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The Lǎozǐ and Zhuangzi: Daoism and the Way of Virtue

Laozi (Lao-tzu)

As the Confucian school was referred to as Rújiā, the Daoist school was referred to as Daojiā, each called out as one of the six main philosophical schools during the Warring States Period to the Early/Former Han.  While a Daoist “canon” was not established until much later in Chinese history[1], the core set of Daoist philosophical texts have always been the Dàodé Jīng, the Zhuangzi, and then somewhat later the Yìjīng – specifically the commentary thereof, i.e. the Ten Wings which integrates Daoist philosophy as well as the teachings of the Rújiā.  The Dàodé Jīng is attributed to Lǎozǐ himself, a somewhat older contemporary of Confucius who tradition holds served later in life as a keeper of archival records for the court of Zhou.[2]

A good description of the essence of Daoism and the underlying ancient Chinese worldview from which it establishes its fundamental philosophical tenets can be found by the Sinologist Dr. Ulrich Theobald, MBA on his site devoted to ancient Chinese philosophy and literature www.chinaknowledge.de:

The Way [Dao] is not only the metaphysical background of all things, but is the force by which the “ten thousand things” [wànwù] came into being.  The book Lǎozǐ says that the Dao produced the one (matter) [Tàijí], the one produced the two (Yīn and Yáng), the two produced the three (Heaven, Earth and Man), and the three produced the ten thousand things (Dao sheng yi, yi sheng er, er sheng san, san sheng wan wu[wànwù]). The dao is impartially included in all things that came into being, and its force and influence is extended to everywhere, without restriction.  It has no shape and no extension, it is “void”.[3]

The specific verse he refers to is one of the most oft quotes and famous in the Dàodé Jīng and is from the middle of the text.  It speaks to the Dao within the context of the creation of the material universe, the Chinese Daoist cosmogony as it were.

The way (Dao); one begets two; two begets three; three begets the myriad creatures.

The myriad creatures carry on their backs the Yīn and embrace in their arms the Yáng and are the blending of the generative forces of the two.[4]

All Daoist texts, commentaries, literature and schools adhere to these basic cosmological principles and underlying truths.  While description of various means to achieving balance and harmony in one’s personal life and in society at large may differ in various Daoist interpretative traditions, the Daoist theo-philosophical belief in the notion that all things emanate from and originate in the Dao is ultimately the unifying principle of the Daoist tradition.

The orthodox Daoist view as it were, or at least the single text that reflects Daoist basic principles more than any other, is undoubtedly the Dàodé Jīng, the classic Chinese text from the 6th century BCE that is on par with the Christian Bible in terms of circulation and influence, as well as in quality of prose.  The Dàodé Jīng is written in Classical Chinese, an old script that dates back from the end of the Spring and Autumn period (8th to 5th century BCE) to the end of the Han Dynasty (late third century BCE) and is representative of the Old Chinese language.

Of course, any translation of this text into modern English like any of the Chinese texts from antiquity comes with interpretative and transliterative challenges.  While within the text itself, in Classical Chinese at least, the ancient language and symbology remain intact, much of the symbology and style of the work, and the cultural references of course, do not survive through transmission like many of the Western classics do given that the underlying form of writing is in no way related to ours.  Illustrating the various interpretations and style of some of the ancient Daoist writing, we can look at comparisons of various translations by sinologists of the opening line of the Dàodé Jīng, perhaps the most famous and oft quoted line in not just all of Daoism but perhaps even in all Eastern philosophy:

道 可 道 非 常 道
Dao ke dao fei chang dao.

道 (in first, third, and sixth positions here) means “path”, “way”, “the way”, “to follow”, “to go down a path”.  It also means “to speak”, “doctrines”.

可 functions like English modal “can” [or in this context, “is understood” or “can be comprehended”]

非a sign of negation; usually in the sense of “not the same as”.

常 “unvarying”, “constant”, “enduring”, “unchanging”.

Literally, then, we have something like “The dao (道)that can be understood, is not the same as the unchanging, or eternal Dao (道)”.  Below are six varying translations of the verse, all by reputable scholars whose translations of the Dàodé Jīng into English represent the most prominent and influential in the West.

  1. The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way. (Waley n.d.: 141)

  2. The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way. (Lau 1963: 57).

  3. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. (Legge 1959: 95)

  4. A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way. (Ivanhoe 2002: 1)

  5. Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making. (Ames and Hall 2003: 77)

  6. As to a Dao—If it can be specified as a Dao It is not a permanent Dao. (Moeller 2007: 3)[5]


Clearly none of these translations are wrong, and no doubt the reader can “understands”, or “comprehend” the meaning of the original author when looking at the various translations alongside the Chinese characters themselves (courtesy of H. Rosemont’s Jr’s entry on the difficulty of translating ancient Chinese into English).  The point being made here however is that unless one is intimately familiar with Old Chinese and the underlying Classical Chinese script that the text is written in, the best way to come to truly understand the meaning of the verse is by looking at and comparing the various translations available in English, each of which points to and around what Lǎozǐ actually is referring to by the symbol “道” which we translate into English using the Chinese word Dao.  “Way” of course does not do the term justice, although perhaps it is the best alternative in modern English.  But without knowledge and understanding of the term within the ancient Chinese philosophical context within which it is used, any single translation of the word, term or symbol, or the passages within which we find it used which provide our basis for understanding what it “meant” to the ancient Chinese, any single sentence or translation will be inadequate without at least one alternative.[6]  The term however, permeates all of ancient Chinese theo-philosophical thought in the “classical” age of Chinese philosophy, intellectual developments which are effectively defined by the works of Confucius and Lǎozǐ which are believed to have been written around the middle of the first millennium BCE as “China” in the modern socio-political and cultural context is formulated empirically, geographically, culturally, linguistically and – most pertinent to this work – theo-philosophically.

Furthermore, when looking at the excerpt above, it should be clear that the lack of punctuation, and lack of semantic clarity that we are used to in the West, even in the ancient languages such as Greek, Sanskrit and of course Latin, yields not just alternate translations for the sentence but also a range of possible meanings, all of which no doubt is at least at some level “intended” by the original author.  The language is encoded as it were, with various meanings, a characteristic that is true of much of the ancient Chinese literature, adding to its poetic appeal and distinguishing it markedly from the Indo-European literary tradition from which we have inherited the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Hellenic philosophical tradition marked most influentially by Plato and Aristotle.

While my preference from the choices above is the translation of Lau, 1963, this author nonetheless prefers something along the lines of that which we started the discussion on the meaning on the passage above with – i.e. “The dao that can be understood (or spoken of), is not the same as the unchanging, or eternal, Dao”.  Note the use of the lower case dao versus the capital Dao which is our way in English to distinguish between that which is material or qualified and that which is immaterial or immanent and all-pervading, in much the same way we would distinguish between “god” and “God”.  The parallel and analogy between the two theo-philosophical constructs is quite strong in fact although the Western tradition focuses on this immortal being who is our Creator and Preserver while the Chinese focus more on how to live to align oneself with that which is the source of all creation, i.e. wànwù.

Regardless, the preferred translation reflects and underscores the skeptical epistemological bent of Daoist thought which not only distinguishes it from Confucianism, which is much more “practical” and “specific” as it deals with ritual, rites and ceremonies along with the ethical and moral precepts which follow it, but also from ancient Chinese mythos, which like all ancient mythological traditions is best understood as allegorical or metaphorical in nature.[7]  This skeptical epistemological stance aligns the Daoist tradition quite neatly within the Platonic (and Vedic) skeptical and idealist ontological and epistemological positions, with a strong parallel to the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition in fact which also is heavily focuses on the “path” of virtue and happiness (eudaimonia and arête) within the cosmogonic and metaphysical boundaries established by the various schools of Hellenic philosophy.

Using the translation of James Legge, one of if not the first true Sinologist in the West from the late 20th century who translated many of the core ancient Chinese texts into English for the first time, and whose translations are still widely referred to and quoted today, the full first verse of the Dàodé Jīng is:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.  The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.  (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.  Always without desire we must be found, If its deep mystery we would sound; But if desire always within us be, Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.  Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names.  Together we call them the Mystery.  Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.[8]

So while there are clearly different ways of translating this pivotal Daoist verse, and Legge’s approach to translation is perhaps more freeform and lyrical than literal or philosophical, what we can glean by looking at the translation of the verse above is that we do not have, in contrast again to the Confucian tradition (Rújiā), an emphasis on name, form, ritual, or etiquette, what is referred to in the academic literature sometimes as “social dao” or “normative dao”, but a focus on the eternal and absolute Dao, which is fundamentally not that which can be named and described via language and yet at the same time is the source of things; Heaven and Earth and all the myriad of things that reside in it and make up the world of Man.

What we can also take away from this passage, is that the classic Daoist view of “reality” as represented by Lǎozǐ as the author in this pivotal work, is that despite the recognition of the firm reality and existence of what the Chinese refer to as the ten thousand things or myriad of things (wànwù), the true Dao, the eternal Dao, lacks definition and clarity in the intellectual or mental sense of “understanding” or “comprehension” in and of itself.

We are also presented in the very first verse of the very first Chapter of the Dàodé Jīng an almost stubborn reluctance toward semantic philosophical inquiry baked right into the very heart of the Daoist tradition, a core skeptical bent as it were that is reminiscent of the early Platonic school with its emphasis on the reality of forms or ideas, akin to the realm of Dao as it were, versus the “sensible” realm of name and form which has its almost direct corollary in the Daoist tradition as we see from the opening verse of the Dàodé Jīng.

We also see here, again very much akin to the Upanishadic and early Hellenic (aka Platonic) philosophical traditions, that “reality” as conceived of as the Dao is made up of two different aspects – one ethereal and incomprehensible, i.e. some form of supra-intellect as it were, and another form of knowledge that is related to the material world and which can be “understood” or “comprehended”.  Lǎozǐ tells us that the two forms of Daodao and Dao respectively – are really two sides of the same coin as it were.  One that has name and form, i.e. the Dao or the “Mother of all things” and another that is nameless and formless and is the source of all things, i.e. the eternal, ever present and changeless Dao.

This distinction between the “material” world of name and form as it were, and the ethereal or “supernatural” word has definite parallels between the two forms of knowledge that are called out in the Upanishadic and early Platonic works – a lower form of knowledge through which we perceive and understand the world of the senses, i.e. the material world, and an intellectual world of ideas and concepts which lead ultimately to the Good or “Best”, or in the Upanishadic tradition the highest form of knowledge which is the knowledge of the unity of Ātman and Brahman.[9]

We also see here in this very dense and loaded verse which opens the Dàodé Jīng an allusion to the role of desire, or longing (欲), which is called out as the fundamental element of the human condition which impedes our true understanding, our unification as it were, of the Dao (not dao).  Again, the corollaries here to the Upanishadic and Platonic philosophical tenets and guidance of the rejection or “withdrawal” of the senses in order that the true nature of reality can be “experienced” are striking.

We still nonetheless in the Dàodé Jīng a socio-political thread of thought as well, shedding light on the purpose of the work not just as a means to self-illumination and guide to a way of life which is led by virtue and ultimately yields happiness (as reflected in its typical English title The Way of Virtue) but also clearly written for an intended audience of state officials as well, consistent in fact with the content of most of the other philosophical works of its time, and reflective of the fact that most of these ancient philosophical works survive down to us in a form that was crafter by scholars that were lined to, and no doubt supported by, various levels of state governance.

Favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared; honour and great calamity, to be regarded as personal conditions (of the same kind). What is meant by speaking thus of favour and disgrace? Disgrace is being in a low position (after the enjoyment of favour). The getting that (favour) leads to the apprehension (of losing it), and the losing it leads to the fear of (still greater calamity) – this is what is meant by saying that favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared. And what is meant by saying that honour and great calamity are to be (similarly) regarded as personal conditions? What makes me liable to great calamity is my having the body (which I call myself); if I had not the body, what great calamity could come to me? Therefore he who would administer the kingdom, honouring it as he honours his own person, may be employed to govern it, and he who would administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be entrusted with it.[10]

In this passage, we see very “Confucian” undertones, speaking to the intended purpose of the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition as a whole being the tools by which one can lead a peaceful and harmonious life, and in turn lead to a peaceful and harmonious society.  The belief in the underlying means by which this could occur, the “how” as it were, differ in the two traditions but the underlying purpose and intent, the “why”, is essentially the same.


From the Zhuangzi, the second cornerstone of Daoist thought from antiquity outside of the Dàodé Jīng, we find a focus on more anecdotes and stories to illustrate the Daoist position, and a further emphasis on the Way (Dao) as the one true path.  The work is attributed to the figure of Zhuangzi himself (Master Zhuang) who lived in the late 4th century BCE, a century or two after Lǎozǐ and Confucius.  Although like other texts of this tradition, the work is thought to have been codified and written down by his followers after his death in various phases but it no doubt reflects the teachings of an actual historical figure.

The work is classically divided into a set of “Inner Chapters”, which were thought to be reflective of the thought of Zhuangzi himself or his direct followers, and a set of “Outer Chapters” which are thought to be somewhat later additions to the text.  While the work has been classified as “Daoist” it’s not altogether clear at the time of writing that Zhuangzi, or his followers, would have considered themselves as such, nor is it clear that the Zhuangzi text itself was directly connected from a lineage standpoint to the school of thought reflected in the Dàodé Jīng.

We do however see many of the same themes and philosophical and cosmological tenets in the Zhuangzi text that are present in the Dàodé Jīng, hence the very close association the work has had with the classic text of Lǎozǐ since antiquity.  For example, the full cosmological view and intellectual foundations of the main positions of the school are illustrated in the following verse from one of the Outer Chapters entitled “Heaven and Earth”:

Notwithstanding the greatness of heaven and earth, their transforming power proceeds from one lathe; notwithstanding the number of the myriad things, the government of them is one and the same; notwithstanding the multitude of mankind, the lord of them is their (one) ruler.  The ruler’s (course) should proceed from the qualities (of the Dao) and be perfected by Heaven, when it is so, it is called ‘Mysterious and Sublime.’  The ancients ruled the world by doing nothing – simply by this attribute of Heaven.

If we look at their words in the light of the Dao, (we see that) the appellation for the ruler of the world was correctly assigned; if we look in the same light at the distinctions which they instituted, (we see that) the separation of ruler and ministers was right; if we look at the abilities which they called forth in the same light, (we see that the duties of) all the offices were well performed; and if we look generally in the same way at all things, (we see that) their response (to this rule) was complete.  Therefore that which pervades (the action of) Heaven and Earth is (this one) attribute; that which operates in all things is (this one) course; that by which their superiors govern the people is the business (of the various departments); and that by which aptitude is given to ability is skill.  The skill was manifested in all the (departments of) business; those departments were all administered in righteousness; the righteousness was (the outflow of) the natural virtue; the virtue was manifested according to the Dao; and the Dao was according to (the pattern of) Heaven.

Hence it is said, ‘The ancients who had the nourishment of the world wished for nothing and the world had enough; they did nothing and all things were transformed; their stillness was abysmal, and the people were all composed.’  The Record says, ‘When the one (Dao) pervades it, all business is completed.  When the mind gets to be free from all aim, even the Spirits submit.’[11]

From this passage we can see illustrated the conceptual worldview posited from Zhuangzi’s point of view, a perfect state and socio-political harmony as it were that starts and ends with the eternal Dao, harkening back to a time period which the world of Heaven and Earth was in balance and harmony, echoing the sentiments of the Confucian tradition.  We also see here the same socio-political narrative and purpose here put forth in the Confucian as well as the Mohist texts.  But what we do not see here, consistent with the Lǎozǐ text, is any emphasis on the importance of ancient rituals and rites or “etiquette”, but yet at the same time an intellectual reliance on the underlying presence of the eternal Dao as the source of balance and harmony for the individual as well as the society at large.

We also find here references to individual self-cultivation, or self-liberation, as the means by which this eternal Dao can be accessed, adhered to, by which not only personal peace and harmony can be achieved but also by which in turn socio-political balance and harmony can be achieved.  This characteristic is unique to this text and is again aligned with and consistent with the Lǎozǐ philosophy where the emphasis is on self-awareness and liberation from desire such that the eternal Dao can be fully manifest.

This eternal Dao is also characterized as “doing nothing – simply by this attribute of Heaven”, pointing to the concept of wu wei, or non-action/non-doing, which is also elemental to the Daoist tradition.  This is one of the fundamental Daoist precepts which falls out of the so-called naturalism that underlies the entire system of belief.  The age-old ways of the Heavens and Earth are called upon and despite its lack of definitional properties, the natural order of things is perceived to occur without any direct action or involvement of the individual.  Hence, we are left with the term wu wei to signify the mode of being that is in harmony with and aligned with the eternal Dao, no doubt contrasted quite clearly with the principles of action, ritual and etiquette that were so fundamental to the Confucian doctrines.

We see the same principle called out in the Dàodé Jīng as well, as illustrated in the passage below, illustrating one of the core concepts which tie the two works by Lǎozǐ and Zhuangzi into a single thread of thought that came to be called Daoism (Daojiā) by Han Dynasty, and later, scholars.

Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.  All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a reward for the results).  The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it (as an achievement).  The work is done, but how no one can see;’Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.[12]

While the Chinese philosophical tradition is generally thought of as lacking epistemological pursuits, at least in a defined and emphasized sense that is so characteristic of the ancient philosophical systems in the West – intellectual exploration of the boundaries and extent to which knowledge or truth is possible – we do start to see elements of theories of knowledge put forth in the Zhuangzi, at least tangentially, despite its fundamental skeptical bent again consistent with the Dàodé Jīng:

There is a limit to our life, but to knowledge there is no limit.  With what is limited to pursue after what is unlimited is a perilous thing; and when, knowing this, we still seek the increase of our knowledge, the peril cannot be averted.[13]


He who knows the part which the Heavenly (in him) plays, and knows (also) that which the Human (in him ought to) play, has reached the perfection (of knowledge).  He who knows the part which the Heavenly plays (knows) that it is naturally born with him; he who knows the part which the Human ought to play (proceeds) with the knowledge which he possesses to nourish it in the direction of what he does not (yet) know: to complete one’s natural term of years and not come to an untimely end in the middle of his course is the fullness of knowledge.  Although it be so, there is an evil (attending this condition).  Such knowledge still awaits the confirmation of it as correct; it does so because it is not yet determined.  How do we know that what we call the Heavenly (in us) is not the Human?  and that what we call the Human is not the Heavenly?  There must be the True man, and then there is the True knowledge.[14]

Both of these verses are from the Inner Chapters and reflect the undercurrent of skepticism that underlies all Daoist thought but also delineates again this distinction between lower and higher forms of knowledge – the knowledge of Man and Heaven respectively.

What is it that can be known really?  What are the limits of knowledge?  What are the pitfalls of the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake?  While these questions are asked, they are specifically not answered.  Knowledge of the workings of Heaven and the workings of Man are spelled out as two distinct pursuits, but yet at the same time fundamentally related.  Nonetheless, despite the lack of definition and semantic clarity that can be established around true knowledge, it is believed to exist and manifest as it were in the perfect Daoist sage.

Parallels can certainly be drawn here to the Hellenic philosophical tradition to the notion of wisdom, or sophia, which plays such a prominent role in Plato’s dialogues,, as well as in the Indian philosophical tradition with the notion of Brahmavidyā which play such a prominent role in the Upanishads.  In the Daoist tradition, this true knowledge comes from an understanding the roles of Heaven, Earth and Man, and how they interplay in one’s life such that peace and harmony can be achieved.  The focus again in this verse is on individual illumination as it were, if we can use that term, rather than socio-political philosophy.

Parallels to Indian philosophy can also be found in the Mohist tradition , where the natural order of Heaven and Earth is appealed to as the benchmark of order or righteousness – what in the Indian philosophical tradition comes to be known as dharma.  So while the Daoists arguably are more concerned with epistemological issues, the Mohists can be seen in contrast to be more focused on issues of morality or ethics, claiming that there exists an objective standard of morality and ethics as measured by, and ultimately as justified by, Heaven.

From the Outer Chapters of the Zhuangzi for example, we find some content that rests along similar lines, aligning the behavior of the perfect (Daoist) sage with Heaven and Earth, i.e. the eternal Dao.

(The operations of) Heaven and Earth proceed in the most admirable way, but they say nothing about them; the four seasons observe the clearest laws, but they do not discuss them; all things have their complete and distinctive constitutions, but they say nothing about them.  The sages trace out the admirable operations of Heaven and Earth, and reach to and understand the distinctive constitutions of all things; and thus it is that the Perfect Man (is said to) do nothing and the Greatest Sage to originate nothing, such language showing that they look to Heaven and Earth as their model.[15]

In this passage, we can see clearly the intellectual leaning and justification of the existence of eternal laws which govern the universe, the realm of both Heaven and Earth, which ultimately are the qualities of the Daoist sage – a perfect manifestation of the eternal Dao as it were.  Furthermore, the way this perfection is achieved, one of the key attributes or qualities of this Daoist sage, is not their action necessarily – what they do or say – but their “inaction”, i.e. wu wei.  It is this inaction in fact, according to the ancient Daoist texts, that is equated to living in balance or harmony with nature, which in Daoist terminology is living in harmony with (the laws of) Heaven, Man and Earth.  Despite the fact that – like the Dao itself – these laws cannot be fully articulated, or even said to be fully understood in the semantic or philosophic sense, they nonetheless are held to not only exist, but at the same time be the very foundation of not just the Daoist sage, but more broadly and generally Daoist ethics.  In Daoist terminology we might call it “perfect living”, or the Way of Virtue, which again is not only the benchmark for Daoist ethics and morality, but also is the fundamental characteristic of the Daoist sage.


No doubt however that the Dàodé Jīng, as well as later Daoist texts such as the Zhuangzi, were influenced by the prominence of the Confucian, Mohist and other schools of thought which focused much more on defining social norms and socio-political behavior.  While still intended to satisfy the same basic purpose as the other philosophical material that is reflective of the same time period in Chinese history, namely the cultivation of a sound life to achieve peace and happiness, the Dàodé Jīng does have more of individual and spiritual focus as compared to the Confucian or Mohist doctrines.  For example, in the Dàodé Jīng we find passages like the following:

Empty your mind of all thoughts.

Let your heart be at peace.

Watch the turmoil of beings,

but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe

returns to the common source.

Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the source,

you stumble in confusion and sorrow.

When you realize where you come from,

you naturally become tolerant,

disinterested, amused,

kindhearted as a grandmother,

dignified as a king.

Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,

you can deal with whatever life brings you,

and when death comes, you are ready.[16]

Here we find an almost direct element of mysticism as we would call it in modern parlance referenced to in the ancient text, very much akin to much of Upanishadic philosophy and also referenced in some passages of Plato.

Compare for example the following verses below, the first from Plato’s Phaedo and the second from the Katha Upanishad for example:

From Plato:

“But when the soul inquires alone by itself, it departs into the realm of the pure, the everlasting, the immortal and the changeless, and being akin to these it dwells always with them whenever it is by itself and is not hindered, and it has rest from its wanderings and remains always the same and unchanging with the changeless, since it is in communion therewith. And this state of the soul is called wisdom. Is it not so?”[17]

From the Katha Upanishad:

‘The wise who, by means of meditation on his Self, recognizes the Ancient, who is difficult to be seen, who has entered into the dark, who is hidden in the cave, who dwells in the abyss, as God, he indeed leaves joy and sorrow far behind.’

‘A mortal who has heard this and embraced it, who has separated from it all qualities, and has thus reached the subtle Being, rejoices, because he has obtained what is a cause for rejoicing. The house (of Brahman) is open, I believe, O Nakiketas.’[18]

Both of these passages are from texts that are dealing directly with the nature of death in fact – the former upon the eve of Socrates death where they are discussing whether or not one should fear death and whether or not there is anything that persists after it (i.e. the immortality of the Soul) and the latter from Nachiketa who is sent to the realm of death (Yama’s realm) upon frustration by his father for asking too many annoying questions (as young boys often do) where he presents Yama with the question of the what is it, if anything, that persists beyond death.  The parallels between the underlying messages of the passages are striking – not from a linguistic sense of course but in terms of the true meaning and import of the passages themselves, each from one of the most influential and prominent works of their respective civilizations.

It most certainly begs the question as to what connection there was, if any, between the ancient Indian sages and the ancient philosophers of China although there is no direct evidence, from the archeological or written record, that any such connection existed prior to the second half of the first millennium BCE, well after the compilation of all of the major philosophical treatises of China antiquity were written and well after the majority of the Upanishads were written.  While there is no direct evidence that there were any lines of communication between the ancient Chinese sages/philosophers and the sages/philosophers of India in antiquity, or certainly between ancient China and Greece as there are no references in either of the ancient textual traditions to each other, we do know that there was trade between the two cultures starting in at least the Han Dynasty (late 3rd, early 2nd century BCE), but that is some three or four centuries after the Dàodé Jīng is believed to have been transcribed.[19]



[1] The classical Daoist canon called the Daozang was compiled around 400 CE and consists of around 400 or so texts, the Dàodé Jīng and Zhuangzi representing the core, fundamental works.  For detail see Wikipedia contributors, ‘Daozang’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 September 2016, 09:21 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Daozang&oldid=737369842> [accessed 2 September 2016].

[2] What we know about the life of Lǎozǐ primarily comes from the Records of the Grand Historian, i.e. the Shiji, written in the later Former Han Dynasty years (3rd/2nd century BCE).  In it, a story is narrated, that is also referred to in the Zhuangzi as well, that at one point Confucius met and consulted with Lǎozǐ on various ritual matters.  While it’s not clear whether or not this is a historical fact or a fable invented by later followers of Lǎozǐ to legitimize his teachings, the story nonetheless persists in ancient Chinese lore connecting the two great intellectual figures from Chinese antiquity.  For detail see Chan, Alan, “Lǎozǐ”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/Lǎozǐ/>. The Lǎozǐ story chapter, pgs. 2-3.

[3]Chinese Thought and Philosophy: Philosophical Daoism.  By Dr. Ulrich Theobald, MBA.  From http://www.chinaknowledge.de/Literature/Daoists/daoists.html.

[4] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Dàodé Jīng).  Translation by D.C. Lau.  Penguin Books, 1963.  Chapter 42, verses 93 and 94.  Pg. 103.

[5] Adapted from Rosemont Jr., Henry, “Translating and Interpreting Chinese Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/chinese-translate-interpret/>.  Brackets are authors insertions.

[6] For more on the translational difficulty and challenges of the classic Chinese texts into English given the metaphysical and theo-philosophical differences inherent in the respective “Far Eastern” and “Western” modes of thought in antiquity (or even Indo-European in a more generic sense), please see the Chapter in this work devoted to the topic.

[7] Arguably ancient Chinese mythos was understood by the ancients as metaphorical and allegorical as well but that is a wholly different topic, one which for example is dealt with extensively in the Western theo-philosophical tradition, in particular by the early Christian apologists such as Philo Judaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria, as well as the Neo-Platonists as well, all whom looked to interpret ancient myth as “allegory” with its true meaning hidden as it were – what is referred to in the Hellenic philosophical tradition in particular as allegoresis.

[8] Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu.  Translated by J. Legge 1891.  In the public domain, link: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/taote.htm.  For alternate translation with Traditional Chinese characters see Chinese Text Project, Dàodé Jīng, verse 1 at http://ctext.org/dao-de-jing.

[9] For more information on Plato’s theory of knowledge – the distinction he draws between the “sensible” realm and the intelligible realm – as well as the parallels to Upanishadic epistemological theory  of “higher” and “lower” forms of knowledge, as well as the role of “withdrawal” of the senses for the perception and experience of this “higher” form of “experiential” knowledge – what the Platonic tradition refers to as sophia, or wisdom, and the Upanishads refer to as Brahmavidyā, or knowledge of Brahman, see the Chapter in this work on Plato theory of forms and epistemology.

[10] Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu.  Translated by J. Legge 1891.  Verse 13 from http://ctext.org/dao-de-jing.

[11]Zhuangzi.  Translated by J. Legge 1891.  From “Heaven and Earth” Chapter, verse 1.  http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/heaven-and-earth.

[12] Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu.  Translated by J. Legge 1891.  Verse 2 from http://ctext.org/dao-de-jing.

[13]Zhuangzi.  Translated by J. Legge 1891.  From “Nourishing the Lord of Life” Chapter, verse 1.  http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/nourishing-the-lord-of-life.

[14] Zhuangzi.  Translated by J. Legge 1891.  From “Great and Most Honoured Master” Chapter, verse 1.  http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/nourishing-the-lord-of-life

[15] Zhuangzi.  Translated by J. Legge 1891.  From “Knowledge Rambling in the North” Chapter, verse 2.  http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/knowledge-rambling-in-the-north

[16] Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu.  Translation by S. Mitchell.  http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html#1

[17] Phaedrus, 79c-79d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Apage%3D79

[18] Katha-Upanishad.  FIRST ADHYÂYA.  Second VALLÎ.  The Upanishads, Part 2 (SBE15), by Max Müller, [1879], at sacred-texts.com.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15011.htm.

[19] While classicists such as M. L. West In his seminal work Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford University Press 1971) and Thomas McEvilley in his comprehensive analysis and study of the parallels between ancient Greek and Indian philosophy in his work Shape of Ancient Thought (Allworth Press 2002), draw parallels between ancient Hellenic and Indian philosophy, and theorize communication and intellectual exchange between the Pre-Socratics in Eastern Ionia and ancient Upanishadic scholars vis a vi the Persian Empire in the early Persian dynastic period (roughly 6th century BCE), this evidence is scanty at best and does not explain the theo-philosophical similarities we are drawing here between ancient Chinese philosophy and the “Indo-European” theo-philosophical tradition if we may coin a term to place the early Hellenic and Upanishadic philosophical traditions under one umbrella.. However, while Plato’s writing stands at the cusp really of this “Indo-European” cultural exchange – through the Near east and Persian Empires – although while he clearly borrows heavily from his predecessors in the Hellenic world (Pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus and Parmenides for example), no traces of extra Hellenic influence are alluded to in any of his works, or by interpreters of his works, the most notable of which is of course Aristotle.


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