Tao Te Ching: Legge, and a teachable moment

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I need to throw Legge a bone. I know I’m hard on his translations, but in all seriousness, someone had to begin the process of translating the Tao Te Ching into English.

James Legge, in/famous colonizer

Instead, I should be hard on him as a person: Legge was a Christian missionary, from the times of church and crown ruling Europe. Generally speaking, intentionally disrupting established cultures is not a cool thing to do. Especially as a pretext for exploitation of the people of China by European and American powers. How easy we forget, as white people, just how many other civilizations and cultures we’ve fucked with or outright destroyed because our capitalist economies need more resources. It’s truly shocking. And to be clear: I’m talking about whiteness as a social construct, not the color of my skin. But I digress.

Not only did his cultural perspective make it understandably difficult to translate such a crucially simple text, but his ideology informed how he made sense of words and concepts unfamiliar to him.


No; unless you are trying to convert and colonize a nation, while poorly translating an important cultural artifact. We need to be vulnerable enough to learn. Legge needed to be more vulnerable, among other things, to have a chance to understand these concepts.

We all are trapped in our ideologies, at least to an extent. But we can, at least, put in a good faith effort to be aware of when we’re speaking from reality or ideology. Even if we can only figure it out 5% of the time, the cumulative effect of a 5% cultural shift would be tidal.

Where Legge goes wrong, and you can go right

It may seem like an innocent error, but his translation of the first line of this chapter demonstrates his limited understanding of the ideas in the text.

The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel

– Legge’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, chapter 4

This line is reasonable as a simile, but it’s missing the point: the Tao is not like the emptiness of a vessel. It is not a simile or metaphor, the Tao is the emptiness of a vessel. This matters because the Tao is all things, including the absence of things. This is because the thing and the void it creates are inseparable.

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The yin-yang symbol comes from Taoism. See the reciprocity, the interconnected nature? (Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com)

Remember, Lao Tzu has a sense of humor! After explaining the Tao is all things, he’s expanding our understanding by pointedly stating that the Tao is also no-things. A void is defined/created by the absence of matter, and matter is defined/created by the absence of a void.

A lump of ceramic without a void cannot be a mug, and neither can a void without boundaries. There is a reciprocity in everything. The Tao is this, this is the Tao.

The path forward

I want you to work towards not intellectualizing these concepts. I know it’s so tempting. Do think about them, please. And maybe an intellectual approach is part of your process toward not intellectualizing, that’s ok too. The Tao Te Ching’s difficulty comes from its simplicity. Challenge its claims, test them in your life, and figure out what it means to you. Do all of these things. Just don’t get stuck in intellectualizations. Take Lao Tzu to mean what he says. He’s playful and silly, but never insincere.

In no time at all, you’ll be deeper in your understanding than Legge!

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