Laozi studies / ancient Chinese philosophy is the one area in which I have a bit of legitimacy, since I have published 2 or 3 articles in refereed journals. (Besides the two listed below, there is also “A Stratification of Lao Tzu“, Journal of Chinese Religions #23, 1995, pp. 1-28, which is now outdated.) The below comprises the bulk of what I have written in this area. Sooner or later I will bring it all together in a coherent book which will also include a translation of the DDJ. This is admittedly a bold and ambitious project.
Recent work which I am happy with:
In the classic Chinese texts the “sage” 聖人was the highest category of human excellence. The sages were the legendary past rulers and founders (e.g. Wen Wang or the Duke of Zhou) together with hoped-for future saviors of equal merit. Both Confucius and Mencius demurred on their disciples’ suggestions that they were Sages, though Mencius did declare that Confucius was indeed a sage. The translation “sage” is not a very good one: the English word “sage” normally refers to a wise elder, but the Chinese sages were not only wise, but also holy and powerful, the founders or rulers of states, and their sageliness was apparent while they were still in their prime. (Replaces this and this.)
Many passages in the Daodejing remarkably resemble passages in Shen Dao. The dating of the Daodejing (which was produced in stages) is only approximate (roughly 350 BC to 250 BC is my guess), and the dating of Shen Dao is also uncertain, though he is thought to have flourished sometime before 300 BC, making him senior to the final contributors to the Daodejing.
In Chinese philosophy the 賢, usually translated “worthy”, is a man of great merit (but not from the royal family or from one of the ruling noble families) who is brought to the ruler’s attention and appointed to high position. (Often worthies were descended from the nobility of conquered and abolished states). “Promoting the worthy” 尚賢 was a key doctrine of the Mohist school, but something like it was also advocated by Confucians. The goal, especially in the case of the Mohists, was a kind of meritocracy which would weaken the ruling families’ stranglehold on power and make government more responsive to the needs of the people.
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.
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.
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). 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.)
Very detailed discussions of particular passages:
The many variants in these opening lines make this ~25-character passage a very interesting case in textual criticism. While the problems are many, most of them are solvable, and the few which are not can either be accepted as alternate readings, or left as unsolved problems. I have translated only the first six lines of the traditional version of this chapter, which are the only ones included in the GD text. The chain-sequence at the end of the chapter has been moved elsewhere, along with the other four chain-sequences.
Only in chapters 16 and 20 of the DDJ do we hear a personal voice. The first person pronouns wu and wo are seen eighteen times in this text, but usually as part of external quotations, the debater’s convention for making hypothetical arguments (“If I had no body….”) or to indicate the subject of knowledge – the person who knows or doesn’t know, or who teaches, or who sees.
Nothing is right about chapter 33. The rhyme scheme is AB CB CC CD, which suggests that either the first and last line or the last four lines were tacked on. The parallelism is weak, with lines of 4, 4, 5, 4, 4, 5, 6, and 6 syllables in that order. The first two couplets are parallel (or almost) and lines 1 and 2 and lines 3 and 4 contrast with one another, but the next two couplets are neither parallel nor contrastive. Much of the chapter consists of truisms which have no real connection to the rest of the DDJ and may be antithetical to it. I salvaged what I could from the chapter and ended up with what is probably a fragment, since it lacks a rhyme for 知足者富:
If the parallel is taken to be exact, Dao is the father and de 德 Virtue is the mother, but it is unlikely that this reading is intended. Ode 202 is a mourning poem expressing the utter abandonment of an orphan alone in the world, and a line from this poem is also echoed in chapter 20, which shows the Daoist all alone in the midst of a festive crowd. Taken together, the two chapters seem to say that while Daoists lack the normal supports that ordinary people have, they do not regret this, since they have better support in Dao.
One characteristic of the oldest Chinese texts noted by David Schaberg is significant throughout the history of Chinese culture. During the Shang and early Zhou dynasties, the royal style of command required a special language: “The bronze inscriptions and the oldest Zhou songs favor phrases ending in words with –ng finals, whether or not these words make for rhymes. Words that rhyme in the yang 陽 (OC –ang) dong 東 (OC –ng) and 耕 geng (OC –eng) categories include many of the most important words in this special language”, with –n words (元 yuan, 真 zhen, and 文 wen categories) being drawn into the pattern as well.
Not the Daodejing, but related.
Good pieces that need some revisions for consistency with the above:
A.C. Graham has distinguished between Individualists, Primitivists, and Syncretists among the early Daoists, with the first group dedicated to self-cultivation and meditation, the second advocating a kind of peasant anarchism, and the third adapting Daoist principles for the ruler’s use. In his book Original Dao Harold Roth has argued that the “Nei Ye” chapter in the Guanzi and parts of the Daodejing represent the Individualist contemplative strain of Daoism, whereas other parts of the Daodejing are Primitivist or Syncretist. I generally agree with Roth, and have defined an Individualist “early layer” within the text of the Daodejing which has many points in common with Roth’s “Nei Ye”.
I conjecture that the final editor of the Daodejing deliberately dispersed and interspersed the various themes in chapters 1-66 so that the different tendencies of thought could resonate and blend, and that certain chapters (e.g. chapter 2 and chapter 57) were deliberate composites devised to resonate with as many other chapters as possible, thus stitching together a kind of unity.
The Nei Ye chapter of Guanzi studied by Harold Roth and the Daodejing. I believe that the Nei Ye tradition is one of the three sources of the Daodejing’s early layer, along with the Yang Zhu (Yang Chu) tradition and what Kirkland calls the “maternalist” tradition.
Older, require major revision, but valuable:
The Highest Virtue is Like A Valley, Taoist Resources, Vol. 3, #2, May, 1992, pp. 47-61.
The vitalist symbolism of “the Valley” and “Virtue” in the Daodejing.
Yangchu’s Discovery of the Body, Philosophy East and West, Volume 46-4, October 1996, pp. 533-566.
Yang Zhu’s break with court life, the pursuit of glory and honor, and the ritual state led to a kind of individualism and was a necessary preliminary to the development of self-awareness and the disciplines of self-cultivation.
Continues the previous discussion about the development of personhood and individualism in China, its connections to the rationalization and modernization of government of that era, and its traces in Chinese philosophy.
Reciprocity, a key idea in traditional Chinese culture (and many other traditional cultures) takes many forms — ethical, social, philosophical, cosmological. I show how reciprocity is in several different ways central in the Daodejing. Needs rewriting.
I don’t know how seriously this should be taken, but I feel that I made a plausible and original case.
Shen Dao: Text, Translation, and Study
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(revised and corrected February 10, 2014)