Dao de Jing

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Moss Roberts
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , May
     130 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his recent translation of the Dao De Jing, Moss Roberts seeks to bring out not only the rhymed verse of the original, but also the Dao De Jing’s “political and polemical purposes by situating it in the context of the philosophical debates that raged from the time of Confucius down to the unification of the empire in 221 B.C.” (2-3). While it is admittedly the “most popular and most frequently translated work of Chinese thought” (8), Roberts is convinced that each new translation adds to our understanding of the text.

In this endeavor, Roberts is indebted to the “Warring States Working Group” (WSWG), which has organized over twenty conferences and now exists as the “Warring States Project” at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Its basic idea is that “to understand the Chinese classical period historically, one must first approach the texts philologically.” This means approaching the texts with a historical-critical method, which is, one may add, not that different from the currently dominant strand of biblical studies. This connection is something Roberts could have reflected on in more detail in light of the overlapping ethical concerns and translation history of the Dao De Jing and the New Testament (evident, for example, in the fact that Chinese Bible translations render the New Testament λόγος [logos] as Dao).

After a substantial introduction (1-20), Roberts offers his translation of the eighty-one “stanzas” of the Dao De Jing, each followed by a short comment. The volume concludes with a brief afterword on philosophy, the figure of the Daoist sage, and the idea of translation (169-81), as well as endnotes and a concise selected bibliography covering both Chinese and English sources (215-18).

Roberts should be commended for paying close attention to the history of the text and the names, titles, and terms that are often used too carelessly. The first subsection of his introduction points to the fact that the Dao De Jing was named after its author Laozi (like the Mozi, Guanzi, Mencius) until its present title became more widespread during the Tang dynasty (618–905 CE). This original title points instead to the historical document, which is how Roberts reads the work, rather than to the canonical text. Thus, Roberts begins by pointing to the recent manuscript discoveries of the Dao De Jing in Warring States tombs from about 300 to 200 BCE (vii-viii; 4-5). These manuscripts contain versions he judges to be not “dramatically different from each other” (4).

Beyond these and further details of textual history, Roberts highlights the Dao De Jing as the “philosophical counterpart—the rival and complement—to the Analects of Confucius”—that is, as the reflective and theoretical version of its more activist and sociopolitical opposite (7-8). Roberts pithily summarizes why the Dao De Jing became so appealing in the West to the point of becoming “overappropriated”: “The Dao De Jing presents a universal cosmic mother to replace the dead hand of paternal ancestry” (9). Roberts gives the example of Laozi developing the concept of ten thousand things, whose independence placed them outside the realm determined by Confucian tradition, their independence expressed through the word zi, self, in contrast to the Confucian term, shen (11-12). Roberts does not discuss, however, the reception of these terms in Western, especially American literature, including questions concerning their translation. He believes competition between the principal schools (the Confucians, Daoists, Mohists, and Legalists) in the period between Confucius and Mencius meant that they increasingly borrowed from each other “as the process of territorial amalgamation went on and the prospect of unification loomed on the horizon” (10-11).

Roberts points out that the Dao De Jing may be translated as a “Canonical text (jing) on the Way (Dao) and virtue (de)” (3). He emphasizes the significance of the two philosophical key terms as names for the two sections of the text and their changing order (6). He accords special significance to the first text known to reference the Dao De Jing extensively, the Han Feizi, a late third-century BCE compilation of writings on law and statecraft attributed to diplomat and strategist Han Zeizi. In his introduction, Roberts contextualizes the Dao De Jing in the mosaic of kingdoms that existed during Laozi’s time on the territory that later became China. The ruler of one of these kingdoms, the Zhou, was seen as the son of heaven, who conferred legitimacy to the other kingdoms (10). Roberts also draws attention to the fact that the “semantically charged graph for Dao has had a certain mystic power in Chinese and Japanese culture,” testified to, for example, by its being the to in Shinto, the “Way of the Gods” (20).

Roberts’ historical approach distinguishes his from previous recent translations of the Dao de Jing, such as M. Joseph Walden’s Daodejing (Lulu, 2012) and Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo’s (Shambhala, 2007), adding to the very diverse renderings of the Dao De Jing into English. While Roberts reads the Dao De Jing as a distinct intervention in the societal ideologies perpetuating the warring states phenomenon, he questions the standard Western reception of the Dao De Jing, a reception which more often than not tended towards the hagiographical while reducing the text to an ahistorical and transcultural articulation of general ethical truths. Roberts expresses interest not only in the textual, but also the reception history of the Dao De Jing when he points out that “Laozi’s critique of state development ideology paradoxically led to a higher degree of state development ideology” (13).

These insights, the close attention to historical relevance and choice of words, opens many avenues yet to be explored in transcultural studies of Scripture. This holds not only for the three teachings of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but also with regard to their interactions with Christianity, West and East. Roberts points to this when he boldly compares the relation of the New and Old Testament “covenants” to the innovative redefining power of the Dao De Jing. Roberts is certainly not the first to make this comparison, though it is arguably in need of further reflection (20). In this regard, Roberts’s terminological distinctions at the intersection of Daoism and Confucianism invite further contextualization in the history of philosophy and theology more generally. After a long search for the best “literary” translation of the Dao De Jing, his work marks a shift in emphasis towards a more historical approach to translation and commentary. While the existing translations each approach the original text from a legitimate perspective, what is missing is an in-depth critical comparison that also takes into account the wide spectrum of transcultural religious aspects.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is Visiting Lecturer in American Studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Moss Roberts is Professor of Chinese at New York University.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.