Lao-tzu > Tao-te ching

History and Content of Tao-te ching

Tao-te ching is the most famous and translated work from the Taoist inheritance. Its traditional author, Lao-tzu, is the most popular in this matter. Even in ancient China the work enjoyed a great popularity and was glossed both by Taoists and Confucians.


Tao-te ching first lines
The first lines of Tao-te ching
written Chinese characters
According to tradition, the work originates in the 4th century BC, but recent discoveries showed that it is no early than the 4th or 3rd century. The oldest existing copy is from 206 or 195 BC.

Lao-tzu would have composed this work by the request of Yin Hsi, the Guardian of the Pass, while he began his wandering towards West.


The book consists of 81 short chapters among which 37 form the first part - the Classic of the Way (Tao) -, and the next 44 form the Classic of Te ("te" is a word translated by James Legge in relation with "Tao" as "characteristics", the entire title of the book would be The Classic about Tao and its Characteristics).

This division in chapters is considered to be the result of the remarks of mysterious Ho-shang kung (Han dynasty).


The philosophy of the book focuses on concepts like: Tao, Te, wu (emptiness), wu-wei (nondoing) and fu (the return of all things to their origins).

The goal of the Taoist philosophy is, according to the scholars, to become one with Tao, inwardly achieving the universal rule of the return to origins. But for this purpose the disciple has to achieve wu, and to practice the nondoing.

However, we must not ignore the fact that Tao-te ching is a composite work (although its unity is asserted or wished) which, the same way as I-ching, underwent influences and taints in the most various ways.

The second part of the book seems to be compiled by the Confucians because it insists too much on the art of governing while Taoists didn't show interest in this aspect, though it is also true that the art of governing is related to the Tao (or leads to the imitation of Tao and Te).


Today, Tao-te ching is considered to be the main source of inspiration for the philosophical Taoism. However, it remains further an obscure and very difficult ancient book. Its obscurity is mostly due to the fact that the authors who approach it offer us selected parts of the the book interpreted in the light of Christian or esoteric philosophy, which is contrary to the meaning of the book itself.

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