September 25, 2009

PREFACE by Koeng S. Wan

From the Lǎo Zǐ (老子), Division 52:
The world has an origin
Which is the world's mother.
Once you fathom the mother
You understand the child,
And once you understand the child
You abide in the mother.
And to the end of your days you will not meet with danger.
This ancient writing is attributed to Lǎo Zǐ (老子), but the man may have never existed. His picture is emblematic of ancient China, as people all over the world are familiar with his likeness as in Nicholas Roerich's 1943 painting used as a banner for this weblog. His name is also symbolic. The Lǎo Zǐ, which says so much about how one should aspire to be child-like, means "Old Child"[1].

The story about how the Lǎo Zǐ (老子) came to be written is a legend. The account by Han Dynasty historian, Sīmǎ Qiān (c.145 – c.86 BCE), translated by D. T. Suzuki and Paul Carus in 1913[2] goes as follows.
Lǎo Zǐ was born in the hamlet Quren (Good Man's Bend), Li Xiāng (Grinding County), Ku Xiàn​ (Thistle District), of Chu (Bramble land). His family was the Li gentry (Li meaning Plum). His proper name was Er (Ear), his posthumous title Po-Yang (Prince Positive), his appellation Tan (Long-lobed). In Zhōu​ (the State of Everywhere) he was in charge of the secret archives as state historian.

Confucius went to Zhōu​ in order to consult Lǎo Zǐ on the rules of propriety. [When Confucius, speaking of propriety, praised the sages of antiquity], Lǎo Zǐ said: "The men of whom you speak, Sir, together with their bones, have mouldered. Their words alone are still extant. If a noble man finds his time he rises, but if he does not find his time he drifts like a roving-plant and wanders about. I observe that the wise merchant hides his treasures deeply as if he were poor. The noble man of perfect virtue assumes an attitude as though he were stupid. Let go, Sir, your proud airs, your many wishes, your affectation and exaggerated plans. All this is of no use to you, Sir. That is what I have to communicate to you, and that is all."

Confucius left. [Unable to understand Lǎo Zǐ], he addressed his disciples, saying: "I know that the birds can fly, I know that the fishes can swim, I know that the wild animals can run. For the running, one could make nooses; for the swimming, one could make nets; for the flying, one could make arrows. As to the dragon I cannot know how he can bestride wind and clouds when he heavenward rises. To-day I saw Lǎo Zǐ. Is he perhaps like the dragon?"

Lǎo Zǐ practised Dào and . His doctrine aims at self-concealment and namelessness.

Lǎo Zǐ resided in Zhōu most of his life. When he foresaw the decay of Zhōu, he departed and came to the frontier. The custom house officer Yin-Hi said: "Sir, since it pleases you to retire, I request you for my sake to write a book."

Thereupon Lǎo Zǐ wrote a book of two parts consisting of five thousand and odd words, in which he discussed the concepts of Dào and . Then he departed.

No one knows where he died.

The Lǎo Zǐ is the second most translated work in literature in all of human history[3]. Only the Bible has been translated more frequently. That success is either because the translation task is a universal challenge for translators or linguists or, more likely, that the work strikes some common accord with the human mind's need to understand its relationship with the universe. As one would expect, the translations are often very dissimilar. Understanding an ancient text in any language, let alone Chinese, is confusing. Confusion is certainly my experience given the scores of different translations and commentaries. Encyclopedic treatments of the subject contribute to clarity but are not fulfilling. The Lǎo Zǐ is as much a compilation of poems with rhyming in Chinese, of course, as well as a philosophical tract.

I've created this weblog as my understanding of the Lǎo Zǐ in the form of a commentary based on a unified English translation from five sources. Notably, one of the translations is by a poet, David Hinton. My intent is to understand the Lǎo Zǐ as it was likely written between 500 to 300 BCE[4] – a time when Daoism did not exist as a religion or philosophy and before its ideas were likely contaminated by the Confucian ideals of the Han synthesis. It was during the Han dynasty that the person Lǎo Zǐ was deified and the document Lǎo Zǐ became a state religious canon, the Dào Dé Jīng[5].

This commentary is formulated with the intuitive belief that the Lǎo Zǐ was written to be self-explanatory. The Dào Dé Jīng contains 81 divisions, a very special number. The number nine has for the Chinese, since ancient times, been associated with celestial forces[6]. The Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine) says "the Earth uses nine times nine laws to form one whole"[7]. In addition, self-explanation would seem to be needed to distinguish the Lǎo Zǐ from the competing the ideas of Confucianism. The Lǎo Zǐ is utterly anti-Confucian, and I believe that the Lǎo Zǐ's author or authors wanted that to be perfectly clear to anyone who read it. Overall, I always try to find the meaning of words and terms from within the Lǎo Zǐ itself before considering other sources, though what is done is somewhat limited by the five source translations. People who know better understand that is only an ideal. You will find the postings change as I make progress. This may well be a lifetime project.

The Lǎo Zǐ is also known as the Dào Dé Jīng (道德經 or Tao Te Ching) or Classic of the Way and Virtue, a designation made by a Han dynasty emperor generations after the Lǎo Zǐ first appeared in writing. Notably, the Han formally incorporated Confucianism, not Daoism, into its governance of the Empire[8], so it is not surprising Confucian ideals seeped into Han era Dào Dé Jīng commentaries just as modern pop culture seeps into it today. So, overall, this commentary is all about finding the original meaning of the Lǎo Zǐ.

[1] 老子, MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary. Accessed September 25, 2009.

[2] Sukuzki, D.T. and P. Carus, The Canon of Reason and Virtue -- Lao-tze's Tao Teh King, Open Court, La Salle, IL, 1913. Chinese names have been replaced with pinyin.

[3] Chan, Alan, “Laozi”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (editor).

[4] Ibid, section 2.

[5] Littlejohn, Ronnie, “Laozi (Lao-Tzu)”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jeffery L. Richey (editor); James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (general editors). Accessed March 30, 2009.


[7] Veith, Ilza and Ken Rose, The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, translated by Izla Veith, University of California Press, 2002, p135.

[8] Hooker, Richard, “The Chinese Empire: The Former Han”, World Civilizations: An Internet Classroom and Anthology, Washington State University, Richard Hooker and Paul Brians (principal editors), 1996 (June 6, 1999 update).