Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian

Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian

Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian

Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian


In 1993, an astonishing discovery was made at a tomb in Guodian in Hubei province (east central China). Written on strips of bamboo that have miraculously survived intact since 300 B. C., the "Guodian Laozi," is by far the earliest version of the Tao Te Ching ever unearthed. Students of ancient Chinese civilization proclaimed the text a decisive breakthrough in the understanding of this famous text: it provides the most conclusive evidence to date that the text was the work of multiple authors and editors over hundreds of years, rather than the achievement of a single individual writing during the time of Confucius.

Robert Henricks now presents the first English translation of the "bamboo slip Laozi." Differing substantially from other versions we have of the text, the Guodian Laozi provides us with clues on how and when the text came into being. As Henricks's translation shows, many chapters are missing in this form of the text, and some chapters remain incomplete. All of this seems to suggest that the Tao Te Ching was not yet "complete" when these slips were copied.

In his translation, Henricks focuses attention on lines in each of the chapters that vary from readings in other editions. In addition, he shows how the sequence of chapters in this form of the text is totally unrelated to the sequence readers commonly see in the "standard" form of the text, i.e., in other translations.

Here are just a few of the noteworthy features of this new Tao Te Ching:

• A lucid introduction to the Guodian Laozi, offering background on the archaeological interpretation of the discovery

• Line-by-line comparisons of the Guodian Laozi against the Mawangdui and Wang Bi editions

• Extensive notes on each chapter describing the unique elements of the Guodian Laozi in comparison with other versions

• Transcriptions for each chapter, noting both the ancient and modern form of the characters in the chapter

• An appendix featuring the official biography of Laozi written by Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of China, as well as Henricks's commentary and notes on this biography

This groundbreaking work will lead to a reassessment of the history and significance of this well-known and critical work as well as a reevaluation of the role it played in the development of Taoism in early China.


Before proceeding to the introduction, the reader should be aware of two things. First, photographs and transcriptions of the bamboo slip manuscripts found at Guodian in 1993 were made public in May 1998. That means that scholarly work on these slips has just begun, and many articles are in the process of being published. Thus some of my colleagues will surely argue that this book is premature and that translation of the [Bamboo Slip Laozi] should await the publication of the scholarship now under way.

This is a fair criticism. Many of the opinions expressed and conclusions reached in this book must be regarded as preliminary and tentative. A few years from now, I am bound to consider changing some words and lines in the translation and my understanding of what these slips are and how they are related to the complete text of Laozi is bound to evolve. Nonetheless, I believe that the significance of this new find warrants bringing it to the attention of general readers and Sinologists who do not focus on early China as soon as possible. Changes to this translation, where they are needed, can be published in a second edition if there is sufficient interest.

Second, in May 1998,1 co-hosted, with Sarah Allan, an International Conference on the Guodian Laozi at Dartmouth College. This was scheduled to coincide with official release of the book Guodian Chumu zhujian, Bamboo Slips from the Chu Tomb at Guodian) (Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1998). At this conference, Professor Allan and I were joined by thirty-one scholars from all over the world—specialists on the Laozi, early Daoism, and early Chinese history, language, literature, and philosophy—for the world's first academic discussion of this latest find. The stimulating exchange of ideas at the conference helped me in writing this book to an immeasurable extent. This discussion makes liberal use of the papers presented at that conference and the handouts provided . . .

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