The standard version of the Tao Te Ching is the text quoted in the commentary by the third century philosopher and scholar Wang Pi. Until quite recently that was considered to be the oldest and most reliable version of the book available to us. In 1973 a real archaeological treasure was found in a Han tomb near the small village of Ma-wang-tui in Hunan province, including two copies of the Tao Te Ching. Since the entombment can be dated precisely to the year 168 BC, the Ma-wang-tui manuscripts are now the oldest available version of the Tao Te Ching that can be dated with certainty.
The standard text is divided in 81 chapters, grouped in two parts, Tao, consisting of the first 37 chapters, and Te, containing the remaining ones (ching, by the way, simply means ‘classic’). The partition of the text in chapters is not present in the Ma-wang-tui manuscripts and most likely it is a later addition. The book essentially consists of a number of loosely related sayings, grouped together in what seems to be a rather arbitrary fashion. There is often no consistency of argument within a chapter, while identical or similar statements recur in various chapters in different contexts. Also the traditional notion that the first part of the book deals with the cosmic Way (Tao), while the second part is concerned with its application (Virtue, Te) in the human sphere (e.g., good government), can only be very approximately maintained.
All evidence suggests that both the standard version and the Ma-wang-tui manuscripts are highly jumbled up texts, handed down through the centuries and copied numerous times, with attendant clerical errors, displaced portions of text, ‘corrections’, repetitions, possibly even additions.
It may be interesting to look at how the Ma-wang-tui texts differ from the standard version and to speculate about the meaning of such differences. There are two Ma-wang-tui manuscripts of the Tao Te Ching, which Robert G. Henricks in his well researched book (Lao-tzu, Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts, Ballantine Books, New York, 1989) calls Text A and Text B. The two texts are not identical either in content or in style, evidence that even at this early date different versions of the book were in circulation.
As previously mentioned, chapter divisions are not there in the Ma-wang-tui manuscripts, while the division in two parts, Tao and Te, is there in the opposite order. I.e. both texts start with Te, chapters 38 to 81 of the standard version, and continue with Tao, chapters 1 to 37.
Scholars’ opinions vary about the reason for this inversion. Some feel that the Ma-wang-tui order reflects that of the ‘original’ Lao-tzu. Others hypothize that two different versions of the book were circulating at the beginning of the second century BC, a Tao-Te, used by Taoists, and a Te-Tao, used by the Legalist tradition. A third opinion finally attributes the Ma-wang-tui order simply to a packaging mishap. While the Ma-wang-tui texts are written on silk, the most common support for books in China throughout the first millennium BC was a set of thin bamboo strips tied together in bundles. If the Lao-tzu at some point consisted of two such bundles, Tao and Te, we can easily imagine a copyist placing the first part in a box after copying it and placing the second part on top of it, and the next copyist picking up the book in that order and copying part two before part one.
Apart from the reversal of Tao and Te, the order of the text in the Ma-wang-tui manuscripts is pretty much the same as in the standard version (with three exceptions: chapter 24 comes between chapters 21 and 22; chapter 40 comes between chapters 41 and 42; and chapters 80 and 81 come between chapters 66 and 67). Also the content is almost the same, with occasional different choices of single ideograms, but not such as to project a radically different meaning.