What does Tao Te Ching Mean?

Lao Tzu began the book Tao Te Ching by saying, “The name that can be named is not the eternal name”.

This statement is especially apt, as far as translation of the title of his book is concerned.  It has indeed left many people confused.

To make things simple, let’s see what the three Chinese characters mean.

‘Tao’ is a translation of the character 道, which means ‘the Way’, or ‘the Path’.  It can be seen as the force underlying the universe; the application of it allows all things to be in harmony with the natural order.

‘Te’ refers to 德. It is often translated as ‘the virtue’.

The translation is literally correct, but can be misleading in the context of the book.  In my opinion, a more appropriate translation is ‘the application of Tao’. If we see Tao as energy, the character may also be seen as an expression of ‘power’ or ‘vitality’.

The third syllable ‘Ching’ is a translation of the character 经, which means a book of classic or scripture.

If we put the 3 characters together, they could mean ‘The Classic of Tao and Te’

The first two characters, i.e. Tao & Te, may also be combined to form the Chinese word 道德, which is often translated as moral. So some people translate the title of the book as ‘Book of Moral’.

This is, however, not very appropriate, as Lao Tzu rarely talks about moral in the book.  It is more the subject of Confucianism.

Even then, I’d like to point out that Tao Te Ching is not the original title of the book.

When the book was written, Lao Tzu did not give it a title. Neither did he divide the book into chapters. These were done by people of later generations. For many years, the book had been known only as Lao Tzu, i.e. name of the author.  It was Emperor Jing (188 BC to 141 BC) of the Han Dynasty who bestowed it the title of ‘Tao Te Ching’ that we know today.

The book, on the other hand, is also known as Dao De Jing, based on the pinyin system of pronunciation.  Over the centuries, there are several other Chinese titles of the book as well, likeFiver Thousand Characters and Shangzhi Jing.  So do not be alarmed if you see the title of the book being translated in other manners.

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