Book review: 5,000 characters in search of an author

The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao- te Ching trs Richard John Lynn Columbia pounds 19.95
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No other Chinese text has been translated so many times into Western languages as the Tao-te Ching (also known as the Daodejing, Laozi, Lao Tzu or the 5,000 Character Classic). Its unique blend of wisdom and mystery has undeniably made it part of world literature, and continues to attract the attention of academic and lay readers alike.

That there have been, and will continue to be, so many differing translations of the Tao-te Ching is not a question of new understanding superseding old conceptions; it is the inherent mystery of the subject itself that challenges us to explore its depths. In China the transmission and interpretation of the Tao-te Ching goes back more than two millennia to the time of its first appearance.

The language and style of the Tao-te Ching is one of cryptic condensation,often relying on rhymes and parallelism. The work is traditionally divided into 81 sections, which are grouped into two parts, the first character of each part (Tao sections 1-37 and te 38-81) having given the work its name. Its terse and elusive nature makes the Tao-te Ching an extremely ambiguous work that lends itself to a broad range of interpretations in Chinese as well as in translation.

The authorship of the Tao-te Ching Daodejing is as cryptic as the work itself. It is traditionally ascribed to Laozi ("Old Master"), but it is uncertain if this was an honorific title or a legendary personage behind which the author chose to hide. Some scholars, however, treat the text as having been compiled over a century or more and based on an oral tradition. Thus the Chinese legend that Laozi is to be identified with an archivist named Lao Tan or Li Er born around 604 BC (and therefore an older contemporary of Confucius who was born in 551 BC) is rarely given credence. Present scholarship places the writing or compilation of the Tao-te Ching firmly within the Warring States period (403-221 BC).

The two famous silk manuscript copies of the work, found in 1973, date from the early second century BC (the tomb in which they were found was closed in 168 BC). Both copies reverse the order of the sections and thus can be read as Te-tao Ching. The more recent discovery in 1993 of over 800 inscribed bamboo strips may yet prove to contain the oldest version (300 BC) of this work.

As with most of the archaeological discoveries of the last decades, these early manuscripts have confirmed the faithfulness with which ancient texts have been handed down through the centuries. What differences there are, however, highlight the flexibility with which the text can be interpreted. Foremost among the components that alter the reading is the fact that ancient Chinese used no punctuation and the Tao-te Ching did not show where one sentence ends and another begins. Here the silk manuscripts have been of tremendous importance, since they include the grammatical particles that separate the sentences.

Whereas the language of Mencius (4th century BC), for example, is both lucid and explicit, the Tao-te Ching takes the terseness and ambiguity of which Chinese is capable to the extreme. This in turn has given rise to an enormous body of commentaries and expositions.

From as early as the first century AD, Chinese have read the Tao-te Ching accompanied by less or more extensive commentaries that aim to apply the mystical pronouncements on harmony with the unseen to everyday life in both the personal and political spheres. Some sought in the Tao-te Ching a quest for immortality, making of Laozi a god-like religious figure around which sprang a cult of spiritual and physical alchemy. Others approached the Tao-te Ching as a cosmological interpretation of the nature of reality, where change and constancy are attributed to a single power that without striving brings all in harmony.

Considered as one of the most precocious geniuses in the history of Chinese thought, Wang Bi (226-249 AD) in his short life achieved a reputation as a superlative interpreter of the Tao and wrote commentaries on the I Ching and the Tao-te Ching which remain unsurpassed. Although written in a sophisticated language, his commentaries have enjoyed the support, through two millennia, of the intellectual elite who sought in the Tao- te Ching a guiding principle for their lives and an understanding of the nature of being: an ontological (to use the philosophical label) rather than a religious or cosmological approach.

Unlike Western commentaries and exegesis - which aim to lay bare the underlying structure of a text or to revise it in a modern light - the Chinese approach is one of reviving or restoring the original intent of the work through a process of elucidation. Apart from punctuating the text, in itself a means of making the Tao-te Ching clearer, Wang Bi brings out the more precise meaning of passages by rephrasing them and offering interpretative comments.

Richard John Lynn's translation of Wang Bi's Tao-te Ching is not the first to appear in English, but it is probably the most scholarly and rigorous study dedicated to it. The use of a sophisticated and precise language reflects, in part, the learned style of Wang Bi. What is less felicitous, however, is the extent to which Professor Lynn has translated the text of the Tao-te Ching based on the commentaries. As stated in the sub-title, this is Lao-zi as interpreted by Wang Bi, but one would have hoped for a translation which took a middle-path, retaining some of the contrast of the Chinese original where there is a definite shift in style between the text and the commentaries which follow each passage.

The language of the Tao-te Ching - "a conglomeration of incoherent prose and doggerel verse" as one Chinese critic described it - is an integral aspect of the work. Any attempt to grasp the ungraspable ultimately leads to a language where words totter on the brink of self- destruction; that they do not disintegrate totally is what makes the Tao-te Ching so appealing a text to Chinese and Western readers alike. Wang Bi's precise and lucid commentaries do not dispel the mystery, but encourage the reader to probe further by taking the Tao as model: the way that "leads but does not drag you there".