Word Analysis: The Tao Te Ching

“He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty."
The Tao Te Ching

Note: This is the third post in a series which analyzes the words used in the scriptures of the world’s religions.

The Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching is the major scripture of Taoism, a religion that claims approximately 20 million adherents, mostly in China and other parts of Southeast Asia.1 Though this number is relatively small compared to other world religions, the Tao Te Ching has had a significant impact on religious and philosophical belief throughout the world.

Though scholars have fiercely debated the date, it is believed that the Tao Te Ching was written around 500 BCE.2The author was Lao Tzu (translated as “Old Master”), a philosopher, teacher, and scholar who worked as a keeper of archives for the royal court of the Zhou Dynasty. He was a contemporary of Confucius and the two are rumored to have met when Confucius was a young man.

The Tao Te Ching was most likely written in an calligraphy style called zhuànshū (“seal script”), which was generally used for royal documents.2 “Tao Te Ching” translates to “The Book of the Way of Virtue” and, like other religious texts, is meant as a sort of guidebook to life, addressing topics such as virtue, humility, wisdom, and detachment, many of which are common themes in other eastern religious traditions including Hinduism and Buddhism.

Like my previous analyses of religious scriptures, I wanted to analyze the words used in the Tao Te Ching to see if we could gain some insight into its key themes. I found an English translation and  used a tool from www.writewords.org to count the occurrences of each word. I then filtered out common and less meaningful words—mostly pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and determiners (for more specifics on this process, see my Bible post).

From here, I began to visualize the data in Tableau, starting with the top 10 words (you can find the full visualization here).

The book as a whole has 4,084 words after filtering out the list of common words (including common words, it has 9,510). The top word, not surprisingly, is “Tao”, appearing 137 times, followed “Nature” at 84, and “People” at 80. From this top ten list alone, we can get some feel for the basic themes of the scripture—truth, virtue, and mastery of self.

So that further analysis be performed, beyond just the top 10 words, I’ve also created a simple Word cloud, which includes all words occurring at least five times.

Of course, we see the top ten words again, but we also see additional frequently used words such as “Desire” and “Desires” (ranked 14th and 20th, respectively), “Man” (ranked 13th), “Nation” (ranked 16th), and “Oneness” (ranked 12th), which help to give us an even deeper understanding the text’s main themes. Interestingly, the principle of Oneness is also a key part of Buddhism, showing some of the similarities between the two religions.

That's all for now, but feel free to explore the visualization further; you can find it here.

I’ll be back in a few weeks with another analysis of the world’s religious scriptures. When I have completed them, I’ll do one final analysis comparing the word usage in each of the religious texts I’ve discussed. So please check back soon!

Please Note: Though I have read The Tao Te Ching and have great respect for the text and the Taoist religion as a whole, I realize that I may have gotten a few things wrong. I welcome your feedback and comments, so feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Ken Flerlage, March 1, 2017

1.      “Taoism”, Religion Facts, 2015. http://www.religionfacts.com/taoism
2.      “History of the Tao Te Ching”, The Tao Te Ching Book Project. http://taobookproject.com/?page_id=581


  1. If your aim is to find words with high frequencies suggestive of the major themes, wouldn't it be worthwhile to look into other translations, even possibly the original? For instance, your translation of 聖 into Saint suggests wildly different themes than the more common translation of Sage. Nature is also a very suggestive translation that I'd bet actually represents a few different characters, each with distinct meanings

    1. Certainly a fair point but as I am am English speaker as is most of my audience, my best option was to use an English translation. No translation is perfect of course.


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