The Daode Jing and its Diverse Commentaries

When and Where

Friday, December 01, 2023 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Zoom & in-person, EAS Lounge RL14100
Robarts Library


James Robson (Harvard University)


The Daode Jing and its Diverse Commentaries: The Scripture of the Way and its Virtues

Presented by the Practices of Commentary project (SSHRC Insight Grant, led by Professors Walid Saleh, Amanda Goodman, Jeannie Miller (Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations), and Markus Stock (Germanic Languages and Literatures), with the active participation and support of our colleague Suzanne Akbari (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton).

For Zoom details, please contact Walid Saleh,

James Robson is the James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.


The Daode jing is traditionally regarded as one of the main sacred books of Daoism written in the 6th century BCE by the religion’s venerable old founder Laozi (“The Old Master”). Over the past two thousand years, the Daode jing has attracted the attention of a multitude of scholars and exegetes in China and spread throughout the rest of East Asia where it has had a prodigious influence.

In this talk I am most interested in the diverse afterlives of the Daode jing that become accessible to us through a consideration of its diverse commentaries. This talk will be less concerned with the life of the purported author or the nebulous meanings of the Daode jing and more the lives that the book itself has lived. Through a discussion of a selection of influential early commentaries on the Daode jing we can demonstrate that in ancient China there was not a single way to read, interpret, or put into practice the brief and mysterious work and through a consideration of later commentaries we can see how those interpretations further shifted over time. It is the surprising diversity found in commentaries on the Daode jing that this talk aims to explore. 

About James Robson

James Robson is Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. He teaches East Asian religions, in particular Daoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Zen. Robson received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Stanford University in 2002, after spending many years doing research in China, Taiwan, and Japan. He specializes in the history of medieval Chinese Buddhism and Daoism and is particularly interested in issues of sacred geography, local religious history, talismans, and Chan/Zen Buddhism. He has been engaged in a long-term collaborative research project with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient studying local religious statuary from Hunan province. He is the author of Power of Place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak [Nanyue 南嶽] in Medieval China (Harvard, 2009), which was awarded the Stanislas Julien Prize for 2010 by the French Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres and the 2010 Toshihide Numata Book Prize in Buddhism. Robson is also the author of "Signs of Power: Talismanic Writings in Chinese Buddhism" (History of Religions 48:2), "Faith in Museums: On the Confluence of Museums and Religious Sites in Asia" (PMLA, 2010), and "A Tang Dynasty Chan Mummy [roushen] and a Modern Case of Furta Sacra? Investigating the Contested Bones of Shitou Xiqian." His current research includes a long term project on the history of the confluence of Buddhist monasteries and mental hospitals in Japan.


Practices of Commentary Project