Dao De Jing is a transcript of around five thousand Chinese characters in eighty-one chapters or sections. The chapter divisions were during history in later editions reorganized and supplemented with commentary. The title of the Dao De Jing text comes from the opening words of its two sections: DAO represented in chapters 1 to 37 and DE from chapter 38 to 81.
To explain the title we can separate containing terms. The term Dao was explained in my blog “Dào (Dao, Tao) – the Way” and De in “De – Virtue –Dé”. The third word Jing is translated as ‘canon,’ ‘great,’ or ‘classic’ text.
Thus, Dao De Jing can be translated as ‘The Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue.’ Even if this well-known text title did not become generally used until the Tang dynasty (618–905), it is fundamental to philosophical Daoism and it strongly influenced other old Chinese schools, such as Legalism and Neo-Confucianism. This ancient book is also central to Chinese religion, not only for religious Daoism, but also Chinese Buddhism which, when first introduced into China, was largely interpreted through the use of Daoist words and concepts.
Dao De Jing is primarily reflective in nature while the Analects are more radical. Dao De Jing is without obvious historical markers and gives the impression of timeless universality. The Analects emphasize the social realm alone—human relationship, ethics, and political organization. In contrast, Dao De Jing emphasizes the forces of nature and human interaction with them. The latter stresses the relation of transcendent Dao with the totality of its creation; the former stresses hierarchical relations centering on the parent-child model and particular obligations with clan and kingdom. Dao De Jing idealizes the self-effacing leadership of wise man or sages (in Chinese: Sheng Ren), who governs himself and others by keeping to the Way, by staying behind and by enabling rather than visibly directing others. Analects idealize the superior man, a public role model who may advise the patriarch or even serve as a potential ruler in place of an unfit heir.
It is important to mention that Wilhelem in his translation of Dao De Jing already shows that Lao Zi knew the book I Ching as some of his profoundest aphorisms were inspired by it. Confucius (Analects) too knew this book and developed himself to reflect upon it. He probably wrote down some of his interpretative comments and imparted others to his pupils in oral teaching because there is a version edited and annotated by him that has come down to our time.
One should know that the China of Dao De Jing was not the single nation we know today. There was no unified territory called China until the last twenty years of the third century BE. Therefore, Dao De Jing is the philosophical counterpart—the rival and the complement—to the Analects of Confucius. These two classics are the foundation works of their respective traditions, Daoism and Confucianism. Both evolved from studying the even more ancient text known as I Ching (view blog I Ching) also known as the Classic of Changes or Book of Changes that originated with the mythical Fu Xi.
In the view of the Dao De Jing, the wise have ‘ming’ meaning “clear, bright, to understand” which makes possible the appreciation of Dao and how it moves the ‘ten thousand things’ and therefore meaning: the creation, all living things. Lao Zi values ‘míng’ and rejects ‘zhi’- a word covering intellect, knowledge, wisdom, expertise, and sophistry used in Analects. The ‘ming’ for Lao Zi and Daoists is the power of the natural mind. Confucians, however, value ‘zhi’ over ‘ming’. But it was Lao Zi who redefined and transformed the term Dao for all times by universalizing it to the general truth.