Hansen's Tao Te Ching

A little blogging while I’m running around and setting up the transition to the group blog…

Chad Hansen’s translation of the Daodejing is available now. I happened to see it at the Yale Book Store, did a double-take, and snatched it up. It has a kind of boutique feel to it, literally — the hardcover has an elegant silky-cloth finish with an embossed 道 on the front; the paper quality seems expensive; there are myriad glossy photos and art reproductions throughout. This attention to reader aesthetic experience suggests that the volume is not primarily meant for scholarly reference, most scholars being more utilitarian about the print quality of their reading material. On the other hand, what translation of the Daodejing after Legge’s really targets an academic audience? Nonetheless, I’m always a sucker for translations of the DDJ by scholars that I like.

The translation differs from what I remember of the one he had on line for a while (that page is no longer available from Hansen’s website — why?!). It’s more elegant, I think, but of course remains faithful to Hansen’s guidance-dao/performance-dao, non-mystical interpretation. Since chapter 1 is usually how people tend to judge translations of the DDJ, here is Hansen’s version, including his titular heading for it:


Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
“Absence” names the cosmic horizon,
“Presence” names the mother of 10,000 natural kinds.
Fixing on “absence” is to want to view enigmas.
Fixing on “presence” is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that “fathomless”.
Calling it “fathomless” is still not to fathom it.
…the door to a cluster of puzzles.

The volume is not without notation. There is a brief, readable Hansen-commentary for each chapter, in the section following the full translation of the text. Here is the beginning of his commentary on chapter 1:

You ask, “Where is the way” I say: “Over there.” I have dao-ed you to a dao. The way I recommend consists of other signposts, markers, or structures that you can follow correctly — or not, just as you can follow my “over there” correctly or not. If a 道 dao can guide or recommend something (also written 道 but used as a verb), then it’s not a constant dao.

What is a fixed or constant dao — one you can’t get wrong; one to which you do not need to be guided? The movements of the stars and celestial objects trace a constant or fixed dao. You do not ask, and I can’t tell you, how to digest an apple. The process of digestion is fixed. The normal biological processes of life are naturally fixed.

The key difference between recommendable ways and fixed ones is words (名 ming, “names”) and their counterparts — signs, markers, demonstratives and gestures…

I think that’s about as clear an explanation of Hansen’s approach to the DDJ as I’ve read by him.

Comments, requests for how Hansen translated line x of chapter y, etc are welcome.

6 replies on “Hansen's Tao Te Ching”

  1. Just found in my lecture notes a copy of chapter 1 of the “working” translation that used to be linked to Hansen’s website:

    To guide what can be guided is not constant guiding.
    To name what can be named is not constant naming.
    ‘Not-exist’ names the beginning (boundary) of the cosmos (Heaven and earth)
    ‘Exists’ names the mother of the ten-thousand natural kinds.
    Thus, to treat ‘not-exist’ as constant is desiring to use it to view its mysteries.
    To treat ‘exists’ as constant is desiring to use it to view its manifestations.
    These two emerge together yet have different neames.
    ‘Together’—call that ‘obscure.’ ‘Obscure’ it and it is more obscure.
    …the gateway of a crowd of mysteries.

  2. Awesome! I greeted every Korean. It was a lot of handshakes.

    Hansen is probably my favorite contemporary Chinese philosophers. He’s right up my “hardcore Analytic” alley.

    I’d like to see how he translated chapters 11 and 38, if that’s okay (Kyobo bookstores are somewhat dodgy).

  3. Hi Joshua,

    Here’s 11:


    Thirty spokes join one hub
    The cart’s use lies where they are absent.
    Throwing clay to make a vessel;
    The vessel’s use lies where the clay is absent.
    Sculpting windows and doors to make a room;
    The room’s use lies where they are absent.
    So we treat having something as beneficial and treat lacking something as useable.

    Here’s the start of his commentary on 11: “We can translate the 有無 pair as ‘being’ and ‘non-being’ but we have already addressed the puzzle in thinking of them as fixed references to any absolute feature of the world (see Chapter 1)…”

    I’ll get to 38 a bit later.

  4. Here’s 38, which Hansen emends with use-mention distinctions in lines 1 & 3. (I’ve inserted line numbers in case we want to discuss this chapter):


    1 Higher virtuosity does not act out “virtuosity,”
    2 For that reason it has virtuosity.
    3 Lower virtuosity acts only on “virtuosity,”
    4 For that reason it lacks virtuosity.
    5 Higher virtuosity lacks acting on its construct,
    6 And lacks the construct on which it acts.
    7 Lower virtuosity acts on that construct,
    8 And has that construct on which to act.
    9 Higher humanity acts humanity out,
    10 And yet lacks acting on that construct.
    11 Higher morality acts morality out,
    12 And has acting on that construct.
    13 Higher conventionality acts that out,
    14 And answers to nothing.
    15 It raises its arm and throws.
    16 Hence after we lose our ways, we rely on virtuosity!
    17 Losing virtuosity, we then rely on humanity!
    18 Losing humanity, then rely on morality!
    19 Losing morality, then rely on conventions!
    20 In general, conventionality
    21 Is the thinning of fealty and trust,
    22 And the forerunner of disorder.
    23 Those who first understood that,
    24 Tried to embellish ways,
    25 And initiated stupidity.
    26 For this reason, men of greater maturity
    27 Addres the thick,
    28 And do not dwell on the thin.
    29 Address the substance,
    30 And do not dwell in the elaboration.
    31 So they discard that and take up this.

    Here’s just a bit of Hansen’s comment on 38: “The best de is not focused on trying to get de but only in trying to follow the relevant dao correctly. Confucians, by contrast, did focus on virtue…as if for its own sake.”

  5. Hi Manyul,

    Your first instinct was right–they were intended as use-mention marks but the editor had “rules” in mind (those really are scare quotes)–sigh.


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