Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Okay, we have something shameful to admit: we don't speak Ancient Chinese. Well, we guess it's not too shameful since most modern Chinese speakers don't either—just as the vast majority of modern English speakers barely recognize the Middle English of the Canterbury Tales and have zero idea of what the Old English in Beowulf is saying.

    So since we can't crack the code of the Ancient Chinese characters in which the Tao Te Ching was originally written, we'd have a tough time taking you through the sonic devices it uses. Different English translators do different things and, of course, none of it sounds a lick like Ancient Chinese. We can tell you, however, that the experts say that chunks of the original TTC do rhyme, and that the whole thing has a real flow to it.

    Also, we're told that the original uses a lot of repetition, which English translations can give us a little bit of a feel for. Take the famous first lines, for example:

    The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name
    The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
    The named is the mother of myriad things

    "Tao" is repeated a couple times and "name" pops up a whole bunch in various forms. So not only are these concepts repeated, but the sounds they make are also repeated. The way we figure it, this repetition of sound makes the words flow together and helps gets across the feel of the ever-flowing Tao.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    So the first thing to know is that the Tao Te Ching is an English spelling for concepts represented by Chinese characters. Some people even say that Dao De Jing is a little closer to the way the title is pronounced in Chinese, so if you want to sound super-smart you can say it like that. Still, neither of these pronunciations is going to sound spot-on to a native speaker.

    Okay, let's get into the nitty-gritty and break down what those original characters mean.

    Tao most basically means "the way" or the "the path." In general, it refers to the great big flow of everything there is (and isn't). It's the force through which everything in the universe is created and destroyed. Cool how one character can sum up that big of an idea, huh?

    Next, we have Te. The closest translation of this is probably "virtue," which refers to good human qualities like compassion, generosity, and humility. Virtue can also refer to the inherent power in something.

    In Derek Lin's translator notes, he gives the example of how when we talk about "the virtue of being there" we're referring to that way that being some place has built-in worth, which is a little different than when we talk about virtuous traits in people. According to Lin, the Chinese character Te has these dual meanings, making "virtue" a better translation than something like "integrity," which some translators use.

    Did we mention we love Derek Lin? Because we do.

    Last of all, we've got Ching, which can be translated as "tome," "classic," or "book." So if you wanted a literal translation of the title, you'd get something like "Way Virtue Book." That sounds a little funky in English, so we'd make it something like "The Book of the Way and Virtue." Of course, since Tao is a Words with Friends-approved word in English, we could also just say "The Book of the Tao and Virtue." That's still a little clunky, huh? So let's just say Tao Te Ching.

  • Setting

    The Tao

    Oh, the places we'll go with the Tao Te Ching. Where are we headed, you ask? Oh, everywhere that ever was, is, or will be. Seriously, this book is all about the Tao, which is the great flow of everything. Just check out these famous first lines:

    The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name
    The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
    The named is the mother of myriad things

    There you go. The Tao is the origin of everything. So name a place and time, and it's guaranteed to be part of the Tao. A street corner in New York at the turn of the century? Part of the Tao. The bottom of your gold fish tank right now? Part of the Tao. The Mars Hilton in the far distant future? Still in the Tao, Shmoopers.

    All right, so the Tao is everywhere and every-when; cool, we got that. But are you ready for the TTC to really blow your mind? The Tao isn't just everywhere that is; it's everywhere that isn't. No joke. Check out this quote:

    The myriad things of the world are born of being
    Being is born of non-being

    And you thought we were just making stuff up. If the Tao is the source of all that is, and if being is born of non-being, then the Tao has to be nothing just as much as it's something. Ow. Now our heads hurt.

    This whole being and non-being head-scratcher gets back to the idea from our first quote: "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao" (1.1). The true Tao is so hard for us puny humans to understand that we can't even create a word for it. So maybe instead of saying that this poem is set in the Tao, we should say it's set in the ____?

  • Speaker

    Lao Tzu

    Normally, we wouldn't even bother to mention the author in this section. Most of the time when we're analyzing a poem, it's best to think of the speaker as a creation of the author… even if the speaker says stuff that sounds a whole lot like what the author would say.

    The Tao Te Ching is little different, though, since it's not necessarily meant to be a piece of art (even though it totally is). The TTC is meant to be a guide for how to live our lives. It's a philosophical text in which the author directly addresses us and gives us tips for achieving universal oneness and all that good stuff. So saying that the author of the TTC (our man Lao Tzu) isn't the speaker would be kinda like saying Marcus Aurelius isn't the speaker of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

    Even though there's some debate, the author of the Tao Te Ching is most likely a super-wise man named Lao Tzu, who was Taoin' it up in China around 2,500 years ago. Legend says that he was a master scribe/librarian type guy for a king and had access to tons of ancient knowledge, including the words of many of the Tao sages who came before him. There are some historical documents that show he did actually exist, so when the TTC says stuff like "I do not know whose offspring it is," we're pretty sure the "I" is Lao Tzu himself (4.8-9).

    Of course, for the most part, Lao Tzu keeps the "I" out of the Tao Te Ching. His name might translate to something like "old master," but he would prefer it if nobody put him on a pedestal. He never claimed to be a prophet, messiah, or demigod. He only claimed to be a simple man with simple wisdom to give. After all, one of the biggest lessons of the TTC is that we should practice humility and selflessness. Take these lines for instance:

    The reason I have great misfortune
    Is that I have the self
    If I have no self
    What misfortune do I have?

    The self is the greatest misfortune? That's about as humble as it gets. Seems like Lao Tzu would just as soon have every copy of the TTC printed without his name even on it. Maybe he's the one who started the rumors that he didn't write it. We're onto you, Lao Tzu.

    So who was Lao Tzu? We can only assume that he was a man who did his lowly best to embody all the teachings of the Tao Te Ching. He was humble, generous, patient, and nonjudgmental. He did his best to live with wu wei (unattached action) and moved through life without obsessing over the outcomes of every little thing. And even if he was better at writing about these principles than he was at living them, he was a teacher who at his core cared very much about humanity and, in his gentle way, wrote a book to show us a way we could all live in peace with each other, ourselves, and the Universe.

    We're thinking about starting a Lao Tzu fan club. Oh, wait... that's called Taoism.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    No doubt, the Tao Te Ching isn't exactly the most straightforward thing you'll ever read. Let's be real: a big chunk of it is downright cryptic. This can be a challenge to interpret, but the key is not to stress out—that's the last thing the TTC would want you to do.

    So just relax, take it in, and see where the Tao takes you.

  • Calling Card


    We're going to say the main calling card of the Tao Te Ching is that it's chock-full of head-scratchers. The TTC is famously cryptic, and it hardly ever serves its meanings up for us on a silver platter. For real, take a peep at this quote if you don't believe us:

    The Tao is empty
    When utilized, it is not filled up
    So deep! It seems to be the source of all things

    It blunts the sharpness
    Unravels the knots
    Dims the glare
    Mixes the dusts

    See what we mean? Even this one little snippet gives readers tons of questions to ask themselves. How can something that's empty be used? How can emptiness be the source of anything? Um, which sharp things, knots, glares, and dusts are we talking about here?

    To make things even harder to pin down, every translation is slightly different, and even the original Ancient Chinese characters are sort of ambiguous. So even the guys who can read it straight from the source have been bickering about individual meanings for centuries.

    Sometimes the Tao Te Ching is criticized for being straight-up obtuse, and we can see why. The thing is, though, that all these head-scratchers are part of what's made the TTC such an enduring book. It makes us want to dig deeper—to really think. The Tao Te Ching freely admits that the Tao is mysterious and impossible to fully understand, so why should it be any different?

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    The Tao Te Ching doesn't jibe with any of the formal meters of Western poetry, so the best term we have for its style is probably free verse. Really, the TTC is the ultimate poetic wild card. It was originally written in Ancient Chinese, which didn't have punctuation. This makes it extra hard (even for modern Chinese speakers) to figure out where thoughts are supposed to stop and start and with what particular rhythm the TTC is meant to be read. 

    Of course, there are a ton of different English translations out there, some of which make the text more punctuated and/or formally rhythmic than others. But if you ask us, it seems like those versions are missing the point. The cool thing about the original TTC's lack of punctuation is that it makes all the TTC's big ideas flow together. Yeah, it can make the book hard to decipher, but the Tao is pretty hard to decipher too. So, ultimately, the form of the TTC makes total sense, right? The original is just as free-flowin' as the great Tao itself.

  • Water

    We're gonna go out on a limb (or out on a pier, perhaps) and say that water is hands-down the biggest symbol in the Tao Te Ching, where it's used to represent the great flow of the Tao itself. Over and over again, the TTC uses water to teach us lessons on how to be more like the Tao.

    Here's the first mention we find:

    The highest goodness resembles water
    Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention
    It stays in places that people dislike
    Therefore it is similar to the Tao

    "Highest goodness"? Whoa, that's pretty high praise coming from the TTC, which is usually talking about how we should think of everything equally. But notice here what's so great about water: it gives to everything equally, without raising a ruckus about it. Like the Tao, it makes no judgments and gives to all. The awesomeness of water doesn't stop here, though. Check out this quote:

    Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water
    Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong

    So water is awesome because its weakness makes it strong? It may sound like mumbo jumbo at first, but it's totally true. Eventually even the highest mountain can be worn down by water. Water's very softness is what allows it to creep into the cracks and wear down anything. If you've ever had a pipe burst in your house, then you know the damage that water can do.

    So, just like the Tao, water has the power to flow into everything, but it does so with ease and grace. (Sometimes it also does so as a giant tsunami, but that doesn't quite fit this analogy.)

    Okay, one more water quote because we just can't help ourselves:

    The great Tao is like a flood
    It can flow to the left or to the right

    The myriad things depend on it for life, but it never stops
    It achieves its work, but does not take credit
    It clothes and feeds myriad things, but does not rule over them

    Here the translator uses a simile to show how the TTC compares the Tao to a flood. Like water, the Tao is flexible; it can flow in any direction. Also like the Tao, water is humble. Every single life form on Earth laps up water like nobody's business, but you don't hear water asking for recognition. When was the last time you heard the water in a flowerpot ask for an award or something? Yeah, it doesn't happen. Water gives to everything selflessly… just like the Tao.

    Really, all this water imagery and symbolism is one big analogy. The TTC uses something familiar to us—water—to explain something that's a lot harder to understand: the Tao. And what's the purpose of making the Tao more relatable? So that we can try to be more like it. So that we can see what's cool about being humble, flexible, weak, and non-judgmental.

    Man, the next time we take a shower is going to be a whole new experience.

  • Horses

    Until automobiles gave them the boot, horses were a totally essential part of nearly every human society, where they helped people with nearly every aspect of life. Take a look at this quote in which the TTC uses horses to symbolize two totally different states of affairs:

    When the world has the Tao
    Fast horses are retired to till the soil
    When the world lacks the Tao
    Warhorses give birth on the battlefield

    So horses were used to till the fields in peacetime and used to charge soldiers into battle in times of war. Here, the TTC uses the way horses were used to represent the overall state of society.

    When everybody's living the peaceful life of the Tao, there's no need for horses to run; they can just plod along slowly, pulling a plow behind them (mmm, those lucky horses). Don't miss line 46.4 here, which gives us some of the most graphic imagery in the TTC. To us, a warhorse having to give birth amid the chaos of a battlefield is a perfect image to sum up the way the TTC says that war perverts the naturally peaceful ways of the Tao.

    Horses aren't just used to represent peace and war in the TTC, though. Back in the day, having a horse was also a sign that you had some moolah. Check this quote:

    Therefore, when crowning the Emperor
    And installing the three ministers
    Although there is the offering of jade before four horses
    None of it can compare to being seated in this Tao

    So when a new Emperor was crowned, the Chinese would make an offering of the most valuable stuff they could lay their hands on: jade and horses. It says a lot about how much horses were worth that they'd be lumped in with something as valuable as jade, doesn't it?

    Of course, the point here is that neither jade nor horses are worth diddly-squat compared to the great and eternal Tao. So these lines are ultimately using horses to symbolize the way that people put too much value on riches and possessions, when all they should really be focusing on is oneness with the Tao.

    • Steaminess Rating


      If you're looking for an ancient Eastern text full of steaminess, try the Kama Sutra. The Tao Te Ching is too busy telling us about the power of humility and simplicity to worry about our sex lives.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • The Tao Te Ching doesn't give us any specific shout-outs to other philosophical texts, but it's important to think about the fact that this book is a collection of wisdom that was passed down from waaaay back in the day. Specific philosophers don't get name-dropped, but every time the TTC mentions "the sages" it's giving the ancients a shout-out across time.