The Lao-Zi, also known as the Dao-De-Jing, is a short Chinese classic of about 5,000 characters traditionally considered Daoism’s earliest scripture. It is one of the most important books of its genre, with numerous translations in the past 100 years and hundreds of commentaries over two millennia. The title of the Lao-Zi text follows an early Chinese tradition (ca 722-207 BCE), suggesting that the book was authored by a figure known as Lao Zi. Later this work was revered as the Dao(道)-De(德)-Jing(經). Jing suggests a classic or scripture, while Dao comes from the path, road, or Way and was used by Lao Zi as a symbol for the ultimate origin and grounds of the universe. De is the character used in Confucian thought to refer to the notion of virtue, morality, or moral charisma, but here the meaning instead generally indicates the embodiment and function of Dao in individual things and the attractive quality of a Daoist sage (Ivanhoe 1999). Although it is common knowledge that Lao Zi was the founder of the Daoist school and the Dao-De-Jing its first text, there was historically no institute or academy of Daoism, and so we have no clear record about its transmission from master to disciple, or from generation to generation. The expression dao-jia (道家) is a retrospective term first found in the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE) work Shi-Ji (Records of the Historian), written at the beginning of the first century BCE by court historian Sima Qian. Dao-jia is usually translated as ‘Daoism’, or ‘Daoist school’, or ‘Daoist philosophy’, all of which denote similar meanings. Strictly speaking, however, the word ‘Daoism’ (or ‘Taoism’) is not a translation of any Chinese term, but a word coined in the nineteenth century by Westerners to denote both Daoist philosophy and the indigenous religious movements (dao-jiao 道教) that took shape at the end of the Eastern Han (25-220 CE). Being aware that early Daoist groups were not institutionalized helps us avoid the largely misguided assumption that struggles occurred between Confucianists and Daoists, a dramatic and appealing theory that has been broadly used as a framework for understanding Daoist thought and textual history.1 The dozens of

period texts recently excavated by archeologists indicate no clear boundaries between the various jia (schools); still, most of them have been attributed to either Daoist or Confucian authorship. The Dao-De-Jing is a fascinating, albeit elusive, work. Indeed, its themes and doctrines have been interpreted in radically different ways. Its ideas have been taken as treatments on social philosophy, political strategy, the arts of statesmanship, military strategy, the arts of qigong (vital force exercise), the origin of the religion of immortality, and even a theory of feminism. Recent books like the Tao of Physics, Tao of Science, Tao of Love, Tao of Sex, etc., though not necessarily serious interpretations of the Lao-Zi itself, also develop various, even opposed, notions and ideas, such as theism, atheism, and pantheism; idealism and materialism; rationalism and mysticism; humanism and non-humanism. Can we accept all these divergent and conflicting renditions and impressions as equally valid readings of the text? If not, how should we think about them? There is certainly no straightforward approach to judging between different standards of interpretation. After all, texts can be interpreted in countless ways. But if we are interested in understanding how the text was viewed by Lao Zi and his contemporaries, we cannot assume that all interpretations are of the same accuracy and trustworthiness. It appears to me that on such a standard the most reliable interpretation of the Dao-De-Jing can be achieved only by approaching the text meticulously and comprehensively in its linguistic, social, and historical contexts.