I'm doing a translation of the Dao De Jing, using some originals and some translations to english and portuguese. I've noticed that 常 chang is almost always translated as "eternal", "fixed", "immutable", etc. That seems to be a monotheistic preconception, far from the natural view of the world that seems prevailing in the book. So I'm using "common" or "usual" - another translation of the term, and one that seems to fit better in the overall meaning of the text. After all, not everything "common" is "unchangeable". Has anyone else thought about it? Which translation do you think is more adequate to the spirit of the original? Another question is: each chinese character should receive only one translation throughout the book? (Maybe that's a silly idea, maybe not.) Thanks in advance!

4 Answers 4


This article suggests that the original text was 道可道,非恒道. That is, 恒 not 常 (meaning 永恒 = eternal, unchanging).

This dictionary definition for 常 also includes the meaning "长久,经久不变" (and gives the example 常量, with an alternate form 恒量).

  • 3
    +1. The 马王堆帛书 (Mawangdui Silk Texts), one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in China, consists of a very old version of Dao De Jing, which is transcribed as 道,可道也,非恒道也。名,可名也,非恒名也。 It supports the point that article has made.
    – Stan
    Nov 8, 2013 at 8:43
  • Thanks, Joe. But google translate gives me that 恒 is almost the same as 常, as it may be translated as "permanent" and also as "common". 永恒 is "eternal", but it doesn't appear like that on the Dao De Jing. I know 常 may indeed be translated as eternal. My question is: "common" isn't usually a better translation in this book (including other parts of the text, not only the first chapter)?
    – Rodrigo
    Nov 12, 2013 at 12:10
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    @Rodrigo The sources I read all suggest that it means "unchanging" or "enduring" in the opening passage. I cannot speak to other usages in the book. As you point out, both characters can mean both things in different contexts. Nov 12, 2013 at 16:42
  • Which sources do you mean? In chinese? When were they written? Have some links, please? I think this idea of "unchanging" is too monotheistic, too platonic, too rigid. After all, "the movement of the Dao is the returning". Something that moves shouldn't be called "unchanging", don't you think?
    – Rodrigo
    Nov 12, 2013 at 18:00

For the translation of “常” , I think using “ common” or “usual” if fine, like the first sentence “ 道可道,非常道”.

And I don’t think that “each chinese character should receive only one translation throughout the book”, but for the special concepts that Laozi pointed out, I think they just have one translation throughout the book.


I don't mean to stray from the text itself, but I think it helps to consider what Daoism is all about (a contentious topic, of course). The meaning in those opening lines, to me, reflects a larger theme in Daoism about how things are constantly changing, or impermanent, so while the word 'eternal' might have a bit too much monotheism / eternal god / etc. contained within it, I don't think that a word to the converse, like impermanent, is necessarily inappropriate. In other words, if you're not trying to do a word-by-word translation, combining 非 and 常/恒 gives you many more options in English.

These stories I think are thematically-appropriate illustrations of Daoism and impermanence.

  • Though humans are impermanent, Nature is more permanent than us, at least. "Permanent" is a nicer, softer word, compared with "eternal". Still, I feel "common" is even better.
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 24, 2020 at 3:37

Given the nature of Daoism I think there is room for interpretation Perhaps convention was responsible for numerous translations as eternal I prefer common Indeed in combination, eternal is derived On its own, common to me is more appropriate

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