You see this:

dào kě dào fēicháng dào 

Often translated as "The Dao that can be told is not the eternal and unchanging Dao". What is the literal translation?

What's missing is, we have dàodào, a mirroring, which isn't present in English, and the NOT in english, where is that in the Chinese?

4 Answers 4


The Dao that can be told is not the eternal and unchanging Dao is already a literal translation.


[The] Dao (道) [that] can (可) [be] told (道) [is] not (非) [the] eternal/unchanging (常) Dao (道)

A text that is written almost deliberately to be interpreted in multiple ways does not have a "the literal translation".

  • So dao has the meaning "told"?
    – Lance
    Jun 24, 2020 at 7:07
  • @LancePollard 道 has a meaning to say, to speak. In idiomatic English, someone might phrase that meaning as be told.
    – dROOOze
    Jun 24, 2020 at 7:08
  • Darn, I was hoping there would be a deeper literal meaning with the mirroring.
    – Lance
    Jun 24, 2020 at 7:31
  • 1
    Real life example of 道 in the sense of "to say": 难道 "Don't tell me that...!"
    – blackgreen
    Jun 24, 2020 at 18:09
  • 1
    dROOOze, I think a good followup question is how 道 came to have the meaning of "to say" (given that the character originally just had the "path"/"road" meaning) Jun 24, 2020 at 22:49


this streamlined version is edited by 王弼, in third century.

an older version “馬王堆帛書版” was unearthed in 1970s, in which, the verse is:


for comparison, this may be interpreted as:

the tao (道) that can (可) be said (道), is not (非) the permanent (恆) tao (道).

while all “也” are modal particles, for adjusting the mood / tone of the verse.

have fun :)


I think this from the Diamond Sutra expresses the same notion.

金刚经 第七品 无得无说分



(7) "Tell Me, Subhuti. Has the Tathagata attained that Perfect Enlightenment which Transcends Comparisons? If so, is there something about it that the Tathagata can teach?"

Subhuti answered, "As I understand the teaching it cannot be attained or grasped nor can it be taught. Why? Because the Tathagata has said that Truth is not a thing that can be differentiated or contained and therefore Truth cannot be grasped or expressed. The Truth neither is nor is not.


Chi- (energy, being or life force)

ing (Being)

Tao te Ching (The being of being)

But what means “Tao”?

  • Tao means "way" or "flow" in my experience.
    – Lance
    Feb 2 at 16:55

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