The Texts of Taoism
General Introduction

Chapter 2

About the Texts

I. 1. I will now state briefly, first, the grounds on which I accept the Tâo Teh King as a genuine production of the age to which it has been assigned, and the truth of its authorship by Lâo-dze to whom it has been ascribed. It would not have been necessary a few years ago to write as if these points could be called in question, but in 1886 Mr. Herbert A. Giles, of Her Majesty's Consular Service in China, and one of the ablest Chinese scholars living, vehemently called them in question in an article in the China Review for the months of March and April. His strictures have been replied to, and I am not going to revive here the controversy which they produced, but only to state a portion of the evidence which satisfies my own mind on the two points just mentioned.

The evidence of Sze-mâ Khien, the historian

2. It has been said above that the year B. C. 604 was, probably, that of Lâo-dze's birth. The year of his death is not recorded. Sze-mâ Khien, the first great Chinese historian, who died in about B.C. 85, commences his' Biographies' with a short account of Lâo-dze. He tells us that the philosopher had been a curator of the Royal Library of Kâu, and that, mourning over the decadence of the dynasty, he wished to withdraw from the world, and proceeded to the pass or defile of Hsien-ku1, leading from China to the west. There he was recognised by the warden of the pass, Yin Hsî (often called Kwan Yin), himself a well-known Tâoist, who insisted on his leaving him a writing before he went into seclusion. Lâo-dze then wrote his views on 'The Tâo and its Characteristics,' in two parts or sections, containing more than 5000 characters, gave the manuscript to the warden, and went his way2; 'nor is it known where he died.' This account is strange enough, and we need not wonder that it was by and by embellished with many marvels. It contains, however, the definite statements that Lâo-dze wrote the Tâo Teh King in two parts, and consisting of more than 5000 characters. And that Khien was himself well acquainted with the treatise is apparent from his quotations from it, with, in almost every case, the specification of the author. He thus adduces part of the first chapter, and a large portion of the last chapter but one. His brief references also to Lâo-dze and his writings are numerous.

Lieh-dze, Han Fei-dze, and other Tâoist authors

3. But between Lâo-dze and Sze-mâ Khien there were many Tâoist writers whose works remain. I may specify Lieh-dze (assuming that his chapters, though not composed in their present form by him, may yet be accepted as fair specimens of his teaching); Kwang-dze (of the fourth century B.C. We find him refusing to accept high office from king Wei of Khû, B.C. 339-299); Han Fei, a voluminous author, who died by his own hand in B.C. 230; and Liû An, a scion of the Imperial House of Han, king of Hwâi-nan, and better known to us as Hwâi-nan dze, who also died by his own hand in B.C. 122. In the books of all these men we find quotations of many passages that are in our treatise. They are expressly said to be, many of them, quotations from Lâo-dze; Han Fei several times all but shows the book beneath his eyes. To show how numerous the quotations by Han Fei and Liû An are, let it be borne in mind that the Tâo Teh King has come down to us as divided into eighty-one short chapters; and that the whole of it is shorter than the shortest of our Gospels. Of the eighty-one chapters, either the whole or portions of seventy-one are found in those two writers. There are other authors not so decidedly Tâoistic, in whom we find quotations from the little book. These quotations are in general wonderfully correct. Various readings indeed there are; but if we were sure that the writers did trust to memory, their differences would only prove that copies of the text had been multiplied from the very first.

Evidence of Pan Kû

In passing on from quotations to the complete text, I will clinch the assertion that Khien was well acquainted with our treatise, by a passage from the History of the Former Han Dynasty (B.C. 206-A.D. 24), which was begun to be compiled by Pan Kû, who died however in 92, and left a portion to be completed by his sister, the famous Pan Kâo. The thirty-second chapter of his Biographies is devoted to Sze-mâ Khien, and towards the end it is said that 'on the subject of the Great Tâo he preferred Hwang and Lâo to the six King.' 'Hwang and Lâo' must there be the writings of Hwang-Tî and Lâo-dze. The association of the two names also illustrates the antiquity claimed for Tâoism, and the subject of note 1, p. 2.

Catalogue of the Imperial Library of Han

4. We go on from quotations to complete texts, and turn, first, to the catalogue of the Imperial Library of Han, as compiled by Liû Hsin, not later than the commencement of our Christian era. There are entered in it Tâoist works by thirty-seven different authors, containing in all 993 chapters or sections (phien). Î Yin, the premier of Khäng Thang (B.C. 1766), heads the list with fifty-one sections. There are in it four editions of Lâo-dze's work with commentaries:—by a Mr. Lin, in four sections; a Mr. Fû, in thirty-seven sections; a Mr. Hsü, in six sections; and by Liû Hsiang, Hsin's own father, in four sections. All these four works have since perished, but there they were in the Imperial Library before our era began. Kwang-dze is in the same list in fifty-two books or sections, the greater part of which have happily escaped the devouring tooth of time.

We turn now to the twentieth chapter of Khien's Biographies, in which he gives an account of Yo Î, the scion of a distinguished family, and who himself played a famous part, both as a politician and military leader, and became prince of Wang-kû under the kingdom of Kâo in B. C. 279. Among his descendants was a Yo Khän, who learned in Khî 'the words,' that is, the Tâoistic writings 'of Hwang-Tî and Lâo-dze from an old man who lived on the Ho-side.' The origin of this old man was not known, but Yo Khän taught what he learned from him to a Mr. Ko, who again became preceptor to Zhâo Zhan, the chief minister of Khî, and afterwards of the new dynasty of Han, dying in B.C. 190.

The catalogue of the Sui dynasty

5. Referring now to the catalogue of the Imperial Library of the dynasty of Sui (A. D. 589-6 18), we find that it contained many editions of Lâo's treatise with commentaries. The first mentioned is 'The Tâo Teh King,' with the commentary of the old man of the Ho-side, in the time of the emperor Wän of Han (B. C. 179-142). It is added in a note that the dynasty of Liang (A.D. 502-556) had possessed the edition of the old man of the Ho-side, of the time of the Warring States; but that with some other texts and commentaries it had disappeared.' I find it difficult to believe that there had been two old men of the Ho-side3, both teachers of Tâoism and commentators on our King, but I am willing to content myself with the more recent work, and accept the copy that has been current—say from B.C. 150, when Sze-mâ Khien could have been little more than a boy. Tâoism was a favourite study with many of the Han emperors and their ladies. Hwâi-nan dze, of whose many quotations from the text of Lâo I have spoken, was an uncle of the emperor Wän. To the emperor King (B.C. 156-143), the son of Wän, there is attributed the designation of Lâo's treatise as a King, a work of standard authority. At the beginning of his reign, we are told, some one was commending to him four works, among which were those of Lâo-dze and Kwang-dze. Deeming that the work of Hwang-dze and Lâo-dze was of a deeper character than the others, he ordered that it should be called a King, established a board for the study of Tâoism, and issued an edict that the book should be learned and recited at court, and throughout the country4. Thenceforth it was so styled. We find Hwang-fû Mî (A.D. 215-282) referring to it as the Tâo Teh King.

The work of Wang Pî

The second place in the Sui catalogue is given to the text and commentary of Wang Pî or Wang Fû-sze, an extraordinary scholar who died in A. D. 249, at the early age of twenty-four. This work has always been much prized. It was its text which Lû Teh-ming used in his 'Explanation of the Terms and Phrases of the Classics,' in the seventh century. Among the editions of it which I possess is that printed in 1794 with the imperial moveable metal types.

I need not speak of editions or commentaries subsequent to Wang Pî's. They soon begin to be many, and are only not so numerous as those of the Confucian Classics.

Divisions into parts, chapters; and number of characters in the text

6. All the editions of the book are divided into two parts, the former called Tâo, and the latter Teh, meaning the Qualities or Characteristics of the Tâo, but this distinction of subjects is by no means uniformly adhered to.

I referred already to the division of the whole into eighty-one short chapters (37 + 44), which is by common tradition attributed to Ho-shang Kung, or 'The old man of the Ho-side.' Another very early commentator, called Yen Zun or Yen Kün-phing, made a division into seventy-two chapters (40 + 32), under the influence, no doubt, of some mystical considerations. His predecessor, perhaps, had no better reason for his eighty-one; but the names of his chapters were, for the most part, happily chosen, and have been preserved. Wû Khäng arranged the two parts in sixty-seven chapters (31 + 36). It is a mistake, however, to suppose, as even Mr. Wylie with all his general accuracy did5, that Wû 'curtails the ordinary text to some extent.' He does not curtail, but only re-arranges according to his fashion, uniting some of Ho-shang Kung's chapters in one, and sometimes altering the order of their clauses.

Sze-mâ Khien tells us that, as the treatise came from Lâo-dze, it contained more than 5000 characters; that is, as one critic says, 'more than 5000 and fewer than 6000.' Ho-shang Kung's text has 5350, and one copy 5590; Wang Pî's, 5683, and one copy 5610. Two other early texts have been counted, giving 5720 and 5635 characters respectively. The brevity arises from the terse conciseness of the style, owing mainly to the absence of the embellishment of particles, which forms so striking a peculiarity in the composition of Mencius and Kwang-dze.

In passing on to speak, secondly and more briefly, of the far more voluminous writings of Kwang-dze, I may say that I do not know of any other book of so ancient a date as the Tâo Teh King, of which the authenticity of the origin and genuineness of the text can claim to be so well substantiated.

The Books of Kwang-dze

II. 7. In the catalogue of the Han Library we have the entry of 'Kwang-dze in fifty-two books or sections.' By the time of the Sui dynasty, the editions of his work amounted to nearly a score. The earliest commentary that has come down to us goes by the name of Kwo Hsiang's. He was an officer and scholar of the Zin dynasty, who died about the year 312. Another officer, also of Zin, called Hsiang Hsiû, of rather an earlier date, had undertaken the same task, but left it incomplete; and his manuscripts coming (not, as it appears, by any fraud) into Kwo's hands, he altered and completed them as suited his own views, and then gave them to the public. In the short account of Kwo, given in the twentieth chapter of the Biographies of the Zin history, it is said that several tens of commentators had laboured unsatisfactorily on Kwang's writings before Hsiang Hsiû took them in hand. As the joint result of the labours of the two men, however, we have only thirty-three of the fifty-two sections mentioned in the Han catalogue. It is in vain that I have tried to discover how and when the other nineteen sections were lost. In one of the earliest commentaries on the Tâo Teh King, that by Yen Zun, we have several quotations from Kwang-dze which bear evidently the stamp of his handiwork, and are not in the current Books; but they would not altogether make up a single section. We have only to be thankful that so large a proportion of the original work has been preserved. Sû Shih (Dze-kan, and Tung-pho), it is well known, called in question the genuineness of Books 28 to 316. Books 15 and 16 have also been challenged, and a paragraph here and there in one or other of the Books. The various readings, according to a collation given by Ziâo Hung, are few.

Importance to Tâoism of the Books of Kwang-dze

8. There can be no doubt that the Books of Kwang-dze were hailed by all the friends of Tâoism. It has been mentioned above that the names 'Hwang-Tî' and 'Lâo-dze' were associated together as denoting the masters of Tâoism, and the phrase, 'the words of Hwang-Tî and Lâo-dze,' came to be no more than a name for the Tâo Teh King. Gradually the two names were contracted into 'Hwang Lâo,' as in the passage quoted on p. 6 from Pan Kû. After the Han dynasty, the name Hwang gave place to Kwang, and the names Lâo Kwang, and, sometimes inverted, Kwang Lâo, were employed to denote the system or the texts of Tâoism. In the account, for instance, of Kî Khang, in the nineteenth chapter of the Biographies of Zin, we have a typical Tâoist brought before us. When grown up, 'he loved Lâo and Kwang;' and a visitor, to produce the most favourable impression on him, says, 'Lâo-dze and Kwang Kâu are my masters.'

Division of the Books into three Parts

9. The thirty-three Books of Kwang-dze are divided into three Parts, called Nêi, or 'the Inner;' Wâi, or 'the Outer;' and Zâ, 'the Miscellaneous.' The first Part comprises seven Books; the second, fifteen; and the third, eleven. 'Inner' may be understood as equivalent to esoteric or More Important. The titles of the several Books are significant, and each expresses the subject or theme of its Book. They are believed to have been prefixed by Kwang-dze himself, and that no alteration could be made in the composition but for the worse. 'Outer' is understood in the sense of supplementary or subsidiary. The fifteen Books so called are 'Wings' to the previous seven. Their titles were not given by the author, and are not significant of the Tâoistic truth which all the paragraphs unite, or should unite, in illustrating; they are merely some name or phrase taken from the commencement of the first paragraph in each Book,—like the names of the Books of the Confucian Analects, or of the Hebrew Pentateuch. The fixing them originally is generally supposed to have been the work of Kwo Hsiang. The eleven Miscellaneous Books are also supplementary to those of the first Part, and it is not easy to see why a difference was made between them and the fifteen that precede.

The general title of Kwang-dze's works

10. Kwang-dze's writings have long been current under the name of Nan Hwa Kin King. He was a native of the duchy of Sung, born in what was then called the district of Mäng, and belonged to the state or kingdom of Liang or Wei. As he grew up, he filled some official post in the city of Zhî-yüan,—the site of which it is not easy to determine with certainty. In A.D. 742, the name of his birth-place was changed (but only for a time) to Nan-hwa, and an imperial order was issued that Kwang-Sze should thenceforth be styled 'The True Man of Nan-hwa,' and his Book, 'The True Book of Nan-hwa7.' To be 'a True Man' is the highest Tâoistic achievement of a man, and our author thus canonised communicates his glory to his Book.


back 1 In the present district of Ling-pâo, Shan Kâu, province of Ho-nan.

back 2 In an ordinary Student's Manual I find a note with reference to this incident to which it may be worth while to give a place here:—The warden, it is said, set before Lâo-dze a dish of tea; and this was the origin of the custom of tea-drinking between host and guest (see the ###, ch. 7, on Food and Drink).

back 3 The earlier old man of the Ho-side is styled in Chinese ###; the other ###; but the designations have the same meaning. Some critical objections to the genuineness of the latter's commentary on the ground of the style are without foundation.

back 4 See Ziâo Hung's Wings or Helps, ch. v, p. 11a.

back 5 Notes on Chinese Literature, p. 173.

back 6 A brother of Shih, Sû Kêh (Dze-yû and Ying-pin), wrote a remarkable commentary on the Tâo Teh King; but it was Shih who first discredited those four Books, in his Inscription for the temple of Kwang-dze, prepared in 1078.

back 7 See the Khang-hsi Thesaurus (####), under #.