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on 9 August 2008
Discovered in 1993 the Guodian version of the Tao Te Ching is still the oldest version of the text know and dates to around 300 BC. Robert Henricks has translated it and presents it here in a scholarly but readable fashion.

It must be emphasised that this version of the Tao Te Ching is only a partial one. Written on bamboo slips, only 31 chapters of the 81 found in later editions are present, and of these 15 are truncated. This is not due to damage of the text but rather it seems to it being a selection of the full text which Henricks believes was already in existence, in some form, around 300 BC.

The book begins with a 22 page introduction which describes the Guodian finds and the three bundles of bamboo on which the Tao Te Ching was written. Henricks discusses the contents of each bundle, the chapter divisions indicated (which often differ from other versions) and where chapters themselves differ in content - some are almost exactly as found in later versions, but others are shorter, some much so. Most interesting is Henricks' discussion of what the text means in terms of Taoist philosophy as the chapters present do not cover all the concepts found in the later editions. Henricks is a modest and unassuming academic and his discussion fully acknowledges the view of other scholars.

The main body of the book is a 86 page annotated translation of the text itself. Each verse is presented as an English translation with notes, followed by the Guodian text as found and the modern Chinese equivalents. As a professor of religion Henricks' translation naturally emphasises accuracy over an overly poetic reading. In a few cases the Guodian version is different in interesting ways. For example, the first four lines of chapter 9 read:

To accumulate until you have filled it
Is not so good as stopping in time.
When swift flowing waters gather against it
It cannot hold out very long.

The third line here is usually translated as 'To pound it out and give it a point' which Henricks thinks is due to later versions having been corrupted. I personally like this version as the water imagery fits well with other imagery in the Tao Te Ching.

Also included, as it is on the same bamboo slips as the Tao Te Ching, is a translation of the brief text 'Taiyi shengshui' (The Great One Gave Birth to Water).

Three appendixes provide Sima Qiann's brief biography of Laozi with comments and notes by Henricks (4 pages), a 52 page comparison of the Guodian text and the equivalent lines from both Mawangdui texts (this is simply the Chinese characters shown together), and an 8 page discussion of punctuation marks. A bibliography and index round off the book.

I did not quite enjoy this book quite as much as Henricks' translation of the Mawangdui texts. The presentation of lengthy notes and the Chinese characters here splits the Tao Te Ching's chapters up and so they cannot be read in their entirety without leafing through the book. Much of the commentary is a very detailed explanation of Henricks' reading of certain characters and why he has chosen to interpret them as such. Experts in the translation of ancient Chinese texts will doubtless find these comments necessary but general readers will not gain much from them. There also seems little logic behind what is discussed below each chapter and what is relegated to footnotes at the end of the book.

Overall though the book has much to recommend it. It is still the only readily available English translation of the earliest known edition of the Tao Te Ching, Henricks is still a sure guide to the various theories of what the edition tells us, and it is useful to have the Taiyi shengshui and Sima Qiann's biography in the same volume. Recommended for those who want to explore the history of the Tao Te Ching in more detail.
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on 5 October 2011
For anybody who would like to study and search for the 'true Tao' this is an unmissable book. Together with the Mawangdui translation (from the same author), this is one of the best books to understand what the original Tao might have been. There are three reasons for this. 1) Henricks based his translations on the oldest available sources of the Tao Te Ching (hundreds of years older than the sources many other translators use.) 2) Henricks clearly discusses his choices and uncertainties as translator (and also shares alternative opinions) and 3) in his short and precise textual translations, he often stays away from more specific interpretations (which are often tempting for translators, but further away from the often ambiguous Chinese.)
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