Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Laozi on Marriage?

A blog reader asked: I just found Laozi’s having the following quote attributed to him (on several quote-collecting websites):

“Marriage is three parts love and seven parts forgiveness of sins.”

Do you have any idea whether this is actually from a *text* attributed to him, and if so, which?  (None of the sites I have found gives one.)  If not, would you mind asking about this on the blog?

November 1st, 2014 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Laozi | 11 comments

11 Responses to Laozi on Marriage?

  1. That’s apparently a line by early 20th century playwright Langdon Mitchell, and is in several books of wedding quotations. He is also reported to have said “Modern American marriage is like a wire fence. The woman’s the wire -the posts are the husband’s.”

    I’m very skeptical that this quote could have come from Laozi, because we’d recognize it if it was, and because of its contemporary perspective on marriage.

    It also has a didactic tone more common to corny old “Confucius say….” jokes than the Laozi.

  2. Bill Haines says:

    Just offhand, it sounds odd to me to have an early Chinese saying about “marriage” as a topic. I wonder if there is any such comment from the Han or earlier.

    • Thorian Harris says:

      On the topic of marriage there is of course the “Hunyi” (昏義) chapter of the _Liji_ (see Legge’s translation, volume 2, pp. 428-434).

      • Bill Haines says:

        Thanks! But it looks to me as though that is about weddings (marriage ceremonies) — rather than about marriage itself (married life, the condition of being and having a spouse).

        • Paul R. Goldin says:

          Well, it stands to reason that ritual texts are more interested in the rituals associated with marriage than with marriage itself. (The “Jiaqu” 嫁娶 chapter of Baihu tong 白虎通 would be another example.)

          There is a rich later imperial literature dealing with what Bill is interested in. Some good samples are translated in the second half of Douglas Wile’s Art of the Bedchamber.

  3. Bill Haines says:

    A saying of the form “Marriage is X” or “Marriage is about X” or “The key to marriage is X” or “Marriage is like X” — such sayings do not differentiate between the condition or predicament of a wife and the condition or predicament of a husband. I suppose that’s what I’m thinking of.

    Also offhand I imagine that in early China, for a man, having a wife is far less central to life than we think of it as being, while for a woman, well, sayings for a wife are less important to have at all.

  4. Esther Klein says:

    It’s immediately clear to someone who reads a lot of ancient Chinese texts that the quote is not ancient, and certainly not from a text as short and familiar as the Laozi. But analyzing the anachronism is actually kind of interesting. As readers have pointed out, the marriage advice genre comes out very differently in ancient texts about it (I think of Ban Zhao’s advice for daughters), and it would be strange to have non gender specific advice. But no one has mentioned the strangeness of the use of the word “sin” in an ancient Chinese context pre-Buddhism. Pondering what the word could possibly be used to translate… 罪 (crime), 惡 (badness/evil), 過 (transgression)? Other thoughts? None of these seem like things one generally would want to *forgive* even once…let alone 7/10 of the time. And then there’s love, which in ancient texts is not typically a feature of marriage at all. Where it is used in something that might approach a romantic context, it tends to be a marker for trouble or transgression. (“He ‘loved’ the woman who was contracted to marry his son” and things like that.)

  5. Luis Andrade says:

    I thought Laozi got on his water buffalo just to get away from it all… 🙂

    Alas, IMHO, like Ms. Klein says above, the saying is anachronistic, both in construction and concepts such as “sins” for the proposed provenance.

  6. Obviously, this is not in the Daodejing. I’m certain it’s not in the Wenzi or Huahujing either, both supposedly containing the words of Laozi. One may see myriads of these fake quotes floating around on Facebook and elsewhere on the internet. I’m not fond of them. Some people despise them. But you know, this practice of ascribing quotes to ancient thinkers or legendary sages is a time-honoured tradition in the world, including China, (perhaps especially in China).

  7. Paul R. Goldin says:

    I’ll never forget the night I went to the welcoming reception for parents when my son was about to start kindergarten. We received an interesting packet from the superintendent of the school district, which stressed the importance of empiricism in learning, even at this early age: children need to learn to question the basis of their assumptions.

    So you can imagine my reaction when I saw a phony quote attributed to Confucius on the very first page. I e-mailed him that night, saying something like I was impressed by his information packet, but, since I happen to be a scholar, I have to tell you that the quote on the cover is not, in fact, from Confucius. He immediately replied: Thank you for that correction! I saw the quote on the internet, and therefore assumed that it had to be true.

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