Laozi (/ˈlaʊdzə/, Chinese: 老子), also romanized as Lao Tzu and various other ways, was a semi-legendary ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher, credited with writing the Tao Te Ching. Laozi is a Chinese honorific, generally translated as “the Old Master”. Although modern scholarship generally regards him as a fictional person, traditional accounts say he was born as Li Er in the state of Chu in the 6th century BC during China’s Spring and Autumn Period, served as the royal archivist for the Zhou court at Wangcheng (modern Luoyang), met and impressed Confucius on one occasion, and composed the Tao Te Ching in a single session before retiring into the western wilderness.
A central figure in Chinese culture, Laozi is generally considered the founder of Taoism. He was claimed and revered as the ancestor of the 7th–10th century Tang dynasty and is similarly honored in modern China with the popular surname Li. In some sects of Taoism and Chinese folk religion, it is held that he then became an immortal hermit or a god of the celestial bureaucracy under the name Laojun, one of the Three Pure Ones. His work had a profound influence on subsequent Chinese religious movements and on subsequent Chinese philosophers, who annotated, commended, and criticized his work extensively. In the 20th century, textual criticism by modern historians led to theories questioning Laozi’s timing or even existence, positing that the received text of the Tao Te Ching was not composed until the 4th century BC Warring States Period.
Laozi /ˈlaʊdzə/ is the modern pinyin romanization of 老子. It is not a name but an honorific title, meaning “old” or “venerable master”. The structure of the name exactly matches that of other ancient Chinese philosophers such as Kongzi, Mengzi, Zhuangzi, &c.
Traditional accounts give Laozi the personal name Li Er (李耳, Lǐ Ěr), whose Old Chinese pronunciation has been reconstructed as *C.rəʔ C.nəʔ. Li is a common Chinese surname but literally means “plum tree”; there are legends tying Laozi’s birth to a plum. Laozi’s prominent posthumous name Dan (聃, Dān) similarly means “Long-Ear” or “the Long-Eared One”. The character 耳 was the ancient Chinese word for “ear” or “ears”.
Laozi is recorded bearing the courtesy name Boyang (伯陽, Bóyáng), whose Old Chinese pronunciation has been reconstructed as *pˤrak laŋ. The character 伯 was the title of a senior uncle of the father’s family, also used as a noble title equivalent to a count and as a general mark of respect, and the character 陽 is yang, the solar and masculine life force in Taoist belief. Lao Dan seems to have been used more generally, however, including by Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian, by Zhuangzi’s in his eponymous Taoist classic, and by some modern scholars.
In the mid-twentieth century, a consensus emerged among Western scholars that the historicity of the person known as Laozi is doubtful and that the Tao Te Ching was “a compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands”. So far, the oldest text containing quotes from the Tao Te Ching dates to the late 4th century, written on bamboo slips excavated as part of the Guodian Chu Slips. However, these are mixed in with quotes from other works, indicating that the Tao Te Ching had not yet emerged as a distinct work. The oldest manuscripts of the Tao Te Ching in a complete form by itself were discovered at a tomb in Mawangdui, and date to the early 2nd century BCE.
The earliest certain reference to Laozi is found in the 1st‑century BC Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian. Multiple accounts of Laozi’s biography are presented, with Sima Qian expressing various levels of doubt in his sources.
In one account, Sima Qian reports that Laozi was said to be a contemporary of Confucius during the 6th or 5th century BC. His personal name was Er or Dan. was born in the village of Quren (曲仁里, Qūrén lǐ) in the southern state of Chu, within present-day Luyi in Henan. He was said to be the son of the Censor-in-Chief of the Zhou dynasty and Lady Yishou (益壽氏, Yìshòu shì). and was a scholar who worked as the Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou. This reportedly allowed him broad access to the works of the Yellow Emperor and other classics of the time, and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the west.
In another, Laozi was a different contemporary of Confucius titled Lao Laizi (老莱子) and wrote a book in 15 parts. The story tells of Zong the Warrior who defeats an enemy and triumphs, and then abandons the corpses of the enemy soldiers to be eaten by vultures. By coincidence Laozi, traveling and teaching the way of the Tao, comes on the scene and is revealed to be the father of Zong, from whom he was separated in childhood. Laozi tells his son that it is better to treat respectfully a beaten enemy, and that the disrespect to their dead would cause his foes to seek revenge. Convinced, Zong orders his soldiers to bury the enemy dead. Funeral mourning is held for the dead of both parties and a lasting peace is made.
In a third, he was the court astrologer Lao Dan who lived during the 4th century BC reign of the Duke Xian of Qin who grew weary of the moral decay of life in Chengzhou and noted the kingdom’s decline. He ventured west to live as a hermit in the unsettled frontier at the age of 80. At the western gate of the city (or kingdom), he was recognized by the guard Yinxi. The sentry asked the old master to record his wisdom for the good of the country before he would be permitted to pass. The text Laozi wrote was said to be the Tao Te Ching, although the present version of the text includes additions from later periods. In some versions of the tale, the sentry was so touched by the work that he became a disciple and left with Laozi, never to be seen again. In some later interpretations, the “Old Master” journeyed all the way to India and was the teacher of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. Others say he was the Buddha himself.
The stories assert that Laozi never opened a formal school but nonetheless attracted a large number of students and loyal disciples. There are many variations of a story retelling his encounter with Confucius, most famously in the Zhuangzi. His birthday is popularly held to be the 15th day of the second month of the Chinese calendar. In accounts where Laozi married, he was said to have had a son who became a celebrated soldier of Wei during the Warring States period.
Confucius meets Laozi, Shih Kang, Yuan dynasty
Depiction of Laozi in E. T. C. Werner’s Myths and Legends of China
Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching is one of the most significant treatises in Chinese cosmogony. Although the identity of its author(s) or compiler(s) has been debated throughout history, it has regularly been identified with the name Laozi. The text itself is often called the Laozi. As with many works of ancient Chinese philosophy, ideas are often explained by way of paradox, analogy, appropriation of ancient sayings, repetition, symmetry, rhyme, and rhythm. In fact, the whole book can be read as an analogy – the ruler is the awareness, or self, in meditation and the myriad creatures or empire is the experience of the body, senses and desires.
The Tao Te Ching describes the Tao as the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act “unnaturally”, upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching intends to lead students to a “return” to their natural state, in harmony with Tao. Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point.
Wu wei (無為), literally “non-action” or “not acting”, is a central concept of the Tao Te Ching. The concept of wu wei is multifaceted, and reflected in the words’ multiple meanings, even in English translation; it can mean “not doing anything”, “not forcing”, “not acting” in the theatrical sense, “creating nothingness”, “acting spontaneously”, and “flowing with the moment”.
It is a concept used to explain ziran (自然), or harmony with the Tao. It includes the concepts that value distinctions are ideological and seeing ambition of all sorts as originating from the same source. Laozi used the term broadly with simplicity and humility as key virtues, often in contrast to selfish action. On a political level, it means avoiding such circumstances as war, harsh laws and heavy taxes. Some Taoists see a connection between wu wei and esoteric practices, such as zuowang “sitting in oblivion” (emptying the mind of bodily awareness and thought) found in the Zhuangzi.
Livia Kohn provides an example of how Laozi encouraged a change in approach, or return to “nature”, rather than action. Technology may bring about a false sense of progress. The answer provided by Laozi is not the rejection of technology, but instead seeking the calm state of wu wei, free from desires. This relates to many statements by Laozi encouraging rulers to keep their people in “ignorance”, or “simple-minded”. Some scholars insist this explanation ignores the religious context, and others question it as an apologetic of the philosophical coherence of the text. It would not be unusual political advice if Laozi literally intended to tell rulers to keep their people ignorant. However, some terms in the text, such as “valley spirit” (gushen) and “soul” (po), bear a metaphysical context and cannot be easily reconciled with a purely ethical reading of the work.
A Western Han fresco depicting Confucius and Laozi, from a tomb of Dongping County, Shandong, China
A stone sculpture of Laozi, located north of Quanzhou at the foot of Mount Qingyuan
Potential officials throughout Chinese history drew on the authority of non-Confucian sages, especially Laozi and Zhuangzi, to deny serving any ruler at any time. Zhuangzi, Laozi’s most famous follower in traditional accounts, had a great deal of influence on Chinese literati and culture. Political theorists influenced by Laozi have advocated humility in leadership and a restrained approach to statecraft, either for ethical and pacifist reasons, or for tactical ends. In a different context, various antiauthoritarian movements have embraced Laozi’s teachings on the power of the weak.
The story of Laozi has taken on strong religious overtones since the Han dynasty. As Taoism took root, Laozi was worshipped as a god. Belief in the revelation of the Tao from the divine Laozi resulted in the formation of the Way of the Celestial Masters, the first organized religious Taoist sect. In later mature Taoist tradition, Laozi came to be seen as a personification of the Tao. He is said to have undergone numerous “transformations” and taken on various guises in various incarnations throughout history to initiate the faithful in the Way. Religious Taoism often holds that the “Old Master” did not disappear after writing the Tao Te Ching but rather spent his life traveling and revealing the Tao.
Taoist myths state that Laozi was a virgin birth, conceived when his mother gazed upon a falling star. He supposedly remained in her womb for 62 years before being born while his mother was leaning against a plum tree. (The Chinese surname Li literally means “plum tree”.) Laozi was said to have emerged as a grown man with a full grey beard and long earlobes, both symbols of wisdom and long life. Other myths state that he was reborn 13 times after his first life during the days of Fuxi. In his last incarnation as Laozi, he lived nine hundred and ninety years and spent his life traveling to reveal the Tao.
Due to his traditional name Li Er, Laozi has been venerated as the ancestor of all subsequent Lis, and many clans of the Li family trace their descent to Laozi, including the emperors of the Tang dynasty. This family was known as the Longxi Li lineage (隴西李氏). According to the Simpkinses, while many (if not all) of these lineages are questionable, they provide a testament to Laozi’s impact on Chinese culture. Under the Tang, Laozi received a series of temple names of increasing grandeur. In the year 666, Emperor Gaozong named Laozi the “Supremely Mysterious and Primordial Emperor” (太上玄元皇帝, Tàishàng Xuán Yuán Huángdì). In 743, Emperor Xuanzong declared him the “Sage Ancestor” (聖祖, Shèngzǔ) of the dynasty with the posthumous title of “Mysterious and Primordial Emperor” (玄元皇帝, Xuán Yuán Huángdì). Emperor Xuanzong also elevated Laozi’s parents to the ranks of “Innately Supreme Emperor” (先天太上皇, Xiāntiān Tàishàng Huáng) and “Innate Empress” (先天太后, Xiāntiān Tàihòu). In 749, Laozi was further honored as the “Sage Ancestor and Mysterious and Primordial Emperor of the Great Way” (聖祖大道玄元皇帝, Shèngzǔ Dàdào Xuán Yuán Huángdì) and then, in 754, as the “Great Sage Ancestor and Mysterious and Primordial Heavenly Emperor and Great Sovereign of the Golden Palace of the High and Supreme Great Way” (大聖祖高上大道金闕玄元天皇大帝, Dà Shèngzǔ Gāo Shǎng Dàdào Jīnquē Xuán Yuán Tiānhuáng Dàdì).
A seventh-century work, the Sandong Zhunang (“Pearly Bag of the Three Caverns”), presents Laozi is the perfect Taoist master and a character named Yinxi as the ideal Taoist student. Yinxi follows a formal sequence of preparation, testing, training and attainment.
In the Siddhar tradition of Tamil Nadu, the greatly revered Siddhar Bhogar, one of the 18 esteemed Siddhars of yore, is believed to be Laozi and is of Chinese origin. His caste, from obscure references is noted to be “Cinatecakkuyavar” or Chinese potter. In his principal book of poetry, the Bhogar 7000, he tells of his travels to China to spread his ideas on spirituality, specifically on the topic of sublimating the sexual energies and using said energies to become self-realised, with a spiritually-minded partner. His Jeeva Samadhi can be found in the southwestern corridor of the Dhandayuthapani Temple, Palani, Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu.
Many contemporary philosophers have seen Laozi as a proponent of limited government. The right-libertarian economist Murray Rothbard suggested that Laozi was the first libertarian, likening Laozi’s ideas on government to Friedrich Hayek’s theory of spontaneous order. James A. Dorn agreed, writing that Laozi, like many 18th-century liberals, “argued that minimizing the role of government and letting individuals develop spontaneously would best achieve social and economic harmony.” Similarly, the Cato Institute’s David Boaz includes passages from the Tao Te Ching’ in his 1997 book The Libertarian Reader and noted in an article for the Encyclopædia Britannica that Laozi advocated for rulers to “do nothing” because “without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony.” Philosopher Roderick Long argues that libertarian themes in Taoist thought are actually borrowed from earlier Confucian writers.
The anarcho-syndicalist writer and activist Rudolf Rocker praised Laozi’s “gentle wisdom” and understanding of the opposition between political power and the cultural activities of the people and communityin his 1937 book Nationalism and Culture. In his 1910 article for the Encyclopædia Britannica, Peter Kropotkin also noted that Laozi was among the earliest proponents of essentially anarchist concepts. More recently, anarchists such as John P. Clark and Ursula K. Le Guin have written about the conjunction between anarchism and Taoism in various ways, highlighting the teachings of Laozi in particular. In her rendition of the Tao Te Ching, Le Guin writes that Laozi “does not see political power as magic. He sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped… He sees sacrifice of self or others as a corruption of power, and power as available to anyone who follows the Way. No wonder anarchists and Taoists make good friends.”