Legend has it that around the sixth century BCE, during the Spring and Autumn period of ancient China, a wise and venerable philosopher found himself so distraught over the chaos and social upheaval of his time that he decided to flee across the western border of China (into what is now the region of Tibet). But before he could pass beyond the western gates, he was approached by a guard who had heard of his reputation as a person of great wisdom. The guard asked the philosopher to leave some record of his wisdom before passing beyond. And the philosopher retreated for a short time before returning with a simple yet amazingly profound book of his writing, which was passed on to later generations as the Tao Te Ching (or more phonetically in pinyin, Dao De Jing)—the book of the Way and its virtue. And then he journeyed forth across the Tibetan plateau, never to be seen in China again. This philosopher would eventually become known as Lao Tzu, “the Old Master,” and his little book would go on to become not only the foundational text for the Taoist tradition but one of the most widely studied and influential works of philosophy and spirituality to ever grace the cultures of our world.
Of course, whether or not there was an individual named Lao Tzu or even a single author of the Tao Te Ching is hotly contested. But the Tao Te Ching nevertheless stands as one of the shining jewels of ancient Chinese thought and a treasured classic of our global intellectual heritage. It has become so influential, in fact, that it parallels even the Bible in its readership, having been translated into dozens of versions in countless languages worldwide. With so many translations available, the task of choosing a version to read can be downright overwhelming.
We offer this as a guide to the many translations available from Shambhala Publications. Although we certainly don’t publish all of the staggeringly numerous translations available in English, we are proud to share some of the most acclaimed. Below you will find a short description of each of these translations, organized by translator, and also a short guide to additional recommendations for further reading. Each brings out something unique and beautiful, and we hope that you enjoy them.