Study Guide

Tao Te Ching What's Up With the Title?

By Lao Tzu

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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.

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