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A fundamental book of the Taoist, the Tao Te Ching is regarded as a revelation in its own right. It provides a wealth of wisdom and insights for those seeking a better understanding of themselves. Over time, many changes have been made to the original Chinese text. Researcher Patrick M. Byrne has produced a translation that is accurate and easy to understand, while capturing the pattern and harmony of the original.

Lao Tzu Patrick M. Byrne
Author Bio

Lao Tzu was a mystic philosopher of ancient China, and best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching.

Patrick M. Byrne, PhD, received his undergraduate degree in Asian studies and philosophy from Dartmouth College, a

certification from Beijing Teachers University, his master’s degree from Cambridge University, and his doctorate in philosophy from Stanford University.

Table of contents


                        A Note on Transliteration 


                        The Historical Record by Si-Ma Qian 

Book I�Tao

            1          Actualizing the Tao 

            2          Self-Culture 

            3          Keeping Peace Among the People 

            4          The Sourceless 

            5          The Use of Emptiness 

            6          The Accomplishment of Form 

            7          Sheathing the Radiance 

            8          Changing Nature 

            9          Practicing Smoothness 

            10        Being Able to Act 

            11        Using the Non-Being 

            12        Restraining Desire 

            13        Loathing Disgrace 

            14        Appreciating the Mysterious 

            15        Revealing the Te 

            16        Returning to the Root

            17        Simplifying Style 

            18        Belittling the Vulgar 

            19        Returning to the Simple 

            20        Differing from the Plebeian 

            21        Emptying the Heart

            22        Increasing Humility

            23        The Empty Non-Being 

            24        Suffering Favor

            25        The Form of the Profound 

            26        The Te of Dignity 

            27        Using Skill

            28        Returning to Simplicity

            29        Not Acting 

            30        Frugality in War 

            31        Eliminating War 

            32        The Virtue of the Sage 

            33        Negotiating Te 

            34        Allowing Change 

            35        Benevolence and Te 

            36        Subtle Enlightenment 

            37        Administering the Government 

Book II�Te

            38        Analyzing Te 

            39        Model the Root 

            40        Avoiding Utility 

            41        Similarity and Disparity 

            42        Tao Transforming 

            43        Universal Utility 

            44        Establishing Warnings 

            45        Grand Te 

            46        Moderating Desire 

            47        Surveying the Distant 

            48        Forgetting Knowledge 

            49        Trusting in Te

            50        Cherishing Life 

            51        Nurturing Te 

            52        Returning to the Origin 

            53        Gaining Insight 

            54        Cultivating Perception 

            55        The Seal of Mystery 

            56        Profound Te 

            57        Simplicity of Habit 

            58        Adapting to Change 

            59        Keeping to the Tao 

            60        Maintaining One’s Position 

            61        The Te of Humility 

            62        Acting in Tao 

            63        Contemplating the Beginning 

            64        Guarding the Obscure 

            65        The Simplicity of Te 

            66        Placing Oneself Behind

            67        The Three Treasures 

            68        Complying with Heaven 

            69        The Function of the Obscure 

            70        Knowing the Difficult

            71        Knowing Sickness

            72        Loving the Self

            73        Allowing It to Happen 

            74        Curtailing Delusion 

            75        The Waste in Greediness 

            76        Beware of Strength 

            77        The Tao of Heaven 

            78        Trusting to Faith 

            79        Upholding Contracts 

            80        Independence

            81        Making Plain the Essential 


                        About the Translator 

Introduction or preface



                        A Note on Transliteration,  ix

                        Introduction,  1

                        The Historical Record by Si-Ma Qian,  9

Book I�Tao

            1          Actualizing the Tao,  13

            2          Self-Culture,  14

            3          Keeping Peace Among the People,  15

            4          The Sourceless,  16

            5          The Use of Emptiness,  16

            6          The Accomplishment of Form,  17

            7          Sheathing the Radiance,  17

            8          Changing Nature,  18

            9          Practicing Smoothness,  19

            10        Being Able to Act,  20

            11        Using the Non-Being,  21

            12        Restraining Desire,  22

            13        Loathing Disgrace,  23

            14        Appreciating the Mysterious,  24

            15        Revealing the Te,  26

            16        Returning to the Root,  27

            17        Simplifying Style,  28

            18        Belittling the Vulgar,  29

            19        Returning to the Simple,  29

            20        Differing from the Plebeian,  30

            21        Emptying the Heart,  31

            22        Increasing Humility,  32

            23        The Empty Non-Being,  33

            24        Suffering Favor,  34

            25        The Form of the Profound,  34

            26        The Te of Dignity,  36

            27        Using Skill,  37

            28        Returning to Simplicity,  38

            29        Not Acting,  39

            30        Frugality in War,  41

            31        Eliminating War,  42

            32        The Virtue of the Sage,  44

            33        Negotiating Te,  45

            34        Allowing Change,  46

            35        Benevolence and Te,  47

            36        Subtle Enlightenment,  48

            37        Administering the Government,  49

Book II�Te

            38        Analyzing Te,  53

            39        Model the Root,  55

            40        Avoiding Utility,  57

            41        Similarity and Disparity,  58

            42        Tao Transforming,  60

            43        Universal Utility,  61

            44        Establishing Warnings,  62

            45        Grand Te,  63

            46        Moderating Desire,  65

            47        Surveying the Distant,  66

            48        Forgetting Knowledge,  67

            49        Trusting in Te,  68

            50        Cherishing Life,  70

            51        Nurturing Te,  71

            52        Returning to the Origin,  72

            53        Gaining Insight,  73

            54        Cultivating Perception,  74

            55        The Seal of Mystery,  76

            56        Profound Te,  78

            57        Simplicity of Habit,  79

            58        Adapting to Change,  80

            59        Keeping to the Tao,  82

            60        Maintaining One’s Position,  83

            61        The Te of Humility,  84

            62        Acting in Tao,  86

            63        Contemplating the Beginning,  87

            64        Guarding the Obscure,  88

            65        The Simplicity of Te,  90

            66        Placing Oneself Behind,  91

            67        The Three Treasures,  92

            68        Complying with Heaven,  93

            69        The Function of the Obscure,  94

            70        Knowing the Difficult,  95

            71        Knowing Sickness,  96

            72        Loving the Self,  97

            73        Allowing It to Happen,  98

            74        Curtailing Delusion,  99

            75        The Waste in Greediness,  100

            76        Beware of Strength,  101

            77        The Tao of Heaven,  103

            78        Trusting to Faith,  105

            79        Upholding Contracts,  106

            80        Independence,  107

            81        Making Plain the Essential,  109

                        Bibliography,  111

                        About the Translator,  113


Legend has it that an elderly scholar in ancient China, a historian and philosopher perhaps twenty years senior to Confucius, journeyed to the western edge of the empire with the intent of wandering off into the wilderness. There at the frontier a gate-keeper, concerned that such a ­respected man of learning was soon to be lost to barbarian lands, asked the scholar to write a book to leave at the border. The old man distilled a lifetime of learning into about five thousand two hundred and fifty words, then left.

There are over four hundred commentaries on those words, and fragments of several hundred more. It is the most dissected and analyzed book in Chinese literature; its effect on Chinese culture and thought rivals that of Confucius and Buddha. After the Bible, it is the most frequently translated piece of literature in the world; there are more than forty English versions.

Yet the old man was laconic to the point of obscurity; rarely do any two commentaries agree on the exact meaning of his words, and agreement between translators has been rarer still. What is rendered by one, for example, as “The ruler in always carrying out the Tao / Does not abandon his tranquility and sedateness” is given by another as “Therefore the sage travels all day / Without leaving his baggage.” To complicate matters even further, it seems notes scribbled in the margins by some scholars were mistaken for lines of text by later readers, until literally dozens of versions of the book came into being. These in turn spawned more commentaries aimed at reconstructing the original text.

At some point in the process, probably in the second ­century bc, the text was divided into eighty-one chapters. By the time of the great historian Si-ma Qian (Sze-ma Ch’ien, 185–136 bc?), the Herodotus of the Orient, the chapters had been arranged in two books: the first thirty-seven comprise the “higher” Book I, discussing Tao, while the latter forty-four make up the “lower” Book II, discussing Te. Tao and Te translate loosely as “way” and “virtue” (more on these concepts later); thus the book became known as the “Scripture of the Way of Virtue,” the Tao Te Ching.

The Historical Records of Si-ma Qian indicate that the old man, whose name Lao Tzu () means literally “old fellow” or “old master,” met with Confucius in approximately 518 bc. Si-ma Qian states elsewhere, however, that Lao Tzu’s son served as a general in 273 bc. This and other discrepancies have led scholars to date Lao Tzu and his text from as early as the sixth century bc to as late as the second century bc. For some time it has been suggested that Lao Tzu never existed, and that the book attributed to him is a mere compilation of ancient sayings. According to this thesis, the biography given in the Historical Records was only Si-ma Qian’s account of a legend of Lao Tzu that had worked its way into Chinese folklore. Though it is plausible that a compiler of a book such as Lao Tzu’s might attribute it to a fictitious “Old Master,” given the traditional Chinese respect for age, the work is too coherent and contains too strong a theme to be merely a collection of ancient adages. And while its representation of Heaven seems influenced by Mo-zi’s notion of the Will of Heaven, it also presents us with a philosophy distinct enough from others in the Chinese tradition that we may safely assent to its being the work of one man, expanded and revised by many.

The most accepted text, the one considered most original, is that of Wang-bi (226–249 ad). The Ho-shang Kung text is alleged to be three hundred years older, but there is good reason to doubt its authenticity. In 1973, the Mawang-dui text (literally translated “horse-king-mound,” but known in the West as the “Silk Text”) was discovered in Hunan. The order of the chapters in the Silk Text is reversed from that of the other versions, and it seems to predate even the Ho-shang Kung. For the moment, however, the Wang-bi text is still the standard version, and except in those parts where another version is obviously superior in clarity or consistency, the Wang-bi is the one I have translated here.

My goal in translating this work was to provide as near a word-for-word rendering of the Chinese as possible while maintaining the flavor and readability of Lao Tzu’s words. Although the number of previous translations might seem to preclude my contributing anything further to our understanding of the Tao Te Ching by translating it again, as D.C. Lau wrote, “Unfortunately it cannot be said that it has been best served by its numerous translators, as the nature of the work attracted many whose enthusiasm for Eastern mysticism far outstripped their acquaintance with Chinese thought or even with the Chinese language.” Most translations seem to be poetry draped over a framework of Lao Tzu’s words, while a few stand at the other end of the spectrum and detail the development of the text and the differences between various versions at any given point, without ever clearly expressing the thoughts contained therein. Yet, certain as I was that I had something to offer with my translation, after finishing it I am equally certain that I have not exhausted the field.

The Chinese text consulted for my translation was that contained in Dr. Paul Carus’s book Tao Teh King. Dr. Carus in turn held to the Wang-bi text, with several incorporations of the Su Cheh, Nishimura, Tetzugaka Kwan Philosophical Institute, and Stanislas Julien texts and interpretations. Dr. Carus’s version was compared throughout with those contained in Man-jan Cheng’s and Ch’en Ku-ying’s works, the latter providing excellent references concerning the nonstandard texts. The original text of Si-ma Qian’s biography of Lao Tzu, which follows this introduction, is also from Dr. Carus’s book.

Lao Tzu’s words contain many latent messages and obscure references which only a reader familiar with Chinese history and customs would understand. Rather than making manifest hidden meanings within the translation of the text itself, and thereby losing the flavor of the Chinese, I have whenever possible left the English as cryptic as the original while explaining further implications in notes at the ends of the chapters. In the notes I also point out the places where the texts diverge, and give some alternate interpretations of certain lines. I have written my own commentaries on the important chapters, and these follow the notes.

Most transliteration follows the pinyin system now used in mainland China, except for names customarily transliterated by another system—specifically, Tao Te Ching and Lao Tzu—Chinese words in quotes from writers who used other systems.

The indentation throughout the text has been designed to convey the rhythm of the original. The Chinese of Lao Tzu is full of parallel structures, parenthetical asides, rushes and pauses. It sings and mumbles and even gasps at times, all in a way for which there are no typographical symbols. By indenting certain lines I sought to display these parallelisms clearly and allow the reader, if reading aloud at a natural pace, to hear the music of Lao Tzu’s work.

Several of the most important concepts in the Tao Te Ching were impossible to render into idiomatic English without loss, so they are explained here. As is often the case with Chinese words, we find no exact equivalents in English but need to approximate the meaning by combining the denotations and connotations of several words:

Tao  “Road, way, passage, zone, doctrine, officer, to say, method, rationality, reason, line.” The concepts of “rationality,” “system,” and “saying” contained in this word have led some to consider it the equivalent of the Greek logos, which has been translated into English as “word.” (“In the beginning was the Word.”)

Te  “Moral character, virtue, moral excellence, heart, mind, kindness.” Perhaps best approximated by the Greek areté.

Ching  “Scripture, canon, classic.” Used to refer to the Chinese classics (Confucian, Taoist, and others) and Buddhist scriptures, as well as in the Chinese name of the Christian Bible and even, in modern times, the “canonical” writings of Marxism-Leninism.

Wu-wei  Wu means “without”; wei means “to do, cause, make, effect.” The two together imply a state of effortless non-striving, though this does not exactly mean doing absolutely nothing. Often, wu-wei may be best translated simply as “effortlessly.”

Pu  The character shows a tree next to a thicket, meaning uncut wood. Wood that is uncut or unworked, that has not been embellished, stands as a symbol for the sage in Lao Tzu’s writing. A man who is pu is simple, honest, and unaffected.

“The ten-thousand-things” All the myriad objects and things in the world.

“All under Heaven” Lao Tzu’s way of saying “the empire” or “the universe.”

“Sage” The man for whom Lao Tzu is writing. In some ­usages in Chinese it implies holiness, though for Lao Tzu it simply means a wise man, often a philosopher-king.

In closing, I would like to express my thanks to series ­consultant Skip Whitson; Estelle Schultze, my agent; Robert Henricks, who showed me where to begin and how to continue with this translation; and especially to Dr. Li Hua-yuan Mowry, to whose long hours, incredible dedication, and inexhaustible ­patience I owe the completion of this work.

Patrick Byrne

Cambridge University