Chinese Language

Proverbs | 17

Dao ke dao, fei chang dao. Ming ke ming, fei chang ming : The Way that can be expressed is not the everlasting way. Names that can be named are not changeless names.

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Zhong wen

The Way that can be expressed is not the everlasting way
道可道, 非常道; 名可名, 非常名

To anyone who is too busy to read Lao Zi (Lao Tzu), may I recommend this 12-word quotation from the Dao De Jing as a thumb-nail guide to his philosophy of the Way (Dao)? Lao Zi was what you might call a Minimalist philosopher. It is interesting to note that the only book attributed to him - Dao De Jing - consists of only five thousand-odd words, and yet his influence on Chinese civilisation throughout the centuries is immeasurable. The way Daoism (Taoism) has penetrated the very fibre of Western psyche in modern times is a tribute to the universality of its appeal. What Lao Zi was trying to do when he composed his Dao De Jing with the above 12-word opening gambit was, to my mind, to tell the squabbling philosophers to 'put a sock in it'. 'Truth lies at the bottom of the well' as the English saying goes. Incidentally, Lao Zi's real name was Li Er, Lao Zi being a term of respect (meaning 'Old Master') which has become identified with him. It is still the subject of controversy in academic circles whether or not such a figure did exist at all, and if he did, whether the book attributed to him was in fact written by himself.

The consensus is:
a) He was an elder contemporary of Confucius (551-479BC) who was about twenty years his junior.
b) The Dao De Jing which embodies Lao Zi's thinking, was compiled much later in the Warring States period (475-221BC).

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's China Now 126, Page 31, September 1988

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