Tao Te Ching – Chapter 53


If I have even a little sense, I would follow the Great Tao. I would only be afraid to stray away from it, and head down the wrong path.

The Great Tao is like a wide road, easy for us to walk on. However, many people still veer off into side paths, thinking they can gain some sort of advantage.

The kings and nobles are an example of this. Because of their corruption and neglect, the people suffer. The fields produce no crops, and the warehouses have nothing to store. The rulers should be concerned about this, but they are not. All they do is dress in fineries, strut around brandishing sharp swords, fill themselves up with wine and food, and accumulate more wealth and goods than they can possibly use.

Is there a difference between them and common robbers? Whatever path they are following, it is most certainly not the Tao!

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Translation Notes

The last line, 非道也哉, is an unambiguous statement by Lao Tzu that certain things are absolutely contrary to the Tao. 非 means “not,” 道 is simply “Tao,” and the last two characters are indicators in ancient Chinese to denote the end of a sentence and an exclamation.

The correct way to translate the above would be something like “This is not the Tao!” However, some translators may decide against such a straightforward translation, possibly due to a personal belief that the Tao must be all-inclusive, so all things must be the Tao. Nothing can be un-Tao because nothing is left out of it.

Perhaps due to the above, a translator may translate the last character 哉 as a question mark instead of exclamation. This twists the original, forceful statement into a more tentative question, thus diluting Lao Tzu’s strong emphasis. Some examples are as follows:

  • Isn’t that conscienceless?
  • What could be further from the Dao?
  • Is this the way of Tao?
  • Is this not departing from the Tao?

None of the above can be an acceptable substitute for “This is not the Tao!”

When I read the Tao Te Ching, I am most interested in Lao Tzu’s thoughts. I am not interested in the translator’s personal beliefs, “modern” perspectives or politics. The translator has one job: convey the original faithfully. Quite a few English-language books on the Tao Te Ching fail this requirement.

Derek Lin
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