What is the Tao Te Ching?

Tao Te ChingOf all the ancient books of China, the Tao Te Ching (道德經; also known by its Pinyin name, Daode Jing) is one of the most widely read around the world. The Tao Te Ching is also one of the most translated works of literature on earth.

One of the fundamental texts of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism as well as Chinese Buddhism, the Tao Te Ching is often known to people in China simply by the name of its author: Laozi. Scholars have, for years, debated the existence of Laozi or whether this name could be attributed to one of several ancient writers. Likewise, some suggest that the Tao Te Ching was written by a series of scholars over hundreds or even thousands of years.

The Tao Te Ching is essentially a work of human philosophy. It has informed many fundamental elements of Chinese culture today, such as the ideas of yin and yang (opposite elements).


Among the central themes of the text are:

*The Chinese myth of creation
*The feminine
*Returning to a primordial state
*Union and communion with nature


The title Daode Jing is as ambiguous as the text itself. The title is comprised of three Chinese characters that could almost be said to sum up the entirety of the text. They are:


道 – dào – ‘way/road/path’
德 – dé – ‘virtue/goodness/ethics’
經 – jīng – ‘classic text/sacred book’


Both dào and are the central themes and, when put together, dàocomes to mean ‘ethics’ or ‘moral principles’. Over time, many people have come to refer to dào as not simply ‘way’ or ‘path’, but as ‘The Way’, reflecting the supernatural, timeless unnameable essence that guides and directs the human spirit.

Like many books of philosophy, the Tao Te Ching is one of those texts that is much better read in its original language than in translation. This is partially because some translations are rendered more loosely than others and some translators prefer to give their own interpretations, rather than simply offering a basic gloss from one language to another.

Still, because the Tao Te Ching was written in ancient Classical Chinese, it can be difficult for even modern speakers of Mandarin to comprehend fully. The flowery language and complex subject matter make the text largely a matter of personal interpretation. Those considering reading the Tao Te Ching in Simplified Chinese should take care to find a comprehensive version that contains both the original text, a modern translation and a scholarly interpretation.

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