'The Sayings of Lao Tzu' translated by Lionel Giles (1905)

Statue of Lao Tzu at the foot of Mount Qingyuan

A selection from The Sayings of Lao Tzu (circa 6th Century BC), translated by Lionel Giles, 1905.

See the Appendix for a selection from the sayings of Chuang Tzu, translated by Herbert Giles and published in 1906 as Musings of a Chinese Mystic, and Lieh Tzu, translated by Lionel Giles and published in 1912 as The Book of Lieh Tzu

From Lionel Giles introduction to his English translation:

Lao Tzu's work... was first officially recognized as a 'canon' or 'classic' under the Emperor Ching Ti (BCE 156-140) of the Han Dynasty... . One Emperor was in the habit of holding forth on the doctrines of Lao Tzu before his assembled ministers... . Another published an edition of the Tao Te Ching, which is described in the preface as 'the root of all things, the teacher of kings, and the most precious jewel of the public.' The first Emperor of the later Chin Dynasty asked if Tao was of any use in government. Chang Chi'ien-ming told him that 'with Tao a corpse could govern the Empire.' By successive edicts the Tao Te Ching was made obligatory at the examination for graduates of the second degree... . Later on, printed copies were distributed to all directors of education... .

Tradition places Lao Tzu's birth some 50 years before Confucius (although there are many stories in which they are said to have met). For the most part, the latter expositors of mystical-Tao paid homage to Confucius, regarding him as a great Sage of antiquity, although tradition views the works of Chuang Tzu as antagonistic towards Confucius's tradition. 

Modern scholars have speculated about the possible influence of Hinduism upon the development of Taoism, with some ascribing it to Lao Tzu himself (the fact of his living around the same time as the composition of the principle Upanishads may lend some prima facie support to this idea), while others place the period of influence with the later expositors of mystical-Tao (like Chuang Tzu). Passages in Chung Tzu's writings which speak of a 'Great Sage in the West' have traditionally been interpreted as referring to Gautama Buddha (the same passages which the Jesuit missionaries latter claimed referred in fact to Jesus).
The oldest known surviving manuscript of the Tao Te Ching 
(道德經)-- written on Bamboo-- has been dated to the 4th Century BC, though it is generally believed to have originated in the 6th Century BC. The first attempt at translating the Tao into English was made by John Chalmers in 1868. Around the turn of the 19th and 20th century Herbert Giles, the father of the author of the present translation, developed a system of transliteration for classical Chinese, and compiled the first Chinese-English dictionary. Speaking of the various attempts at translating the classical Chinese of the original text into European tongues, Holmes Welch said it was "a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved."

Editors note: The following excerpts are arranged under the subject headings, and in the order, as they appear in Giles translation, even though this order and arrangement is not faithful to the original text but was an invention of the translators.

Tao in its Transcendental Aspect and in its Physical Manifestation

The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao... . [...] ...the spiritual and the material, though we call them by different names, in their origin are one and the same. This sameness is a mystery-- the mystery of mysteries... .

How unfathomable is Tao! It seems to be the ancestral progenitor of all things.

Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from Tao; but the law of Tao is its own spontaneity.

Tao as it exists in the world is like the great rivers and seas which receive the streams from the valleys.

The World has a First Cause, which may be regarded as the Mother of the World. When one has the Mother, one can know the Child. He who knows the Child and still keeps the Mother, though his body perish, shall run no risk of harm.

Tao as a Moral Principle, or Virtue

He who acts in accordance with Tao, becomes one with Tao.

...the truly great man takes his stand upon what is solid, and not upon what is superficial; upon what is real, and not upon what is ornamental. He rejects the latter in the practices of the former.

He who is simple and true appears unstable as water.

Setting the tap-root deep, and making the spreading roots firm: this is the way to ensure long life to the tree.

Tao is the sanctuary where all things find refuge.

The skilful philosophers of the olden time were subtle, spiritual, profound, and penetrating. They were so deep as to be incomprehensible. Because they are hard to comprehend, I will endeavor to describe them.

Shrinking were they, like one fording a stream in winter. Cautious were they, like one who fears an attack from any quarter. Circumspect were they, like a stranger guest; self-effacing, like ice about to melt; simple, like unpolished wood; vacant, like a valley; opaque, like muddy water.

The Doctrine of Inaction

Be sparing in speech, and things will come right of themselves.

Attain complete vacuity, and sedulously preserve a state of repose.

Lowliness and humility

What makes a kingdom great is its being like a down-flowing river-- the central point towards which all the smaller streams under Heaven converge; or like the female through the world, who by quiescence always overcomes the male.

The reason why rivers and seas are able to be lords over a hundred mountain streams, is that they know how to keep below them. That is why they are able to reign over all the mountain streams.

Those whom Heaven would save, it fences around with gentleness.

The best soldiers are not warlike; the best fighters do not lose their temper.


In the highest antiquity, the people did not know that they had rulers. in the next age they loved and praised them. In the next, they feared them. In the next, they despised them.

How cautious is the Sage, how sparing in his words! When his task is accomplished and affairs are prosperous, the people all say: "We have come to be as we are, naturally and of ourselves."

Fishes must not be taken from the water: the methods of government must not be exhibited to the people.

As restrictions and prohibitions are multiplied in the Empire, the people grow poorer and poorer. When the people are subjected to overmuch government, the land is thrown into confusion. When the people are skilled in many cunning arts, strange are the objects of luxury that appear.

The greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there will be. Therefore the Sage says: "So long as I do nothing, the people will work out their own reformation. So long as I love calm, the people will right themselves. If only I keep from meddling, the people will grow rich. If only I am free from desire, the people will come naturally back to simplicity."

If the government is sluggish and tolerant, the people will be honest and free from guile. If the government is prying and meddling, there will be constant infraction of the law.

Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. [i.e., Don't overdo it.]

If the Empire is governed according to Tao, disembodied spirits will not manifest supernatural powers.

Do not confine them within too narrow bounds; do not make their lives too weary. For if you do not weary them of life, then they will not grow weary of you.


The space between Heaven and Earth-- is it not like a bellows? It is empty, yet inexhaustible; when it is put in motion, more and more comes out.

He who is most perfect seems to be lacking; yet his resources are never outworn. He who is most full seems vacant; yet his uses are inexhaustible.

Extreme straightness is as bad as crookedness. Extreme cleverness is as bad as folly. Extreme fluency is as bad as stammering.

Plants and trees when they come forth are tender and crisp; when dead, they are dry and tough. Thus rigidity and strength are the concomitants of death; softness and weakness are the concomitants of life.

The truest sayings are paradoxical.

Miscellaneous Sayings and Precepts

By many words wit is exhausted; it is better to preserve a mean. The excellence of a dwelling is its site; the excellence of a mind is its profundity; ...the excellence of movement is timeliness.

What the world reverences may not be treated with disrespect.

He who has not faith in others shall find no faith in them.

...repose is the ruler of unrest.

Among men, reject none; among things, reject nothing. This is called comprehensive intelligence.

Do not wish to be rare like Jade, or common like stone.

Good words shall gain you honor in the market-place, but good deeds shall gain you friends among men.

The Sage knows what is in him, but makes no display; he respects himself, but seeks not honor for himself.

To know, but to be as though not knowing, is the height of wisdom. Not to know, and yet to affect knowledge, is a vice. If we regard this vice as such, we shall escape it. The Sage has not this vice. It is because he regards it as a vice that he escapes it.

Use the light that is in you to revert to your natural clearness of sight. Then the loss of the body is unattended by calamity. This is called doubly enduring.

In the management of affairs, people constantly break down just when they are nearing a successful issue. If they took as much care at the end as at the beginning, they would not fail in their enterprises.

Lao Tzu on Himself

Other men are full of light; I alone seem to be in darkness. [...] Lonely though I am and unlike other men, yet I revere the Foster-Mother, Tao.

...the Sage wears coarse garments, but carries a jewel in his bosom.







Musings of a Chinese Mystic (the sayings of Chuang Tzu)

The mushroom of a morning knows not the alternation of day and night. The chrysalis knows not the alternation of spring and autumn. Theirs are short years. But in the State of Ch'u there is a tortoise whose spring and autumn are each of five hundred years' duration. And in former days there was a large tree which had a spring and autumn each of eight thousand years' duration.

It was the time of autumn floods. Every stream poured into the river, which swelled in its turbid course.

Then the Spirit of the River laughed for joy that all the beauty of the earth was gathered to himself. Down with the stream he journeyed east until he reached the ocean. There, looking eastwards and seeing no limit to its waves, his countenance changed. And as he gazed over the expanse, he sighed and said to the Spirit of the Ocean, "A vulgar proverb says that he who has heard but part of the truth thinks no one equal to himself." And such a one am I.

"...now that I have looked upon your inexhaustibility-- alas for me had I not reached your abode, I should have been for ever a laughing-stock to those of comprehensive enlightenment!"

To which the Spirit of the Ocean replied: "You cannot speak of ocean to a well-frog-- the creature of a narrower sphere. You cannot speak of ice to a summer insect-- the creature of a season. [...] But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak of you of great principles...

What man knows is not to be compared with what he does not know. The span of his existence is not to be compared with the span of his non-existence.

Those who would have right without its correlative, wrong; or good government without its correlative, misrule, do not apprehend the great principles of the universe nor the conditions to which all creation is subject. One might as well talk of the existence of heaven without that of earth, or of the negative principle without the positive, which is clearly absurd.

If you adopt, as absolute, a standard of evenness which is so only relatively, your results will not be absolutely even. If you adopt, as absolute, a criterion of right which is so only relatively, your result will not be absolutely right. Those who trust to their senses become slaves to objective existences. Those alone who are guided by their intuitions find the true standard. So far are the senses less reliable than the intuitions. Yet fools trust to their senses to know what is good... .

There is nothing which is not objective: there is nothing which is not subjective. But it is impossible to start from the objective. Only from subjective knowledge is it possible to proceed to objective knowledge. Hence it has been said, 'The objective emanates from the subjective; the subjective is consequent upon the objective. This is the Alternation Theory.' Never the less, when one is born, the other dies. When one is possible, the other is impossible. When one is affirmative, the other is negative. Which being the case, the true sage rejects all distinctions of this and that. He takes his refuge in God, and places himself in subjective relation with all things.

And inasmuch as the subjective is also objective, and the objective also subjective, and as the contraries under each are indistinguishably blended, does it not become impossible for us to say whether subjective and objective really exist at all?

When subjective and objective are both without their correlates, that is the very axis of Tao. And when that axis passes through the centre at which all infinities converge, positive and negative alike blend into an infinite One... . Therefore it is that, viewed from the standpoint of Tao, a beam and a pillar are identical.

Only the truly intelligent understand this principle of the identity of all things. They do not view things as apprehended by themselves, subjectively; but transfer themselves into the position of the things viewed. And viewing them thus they are able to comprehend them, nay, to master them; and he who can mamster them is near [to the great goal of Tao]. So it is that to place oneself in subjective relation with externals, without consciousness of their objectivity, this is Tao.

...he who dreads to die is a child who has lost the way and cannot find his home.

While they dream, they do not know that they dream. [...] By and by comes the Great Awakening, and then we find out that this life is really a great dream. Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know if they are really princes or peasants. Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams-- I am but a dream myself. This is a paradox. To-morrow a sage may arise to explain it; but that tommorrow will not be until ten thousand generations have gone by.

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier. The transition is called metempyschosis.

Prince Hui's cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every chhk of the chopper, was in perfect harmony-- rhythmical like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, simultaneous like the chords of the Ching Shou.

"Well done!" cried the Prince; "yours is skill indeed."

"Sire," replied the cook, "I have always devoted myself to Tao. It is better than skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me simply whole buttocks. After three years' practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. When my senses bid me stop, but my mind urges me on, I fall back upon eternal principles. I follow such openings or cavities as there may be, according to thenatural constitution of the animal. I do not attempt to cut through joints: still less through large bones.

"A good cook changes his chopper once a year, because he cuts. An ordinary cook, once a month-- because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. [An allusion to the saying of Lao Tzu "that which has no substance enters where there is no crevice."] By these means the interstice will be enlarged, and the blade will find plenty of room. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone.

"Bravo!" cried the Prince. "From the words of this cook I have learnt how to take care of my life."

Books are what the world values as representing Tao. But books are only words, and the valuable part of words is the thought therein contained. That thought has a certain bias which cannot be conveyed in words, yet the world values words as being the essence of books. But though the world values them, they are not of value; as that sense in which the world values them is not the sense in which they are valuable... 

Duke Huan was one day reading in his hall, when a wheelwright who was working below flung down his hammer and chisel, and mounting the steps said: "What words may your Highness be studying?"

"I am studying the words of the Sages," replied the Duke.

"Are the Sages alive??" asked the wheelwright.

"No," answered the Duke; "they are dead."

"Then the words your Highness is studying," rejoined the wheelwright, "are only the dregs of the ancients."

"What do you mean, sirrah!" cried the Duke, "by interfering with what I read? Explain yourself, or you shall die."

"Let me take an illustration," said the wheelwright, "from my own trade. In making a wheel, if you work too slowly, you can't make it firm; if you work too fast, the spokes won't fit in. You must go neither too slowly nor too fast. There must be coordination of mind and hand. Words cannot explain what it is, but there is some mysterious art herein. I cannot teach it to my son; nor can he learn it from me. Consequently, though seventy years of age, I am still making wheels in my old age. If the ancients, together with what they could not impart, are dead and gone, then what your Highness is studying must be the dregs."

If you are always offending others by your superiority, you will probably come to grief.

...pure me draw breath from their uttermost depths; the vulgar only from their throats.

When water is still, it is like a mirror. [...] And if water thus derives lucidity from stillness, how much more the faculties of the mind! The mind of the Sage, being in repose, becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation.

The true Sage is a passive agent. If he succeeds, he simply feels that he was provided by no effort of his own with the energy necessary to success.

Fishes are born in water. Man is born in Tao.

...the perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives, but does not keep. And thus he can triumph over matter, without injury to himself.

Tsui Chu asked Lao Tzu, saying: "If the empire is not to be governed, how are men's hearts to be kept in order?"

"Be careful," replied Lao Tzu, "not to interfere with the natural goodness of the heart of man, Man's heart may be forced down or stirred up. In each case the issue is fatal."

Let knowledge stop at the unknowable. That is perfection.

The raison d'etre of a fish-trap is the fish. When the fish is caught, the trap may be ignored. The raison d'etre of a rabbit-snare is the rabbit. When the rabbit is caught, the snare may be ignored. The raison d'etre of language is an idea to be expressed. When when the idea is expressed, the language may be ignored. But where shall I find a man to ignore language, with whom I may be able to converse?

When Chuang Tzu was about to die, his disciples expressed a wish to give him a splendid funeral. But Chuang Tzu said: "With Heaven and Earth for my coffin and shell; with the sun, moon, and stars as my burial regalia; and with all creation to escort me to the grave-- are not my funeral paraphernalia read to hand?

The Book of Lieh Tzu