Tao Te Ching

Who would follow the Way
must go beyond words.

With such bold words, who would dare to introduce yet another version of the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing, or The Classics of Integrity and the Way)? If words are inadequate, how can one regard favorably yet one more set of an already much translated text? Many things make this version unique.

First, while many translations of this Chinese classic exist, none (to my mind) capture the cadence and sound of poetry. While I regard many translations as faithful in meaning, their convoluted rhythm bears witness to an effort to transcend languages. The Classics originated in an oral tradition. It used rhyme throughout. In that spirit, this version is meant to be spoken, as much as read. Meter is central. Sound is a touchstone.

Second, the ancient Chinese text is filled with references to ancient China. We should expect no less. Yet the old sayings, assumptions about rituals and feudal society, and jabs at the Confucians lose their potency in a dramatically different culture. Any student of the dao will readily acknowledge, however, the text's enduring relevance. Thus, I have rendered the Classics for a western audience in the 21st century, while still respecting its ancient Chinese origin. It aims to evoke a daoist sense of the perpetual.

Finally, I was dissatisfied with the balance of image, poetry and meaning in existing versions. Multiple meanings, word play and implicit connotations challenge any translator. At the same time, for poetry, one must evoke images and create music. Many translations of the Dao De Jing succeed by focusing only along some of these dimensions. Thus, one may respect the erudition of such translators as D.C. Lau or James Legge. Likewise, one may admire the elegant simplicity, echoed in photographic images, of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. One may be equally impressed, for yet other reasons, with the free and often playful interpretations of Witter Bynner or Ron Hogan (aka Jesse Garon). None, however—to my mind—renders the meaning both fully and poetically.

In addition, I have paralleled the text with images. They are aesthetic and meditative complements. Photographs are special images. Ostensibly they reproduce visual reality. Yet each frames the world uniquely. They focus one's perception. Photographs are ultimately about ways of seeing. These images are, in the daoist spirit, about oneness with nature.

Those interested in my "method" and guiding themes may read further here.

A primary aim of my work has been to recapture rhythm. I have relied substantially on the standard two beat iamb, which lends a sense of simple regular rhythm. Students of the dao might imagine the alternating of yin and yang as one breathes and as the heart beats.

Much of the original was rhymed. The pairing of lines, often with contrasting or coupled thoughts, is evident in many translations. It would have been a powerful mnemonic in an oral tradition. Yet sound has strong emotional resonance, as well. I can lay no claim to mastering the rhymed couplet (would that Alexander Pope had set himself to this verse!). Still, I have tried to capture parallel verses in parallel rhythms, and to underscore their pairings. I have sought rhyme without straining the fundamental structure and meaning. Assonance and alliteration have also been important tools.

Economy has also been a benchmark. Indeed, through its own economy of language, the original text evokes appreciation of economy in living, as well. Many translations seem to sacrifice this feature in order to articulate meaning more fully. I hope to restore freshness and vividness through streamlined text. To convey meaning I rely on appropriate words, although some are themselves not so simple. The original was allegedly 5,000 characters. I weigh in at just under 5800 words.

Another vital element of the original was word play. Commentators frequently note the puns and subtle meanings implied by the homophonic Chinese characters. I have aimed for the same effect without bulky footnotes.

Interpretation is essential. A modern reader can be lost (or even alienated) by references to feudal lords and ancient Chinese customs, which would have been familiar long ago. These I often generalize. Similarly, for "old sayings," I frequently draw on maxims from western culture to evoke a sense of the familiar. At the same time, this is not a free interpretation. I endeavor to remain faithful to the original meaning, images and metaphors.

Accordingly, I call this a rendition, not a translation. As much as I am a student of the dao, I am not a scholar of ancient Chinese language. Thus, I am indebted to all the scholars who have translated the Chinese into English and interpreted the antiquated Chinese characters. Still, this is how the text comes to us. No one living has read the original. The earliest known copies are themselves centuries old. They, in turn, likely derive from of an oral tradition. Every version of the text reflects an act of recreating. I do not intend to provide a definitive translation. It is a rendition, aiming to evoke the sense of wonder that is central to following the dao. I have sought to balance music and meaning. I invite the reader to immerse himself or herself in the sound and the images—and in meditative reflection.

In agreeing that the Classics is a compilation of fragmented sayings from an oral heritage, I do not treat each "chapter" as a unified whole.

Many translators have commented on key words and concepts: tao (the Way), te (integrity), p'u (the unhewn block), wu-wei (non-action), sheng-jen (the wise man) and wan-wu (the myriad creatures). I invite the reader to note, as well, the "three treasures" cited in chapter 67 and echoed in parallel phrases in verses 2, 10, 34 and 51 (and other lines elsewhere). One may well find that the concepts of empathy (non-self), economy (non-property) and humility (non-power over others) are also profitably viewed as central.

I am indebted to two translators, in particular, for different and particular inspirational reasons. First, Witter Bynner's delightful verse inspired me. Although it abandons a literal (character-by-character) translation, I was often struck with Brynner's ability to generate powerful images and to evoke mood with rhyme and rhythm. It opened me to the possibilities. Second, Victor Mair's recent translation of and commentaries on the early Ma-Wang-Tui manuscripts have been invaluable benchmarks. Mair vividly conveys the historical context and the mosaic structure.

Douglas Allchin


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© Douglas Allchin, 2002.