Daodejing Editing Principles

The Chinese text I have translated is my own work. Besides dividing some chapters, joining others, and completely changing the sequence of chapters and passages in accordance with my understanding of the way the text of the Daodejing was formed (explained here), I have done a line-by-line and word-by-word revision of the Wang Bi text based on the four recently-discovered older texts: the Guodian (GD) text, the two Mawangdui texts (MWDA, MWDB); and the Beida text (BD). My text is composite and not an attempt to reconstruct any earlier stage of the Daodejing, and it is meant to spare the reader the meaningless inconsistencies and glitches found in every historical text, while giving them the best possible understanding of the Daodejing, its history, and its real internal structure.

My Daodejing is not dumbed down or bowdlerized, and all of its rare words and intrinsic difficulties are still there. But to the degree possible I have edited out the difficulties which are just the result of the quirks of the writing system and the vicissitudes of the Daodejing’s textual history, while discussing in the notes a sampling of these difficulties for the reader who wants insight into the way classical Chinese texts work “in the wild”. Thus, reader who just wants to read the Daodejing in Chinese will have a cleaned-up text to work with, and the reader who wants to get deeper into the Daodejing’s textual history (perhaps the same reader at a later date) will have the materials (including my five source texts) that are required to begin that study.

Most of the changes I made did not change the meaning but merely made the Daodejing more consistent and more readable, and most of these were made without comment. In general, if the earlier texts all disagree with the WB text I follow the earlier texts, though I mostly avoid rare archaic characters and try to use the most commonly used character. I restore grammatical particles that the WB text has dropped (notably 也, which only is seen a few times in WB). If a line is found in one text and not in the others, I usually include it. If the sequence of lines is inconsistent, I choose the sequence which I think is best. There are many sorts of word variants, and I decide these on a rather ad hoc basis, with the general rule of going for consistency within the text. Examples:

至 / 致, 知 / 智: the supposed distinction in meaning beteen the members of these pairs is honored so inconsistently that I always just use 至 and 知.

明 / 盲 ( chapter 12): 明 makes nonsense of the passage and is a simple scribal error.

乃 / 扔, 堇 / 勤: I use the full forms

幣 / 弊 / 蔽 / 敝: I use 敝, the more common and general form. Three different forms are seen in the Wang Bi text.

保 / 抱 / 葆: I use 保 or 抱 depending on meaning.

小 / 細: I use 細, the more specific term

弗 / 勿 / 毌 (毋) / 亡 for WB’s 無: I never use 亡, but always use 弗 because it adds to the meaning.. I keep 勿 and 毌 / 毋 in chapter 30 and 31 because I think it marks their archaic character, but not in the scattered other places where they are seen.

There are a large number of substitutions rising from the prohibition on the use of the personal names of emperors: 元 / 玄, 國 / 邦, 常 / 恆 (恒), and 滿 / 盈 were already known, but I think that 開 / 啟 and 貞 / 直 / 定 / 忠 for 正 are other cases of this (see below for more on 正). The substitute word is not a homonym in any of these cases, and it in many cases it is not an exact synonym either, and I have always gone with what I believe was the original word. I do this even though in some cases the oldest text, GD, confirms the reading of the youngest, WB. (It may be that 正 was an imperial name so often that 定 and 正 alternated for centuries).

There are a few ad hoc cases where I use a word without textual evidence because it disambiguates the meaning: 警 for 驚 in chapter 13, 𪑾 for 辱in chapters 28 and 41, 盅 for 沖 not only in chapter 45 where it is actually found, but also in chapter 04 (and I suggest it for chapters 05, 16, and 42). I also am also happy to use 朘 for 全 in chapter 55 for obvious reasons.

In many cases, however, I think that it is impossible to definitively choose between two significantly different readings, and this points to a plural Daodejing. The Guodian text, the oldest we have, differs in many ways from the Daodejing we know and is obviously “in process”. But the same is true of the considerably younger MWDA, MWDB, and BD texts, which are still centuries older than the Wang Bi text most translations are based on. The “true Daodejing” cannot be “the original Daodejing”, since all complete 5,000-word versions of the Daodejing have been worked over by a series of editors, and to proclaim one version to be the true version would merely be to declare that a given editor was the final editor. Some examples of significant changes:

When 政, 貞, 直, 定 and 忠 are all replaced by the original 正, the significance of the 正 theme in the Daodejing becomes much more apparent.

Likewise, when the appearances of 中, 忠, 盅 , and 沖are sorted out, a number of passages become clearer.

And it would be possible to write a book about the 清, 靜, 情, 精, 青, 靖, 淨, 請 complex, since these are homonyms which are frequently substituted for one another, but 清, 靜, 情, 精, and 青 at least all have distinct meanings . Furthermore, these words are closely related to one another in a symbolic cluster which is centrally important in Chinese poetry and philosophy, and in the Daodejing and elsewhere 清 and 靜 are often closely associated with their rhyme-word 正, which is at the center of its own cluster.

混 沌 and 忽 恍, evoking confusion and vagueness, are extreme examples of textual confusion, as shown below. Perhaps, given the meanings of these two phrases, the editors and scribes took this as an opportunity to show their own creativity by confusibng the text. Note that two of the forms they chose, marked �, are virtually unknown and not part of my software’s dictionary:

14混 惚 恍混 忽 —運 沒 沒 芒混 昧 惚 恍
15敦 混屯 沌沌 湷— 沌
20沌 昏蠢 �湷 �屯 昏
21恍 惚望 忽朢 忽恍 沒

A final example from chapter 16 is most hard to deal with. The alternation of 督 and 篤 is familiar from texts already known texts, and 靜, 正, and 情 are part of the well-known symbolic cluster, 沖 is a very long stretch. As for 情 表, it does not really harmonize with fit with the 靜督 / 正督 / 靜篤 / 沖篤 cluster, and while in later writing 情 / 表 has its own meaning, something like “inner reality / outward appearance” (which doesn’t seem to fit here either) , I do not believe that this phrase was attested during the pre-Qin era







Am I worried that I have made mistakes here and there? No, I’m confident that I have, the same as all of the earlier editors, but I presume that it will all come out in the wash. My hope is that — for all its flaws, and without being in the least “authentic” — my text is, for the reader, the best available.

Though it is unscientific and perhaps impious and to say so, I think of myself as merely the most recent of the Daodejing’s many editors, though admittedly more aggressive than almost any editor since about 250 BC.