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Guodian Laozi and the textual history of the Daode jing

”Guodian Laozi” is the earliest known version of the Daode jing (traditionally known as Laozi), dating to around 300 BCE. It was excavated from a tomb at Guodian, Hubei province in China, 1993. The Chinese call the text Zhujian Laozi (Bamboo Slip Laozi) as the text was written on bamboo slips which were originally three separate bundles, distinguished by the size and style of the slips. These bundles are named by researchers as Laozi A, Laozi B and Laozi C. Photographs and transcriptions of the slips, however, were only made public in May 1998. Transcriptions here refer to modern literary character correspondences to the ancient Chu script. (Henricks 2000: 1–3; Robinet 2008: 464; Kirkland 2003: 54)

The purpose of this short essay is to present the basic knowledge about this text and some of its implications on the textual history of Daode jing, which is the most known text related to Daoist tradition and is a famous representative of Daoism in it’s classical or ancient phase, also called proto-Daoism. In fact, Daode jing is perhaps the most translated book after the Bible. It is translated to English alone about 300 times (Kohn 2009: 19). I will try to locate the Daode jing within the context of the Daoist tradition in a perhaps more accurate way than it is commonly done and also Chinese culture in a wider sense. As the number of translations indicates, the Daode jing has had plenty of interest in the Western cultures too. I will anyhow limit my discussion to the Chinese cultural context.


Mawangdui manuscripts

Another remarkable tomb discovery was done in 1973 at Mawangdui, South-Central China, where two copies of Laozi written on silk were found, dating from before 168 BCE., when the tomb was sealed. Before Guodian findings, these were by far the earliest versions of Laozi the researchers had ever examined. In content the Mawangdui texts generally correspond to the received later editions of the text. Although the texts lack the chapter division found in current editions, they contain all of the known eighty-one chapters. Also the chapter sequence is the same with three exceptions. (Henricks 2000: 1) Thus it is the earliest known complete version of Laozi, as Guodian version contains only a limited number of passages. However, the order of the two parts is reversed in such a way that the De section (chapters 38–81) proceeds the Dao section (chapters 1–37), which suggests that there were two traditions of ordering the text. The relation of this order to the legalist scholars is under discussion. Text A was copied in small seal script graphs probably before the reign of Liu Bang (Gaozu, r. 202–195 BCE.), the founder of Han dynasty. Text B was copied in clerical script during his reign. These manuscripts include many more grammatical particles than the received version, reducing the text’s opacity. (Yates 2008: 740).

The transmitted versions and commentaries

Most printed versions of the Daode jing derive from one of four received main versions, or textual traditions: 1) the Yan Zun version, 2) the Heshang gong version, 3) the Wang Bi version, and 4) the so-called ”ancient version” (guben) recovered from a tomb dated to 202 BCE. The ”ancient version” exists in two distinct but closely related redactions: one edited by Fu Yi (554–639) and another edited by by Fan Yingyuan in the Song (960–1279) period. Two Dunhuang manuscripts are also worth noting, the Suo Dan manuscript, dated 270 CE, which seems to belong to Heshang gong tradition and the Xiang’er commentary, which lacks the second half and is not divided into sections. None of these versions yield notable differences from the point of view of meaning. (Robinet 2008: 312) The received text of Wang Bi (226–249 CE) and Heshanggong, a legendary figure depicted as a teacher to Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty have long been the main entries to the text. The other manuscript versions play a secondary role in the history of the classic. (Chan 2013)

1) Yan Zun version. Yan Zun is ascribed with the Daode Zhigui (The Essenital Meaning of the Daode jing), a text in thirteen or fourteen scrolls that was well known during the first centuries of the common era. The extant portion of this consists of the last seven scrolls, which are included in the Daoist Canon (Daozang) and on several anthologies with a sub commentary by a Gushen zi (Master of the Spirit of the Valley). Meng Wentong and Yan Lingfeng have collected quotations of the missing portions, which were lost in the sixth century. Stylistic and other internal evidence suggest a Han (206 BCE–220 CE) date for its composition. (Robinet 2008: 1146)

The commentary is concerned with both self-cultivation and the theory of government. From a philosophical point of view, Yan Zun emphasises the reversibility of opposites, which issue from common origin and join in harmony: everything is constantly changing and is constantly beginning anew. Action is born from non-action (wuwei); knowledge must be rejected and quiescence is found in emptiness, which is fullness and spontaneity and is superior to all practices of longevity. Yan Zun’s cosmogony is complex. First comes the Dao, the "Emptiness of Emptiness”. The Dao is followed by its de (virtue or power), which is equated with the One (yi) and with Emptiness. In turn, de comes before Non-being and Being (wu and you). Then comes the spirit (shenming), which is related to the Two and is the ”non-being of Non-being”. The next stage, related to the Three is harmony (he), which correspond to Non-being. From tho state evolve Yin and Yang, Heaven and Earth, the saint (shengren), pneuma or qi, and forms (xing). In Yan Zun’s view metaphysics is the basis of both social order and self-cultivation. (Robinet 2008: 1146–1147)

2) Laozi Heshang gong zhangju (The Laozi Divided into Sections and Sentences by Heshang gong) covers both the text of the classic, as divided into sections and sentences, zhangju, and a commentary. It is not possible to date the editing of the Heshang gong text of the Daode jing, though it certainly has had a very wide influence, supplanting even the slightly different version of the classic that once circulated with the commentary of Wang Bi (226–49), so that the latter work no longer exactly fits with the the text accompanying it. (Barrett 2008: 619)

Whether the Heshang gong commentary dates from as early as 300 CE or as late as 500 CE, it was by 700 CE very much the predominant commentary to the text of Daode jing. The outcome of the so called ”bibliographic controversy” of the Tang (618–907) court shows clearly that the Heshang gong Daode jing enjoyed a favoured status in comparison with the the Wang Bi version. The most important consequence of this predominance is that the text of the Daode jing proper that was transmitted with the Heshang gong commentary had a considerable influence on the Daode jing text that accompanied the Wang Bi commentary as well. This happened to the point where one can say that the received text of the Wang Bi Daode jing is in fact a version of the Heshang gong line of transmission, and could not have been the version Wang Bi had to hand and commented upon. Even though the Wang Bi and Heshang gong commentaries are very different from each other, the Daode jing texts accompanying them are very similar. Both of them can be considered exemplars of the Heshang gong Daode jing. The import of this is that the current received text of the Daode jing is, irrespective of whether we are referring to a Heshang gong version or to a Wang Bi version, essentially the Heshang gong Daode jing. (Boltz 1993: 275–276)

The commentary has also been extremely influential. Its sequential explanation of the text phrase by phrase marks it out as a work of earlier type than that of Wang Bi, which attempts to keep the overall meaning of the text in mind. But this doesn’t mean that Heshang gong’s remarks were actually composed earlier. Its dual approach, summarised by some scholars as stressing both ”controlling the state” and ”controlling one’s self” is not entirely alien to Wang Bi either. The one feature that has been seen as distinctive is the suggestion in some passages that the latter aim could be achieved in part through techniques visualising the interior of the body after the manner of some Shangqing (Highest Clarity) texts. All the concepts present in the Heshang gong commentary may be seen as part of a Han legacy of ideas though these have remained a matter of restatement for many centuries after the dynasty. Despite the difficulty in the dating of the work, it has remained a favourite among professional Daoists from the time of its emergence onward. (Barrett 2008: 619–620)

3) Wang Bi version. Wang gives the word dao a metaphysical meaning close to the one it has in the Zhuangzi and the Huainan zi. The Dao is wu or Non-being, an absence of substance or entity, even conceptual. It is indescribable, unique, and cannot be matched to anything. It is the source of the world not in the temporal sense but in the sense of an atemporal priority. In Wang Bi’s apophatic thought, wu or Non-being is the Absolute that cannot and should not endure determination by name, qualification one form. Wu is a synonym of the Ultimate (ji), the Beginning (shi), and the permanent (chang). It is ”that by which” things are, their true existence to which they are bound to return. This can be accomplished through a ”decrease” similar to the work of a a gardener who clears away the weeds. Paradoxically those who do so become complete because they are redirected to wu, which is equivalent to the One. (Robinet 2008: 1005–1006)

Although the notion of the Dao as absence of anything implies its transcendence, this doesn’t mean there is no connection between Non-being and Being, the phenomenal world. Quiescence is not the opposite of movement, nor is silence the opposite of speech. Wu must be mediated by you because ”it cannot be manifested by wu”. Being, therefore, is the manifestation of Non-being. Wang Bi still emphasises the importance of Non-being much more than that of Being. The sage is not in Wang Bi’s view a Confucian sage who applies ”correct names” to things but is rather someone who does not ”name” things. Wang Bi’s ideas in this respect draw both from the Yijing (the Book of Changes) and from the notion of the Daoist saint (shengren). As in the Xici (Appended Statements) part of Yijing, the sage pays attention to change, discerns the moment in which an event takes shape, and relies on the underlying order of the world, which he illuminates. As in the Daode jing, he is intuitively in harmony with the Way and ”hides his light”, which reaches into the dark. As both of them, he is compliant and modest. (Robinet 2008: 1006)

4) Daode jing guben pian (Compilation of the Ancient Version of the Daode jing) by Fu Yi (554–639). The title of the edition arouses suspicion of exaggeration, but has in this case been vindicated by finds like Mawangdui, which has revealed that Fu Yi’s text is indeed close to Han versions. One of his sources may have been one recovered in 574 from a tomb alleged to have been that of the concubine of Chu general Xiang Yu (?–202 BCE). Another text he is said to have used was a Han text and commentary once owned by Kou Qianzhi (365?–448). (Barrett 2008: 426–427) A later redaction of the “ancient version” was made by Fan Yingyuan in the Song dynasty. There are some differences, but these two can be regarded as having stemmed from the same textual tradition. (Chan 2013)

The manuscript fragments discovered in the Dunhuang caves form another important source in the studies of the Daode jing. Among them are several Heshang gong fragments and the important Xiang’er Laozi with commentary. Another Dunhuang manuscript worth attention is the ”Suo Dan” fragment, which contains the last thirty-one chapters of the Daode jing beginning with chapter 51 of the modern text. It is signed and dated at the end, bearing the name of the third-century scholar and diviner Suo Dan, who is said to have made the copy, written in ink on paper, in 270 CE. William Boltz (1996) questions its third-century date arguing that the fragment in many instances agrees with the Fu Yi ”ancient version”. (Chan 2013)

The Xiang’er commentary (Laozi Xiang’er zhu) is the sole extant copy of the Tianshi dao (Celestial Masters) commentary to the Daode jing. The manuscript itself dates from the late fifth or the early sixth century, and although it is fragmentary, containing only the text and commentary for chapters 3 to 37, it has considerable value for the study of the history of Daoism. The commentary, written between the end of the second and beginning of third centuries, is the earliest Daoist interpretation of the Daode jing. It is also one of the earliest sources on the Tianshi dao movement, providing unique information about its beliefs and practices. (Mollier 2008: 393) Rao Zongyi (1956) combined the manuscript text with quotations in other sources to assembly roughly half the original work. Boltz (1984) has argued, based on a detailed comparison with the Mawangdui manuscripts of the Daode jing, that the text interleaved with this commentary is the earliest transmitted text version and the closest filiation with the Mawangdui manuscripts. (Kleeman 2008: 622–623)

The commentary presents a distinctive interpretation of the Daode jing that sheds much light on early Celestial Master thought and the way they appropriated this classical text for their own purposes. Among the more distinctive features of this work, the conception of the Dao as a conscious, anthropomorphic deity, identified with the deified Laozi, who speaks directly to humans (in the first person) is striking. The text advocates a physiological process based on ”clarity and quiescence” that seeks to absorb and circulate the breaths (qi) of the Dao so as to attain longevity and the status of Transcendent Lord. This practice must be founded on moral excellence , and to this end a set of nine precept derived from the text of Daode jing and a set of twenty-seven derived from the Xiang’er commentary were published separately and seem to have been more influential in later periods than the commentary itself. Also prominent are warnings against ”deviant” teachings and ”false arts abroad and in the world” that point to a variety of competing movements that differed with the Celestial Masters on issues of doctrine and practice. The Xiang’er commentary also provides information on the earliest Daoist eschatology, a way for followers to pass through the world of the dead or the Great Yin. According to this it is the moral excellence of the Daoists that assures their longevity and ultimate survival of death. (Kleeman 2008: 623)

While manuscript versions inform textual criticism of the Daode jing, stone inscriptions provide further collaborating support. According to Yan (1957), over twenty steles, mainly of Tang and Song origins are available for study, although some are in poor condition. (Chan 2013)

The Daode jing as a text

Traditionally the Daode jing is ascribed to Laozi, who allegedly gave it to Yin Xi as he left the Middle Kingdom to go to the west. Scholars have long debated its authorship and date. Some scholars think that it is not the work of a single author, some maintain that most of it originated as an oral tradition during Warring States period (403–221), and some suggest that it reached its final form in the late third or the early second century BCE. The Guodian manuscripts, datable to between 350 and 300 BCE, seem to prove that the Daode jing existed at the time in a form very close to the received version discussed above.

(Robinet 2008: 311)

The Daoode jing is a short text in about five thousand characters, usually divided into two main parts, called Daojing (Scripture of the Dao) and Dejing (Scripture of Virtue), and into eighty-one section or chapters (zhang). The division of the text into eighty-one sections first appears in the Heshang gong’s version but was not universally accepted until perhaps the Tang period. While some versions are divided into sixty-four, sixty-six, or seventy-two sections, others (like the Guodian manuscripts) do not have sections at all. The Daode jing combines sentences, often rhymed, expressing general laws dogmatically asserted with aphorisms that may contain traces of oral sayings, and with instructions on self-cultivation and practical or sociopolitical life. The text is often paradoxical, lyrical and poetical, containing plays on words, contradictions, ambiguous statements, and enigmatic images. The text reads more as a collection of sayings than a philosophical discourse. Whether the text proposes an art of ruling or ways of self-cultivation or both, imbued or not with mystical or gnostic views, is an open question that scholars often debate on hypothetical grounds. (Robinet 2008: 312, Kohn 2009: 17)

A description can be outlined of the main features on which scholars generally agree, and that were retained in later Daoism. The main contribution of the Daode jing to Daoism and Chinese thought lies in the new meaning given to the word dao. Usually and broadly understood as ”way”, ”method”, or ”rule of life”, dao takes on for the first time in the Daode jing the meaning of Ultimate Truth, one and transcendent, indivisible (yi), inaudible (xi), and imperceptible (wei), not usable and not namable. Since the Dao is beyond all relationship of differentiation and judgement, it cannot be practiced as a way. One cannot make use of it, as it is ”neither this or that”. However, in spite of this apophatic or negative approach, the Dao, through its Virtue (de) is said to be the source of all life, the ”mother”, ”pervading”, ”rich in promises” and the only certain reference point. In this sense it is ”both this and that”. All that can be said and has a name is transient and pertains to the world. Only the Dao that has no name is permanent. This dimension of the Dao was retained, with varying emphases, by all schools of Daoism. It has an evanescent and mysterious hypostatised presence that one would like to grasp and see, and seems to allude to an inner experience resulting from meditational practices aiming at quiescence, and from a multidimensional view of the world. This gives the Daode jing a poetical and lyrical tone, and endows its teachings with a character different from that of other texts of its time. (Robinet 2008: 312–313)

The Daode jing repeatedly names pairs of opposites such as good and evil, high and low, Being and Non-being, naming and not naming, because they all imply and support each other, and pertain to a common whole. The Daode jing strives to show that thought is by nature dualistic and cannot grasp the Dao, which lies beyond any differentiation. The Daode jing’s notion of the void is the first enunciation of an idea that would later evolve and take a major place in Daoism and Chinese thought. The ideal of the Daoist sage does not choose between one thing and its opposite, but remains neutral. The saint (shengren) is serene, withdraws from the affairs of the world, and rejects the established values as artificial, in favour of a spontaneous way of life with no virtuous effort toward improvement, and no competition that might introduce disturbances. The saint ruler, moreover, has no name, like the Dao; like the saint, he lets the laws of nature operate spontaneously so that order is established harmoniously among human beings. (Robinet 2008: 313–314)

The Daode jing is open to many interpretations and in fact demands them. The various readings of the commentators have been sometimes classified into schools. As described above, for instance, Heshang gong reads the text on two levels, one concerned with self-cultivation and the other with ruling the state; the Xiang’er commentary is an example of its use as a catechism for the Celestial Masters; and the Chongxuan (Twofold Mystery) school of thought gives it a Buddhistic and dialectical interpretation. Legalist, Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist physiological or alchemical interpretations have also been advanced. The Daode jing has also been used as a sacred text that, like all sacred writings, must be recited in conjunction with meditation and ritual practices for exorcist and healing purposes. (Robinet 2008: 314)

Guodian Laozi

The "Bamboo Slip Laozi" was found in "Chu tomb no. 1" at Guodian. During the Warring States period it was the locus of a cemetery on mount Ji (Jishan). The cemetery served the inhabitants of the city of Ying, which was the capital of the ancient state of Chu. There remain more than 300 grave mounds on Jishan waiting to be excavated. The tomb occupant seems to be a tutor of the crown prince of Chu. (Henricks 2000: 4)

Although the Guodian manuscript, containing Laozi A, Laozi B and Laozi C, is older than the Mawangdui copies, it is not a complete copy of the text. It contains passages of thirty-six chapters of the eighty-one of the received Wang Bi–Heshang gong version. And only sixteen of these thirty-six are "complete" in comparison to the received version. As for the rest, in some cases a few lines are missing, and in others all that we find is the beginning of middle part of a chapter, to which, it would seem, other sayings were added at some later date. The text is not divided into sections and follow a different sequence from that of the received version. What is now chapter 64 is in the Guodian manuscript seen clearly as two distinct "chapters". As said earlier, the seventy-two slips on which sayings of Laozi were found originally constituted three different "bundles". None of these has a title, and this grouping might suggest that in the minds of the those making the copies, they were actually three different "books". We cannot say if the three bundles were understood by the occupant of the tomb and his contemporaries as a book they knew as Laozi. The bundle C, in addition to containing sayings from Laozi, has also fourteen slips constituting an incomplete cosmological essay named by scholars as "Taiyi shengshui" (The great One Gave birth to Water) after its opening sentence. (Henricks 2000: 3; Robinet 2008: 464)

The original sequence of the slips cannot be determined since they are not numbered, and there is no indication of which slip was first and which was last. Because the content of the Laozi passages is known, wherever a passage or chapter continues from the bottom of one slip to the next, we know that the latter followed the former. But when a chapter ends at the bottom of a slip, we do not know which of a number of possible slips came next. Laozi A includes five slips where a chapter begins at the top of a slip. On the basis of this these thirty-nine slips can be grouped into five different units in which the sequence is known. It cannot yet be defined, which of the units came originally first, which last and what was the order in between. This applies to all of the three bundles. From the eighteen slips of the Laozi B three units can be defined on the same approach, and from the twenty-eight slips of the Laozi C seven units of which Taiyi shengshui forms three. Noting the sequence of chapters, or parts of chapters, within each of these units, it is clear that this arrangement of the chapters of Laozi is unlike anything encountered before. It has been pointed out that these units would have been grouped together by theme: two units of Laozi A deal with ”ruling the state”, two with ”cosmological observations” and one with ”self-cultivation”. Also it may be that all chapters in Laozi B would be concerned with self-cultivation and those in Laozi C apart from Taiyi shengshui would concern ”ruling the state”. (Henricks 2000: 6–7)

The division of the Laozi into its current eighty-one chapters was apparently done by Liu Xiang (c. 79–c. 6 BCE). The evidence seems to suggest that this division had nothing to do with determining where the text should be divided based on ideas and rimes. Rather, it was apparently based on ”Yin and Yang” considerations: 81 is the perfect Yang number, the product of nine times nine. There is no punctuation in copy B of the Mawangdui manuscripts that would indicate chapter division but in part two of copy A there are, however, black dots in the text that seem to indicate where new chapters begin. Most of the eighteen of those dots confirm current chapter divisions, but there are exceptions. The Guodian slips are peppered with punctuation of four different kind, but they are not used consistently throughout the materials and rather seem to confuse some chapter divisions. Possible chapter divisions based on this punctuation and other indicators can anyhow be made. Comparing with later editions, Henricks (2000) has pointed out following tentative results. There are certain chapters that are already ”complete” in the Guodian slips. There are also chapters that are slightly longer in later editions. There are passages to which a good deal has been added to form a chapter as found in the later editions. There are two chapters, which in later editions are one. There is one chapter, which in later editions is two. (Henricks 2000: 8–11)

There are quite a few chapters in the Guodian corpus that are either word-for-word identical to later editions, or contain the occasional variant, but variants that do not greatly change our understanding of the chapter’s message. And, there are also exceptions in some of the chapters. (Henricks 2000: 11)

As the Guodian slips contain material from only thirty-one of the present eighty-one chapters in the Daode jing, given the range of idea, concepts, terms, phrases that are familiar from the current editions of the Daode jing, are they all present in the Guodian manuscripts, or are some things left out? Guodian Laozi seems to be a surprisingly well-rounded treatment of Daoist thought as known from the Daode jing given the fact that it contains only two-fifths of the text. Six of the ten chapters in the Daode jing in which wuwei (nonaction) is mentioned are included in the Guodian slips. Both chapters that mention wushi (serving without concern for affairs) are present. All the chapters apart from one where the word pu (genuine, natural, uncarved wood) occurs are included and two of the three chapters in which zhizhu (?) is mentioned are found as well. Both chapters urging the readers to ”know when it is time to stop” (zhizhi) are also present. (Henricks 2000: 17)

Still some terms are conspicuous by their absence, and some ideas are not developed or do not receive full treatment. Following can at least be noted. Only one of the eight chapters that go into detail discussing the Dao is present in the Guodian slips. None of the five chapters referring to the Dao as the ”One” is present. Only one of the six chapters mentioning the ”Way of heaven” is present in the Guodian manuscripts. Also the ”anti-aristocracy” chapters do not appear in Guodian slips. Very little is made of the effectiveness of the feminine mode of behaviour or the passive and weak overcoming the active and the strong. Also the chapters that use water as a prominent symbol are missing, although water has a significant cosmological role in Taiyi Shengshui of Laozi C. Only two of five chapters referring to the Dao as ”mother” are found. Also the ”mother/infant” metaphor, as a way of describing the relationship of the Way and the ten thousand things, does not appear. Only five of the twenty chapters where the phrase ”Therefore the sage” appears are present, in one chapter the phrase is omitted. Whether these omissions are significant, is one of the things that needs to be studied. (Henricks 2000: 18)

The finding of Guodian Laozi raises several questions. Henricks presents the main questions as follows. What is the collection of slips called ”Bamboo Slip Laozi”? In the mind of the occupant of the tomb, what was in these three bundles of slips? Did any one of them, or any combination of them constitute a ”text” in their minds? If so, would they have called it Laozi? Where are these materials located in the overall history of the text Daode jing? These questions remain open for debate and several views have been brought forth. (Henricks 2000: 21)

According to Henricks, there seems to be no way of confirming if the tomb occupant and his contemporaries would have called the three bundles taken together, Laozi, though it is also possible. It seems also improbable that the three bundles taken together would have been seen as a unified ”text”. The deliberate grouping of chapters into units according to the theme might indicate that there was another version of Daode jing in existence at this period of time, from which the materials found on the Guodian slips were selected. If such a version existed it is likely that it would not have been yet ”complete” in comparison to later editions. The difference in the length and style of the three different bundles suggests that they were copied at least from three different sources and possibly more. It is also possible that individual chapters in each of the bundles were copied from different original sources. (Henricks 2000: 21)

However, it is likely that at least one version of the Daode jing, the complete text, and possibly more than one version, was in existence by 300 BCE, if not earlier. But this conclusion has nothing to do with the Guodian manuscripts. It is based on two other things. The first is that the similarities and differences of the Mawangdui copies, which were made around 200 BCE, are such that they appear to represent two lines of transmission from a common ancestor. Since it takes time for two lines to diverge to the extent exhibited in the Mawangdui copies, it seems likely that their common ancestor was in circulation between 300 and 250 BCE, or earlier. The second thing supporting this conclusion is that the chapters in Han Feizi, ”Jie Lao” and ”Yu Lao”, which appear to mean ”Explaining the Laozi” and ”Illustrating the Laozi”, given the dates of Han Feizi (c.280-233 BCE), can be dated at around 250 BCE. Still it can’t be known if the Daode jing Han Feizi commented was ”complete” in the sense of what we have received. He did comment lines from a total of 23 chapters of which, curiously, only five are found in the Guodian slips. (Henricks 2000: 22)

We do not know for certain when the Guodian slips were copied. If they were at the library of the deceased, it might have been as early as 350 BCE. And even if that were known, it doesn’t give indication on the dating of the sayings on the slips. The Guodian slips appear to be ”copies” of ”copies”, they are not the product of original oral dictation, and for now, there is no way knowing when the slips that served as the sources for the Guodian slips were made. And if it is agreed upon that at least some of that material circulated orally before it was written down, there lies the even more difficult question of when that material was first ”composed”. (Henricks 2000: 22)

Personally, reading the Henricks’ Guodian translations seemed to clarify much of the murkiness that seemed to be part of the Daode jing, when read from translations based on the transmitted versions. Many parts seemed to make more sense and be remarkably clearer. Also, there are numerous translations and a translation means interpretation, even more so with the Daode jing. As long as one can’t read the original texts or their transcriptions to modern literary characters, a mind opening possibility is to compare all the three versions and some of their translations together. Such a work is published by B. Bolsen presenting some of the most acknowledged translations to date chapter by chapter and side by side.

The formation of the Daode jing

As the the twentieth century opened, the finding of most scholarly research was that the Daode jing, like the Bible, was the product of a complex compositional process that spanned generations. Needless to say, it did most certainly not emerge from the mind of an ancient philosopher known as Laozi. The traditional attribution is based mainly on report of the historian Sima Qian in his Shiji (ca. 100 BCE). The account presents several conflicting stories about the identity of "Laozi". Recent scholarship suggests that someone of the third century BCE concocted Sima Qian's first story in an effort to lend the Daode jing a lustre of a respectable name. The text known as Daode jing has existed in some form since at least the early third century BCE. But the received version is much later and it can be said it was finalised only by the commentary of Wang Bi (226–249). No one has attempted to argue that the manuscript called Guodian Laozi would be "the original" Daode jing. But it does lead us hundred years earlier than the Mawangdui versions. Regardless of which of the three "editions" (Guodian, Mawangdui, received version) reads, the Daode jing seems at first glance a collection of unrelated sayings. Even before the discoveries at Mawangdui and Guodian, some scholars explained the text as having originated as separate elements on an oral tradition, which were collected as an anthology. Differing views have been presented concerning if it ever had a coherent structure. (Kirkland 2004: 53–56)

How can the origins of the text then be explained in a believable way? Russell Kirkland (2004) has provided some provocative and persuasive speculative argumentation on the basis of the current knowledge on the possible origins of the textual tradition of the Daode jing. According to Kirkland, and I agree with this, only by understanding how the Daode jing evolved as a text, and the specific concerns and strategies of its final redactor, can one truly understand its contents. However, mostly other kind of approaches have been applied. Kirkland offers a reconstruction concerning the contours of the process of the text's development by combining analysis of the text's form and contents with a knowledge both of contemporary texts and figures and of the social and intellectual history of the ambient culture. (Kirkland 2004: 56)

The internal evidence (that is, the texts themselves) shows quite clearly that the ”community” in which the material of the Daode jing arose had no nominal founder. In no extant version of the Daode jing does there appear any reference to a phrase that would indicate a single author, such as Laozi. The simplest and most reasonable conclusion would be that none of the people who took part in shaping and redacting the text either in pre-Han or Han times understood, or wished readers to understand, its teaching as having originated as the teachings of any single person, much less as one to which the community traced its origins. It seems reasonable to presume it originated as the collective wisdom of the community itself and should thus be compared to works of ”wisdom literature” such as the biblical book of Proverbs. There seems to be no ground for assuming, like most twentieth-century scholars did, following their Confucian predecessors, that Daode jing would have originated within the socio-political debates of ”the hundred schools” of the ”middle kingdoms”. Although socio-political positions are present in the received text of the Daode jing there are reasons to believe that such positions were not present in the original body of material. Firstly, as the Guodian version points out, it is not an interpretation that would emerge logically from the the form and contents of the text itself. Secondly the form and contents the Daode jing suggest that one should look toward the little known text Neiye (dealing exclusively with self-cultivation concerning cultivating person inner realities) , rather than Zhuangzi or Mohist and Confucian socio-political works in order to understand its development and the teaching that may have been added later. If one tries to read the Daode jing as though it represented the ideas of one person or group at a single time, its ideas about government, as well as its ideas about wise behaviour in general, conflict each other. These conflicts help to explain the complex textual history of the text. (Kirkland 2004: 58–61)

It seems arguable that Daode jing originated as a collection of recommendations of living in accord with life’s subtle processes and was only later transformed into a socio-political tract comparable to the teachings of the Confucians and the Mohists. Kirkland tries to reconstruct the evolution of the text as several separate streams following to a single river at different times constituting eventually the written work we now know as the Daode jing. The first would be a community in the Chu somewhere before 300 BCE passing down an oral tradition of homespun wisdom constituting of real-life advice. By the late fourth century BCE, these teachings would have assumed several written versions which were in the state of discussion and flux. Thus, there was no single ”original” text. A second stream would have been another kind of teachings concerning specific practices and a variety of ideas about unseen forces. This would have been the community that produced the Neiye, and had no interest in government or war, concept of wuwei or advice for personal success. A third stream would have combined earlier values with images based upon a relationship between a mother and her child, perceiving a subtle force that seemed best symbolised by maternal imagery. These teachings have a confessional and introspective tone, and were totally apolitical and non-pragmatic It also added the idea that one could link oneself back to that force by means of meditative introspection, which was, however, distinctive from the earlier view represented by the Neiye. This would have happened shortly after the Guodian versions were written down. (Kirkland 2004: 61–64)

Kirkland suggests the locus of ”Jixia-academy” in northern nation of Qi as a centre where the final amalgamation of the Daode jing would have taken place. This placement, however is arguably without reality. In a context were the traditions described earlier were having active contact with socio-political interests of the time, there would have been added corresponding messages and applications for real or aspiring rulers and political leaders. Redacting and re-editing, the text took a form very close to the ”full text” we know today as the received version. He also suggests a scholar named Huan Yuan to be the possible final redactor of the work. The rulers of Chu maintained their interest to the text as lessons for effective rulers even during the early days of Han empire. After the ”full text” was touched up at the early Han court, the text was still honoured enough in Chu for it to be inscribed on silk for burial with an eminence at Mawangdui. But it was not entitled there as ”Laozi”, presumably because there had been no such name associated with any of the earlier oral or written materials within Chu. (Kirkland 2004: 65–67)

Although Kirkland’s views might seem at some points speculative, as far as I can see he bases his views on most points on solid data. As mentioned, some of his points have been negated already. Where some scholars seem to repeat some of the last century views, and wrong proven arguments, Kirkland’s argumentation seems fresh and thought provoking. My impression on the Chinese scholarship on Daoism in general is that there seems to be a strong attachment to the traditional viewpoints. Following this, also in the study of the Daode jing, the Chinese scholarship, although it might have virtues especially in the textual studies, some of the views presented seem incredibly out-dated, for example holding on to the view that Laozi authored the Daode jing. Having said this, there has been published Chinese scholarship on the topic that I have not even looked upon, such as Liu Xiaogan (2003), ”From Bamboo Slips to Received Versions: Common Features in the Transformation of the ’Laozi'.”

Legacy for the later Daoist tradition

What is the legacy of the Daode jing for the later Daoist tradition? For this question I will keep following on what Kirkland presents as I find it arguable and sharp in relation to the commonly accepted misunderstandings. Kirkland gives a nuanced answer to the question concerning three texts together: Neiye, Zhuangzi and Daode jing. According to Kirkland, Daode jing and the two other texts played only a marginal role in the lives and thoughts of most later Daoists, but with a variety of important exceptions, many of which remain little known even among scholars. Many later Daoists, of all periods, looked back to the Daode jing as well as Zhuangzi for concepts and models that could help them practice Daoism. Others did not, but still continued to honour those texts. While few later Daoist read or honoured the Neiye as a text, yet its ideas and practices did become abiding elements of Daoist practice from age to age, as well as of Chinese traditional medicine, and even the cosmological theories usually termed ”Neo-Confucian”. The view that links Daoism, Chinese medicine and Neo-Confucian philosophy is the idea that world consists of qi, or vital energy, and that our own lives cannot be properly understood without reference to that fact. It is largely on the basis of the heritage concerning qi cultivation – not on the basis of Daode jing and Zhuangzi, nor on the basis of Zhang Daoling (founder of the Tianshi dao) – that it is possible to speak meaningfully and precisely about Daoism as an enduring tradition, that has retained certain main concerns and orientations apart from the multiplicity of forms, changes and constantly evolving views and practices throughout the history. (Kirkland 2004: 67–69)

The influence of the classical legacy is easiest to be seen on the Daoist traditions that were centred upon practices of spiritual transformation by means of some model of personal cultivation and refinement. This influence remains hardest to see on such traditions as the late Han heavenly masters (Tianshi dao), although the Xiang’er commentary was presumably one of the central Tianshi texts. In the Daoist traditions that were generally focused on personal cultivation, such as those called ”internal alchemy”, the ideas found in the Daode jing always continued to find clear expression. Although the same applies to the priests of modern liturgical Zhengyi traditions who are required personal cultivation in the same lines, the influence of the ideals of the Daode jing is difficult to discern in the lives of their communal audiences who are themselves not participating in such practices. (Kirkland 2004: 70)

Another strand of continuity concerns ”Lord Lao”, the divinized figure of Laozi. Lord Lao is one of the main trinity of gods of the Daoist pantheon. Both the figure of Laozi and the earliest text associated with him, Daode jing, were imbued with profound import by Daoists throughout later history. But the divinization of Laozi actually pre-dated the entire ”Daoist religion” . ”Lord Lao” originated as the focus of formal sacrifices at the Han imperial court, and as an element of imperial legitimation, he was first and always a figure of fundamental political importance for China’s rulers. One could say that Daoists actually borrowed ”Lord Lao” from the Chinese imperial state. (Kirkland 2004: 71; Kohn 2009: 115)

The specific teachings ascribed to Laozi often meant little to many Daoists of the the last two millennia in the same manner as the specifics of the ”four noble truths” meant little to many Buddhists and the specifics of Jesus’ parables meant little to many Christians. They were considered merely one element of the truth that Laozi made the possibility of salvation known, pointed the followers in the necessary direction and offered help for those who wished to embrace that truth and experience the salvation. In addition, Daoists frequently read the Daode jing as a scripture, that was given to people by a transcendent being. Thus, to many Daoists the Daode jing was sacred not for what it says, but for what it is, a textualized cosmic reality, which gives its possessor immense power and responsibilities as well as wisdom and insight. Again, for other Daoists the Daode jing served as a testament to the validity and efficacy of their own religious practices concerning the goal of spiritual transcendence of the mortal condition. To Daoists of most periods the Daode jing was an honoured scripture, but it would be misleading to imagine it as a ”basic scripture” comparable to the Christians’ Bible or the Muslims’ Qur’an. Its esteemed revelation was virtually never understood as final of definitive. Its scriptural value may be more properly compared to that of the principal scriptures of Mahāyāna Buddhists. Like Mahāyāna buddhists, who treasured and learned from an immense array of authoritative texts, all of which were viewed as complementary components of a comprehensive revelatory corpus, the Daoists of all periods acknowledged and valued the Daode jing as a part of a similar corpus contained in the Daoist Canon (Daozang). This corpus included not only the Zhuangzi, but also a throng of other scriptural texts revealed by or through ”Lord Lao” and other transcendent beings. (Kirkland 2004: 71–73)

To conclude this lengthy discussion I’ll bring together some of the main threads of what has been said above. The finding of the Guodian Laozi manuscripts has provided some insights to the study of the textual history of the Daode jing. It can be regarded as the oldest known version of the text, and is most likely copied from three different sources. The grouping of the texts according to theme might indicate that there was another version of the Daode jing of which the copies were made from. And most likely it was not yet complete in comparison to later editions. The Guodian manuscripts, or their sources, might represent an earlier layer in the formation of the text as they do not contain certain elements the later versions have such as the socio-political positions, anti-aristocracy views or descriptions of the Dao as the ”One”. The Mawangdui texts indicate however, that by 300 BCE there has been at least one complete version of the text circulating. This is supported by the commentaries to several ”chapters” of the Daode jing in the Han Feizi dating to around 250 BCE. The Guodian slips might have been copied as early as 350 BCE. Nothing can be said of their sources. The earliest layers of the Daode jing seem to have originated as an oral tradition. The conflicting ideas in the text itself indicate that it is composition of not only one but numerous authors and there are several layers of development in its complex textual history. In it several streams of influence come together to a one river, we now recognise as the Daode jing, known until the 1970’s mainly through the Wang Bi-Heshang gong transmitted version.

During its history the Daode jing has received many kinds of commentaries, not only within the Daoist tradition. Modern interpretations are highly coloured by the Wang Bi commentary although historically the Heshang gong commentary has been more influential. First in the Han imperial court and later in the Daoist religious traditions the alleged author of the book, Laozi was divinized as the god of the Dao, ”Lord Lao” and the text itself was revered as a holy scripture imbued with divine and magical properties. Although the Daode jing was always honoured, the contents of the text seem to have had influence only marginally in the lives of most Daoists and they provided mainly models and concepts for practicing Daoism whereas the practices themselves came from other influences often centring on the idea of qi cultivation. The Daode jing should not be considered as the ”basic scripture” as its revelation was never seen as final. It rather formed a part of a larger textual corpus revealed by many transcendent beings.

Study of the Daode jing is a sub field of the Chinese Literary Studies as well as the Daoist Studies. A lot of scholarship was done resulting from the excitement of the Guodian findings. The approaches, as far as I can see, have been mainly philological, historical, philosophical and archeological. The main intent of most of the scholars seems to be to understand the Daode jing and its formation within the context of its time and within the cultural and religious/philosophical traditions it was evolved in. This could be labeled historicism or even new historicism. Philosophical studies on the text, however, seem sometimes to take the text out of its context, and try to understand it as a text in its own. This seems to be a tricky thing to do. No doubt, there are to be found many more archaeological findings that would shed more light on the textual history of the Daode jing, as the Guodian slips were also found almost by accident, not by an intentional excavation project. But let the po souls rest in peace.


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