The Last Fifteen Chapters of Laozi

(This is part of a project I’ve been working on for about 20 years, and supercedes all earlier efforts.)

Chapters 67-81 at the end make up the the only consecutive group of chapters in Laozi which is uniform enough to be briefly described. These chapters all recommend the closely-related virtues of foresight, patience, frugality, modesty, forbearance, generosity, mercy, and peacefulness. All of them are consistent and fairly similar in style, without the patchwork feeling of many of the earlier chapters, and all of them develop a single idea in an expository rather than a poetic fashion.

What is absent is equally notable. The mother, female, and mother-and-child (what Kirkland calls the maternalist themes) are not seen, nor are the poetic meditations on Dao and the elusiveness of Dao, nor are the metaphysical or vitalistic reflections on namelessness, Yin and Yang, the One, 氣 ch’i (qi), 精 essence, 谷 the valley, 静 stillness, or 有 / 無 (presence / absence, being / nothing). Most of the themes just named belong to the more contemplative “Dao” stream of Laozi, but significant themes from the more political “Sage” stream are absent too (notably the ideas expressed in chapters 27, 36, 49, 57, 58, and 65 suggesting manipulative techniques of management). Finally, “wuwei” 無為, which is seen ten times in the rest of the book, does not appear in these chapters at all.

Chapters 67-81 were not part of the Guodian Laozi, which is by far the oldest extant Laozi text. The next oldest texts are the two Mawangdui texts, within which Part II of the present Laozi comes first, beginning with the present chapter 38 and concluding with the present chapter 79, with chapters 80 and 81 inserted between chapters 66 and 67. This arrangement also suggests that chapter 66 is a boundary, and that the chapters following it comprise a distinct group. Thus, I think that it is reasonable to conclude that chapters 67-81 were added to Laozi last of all, with chapters 81 and 79 being alternative endings used at different times for some as yet unknown reason.

FOOTNOTE Kirkland claims 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 Laozi is cited in Hanfeizi’s “Jie Lao” chapter, and chapter 71 is cited in his “Yu Lao” chapter.

The distributions of some major themes reinforce the conclusion that chapters 67-81 are a distinct unit. The Sage is seen in these chapters almost twice as frequently as in the rest of Laozi, whereas Dao is seen significantly less frequently. Among these fifteen chapters, however, are four of the six chapters of Laozi in which Dao and the Sage are seen together. In chapters 67-81, 80% of the time when you see the word “Dao” in a chapter you will also see the Sage in that chapter (4 of 5 times), whereas in the other 66 chapters of Laozi, this is true only 6.4% of the time (2 of 31 times). Furthermore, Dao and the Sage are not seen together in any chapter of Part I (chapters 1-37) or in any chapter of the Guodian Laozi.

Chapters       67-81 5 8 4  
33%.  5/15 53%.  8/15 27%.  4/15  
Chapters        1-66 31 18 2  
47%.  31/66 27%.  18/66 3%.  2/66  
Chapters        1-37 17 10 0  
46%.  17/37 27%.  10/37 0%.  0/31  
31 chapters, ~ 35% of total
13 5 0  
42%.  13/31 16%.  5/31 0%.  0/31  

In chapters 67-81 Dao,  in all four of its co-appearances with the Sage, is part of the phrase “Dao of Heaven” 天道, and the Sage and the Dao of Heaven are also seen together in chapter 47 outside this group. Chapter 60 is the only chapter in which Dao and the Sage are seen together outside the “Tao of Heaven” formula, and chapter 9 is the only chapter in which the Dao of Heaven appears apart from the Sage.

Chapter Dao Sage Dao of Heaven Chs. 67-81 Chs. 1-37 Guodian
9 x x x x
47 x x x
60 x x
73 x x x x
77 x x x x
79 x x x x
81 x x x x
30 other chs. 21 other chs. 31 chapters, about 35% of the total

If chapters 67-81 are taken to be the last chapters added to Laozi, what other conclusions can be reached? Since there is almost no overlap between Dao and the Sage in chapters 1-66 of Laozi, it seems reasonable to  hypothesize that the Dao chapters and the Sage chapters in this part of the book  are from two distinct traditions, and that the last fifteen chapters represent the final author-editor’s attempt to bring these two themes together. (Chapter 47 might also be regarded as the final editor’s late insertion into a very heterogeneous text). The majority of the appearances of the Sage in the 81-chapter Laozi (19 of 26) are in the phrase “Therefore the sage” 是以聖人, a phrase which is often thought to be an editorial device. And in the Guodian Laozi, which is generally thought to represent an early stage of the text, Dao and the Sage do not appear together at all, and the Sage is seen there about half as often as it is in the 81-chapter version (5 times in 31 chapters, or 16%, as opposed to 26 times in 81 chapters, or 32%.)

Altogether, I think that the Dao chapters in chapters 1-66 are mostly from an earlier tradition, relatively more spiritual and less political, and that the Sage chapters there mostly belonging to a later, more political tradition, with chapters 67-81 representing the work of the final author-editor. This is consistent with Russell Kirkland’s suggestion (Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Routledge, 2004, p. 59) that the original text of Laozi did not include the political chapters.

FOOTNOTE: Though obviously it’s not as neat as that. For example, 23 chapters — chapters 6, 11, 13, 17, 20, 26, 31, 33, 36, 39, 43, 44, 45, 50, 52, 56, 61, 68, 69, 74, 75, 76, and 80) speak neither of Dao nor of the Sage. These chapters, representing 28% of the total, also include only one of Laozi’s ten appearances of 無為 wuwei, in chapter 43, and only one of the 14 appearances of 徳  “virtue”, in chapter 68. You can express much of the meaning of Laozi without using any of the keywords.

Published in: on October 9, 2009 at 9:35 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. re: “In the two Mawangdui Laozi texts, the next oldest, chapters 67-79 conclude the book.”
    — If by “book” you mean the De section, then yes; but the whole book ends with chapter 37.

  2. Thanks, should have caught that. Fixed.

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