Lao Zi was a famous Chinese philosopher who is believed to have lived in approximately the 4th century BC, during the Hundred Schools of Thought and Warring States Periods. He is credited with writing the seminal Taoist work, the Tao Te Ching. He became a popular deity in Taoist religion’s pantheon. His most famous follower, Zhuang Zi, wrote a book that had one of the greatest influences on Chinese Literati, through the ideas of individualism, freedom, carefreeness, and, even if the author never speaks about it, art, which may well be the cornerstone of Chinese aesthetic.
Little is known about Lao Zi’s life. His historical existence is strongly debated as is his authorship of the Tao Te Ching. Regardless, he has become an important culture hero to subsequent generations of Chinese people. Tradition says he was born in Ku Prefecture (Ku Xian) of the state of Chu, which today is Luyi County of Henan province, in the later years of Spring and Autumn Period.
Lao Tzu itself is a Chinese honorific title: 老 (Old *rˤuʔ, “old, venerable”) and 子 (Old *tsəʔ, “master”). In traditional accounts, Laozi’s actual personal name is usually given as Li Er (李耳, Old *rəʔ nəʔ, Mod. Lǐ Ěr) and his courtesy name as Boyang (trad. 伯陽, simp. 伯阳, Old *Pˤrak-lang, Mod. Bóyáng). A prominent posthumous name was Li Dan (李聃, Lǐ Dān). Sima Qian in his biography mentions his name as Lǐ Ěr, and his literary name as Lǐ Dān, which became the deferential Lǎo Dān (老聃, Lǎo Dān). The name Lǎo Dān also appears interchangeably with Lǎo Zi in early Daoist texts such as the Zhuangzi, and may also be the name by which Lao Tzu was addressed by Confucius when they possibly met. According to the Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, “the ‘founder’ of philosophical Daoism is the quasi-legendary Laodan, more commonly known as Laozi (Old Master)”.
The honorific title Lao Tzu has been romanized numerous ways, sometimes leading to confusion. The most common present form is still Lao Tzu, which is based on the formerly prevalent Wade–Giles system. In the 19th century, the title was usually romanized as Lao-tse. Other forms include the variants Lao-tze, Lao-tsu and Laozi/Lao Zi.
As a religious figure, he is worshipped under the name “Supreme Old Lord” (太上老君, Tàishàng Lǎojūn) and as one of the “Three Pure Ones”. During the Tang dynasty, he was granted the title “Supremely Mysterious and Primordial Emperor” (太上玄元皇帝, Tàishàng Xuānyuán Huángdì).
In the mid-twentieth century, a consensus emerged among 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”. The earliest certain reference to the present figure of Laozi is found in the 1st‑century BC Records of the Grand Historian collected by the historian Sima Qian from earlier accounts. In one account, Laozi was said to be a contemporary of Confucius during the 6th or 5th century BC. His surname was Li and his personal name was Er or Dan. He was an official in the imperial archives 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. In a third, he was the court astrologer Lao Dan who lived during the 4th century BC reign of Duke Xian of the Qin Dynasty. The oldest text of the Tao Te Ching so far recovered was part of the Guodian Chu Slips. It was written on bamboo slips, and dates to the late 4th century BC.
According to traditional accounts, Laozi 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. 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.
He was sometimes held to have come from the village of Chu Jen in Chu. In accounts where Laozi married, he was said to have had a son named Zong who became a celebrated soldier.
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.
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.
The third story in Sima Qian states that Laozi 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 others, 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.
A seventh-century work, the Sandong Zhunang (“Pearly Bag of the Three Caverns”), embellished the relationship between Laozi and Yinxi. Laozi pretended to be a farmer when reaching the western gate, but was recognized by Yinxi, who asked to be taught by the great master. Laozi was not satisfied by simply being noticed by the guard and demanded an explanation. Yinxi expressed his deep desire to find the Tao and explained that his long study of astrology allowed him to recognize Laozi’s approach. Yinxi was accepted by Laozi as a disciple. This is considered an exemplary interaction between Taoist master and disciple, reflecting the testing a seeker must undergo before being accepted. A would-be adherent is expected to prove his determination and talent, clearly expressing his wishes and showing that he had made progress on his own towards realizing the Tao.
The Pearly Bag of the Three Caverns continues the parallel of an adherent’s quest. Yinxi received his ordination when Laozi transmitted the Tao Te Ching, along with other texts and precepts, just as Taoist adherents receive a number of methods, teachings and scriptures at ordination. This is only an initial ordination and Yinxi still needed an additional period to perfect his virtue, thus Laozi gave him three years to perfect his Tao. Yinxi gave himself over to a full-time devotional life. After the appointed time, Yinxi again demonstrates determination and perfect trust, sending out a black sheep to market as the agreed sign. He eventually meets again with Laozi, who announces that Yinxi’s immortal name is listed in the heavens and calls down a heavenly procession to clothe Yinxi in the garb of immortals. The story continues that Laozi bestowed a number of titles upon Yinxi and took him on a journey throughout the universe, even into the nine heavens. After this fantastic journey, the two sages set out to western lands of the barbarians. The training period, reuniting and travels represent the attainment of the highest religious rank in medieval Taoism called “Preceptor of the Three Caverns”. In this legend, Laozi is the perfect Taoist master and Yinxi is the ideal Taoist student. Laozi is presented as the Tao personified, giving his teaching to humanity for their salvation. Yinxi follows the formal sequence of preparation, testing, training and attainment.
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 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 shares its character with “plum”.) 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.
According to Chinese legend, Laozi left China for the west on a water buffalo.
Laozi meets Yinxi
Confucius meets Laozi, Shih Kang, Yuan dynasty
Depiction of Laozi in E. T. C. Werner’s Myths and Legends of China
Tao Te Ching
Laozi is traditionally regarded as the author of the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing), though the identity of its author(s) or compiler(s) has been debated throughout history. It is one of the most significant treatises in Chinese cosmogony. As with most other ancient Chinese philosophers, Laozi often explains his ideas 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, often called simply Laozi after its reputed author, describes the Dao (or 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.
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.
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.
Laozi is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism, intimately connected with the Tao Te Ching and “primordial” (or “original”) Taoism. Popular (“religious”) Taoism typically presents the Jade Emperor as the official head deity. Intellectual (“elite”) Taoists, such as the Celestial Masters sect, usually present Laozi (Laojun, “Lord Lao”) and the Three Pure Ones at the top of the pantheon of deities.
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. Lao Tsu influenced millions of Chinese people by his psychological understanding. He persuaded people by his inaction and non-speaking.
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 anti-authoritarian movements have embraced the Laozi teachings on the power of the weak.
Laozi was a proponent of limited government. Left-libertarians in particular have been influenced by Laozi – in his 1937 book Nationalism and Culture, 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 community. 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.”
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. Philosopher Roderick Long, however, argues that libertarian themes in Taoist thought are actually borrowed from earlier Confucian writers.