The Structure of the Daodejing

It is widely accepted that the Daodejing, like most Zhou-era texts, was produced over a considerable period by a process of accretion– the gathering of existing units of text (possibly oral in origin) into larger bodies of discourse. It is thus the product of more than one author from more than one period, and probably also derives from more than one tradition (or from clearly contrasting phases of a single tradition).[1]  In this article I divide the Daodejing into three groups, of which two are themselves plural in origin: an early contemplative / self-cultivation group, a middle strategic-philosophical group, and a final ethical-political group which probably represents the point of view of the final editor. (I have reluctantly called the first two groups “early” and “middle”, but am not committed to any specific theory about either their dates or about the process which brought them together.)[2]

The 28 chapters in the early contemplative / self-cultivation group are poetic rather than expository and have relatively little to say about government and public life. These chapters affiliate with the anti-political Yangist tradition, with the self-cultivation tradition to which the “Nei Ye” chapter of Guanzi also belongs, and with an obscure “maternalist” tradition which produced the chapters centering on the mother and child.[3] The 38 chapters of the middle group are more philosophical and more political. They rely heavily on paradox and antithesis, and it is here that you find most of the chapters advocating ingenious political strategies. This group engages in the debates of the Hundred Schools period, and appropriating and developing themes from Shen Dao, Shen Buhai, Sunzi, the Primitivists, the School of Names, etc. The final group, which I believe represents the point of view of the final editor, persuasively advocates magnanimity and forbearance in the exercise of power, functioning as a conclusion.

I have defined these groups on the basis of the chapters’ differing forms and styles, the distribution of themes and terms among the chapters, the relationships with the other thinkers of the late fourth and early third centuries BC, comparisons between the traditional texts of the Daodejing and the recently-discovered Mawangdui and Guodian texts, and my own understanding of the developments in Chinese philosophy during the century or so beginning about 350 BC.[4]

I have limited myself to simple operations: the 15 contiguous chapters at the end were first defined as the final group, and from the remaining 66 chapters, 28 chapters (taken as wholes) were designated as the early group, with the remainder comprising the middle group. Even though the traditional chapter breaks are not found in the newly-discovered texts and have often been thought to be late additions, I did not divide any chapters; while I could have produced cleaner groups dividing a number of chapters between groups, by doing so I would have left myself open to suspicion of cherry-picking and special pleading. (But once the three groups have been defined in broad outline, certain revisions might be possible.)

The division of the text was done by trial and error over a long period. My goal was to find disjunctions and contrasting clusters — groups of themes in contrary distribution, so that when the chapters including themes and styles A, B, and C are selected for, themes D, E, and F are selected against. As I was defining each group, I looked for contrasts with its anti-group – for example, comparing chapters 67-81 (the final group) with chapters 1-66 (the non-final group), and then doing the same for the early and middle groups. The test of the method is the clustering – the density of themes that can be sorted this way. (There are also, of course, many themes found in two groups, or all three; the Daodejing is not a random assemblage).

I paid particular attention to the distributions of five key terms and phrases: Dao, the phrase “Therefore the Sage”, the Sage outside that phrase, De (Virtue), and Wuwei. The distributions of these terms proved illuminating. The phrase wuwei, for example, appears eleven times in the Daodejing, but only twice outside the middle group, while the phrase “Therefore the Sage”, which is seen 20 times in the text as a whole, is seen only twice in the early group comprising more than a third of the text.. (The Sage also is seen relatively infrequently in the Guodian text.  One of the unexpected fruits of this investigation has been a new insight into the role of the Sage in the Daodejing).

I found the final three-part division of the text quite satisfying. Many of the themes and forms of the early group were almost entirely absent from the other two groups. The final group was initially defined simply on the basis of its absence from the Guodian text and its position at the end of the traditional text, but upon examination it was found to be dominated by a single style of chapter advocating humane government, with most of the other styles and themes of the Daodejing seldom found: given the entire range of early and middle themes to choose from, the author-editor of the final group chose only a few of them. Finally, while the middle group was passively and negatively defined – not final and not early — and while it might have ended up as just an incoherent residual class of leftovers, it turned out also to have its own characteristic themes of cleverness, strategy, and paradox.

Below I will describe the final group, early group, and the middle group in that order, dealing with the final group first because it is the most easily and parsimoniously defined. In my conclusions I will address three general topics: problems with my division of the text (and possible adjustments to address these problems); an argument that the final 81-chapter text is not random and jumbled, but deliberately disperses key themes throughout the text, regardless of their origin); and final, some thoughts on the tradition and context of the DDJ.

The final group

I begin with the final group, since it is the most persuasively defined. I believe that this group was added to the text of the DDJ last, all in one chunk, and that it may all have come from a single author. The other two groups are much more heterogeneous and the definition of these groups is much more difficult and more questionable.

The Guodian Daoedejing does not include chapters 67-81. In the Mawangdui texts a cut is also made after chapter 66 — in these texts, chapters 80 and 81 appear immediately following chapter 66. This gives us a textual justification for asking whether chapters 67-81 have a special status, and I find that they do. This block of text, representing almost a fifth of the total, is quite consistent in theme and style and can be differentiated from much of the rest of the Daodejing  by the presence and absence of certain themes and forms. I believe that these chapters were the last chapters added and many of them, at least, were written by the editor who put the 81-chapter Daoedejing into its final form.[5]

Negatively, in chapters 67-81 wu-wei, stillness, namelessness, pu (simplicity), emptiness and inexhaustibility, yin-yang, qi, jing, something/nothing (and metaphysics generally), the valley, yi (oneness), and  the female, mother and child (the maternalist themes) are not seen at`all, nor are the ingenious forms of political manipulation recommended, for example, in chapters 27, 36, 49, 57, 58, and 65 of the middle group, nor are the “meditation instructions” characteristic of the early group. Positively, the Sage is much more important here, appearing twice as frequently as in the rest of the text (in 8 of 15 chapters, versus 18 of 66). The Sage also appears in the same chapter as Dao five times as frequently here as elsewhere (4 times in 15 chapters versus 3 times in 66 chapters), and when Dao and the Sage are seen together here, it’s always in the phrase Tian Dao (Dao of Heaven), which in Zhuangzi is associated with late political syncretism.[6] Outside these fifteen chapters, Dao and the Sage are in contrastive distribution and are seen in the same chapter only in chapters 34, 47 and 60 (none of which are found in the Guodian texts).

Most of the themes of the final group are also seen in the other two groups; this final group is defined mostly by its absences. These chapters are consistent in theme and style, and none of them have the patchwork heterogeneity of many of the chapters in other two group. This group consists almost entirely of persuasive advocacy for a benevolent political ethic: caution and foresight, frugality and contentment, non-contention and calmness, self-effacement and circumspection, magnanimity and forbearance. These chapters are clearly directed at rulers and those in positions of power, and war or violent death are alluded to in nine of the fifteen chapters. Rulers and nobles should be benevolent and avoid anger and killing, and they should not use threats to extract exorbitant taxes. Harsh government is the way of death, and benevolent government is the way of life. The ruler who follows these principles will live, whereas ordinary, brutal, greedy rulers will die.

Several times it is suggested that someone following the precepts of the Daoedejing will succeed in whatever he does, but it is also said more than once that the message of the Daoedejing is difficult or impossible to understand or to put into practice. This is because the message was contrary to everything its hearers believed. The target of these chapters is the proud, ambitious ruler or courtier: touchy about honor and precedence, quick to anger, without self-control, extravagant, greedy for all the pleasures of life, harsh and grasping in his relation to his subjects, and always ready to pick a fight or go to war.  This is perhaps the commonest type of Warring States ruler, and kings and officers of this type were the target of these chapters not merely as horrible examples to be condemned, but ultimately also as the audience to be persuaded. (But no special cultural sensitivity is required of Western readers here: rulers of this type are also a stock figure in our history).

Kirkland says that Hanfeizi does not cite passages from chapters 67-81, suggesting that the Guodian version might still have been circulating during his time (ca. 280 BC – 233 BC). However, chapter 67 of the Daodejing is cited in Hanfeizi’s “Jie Lao” chapter, and chapter 71 is cited in his “Yu Lao” chapter. But the final chapters, compared to the earlier chapters, speak directly against Hanfeizi’s ruthless methods, and perhaps they were added (albeit successfully) specifically for the purpose of discouraging the Legalists’ opportunistic exploitation of the DDJ.
The final group has been an ideal starting point for my investigation — partly because this group was objectively defined, without recourse to reading and interpretation, but also because it makes a satisfying unity when interpreted. There are also chapters elsewhere in the book which match these chapters in every respect except location, but I will leave them out of the story for now in order to avoid complicating my argument, and will postpone their discussion until the end of this paper.

Table 1: Final compared to non-final chapters

This group does not include the phrase wuwei; Dao and virtue are seen a little more than two-thirds as frequently as they are in the rest of the book, and the Sage is seen almost twice as frequently.

Group Dao SYSR Sage (alone) De (Virtue) Wuwei
DDJ final group: 15/81 chapters 5/15 6/15 2/15 2/15 0/15
33%. 40%. 13%. 13%. 0%.
DDJ non-final group: 66/81 chapters 32/66 14/66 5/66 12/66 11/66
48% 21% 8% 18% 17%

Table 2: Dao and the Sage in the Final Chapters

The Sage (alone or in the formula “Therefore the Sage”) and Dao are five times more likely to be seen together in the same chapter (always as part of the phrase Dao of Heaven) in than final group than they are in the rest of the DDJ. In the final group’s anti-group (chapters 1-66) Dao and the Sage are seen together in chapters 34 (some texts), 47 (with Tian Dao), and 60, and Tian Dao is seen without the Sage in chapter 9.

Group Dao Sage (all appearances) Dao and Sage in the same chapter Dao of Heaven (Tian Dao)
DDJ final group: 15/81 chapters 5/15 8/15 4/15 4/15
33%. 53%. 27% 27%
DDJ non-final group: 66/81 chapters 32/66 19/66 3/66 2/66
48% 29% 5% 3%

The early group

My proposed early group consists of chapters 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7; chapters 10, 16, and 28; chapters 13, 30, and 31; chapters 14, 15, 20, 21, and 25; chapters 32-35 and 37; and chapters 50, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, and 59 — 28 chapters in all, or a little more than a third of the DDJ. (The subgroups will be explained below).

My final group is parsimoniously defined, and it could be justified in terms of evidence from the Guodian and Mawangdui manuscripts together with a plausible theory of the history of the text. Furthermore, once the group had been defined, it was found to have a gratifying distinctiveness and internal consistency in style and theme, elaborating on a limited number of the Daodejing’s major themes while avoiding many others.

The early group, however, is irregularly distributed throughout the first 59 chapters, and it was defined from the start in terms of styles and themes, so my choices might be suspected of subjectivity, arbitrariness, or circularity. The main test of this early group will be whether or not the chapters I have somewhat arbitrarily chosen form a coherent cluster whose themes and styles have some internal consistency and can be seen to contrast significantly with those of the rest of the DDJ.

My first test was the distribution of the terms “Dao”, “Therefore the Sage”, the Sage outside that phrase, “De” (virtue), and “wuwei”. The distribution of these words and phrases is, in fact, distinctly different in the early group than in the remainder of the DDJ or in the final group. De (Virtue) is seen about twice as frequently in the 28 early chapters as in the other 53 chapters, and Dao about 50% more frequently. By contrast, the phrases “Therefore the Sage” and “wuwei” are seen about a fifth and a fourth as frequently, respectively, in this early group as in the other 53 chapters. For every appearance of the phrase “Therefore the Sage”, in the early group there are 3.5 appearances of the word “Virtue”, whereas in the remaining 53 chapters, for every appearance of the word “virtue there are about 2.5 appearances of the phrase “Therefore the Sage” – a factor of almost 9.

Most of the early chapters are poetic — not didactic poetry, but meditations (“meditation instructions” in Lafargue’s words) or hymns. There is little of the persuasive rhetoric which predominates in the final group, and few traces of Hundred Schools argumentation. There are few discussions of methods of government — chapters 13, 30, and 31 warn against the pursuit of military glory, and chapters 32-5 and 37 hint that the follower of Dao will become powerful and successful, but there are no specific political practices or strategies described. The female, mother, and child are found almost exclusively in this group, and likewise the word gui (“go home” or “return to”) and the poetic metaphysics of the elusiveness and inexhaustibility of Dao. All of the chain sequences (“Aà B, Bà C”…..) are here, almost all of the uses of the vocatives xi or hu, and most of the praises of the life-giving and life-preserving powers of Dao.

I have divided this group into subgroups. Chapters 13, 30, and 31 condemn war and seem to trace back to Yang Zhu’s original break from court life, ambition, government service, and war. (These  chapters have been transmitted in a rather garbled form, which makes me wonder whether they might trace back to the origins of Yangism). Chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 emphasize the elusiveness and inexhaustibility of Dao, with chapter 7 also connecting with the nurture-of-life theme (as does chapter 1, in fact). Chapters 10, 16, and 28 are meditation instructions, and chapters 10 and 28 are grouped together because they share rhymes. Chapters 14, 15, 20, 21, and 25 are also poetic meditations; they especially emphasize confusion (hun, huhuang, etc.) and elusiveness.   Chapters 50, 51, 52, 55, and 56 seem to form a group, and these chapters emphasize vitality and the nurturing of life. Chapters 32, 34, 35, and 37 talk about long life, permanence, and the power of Dao. Finally, chapters 33, 54, and 59 seem to have little to say about the major themes of the DDJ, but I have called them early because they don’t seem to fit into the other two groups either, and their location and style make them seem to belong with chapters 32, 34, 35 and 37 or with chapters 50, 51, 52, 55, and 56.

It is my theory that the early group traces back to Yang Zhu, whose refusal of public service and break with the Chinese ritual state marks the beginning of the recluse tradition in China. (If Yang Zhu existed: he may just be a legendary figure drafted into service as the founder of a movement). Rather than to risk their lives contending for glory and high position in the state service, Yangists remained in private life and “cultivated the self” (or the body). Yang Zhu, if he actually existed, probably did not offer a fully-elaborated teaching; his contribution was probably just this break away from state service toward private life. There were many kinds of Yangists, including both contemplatives and hedonists. The DDJ represents the contemplatives, and chapters 7, 50, and 75 probably are aimed at hedonist Yangists who “set too much store on life” — that is, who live too extravagantly.

The cultivation of the body involved meditation, physical disciplines, and attention to diet, and they were grounded in a dynamic universe of fertility and vitality. The origins of these practices are obscure and somewhat controversial but it is thought that they were developed within a regional tradition of medical-religious self-care distinct from the known Warring States philosophical schools. Harold Roth has persuasively argued that that part of the DDJ and several chapters of the Guanzi, notably the “Nei Ye” chapter, came from this tradition. If there is a distinction, chapters 7, 50, 51, 52, 55, and 56 seem especially directed toward the cultivation of life, while chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 10, 14, 15, 20, 21, 25, and 28 are more like guides to meditation.

Finally, Russell Kirkland has argued that what he calls the “maternalist” voice in the Daodejing, centering on the female and on the mother and child (not mentioned in the Nai Ye), originates with still a third, very obscure, tradition. In the early group, the maternalists are represented in chapters 6, 10, 20, 25, 28, 52, and 55.[7]

These may have been three separate traditions which eventually joined (Yangist, Nei Ye, and maternalist) or just three strains or phases within a single tradition, but that question is not critical. While I have to some degree correlated my analysis of the DDJ with my theory of the history of the text and my speculations about who produced it, I try not to keep these theories and speculations somewhat vague.

Table 3: Early chapters compared to non-early chapters

Dao Therefore the Sage (SYSR) Sage (alone) De (Virtue) Wuwei
Early layer (28 chapters) 16/28 2/28 2/28 7/28 2/28
% 57%. 7%. 7%. 25%. 7%.
Non-early (53 chapters) 21/53 18/53 5/53 7/53 9/53
% 40% 34% 9% 13% 17%

Table 4: Key themes in the early group

Early Middle Final
Mother, woman, female 1 6 10 20 25 28 59 61
Child, baby 10 20 28 52 55 49?
The One, oneness 10 14 22 39 42
Emptiness, fullness 4 5 15 16 20 52 56 11 22 39 45
Elusiveness of Dao, confusion 1 4 6 14 15 20 21 25 35 56 58 65
Inexhaustibility of Dao 4 5 6 35 52 45 81
Long life, endurance, permanence 7 16 30 33 50 54 55 59 24 44
*Vocative or rhetorical  xi /  hu / xie 4  6 7 10 14 15 20 21 25  34 17
Chain sequence 16 25 52 55 59
Tian Di (Heaven and Earth) 1 5 6 7 25 32 37 23
Gui (return, go home) 14 16 20 28 34 52 22, 60
Beginning (shi /) / Mother (shi / mu now, but then lhə: / mə). 1 52
Female /  blemish / son / valley rhyme on -e 10 28

The middle group

The middle group is passively and negatively defined. It is the leftover non-early / non-final part, consisting of chapters 2, 3, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 29, 35, 38-49, 53, 57, 58, and 60-66 — 38 chapters in all, or a bit less than half of the book. The test of this group will be whether it perceptibly contrasts with each of the other two groups, and whether it can be positively defined in terms of its own cluster of themes. It meets both of these tests.

At the same time, there is unfinished business here. As many as ten chapters probably could be moved to the final group without changing the identity of either group except to make them contrast more sharply, and as many as five chapters might be moved into the early group with the same result. This would give us a breakdown of 33 early / 23 middle/25 final, with all groups better defined than the present groups. Furthermore, a considerable number of chapters might reasonable be divided and assigned to different groups. I have not done these things because I wanted to make my division based on a smallest possible number of operations on the text. I will return to this question at the end.

The phrase “Therefore the Sage….” is seen here six times as frequently it is in the early group, and 9 of the DDJ’s 11 appearances of the term wuwei are seen here. Non-contention (bu zheng), being and nothing (wu / you), and the long sequences of paradoxes and antitheses are mostly seen here. It is also in the chapters of this section that affinities can be found with the Primitivists, Shen Dao, Shen Buhai, Sunzi, and the School of Names — this is the Hundred Schools group within the DDJ.

It is in this group that you find clever strategic thinking for which the DDJ is famous. In a practical sense it is asserted that normal ways of attaining success are so self-defeating that if you use the opposite of these strategies you will do well. Instead of pushing yourself, stand back. Instead of trying for fame, try for obscurity. Instead of taking, give. Instead of fighting, remain peaceful. This is also where the nature of the Sage is most clearly developed, and where the strategies of indirection and deception are seen, and  where it is argued that the wisdom of the Sage allows him, without harm, to employ inferior men to achieve his goals (something directly contrary to the Confucian and Mohist teachings).

Behind the practical paradoxes lie a metaphysics of reversal, compensation, cyclic repetition, namelessness, being and nothing (presence and absence, existence and non-existence) and the mutual implication of opposites. This is the part which a contemporary technical philosopher would find most interesting.

Table 5: Middle-group chapters compared to non-middle-group chapters

Wuwei is seen six times more frequently in the middle group than it is elsewhere in the DDJ, and the phrase “Therefore the Sage” is seen significantly more frequently.

Dao SYSR Sage (alone) De (Virtue) Wuwei
Middle Group (38 Chapters) 16/38 12/38 3/38 5/38 9/38
42% 32% 8% 13% 24%
Non-middle (43 chapters) 20/43 8/43 4/43 9/43 2/43
47% 19% 9% 21% 5%

Table 6: middle-group themes

Middle Early Final Guodian
Wuwei 2 3 36 43 47 48 57 63 64 10 37 2 57 63 64
Paradox sequence 2 22 27 29 36 41 45 57 68 69 73 2 57
Reversal 22 39 40 42 57 58 65 25 74 78 40 57
Non-contention 3 8 22 66 68 81 66
Wu / you 2 11 40 43 2 40
Primitivism 3 12 17 18 19 53 57 64 75 80 17 18 19 57 64
45 in 26 chapters (of8) 4  in 4 chapters (of 28) 11 in 10 chapters (of 15) 20 in 9 chapters (of 31)

Problems and adjustments

Three questions naturally arise: How can we be sure that the Daodejing consists of three and only three groups?” “How do we be sure that all chapters have been assigned to the correct group?” “How can we be sure that every chapter of the Daodejing belongs to one and only one group, and can’t be divided?”

The short answer to all of these questions is that we can’t. Not only can we not be sure that my dissection of the text is the only good one, we can be sure that there are other dissections of the text which are (in many respects) equally valid. Not every other way of dividing the Daodejing is equally valid, but some of them are: those which account for the contrasting clusters of themes that I have found.

Given these clusters, I could have divided the text into two, four, or many parts, and I could even have arranged them in a continuum, with similar chapters adjacent to one another. I have, in fact, worked out a two-part division, but I think that the final and middle groups are distinctive enough to justify three parts. (Though maybe my final group is just a subgroup within the middle group….)

As for which chapter goes where: many chapters in the middle group are completely consistent in every way with the final group, and given my understanding of the final editor’s methods (see the next section), it seems quite reasonable to suppose that he distributed his chapters throughout the book. The chapters which I think could be moved are the Primitivist chapters (3, 12, 17, 18, 19, and 53),  which fit in well with Primitivist chapters 75 and 80 in the final layer, and chapters 29, 64, and 65, which both thematically and formally resemble the chapters of the final layer. This would give us a more evenly divided text: 28 chapters + 29 chapters + 24 chapters.

Finally, the early layer could be cleaned up by dividing several chapters. The Guodian text specifically justifies dividing chapters 5, 16, 20, and 52, all of which are seen in very partial form. This would take away both appearances of the freestanding Sage in the early group, in chapters 5 and 20. In chapters 16 and 52 it’s the chain sequence (aà b, b à c….) which is left out, and the chain sequences in chapters 25, 55, and 59 might also be moved. In the early and middle groups there are a large number of other chapters whose connection to the sayings which begin or end them is uncertain, so that they might be detachable.

Many of my specific choices here have been motivated by the needs of presentation. I have tried to work as economically as possible in order to make my work easier to follow and harder to question. I already thought that a more aggressive approach was justified, but I wasn’t confident that readers would agree. The real point of this argument is the disjunct clusters and their relation to the history of the text of the Daodejing and the history of Daoism, and their significance for our interpretation of the Daodejing. Many of the specifics are of secondary importance.

This may seem excessively cute, but I think that there is a Daoist lesson about knowledge and no-knowledge here. Partly because our knowledge of the historical context of the DDJ is so scanty, our knowledge is necessarily very incomplete, and it would be a mistake to argue too much about which division to favor, or about the ontological status and precise origins of the text groups decided upon, or about the specific nature of the community that produced the book, and so on. I have done what I could to sideline these questions. The important question is whether the three disjunct clusters, early, middle, and late, are really there in the text. (Or is the later group just a subgroup of the middle group?…..)

The composition of the Daodejing

The rationale for the sequence of passages and chapters in the 81-chapter DDJ is not immediately evident, and it has often been thought concluded that the text was haphazardly assembled, or that an originally intelligible text was damaged. This assumption underlies many of the attempts at rearrangement.

However, the selection of texts had to have been very deliberately done. The fact that there’s very little unfamiliar material in the Guodian text (possibly none if the pieces at the end of the C bundle are a different work) indicates that already by that time, even before the 81-chapter version had been gathered together, some sort of accepted authority was deciding what would be taken into what was to become the DDJ, and what not. Even though three groups are distinguishable in the present text, there are many themes common to all three chapters – for example, frugality, cautious, foresight, benevolence, and especially selflessness. And even though there are many themes specific to only one  group, these group-specific themes are not entirely unrelated to the themes of the other groups. For example, the mother (early group) can easily be symbolically associated with nothingness (wu), water, the lower position, etc., in the other two groups.  The resonance between its various themes is part of the power of the DDJ. However different they may be in various ways, the parts of the DDJ do cohere.

As for the sequence if the passages, there’s obviously no orderly development from premises to conclusion. Themes bob up suddenly and unexpectedly, disappear, and then resurface again many chapters later.  To follow a specific theme you have to skip through the text gathering the relevant passages wherever you find them, and even so, these passages will not fit in a beginning-to-end sequence, but will just develop the theme over and over again, but each time slightly differently.

While oral transmission was probably involved in the text’s dissemination, I doubt that the DDJ was ever unwritten and strictly oral. However I think that the theory that the repetition and discontinuity were deliberately intended to give the hearer a mix of unexpected new ideas, and restatements of ideas had been heard before, is the key to understanding how the text was made.

The final editor was quite aware of the diversity of the material, but rather than sorting the text by kind putting like things together,  he distributed the various sorts of writing fairly evenly so that readers or hearers would, on the one hand, be forced to imagine the connections between seemingly-disparate strands of the text (“What does this have to do with that?”), and on the other hand, frequently be reminded of distant passages (“Haven’t I read something like that before?”). Discontinuity and repetitions are deliberately used to produce an effect of puzzlement. The DDJ is not a book to read once and then know, but a book to keep going back to.

The DDJ is made up of proverbs, philosophical and devotional poems, speculations on language, logic, and ontology, descriptions of political and governmental strategies, and persuasive expositions of a humane political ethics. These aspects are not sorted, but mixed together, and each of them is intended to reinforce the others. And it is because of the interweaving and resonances that what might be thought to be a disorganized collection of aphorisms and poems can be treated as unified and even systematic even though it has (like theYijing) no real beginning or end.

Is there an structure to be seen in the 81-chapter text as a whole? I think that there is. Chapter 1 and chapter 38 seem introductory, and chapters 37, 79, and 81 seem like endings. (Chapters 67-81, of course, are the greater ending.) they are not beginnings and endings in the logical sense of premises and conclusions, but in the rhetorical sense of opening and closing statements. The early layer is scattered through the book, usually in chunks rather than as single chapters. Some of the more difficult transitions, for example the incoherent chapter 20, might be the just product of arbitrary chapter divisions, or they might also be the consequence of the fact that the final editor was working with a given body of text which all had to be included, so that places had to be found somewhere or another for everything.

Some of the chapters seem to be specifically designed to knit things together. I believe that this chapter was given its prominent place near the beginning of the text in order to present as many of the various strands of the DDJ as possible all in one chapter. This chapter echoes seventeen other chapters in the Daodejing, and its paradox sequences and the phrases wuwei and “Therefore the sage” link it to a couple of dozen more. (Chapter 57 is structured similarly).

Chapter 2

Elsewhere in the Daodejing

The whole world recognizes the beautiful to be beautiful, yet this is only the ugly. Between good and evil, how great the distance? Chapter 20
Something and nothing produce one another…. Something and nothing are contrasted: Chapters 11, 40, and 43.Similar sequences of paradoxes: 10 other chapters.
It accomplishes the task yet   lays claim to no merit…. Similar passages: Chapters 9, 17, 34, and 77
Note and sound harmonize with one another…..       The great note is rarified in sound: Chapter 41
It gives them life yet claims no possession…..            Similar passages: Chapters 10, 51, and 77.
Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists of taking no action (wuwei) and practices the teaching that uses no words…… “No words”: chapters 43 and 73. Teaching: chapters 17, 56 and 81. Wuwei “no action” is seen in 10 other chapters.
Therefore the Sage…..  This introductory formula is seen in 19 other chapters.


I have refrained from speculation to the extent possible, but we at least need a plausible narrative of how the 81-chapter text came to be. I will now speculate. Based on what I see in the text, the history of the school of the Daodejing might have gone somewhat as follows. Sometime fairly early in the fourth century BC members of the nobility started withdrawing themselves from public service to take a more humble place in the world. In their new situation they devoted themselves to private life, variously defined.

Some of them became involved in the spiritual practices (which included meditation and physical disciplines) which are described in the Nei Ye, and through these disciplines they learned to calm or extinguish the obsessions, phobias, rages, and cravings characteristic of ambitious and worldly men. Their separation from court life was never complete, and as the advantages of the new life became apparent, worldly individuals still involved in court life started taking an interest in these practices. The exercise of calming their own minds helped them locate the weak spots of their still-obsessive competitors at court, and the new hybrid spiritual courtiers earned a reputation for cunning.

As time went on, passages providing tips for courtiers and princes was added to the original collection of devotional texts (or to an truncated version of this collection). These collections of  tips became part of the Hundred Schools debates, and the Laoists traded ideas back and forth with the sophists from the other schools. Finally, presumably as a response to abuses of this political Dao, one member of the community added new chapters emphasizing the humane aspects of the teaching, and at around the same time, someone (possibly same man) the gathered the scattered materials then available and worked them into a single text, which eventually became authoritative.


[1] William Boltz, “The Composite Nature of Early Chinese Texts”, in Text and Ritual in Early China, ed. Martin Kern, U. Washington, 2005, pp.50-78.

[2] Some time ago I published a first, not terribly satisfactory attempt at sorting things out: John Emerson, “A Stratification of Lao Tzu”, Journal of Chinese Religions, Volume 23, Fall1995, pp. 1-28.

[3] Harold Roth, Original Dao, Columbia, 1999; Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Routledge, 2004, pp. 39-67.

[4]  John Emerson, “Yang Chu’s Discovery of the Body”, Philosophy East and West, Volume 46, #4, October, 1996, pp 533-566; John Emerson, “Yang Zhu in the History of Chinese Philosophy”, unpublished.

[5] Both chapter 79 and chapter 81 have a valedictory tone. Perhaps the chapters now numbered 80 and 81 were first tacked on to chapters 1-66 to form the ending of Part One of the MWD-text DDJ, with chapters 67-79 later added to make chapter 79 the new ending, until finally it was decided to make chapters 80-81 the ending again. But there are many other possibilities.

[6] A. C. Graham, tr., Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Allen and Unwin, 1981, pp. 257-63.

[7] In their books about the goddesses of the Han and Tang eras, Schafer and Cahill speculate about the existence of this tradition, but don’t say much about it.

Published in: on March 28, 2009 at 6:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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