Tao Te Ching – an introduction

[green_message] The second key term, te (pronounced like the “du” in “dud”). is likewise common in early Chinese historical and philosophical literature and denotes a moral power or virtue characteristic of a person who follows a correct course of conduct. It is pronounced the same as and is probably cognate with another word meaning “to get” and in Taoism this aspect of meaning is stressed over the purely moral one, that is te is the virtue or power that one acquires through being in accord with the tao, what one “gets” from the tao.

It is hoped that the reader will be able to gain a deeper and fuller understanding of these key concepts and their implications from a reading of the text itself. But one should not approach the Tao Te Ching expecting to find any systematic or logical exposition of ideas or careful definition of terms, such as one might encounter in a work of Greek philosophy or for that matter in some of the works of other schools of Chinese philosophy. Such is not the Taoist manner of imparting wisdom.

Nearly all early Chinese thinkers rely heavily on anecdotes from history, or what they claim to he history, to illustrate their ideas. Chuang Chou. the other major Taoist philosopher mentioned earlier, is no exception. though his anecdotes make only slight pretense at being historical and in fact include such personages as talking trees, birds. and animals. The Tao Te Ching, on the other hand, is all but unique in early Chinese literature in that it does not contain a single reference to history or personal names of any kind. The speaker and those to and about whom he or she speaks are all equally anonymous, and the pronouncements of the text dwell in a kind of void, like so many timeless axioms, which is what they have often been compared to.

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.