Review of Dao De Jing (ca. 400 BCE)

Read in 2020.

I listened to Ursula K. Le Guin read her 1998 version, set to music. This version is not a translation but an amateur’s gloss into simple contemporary English, based on several actual translations and supervised by James P. Seaton, a professor of Chinese.

To live ’till you die is to live long enough.

Jade is praised as precious, but its strength is being stone.

True words aren’t charming. Charming words aren’t true.

The original classical Chinese is notoriously ambiguous, terse and preserved without grammatical particles, written by diverse hands over a long period and only loosely attributed to “the old master” (laozi), who may have lived at any time from the 6th to the 4th centuries BCE if he lived at all. Given this origin, the manner of my acquaintance with the work is extremely casual.

I get the impression that Le Guin’s reading of these old proverbs was coloured by what she wanted them to mean. Like a fuzzy picture of Bigfoot, the work is suggestive and lends itself well to wishful thinking, full of deepities and apparent contradictions that would not exist in a sharp photo of a dude in an ape suit. As history, I put little stock in it, though I assume it was intended as non-fiction. As wisdom literature, it’s very good, but only for its time. As religion, it’s much more sympathetic than similarly influential contemporary Western writing like Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE). As a fantasy of what a proto-anarchist subculture in an ancient society might have believed, Le Guin’s version is engaging enough.

References here: Straw Dogs (1971).

non-fiction poetry text