This English translation of the Daodejing is based on my German translation of the Mawangdui silk manuscripts version (unearthed in 1973 and dating back to circa 200 BCE). The German translation1 was published more than a decade ago, but my basic approach to the text has not significantly changed since then. I still read the Daodejing as a philosophical text, and I think that its primary subject is order and efficacy within society and, by extension, within the cosmos. I also still think that the text, despite its cryptic nature, makes sense as a whole. My commentaries on each chapter—which have been more or less completely rewritten and reformulated—are meant to expose the meaning of the text and to present it as a coherent philosophical work.
The Daodejing is not an easy text to read, translate, and interpret. Still, I believe that if we distance ourselves a bit from contemporary reading habits and from what we expect of a philosophical text, we can soon gain an insight into its structure and sense. If only read closely enough, the imagery of the text provides access to its meaning. The images of the wheel, the gate, the root, water, and so forth, set up a network of semantic cross-references. They are the linguistic “links” within this ancient Chinese “hypertext” that lead from one verse and chapter to others. In a way, the Daodejing is highly repetitive. It is all about the workings of the “Dao,” a scenario of perfect functioning in all realms of the world, be it the body, society, or nature. Images, metaphorical expressions, and symbols occur and reoccur throughout the text and refer to the same structures and maxims, such as the relation of emptiness and fullness or “presence” and “nonpresence” (you and wu in Chinese), as well as to the strategy of wu wei, or, literally, “nonaction.” I hope that this translation and its commentaries may help readers find their way through the captivating poetical and philosophical web of the Daodejing.
1. Laotse: Tao Te King; nach den Seidentexten von Mawangdui (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1994).