For the past couple of days here in Chengdu, I’ve been getting acclimatised and doing all the things that are associated with moving to another country: sorting out all kinds of administrative things, getting my bearings, working out where are the good places to eat, and so on. It’s been fairly busy and demanding, but I think I’m getting there.

Along they way, I’ve found myself thinking about that most pesky of philosophers, Laozi. Or, more accurately, I’ve been thinking about the opening lines of the tricksy Daoist text associated with Laozi—the Dao De Jing. The Dao De Jing is a curious kind of philosophical text. It is often hard to work out what it is on about, which makes it much loved by mystics. It has neither the terseness of some Chinese texts, nor the exuberant rambling (in several senses) of the Zhuangzi. I’ve been reading the Dao De Jing, on and off, for years; but I still don’t know what to make of it.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the famous opening line of the text. It looks like this.

道可道非常道 — dao ke dao fei chang dao.

Given that this is only six words long, and that three of the words are the same as each other, you’d think it wasn’t much of a problem to translate. But this terseness and repetition are precisely the reasons that it is tricky.

The opening line of the text is often translated as something like, ‘the way (dao) that can (ke) be told (dao) is not (fei) the constant (chang) way (dao).’ In other words, there is a big mysterious thing called ‘The Constant Way’ (Chinese lacks shouty capital letters and definite articles that tell you ‘look out, the next thing is really important’, so translators have to put them in). And this thing is so big and mysterious that you can’t say anything about it at all — other than that it is big and mysterious.

All the versions of the Dao De Jing that I have to hand (and these are only a handful, because I’m here in China, my books are there in England, and I don’t have a library card yet to see what they have in the library over here) read the opening sentence as saying something more or less along these lines.

Famously, the Dao De Jing also says that the journey of a thousand li begins with the placing of a single foot (千里之行,始於足下qian li zhi xing, shi yu zu xia). And if this is so, I can’t help thinking that the tendency to translate the opening line of the text in this way is a mis-step. In the way that this translation drives a wedge between some kind of constant or eternal True Thing lurking in the background, and the many inconstant Untrue Things that lie the foreground, it makes the text seem a bit… well, a bit Platonic.

So as I have been wandering around the campus of Sichuan University and sorting out various practical bits and pieces, I’ve been wondering if it is possible to think about this line in a different way. But it is a tricky beast to translate, not least because dao is a fearsomely loaded term. That big old dictionary, the Da Hanyu Cidian, lists something like forty-eight different readings for dao. At its most basic level, it can mean ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘road’ or ‘channel’; but it can also be used as a verb, meaning ‘to say.’ Hence that switch made by most translators from dao as a noun, meaning ‘way’, to dao as a verb, meaning ‘saying’.

As for chang, it can indeed mean ‘constant’, which is what translators often go for. But here it pays to be careful. Etymologically-speaking, chang is said to derive from the phonetic 尚 shàng, and the character 巾 (jīn) meaning ‘towel’, or ‘cloth’. There’s nothing very exalted here, then. We’re not talking about something that is constant in the sense that it is a Really Important Unchanging and Suspiciously Platonic Entity Lurking Behind all Sensory Phenomena. We’re talking about something that is constant in the sense that it is completely usual, everyday, unexceptional, ordinary: a towel, a cloth, a rag.

So I’m going to throw in the towel here to suggest that it is perfectly possible to read the opening line of the Dao De Jing like this.

The way (dao) that is viable (dao-able, i.e. way-able) is not the ordinary way.

Or you can simply go for this:

The viable way is not the ordinary way.

It is possible to disagree with the sentiments here. If you happen to think of yourself as an ordinary kind of person, you are quite entitled to say ‘Oi! Laozi! Who are you to say that my way is not viable!’ And if you happen to think of yourself as an extraordinary kind of person, you should probably come down off your high horse. But leaving this on one side, the translation has the virtue of being a much more down-to-earth reading of the text. It actually makes sense.

Not only does it make sense — it also has some resonance, too. I certainly have felt, before coming out here to Sichuan, that the way I have been treading over the past few years — what, for me, has become business-as-usual — has been increasingly unviable. This was the reason I started thinking in the first place about coming out here, to open up new paths, to find new ways forward.

The Sinologist François Jullien talks about precisely this kind of viability in his terrific essay ‘Did Philosophers Have to Become Fixated on Truth?’ He writes as follows:

‘As wisdom sees it, the essential quality of the way is that it is viable. It does not lead to any goal, but one can pass along it, one always can pass along it, so on can always move on (instead of becoming bogged down or finding one’s path blocked).’

Viability is all! This seems to me a pretty good representation of what I’m up to here in Sichuan. Finding new passages, channels and ways through the world. Not aiming at any single destination in particular, but instead trying to clear some blockages, to find some room to move, to keep things viable.

There is, I think, some wisdom in the question is this way that I am following truly viable? Or else in the questions: how can I find a viable way forward from this point? How can I make sure that the dao I am dao-ing remains truly dao-able?

 * * *

PS: Here’s a reference, for those of you who like references. But you are only getting one of them, or you’ll come to expect it from me. And this is a blog, dammit, not an academic paper.

Jullien, F. (2002) ‘Did Philosophers Have to Become Fixated on Truth?’ Critical Inquiry, 28, 803-824.

PPS: As for the Dao De Jing, I’m perfectly aware that these speculations may well be negated by a close reading of the second line, or the third, or the fourth, or by the rest of the text taken as a whole. But all of that is for another day.

PPPS: There is to my ear a kind of echo between ‘way’ and ‘viable’, which makes the translation above quite satisfying: that which is viable is way-able. I’d like to call upon etymology to support my case here. Unfortunately, however, I can’t, and the two words have different origins, ‘Viable’ being traced to the proto Indo-European *gweie-, meaning ‘to live’ and ‘way’ being traced back to the term *wegh-, or ‘to convey, to move.’ Oh, well…

Comments 4

  1. I have a very sketchy memory of one of my professors at SOAS, Antonello Palumbo, mentioning that the usage of dao as ‘to say’ was now known to have developed later than the probable date of the text, meaning that the conventional translations are most likely wrong. I’ve got no references for that though I’m afraid!

    1. Post

      Sorry about the long lag before responding, but that is really interesting, Josh. I’ll look into this, to see if I can dig up anything more concrete.

  2. As a student of Chinese Medicine, your translation really spoke to me very personally. I’m sure you are familiar with the old Chinese phrase “tòng bù tōng” (痛不通), which is often translated as “If there is pain, there is obstruction”.

    The practice of acupuncture in particular is about ensuring that the jīngluò or circulatory pathways in the body are viable in the sense of being open and free of blockages. In diagnosis, the traditional Chinese physician must determine which of the patient’s channels are open and which are blocked, and then how to restore viability, and thus, vitality, to the system.

    I would say that from a certain point of view, the entire practice of Chinese Medicine could be described as applying this logic of viability to the treatment of illness.

    Regarding your PPS, while there may not be an etymological connection between “viability” and “way”, I think there is a clear correlation at the level of meaning: [I]what is alive is that which moves[/I]. Without movement, or a free space in which to move, there is no life.

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      Interesting thoughts on Chinese medicine! Thanks for posting. I’ve not actually ever heard 痛不通 before, so that’s a nice link.

      Yes, I think you are right about the correlation on the level of meaning; but I was surprised when I realised that the root of “viable” was not the Latin “via”.

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