The Tao (Balfour)

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Frederic Henry Balfour, 1884

IT is only after some years of hesitation that I have undertaken a new version of the Tao Tê Ching. The task has already been performed by Julien, Chalmers, Strauss, Plänckner, and Legge, most of whom, at any rate, are scholars of the first water. But it occurs to me—and with all deference I make the avowal—that one prime defect lies at the root of every translation that has been published hitherto; and this is, that not one seems to have been based solely and entirely on commentaries furnished by members of the Taoist school. The Confucian element enters largely into all; and here, I think, an injustice has been done to Lao Tsze. To a Confucianist, the Taoist system is in every sense of the word a heresy, and a commentator holding this opinion is surely not the best expositor. It is as a grammarian rather than as a philosopher that a member of the Ju-chia deals with the Tao Tê Ching; he gives the sense of a passage according to the syntactical construction rather than according to the genius of the philosophy itself; and in attempting to explain the text by his own canons instead of by the canons of Taoism, he mistakes the superficial and apparently obvious meaning for the hidden and esoteric interpretation. One of the greatest reproaches levelled at the Taoist system by Confucian scholars is the alleged scorn of ethical morality attributed to Lao Tsze and his followers. They have been represented as ascribing all the troubles and vices of China to the example of Yao and Shun, and to the doctrines respecting benevolence, rectitude, ceremonies, and music enforced by the Sages who immediately succeeded them. Lü Tsu, in his commentary, vehemently controverts this theory, and strives to prove, not only that Taoism and Confucianism are at one upon such points, but that the latter is actually based upon the former—being a mere carrying-out in practice, a careful systematising, as it were, of the radical doctrines of Lao Chün. The fact that I have entirely discarded all assistance from commentators of the Confucian school is my only excuse for coming forward with a new translation of this important classic. The version now presented is based solely upon the commentaries of Lü Ch‘un-yang, commonly called Lü Tsu, the well-known Taoist patriarch of the eighth century of our era; and his guidance I have followed throughout. I candidly admit that this has not been done without some effort. It was no means easy, at first, to reject what appeared to be the plain, clear, unmistakeable meaning of the text—a meaning, too, endorsed by many eminent Chinese scholars, such as Chu Hsi, Liu Chieh-fu, Wang Pi, and Su Tsze-yu, and adopted by Legge, Julien, and Chalmers—in favour of an interpretation at once far-fetched and obscure. But I felt that I was after all under the guidance of a disciple, and not a critic, of the Master; and although many passages which before stood out distinctly enough are now dimmed by mysticism, I cannot help thinking that we have advanced a step towards the comprehension of their true significance. There are other passages the existing translations of which, apart from questions of commentary, I believe to be entirely, and indeed palpably, wrong, and of these I now offer a new rendering with confidence. The versions of Julien and Chalmers have lain beside me, and I have constantly referred to them; but far from relying on them for assistance, each glance has shown me how wide and radical was the divergence between them and the work growing slowly but steadily under my hand.

I need only add that the words enclosed in brackets [thus] are for the most part representative of the commentary I have followed, and thus serve to supplement the meagre and laconic text. Occasionally a few lines of additional elucidation or remark have been appended, where necessary, in smaller type.


The reader is requested to refer to Chap. VI, the first sentence of which is literally rendered, "The Spirit of the Depths is immortal," It would be better, perhaps, to follow the reading of the Commentary, which runs "The Breath of the Deep is imperishable." For further reference to this Breath see infra, passages in the T‘ai Hsi and the Hsin Yin.

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