Daodejing Chapter 1: when is a Dao not a Dao?

Richard Brown
2 min readDec 3, 2023

Chapter 1 of the Daodejing presents a number of intriguing challenges for the would-be translator — starting with which term to use for the character道/dào.

One option is to translate this directly into English as Way or Path. The other is to romanize the pronunciation of the character, either as Tao or Dao. Tao comes from the old Wade-Giles romanization system developed in the mid-nineteenth century, and because of its longevity can be found in far more translations of the text than Dao. However, since Dao is more phonetically accurate and used in the modern Pinyin romanization system, I have adopted it for my translation of the text.

The definition of the character道/dào expanded to include spiritual, philosophical, and ideological paths as well as physical ones. During the late Spring and Autumn (ca 771–475 BC) and early Warring States (ca 475–221 BC) periods when the Daodejing is believed to have been written, there were many such Dao being promoted by purveyors of wisdom as they hustled from state to state in search of positions in government from friendly or desperate rulers just like political consultants and sundry experts do today.

Adding to the fun, the character道/dào could also mean to speak or to tell in classical Chinese. Thus, in the very first stanza of the Daodejing, the author is unable to resist indulging in a spot of word play by using the character three times out of six. To make sure we get the point, he employs the same device in the second stanza with the character名/míng, meaning name.

道可道,非常道,名可名,非常名。
A Dao that can be spoken of
Is not the eternal Dao.
A name that can be named
Is not the eternal name.

By claiming that any Dao which can be expressed in words is not the real deal, the author is immediately casting doubt on the validity of all the other paths and positioning his Dao as the only true or eternal one. That it takes him another 5,000 characters to explain the details of it is an irony that has not been lost on many commentators and scholars of the text. But it is also beside the point because he has already piqued your interest in delving deeper into this “mystery of mysteries” and “gateway to all wonders.”

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.