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An illustrated version of James Legge’s translation of the Tao Te Ching or ‘Canon of the Way of Virtue’, with an introduction to the ‘Old Master’ Laozi, and a short biography of Legge. 11,000 words, 88 high quality images

  • Translated by James Legge with commentary by Andrew Forbes and images by David Henley

The Tao Te Ching or ‘Canon of the Way of Virtue' is a classical Chinese text generally dated to the 6th century BCE. It has traditionally been attributed to Laozi, the ‘Old Master', said to have been a scribe at the court of the Zhou Dynasty. The actual date of the composition of the Tao Te Ching - now generally rendered Daodejing in Pinyin Romanisation - remains a matter of conjecture, though the oldest text discovered so far dates back to the 4th century BCE.

The identity of Laozi – also Romanised as Lao Tse, Lao-Tsu and Laotze – similarly remains uncertain. The earliest known reference to Laozi is found in the Shiji or ‘Records of the Grand Historian' of Sima Qian (c. 145-86 BCE), which makes the ‘Old Master' a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 BCE).

By the mid-20th century a consensus had emerged among both Chinese and Western scholars that the Tao Te Ching was most probably attributable to several distinct philosophers and dated back at least as far as the 4th century BCE. By this time, however, Laozi had attained divine status as the founder of the Taoist – or Daoist – philosophy, revered as an ancestor of the illustrious Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and honoured with the title Taishang xuanyuan huangda or ‘Supreme Mysterious and Primordial Emperor'.

The text attributed to Laozi, the Tao Te Ching, is central to both religious and philosophical Taoism, and represents a central tenet of the san jiao or ‘Three Teachings' of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism that combine to form the main religious tradition not just of China, but also of Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Representing a philosophical standpoint rich in naturalism and closely associated with anti-authoritarianism down the millennia, it has also been a major influence on the artistic world in China and beyond, inspiring generations of calligraphers, poets, painters, musicians and classical landscape gardeners.

The Tao Te Ching was first translated into English in 19th century, and is now among the most widely celebrated religious and philosophical texts of mankind. The translation offered here is that of the great Scottish Orientalist James Legge (1815-1897), presented unchanged but with the addition of a biography of and portrait of the translator.

The text is also accompanied by 82 classical images from the Taoist pantheon, the great majority scroll paintings from Imperial China, some dating back as far as the great Tang Dynasty and beyond.

  • Andrew Forbes was Lecturer in Religious Studies at King's College, University of Aberdeen - James Legge's former alma mater - from 1982 to 1989. He has a BA in Chinese Studies, an MA in Religious Studies and a Ph.D. in Chinese History, all from the University of Leeds in the UK. In 1989 he moved to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand where he founded CPA Media together with the photographer David Henley. They have been collecting classical images from China's past since that time and have drawn on their extensive online collection at Pictures From History to illustrate this new version of Laozi's classic Tao Te Ching.

© 2012 CPA Media &  Cognoscenti Books. All Rights Reserved.