Derek, I am currently studying Tao philosophy with my Tai Chi instructor. I noticed he pronounced “Tao” like “dowel” instead of “towel,” so I asked him about it. He said that was how he learned it from his master in China, but he was not sure why it had to be that way. I googled for more information but was unable to find anything. Do you have any insights on this that you can share with us?
Your instructor is correct. It is supposed to sound like “dowel” or “Dow” from “Dow Jones.” Most people say it with the t sound like “towel,” and have no idea they are saying it wrong.
The confusion started way back in the days of European colonization. The year was 1842, and a young man by the name of Thomas Francis Wade found himself in Hong Kong as a lieutenant in the British Army.
Wade had a gift for languages and it enabled him to pick up Cantonese quickly. No one knew much about Chinese at the time, so his talent elevated him through the ranks, and soon his role transitioned from soldier to interpreter, and then to diplomat.
Wade continued to learn Chinese while working in the British embassy in China. In order to facilitate his studies, he created for his own use a system to denote Chinese sounds with Latin letters. He was the first to attempt such a system, so the lack of prior art and his own imperfect understanding caused him to take several missteps in its design.
Perhaps being overly cautious, he decided to reserve d, b, j, and g for later use. He knew there were many dialects in China, so he wanted to be conservative in assigning consonants. This forced him to double up on the use of the letters t, p, ch, and k. For instance, in order the signify the t sound, his rule was to write it like t’ao, with an apostrophe, and pronounce it like the first part of “towel.” For the d sound, his rule was to write it like tao, without the apostrophe, and pronounce it like the first part of “dowel.”
Although he meant well, this rule would cause endless confusion in later generations. Wade died in 1895 without ever finding a way to use d, b, j, and g. Reserving these letters turned out to be completely unnecessary, but by then it was too late. His provisional system had become the accepted standard, with its innovations as well as flaws.
Outside of the most specialized circles in academia, very few people understood that Wade’s system mandated special pronunciations unlike any other usage in the English language. A few thought the dichotomy of t and d meant the original Chinese character had a sound that was between the two consonants. This idea was quite creative, but wrong.
Over the years, most people came to pronounce Tao like “towel” without realizing that it was originally meant to be like “dowel.” Over time, this mistake became the accepted norm, so now both “tao” and “dao” pronunciations appear in the dictionary.
We have an opportunity to set the record straight. We can continue to spell “Tao Te Ching” in its present form, because it is already part of the English language and thousands of books have been written about it. At the same time, we should also train ourselves to pronounce it like “Dao De Jing,” in order to demonstrate the correct understanding of the actual sounds, and the subtleties of Chinese-to-English transliteration.
This extra bit of understanding can be useful. Next time you encounter people who claim to be experts in the Tao, listen carefully to how they sound out the word. Do they know how to say it correctly? If so, do they know the reason behind it? This can be a quick way to assess the depth of their expertise.