Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu, Ellen M. Chen (Translator/Commentary)

Rating: ★★★★

Concatenated thoughts. Review #1 ✓ – #2

They come to be and he claims no possession of them,
He works without holding on,
Accomplishes without claiming merit.
Because he does not claim merit,
His merit does not go away.

136357The Tao Te Ching is a classical text credited to Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu (6th century) and on which Taoism is based. It consists of 81 short chapters written in poetic form which, using a pithy language brimming with evocative and, at times, repetitive contradictions, provide guidance on how humanity may have a harmonious relationship with nature, with the Tao. In an inspiringly laconic way, the chapters reveal the sage’s fundamental truths that range from theology to politics, inseparable components of the Tao Te Ching.

I read two editions simultaneously: Ellen Chen’s The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary and Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. After reading chapter 11 by the latter, the merits of each work became particularly noticeable.
Chen’s translation is an accurate marvel. It’s the kind of translation I like; literal as possible. I don’t want only the translator’s interpretation, I want to know the precise words that went through the author’s mind. I’ve made peace with everything that gets lost in translation, so at least give me surgical precision.
On the opposite side stands Mitchell with another approach: divesting the verses of all metaphor, he focuses on the meaning, the thoughts Lao Tzu intended to convey. In that sense, it’s a remarkable work; a detailed examination of all the elements that constitute this treatise. While keeping a small amount of literality, it expresses a similar interpretation.

If I have to choose, I prefer Chen’s academic translation with its enriching commentary over Mitchell’s version with its still lyrical directness. Even though she generally refers to the sage as a man, whereas Mitchell states that since we are all, potentially, the Master (since the Master is, essentially, us), I felt it would be untrue to present a male archetype, as other versions have, ironically, done. Ironically, because of all the great world religions the teaching of Lao tzu is by far the most female.

As for my experience with this book, I should revisit it in a few years… The dynamics between opposites that say and don’t say, that affirm and deny, that teach without speaking and act without doing; it all starts to get a tad annoying after a while. I wasn’t able to identify with some notions, naturally; my skeptical disposition began to take control rather soon. However, The Tao Te Ching includes several useful concepts to improve our fleeting stay in this world. Moreover, many of those impressions are addressed to politicians. In that regard, this book should be required reading for every single one of them.

I close this ‘review’ with some chapters according to the views of each translator.**

On the decline of the great Tao,
There are humanity (jen) and righteousness (i)…

General comment
The overall message of this chapter, just as in preceding and subsequent chapters, is that the unconscious state of nature is superior to the conscious state of virtue. Consciousness marks a lack. We are not aware of and do not pursue something until we have already become separated from it.


One who assists the ruler with Tao,
Does not overpower (ch ‘iang) the world by military conquests.

Such affairs have a way of returning (huan):
Where armies are stationed,
Briars and thorns grow,
After great campaigns,
Bad years are sure to follow.

The good person is resolute (lwo) only,
But dares not (kan) take the path of the strong (ch ‘iang).
Be resolute (kuo) yet do not boast (ching),
Be resolute yet do not show off (fa), Be resolute yet do not be haughty,
Be resolute because you have no choice,
Be resolute yet do not overpower (ch ‘iang).

When things are full grown, they age.
This is called not following Tao.
Not following Tao they perish early.

General comment
While the preceding chapter serves as the basis of a theology of nature, this chapter provides the rationale for a theology of peace. It carries the theme of non-action or non-domination in the preceding chapter to international relations. If humans are not supposed to dominate other creatures, neither should they dominate fellow humans. This chapter is a critique of military power (ch ‘iang) specifically against wars, which are instruments of death.


Rivers and seas can be kings of the hundred valleys,
Because they are good at flowing downwards (hsia).
Therefore they can be kings of the hundred valleys.

Thus if you desire to be above the people,
Your words must reach down (hsia) to them.
If you desire to lead the people, Your person (shen, body) must be behind them.

Thus the sage is above,
Yet the people do not feel his weight.
He stays in front,
Yet the people do not suffer any harm.
Thus all gladly praise him untiringly (pu yen).

Because he does not contend with any,
Therefore no one under heaven can contend with him.

General comment
This chapter on the relationship between the ruler and the people is directly connected with chapter 61, which is on the relationship among states. The key concept is again hsia, low or downward flowing. In domestic affairs as well as in international relations, the ruler is to imitate water by reaching downward to the people, assisting in their own self-unfolding without imposing himself on them.


* Photo credit: Book cover via Goodreads.
** I shared the same chapters on each review.


3 thoughts on “Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu, Ellen M. Chen (Translator/Commentary)

  1. Thank you so much for enriching my evening with your splendid juxtaposition of these two translations, which I read in sequence, starting with no. 1, of course. First of all, I would like to say that I love the term “concatenated thoughts”, duly added to my vocabulary. So, I hope you don’t mind if you encounter it in the future in a write-up of mine. 😉 Now to the adjacency: I, like you, tend to opt for “surgical precision” in such cases. As you say, so much is lost in translation and Classical Chinese is so far removed from our Indo-European languages. Nevertheless, Mitchell makes a most important move in employing “she”. I think this is one of these exceptional works that demands to be read in many translations, allowing for the appreciation of a widest possible scope in approaches.

    Loved this:

    Things arise and she lets them come;
    things disappear and she lets them go.
    She has but doesn’t possess,
    acts but doesn’t expect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s wonderful to hear, so kind of you, thank you. 🙂 I first used that expression while reviewing some short stories by Akutagawa. This is the second time I used it, I think, and of course, an honor if I see those words in a review of yours. And I agree, this is an outstanding work that deserves more time. I’d like to come back to it someday and see what has changed.
      Many thanks for your lovely words.

      Liked by 1 person

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