A Tool With Many Handles

By | May 30, 2011

Review: The Rhyming Tao Te Ching, by Cedargrove Mastermind Group, CreateSpace, 2011

Other than the Bible, there is probably no classic text more besieged with controversy than the Tao Te Ching. Was it written by one person, was it compiled, or was it transcribed from the oral tradition? Is it 2,300 or 3,300 years old? Were there additions, deletions, or revisions over the centuries? And then there is the huge question of translation accuracy. In fact, translation is hardly the correct term for the reconstruction process needed to render the Tao Te Ching in another language, even modern Chinese. Classical Chinese characters are neither letters nor words, but rather allusions to thoughts and concepts that can be fully understood only by those living in the culture and time. The original was probably written on sewn-together thin strips of bamboo, which over time could have gotten shuffled like a deck of cards, as with some other surviving documents of the era. There is no punctuation, which makes it difficult to tell where one thought ends and another begins.

Translations vary from the purely academic, which tend to be sparse and dry, to fluid contemporary renditions that read like good poetry. The most popular modern version is Stephen Mitchell’s, probably because it speaks to the time, in the language of the time. It is highly praised by many, because like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it is a people’s text. At the same time, it is sternly criticized by academics for what they call its liberal interpretation of the original. Another contemporary version, by Red Pine, is not as well known but pleases many of those who are looking for accuracy along with readability.

With all the hubbub over translation, I’m surprised that so little attention has been given to rhythm and rhyme. If the Tao Te Ching was originally recited from memory and passed down from generation to generation, as were the classic Norse, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic texts, the narrators probably employed poetic structure, rhythm, and rhyme as memory aids for both themselves and their audience. Unfortunately, the earliest extant versions of the Tao Te Ching give us no clue as to how it was rendered orally. One thing we can be fairly sure of is that, just as with a reading of the text from the classical Chinese, no two oral tradition narrators recited the Tao Te Ching the same way.

As a return to the oral tradition, The Rhyming Tao Te Ching could be the most stylistically authentic modern version, and I am grateful to the Cedargrove Mastermind Group for creating it and making it available for us. I suggest reading it aloud, to gain the full impact of the poetic presentation. When the voice lifts words off of a page, they are imbued with a life that carries them more deeply than if they were merely read in silence.


2 Comments

David on May 30, 2011 at 9:51 am.

Interesting about the Rhythm & Rhyme! I took a hybridized course of Mandarin-Chinese language & Tao Te Ching philosophy. What i learned most from this experience of learning was that when i originally attempted to “Read” the Tao, it just didn’t seem to work for me. I couldn’t “Get it”.

But then i started to “Sing” or Rhyme the language, and it clicked! All the sudden the language made sense to me. Curious…

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Tamarack on May 31, 2011 at 6:59 pm.

David,

It’s great that your instincts have shown you the method epic poem orators use to aid memory and hold audience interest. I’ve met a number of people who have told me that they need to discipline themselves to read the commonly found dry translations of the Tao te Ching.

Your comment, “I couldn’t get it,” is of more concern to me than the difficulty of reading those translations. When someone speaks in monotone, without cadence, listeners find it hard to pay attention and fully comprehend. A good—read “functional”—translation is academically based and poetically rendered.

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