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Abstract

The understandings most Americans have of the Daode jing 道德經 (Tao Te Ching) and Daoism (Taoism) have been deeply conditioned by the reception of this text in its most circulated English forms: popular translations. Because of their acute reliance on previous interpretations and emphasis on relevancy to their own historical contexts, popular translations are a valuable, underutilized resource for understanding both the specifics of this text’s reception and more universal processes of textual transmission. To propose “The Daode jing as American scripture” is to consider both the Americanization of this text and the interpretation of all texts received as “classics” or “scriptures.” To do so, this dissertation first critiques assumptions contributing to the academic neglect of popular translations and proposes the utility of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s reconfiguration of the concept of “text” not as a historical object to be recovered but as a “traditionary text” or “text-tradition” that operates in history through an ongoing dialogue with its interpreters. To Gadamer’s thought, this dissertation suggests a new attention to translations as records of previous interpretations intersecting with new contexts and affecting subsequent transmission. Subsequent chapters summarize the transmission of the Daode jing in China and survey its early European reception before focusing on the translations of Herbert Giles (1886), Paul Carus (1898), Witter Bynner (1944), and Gia-fu Feng (1972). These translations document the development of five popular conceptions about the Daode jing that have conditioned the general features of its otherwise diverse reception in America. They emerged chronologically and continue to influence popular translation and understanding today: 1) the Daode jing is the principal scripture of Daoism; 2) its wisdom is universal and timeless; 3) its meaning is accessible through a populist hermeneutic heavily influenced by lay Bible reading; 4) its teachings can correct and ameliorate contemporary American problems; and 5) it can contribute to a more complete “Way of Life.” This examination advances existing scholarship by providing a more comprehensive and detailed analysis of paradigmatic texts and dominant trends in the American popular reception of the Daode jing, by suggesting implications for related fields, and by proposing that the reception of this text evidences a hermeneutic that is more universal than unique in the historical transmission of canonical texts.

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