Molecular incoherence, continuity, and the perfection of the Laozi

David J. Lebovitz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


The Laozi is a well-loved and oft-translated ancient text, whose popularity with interpreters and translators seems to have hardly ebbed in over two thousand years. This is attested in part by the number of bamboo and silk manuscript versions of the text unearthed in recent years from the Warring States (475-221 b.c.e.) and Western Han (221-206 b.c.e.), such that few transmitted Chinese texts have so many corresponding manuscript versions. The Laozi's popularity and relative abundance have also made the text instrumental in shaping theoretical approaches to book formation in early Chinese manuscript culture. In particular, the Laozi has been central to the study of how books were assembled out of pre-existent, stable, coherent molecules of text, or zhang (chapters). Emerging from a case study of Laozi chapter 13, in which interpretive problems of the written commentarial tradition are shown to be continuous with those in manuscript culture, this article re-examines the theory of molecular coherence in the Laozi's formation, showing ultimately that the textual and rhetorical patterns by which zhang cohere internally are created by the same forces that deposit zhang in proximity to one another. Moving from the molecular to organismic level, the article also examines the use of conjoining phrases in Peking University's Laozi manuscript to demonstrate how editors, compilers, and interpreters may sacrifice coherence at one level of organization to achieve perfection at another.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)237-319
Number of pages83
JournalEarly China
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology
  • Religious studies
  • Philosophy
  • Literature and Literary Theory

User-Defined Keywords

  • Bamboo
  • Canon
  • Chapters
  • Commentary
  • Daodejing
  • Laozi
  • Peking University
  • Text formation
  • Zhang


Dive into the research topics of 'Molecular incoherence, continuity, and the perfection of the Laozi'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this