Books with “Laozi” on the cover

Konrad called my attention to Paul R. Goldin’s “Those Who Don’t Know Speak: Translations of the Daode Jing by People Who Do Not Know Chinese.”1 As you might expect, Goldin is not much impressed with the publications of Witter Bynner, Stephen Mitchell, Thomas H. Miles and Ursula K. Le Guin.2 All of them have consulted some of the many English translations of the work, some of them talked to some Chinese people or scholars about it, and then published a book with “Laozi” on the cover. Goldin is not impressed with the books these people “expectorate”, and spends some time, too much, really, laying out how bad these works are as translations. After some time spent shooting fish in a barrel, Goldin gets on to what I find most interesting,…what it is the that modern English-reading world wants out of Laozi in particular and Taoism/Buddhism/Hinduism more generally?3 Publishers do it because it makes money, of course, and so do at least some authors. Mitchell got a six-figure advance for his book, (in 1988 dollars) and has no doubt long since earned it back. This of course just pushes the question back to why readers buy books like these, and Goldin looks at Amazon.com reviews,4 and finds that

The respondents like the pseudo-translations because, of the available choices, these are the most easily adaptable to their own experience. Scholarly translations seem pedantic to them

Goldin, of course, disagrees, possibly because he himself is a dry as dust scholar who lacks the soul of a poet, or he is just jealous of six-figure advances. Or, possibly, because

The Daode jing is old; it is alien; it is Chinese; and it is difficult. These are the recalcitrant facts that too many readers seem disinclined to accept. Instead, they seek out the most facile translations and consume insipid approximations of the original….. Like any profound work of philosophy, the Daode jing is dangerous. We do it no justice by pretending that it is easy to swallow.

So how do you render Laozi easier to swallow, and avoid the threat that someone might crack their teeth on it?

Here, from C-text is the first line of Laozi 465

天下有道,卻走馬以糞。天下無道,戎馬生於郊

Victor Mair renders this as
“When the Way prevails under heaven,
swift horses are relegated to fertilizing fields.
When the Way does not prevail under heaven,
war-horses breed in the suburbs.”

Mitchell gives us
“When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.”

There are problems with the Mitchell just as a literal translation, (天下 as country? ) and also as prose. You loose the parallelism between horses and horses by turning them into factories and warheads, and warhorses breeding (生) seems better than “stockpiling” as a verb here. If you get away from the Dao, warhorses will apparently breed without you having to do anything more. Stockpiling shifts the focus to whoever is stockpiling.

Still, if unlike Goldin you don’t find Mitchell’s changes “jarring” this is more or less a translation, and it saves modern readers the trouble of having to consult a footnote to find out what a horse is by putting things in a modern idiom. Sometimes the modern book-issuers flat out edit the text.

Here is Wing-tsit Chan’s translation of the end of Laozi 25
Therefore Tao is great.
Heaven is great.
Earth is great.
And the king is also great.
There are four great things in the universe, and the king is one of them.
Man models himself after Earth.
Earth models itself after Heaven.
Heaven models itself after Tao.
And Tao models itself after Nature.

Le Guin deals with this unpleasant mention of a king by taking the whole section out, explaining “I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.”

This is actually a problem for a lot of these book-issuers. All of them dislike the idea that a book that they all know the meaning of might have references to kings and political power. Indeed, they have problems with the whole de aspect of the Daode jing.6 I actually like that ‘part’ myself, since I am usually, either in class or in my own head, trying to connect this book to other Chinese books of the period, most (all?) of which, like Laozi, are concerned with politics and ordering human societies. They are trying to connect it to themselves and what they already feel.

The Amazon reviews remain a rich source for understanding how book buyers (and my students) want to approach Chinese texts. The Penguin edition of the D.C. Lau translation of the Wang Pi text is a seminal work in part because it was the first one I ever read. It has 855 reviews at present. Like Amazon itself, many of the reviewers are in fact reviewing other editions, but never mind that. Here is one of the reviews of Lau that the Amazons found most helpful.

on October 30, 2005
Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase

I’m amazed at the storm that Mitchell’s version of the Tao Te Ching has churned up. Reading previous reviews, there seem to be two factions: those who find Mitchell’s version thought-provoking and soul-stirring, and those who focus on what they see as its poetical liberties with the original. The first group is primarily interested in using the text as a catalyst for reflective insight into the nature of reality. The second group is primarily interested in the text as an historical document. The first group seeks transformation. The second group seeks scholarship.

Ok so far…

I don’t know that there’s any intrinsic dissonance between the methods of scholarship and the goal of transformation, but I do know this: as a professor of philosophy who wants his students to read texts as tools for discovery rather than as sacred cows to be worshipped, I’ll take Mitchell’s version over more “scholarly” translations any day. For the nonspecialist who’s not interested in parsing Chinese, which is really more important: entering into the spirit of the Tao Te Ching so that the reading of it becomes a lived, integrated experience, or memorizing a lot of scholarly footnotes? Mitchell’s version breathes new life into a 2500-year-old text that most people today would find too arcane if they read a more literal translation. What a pity to begrudge contemporary readers an opportunity to discover the Tao simply because we don’t think that the vehicle made available to them is “scholarly” enough!

So, sail with Ursula K. LeGuin on a dragon over the skies of Pern, or memorize a lot of scholarly footnotes? I think this gets at the main conflict in liberal education, is it about discovering yourself, or discovering other people? If it is all about you it does not much matter if you get the words in the text “right”, you already know what it means. Indeed, you don’t really need to read the book at all, and you don’t need a teacher or any “scholarship.” To me liberal education has always been mostly about meeting other people, and sometimes other people who are very different from me and from each other. This is hard, and I need help. This is not always what students  come to class wanting to do, and that is fine of course. Still, I think as teachers we should be encouraging students to at least take a stab at understanding what some dead Chinese person was saying, as that is the only way to use a text as a “tool of discovery”7 I will be facing this issue again in the Spring, and I have decided to deal with the complexities of helping students engage with Laozi in two different ways by…assigning Zhuangzi instead.


  1. Asian Philosophy 12, no. 3 (November 2002): 183.  

  2. He identifies Le Guin as “the daughter of the famous anthropologist A.L. Kroeber” which I did not know, but which I would also not think of as a way to define her.  

  3. All of these are the same, by the way  “Although [Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism] comprise a vast number of subtly interwoven spiritual disciplines and philosophical systems, the basic features of their worldview are the same”  

  4. in 2002, no less. Is this the earliest scholarly citation of Amazon reviews? 

  5. 46 is Wang Pi, yes? Lau’s Everyman edition says this is Mawangdui Te Ching 9 

  6. As Goldin points out, this is one of the most difficult terms in the text  

  7. None of the books Goldin talks about seem to have any questions about the existence of Laozi and his relationship to the Daode jing  

2 responses

  1. Glad to see someone interested in this subject! My objection wasn’t that translations like the one by Mitchell aren’t scholarly enough. My objection was that they falsify the original, which is more complex and thought-provoking than the reductionist garbage they purvey. The Amazon reviewer of Mitchell’s book who said that it would be “a pity to begrudge contemporary readers an opportunity to discover the Tao” is starting with a disastrous unspoken premise: that Mitchell comprehends the Tao in the first place. He doesn’t, (1) for the reasons that I stated in the piece, and (2) because he can’t even read Chinese.

    • Dear Paul,
      Yes, I don’t really agree with “scholarly” as a term of abuse either, although lots of the Amazon people seem wedded to the scholarly/readable scholarly/will transform your life dichotomies. And its not just random internet people. That reviewer is an academic philosopher who has published a lot of books, and apparently has very different motivations in having students read books than you or I would. That’s why I liked your piece and ruminated about it a bit. I get lots of students who come to my classes wanting Eastern Wisdom, and that’s great. You are here! Wonderful, lets read this and think about it. That’s one of the reasons I always use Zhuangzi, I don’t have to fight as much against the tidal wave of ‘garbage’ that Laozi brings with it.

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