The earliest known Western translation of Tao Te Ching was a Latin version

tao te ching John Chalmers

Not many people seem to know when the first translations of Tao Te Ching in the West appeared.

Although Lao Tzu wrote Tao Te Ching during the Spring Autumn Period of China some 2500 years ago, people in the West were unaware of the book until many centuries later.

The earliest known Western translation of Tao Te Ching was a Latin version produced by Jesuit missionaries in China, presented to the British Royal Society in 1788*. 

According to Legge, the translators’ stated intent was to show that “the Mysteries of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Incarnate God were anciently known to the Chinese nation”.

French translations appeared subsequently in 1820 and 1842.

The first English translation seems to be produced by John Chalmers in 1868, and known as   The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity and Morality of The Old Philosopher Lau Tsze.  It is quite a delight to see that it is still available online via Amazon.

 John Chalmers: The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity and Morality of The Old Philosopher Lau TszeOn the cover page — I hope I got it right 🙂 — Lao Tzu is quoted, “Three precious things I prize and hold fast – Humility, Compassion, and Economy.”

Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu has since been translated into more languages and read widely, becoming perhaps the most translated works after Bible. Many new translations are being rendered on the ongoing basis.

*Source:  Influential Western interpretations of the Tao-te-ching by Julia M. Hardy, found in the book Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching by Livia Kohn, Michael LaFargue.


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