Lao-Tzu and the Tao-Te-Ching

Submitted by James Miller on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:27
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LAO-TZU AND THE TAO-TE-CHING. Edited by Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Pp. xii + 330; illustrations; appendix; glossary. Paper, $25.95, ISBN 0-7914-3600-4.


This deservedly award-winning book is a collection of articles dedicated to the study of the Daode jing. It consists of four parts: (1) Ancient Myths (23-88); (2) Chinese Interpretations (89-164); (3) Modern Readings (165-230); and (4) Critical Methods (166-301). The book also includes an appendix (Index to Citations from Tao-te-ching Chapters) and an index. Thus, the composition of the book is arranged to represent various approaches to the Daode jing: readers can in good succession make their acquaintance with the most important aspects of the history and teaching of the Daode jing as well as with traditional and modern interpretations of this seminal Taoist text.


The first part consists of three articles. A.C. Graham's article, a reprint from his Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (SUNY, 1990), examines the origins of the legend of Laozi as the author of the Daode jing. He argues that from the third century B.C.E. onward the author of the text became identified with the ancient Lao Dan, recognized teacher of Confucius. Laozi as author of the text was also identified with another Lao Dan, grand historiographer of Zhou who prophesized about the victory of the state of Qin as unifier of All-under-Heaven about 375 B.C.E. In "The Lao-tzu Myth," Livia Kohn gives a thorough examination of this myth in terms of the divinization of Lao-tzu. Next, Yoshiko Kamitsuka's article analyzes the sculptural images of Lao-tzu from the period of the Six Dynasties (3rd-6th centuries C.E.). It contains two interesting photos of Taoist images from that time and a useful table of Daoist bas-relief steles and images of the fifth and sixth centuries (68-69). 


The second part also includes three articles. The first of the articles is written by Alan K.L. Chan. Here Chan compares two well-known commentaries on the Daode jing: those of Wang Bi and Hehang gong. In her article on commentary literature (translated from French), the late Isabelle Robinet examines the textual polysemy and syncretistic interpretations of the later commentaries on the Daode jing (mostly from the Tang dynasty [618-907 C.E.]). Robinet analyzes different types of readings of the Daode jing: philological, ideological, and even inner alchemical (such as that of Bo Yuchan [1194-ca. 1227]). In this context, the texts of the Chonngxuan (Twofold Mystery) school are of primary importance for the author, but she also examines Buddhist and Neo-Confucian readings of the Daode jing. Robinet's article also contains a very useful table of Daode jing commentaries in chronological order (120-121). The next article by Livia Kohn is dedicated to the utilization of the Daode jing in ritual. Kohn discusses the ritual usages of the text from early Han times (reciting) up to the period of Southern and Northern Dynasties (meditation, meditative reciting, and even ordination and the taking of precepts). Kohn's article clearly demonstrates that the Daode jing has never been a purely philosophical or theoretical text; from the earliest period of its interpretative history it was closely associated with Taoist rites and longevity practice. 


The third part of the book consists of three articles written by Julia M. Hardy, Benjamin Schwarz, and Liu Xiaogan. Hardy gives a very detailed analytical review of Western interpretations of the Daode jing, from the nineteenth century (J.P. Abel-Rémusat, Stanislas Julien, and James Legge) up to the works of contemporary scholars. In the next article, a reprint from his The World of Thought in Ancient China (Harvard University Press, 1985), the late Benjamin Schwartz discusses the ideas of the Daode jing within the framework of Chinese intellectual history. Next, Liu Xiaogan examines one of the central concepts of early Taoist thought, i.e., "naturalness" (tzu-jan), emphasizing the importance of this Taoist notion for contemporary humankind. The fourth and last part of the book also contains three articles. In the first, William H. Baxter gives a very useful and precise philological analysis of the language of the Daode jing in relation to the probable date of the text. The results of his research? The text was written around 350 B.C.E., a timeframe in keeping with the date established based on analysis of the earliest known Kuo-tien manuscript. Next, Michael LaFargue gives a brief outline of his methodology of historical hermeneutics for producing an adequate interpretation of the Daode jing. This involves examining the text within the historical context of China in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. In the final article, LaFargue and the late Julian Pas analyze the problems of translating of the Daode jing through the examples of two textual passages, namely, 4:1 and 13:1. This article is very useful for anyone interested in translating of the text. Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching is highly recommended for scholars in the fields of Taoist Studies, Chinese philosophy, Chinese history, Chinese literature, Chinese religion, and comparative philosophy and religion. Individuals interested in deepening their understanding of Chinese thought in general and the Daode jing in particular will also benefit from this book. All libraries should also acquire this book.


Evgeny Torchinov

St. Petersburg State University, Russia

May 21, 2003