Uncarved Block repost Feb 05


After our Tao session yesterday I spoke with Carl a bit about D.C. Lau and Victor Mair’s use of the word uncarved block and unhewn log respectively in their translations. I traced the reference to the Chinese character 朴 which Carl translates as “simple”. I’m at my point in my understanding of the Tao Te Ching where research is very important to me and I also find research a very good exercise in letting go of the self. Whatever pre-conceived notion you may start with or whatever you may want something to be, research may challenge those things you hold on to.

So this is what I found out so far about the Chinese character 朴 and its use in the Tao Te Ching. It is pronounced “p’u” in MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) but would have been pronounced "phluk’ in OS (Old Sinitic) which is how the language was spoken in the time of the Mawangdui silk manuscripts (two of the oldest written versions of the TTC) There was an older version found in 1993 but it seems to be an abridged, incomplete version. (just as an aside; most translations of the TTC use what is referred to as the “received version”. This is the version that has been handed down through the centuries)This is according to Victor Mair who as a Sinologist seems to be one of the most respected source references regarding ancient Chinese linguistics.He also states that the word “phluk” is almost certainly related to the English word “block” which is derived from the Indo-European root bhelk (beam).

In the Mawangdui manuscript B (the earliest of the two version) the Chinese character 樸 is used instead of 朴 (a 6 stroke modern version of the 16 樸). Their usage appear to be very similar. In the Mawangdui Manuscript A however a different character is used in place of 樸 it is 楃. This character tends to have a different usage. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pu_(Daoism) states that 屋 refers to a room or house and in conjunction with 木 it could mean “wood canopy”. This Wikipedia article translates 樸 as “unworked wood” and 楃 as “house tent”.

Wikipedia refers to 木 as “the semantically significant tree radical” because this is a component of both 樸 and 楃 it seems that it is not a stretch to think this character has something to do with wood.

I think most of this is irrelevant to our Tao gatherings and discussions because Carl’s use of the word “simple” seems fine, though “plain” is also a common variant. Perhaps in modern Chinese this is the go-to usage of the character, I have no idea. But the historical background interests me greatly. The use of “uncarved block” (Lau) or “unhewn log” (Mair) shouldn’t be considered a complete fabrication. I’m not sure about Lau but from what I have read about Mair he has an amazing base of knowledge regarding Chinese cultural and language. Robert G. Henricks is another scholarly translator who works from the Mawangdui Manuscripts he uses the phrase “embrace the genuine”. But I think his background is in comparative religion.

Mawangdui B uses 樸 8 times in 6 chapters. Mawangdui A uses 楃 6 times in 4 chapters though there are missing characters where it is indicated in Chap 19 and 57. So it is an often returned to and important theme in the TTC. I think Carl your objection to the use of “uncarved block” or “unhewn log” is that is poetic imagery. Whether or not the TTC originally used poetic devices is probably a different discussion. I would certainly agree with your position and Victor Mair’s by the way, that the poetic license used by the hundreds, maybe thousands of translators of the TTC over the years is really a way of twisting it around towards their own point of view.


You could be on your way to making your own translation Kirk! I've heard it is the most translated book after the Bible. I'd just mention that radicals are much less rational than I’d wish, so having show up in two characters means less than we’d wish.

I feel one can't truly know what the Tao Te Ching is saying unless one is a taoist, i.e., a small 't' taoist. (https://www.centertao.org/2010/12/23/small-t-taoists/). Being an academic may even be a drawback, at least from the Tao Te Ching's point of view. Ironic perhaps. Nevertheless, exploring the field and striving to get to the bottom is a perfect "make something to belong to" way of hunting and gathering modern style.

Perhaps I'll make a comparison of the "uncarved block" with the raw translation. It would be interesting to check them out side by side I guess.

For some reason I didn't get notified of your post here and only saw it when I clicked on the community by chance. Have to fix that!