By Brent Garcia
My first introduction to Taoism came via my brother in 1993. As a Christmas present,
he gave me a hardcover copy of The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Inside the front
cover he’d inscribed: “It is always good to look at life from more than one angle – I think
this book offers one!” I was ready to dive headfirst into the reading, and not long
afterwards I was inspired to take a stab at reading the Tao Te Ching. However, from that
point until very recently, it became a mostly uphill, back-breaking struggle to obtain
anything of value from Taoism or Lao-tzu, even though I knew I should get something
out of it.
I must admit: my initial reaction when I learned we “really need” to read Victor H.
Mair’s translation of the Tao Te Ching was “Ugh! THAT nonsense again! I have tried for
years to get through one entire reading of the text, and never have. Eighty-one little
verses, and after any random three or four misfires, I throw the booklet towards the
bookshelf and refrain from picking it up for another two or three years.” [The good thing
about thoughts is it doesn’t very long to think a LOT.]
All of the translations that I read, up until this point (as we shall see), obviously were
done by literate scholars with enormous talent, which unfortunately extended into a
propensity for being as obscure as possible, or simply overusing the negation of a word
(i.e. “undoing”), making the text hard to read. Thomas Cleary (The Essential Tao,
Harper-Collins, 1991) who without question heads a list of Who’s-Who in transcribing
Chinese texts, will, respectfully, bear the entire brunt of my malaise with translations
and translators in general.
Mair’s translation of the Tao Te Ching (Tao Te Ching, Bantam Books, 1990) utilizes
the two silk manuscripts discovered by archeologists at Ma-wang-tui in 1973. Located
about 100 miles south of the Yangtze River in Central China, this dig literally unearthed
the possibility of an expanded, accessible translation that effectively fixes Cleary’s
shortcomings and confusions. The translation (1) tries to be as poetic as possible while
(2) being as true as possible to the original Chinese characters, accomplished by (3)
keeping the modern, average American reader in mind: “In general, my aim has been to
make the translation completely integral and self-explanatory” (Mair 153). To this end,
Mair is very successful.
A quick note on verse numbers: the Ma-wang-tui manuscripts suggest that
translations of the Tao Te Ching’s two sections, Tao and Te, up until this point have
been printed out of order. Earlier translations started with Verse 38, went to the end,
and then went back to Verses 1 through 37. For example, Mair’s Verse 48 has been
labeled as Verse 4 by Cleary and others in past translations. Reading the Tao Te Ching
(i.e. the Te section first, followed by the Tao) as it was intended adds immensely to the
One of the prime examples of a fresh and, more importantly, applicable look Mair
brings to the Tao Te Ching is Verse 48 (4). Note the distinctions in the bolded last three
lines of each passage:
Victor Mair Thomas Cleary
V. 48 V. 4 – “The Way is Unimpeded Harmony”
The Way is empty,
yet never refills with use;
Bottomless it is,
like the forefather of the myriad
It files away sharp points,
mingles with the dust.
Submerged it lies,
seeming barely to subsist.
I know not whose child it is,
only that it resembles the
The Way is unimpeded harmony;
its potential may never be fully exploited.
It is as deep as the source of all things:
it blunts the edges,
resolves the complications,
harmonizes the light,
assimilates to the world.
Profoundly still, it seems to be
I don’t know whose child it is,
before the creation of images.
predecessor of God.
Cleary’s last three lines of translation on the right illustrate the difficulty of translation,
granted; nevertheless, it contains convoluted passages for the layperson – many people
could have difficulty with “the creation of images.” Contrast that with Mair’s translation,
which is much more accessible. Mair succeeds in eliminating confusion while
maintaining subtlety, thereby not only maintaining readability, but also enriching the
quiet brilliance of the Taoist philosophy. One can now see the applicability for an
Emperor in using these suggestions to run a state, if such a Taoist offered the above as
advice. If Cleary’s translation was used, I can see the Emperors of old cutting off the
head of any “teacher” that tried to sell them such nonsense.
Further, the verse structure as evidenced by Cleary in Verse 4, and supremely evident
throughout his text, often makes the reader stop and start in fits. Quite simply, the
verses lack flow. By no means is Cleary an isolated incidence of monotony in structure;
most of the other versions I have read in the past follow the same format. Again, Mair
succeeds in readability.
On to the context of the text: My argument centers on accessibility of Mair’s
translation, leading to greater understanding and “groking” of the implications of Laotzu
and Taoism in general. Any proper analysis of the text requires a treatise, and I will
be unable to achieve anything other than the essence of the philosophy. Taoist thought
seems to focus on being an integrous person, willing to grow as much as possible in
one’s development, yet remaining humble and avoiding self-promotion or boasting of
any kind. While not unique to other schools of thought in China, notably Confucianism
(which also suggests following the Way), what separates Taoist thought is the focus on
nature. Instead of holding the shamanistic sage kings of yore as the highest form of
development, Taoism employs the natural world as the greatest mentor: “Man patterns
himself on earth; Earth patterns itself on heaven, Heaven patterns itself on the Way;
The Way patterns itself on nature” (Mair V. 69). Also, Mair’s translation of Verse 63,
“Evince the plainness of undyed silk; Embrace the simplicity of the unhewn log,”
actually substantiates the Taoist view of the prominence of nature’s being the guiding
force for action. The Mair translation honors this; Cleary fails to mention anything
resembling this particular line in his version: “See the basic, embrace the unspoiled…”
(Cleary V. 19).
Another of Mair’s strengths is the translation of te as “integrity.” The workability and
wholeness of the person leads to the highest form of man. In contrast, Cleary in V.1
translates te into “virtue.” Integrity implies the ability to be all one can be without
relying on another’s opinion. Integrity is an inside job; virtue comes from another’s
thinking that person follows a moral code. If I go out to be integrous, I am competing
against myself in a sense; one can only try to be virtuous. Therein lies a dangerous setup,
because whether you succeed or not lies in the hands of another – by how they say
you should be. Again, “integrity” as the concept communicates much better with the
American student and reader than “virtue”.
It is important to note that the conventional, word-on-the-street definition of
integrity points towards “honest and moral.” In the text, integrity is much more than
that. Integrity here signifies wholeness, completeness, and workability; for example, the
integrity of the wheel must be intact for the car to go forward. If the tire is flat, or an
unbolted rim falls off, it can be said that the tire, and therefore the car, is out of
However, Mair tries to defend its usage in the translation, and only half-succeeds. His
own defense of translating te as “integrity” in the Preface muddies its effectiveness: “By
‘integrity’ I mean the totality of an individual including his or her moral stance, whether
good or bad” (Mair xiii). Rare that an author of his caliber uses the correct word, then
completely fumbles the justification for its correct usage of said word. The author makes
an attempt in the very next paragraph (xiii-xiv), and in Appendix II, to fully explain his
selection process. Yet, even upon completing the reading, I am still bothered by that one
sentence. Nevertheless, Mair’s usage of integrity esoterically strengthens his translation:
his usage of integrity indeed is in integrity with the original Ma-wang-tui texts.
“It is not enough merely to transfer the meaning of the original text; one also needs to
replicate its effects” (Mair xv). To this end, Mair takes the best step toward capturing the
original authors’ intentions, while allowing for the average American reader to find
value in studying and applying the teaching. My success in completing the Tao Te Ching
after 17 years’ worth of attempts is due to my actually understanding Victor Mair’s