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Lao Tzu for Everyone

Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph.D.

Are There Different

Versions of

Lao Tzu’s

Tao Te Ching?


     A number of different "editions" of the Tao Te Ching which have come down to us over the centuries. However, while there are some differences in characters, and difference in the ordering of the lessons, there are no significant differences in the content Lao Tzu’s teachings.

Why the differences?

     Around 221 BC, what we today call China, was unified into a single nation.  Until then, varying states were are war with one another, and there structure of written language was still in a state of flux. Lao Tzu’s lessons were composed prior to 221 BC, so it should be expected that we would find different characters with the same or approximate meanings.

     Also, just as today's stenographers make mistakes, it was no different back then for the copyists, or scribes. Imagine having a text for 5000 characters dictated to you with as many as 18 strokes per character, and trying to write it perfectly. There may be misunderstandings of what was said, a stroke omitted, or the mistaken substitute of a homonym for the intended character.  

     We must also take into account the possibility of carelessness or laziness on the part of the scribe, or the scribe being unfamiliar with the meaning of the text.

Here are the 6 most influential

editions of the Tao Te Ching.


Ma Wang Tui (MWT) 馬王堆


​       In 1972, two incomplete editions of the Tao Te Ching were discovered in tombs in Changsa, China. The tombs, which dated from the Western Han dynasty (206 BC - 9 AD), contained philosophical and medical texts written on silk.

     Among them were two manuscripts of the Tao Te Ching. Scholars distinguish these two manuscripts as the "A text" and the "B text."

     The A text appears to be earlier because of 1) its use of the “small seal” characters, and 2) because it does not avoid the use of the character 邦pāng, "country," which became taboo in 206 BC because it was the personal name of the founding emperor of Han, Liu Pang (劉邦).


     In contrast the B Text uses the later “clerical” script rather than the “small seal,” and avoids that taboo character.

      The two Ma Wang Tui texts were discovered in tomb number three, the grave of the son of Li Ts’ang who was prime minister of Changsha in early Han times. The tomb had been sealed in 168 BC.

An image of a scroll discovered at Ma Wang Tui:


     The present  translation and commentary are based principally on the Ma Wang Tui A Text. But where characters in the A text are missing, unclear, or an obvious copyist error, I substitute the characters in the B text.

     In the event that a character is missing, unclear, or in error in both the A and B texts, I substitute characters from the “standard” or "received" text (see below), and explain the choice.

Scroll MWT  laozi_Jia.jpg

     Note also, that while the A Text of the Ma Wang Tui is the older of the two, this does not necessarily mean that it is more "correct" or "original" than the B Text, or any other of the texts for that matter. Lao Tzu's writings appear to have been passed down through different lineages over a number of centuries. Each has its own challenges. It would be unreasonable to expect perfect agreement among them. Nevertheless, a starting point for translation must be chosen, and here the A Text of the Ma Wang Tui edition appears to be the best candidate. Significant differences between the text will footnoted where appropriate.



The 4 "Standard" or "Received" Editions

The Wang Bi: 王弼 Edition

​     Wang Bi (王弼) lived from  226 AD to 249 AD. He was a minor official after the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 AD. What is known today as the “Wang Bi text” is the edition of the Tao Te Ching that believed to have accompanied his own commentary on the work. This is the version that has been the most translated into English and other languages


     Wang Bi’s commentary has been the subject of much scholarly study over the years, and it is from his commentary that much of our present day understanding of the Tao Te Ching and early Taoism derives.

Heshang Gong. 河上公 Edition

     Little is known about Heshang Gong (河上公). He is said to have been a recluse who lived in the first century AD. What we call the “Heshang Gong edition” refers to the text that accompanied his commentary on the Tao Te Ching. He appears to have been of the later school of “religious” Taoism, interpreting the Lao Tzu’s words with a concern toward meditation, longevity, and sexual vitality.

Fu Yi 傅奕 Edition

     Fu Yi (傅奕)was a Tang (618-907 AD) scholar who sought the “original” Tao Te Ching by comparing a number of manuscripts available to him. He then published a critical conflation of these texts which we still have today.

Guodian 郭店 Edition

     In 1993, writings of the Tao Te Ching were found in an unidentified tomb at Guodian (郭店) in Hubei province. It dates to some time in the third or fourth century B.C., and was written in the older, “small seal” characters. The characters were written on slender strips of bamboo fasten together with leather and then rolled into three bundles. While these are 150 years older than the Ma Wang Tui editions, the Guodian version is quite incomplete.

Though the Guodian edition may be older, that does not necessarily mean that it is closer to an original text, if indeed there is one. Ancient civilizations typically passed down their knowledge and their history orally, until, at some point it is written down.

Final note about the editions:

    The editions differ in their length. In some, there are about 5000 characters, and in others, as much as 5,700 characters.


The difference is primarily due to the subtraction of certain grammatical characters by editors over the years, as well as copyist errors and perhaps explanatory "comments" added later by teachers.


Also, in some editions certain passages are missing or placed in a different order within the manuscript. Again, the Chinese written language was still in a state of flux prior to 221 BC. It can be expected that we would find different characters with the same or approximate meanings.



. . . . . . .

Wang Bi
Ma Wang Tui
Heshang Gong
Fu Yi
Final Note
Standard Texts
Note about the translation
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