Home » Academic Article » Hypogramatic Reading on Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran

Hypogramatic Reading on Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran

redeveloped 16 June 2012

The concept of hypogramatic reading was coined by Riffaterre in his book Semiotics of Poetry (1978). Hypogramatic reading is a reading which involves the propositional structure of the matrix of a text. The matrix itself “has an intertextual phrase—which the reader must discover—capable of generating one or more other texts. On the level of the whole text, this “intertext” plays the role of the object sign, relative to the subject sign of the matricial phrase of the primary text” (Hopkins, n.d.: 1).

This writing is going to propose the intertextuality between Tao Te Ching, Bible, Koran, and Derrida. I am writing this to follow what Barthes says as “I” that is actually a being constructed from texts (in Culler, 1981: 102) and what Bakhtin says as “I” is here rewriting itself (in Jay dan Rothstein, 1991: 20). There is nothing new but other texts that “I” has not read.

Talking about a re-new interpretation as the operation that this article is going to do cannot be separated from the concept of intertext possible absence in every interpretation. According to Riffaterre, a new interpretation may always be possible to happen when a reader gets the same text exposed or revealed by the presence of the new intertext. A new interpretation comes when a reader finds out that different prior texts he has not read give contribution to the new significance of the text that he previously read and decoded (cf. Legget, 2002: 223).

When talking about writing process, no man will be able to write without knowing what to write. He knows what to write and will write only what he knows. What he knows, ironically, comes from what he has read or taught before.  What he knows teaches him how to see things as we may call it as reality. Reality is not the thing as the way it is, but it is the thing that we see as we were taught (cf. Bardzell, 2009).

Let us start this journey with a quotation from Tao Te Ching about binary opposition:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Chapter 2

Binary opposition by nature will create reality as it has been stated by Lao Tzu:

Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Chapter 1

Reality is made by our recognition of things. When a man recognizes a thing, he must have identified the opposite in the process. As deconstructionists say, the binary opposition becomes the real accepted picture of reality. This reality is different from the reality. Reality is constructed and institutionalized by language. It affects the way we see things.

Here is an example:

If there is a man, then what is not a man must be named as not-man –> woman.

If there is a positive, then there must be negative.

If there is yang, there must be yin.

This process never stops and affects us on how we see these binaries. Man is not woman, and woman is not man. This teaching is culminated from generation to generation.

Here is another example:

  1. If someone gives you two vertical lines, you will identify them as two vertical lines.
  2. But if someone gives you two vertical lines side by side, and on the top and the bottom of the lines are given two ellipses, you will see a picture of a cylinder.
  3. The question is; why don’t we see the picture as just simply two vertical lines and two ellipses? Why do we naturally see the picture as cylinder?

What we see from every thing is actually not the thing itself but rather the projection of prior texts that teach us how to see things. This is exactly the same point to what Barthes (1971, From Work to Text), Derrida (in Holcombe, 2007: 1), and Foucalt (in Barker, 2005: 105 – 106)  have already pointed out.

If we want to write something, we would write from those constructs of perception. When we write, we are using language. Ironically, language is never neutral and so is our perception. Language and perception, as the two examples above, are built from binary opposition and billion construct of definitions. We cannot use something outside the language to describe something and we cannot make our own definition when we see something. It happens to everyone who writes! So we can say that every writer is just a man who writes what he knows. What he knows is what he sees. What he sees is actually a projection to what he was taught about how to interpret things. If what the writer writes is just a projection, so to use Riffaterre’s argument (1978: 2), there must be predecessor texts that taught him. These predecessor texts give the writer the material and knowledge to his writing.  Or in other words, every text has its predecessor. A writer cannot make but reproduce the prior texts.

When a text’s significance is driven by other texts, we can say that there is intertextuality. Intertextuality happens because a text always depends on prior texts to get its significance. This is the nature of every text. Again as it has been explained in the previous paragraphs, intertextuality is truly the nature of every text and no text can escape from intertext (Porter, 1986: 34). The writer needs prior texts to make a new text. Thus every text needs  prior texts to gain its significance as one reads it (cf. Riffaterre, 1978: 7). The process to clarify the relationship between texts is  hypogramatic reading (Riffaterre, 1978: 2-7). Therefore, we have an assumption: If sacred books were inspired by God, while the means to manifest God’s teaching was language (because this teaching had to be written), so the interpretation itself will drive us into hypogramatic reading a.k.a intertextuality revealing.

Intertextuality does happen also in Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran(1). Their intertextuality is actually reproduced by deconstructionists (for this “idea” cf. Vargova, 2007) (2).

Let us first compare the first chapter of Tao Te Ching:

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

to the Bible, John 1: 1,

[in the beginning was the Word],

the word was with the God [= the Father],

and the word was a divine being

the translation is taken from McKenzie, p. 317(3)

and to the Koran 2: 29-33,

(29) It is He who created for you all of that which is on the earth. Then He directed Himself to the heaven, [His being above all creation], and made them seven heavens, and He is Knowing of all things.

(30) And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.”

(31) And He taught Adam the names – all of them. Then He showed them to the angels and said, “Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.”

(32) They said, “Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.”

(33) He said, “O Adam, inform them of their names.” And when he had informed them of their names, He said, “Did I not tell you that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed.”

the translation is taken from http://quran.com/2

By comparing three versions of the construction of reality from the hypogramatic reading of Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran, we can conclude that there is intertextuality between those texts; the intertextuality of the concept of creation, of reality.

Tao Te Ching teaches that in the beginning there was: Tao the Great Mother (Ch. 6) and it gives birth to infinite worlds (Ch. 6). The characteristics of Tao itself are defined as follows:

Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.

Chapter 21

The Tao is great.

The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.

Chapter 25

The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn’t create them.

Chapter 34

While in the Bible, in the beginning there was Word (John 1: 1). In Tao Te Ching, in the beginning was Tao. The name “Tao” itself is not the real name of such being. It is called as Tao to simplify the calling. In Tao Te Ching, the Power to Create, which is naming things, is also called as Tao. Tao gives birth to infinite worlds. World or reality from the first place was created by binary opposition naming; the process itself will give birth to infinite worlds. The world will always be recreated and the result of creation is the infinite worlds. The infinite worlds signify the concept of reality as coined by deconstructionists.

This will be the answer that has been a controversy from the translation of the Bible’s John 1:1 over centuries until now. If we take the translation from McKenzie as it has been quoted above, then the significance of John 1:1 is revealed quite easily by now.

By comparing three holy books regading the construction of reality; Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran, we can make a conclusion:

  1. Taking Tao Te Ching as the earliest text, then we can draw an interpretation.
  2. Yes, in the beginning there was The One or God or Father or Tao or Allah (we read from three books). The name of the first being itself was urgent because it was originally without name (as we read from Tao Te Ching).
  3. Then the first man was created, as we read from Koran.
  4. The first man was taught to identify things  (as we read from Koran) or the first man learned to differentiate things (binary opposition naming, as we read from Tao Te Ching). The power to name things needs Word or Logos or Tao. Word or Logos is not God as explained by Tao Te Ching that Tao (The mother of all things) is not Tao (The First Being).
  5. This power, naming things or differentiating things, will create infinite worlds (as we read from Tao Te Ching or Koran) and this power can be said as divine (as we read from Bible, John 1: 1) because it creates infinite worlds. The power that man has to create infinite worlds, for some points, is as similar as God’s.
  6. By taking this matrix, we will interpret that John 1:1 does not talk about Jesus = the Word = Logos. It simply declares the same thing to what the earlier text (Tao Te Ching) has said about the world and the worlds. The same idea is repeated by Bible (John 1: 1) and Koran (2:29-33). There is no Jesus in John 1:1!
  7. This matrix does not claim that there was no God. It claims that there was God in the beginning of the creation and God made Word or Logos. Word or Logos are divine. This also clarifies that John 1: 1 is not what as has already been interpreted or translated by most biblical scholars.
  8. This conclusion will be in coherence with other Bible verses such as: Matthew 27: 46, Matthew 24: 36, Matthew 26: 36, Mark 12: 28-29, Mark 16: 19, John 11: 41-42, John 14: 28, Luke 6: 12, Luke 10: 21, etc. and solve the puzzle.
  9. This conclusion is in accordance with the logical thinking in math that:

the first was X

X with Y

X is not Y

That is why Derrida says there is nothing outside the text [created by the language] (1967: 158-159). Our existence depends on words; language. Thats why Adam was taught how to differentiate things –> naming –> involving words after the creation of him. It also refers to Tao Te Ching; naming is the source of all things because naming implies differing. If you read the first stanza from Gospel of John, you will understand that actually The Word is not God but divine as some reputable biblical scholars interpret it. It is said as divine because naming needs words; the first word as the anchor, the other as the peripheral. These two words are needed to make distinction between ‘this’ and ‘thing which is not this’. They are co existence, as Yin and Yang. If you try to remove Yang, you will not see Yin there; vice versa.


(1) As we all know, the oldest or the earliest book from these three books (Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran) is Tao Te Ching. The second is Bible, and the third is Koran. This kind of information can be obtained from these websites:




(2) the terms binary opposition, language creates reality can be traced back from Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran.

(3) multiple translations (or interpretations ?) of this verse can be compared on:



Jesus as Θεός: Scriptural Fact or Scribal Fantasy?, and

But What About John 1:1?


Bardzell, Jeffrey. (2009). Two Takes on the Hermeneutic Circle. Accessed on Saturday, 16 June 2012 at 22:16 (GMT+7) from:


Barker, Chris. (2005). Cultural Studies: Teori dan Praktik. Yogyakarta: PT Bentang Pustaka.

Barthes, Roland. (1971). From Work to Text a translation by Stephen Heath © 1977.

Clayton, Jay dan Eric Rothstein (ed.). (1991). Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Culler, Jonathan. (1981). The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. New York: Cornell University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (1967). Of Grammatology. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.

Holcombe, C. John.  (2007). Jacques Derrida. Accessed on Monday, 9 May 2011 at 15:46 (GMT+7) from:


Hopkins, John A. F. (n.d.). Michael Riffaterre Biography – (1924–2006), Semiotics of Poetry, significance, semiosis. Accessed on Monday, 9 May 2011 at 11:29 (GMT+7) from:


Legget, B.J. (2002). “A Point of Reference for the Artist: Stevens and Flaubert”, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 223-239.

McKenzie, John L. (1965). Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Porter, J.E. (1986). “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community”, Rhetoric Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, Autumn 1986, pp. 34-47.

Riffaterre, Michael. (1978). Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Tzu, Lao. (20 July 1995). Tao Te Ching a translation by S. Mitchell. Accessed on Monday, 9 May 2011 at 11:46 (GMT+7) from:


Vargova, Mariela. (2007). “Dialogue, Pluralism, and Change: The Intertextual Constitution of Bakhtin, Kristeva, and Derrida”, Res Publica (2007) 13: 415-440. DOI: 10.1007/s11158-007-9042-y © Springer.

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Hypogramatic Reading on Tao Te Ching, Bible, and Koran by Dipa Nugraha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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