“People follow earth, earth follows heaven, heaven follows the Way, and the Way follows what is” (31).
What the late Urusla K. Le Guin has done in her rendition of the Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way is not only challenging, it is brave. It’s far from easy to take an ancient text that already has immense amounts of translation, meaning, and scholarship and spin it into a modern-day, eloquent rendition that gives insight to a new generation of readers. But she has succeeded, and Le Guin’s version of the Tao Te Ching is so layered with inspiration that it’s hard to know where to begin, not unlike the study of the Tao itself.
Le Guin best describes Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in her introduction:
“The Tao Te Ching was probably written about twenty-five hundred years ago, perhaps by a man called Lao Tzu, who may have lived at about the same time as Confucius. Nothing about it is certain except that it’s Chinese, and very old, and speaks to people everywhere as if it had been written yesterday” (ix).
The Tao Te Ching has been translated by numerous scholars, all attempting to give meaning to Lao Tzu’s beautiful yet confusing writings. Le Guin, who is probably first known for her award-winning science fiction and fantasy writings, passed away in 2018, but she explains in this version that her love of the mysterious ancient text began very early in her life.
Her first introduction to the Tao Te Ching was through her childhood reading of Paul Carus’ 1898 edition. She relied heavily on his interpretation to derive her meaning in this book, but this process took her decades to accomplish (the original text was published in 1997 with this updated version and cover published in 2019).
One element of Le Guin’s version of the Tao Te Ching that I found so touching was her connection to the past through this text, particularly her copy of Carus’ 1898 edition that was owned by her father:
“The [Tao Te Ching] was my father’s; he read in it often. Once I saw him making notes from it and asked what he was doing. He said he was marking which chapters he’d like to have read at his funeral … I have the book, now ninety-eight years old … and have marked which chapters I’d like to have read at my funeral … Here I will only say that I was lucky to discover [Lao Tzu] so young, so that I could live with the book my whole life long” (ix).
This gave a particularly deep meaning to reading Le Guin’s work and one that probably best describes how the Tao Te Ching survives: it’s passed on through the generations.
I found myself doing almost the identical exercise that Le Guin did: reading her passages and consulting other translations. Le Guin explains that her version of the Tao Te Ching is a rendition, not a direct translation as she was not familiar with any Chinese languages (she collaborated with J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for direct translations).
Previous translations did the job of converting the ancient Chinese into English, but to Le Guin, they felt awkward and clumsy; the beauty and elegance of the poetry in the text was lost. This publication is her attempt at beautifying language that perhaps had been overprocessed, the delicate and gorgeous sounds slipping through into the void.
“ … in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth” (31).
Le Guin’s version of the Tao Te Ching deserves its own scholarship and a place amongst other great renditions. Le Guin has been kind enough to offer her thoughts and commentary in the footnotes of many of the verses, though she is very clear in her introduction that these can be ignored should the reader not find them helpful. Reading this book almost feels as if the reader is walking side-by-side with Le Guin, witnessing how she came to comprise such beautiful poetry out of the densest of material, and made all the more meaningful as this wonderful writer is no longer with us. But in the true nature of literature, her words and her thoughts live on, and her spirit, like the Tao, is very much alive in this book.
“Heaven and earth and the ten thousand things are born of being. Being is born of nothing” (31).