I have been studying Classical Chinese, and especially the Daodejing, for 46 years now, and during the 1990s I published several articles in academic journals: “The Highest Virtue Is Like the Valley”, Taoist Resources, Vol. 3 #2, May 1992, pp. 47-62; “A Stratification of Lao Tzu”, Journal of Chinese Religions, Fall 1995 (#3), pp. 1- 28; and “Yang Chu’s Discovery of the Body”, Philosophy East and West, Volume 46-4, October 1996, pp. 533-566). I’ve decided that it is time for me to gather my writings and put them in publishable form, with the eventual goal of book publication. Suggestions as to a publisher or a literary agent are welcome.
My most significant contribution to Daodejing studies is the recognition that this book can be divided into two parts, which I call Early Dao (道經 Daojing) and Sage Dao ( Sage Dao 聖 經). The book as a whole was compiled by devotees of Sage Daoism, and they wrote the Sage Dao chapters. The Early Dao chapters are the passages from several earlier traditions which the Sage Dao editors chose to keep. The present sequence of the text of the Daodejing obscures this division, and I have rearranged the text to make it clear.
Sage Dao consists of chapters 67-81 (not included in the Guodian text), all other chapters in which the Sage is mentioned, all chapters except one (chapter 30) in which the key words and phrases 難, 敢, 爭, or 天 道 / 天 之 道 appear , but no chapters in which the Early Dao key words and phrases 母, 牝, 雌, 嬰, 赤 子, 精, 氣, 陰 陽, 象, 不 殆, 復 歸, and 無 名 / 不 名 appear. Only 6 Sage Dao chapters are seen as a whole or in part in the Guodian text, the earliest known,While all or part of 25 Early Dao chapters are seen there and make up 80% of the total. Guodian passages make up only about 30% of the Daodejing as a whole, but 56% of Early Dao.
In general, Sage Dao chapters focus on political and strategic principles, while Early Dao chapters are more diverse and include almost all of the metaphysical, poetic, or mystical passages.
Early Dao: Text and Translation
My text and translation of Early Dao. The text is based on the familiar Wang Bi text as compared to the recently discovered, much older Beida (BD), Mawangdui A (MWDA) , Mawangdui B (MWDB), and Guodian (GD) texts. It is not an attempt to reconstruct the Original Daodejing or to establish textual lineages, but is intended as an eclectic, readerly text with as few as possible of the inconsistencies and rough spots that all of the historical texts have, and one in which a few meanings not apparent in the WB text can be seen. Here I present the text and translation plain, with minimal notes and commentary, but these will follow and will be posted below.
The first group in Early Dao expresses ideas derived from Yang Zhu, who recommended withdrawal from government activities, court life, and above all from the military. All of these involvements were for ambitious people willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of wealth, renown, and power, but to Yang Zhu life itself (your body) was the important thing and should not be put in danger for any reason. This is not a new and exciting idea today, but in Yang Zhu’s time following his precepts amounted to renouncing the entire way of life of the Chinese nobility and accepting a humble status.
The chapters in this group are practical, like maxims, and are without great eloquence or subtlety. Their significance and power lie in their total break with the way of life of the time.
II: Body and Self (to follow)
III: Mother Dao (to follow)
Confucianism (and in a much different way, Mohism) labelled all people according to their rank and the obligations of their rank, and Confucians developed an elaborate code derived from royal court protocols stating these obligations in minute detail, which they enforced to the degree that they could. The authors of these chapters believe that these prescriptions were useless and harmful and proposed a much less interventionist approach to government and life in general.
In these chapters Dao becomes a source of power through 無 為 wuwei . Sometimes there are elements of magical thinking here, but the power of wuwei mostly consists of foresight, based on an awareness of natural tendencies of things to settle themselves 無 為 even without coercive government action.
A number of passages, amounting in all to less that 10% of the total, don’t really seem to belong in the Daodejing at all. This group consists of these passages and gives my reasons for excluding them.
Here I sketch the understanding of the history of Late Zhou China and Late Zhou Chinese philosophy which lies behind my rearrangement of the Daodejing. This understanding owes a great deal to A.C. Graham and is necessarily somewhat speculative.
Wang Bi text divided into Daojing and Shengjing
The first stage of my editing: the WB text of the Daodejing divided into Early Dao and Sage Dao . After many chapters there are comments relating the chapter to the rest of the Daodejing.
Emerson, John (1996). “Yang Chu’s Discovery of the Body”. Philosophy East and West. 46 (4): 533–566. *
A shift of focus from the public world of the court, states service, and warfare to the private world of the body, family, and the preservation and nurturing of life through diet, breathing exercises and physical practices, and meditation was Yang Zhu’s contribution to Chinese philosophy. His recorded words do not eveen seem philosophical, but their power is in the sharpness of their break with the martial, honor-obsessed way of life of the Chinese aristocracy of the time.
“Virtue” 德 and the Valley 谷 are contrasted in the Daodejing, notably in chapter 41: “The Highest Virtue is Like the Valley” 上 德 如 谷. This statement is one of the paradoxes found throughout the Daodejing: Virtue is an eminence, whereas the valley is lowly. The way of the Daodejing is to treat such polarities as mutually-defining and necessary to one another, with neither greater in value than the other. This is the Daodejing’s difference from the Chinese philosophies of correctness and power, such as Confucianism, Mohism, and Legalism (though the Confucians retained elements of polar thinking, and the Legalists used Daosit relativism to justify their more doubtful methods).
Emerson, John, 1995. “A Stratification of Lao Tzu,” Journal of Chinese Religions, 23: 1–28. Superseded by more recent writing. When I wrote this I had not seen the GD text.
Shen Dao: Text, Translation, and Study
Complete translation of Thompson’s reconstructed text. Shen Dao is one of the many now-lost Chinese thinkers who were extremely important in their time.
Shen Dao in the Daodejing
Reciprocity and Reversal in Daoism
An old, old piece I haven’t looked at in forever. One of the central ideas of the Daodejing.
Earlier Unpublished Writings*
Some of these pieces will be revised and included in my complete study, and some of them have been superceded and are of no great interest.