Tao Te Ching – an introduction

[green_message] Classical Chinese, the language of the texts I have been discussing. is highly terse and compressed in expression. This verbal economy, along with the intrinsic aesthetic appeal of the written characters, make Chinese an ideal medium for mottoes and slogans. Down through the centuries the Chinese have in fact shown an abiding fondness for pithy inscriptions, in ancient times incising them on bronze vessels or stones, later painting them on plaques and gateways, and most recently displaying them its the form or Wail posters.

The “Great Learning,” a chapter of the Confucian Book of Rites. relates that King T’ang.  the sage founder of the Shang dynasty, had an inscription on his bathtub that, in three tidy phrases of three characters each, read: “If daily renewal, daily daily renewal, again daily renewal!’ So far as meaning goes, that seems to say little more than “Take a bath every day and you’ll feel like a new person.” But because of the repetitions and extreme terseness. it achieves a force and resonance far transcending the mere semantic content.

This same aura of depth and urgency pervades the pronouncements of the Tao Te Ching. Devoid of context. with all superfluous syntax and connectives lopped away. they stand like so many stone inscriptions, peering out at us from a mysterious and shadowy place. As the translators point out. it is this numinous and evasive quality in the text that accounts for its perennial appeal. The words do not readily yield up their message hut seem to recede farther into obscurity the more assiduously one struggles with them, which is no doubt why so many exegetes and translators have tackled them over the centuries, determined to wrest them into meaning.

Of course these texts of the late Chou philosophers, the Tao Te Ching among them. Do not exist in isolation but speak back and forth to one another, refuting each other’s arguments. borrowing terminology from one another and defining it in new ways. Many passages in the Tao Te Ching are clearly meant to refer to or confute the teachings of the Confucians or the Legalists, and its language utilizes the same literary devices of repetition, parallelism. and occasional end rhyme that the other philosophers employ to ornament their style and lend it elegance. 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. It is this poetic force and beauty of the text that the translators. as they explain in their preface, have been most concerned to bring across in their translation…

Burton Watson
Introduction to Tao Te Ching
Stephen Addis, Stanely Lobardo and Burton Watson
Hackett Publishers, 1993

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.