from’s Language Pages Dao-9 project:


Approaching the Dao-1


If you haven’t looked at the introduction to the Dao-9 project and the Dao-talk page, you might want to start there.


The Approaching the Dao commentaries will start extremely detailed and get less so as we go along and you get more familiar with what we’re doing here.  Because this is the first commentary, we’re going to give you a crash course in some elementary Chinese decoding while looking at the text line by line. 



It is sometimes said that Chinese has no grammar at all, or virtually none.  On looking at the different translations of this marvelous text and how they were made, you’ll discover that Chinese has a rich and complex grammar.  Unfortunately, it is wholly indiscernible to the non-native and native speakers aren’t always entirely sure what’s going on either.  But at the end of this exercise, you’ll have a few guesses.  Let’s start.


1.  The first three characters

Here’s a little bit of grammar that makes no sense and perfect sense:  When a character can mean several things, it most likely means the thing that makes the most sense (though this rule is far from hard and fast).  Here’s an example ( is defined on the Dao-talk page):


Dao, way, road, path; to speak, to be spoken


Dao, way, road, path; to speak, to be spoken


“Dao can spoken” is what we get.  Because Chinese has no “a”, “the” or plural markers, we’ll decide if any are called for.  So let’s summarize what we’ve got so far:


= (way-can-be spoken) = A way can be spoken.  /  The way can be spoken.  /  Ways can be spoken.  /  The ways can be spoken (standard version italicized).


2.  The particle

If you visit the Dao-talk page, you’ll see that is defined as “also, a particle signaling the end of a phrase.”  Let’s see how this works:


= (way-can-be spoken) = The way can be spoken. 


It’s just a simple sentence.  Adding can firm up this sentence if it comes at the end, like adding “amen” or “indeed” in English.


道也 = (way-can-be spoken-indeed) = The way can be spoken indeed.


But if it comes in the middle of a sentence, then it marks off the preceding part of the sentence as a phrase or clause.  Here we see it in both usages:


道也非恒 = ( [way-can-be spoken]-marker… not-lasting-way-indeed ) = The way that can be spoken is not the lasting way (indeed).


3.  The second sentence… just like the first

In finishing that example, we’ve gotten through the first sentence.  Look at the second sentence to see all we’ve just learned applied all at once:


name, to name, to be named



lasting, constant, eternal

name, to name, to be named

name, to name, to be named

also, a particle signaling the end of a phrase

also, a particle signaling the end of a phrase


Making our choices as before, we get “The name that can be named [first half] is not the lasting name [second half].”


This may seem like a lot, but the things about the Dao that confuse also tend to repeat.  So far, we’re through the first two sentences.  In fact, the next two sentences are almost identical to one another, as are the two after that.  We’ll talk about them on the next page.


Go to Approaching the Dao-1, page 2.


Copyright Geoffrey Barto, 2003.


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