The Mystery of the Tao


Derek, Tao Te Ching chapter 1 speaks of “mystery of mysteries.” I would like to understand this concept better. What is the Chinese character for mystery? Can you talk about its etymology and meaning?


The Chinese character is xuan and pronounced like “shuan.” It appears in chapters 1, 6, 10, 15, 51, 56, and 65. Its frequency is suggestive of its importance in our study of the Tao.

The character is composed of two parts. The top half is a cover, while the bottom half is a character meaning small. Together, they represent a little thing that is covered up — in other words, something that is difficult to discern and therefore mysterious. This is the key to understand the character.

Note that etymology does not always equal meaning in a literal way. In this case, “hard to see” has been abstracted to the meaning of “difficult to understand,” so this character cannot be used to describe a physical object that is hidden from view. It can be used to describe a puzzle, a perplexing idea, or an unclear situation. In this regard, xuan is similar to the English words “mystery” and “mysterious.” It can also be used to describe the spiritual realm, which we know is not as easily perceived as the physical world. In this regard, xuan is similar to the English words “mystic” and “mystical.”

Some dictionaries have “dark” or “darkness” as a definition for this character. The idea is that something dark is difficult to see, so in that sense this is congruent with the original meaning. However, the English word “dark” has negative connotations that do not exist in the Chinese character. For instance, when we watch a movie trailer and hear the familiar phrase “in a world of darkness,” we know it means a world of chaos, oppression or evil. Thus, using “dark” or “darkness” to translate xuan can lead to the wrong impression. Western readers may not recognize it as such, but to native Chinese speakers, this would stand out as an obvious error.

Derek Lin
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