What follows is taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing. References to the tradition 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions.
It’s said the keeper of the western gate, whose name was perhaps Yin Xi, realised the old librarian from the royal archives of the state of Zhou did not intend to return. He knew the old man as a quiet, wise character, never someone at the heart of activities, never excluded by others, an observer, seldom observed, always ready to offer advice, not eager to thrust himself forward, often ignored, never wisely. The gatekeeper called, ‘Old Master, Laozi! If you intend not to return, if you mean to renounce the world, then leave a record of your thoughts. Write me a book to remember you by.’ The old man climbed down from his humble oxcart, borrowed pen and ink. A few hours later, he handed Yin Xi a script of some 5000 characters and then continued westwards, never to be seen again.
So the poems of the Daodejing are a gift, freely given at a point of change, a gateway to new experience. They are also a turning away from the world (Laozi is said to have despaired of its venality and corruption), yet a transmission intended to aid, an inspired out-pouring of poetry as much as a moral and political handbook. Perhaps above all we should think of them as a response to a personal request. Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 poem, ‘Legend of the origin of the book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tzu’s road into exile’, seeks to praise the “customs man” who “deserves his bit. / It was he who called for it” (tr. John Willett). Modern scholarship, of course, has long since stripped away such eloquent myths. Most likely, the current 5000 characters of the Daodejing were far fewer to begin with, a series of orally transmitted seed verses compiled by many hands, an aide memoire, certainly an aid to teaching from as far back as the 7th century BCE. Passed on orally, then transcribed, with the usual levels of error, displacement, ‘correction’ and happenstance, the text has also been subject to the Chinese tradition of written commentaries and these intercalated texts have themselves become vanishingly absorbed into the original. Such an uncertain state of the text legitimates considerable levels of ‘correction’ for most would-be translators; in this case, I have excised material only from ‘Dangers of prominence’ (Chapter 13) and ‘The great clamour’ (Chapter 23), silently removing a few lines of (what I thought of as) redundant repetition.
Yet the poems are still vivid, astonishingly fresh, irresistible. They are also still subject to continuing textual debate and archaeological inquiry. The standard text has long been the one associated with the scholar Wang Bi (226-49CE) which divides the Daodejing into 81 Chapters and those into two sections. On the importance and insights of Wang Bi, see Wagner, Rudolf G., The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi (SUNY Press, 2000). The Dao or Way is made up of the first 37 Chapters; the De or Power occupies Chapters 38 to 81. But an archaeological dig as recently as 1973 at Mawangdui revealed two new versions of the text, dating from around 200BCE. Surprisingly, both Mawangdui texts reverse this order and some recent versions into English have adopted this change. Most notably, see Robert G. Hendricks who produced a re-shaped Lao-tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts (Ballantine Books, 1989). Also see D. C. Lau’s second translation of the texts published as Lao-Tzu Tao Te Ching (Everyman Books, 1982). I have not done so. The traditional division between the Way and the Power of the Dao is by no means watertight or proven but I feel it makes more sense to explore the nature of the Way before considering its more specific manifestations. Also, as a sequence of poems, ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1), summing up as it does so much of what is to follow, surely has to come first.
Though probably the work of many hands over many years, it’s still hard not to hear (with Wang Bi) a distinctive voice, a coherent poetic style – alluringly laconic, clipped, coolly enigmatic; it flaunts its paradoxes, is boldly metaphorical, juxtapositional, repetitive to the point of liturgical, urgent, unashamedly epigrammatic. In short, we seem to hear Laozi writing a kind of poetry which enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet. Of course, language is imperfect but it’s what we must use and I have given titles to each of the Chapters to encourage contemporary readers to approach them in large part as language, I mean as poetry.
For a text so geographically, culturally and temporally remote, some consideration of key images and ideas is necessary. The Dao is not an individual entity, still less anything divine, it is more a mode of being that is all encompassing, a phenomenal, an existential primacy – perhaps akin to the western idea of original chaos. It can usefully be seen from epistemological, temporal, perceptual, political or environmental perspectives, though none of these exhaust its real nature. It is not subject to time yet contains it. It is never fixed. It is the ever-here, both omnipresent and unchanging. We might be tempted to say the Dao is the substratum of all things, the ground base – but language’s introduction of levels and hierarchical ideas is not helpful to our already feeble grasp of it. Certainly, it is the whole, the one that precedes the many.
So these poems explore how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with. They suggest the Dao initially gives rise to two things, heaven and earth (‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1)) and the poems subsequently make use of the formulation ‘the ten thousand things’ to suggest the Dao’s proliferation or subdivision into all there is. It is in this way that the Dao is the mother of all things (‘Of all things’ (Chapter 25)); it is like water, a pool from which all things draw life (‘Something greater’ (Chapter 4); it is the uncarved block of wood that has inherent within it all things that have been, are, will be (‘Uncarved wood’ (Chapter 15). Most importantly, the Dao is beyond conception and so beyond any conventional use of language, the limits of which constitute a recurring motif in the Daodejing: ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1); ‘Awareness (Chapter 56); ‘Store (Chapter 81). Of course, our quotidian lives must pass in this ‘fallen’ state, full of a misplaced confidence in the reality of the ten thousand things, including our own discrete selves, so Laozi emphasises – in recurrent images of reprise or re-visiting – that only if we can return to a more clear awareness of the presence and reality of the Dao, can our behaviour and experience of life be more true, fulfilled, harmonious. Tennyson’s otherwise unremarkable poem, ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), describes approaching the “mortal limit of the Self” and passing “into the Nameless [. . .] and thro’ loss of Self / The gain of such large life as match’d with ours / Were sun to spark – unshadowable in words”.
Part 2 of this Introduction to the Daodejing will be posted next week (and is now available by clicking here).