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Taoist Texts

Important Taoist texts include the Tao-te Ching, the Chuang-tzu and several other less famous works of Taoist philosophy.

The Tao-te Ching

The Tao-te Ching (or Dao De Jing) is the central text of both philosophical and religious Taoism. In English, its name is usually translated as Classic of the Way of Power. It is also known as Lao Tzu's Five Thousand Words, as it is attributed to the sage Lao Tzu ("Master Lao," c. 5th century BCE) and is 5,000 Chinese characters in length.

The authorship, or at least sole authorship, of Lao-tzu has been questioned by some scholars, most of whom believe the text was compiled over a period of centuries. The existence of Lao-tzu himself has even been doubted, especially during the 19 th century, but most scholars now believe he was likely a historical figure.

Dating the Tao-te Ching is difficult, as it makes no reference to external events, people, or places. Scholarly opinions on its date of composition vary between the 8th century and 3rd century BCE. {1} The oldest existing manuscript dates to about 200 BCE. {2}

The Tao-te Ching's 81 short sections are poetic, paradoxical, and at once mystical and practical. It is intended as a handbook for the ideal ruler, a sage who rules by passivity and gentleness, acting in such a way that his actions go unnoticed.

So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight. So long as I act only by inactivity, the people will of themselves become prosperous. Since its composition, a great many commentaries have been written on the Tao Te Ching: over 350 in Chinese and 250 in Japanese.

The full text of the Tao Te Ching is available in this Taoism section.


The Chuang-Tzu, named for its primary author, "Master Chuang" (c. 369-286 BCE), is also known as Nan-hua chenching (“The Pure Classic of Nan-hua”). Composed in the 4th or 3rd century BCE, the Chuang-tzu focuses a great deal on the person of Lao-tzu, who is presented as one of Chuang-Tzu's own teachers. It contains several discourses attributed to Lao Tzu, most of which are presented as responses to a disciple's questions, and records interactions between Lao Tzu and Confucius in which the former is the clear superior of the two. The remainder of the work consists of colorful fables, parables, and anecdotes that teach lessons about life and the Tao. {3}

The Chuang-tzu has 33 chapters, although it may have had as many as 53 chapters in the 4th century CE. Numerous editions of the work, with many variant readings, have appeared since then, making it very difficult to discern its original content. It is generally agreed that Chapters 1-7 are the genuine writings of Chuang-tzu, but Chapters 8-23 are primarily written by others, though Chuang-tzu may have had a hand in them. {4}

The Chuang-tzu is second in importance in Taoism only to the Tao-te Ching and is regarded as more comprehensive than the Tao-te Ching. The Chuang-tzu has also been influential in the development of Chinese Buddhism and on Chinese landscape painting and poetry. {5}

In contrast to the Tao-te Ching, which is addressed to the sage-ruler, the Chuang-tzu's primary concern is an individual's private life. Servants of the state, participants in state ritual, and logicians are ridiculed and rejected, while the free, humble, mindful life is exalted. The author "compares the servant of state to the well-fed decorated ox being led to sacrifice in the temple and himself to the untended piglet blissfully frolicking in the mire." {6}

The Chuang-tzu also touches on the topics of death and the Immortals. Death is equated with life, and the wise are depicted as welcoming the transformation as fusion with the Tao. The Immortals, as they came to be called, are "perfect men" or "supreme men" who have no anxiety, have the faces of children, and effortlessly fly upward with a fluttering (hsien) motion. They exemplify the Taoist ideals of effortlessness and spontaneity, and are praised throughout the Chuang-tzu. Probably intended as allegorical or literary figures by the author, the Immortals (hsien) came to occupy central interest in religious Taoists, who classified these heavenly beings in a detailed way, attempted to emulate their characteristics, and even to locate them geographically in order to learn their secrets. {7}

But probably the most well-known part of the Chuang-tzu is the story of Chuang-tzu and the butterfly:

Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, fluttering about, not knowing that it was Chuang Chou. He woke with a start, and was Chuang Chou again. But he did not know whether he was Chuang Chou who had dreamed that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction: this is what is called "the transformation of things." {8}

Other Taoist Texts

In addition to the chief texts of the Tao-te Ching and Chuang-tzu, several other significant texts in the Taoist tradition have been produced and used by Taoists over the centuries.

The Lieh-tzu (book of "Master Lieh"), of unknown date, teaches that nature and human actions are entirely mechanical in their operation – neither divine destiny nor human free will has the power to change the course of events.

The date of the Kuan-tzu (book of "Master Kuan") is also unknown. This text emphasizes that the "heart" (meaning the mind) governs the body as a ruler governs the state, and that if the body submits to the heart, the heart can achieve a desirelessness that makes it a pure receptacle for the indwelling Tao.

The Ling pao Ching ("Classic of the Sacred Jewel") was composed by Ko Ch'ao-fu around 397 CE. The author claimed its teachings derived from revelations given to his ancestor Ko Hsuan in the early 3 rd century. In the Ling pao Ching, the Tao is personified in its uncreated manifestations, the "celestial worthies" (t'ien-tsun), which were worshipped through a group of liturgies. Each of the worthies represented a different aspect of the Tao, and its worship was designed accordingly. This mode of worship became central to Taoist practice in the 5th century CE.

The T'ai-p'ing Ching, "Classic of the Great Peace" and the Pao P'u Tzu, "Master Embracing Simplicity," were composed in the third and fourth centuries CE. These texts enumerate methods for attaining immortality, such as alchemy, special diets, and sexual activity. {9}


  • "Tao-te Ching." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
  • "Tao-te Ching." Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions, 2000.
  • "Taoism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004; "Chuang-tzu." Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions, 2000.
  • "Chuang-tzu." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
  • "Chuang-tzu." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
  • "Taoism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
  • "Chuang-tzu." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
  • Chuang-tze, Book II.
  • "Taoism." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.

External Links on Taoist Sacred Texts

Tao-te Ching

  • Tao-te Ching in Chinese characters
  • Raymond Blakney translation (1955)
  • Stan Rosenthal translation and introduction
  • J.H. McDonald translation (1996)
  • James Legge translation (Sacred Books of the East, 1800s)
  • Comparison of translations of Chapter 8
  • Comments on the Tao Te Ching


  • The Chuang-tzu in Chinese characters
  • Quotations from the Chuang Tzu by topic
  • Introduction to the Chuang-tzu by Lin Yutang
  • Translation of the Chuang-tzu by Lin Yutang

Other Texts

  • Taoist Texts - Internet Sacred Text Archive