Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

… 名可名非常名 …

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.

October 19, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | , | 9 Comments