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The Texts of Taoism, Part I

The Texts of Taoism, Part I

by James Legge

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These two volumes contain the complete James Legge translation of the sacred writings of the great mystical religion that for millennia has counterbalanced the official Confucianism of the Chinese state. Together with the Confucian canon, these writings have been avidly studied by generations of Chinese scholars and literary men and their place in the formation of


These two volumes contain the complete James Legge translation of the sacred writings of the great mystical religion that for millennia has counterbalanced the official Confucianism of the Chinese state. Together with the Confucian canon, these writings have been avidly studied by generations of Chinese scholars and literary men and their place in the formation of Chinese civilization is central.
First published as volume xxxix and xl of Max Müller's Sacred Books of the East series, these volumes contain the complete texts of the Tao Te Ching attributed to Lao Tzü; the writings of Chuang Tzü; and several shorter works; the T'ai Shang or Tractate of Actions and Their Retributions, the Ch'ing Chang Ching or Classic of Purity, the Yin Fu Ching of Classic of the Harmony of the Seen and Unseen, the Yü Shu Ching or Classic of the Pivot of jade, and the Hsia Yung Ching or Classic of the Directory for a Day. Many of these lesser documents are to be found in translation only in this collection.
Professor Legge, who held the chair in Chinese language and literature at Oxford for 20 years, introduces the collection with a discussion of differences among Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, the authorship of the Tao Te Ching, the real meaning of Tao in Chinese thought, and other backgrounds.
Orientalists and students of religion have long recognized this collection as indispensable. But laymen will find that the Tao Te Ching is not only profound but provocative and stimulating and that the parables and tales in the work of Chuang Tzü are delightful reading.

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The Texts of Taoism Part I

By James Legge

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1962 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12272-4



I. In writing the preface to the third volume of these Sacred Books of the East in 1879, I referred to Lâo-[??]ze as 'the acknowledged founder' of the system of Taoism. Prolonged study and research, however, have brought me to the conclusion that there was a Taoism earlier than his; and that before he wrote his Tâo Teh King, the principles taught in it had been promulgated, and the ordering of human conduct and government flowing from them inculcated.

Three Religions in China.

For more than a thousand years 'the Three Religions' has been a stereotyped phrase in China, meaning what we call Confucianism, Tâoism, and Buddhism. The phrase itself simply means 'the Three Teachings,' or systems of instruction, leaving the subject-matter of each 'Teaching' to be learned by inquiry. Of the three, Buddhism is of course the most recent, having been introduced into China only in the first century of our Christian era. Both the others were indigenous to the country, and are traceable to a much greater antiquity, so that it is a question to which the earlier origin should be assigned. The years of Confucius's life lay between B.C. 551 and 478; but his own acknowledgment that he was 'a transmitter and not a maker,' and the testimony of his grandson, that 'he handed down the doctrines of Yâo and Shun (B.C. 2300), and elegantly displayed the regulations of Wân and Wû (B.C. 1200), taking them as his model,' are well known.

Peculiarity of the Tâo Teh King.

2. Lâo-[??]ze's birth is said, in the most likely account of it, to have taken place in the third year of king Ting of the Kâu dynasty, (B. C.) 604. He was thus rather more than fifty years older than Confucius. The two men seem to have met more than once, and I am inclined to think that the name of Lâo-[??]ze, as the designation of the other, arose from Confucius's styling him to his disciples 'The Old Philosopher.' They met as Heads of different schools or schemes of thought; but did not touch, so far as we know, on the comparative antiquity of their views. It is a peculiarity of the Tâo Teh King that any historical element in it is of the vaguest nature possible, and in all its chapters there is not a single proper name. Yet there are some references to earlier sages whose words the author was copying out, and to ' sentence-makers' whose maxims he was introducing to illustrate his own sentiments. In the most distant antiquity he saw a happy society in which his highest ideas of the Tâo were realised, and in the seventeenth chapter he tells us that in the earliest times the people did not know that there were their rulers, and when those rulers were most successful in dealing with them, simply said, 'We are what we are of ourselves.' Evidently, men existed to Lâo-[??]ze at first in a condition of happy innocence,—in what we must call a paradisiacal state, according to his idea of what such a state was likely to be.

When we turn from the treatise of Lâo-[??]ze to the writings of Kwang-[??]ze, the greatest of his followers, we are not left in doubt as to his belief in an early state of paradisiacal Tâoism. Hwang Tî, the first year of whose reign is placed in B.C. 2697, is often introduced as a seeker of the Tâo, and is occasionally condemned as having been one of the first to disturb its rule in men's minds and break up 'the State of Perfect Unity.' He mentions several sovereigns of whom we can hardly find a trace in the records of history as having ruled in the primeval period, and gives us more than one description of the condition of the world during that happy time.

I do not think that Kwang-[??]ze had any historical evidence for the statements which he makes about those early days, the men who flourished in them, and their ways. His narratives are for the most part fictions, in which the names and incidents are of his own devising. They are no more true as matters of fact than the accounts of the characters in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are true, with reference to any particular individuals; but as these last are grandly true of myriads of minds in different ages, so may we read in Kwang-[??]ze's stories the thoughts of Tâoistic men beyond the restrictions of place and time. He believed that those thoughts were as old as the men to whom he attributed them. I find in his belief a ground for believing myself that to Taoism, as well as to Confucianism, we ought to attribute a much earlier origin than the famous men whose names they bear. Perhaps they did not differ so much at first as they came afterwards to do in the hands of Confucius and Lâo-[??]ze, both great thinkers, the one more of a moralist, and the other more of a metaphysician. When and how, if they were ever more akin than they came to be, their divergence took place, are difficult questions on which it may be well to make some remarks after we have tried to set forth the most important principles of Tâoism.

Those principles have to be learned from the treatise of Lâo-[??]ze and the writings of Kwang-[??]ze. We can hardly say that the Tâoism taught in them is the Tâoism now current in China, or that has been current in it for many centuries; but in an inquiry into the nature and origin of religions these are the authorities that must be consulted for Tâoism, and whose evidence must be accepted. The treatise, 'Actions and the Responses to them,' will show one of the phases of it at a much later period.



I. I. I will now state briefly, first, the grounds on which I accept the Tâo Teh King as a genuine production of the age to which it has been assigned, and the truth of its authorship by Lâo-[??]ze to whom it has been ascribed. It would not have been necessary a few years ago to write as if these points could be called in question, but in 1886 Mr. Herbert A. Giles, of Her Majesty's Consular Service in China, and one of the ablest Chinese scholars living, vehemently called them in question in an article in the China Review for the months of March and April. His strictures have been replied to, and I am not going to revive here the controversy which they produced, but only to state a portion of the evidence which satisfies my own mind on the two points just mentioned.

The evidence of Sze-mâ Khien, the historian.

2. It has been said above that the year B.C. 604 was, probably, that of Lâo-[??]ze's birth. The year of his death is not recorded. Sze-mâ Khien, the first great Chinese historian, who died in about B.C. 85, commences his 'Biographies' with a short account of Lâo-[??]ze. He tells us that the philosopher had been a curator of the Royal Library of Kâu, and that, mourning over the decadence of the dynasty, he wished to withdraw from the world, and proceeded to the pass or defile of Hsien-ku, leading from China to the west. There he was recognised by the warden of the pass, Yin Hsî (often called Kwan Yin), himself a well-known Taoist, who insisted on his leaving him a writing before he went into seclusion. Lâo-[??]ze then wrote his views on 'The Tâo and its Characteristics,' in two parts or sections, containing more than 5000 characters, gave the manuscript to the warden, and went his way; 'nor is it known where he died.' This account is strange enough, and we need not wonder that it was by and by embellished with many marvels. It contains, however, the definite statements that Lâo-[??]ze wrote the Tâo Teh King in two parts, and consisting of more than 5000 characters. And that Khien was himself well acquainted with the treatise is apparent from his quotations from it, with, in almost every case, the specification of the author. He thus adduces part of the first chapter, and a large portion of the last chapter but one. His brief references also to Lâo-[??]ze and his writings are numerous.

Lieh-[??]ze, Han Fei-[??]ze, and other Tâoist authors.

3. But between Lâo-[??]ze and Sze-mâ Khien there were many Tâoist writers whose works remain. I may specify of them Lieh-Tze (assuming that his chapters, though not composed in their present form by him, may yet be accepted as fair specimens of his teaching); Kwang-[??]ze (of the fourth century B.C. We find him refusing to accept high office from king Wei of Khû, B.C. 339–299); Han Fei, a voluminous author, who died by his own hand in B.C. 230; and Liû An, a scion of the Imperial House of Han, king of Hwâi-nan, and better known to us as Hwâi-nan [??]ze, who also died by his own hand in B.C. 122. In the books of all these men we find quotations of many passages that are in our treatise. They are expressly said to be, many of them, quotations from Lâo-[??]ze; Han Fei several times all but shows the book beneath his eyes. To show how numerous the quotations by Han Fei and Liû An are, let it be borne in mind that the Tâo Teh King has come down to us as divided into eighty-one short chapters; and that the whole of it is shorter than the shortest of our Gospels. Of the eighty-one chapters, either the whole or portions of seventy-one are found in those two writers. There are other authors not so decidedly Tâoistic, in whom we find quotations from the little book. These quotations are in general wonderfully correct. Various readings indeed there are; but if we were sure that the writers did trust to memory, their differences would only prove that copies of the text had been multiplied from the very first.

Evidence of Pan Kû.

In passing on from quotations to the complete text, I will clinch the assertion that Khien was well acquainted with our treatise, by a passage from the History of the Former Han Dynasty (B.C. 206— A.D. 24), which was begun to be compiled by Pan Kû, who died however in 92, and left a portion to be completed by his sister, the famous Pan Kâo. The thirty-second chapter of his Biographies is devoted to Sze-mâ Khien, and towards the end it is said that 'on the subject of the Great Tâo he preferred Hwang and Lâo to the six King.' 'Hwang and Lâo' must there be the writings of Hwang- Tî and Lâo-[??]ze. The association of the two names also illustrates the antiquity claimed for Taoism, and the subject of note 1, p. 2.

Catalogue of the Imperial Library of Han.

4. We go on from quotations to complete texts, and turn, first, to the catalogue of the Imperial Library of Han, as compiled by Liû Hsin, not later than the commencement of our Christian era. There are entered in it Taoist works by thirty-seven different authors, containing in all 993 chapters or sections (phien). î Yin, the premier of Khang Thang (B.C. 1766), heads the list with fifty-one sections. There are in it four editions of Lâo-[??]ze work with commentaries:—by a Mr. Lin, in four sections; a Mr. Fû, in thirty-seven sections; a Mr. Hsü, in six sections; and by Liû Hsiang, Hsin's own father, in four sections. All these four works have since perished, but there they were in the Imperial Library before our era began. Kwang-[??]ze is in the same list in fifty-two books or sections, the greater part of which have happily escaped the devouring tooth of time.

We turn now to the twentieth chapter of Khien's Biographies, in which he gives an account of Yo Î, the scion of a distinguished family, and who himself played a famous part, both as a politician and military leader, and became prince of Wang-kû under the kingdom of Kâo in B. C. 279. Among his descendants was a Yo Khan, who learned in Khî 'the words,' that is, the Tâoistic writings' of Hwang-Tî and Lâo-[??]ze from an old man who lived on the Ho-side.' The origin of this old man was not known, but Yo Khan taught what he learned from him to a Mr. Ko, who again became preceptor to [??]hâo [??]han, the chief minister of Khî, and afterwards of the new dynasty of Han, dying in B. C. 190.

The catalogue of the Sui dynasty.

5. Referring now to the catalogue of the Imperial Library of the dynasty of Sui (A.D. 589–618), we find that it contained many editions of Lâo's treatise with commentaries. The first mentioned is 'The Tâo Teh King,' with the commentary of the old man of the Ho-side, in the time of the emperor Wan of Han (B.C. 179–142). It is added in a note that the dynasty of Liang (A.D. 502–556) had possessed the edition of 'the old man of the Ho-side, of the time of the Warring States; but that with some other texts and commentaries it had disappeared.' I find it difficult to believe that there had been two old men of the Ho-side , both teachers of Taoism and commentators on our King, but I am willing to content myself with the more recent work, and accept the copy that has been current—say from B.C. 150, when Sze-mâ Khien could have been little more than a boy. Taoism was a favourite study with many of the Han emperors and their ladies. Hwâi-nan ze, of whose many quotations from the text of Lâo I have spoken, was an uncle of the emperor Wn. To the emperor King (B.C. 156—143), the son of Wan, there is attributed the designation of Lâo's treatise as a King, a work of standard authority. At the beginning of his reign, we are told, some one was commending to him four works, among which were those of Lâo-[??]ze and Kwang-[??]ze. Deeming that the work of Hwang-[??]ze and Lâo-[??]ze was of a deeper character than the others, he ordered that it should be called a King, established a board for the study of Taoism, and issued an edict that the book should be learned and recited at court, and throughout the country. Thenceforth it was so styled. We find Hwang-fû Mî (A.D. 215—282) referring to it as the Tâo Teh King.

The work of Wang Pî.

The second place in the Sui catalogue is given to the text and commentary of Wang Pi or Wang Fû-sze, an extraordinary scholar who died in A. D. 249, at the early age of twenty-four. This work has always been much prized. It was its text which Lû Teh-ming used in his 'Explanation of the Terms and Phrases of the Classics,' in the seventh century. Among the editions of it which I possess is that printed in 1794 with the imperial moveable metal types.

I need not speak of editions or commentaries subsequent to Wang Pi's. They soon begin to be many, and are only not so numerous as those of the Confucian Classics.

Divisions into parts, chapters; and number of characters in the text.

6. All the editions of the book are divided into two parts, the former called Tâo, and the latter Teh, meaning the Qualities or Characteristics of the Tâo, but this distinction of subjects is by no means uniformly adhered to.

I referred already to the division of the whole into eighty-one short chapters (37 + 44), which is by common tradition attributed to Ho-shang Kung, or 'The old man of the Hoside.' Another very early commentator, called Yen [??]un or Yen Kün-phing, made a division into seventy-two chapters (40 + 32), under the influence, no doubt, of some mystical considerations. His predecessor, perhaps, had no better reason for his eighty-one; but the names of his chapters were, for the most part, happily chosen, and have been preserved. Wû Khang arranged the two parts in sixty-seven chapters (31 + 36). It is a mistake, however, to suppose, as even Mr. Wylie with all his general accuracy did 7, that Wû 'curtails the ordinary text to some extent.' He does not curtail, but only re-arranges according to his fashion, uniting some of Ho-shang Kung's chapters in one, and sometimes altering the order of their clauses.

Sze-mâ Khien tells us that, as the treatise came from Lâo-[??]ze, it contained more than 5000 characters; that is, as one critic says,' more than 5000 and fewer than 6000.' Ho-shang Kung's text has 5350, and one copy 5590; Wang Pî's, 5683, and one copy 5610. Two other early texts have been counted, giving 5720 and 5635 characters respectively. The brevity arises from the terse conciseness of the style, owing mainly to the absence of the embellishment of particles, which forms so striking a peculiarity in the composition of Mencius and Kwang-[??]ze.

In passing on to speak, secondly and more briefly, of the far more voluminous writings of Kwang-[??]ze, I may say that I do not know of any other book of so ancient a date as the Tâo Teh King, of which the authenticity of the origin and genuineness of the text can claim to be so well substantiated.


Excerpted from The Texts of Taoism Part I by James Legge. Copyright © 1962 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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