The Early Layer of the Daodejing

(This supersedes my various earlier writings on this topic, the oldest of which is listed in the Bibliography)

I have argued that chapters 67-81 of the Daodejing (not part of the Guodian text) were the last chapters to be added and that they were probably written by a single author — possibly by the final author-editor who also selected and arranged the materials in chapters 1-66. I also more tentatively suggested that the  Dao 道 chapters and the Sage 聖 chapters in these first 66 chapters were different in origin; in these chapters Dao and the Sage appear together in the same chapter only twice, rather than the eight times which would randomly be expected.

According to my theory, the author of the last 15 chapters (where Dao is seen together with the Sage in four of its five appearances) was trying to bring the Dao stream and the Sage stream together into a more or less intelligible whole, while also developing his own line of thought. If this final author was also the final editor, the argument can be strengthened a little by arguing that chapter 47 was inserted into the early part of the book, which is famously heteregeneous and disorderly: in chapter 47 and in four of the five appearances of Dao in chapters 1-66, the word “Dao” is part of the phrase 天道 Dao of Heaven, which otherwise is seen only in chapter 9. (This interpretation would give special importance  to chapter 60 — the only other co-appearance of the Sage and Dao in chapters 1-66, and the only chapter in which these two words appear outside the stereotyped phrases “Therefore the Sage…” and “Way of Heaven”).

This only a rough beginning, of course, since the two streams are not completely separate, and since there are 21 chapters in which neither Dao nor the Sage appears. However, many of the Dao / non-Sage chapters of the Daodejing seem to be part of the contemplative, apolitical  “original Dao” textual layer proposed by Russell Kirkland (p. 59), to which the strategic political chapters were later added. Kirkland’s original Dao in the Daodejing consists of the chapters from tradition of Roth’s “Original Dao” (the Nei Ye chapter of Guanzi), plus the chapters featuring the female, the mother, or the child from what Kirkland calls the “maternalist” tradition.

I have selected a group of chapters from chapters 1-66 which meet Kirkland’s criteria, and to them I have added three chapters (13, 30, and 31) which I believe trace back to Yang Chu’s original renunciation of the pursuit of glory and high position, participation in the royal court,  and  any other involvement in the Chinese ritual state. Yang Chu’s withdrawal from court life, whatever his own motives and manner of living may have been, were the first step in the direction of the schools of self-cultivation, physical discipline, and meditational practice which produced the Nei Ye and part of the Daodejing. 

My proposed “original Dao” layer (thematically grouped) consists of chapters 4, 5, and 6; 13, 30, and 31; 10, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 25, and 28; 32, 33, 34, 35, and 37; and 50, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, and 59 (see table below. I suspect that the final editor deliberately dispersed and interspersed the groups in order to get a blending of flavors between the early and non-early themes). Common themes in these chapters are  confusion, namelessness, and the elusiveness of Dao (chapters 4, 6, 14, 15, 20, 21, 25, 32, 34, 37, and 56); the female, mother, and child (chapters 6, 10, 20, 25, 28, 52, 55, and 59); the emptiness, non-fullness, or inexhaustibility of Dao (chapters 4, 5, 6, 15, 16, and 52); and the life-giving and persuasive powers of Dao (chapters 32, 34, 35, 37, and 51).

These chapters are poetic or aphoristic rather than expository or polemical and show few signs either of engagement in the Hundred Schools controversies, or of the advocacy of political methods. The Sage only appears in these chapters twice, in chapter 5 and 28, and in both cases the passage including the Sage seems relatively unrelated to the rest of the chapter. (In fact, part of chapter 5 appears in the Guodian Daodejing without the passage mentioning the Sage, and the passage in chapter 28 might also be detachable). Wuwei 無為 is seen much less frequently in these chapters than elsewhere in chapters 1-66 (only once), whereas Dao is seen more frequently here than in any other part of the Daodejing.

Of the chapters I have selected, Chapters 13, 30, 31, 33, 35, 50, and 54 include none of the themes given above.  Of these, chapters 13, 30, 31 and possibly 50 are the Yang Chu chapters just mentioned. These are, according my theory, the oldest chapters in the Daodejing – the founding chapters — and perhaps partly for that reason they seem somewhat archaic and garbled (though somewhat less so in the Guodian version than in the received text).

As mentioned above, this early layer generally lacks polemical and expository writing and discussion of political and strategic methods. This layer also includes neither the almost-cynical methods proposed in chapters 36, 57, 58, and 65, nor the primitivist utopianism seen in chapters 3, 13, 17, 18, 19, 53, 75, and 80. The Sage is seldom seen and the phrase “Therefore the Sage” 是以聖人 does not appear at all. There are few signs of the ingenious argumentation learned from the School of Names 名家 (for example, the metaphysics of 無 and 有: presence and absence / being and nothing) or of any other engagement with the discussions of the Hundred Schools 百家 era. Traces of the the militarist Sunzi 孫子 or the “Legalists” 申不害 Shen Buhai and 慎到 Shen Dao , common in the non-early chapters, are likewise absent.

While this layer of the Daodejing does not include the ingenious political methods characteristic of the non-early layer, it is not entirely devoid of politics. Princes 王 are mentioned in chapters 16 and 25, Lords and Princes 侯王 in chapters 32 and 37, the state 國 / 邦 in chapters 10, 54, and 59, the 有 “realm” in chapter 14, and the Sage in chapters 5 and 28. In many of these passages there are vague promises of almost magical success, and there are also hints of magic in chapters 32 (“Heaven and earth will unite and 甘露 sweet dew will fall”), 35 (“Hold the 大象 great image and the Empire 天下 will come to you”), 50 (“There is no place for the rhinoceros th drive his horn….because he has no死地 death-spot on him”) , and 55 “Wild beasts will not seize [the newborn baby] 猛獸不據赤子”.

If these passages really are from the early layer of the Daodejing, this argues against that Creel’s old theory that the original Daodejing was philosophical and poetical, with “purposive Daoism” creeping in later. These passages are not strategic and rational like the political passages in the non-early layers, but they’re clearly purposive.


A political sublayer?

In earlier versions on this topic I proposed that there was an inferior, late, extraneous layer consisting of Chapter 54, the sorites arguments in chapters 16, 25, 52, 55, and 59 (“A=B, B=C, C=D”), and a number of chapter-ending tags whose relationship to the rest of the chapter and to the rest of the Daodejing seemed uncertain (for example, the tag at the end of chapters 13 and 14). However, a high proportion of these passages are found in the Guodian text, and they have no real affinity to anything in the non-early part of the book, so I have accepted them as a subgroup within the early layer. Chapters 33 and 35 might also be part of this subgroup, which I still think is not worthy of the rest of the book — it does not seem like a better fit with Roth’s “original Dao” than it is with any other part of the Daodejing. I will go into this in detail at a later time.

 Early Layer of the Daodejing

4 x
5 x A* GD no sage
10  —
13 B
14 x
15 x A
16 x ? A* GD no Dao
20 B*
21 x
25 x A
28 x
30 x A*
31 C*
32 x A
34 x ?MWT
35 x C
37 x x A
51 x
52 B*
54 B
55 x A
56 A
59 x B
26 total early chapters 14/26 2 (3?) / 26 1/2
54% of the early chapters include Dao 8% of the early chapters include the Sage 4% of the early chapters include wuwei
40 non-early chapters    1-66 17 / 40 16/ 40 9 / 40 16
43% of the non-early chapters in 1-66 include Dao 40% of the non-early chapters in 1-66 include the Sage 23% of the non-early chapters in 1-66 include wuwei
GD is about 35% of the DDJ. 15/31 or 48% of the GD DDJ is early. About a third of the 81-chapter DDJ is early.


H. G. Creel, What is Taoism?, Chicago, 1970.

John Emerson, “Yang Chu’s Discovery of the Body”, Philosophy East and West, Volume 46-4, October 1996, pp. 533-566:

John Emerson, “Yang Chu in the History of Chinese Philosophy”, unpublished:

John Emerson, “A stratification of Lao Tzu”, The Journal of Chinese Religions,  #23, Fall 1995, pp. 1-28: (This is an old and renounced version of the present work, but it has some interesting things in it).

Robert Henricks, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents found at Guodian, Columbia, 2000.

Robert Henricks, Lao Tzu: Te-Tao Ching, Random House, 1992.

Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Routledge, 1999.

D.C. Lau, Tao Te Ching, Chinese U. Press, Hong Kong, 1982.

Harold Roth, Original Dao, Columbia, 1999.

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Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 8:41 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am in awe for the amount of reading and knowledge it takes to write what you did… And I will read some more chapters to get to some deeper understanding..
    Actually I read only richard willhelm.. tao te ching… with all the trigrams and i broke my head to understand the 64 mathematically speaking not getting that far
    well, i got to the bagua …
    thanks. I liked lots your writing.

  2. Hi John,

    re: “Yang Chu’s withdrawal from court life, whatever his own motives and manner of living may have been, were the first step in the direction of the schools of self-cultivation, physical discipline, and meditational practice which produced the Nei Ye and part of the Daodejing.”

    This makes sense to me, although I wonder if the self-cultivation/meditation practice had its roots in religious practice, such as the ritual fasting engaged in when preparing to serve as a personator of the dead (shi) or the mediums (wu) who were hosts to spirits (and who perhaps needed to “sweep clean their internal abode” ala the Neiye).

    re: “chapters 13, 30, 31 and possibly 50 are the Yang Chu chapters just mentioned. These are, according my theory, the oldest chapters in the Daodejing – the founding chapters — and perhaps partly for that reason they seem somewhat archaic and garbled (though somewhat less so in the Guodian version than in the received text).”

    Interestingly, chapter 31 sounds as if it could be the words of an expert on rites, that is, perhaps Lao Dan. That the term Junzi is used suggests a Ru heritage, because the Laozi and Zhuangzi avoid this term like the plague.

    re: 神不害 Shen Buhai –> wrong Shen character.

    • When I sum everything up, one thing I will note is that the complexity of Laozi’s heritage is made invisible by the paucity of our data. The significance of Yang Zhu’s break is in the example, basically a negative example, he set for others. The substance of what he ended up doing came from somewhere else. Most commonly the fangshi are suggested, you have suggested ritual personators and wu, and Kirkland suggests the diviners. On the one hand, there’s no way to find out, and on the other, all four could be right to some degree.

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