»  The Tao Te Ching, Stanza 21


The Tao Te Ching, Stanza 21

by Lao Tzu, 6th(?) century B.C.


•  Background

In my review of Moss Roberts' translation of the classic Chinese work Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing, or Daode Jing in a modern transcription), I passed the following remark:

The pity of all these translations is, of course, that none of them can convey the poetry of Tao Te Ching. There is no way that I can do this, either. I can only suggest that you find a Chinese speaker with a good stage voice and have him or her declaim one of the more sonorous passages to give you some flavor of the book as it has appealed to a hundred generations of Chinese enthusiasts. The tremendous, high-soaring and deep-diving Stanza 21 would be a good choice …

Ever since that piece was published, I have been waiting folornly for someone to come up to me at a party and ask me to "do" Stanza 21 for them. This has not yet happened; so in lieu of such opportunities, here is Stanza 21 as best I can render it.

I pronounce the characters in the modern way; for all the exertions of the late Prof. Bernhard Karlgren and his successors, we only have sketchy and debatable notions about how the ancient Chinese pronounced their language.


•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

孔德之容  惟道是从
道之为物  惟恍惟惚
惚兮恍兮  其中有象
恍兮惚兮  其中有物
窈兮冥兮  其中有精
其精甚真  其中有信
自古及今  其名不去  以阅众甫
吾何以知众甫之状哉  以此

John C.H. Wu's translation of the poem, taken from his Tao Teh [sic] Ching (1961):

It lies in the nature of Grand Virtue
To follow the Tao and the Tao alone.
Now what is the Tao?
It is Something elusive and evasive.
Evasive and elusive!
And yet It contains within Itself a Form.
Elusive and evasive!
And yet It contains within Itself a Substance.
Shadowy and dim!
And yet it contains within Itself a Core of Vitality.
The Core of Vitality is very real,
It contains within Itself an unfailing Sincerity.
Throughout the ages Its Name has been preserved
In order to recall the Beginning of all things.
How do I know the ways of all things at the Beginning?
By what is within me.

An utterly literal, word-for-word, translation goes like this:

great virtue's content[n.]    only way that comply-with
way's be-as thing    only elusive only indistinct
indistinct ah elusive ah    it within have form
elusive ah indistinct ah    it within have substance
deep ah dark ah    it within have vitality
it vitality very true    it within have evidence
since antiquity reach-to now    it name not depart    in-order-to review multitude begin
I how so-as-to know multitude begin's condition [query]    by this