John Emerson’s Dao.

From John Emerson’s FB post:

I’ve been studying Classical Chinese and especially the Daodejing for 45 years now, and during the 1990s I even published a few articles about it in legit academic journals. For a couple years now I’ve been gathering and editing my writings with the eventual goal of book publication. I now have a few things ready to go and more will follow.

To begin with, I have an edited text and translation. There are over 300 English translations of the Daodejing available and any new translation makes people ask “Why?” But my version is very substantially different than any earlier version, and I claim that in these respects it is better. To begin with, I have revised the Chinese text with an eye to 4 texts, much older than the traditional Wang Bi text, which have been unearthed by archaeologists in recent decades which are. My goal has not been to reconstruct the “original Daodejing” but to produce an eclectic composite text which lacks the various problems and inconsistencies that each individual text has, and when possible to find new (to us) meanings which have been lost over time.

I have also rearranged the text of the Daodejing, which is acknowledged to be a chaotic hodgepodge, into intelligible historical-topical groups which stand in an intelligible relationship to one another. Most significantly, I have divided the Daodejing into two distinctly different parts, each amounting to about half the Daodejing, which I call Early Dao and Sage Dao. My thesis that the Daodejing is an anthology put together by the followers of “Sage Daoism”, and that about half of the book consists of writings of Early Dao authors who *did not mention the Sage at all*.

My explanation of the Early Dao / Sage Dao division is here. These are final versions, though I am open to editing and proofreading help. My main goal, however, is to find a publisher (or at least an agent). Please share this message and these links with anyone who you think might be interested. (My email address is at the links).

So if you know any agent or publisher who might be interested, do let him and/or me know; the Daodejing is endlessly interesting and needs as many interpretations as it can get.


  1. John Emerson says

    Thanks! I will add that my actual text and translation of “Early Dao” is here:

  2. Whew! I was afraid for a second that John Emerson had started a distributed autonomous organization.

  3. He could, but that would take precious time away from Chinese literature.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Oh, fascinating.

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I keep reading it as ‘John Emerson’s Dad’

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I can recommend a good optician in Edinburgh …

  7. What is the market for an “eclectic composite text” of an ancient work that has already given rise to a vast bibliography (much of which has never been translated into western languages)? Personally I prefer to read scholarly studies which add to my understanding of the historical context. I am currently reading ‘The Daodejing Commenary of Cheng Xuanying — Daoism, Buddhism and the Laozi in the Tang Dynasty’, an annotated translation by Friederike Assandri of a 7th century text not previously available in full in English.

  8. There seems to be an endless appetite for all things Dao-related; I see no reason why JE’s version couldn’t find an audience.

  9. First readers of the Chinese text of the Daodejing end up struggling with all kinds of word-substitutions and other inconsistencies and incoherences. I try to choose the most intelligible version of each passage while mentioning the various difficulties in notes. The Daodejing already had the messiest textual history of pretty much any well-known Chinese text even *before* four new texts were unearthed in the last 60 years, each of them including variants never seen before, some of which radically changed the meaning of the passage.

    I do take this history into account, as well as the DDJ’s relationship to contemporary and earlier thinkers (including such obscure figures as Shen Dao) and to the social and political context. What I did not do was try to establish textual lineages on the way to discovering the Urtext. I was using the resources I had to produce the most readable and intelligible possible text.

    P M Thompson, a masterful textual scholar of the kind that I am not, did a meticulous discussion of one chapter of the newly Guodian text which he thought could be a model for future textual work on the DDJ. It came to about ten pages on a single chapter, which would come to 800 pages for the whole Daodejing, but he did this by choosing one of the 10 or 15 least problematic chapters, with a rather small number of minor variants, none of which changed the meaning. Other chapters have many more variants including some which radically change the meaning of a passage. And I couldn’t help but observe that he left the task of finishing the job to some unnamed other.

    I have some familiarity with the commentary tradition, but most of it that I’ve seen is interpretive, from a point of view, and works rather casually with the textual variants and generally just sticks to the received version.

    The Daodejing reached more or less its final form sometime not too much before 200 BC, and a 700 AD work wouldn’t really tell us much about its historical context. There are only a small handful of commentaries to the DDJ written within two centuries of the completion of the book itself, and most of them are very sketchy.

  10. What are some examples where the newly-discovered texts completely changed the meaning?

  11. John Emerson says

    One example is the word 正 “upright, right, correct” which plays a fairly important role in the DDJ. The new texts show that at various places where it appears in the new texts it is replaced by 貞 “real, true”, 忠 “reliable, loyal, committed” , 直 “straight” , or 定 “settled, established” in the familiar texts. This doesn’t exactly change the meaning since these are overlapping honorific terms, but it does allow you to see a theme running all through the Daodejing which had been less evident in the familiar texts. (These substitutions are presumably motivated by the customary avoidance of the names of deceased emperors, which we now know resulted in the permanent substitution of the word 常 for 恆/ 恒 in the text of the Daodejing, both meaning something like “constant” or “eternal” or “universal”).

    There are other frequent substitutions which have no such justification and are just the result of the not quite standardized state of the writing system. The words 智 and 知, both meaning “to know / knowledge” and For example, the word 敝 “worn out” is seen in the most familiar Wang Bi text in the forms 弊 and 蔽 and other texts in the form 幣. And in neither case does this change the meaning at all, but one of my goals is to produce a standardized Chinese text which can be read by a beginning student without these entanglements, but which informs them in the notes that when he gets out in the real world reading non-standardized texts he will have to deal with this kind of mess.My work on the text is as important to me as the specifics of the translation, and in some respects more so.

    For something which radically changes the meaning, the beginning of chapter 16 takes 4 different forms in the new texts, onbly one of which can be reduced to the familiar text. This is one of the most revered but also difficult of the mystical chapters, and its interpretation has tended to end up circling around a certain complex of meanings, but the two oldest versions are very difficult to relate to that complex.

    守 沖 篤 也 /
    守 情 表也 /
    守 靜 督也 /
    積 正 督 /
    守 靜 篤 (Familiar text)

    There are also a lot of speculative changes, partly because a fair number of the characters in the older texts are uncertain. But there are also some unmistakeable diifferences, 有 欲 者 “the man of ambition” for the familiar 有 道 者 “He who has the way” in chapters 24 and 31.

    Someone wiho reads my version will realize that there can be no single reading of the text, not for postmodernist reasons but because, first, the Daodejing had multiple authors but also multiple editors working over along period, and whwrw do you draw the line?; and second, because of the script problems just mentioned.

  12. I have started posting my writings on the Daodejing at

    besides my own site.

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