Tao Te Ching – an introduction

Burton Watson [tooltip content= “Tao Te Ching, Stephen Addis, Stanely Lobardo and Burton Watson (Hackett Publishers, 1993)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

But the Tao Te Ching lacks a specific speaker or context and because it relies not on logical exposition but on sheer power of language in expounding its ideas, it comes closer to pure poetry than do any of the other philosophical texts.

The Tao Te Ching Early Taoism is known to us through two famous works. the Chuang-tzu and the Lao-tzu or Tao Te Ching, both of uncertain date but originating probably in the fourth or third century B.C.E. The Chuang-tzu, in thirty-three sections, is made up of writings attributed to the philosopher Chuang Chou (flourished fourth century) The Tao Te ChIng, in two parts and eighty-one shun sections, has traditionally been attributed to a figure known as Lao-tzu. or the ‘Old Master.’

The earliest biographical account of Lao-tzu is that found in chapter 63 of the Shill chi or Records of the historian, a voluminous work on Chinese history written around 100 B.C.E. by Ssu-ma Ch’ien. According to that brief notice Lao-tzu’s surname was Li, his personal names were Erh and Tan, and he was a native of Ch’u, a large stale situated in the lower Yangtze valley. He served as historian in charge of the archives of the Chou court, which means he must have resided at the Chou capital in Lo-yang.

The account gives no dates for his lifetime but states that when Confucius one tune visited the Chou capital. he questioned Lao-Tzu concerning matters of ritual. From this it has been assumed that Lao-tzu was a contemporary of Confucius.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.