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Hua Hu Ching

By Derek Lin

Many people who delve deeper into the teachings of the Tao may come across the Hua Hu Ching at some point. They are told that it is an ancient book containing the later, unknown teachings of Lao Tzu. This is not true. In fact, the assertion is wrong on multiple levels, and this article will explain why in detail.

Wikipedia, due to its open nature, isn't always right, but in the case of Hua Hu Ching it is quite correct. Here's its entry as of 12/31/2009:

The Huahujing (Chinese: 化胡經/化胡经; pinyin: Huàhújīng; Wade-Giles: Hua Hu Ching; literally "Classic on Converting the Barbarians") is a Taoist book. Although traditionally attributed to Laozi, most scholars believe it is a forgery because there are no historical references to the text until the early 4th century CE. According to Louis Komjathy (2004:48), the Taoist Wang Fu (王浮) originally compiled the Huahujing circa 300 CE, and the extant version probably dates from the 6th century Northern Celestial Masters. The text is honorifically known as the Taishang lingbao Laozi huahu miaojing (太上靈寶老子化胡妙經, "The Supreme Numinous Treasure's Sublime Classic on Laozi's Conversion of the Barbarians"). A copy of the Huahujing was discovered in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, and Liu Yi (1997) believes the original text dates from around the late 4th or early 5th century.

Emperors of China occasionally organized debates between Buddhists and Taoists, and granted political favor to the winners. The Taoists developed the Huahujing to support one of their favorite arguments against the Buddhists, writes Holmes Welch (1957:152), their claim that "Lao Tzu had gone to India after his westward departure from China, and had converted—or become—the Buddha. Buddhism then was only a somewhat distorted offshoot of Taoism."

In short, the Hua Hu Ching is a hoax created many centuries after Lao Tzu's time, for the specific purpose of "proving" the superiority of Taoism over Buddhism. This is the fundamental wrongness of the book: it is a lie, and not a white lie either. It represents not only falsehood but also arrogance - something no true cultivator of the Tao would ever support.

Translations of the Hua Hu Ching never spend a lot of time discussing the meaning of its name, but we will do exactly that right now, to shed some light where some authors may prefer to keep readers in the dark. Let's break the three characters down one by one:
  • Hua = To change, to transform
  • Hu = Barbarians, outlanders; people foreign to the ancient Chinese
  • Ching = Book, tome, classic; same character as the Ching in Tao Te Ching
Hua is about conversion in terms of proselytization. Like falsehoods and arrogance, this is also contrary to the spirit of Tao teachings. Those who are in tune with the Tao have no missionary zeal to convert others. If people belonging to different traditions are not interested in the Tao, that's perfectly fine. Tao practitioners are content to co-exist in peace and harmony, without the need to change anyone else.

Hu has somewhat negative connotations similar to "barbaric" and "outlandish." Hu denotes not only foreign status to the ancient Chinese, but also ignorance, nonsense and awkwardness. This was because ancient China, as a center of civilization in its prime, tended to look down on non-Chinese people with some disdain.

Some expressions of this hubris still persist in modern Chinese. For instance, hu luan means chaotic confusion, hu yien luan yu means speaking gibberish, and hu shuo ba dao means telling lies (yes, very ironic). The point here is that Hu is not a complimentary term for non-Chinese people. If Western readers really understand the character, some may take offense - and rightfully so.

Given the above, why do we still have translations of the Hua Hu Ching being sold today, with their implicit claims of authenticity? Why do they still have the endorsement of writers in the Tao genre?

I do not know. I can only speculate the following:
  1. The translators and writers themselves may not know that the book is a forgery. If that is the case, then their qualification should be questioned.

  2. An author may wish to gloss over the forgery issue by asserting that the origin of the book is shrouded in mystery or subject to debate. Such an assertion would be untrue and misleading - perhaps intentionally so.

  3. An author may wish to use the language barrier to his advantage. Since so few Western readers really know Chinese, a translator can distort the Hua Hu Ching any way he wants and get away with it. People will praise him for his poetic insights, unaware that they may not actually come from the Tao tradition.

  4. The profit motive. There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching, so the field is crowded with competition. That's certainly not the case for the Hua Hu Ching. Perhaps some feel that less competition means more sales and more income.
Ultimately, how you see the Hua Hu Ching depends on what you are looking for in the Tao. Some prefer genuine teachings that stand up to scrutiny, while others need more of a nebulous quantity upon which to project their own concepts. Since I understand not just the dressed-up English version but also the original Chinese text, I would prefer to not have anything to do with the book and its deceptive claims. On the other hand, I also understand that none of the points discussed here will have any impact on those who are already determined to support the Hua Hu Ching no matter what. This is an interesting aspect of Western readership (or perhaps just ornery human nature) that will shield those who peddle the fabrication for years to come.