Startling discrepancies in translations of the Lao Zi (Daode jing)

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The Daoist / Taoist classic, Daode jing / Tao-te ching (The Classic of the Way and Integrity / Power / Virtue), a brief text consisting of approximately 5,000 characters in 81 brief chapters, is one of the most frequently translated books in the world.  Even people who don't know Classical Chinese, such as the first translator quoted below, somehow feel that they are qualified to try their hand at it, and are sometimes paid enormous sums to do so by distinguished publishing houses. 

In this post, I will focus only on a single chapter, number 13.  Out of the hundreds of versions I could cite, I will give here only half a dozen by way of example of what can be done with the same text.

Stephen Mitchell's version of chapter #13 is so different from Derek Liu's that it's mind-boggling.

Success is as dangerous as failure.

Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?

Whether you go up the ladder or down it,

your position is shaky.

When you stand with your two feet on the ground,

you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?

Hope and fear are both phantoms

that arise from thinking of the self.

When we don’t see the self as self,

what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.

Have faith in the way things are.

Love the world as your self;

then you can care for all things.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)


Favor and disgrace make one fearful

The greatest misfortune is the self

What does “favor and disgrace make one fearful” mean?

Favor is high; disgrace is low

Having it makes one fearful

Losing it makes one fearful

This is “favor and disgrace make one fearful”

What does “the greatest misfortune is the self” mean?

The reason I have great misfortune

Is that I have the self

If I have no self

What misfortune do I have?

So one who values the self as the world

Can be given the world

One who loves the self as the world

Can be entrusted with the world

(translation by Derek Lin, 2006)


Next we come to David Hinton's rendition:

Honor is a contagion deep as fear,

renown a calamity profound as self.

Why do I call honor a contagion deep as fear?

Honor always dwindles away,

so earning it fills us with fear

and losing it fills us with fear.

And why do I call renown a calamity profound as self?

We only know calamity because we have these selves.

If we didn’t have selves

what calamity could touch us?

When all beneath heaven is your self in renown

you trust yourself to all beneath heaven,

and when all beneath heaven is your self in love

you dwell throughout all beneath heaven.

(translation by David Hinton, 2015)

The two oldest manuscripts are from Guodian (before 300 BC — when the text was still in process of formation) and Mawangdui (168 BC — when the text had coalesced into two sections, though in the opposite order from what they are now, i.e., Dedao / Te-tao, not Daode / Tao-te).  They have both been paleographcally studied, translated, and annotated by Robert Henricks.

“Regard favor and disgrace with alarm.”

"Respect great distress as you do your own person.”

What do I mean when I say “Regard favor and disgrace with alarm”?

Favor is inferior.

If you get it—be alarmed!

If you lose it—be alarmed!

This is what I mean when I say “Regard favor and disgrace with alarm.”

What do I mean when I say “Respect great distress as you do your own person”?

The reason why I have great distress Is that I have a body.

If I had no body, what distress would I have?

Therefore, to one who values acting for himself over acting on behalf of the world,

You can entrust the world.

And to one who in being parsimonious regards his person as equal to the world,

You can turn over the world.

(Mawangdui silk manuscript; 1989)


1  “Favor” is really “disgrace”一it is like being in bondage.

2  Be wary with matters that cause great distress一treat them as if they

could mean your life.

3  Why do I say “Favor is really disgrace”?

4  Receiving favor puts you in a dependent position.

5  If you get it, it is like being [in] bondage;

6  If you lose it, it is like being in bondage.

7  This is what I mean by "Favor is really disgrace— it is like being in bondage.”

And why do I say "Be wary with matters that cause great distress— treat them as if they could mean your life”?

9  The reason we have great distress

10  Is that we have bodies;

11  If we did not have bodies, what would we worry about?

12  Therefore, with someone who values taking care of his life more than running the world,

13  To him we can entrust the world.

14  And with someone who dotes on his life as if it were the whole world,

15  To him we can turn over the world.

(Guodian bamboo slips; 2000)

Here's James Legge's version from Chinese Text Project:

(Loathing shame)
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.

(Legge; 1891)

And here's the translation of the Mawangdui silk manuscript by VHM:

"Being favored is so disgraceful that it startles,

Being honored is an affliction as great as one's body."

What is the meaning of

"Being favored is so disgraceful that it startles"?

Favor is debasing;

To find it is startling,

To lose it is startling.

This is the meaning of

"Being favored is so disgraceful that it startles."

What is the meaning of

"Being honored is an affliction as great as one's body"?

The reason I suffer great afflictions is because I have a body;

If I had no body, what affliction could I suffer?


When a man puts more emphasis on caring for his body

than on caring for all under heaven,

then all under heaven can be entrusted to him.

When a man is sparing of his body in caring for all under heaven,

then all under heaven can be delivered to him.

(translation by Victor H. Mair)

Victorian though it may be, the version of James Legge (1815-1897) is more intelligible than the contemporary translations of Steven Mitchell and Derek Liu.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Denis C. Mair and Qianheng Jiang]


  1. Karen Lofstrom said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 12:01 am

    Stephen Mitchell has studied in the same Zen tradition (Honolulu Diamond Sangha) that I follow. His translation seems utterly direct and comprehensible to me … because he has translated it into Zen Buddhism :)

    I don't know how one could translate such an ancient text without deforming it in some way.

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 4:38 am

    The first time that I encountered the Tao te ching, it was as one of two books translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, the other being Chuang Tsu's Inner Chapters. I was maybe 25 years of age, and they moved me profoundly. If I may, I would like to quote their translation of number 13 here —

    Accept disgrace willingly.
    Accept misfortune as the human condition.

    What do you mean by "Accept disgrace willingly" ?
    Accept being unimportant.
    Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
    This is called "accepting disgrace willingly".

    What do you mean by "Accept misfortune as the human condition" ?
    Misfortune comes from having a body.
    Without a body, how could there be misfortune ?

    Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
    Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.

  3. bks said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 8:37 am

    Will someone please pay Professor Mair an enormous sum to do a translation?

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 10:06 am

    Not directly related, but some tangential comments on the particular knowledge of household Daoists:

  5. Mark S. said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 10:32 am

    @bks: Good news! No one need shell out a fortune. About US$18 will do, as that is around the price that Mair's translation of the Daode Jing/Tao-te ching goes for in paperback:
    Tao te ching: the classic book of integrity and the way; translated, annotated, and with an afterword by Victor H. Mair; woodcuts by Dan Heitkamp.

    And his introduction and notes are available for free through his journal Sino-Platonic Papers:
    [The] File [on the Cosmic] Track [and Individual] Dough[tiness]: Introduction and Notes for a Translation of the Ma-wang-tui Manuscripts of the Lao Tzu

  6. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 10:43 am

    Prof. Mair, we'd really appreciate it a translation from yours!

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 11:15 am

    Thanks, Antonio.

    See the comment by Mark S., just before yours.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 11:17 am

    From Stefan Krasowski:

    New to the 'Tao' bookshelf, "The Tao of Alibaba".

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 11:36 am

    Stephen Mitchell has, by his own admission, no reading knowledge whatsoever of Classical Chinese or any Sinitic language. Calling his version a "translation" seems debatable. Now, obviously someone who doesn't know the original language of a given text but has a better sense of English style than many who do (and let's assume arguendo this is true of Mitchell) can in principle review the English versions of others and generate a new English version that expresses what appears (as filtered through those other versions) to be the gist of the text more eloquently.

    I have no doubt previously on this blog told the anecdote of being in an American bookstore some years ago and counting up a full dozen different English translations (or "translations") of the Tao Te Ching available for purchase but only one of the Analects, and thinking that Lao Tzu was not in fact a dozen times more important than Confucius in the context of Chinese cultural/intellectual history, yet for some reason was much easier to sell to Anglophone readers.

  10. Diana S. Zhang said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 11:37 am

    For this curious yet inspiring phenomenon, recommended for reading: "Why so many Laozi-s?" by William G. Boltz. Downloadable PDF here:

    A few Boltz's points (which are blade-sharp and may be helpful to keep in mind as one reads and perceives the nature of "Laozi"):

    1. Except for our prior knowledge of the received Laozi (with a kind of “religious” or “philosophical” doctrinal content and character that caused its popularity for today), we have no reason to regard different manuscripts / versions of the text as parts of any single, larger contemporaneous work. Our "prior knowledge" of what the received Laozi looks like, known from evidence no earlier than about 200 B.C.E., ought not to be allowed to override the direct evidence from an analysis of a text from at least a couple of centuries earlier or to influence a decision about textual structure or textual identification based on that direct evidence.

    2. To claim that there was one Laozi text with the structure and contents that we know from the received text called 'the Laozi', is simply a textual and literary anachronism, and is on the extant evidence, an indefensible proposition. We may have only a single “Laozi-like” set of texts in its early periods….

  11. John Emerson said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 11:48 am

    To begin with, Mitchell doesn't know Chinese at all and just collated a sort of consensus translation and then rewrote it. This method of translation was popular up until about 1930 but I feel that it is inappropriate now.

    Much of the DDJ can be translated straightforwardly with no particular difficulty, except that terms like 無為 wuwei, 德 de "virtue", etc. etc ., don't have satisfactory one word equivalents in English. For example, you 有 and wu 無 are usually translated "being and nothing", but this translation rouses 2400 years of Western metaphysics, and I think that "presence and absence" is better. There are also a number of passages where there are two different Chinese texts with two different meanings in different manuscripts.

    Chapter 13 is one of the most difficult chapters in the book, and one of the oldest. It begins with two gnomic aphorisms which are intrinsically hard to interpret, followed by interpretations of each and turn, followed by a summary couplet. The affect is catechismal. I believe that the chapter can be divided into two and probably three historical layers and that the two aphorisms are from the Yang Zhu tradition and are foundational to the DDJ.

    My translation uses 警 instead of 驚. This is not textually based and is sort of a gamble, but I think it works.

    Favor and disgrace are like warnings;
    Honors and disasters are like your own person.

    What does this mean:
    “Favor and disgrace are like warnings”?
    The favored one is in the inferior position.
    Getting favor is like a warning;
    losing favor is like a warning.
    This is the meaning of
    “favor and disgrace are like warnings”.

    What does this mean:
    “Honor a disaster like your own body”?
    The reason I have disasters is that I have a body.
    If I had no body what disaster could there be?

    So someone who regards care of their body
    as more valuable than rule of the empire
    might be entrusted with the empire;

    Someone who prizes the care of their body
    more than rule of the empire
    might be granted the empire.

  12. John Emerson said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 11:53 am

    Alas, I cut and pasted an imperfectly edited version. "What does this mean:
    “Honor a disaster like your own body”?" in lines 10 and 11 should read Honors and disasters are like your own person.

  13. John Emerson said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 12:22 pm

    I suspect, in fact, that the closing couplet bends the earlier part of the chapter to mean something that it didn't mean at all. As I read the chapter, the earlier lines warned against ambition , striving, and public life and pointed toward a privatism, while the closing couplet basically says that someone who is not ruled by ambition and striving would be the best ruler.

    Like many scholars, I believe that the DDJ is a composite work composed over a considerable period of time. I have gone so far as to theorize that the DDJ can be divided into two roughly equal parts, Early Dao and Sage Dao, and that Sage Dao (most of chapters 57-81, and all chapters including the Sage 聖人) is later and applies Daoist principles to government service, whereas Early Dao discourages public life. Chapter 13 seems to be a hybrid chapter.

    Explained here:

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 12:36 pm

    Bravo, J.W. Brewer, for your anecdote about the disparity between the number of Tao Te Ching translations versus the scant number of Analects.

    When I taught Chinese religions, people would ask me why I never translated the Tao Te Ching into English, and I would say it's the last Chinese "classic" I would translate into English because we already had too many of them. Around the same time, every year several people would come to my office every year and announce that they wanted to translate the Tao Te Ching into English, and I would ask them, do you know Chinese? Most of them admitted that they didn't know any Chinese, so I would tell them to go talk to someone in the Comp Lit Department.

    The reason I finally agreed to translate the Tao Te Ching into English was that Bantam offered me a pittance, when I really needed that pittance just to survive, at a time when Harper had just given Stephen Mitchell a princely sum. The other two reasons — more important ones — I agreed to translate the TTC into English were:

    1. to reclaim the text for Sinology (e.g., Mitchell cutely rendered the Sage into feminine gender)

    2. the recent discovery of the Mawangdui silk mss, which I figured I could use to solve some of the thorny philological problems surrounding the text. I could and I did.

    I often said that the last Chinese "classic" I wanted to translate into English — last because it is so bewilderingly difficult, but essential because of its centrality to the whole of Chinese culture — was the I ching / Book of Changes, and I've been engaged in that task with my brother Denis for a couple of decades. Thank the lord, we're close to finishing.

    But the I ching won't be the last, because I've promised the wonderful Hsu-Tang Library (Oxford University Press) to translate the Analects — that will be great fun after the I ching — into lively, readable, hopefully insightful and intelligible English.

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 1:33 pm

    If we take just the crucial first couplet, I think it is the same across received and manuscript texts except for how the verb (Mand.) chong3 寵 'court, favor' is written, so the text at issue is more or less certainly
    Absent special pleading, we are obligated to treat them in parallel fashion. And chong3 is a verb, thus gui4 is a verb (which was already likely.) So the structures are VERB OBJ1 LIKE OBJ2, i.e., these are parallel injunctions to TREAT A like B

    so while all the translations kind of work, if we are being picky,
    success is as dangerous as failure… >> no
    honor is a contagion deep as fear… >> no
    regard favor and disgrace with alarm >> promising as it presents an injunction to "regard…", but how are there 4 content words
    favor is really disgrace–it is like being in bondage >> no
    favor and disgrace would seem equally to be feared >> kind of promising as it presents an injunction to "fear [two things equally]" but in the text jing1 驚 'fear'(?) is OBJ2 not VERB
    being favored is so disgraceful that it startles >> no
    accept disgrace willingly >> promising as it presents an injunction to "accept…"

    VERB OBJ1 in the first line tells us to *FAVOR/CURRY/CODDLE* *DISGRACE/SHAME*. It is unambiguous and perfectly "Daoist". See e.g. Song Rongzi in Zhuangzi. But OBJ2 jing1 驚 seems to be 'fear', which seems to be the main thing getting in the way of this obvious treatment for translators. IMO the lines should be

    "court shame as you do respect; cherish great sickness as you do your body i.e. your health" — treating the confusing jing1 驚 'fear' as jing4 敬 'venerate/respect' which two actually are probably very closely related words.

  16. cameron said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 3:25 pm

    If you go into a bookstore in China, are there more translations of the Tao Te Ching into Mandarin than there are of the Analects? Or is it the reverse? Or do they not translate these into modern idiom at all, and expect that interested readers will study the classical language?

  17. Craig said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 5:11 pm

    Out of curiosity, what do you folks think of Arthur Waley's "The Way and Its Power"?

  18. John Emerson said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 6:13 pm

    The big questions are with the first 2 4-word lines and the questions go back ong time. They're translation problems but are there for Chinese readers. In Chinese do not attach to words but are functions words can take in context, and the first two words of each line can be read as N+N (a complex subject) or V+ N (Verb-Object). The two lines probably should be read as parallel but wouldn't absolutely have to be.

    I considered a translation like Smith's and he may be right. My substitution of 警 instead of 驚 keeps the same phonetic and makes sense to me. The written forms of words were not fixed in ancient China the way they are today and seemingly substitutions were common (and in fact even today people often get sloppy). 警 and 驚 may simply specify different senses of a single spoken word.

  19. John Emerson said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 6:17 pm

    Waley's translation / interpretation is approaching 100 years old and was really path-breaking. He was both a better writer than most early translators and a better scholar. It was he who gor me involved in DDJ studies, along with Lau, and his interpretation is stimulating. Sometgimes I think he takes liberties and is excessively original.

  20. John Emerson said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 6:24 pm

    Per Red Pine / Bill Porter, the final two lines also are seen in Zhuangzi and Huainanzi, which might be evidence that they are late additions, as I have conjectured. However, the DDJ is a composite work which grew by accretion over decades (following Brooks) so being "late" doesn not make a passage inauthentic. There never was a pure Ur-Daodejing; when you favor a given text you are basically just accepting the work of one particular late editor.

  21. Kingfisher said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 7:08 pm

    I am tempted to read the passage as addressed to a ruler, though I admit to being in the minority on this one:

    Treat gestures of favor or disgust as seriously as a disturbance;
    Regard grants of honor as gravely as changes in your own body.
    Why liken your favor or disgust to disturbances?
    Because among one's inferiors, the acceptance of favor is as much of a disturbance as the loss of it; both may be regarded as shaking things up.
    And your granting of honor being as grave as changes in your own body?
    The gravity of a change is as it relates to the body; how could there be anything to fear unless one has a body to begin with?
    Therefore honor a person in accordance with the realm, as though you were entrusting it to them;
    Show affection for someone in relation to the realm, as though you were giving it to them.

  22. David Deden said,

    December 3, 2022 @ 8:13 pm

    Tao of me

    Asleep under tall windswept coconut palms at 2am
    My breakfast arrived from heaven at terminal velocity
    kissing the concrete 4" from my supine dreaming brain
    hugged the trunk, drank the juice, ate the meat, grateful.

  23. R. Fenwick said,

    December 5, 2022 @ 12:46 am

    My friend Agnieszka Solska's translation, though adding to the plethora of extant English translations, at least might be excused in that she did it in parallel with her Klingon rendition, to serve as accompaniment and gloss to the Klingon text. Her English version of Verse 13, for what it’s worth, is as follows:

    Praise and condemnation both cause dismay.
    Honor and great pain are bound up together.
    Why do praise and condemnation both cause dismay?
    Praise makes us low.
    We're dismayed when we get it.
    And we're dismayed when it's taken away.
    That's why praise and condemnation both cause dismay.
    Why are honor and great pain bound up together?
    I'm bound to be in pain because I care about myself.
    If I did not care about myself, what pain could I suffer?
    If you respect the world as you respect yourself
    You're ready to tend the world.
    If you care about the world as you care about yourself
    You're ready to rule the world.

  24. M. Paul Shore said,

    December 5, 2022 @ 9:29 pm

    A question for Prof. Mair: If—completely hypothetically—the world’s top 100 native-Anglophone Classical Chinese scholars were to each write translations of the same 100 Classical Chinese text excerpts of roughly 500 characters each, excerpts chosen to range smoothly across the spectrum from the clearest to the most obscure, what do you think would be the overall accuracy level of the resultant 10,000 translations, expressed as a percentage? (Of course that percentage has to be largely conjectural, since it’s impossible to travel back in time and ask the authors what they meant.) In other words, given the unusually high difficulty of extracting the meaning of many Classical Chinese writings, how confident can we be of even the best native-Anglophone scholars’ ability to defy the difficulties of the material and perform that extraction?

  25. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 1:11 am

    @M. Paul Shore

    Reasonable question.

    I think it would be a bell curve:

    1% very clear and accurate

    1% very unclear and inaccurate

    The remaining 98% would be clustered around the middle, with a slope rising up on the left and a slope falling down on the other side.

    As a teacher who has corrected countless papers, let me tell you what a joy and a relief it is to encounter the rare translations that are clear and accurate. If they are, in addition, felicitous, that is truly thrilling.

    On the other hand, it is dreadful to have to wade through the ones that are unclear and inaccurate. If, in addition, they are clumsy and crude, then reading them is absolutely excruciating.

  26. M. Paul Shore said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 1:32 am

    And a revision of my preceding post: When I said “the overall accuracy level of the resultant 10,000 translations”, I should’ve said “the average accuracy level of the resultant 10,000 translations”. (Since the word “overall” could conceivably be interpreted as proposing that the apparent best translation of each excerpt be identified and assigned an estimated accuracy level, and that it then be those estimated best-of accuracies that get averaged across the 100 excerpts.)

  27. M. Paul Shore said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 2:36 am

    @ Victor Mair

    [My 1:32 a.m. revision post above was being written during and after the unknown-to-me arrival of your 1:11 a.m. response to my earlier post.]

    So would you say—and I’m just guessing here— that your “very accurate” top 1% might be achieving 98 or 99% average translation accuracy, your “very inaccurate” bottom 1% might be achieving something like 90% average translation accuracy, and the middle 98% might be averaging something like 94 or 95% translation accuracy? Or are those guesses way off the mark? Bear in mind that these average-accuracy percentages would reflect both the abilities of the top 100 native-Anglophone scholars on the one hand, and the substantial, sometimes insoluble difficulties of the material on the other.

  28. Kingfisher said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 10:45 am

    Accuracy is one thing, and awfully hard to pin down (judging by all the historical commentaries to be found for most classical texts, which like to disagree with one another). But I think an essential element has to be clarity of translation: the translator should make it clear what message they think the text is trying to say, unless they think the message itself is too obtuse to be understood by anyone. The resulting translation may not be right, but it is much more falsifiable and thus easier to correct in time. My own translation above may very well be wrong, but I think it is easy to tell what I think Laozi was trying to say. (And I admit to being biased in thinking that most texts were written to be understood.)

  29. Mark Metcalf said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 4:11 pm

    This thread brings to mind Paul Goldin's insightful and entertaining essay "Those Who Don't Know Speak: Translations of Laozi by People Who Do Not Know Chinese."
    You can download a PDF copy here:

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