What Does The 'Teh' Mean In 'Tao Teh Ching'

If you have ever wondered about the “De” in Dao De Jing… you are not alone. I remember wondering this myself, and expending notable energy researching the etymology of this classical Chinese text’s title.

First off, if you spend much time reading this blog, you’ll know I typically use the Pinyin (pīnyīn) system for transcribing Mandarin into the Latin (English :-P) alphabet. However, especially since many of the popular translations were printed before the official adoption of Pinyin by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), many popular copies of the book – which in Pinyin is written as Dao De Jing are commonly known as Tao Teh Ching or Tao Te Ching (thanks to the older Wade-Giles system of Romanization under which the work was originally translated).

Hence, and rather unfortunately, the whole philosophical system of Daoism is probably more popularly known in the West as Taoism. Regardless of which version of Romanization is being used, the underlying text & original meaning are the same. Specifically, the 3 words in question would be: 道, 德, and 经 respectively.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to be using strictly Pinyin [sorry Wade-Giles fans], to prevent confusion that may be caused by me switching back & forth between [dao / tao] for 道, [de / teh] for 德, and [jing / ching] for 经.

The Short Version: “Dao De Jing” Translated

If you are too lazy to read all the way through this attempt at breaking down each character of the “Dào​dé​jīng’s” title, allow me to sum up the rest as succinctly as I can.

Basically, if you put me on the spot, I would translate “Dào​ Dé Jīng” as either:

The Classic on the Virtue of the Way

or

The Classic on the Power of the Way

If you let me, I’d probably prefer to just keep “Dao” and call it “The Classic on the Virtuous Dao” because it sounds cool… but as we will explore in the rest of this article, simply translating “Dé” as “Virtue” or “Virtuous” is misleading (if not downright wrong). If you want to know why, you’ll have to keep reading.

With that brief summary behind us, I’d like to review each of these specific characters in order of ease of translation, starting with the easiest…

What Does “Jing” [or "Ching"] in Dao De Jing [Tao Teh Ching] Mean?

The 经 [​jīng] in Dào​dé​jīng is by far the easiest to translate. It is a standard word used for classical texts of Chinese philosophy & literature (as in 四书五经 [Sìshū Wŭjīng] – Confucius’ canonical “Four Books & Five Classics”). As such, by including “jīng” in the title of the text, it is being clearly indicated as canon or as a literary classic.

Since it is the preeminent & first known text on one of the world’s widest spread philosophical systems of Daoism (or Taoism if you insist), I think it would be hard to argue this book is not a “Classic” or part of the “Canon” … so calling it the Dào​ dé ​jīng seems wholly appropriate.

Now, let’s move to the next “easiest” term to translate, namely…

What Is the “Dao” in Dao De Jing [Tao Teh Ching]?

Of course, tackling the deeper meanings of “Dao” or “Tao” (as in the 道 of Daoism or Taoism) is well beyond the scope of a single blog post… or even extensive series of them. In fact, scholars from the East have been poring over the short 81 chapters, made up of a mere ~5,000 characters, for nearly 2,500 years! And of course, Western scholars have indeed been poring over these chapters for at least the last 150 years as well.

Point being: there’s no way I can define the deeper meanings of “Dao” (as in Daoism) here. What I can do, is provide a more etymological analysis of the Chinese word dào​ (道).

To start with, the “dao” is most commonly translated as the “way” or “path”. In common parlance, (according to online Chinese dictionary MDBG) it can also be used to mean:

“direction / way / road / path / principle / truth / morality / reason / skill / method / Dao (of Daoism) / to say / to speak / to talk”

For the purposes of our discussion, in the context of the title of the Dao De Jing, I think the “Way” (capital W) has been the best translation, because it implies a specific proper noun version of the concept to indicate its distinct meaning. However, in my experience I have also just seen most translations leave this term alone… keeping it as “Tao” or “Dao” rather than attempting to translate this central thesis to the whole philosophical system.

Personally, I’m all for just leaving the Chinese word in its untranslated, Romanized version. If I had to pick, I would keep it as Dao as opposed to Tao, if for no other reason than that it is closer to the actual pronunciation.

So, maybe you want to translate this term as the “Way” – with a capital W in the way that Western philosophers might use Providence or Being to describe something divine, nebulous, and difficult to define, but which they don’t want to call “God” or otherwise invoke as some type of divine entity.

Or maybe you’d prefer to just leave the term untranslated as Dao (or even Tao if you insist).

Either way, I hope this has given some more context as to the actual literal meanings of the Mandarin word “dao” and its context both in everyday uses and in its specialized usage within the philosophical system of Daoism. Since we just kind of cheated with this term, leaving it untranslated or in a special Capital Noun version that is undefinable…

That leaves us to our last term, a question about which gave me the idea for this article in the first place. As you will be happy to see, now the question has been rephrased using the “correct” Pinyin spelling too :-D

Seriously, What Does The “De” Mean In “Dao De Jing”???

The “” (德) of Dào Dé Jīng gets surprisingly little credit for its import & the complexity it adds to the title of this timeless classic. Of course, if you’ve read the Dao De Jing, you have some idea of what is meant when they speak of the “Dao” (since it is constantly referred to throughout the text, especially if you are reading one of the translations where they leave it untranslated.

Since it is obvious that the book is (a) a text, and (b) probably some type of classic (or otherwise old) one… you can get away without knowing what Jīng means, without missing much. (In case you tl;dr’d that section, the joke is jīng literally means “Classic text”).

The funny part, though, is that most people – even students of the book & of Daoism more generally – never really contemplate what this “dé” or “teh” means when examining the little text.

In a word, most would say dé means “virtue” … which I am ok with if we’re willing to examine the etymology & some particular historical usages of that word. From everybody’s friend Wikipedia:

The semantics of this Chinese word resemble English virtue, which developed from virtù, a now-archaic sense of “inner potency” or “divine power” (as in “healing virtue of a drug”) to the modern meaning of “moral excellence” or “goodness.”

I think the equivocation to the earlier root word of virtù and even the Latin virtus are important, and make for especially interesting lines of thinking (for instance, examing the concept of “” discussed in the Daodejing alongside Machiavelli or even ancient Roman philosophy).

More generally, and in modern popular parlance, dé can be translated as “virtue / goodness / morality / ethics / kindness / favor / character / kind.”1 Especially in this type of philosophical context, it can be used to imply “inner strength” or “integrity” … as in dào dé (道德): morality / ethics, or dé cái (德才): virtuous / talented.

However, its translation is also controversial. If we’re using the term “virtue” to mean “good” as in “moral” … then there is a significant problem with the translation. Specifically:

[] is usually translated ‘virtue’, and this often seems to work quite well; though where the word occurs in early, pre-moralistic texts such a translation is in reality quite false. But if we study the usage of the word carefully we find that de can be bad as well as good. What is a ‘bad virtue’? Clearly ‘virtue’ is not a satisfactory equivalent. Indeed on examining the history of the word we find that it means something much more like the Indian karma, save that the fruits of [dé] are generally manifested here and now; whereas karma is bound up with a theory of transmigration, and its effects are usually not seen in this life, but in a subsequent incarnation. [Dé] is anything that happens to one or that one does of a kind indicating that, as a consequence, one is going to meet with good or bad luck. It means, so to speak, the stock of credit (or the deficit) that at any given moment a man has at the bank of fortune.

-Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought (1958, p.31)
[emphasis added]

It is possible to translate dé as “virtue”, and it is possible to translate it – perhaps more aptly – as “power” … but neither quite capture the meaning perfectly.

As we can see, this complexity is rarely given much focus in popular translations of the Dàodéjīng, the character (德) is actually a key concept, appearing 44 times, about 60% as often as Dào, which occurs 76 times. In fact, some scholars even interpret the Dào Dé Jīng as 2 separate but closely interrelated sections, where chapters 1 – 37 are known as the “Dàojīng” (the Classic Text of the Dao) since chapter 1 begins with “dào” … while the latter 44 chapters (38 – 81) are known as the “Déjīng” (the Classic Text of Virtue / Power) since chapter 38 begins with ““.

I think the Waley analogy of a “bank of fortune” being accumulated by following the Dao (or “Way”) is the best explanation of (the “teh” in “Tao Teh Ching” from the articles title). Likening it to karma also seems appropriate; though slightly disparate & not entirely accurate, the analogy can be helpful.

The important thing to remember is that Laozi’s book (the Dào Dé Jīng) is very complex in nature, and any single translation falls short of capturing both the depth of the original text and its historical & cultural context. While much has been said in Western circles about “Dao” … it is very rarely considered in its relationship to “De”. I hope next time you are reading the text, you spend some time researching this term in addition to the more well known Dao.

On this note, to conclude I’d like to finish with a final quote, this time from Victor H. Mair’s Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, by Lao Tzu:

As it is used in the Tao Te Ching, te [also spelled dé] signifies the personal qualities or strengths of the individual, one’s personhood. Te is determined by the sum total of one’s actions, good and bad. Therefore it is possible to speak of “cultivating one’s te.” Like karma, te is the moral weight of a person, which may be either positive or negative. In short, te is what you are. Te represents self-nature or self-realization, only in relation to the cosmos. It is in fact the actualization of the cosmic principle in the self. Te is the embodiment of the Way and is the character of all entities in the universe. Each creature, each object has a te which is its own manifestation of the Tao.

-Victor H. Mair, Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, by Lao Tzu (1990, p.134-35)

Final Thought… Joke’s On You!

Because, if you ever want to discuss this book with most Mandarin speaking Chinese (even Daoist monks) … and you start talking to them about the “Tao Te Ching” … they {most likely} won’t know what you’re talking about!

That’s because in China, most people refer to classic texts of this sort by the *author’s name* and not the title.

In other words, ask people about the “Tao Te Ching” and they might look at you puzzled… but mention the “Laozi” [pinyin version of "Lao Tzu" which is Wade-Giles] and everyone knows you are referring to the classical Daoist text.

This is in the same way that the text written by “Chuang Tzu” is known as the Zhuangzi, and the famous 13 chapters of “Sun Tzu” – often known in the West as “The Art of War” but more properly known as the Sūn​zǐ​ Bīng​fǎ (孙子兵法) or “Master Sun’s Military Method” – is most commonly simply referred to as the Sunzi.

While the complexities of translating a classic text like the Dàodéjīng seem never ending, so are its contributions.

And, maybe you can get a lifetime of value from the book without ever having even considered what the “dé” (or “te” or “teh”) means. If you are interested, I hope this can provide you a little primer. I highly recommend checking out Wikipedia’s articles both on the Tao Te Ching as well as the Chinese word “De”. I of course also recommend reading & reviewing as many translations and companion readers to the Dao De Jing that you can find.

If you are studying Taijiquan, or really any Traditional Chinese Internal Martial Arts, then Lao Tzu’s classic has no doubt influenced the creators & progenitors of your art for many generations. Its influence on your practice will only be beneficial.

But… joke’s on you.

So, next time you pick up your Laozi translation, remember to spend some time contemplating not only the Dào but the Dé.

Good luck!

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