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Tao Te Ching

2012-11-30 print



Internal structure

The received Tao Te Ching is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections (章). There is some evidence that the chapter divisions were later additions - for commentary, or as aids to rote memorization - and that the original text was more fluidly organized. It has two parts, the Tao Ching (道經; chaps. 1–37) and the Te Ching (德經; chaps. 38–81), which may have been edited together into the received text, possibly reversed from an original "Te Tao Ching". The written style is laconic, has few grammatical particles, and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces us to create our own reconciliations of the supposed contradictions.

The Chinese characters in the original versions were probably written in zhuànshū (篆書 seal script), while later versions were written in lìshū (隷書 clerical script) and kǎishū (楷書 regular script) styles. Daoist Chinese Characters contains a good summary of these different calligraphies.

Historical authenticity of the author

Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is ascribed to Laozi, whose historical existence has been a matter of scholastic debate. His name, which means "Old Master", has only fueled controversy on this issue. (Kaltenmark 1969:10).

The first reliable reference to Laozi is his "biography" in Shiji (63, tr. Chan 1963:35-37), by Chinese historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BC), which combines three stories. First, Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BC). His surname was Li (李 "plum"), and his personal name was Er (耳 "ear") or Dan (聃 "long ear"). He was an official in the imperial archives, and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the West. Second, Laozi was Lao Laizi (老來子 "Old Come Master"), also a contemporary of Confucius, who wrote a book in 15 parts. Third, Laozi was the Grand Historian and astrologer Lao Dan (老聃 "Old Long-ears"), who lived during the reign (384-362 BC) of Duke Xian (獻公) of Qin).

Generations of scholars have debated the historicity of Laozi and the dating of the Tao Te Ching. Linguistic studies of the text's vocabulary and rhyme scheme point to a date of composition after the Shi Jing yet before the Zhuangzi. Legends claim variously that Laozi was "born old"; that he lived for 996 years, with twelve previous incarnations starting around the time of the Three Sovereigns before the thirteenth as Laozi. Some Western scholars have expressed doubts over Laozi's historical existence, claiming that the Tao Te Ching is actually a collection of the work of various authors.

Many Taoists venerate Laozi as Daotsu the founder of the school of Dao, the Daode Tianjun in the Three Pure Ones, one of the eight elders transformed from Taiji in the Chinese creation myth.

     Keywords: Tao Te Ching


    

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