in awe of cannot be disregarded.
I am scatter, never having been in a comfortable center.
All the people enijoy themselves as if they are at the
festival of the great sacrifice,
Or climbing the Spring Platform.
I alone remain, not yet haviong shown myself.
Like an infant who has not yet laughted.
Weary, like one desparing of no home to retur to.
All the people enjoy extra
While I have left everything behind.
I am ignprant of the minds of others.
While average people are clear and bright, I alone am obscure.
Average people know everything,
To me alone all seems covered.
Like the ocean.
It seems there is no place to rest.
Everybody has a goal in mind.
I alone am as ignorant as a bumpkin.
I alone differ from people.
I enjoy being nourished by the mother.
2) Translation of Ursula K. Le Guin:
How much difference between yes and no?
What difference between good and bad?
What the people fear
must be feared.
Not yet, not yet has it reached its limit!
cheerful as if at a party,
or climbing a tower in springtime.
And here I sit unmoved,
clueless, like a child,
a baby too young to smile.
Like a homeless person.
Most people have plenty.
I'm the one that's poor,
a fool right through.
Most people are so bright.
I'm the one that's dull.
Most people are so keen.
I don't have the answers.
Oh, I'm desolate, at sea,
adrift, without harbor.
Everybody has something to do.
I'm the clumsy one, out of place.
I'm the different one,
for my food
is the milk of the mother.
3) Translation of James Legge:
When we renounce learning we have no troubles.
The (ready) 'yes,' and (flattering) 'yea;'--
Small is the difference they display.
But mark their issues, good and ill;--
What space the gulf between shall fill?
What all men fear is indeed to be feared; but how wide and without end
is the range of questions (asking to be discussed)!
The multitude of men look satisfied and pleased; as if enjoying a
full banquet, as if mounted on a tower in spring. I alone seem
listless and still, my desires having as yet given no indication of
their presence. I am like an infant which has not yet smiled. I look
dejected and forlorn, as if I had no home to go to. The multitude of
men all have enough and to spare. I alone seem to have lost
everything. My mind is that of a stupid man; I am in a state of
Ordinary men look bright and intelligent, while I alone seem to be
benighted. They look full of discrimination, while I alone am dull
and confused. I seem to be carried about as on the sea, drifting as
if I had nowhere to rest. All men have their spheres of action, while
I alone seem dull and incapable, like a rude borderer. (Thus) I alone
am different from other men, but I value the nursing-mother (the Tao).
1) Muller’s translation:
There is something that is perfevct in its disorder
Which is born before Heaven and Earth.
So silent and desolate! It establishes itself without renewal.
Functions universally without lapse.
We can regard it as the Mother of Everything.
I don't know its name.
Hence, when forced to name it, I call it "Tao."
When force to categorize it, I call it "great."
Greatness entails transcendence.
Transecendence entails going-far.
Going-far entails return.
Hence, Tao is great, Heaven is great, the Earth is great
And the human is also great.
Within our realm there are four greatnesses and the human being is one o them.
Human beings follow the Earth.
Earth follows Heaven
Heaven follows the Tao
The Tao follows the way things are.
2) Le Guin’s translation:
There is something
that contains everything.
Before heaven and earth
Oh, it is still, unbodied,
all on its own, unchanging,
So it can act as the mother
of all things.
Not knowing its real name,
we only call it the Way.
If it must be named,
let its name be Great.
Greatness means going on,
going on means going far,
and going far means turning back.
So they say: "The Way is great,
heaven is great,
earth is great,
and humankind is great;
four greatnesses in the world,
and humanity is one of them."
People follow earth,
earth follows heaven,
heaven follows the Way,
the Way follows what is.
3) Legge’s translation:
There was something undefined and complete, coming into
existence before Heaven and Earth. How still it was and formless,
standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in
no danger (of being exhausted)! It may be regarded as the Mother of
I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao
(the Way or Course). Making an effort (further) to give it a name I
call it The Great.
Great, it passes on (in constant flow). Passing on, it becomes
remote. Having become remote, it returns. Therefore the Tao is
great; Heaven is great; Earth is great; and the (sage) king is also
great. In the universe there are four that are great, and the (sage)
king is one of them.
Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from
Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Tao. The law of the Tao is its
being what it is.
1) Muller’s translation:
Know the Masculine, cleave to the Feminine
Be the valley for everyone.
Being the valley for everyone
You are always in virtue without lapse
And you return to infancy.
Know the White, cleave to the Black
Be a model for everyone.
Being the model for everyone
You are always in virtue and free from error
You return to limitless.
Know Glory but cleave to Humiliation
Be the valley for everyone.
When your constancy in virtue is complete
You return to the state of the "uncarved block."
The block is cut into implements
The sage uses them to fulfill roles.
Therefore the great tailor does not cut.
2) Le Guin’s translation:
and staying woman,
be the riverbed of the world.
Being the world's riverbed
of eternal unfailing power
is to go back again to be newborn.
and staying dark,
be a pattern to the world.
Being the world's pattern
of eternal unerring power
is to go back again to boundlessness.
and staying modest,
be the valley of the world.
Being the world's valley
of eternal inexhaustible power
is to go back again to the natural.
3) Legge’s translation:
Who knows his manhood's strength,
Yet still his female feebleness maintains;
As to one channel flow the many drains,
All come to him, yea, all beneath the sky.
Thus he the constant excellence retains;
The simple child again, free from all stains.
Who knows how white attracts,
Yet always keeps himself within black's shade,
The pattern of humility displayed,
Displayed in view of all beneath the sky;
He in the unchanging excellence arrayed,
Endless return to man's first state has made.
Who knows how glory shines,
Yet loves disgrace, nor e'er for it is pale;
Behold his presence in a spacious vale,
To which men come from all beneath the sky.
The unchanging excellence completes its tale;
The simple infant man in him we hail.
The unwrought material, when divided and distributed, forms
vessels. The sage, when employed, becomes the Head of all the
Officers (of government); and in his greatest regulations he employs
no violent measures.
Section 6 Closing Remark: The problem, its cause, and the solution
We have a serious problem with the existing translations for one of the world famous classics, the Tao Te Ching, which is because translations in all languages have been following various Chinese mainstream translations of the original text, but there have been serious mistakes in all the past Chinese translations. So the solution is obvious: we need a new translation from the original text. Since we could get a reliable version of original text through the compilation of some famous historical versions, we could have a good translation directly from the reliable version of the original text without counting on any specific existing Chinese mainstream translation
Furthermore, we surely can have a better translation than the existing ones because, as is already seen in Section 4, the major blocker to understanding the Tao Te Ching is its philosophical profundity, instead of its difficulty of language as has always been falsely claimed by many in the field. If the language was the main hurdle, then we would be less advantageous than people of the ancient times who used the ancient language of Chinese every day, since we need to first understand the original text anyway. However, if the philosophical profundity of the original text is the major hurdle, people like me would gain advantages for deciphering its philosophically profound insights of natural and social dynamics (e.g. in Chapter 1 and Chapter 28) over people who have always been living in a monocultural environment, in addition to the advantage of the mastering of modern scientific knowledge. In term of philosophical background, what matters in this endeavor is neither the institutional exposition of metaphysics or textbook knowledge about the history of philosophy, but the capacity of philosophizing for various issues in the social and natural domains as I have done for the past decade. Besides, philosophy in general has been known as an open book of ciphertext, in the sense that many philosophical works have been there for hundreds or thousands of years, but still not well comprehended by institutional professionals although they are all very good at reading books.
More importantly, starting from 2007, I have conducted in-depth studies of the Tao Te Ching, and have accumulated quite some advanced knowledge (as attested by my book and online articles), which is apparently still unfamiliar or even unknown to the public for many reasons. Furthermore, over the past 2500 years, in spite of the serious misunderstandings of the original text, some fundamentals for reading the Tao Te Ching have been well established (e.g. punctuations etc). Therefore, it is possible to have a correct new translation of the Tao Te Ching directly from a reliable version of the original text.
 Deciphering Lao Tzu Tao Te Chin, R Dai, Published by AuthorHouse, 2011 (self-publish) (ISBN: 9781456729325)
 E.g. http://www.hkshp.org/modernhumanities/201512/2015-12-19dai_rong_qing.htm