Historical wood-block print of Laozi.

Laozi is the name of the foundational text of Daoist philosophy and religion. The name “Laozi” also refers to the supposed author of that text.

Laozi, a book also known as The Way and Its Power (Daodejing, Tao te ching) or The Book of Five-Thousand Characters (because it contains a little more than that number of Chinese characters), refers to the text that set forth in eighty-one poems the principles of Daoist philosophy and religion; its alleged author is also known as Laozi.

Laozi: The Person

Scholars debate the historical authenticity and dates of Laozi the person. The name “Laozi” means “master Lao” or the “old master.” Because the text that bears this name is a composite work, drawing on a variety of sources and sayings, and the classical Chinese language does not clearly distinguish between singular and plural, the word laozi could mean “the old masters.” Sima Qian’s (145–86? BCE) Records of the Grand Historian (c. 99–98 BCE) contains a biography of Laozi, but by that time the identity of Laozi was already in question, and Sima probably put together a “life” of Laozi from conflicting or competing sources. Daoists celebrate anonymity, and the author(s) of the Laozi (Daodejing) appear(s) to have achieved it. The biography proposes that most likely Laozi was Li Er, also known as Li Dan, who was born in Juren village in the state of Chu. An ancient legend, contained in the Records of the Grand Historian, relates a meeting between the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) and Laozi. Some scholars use that story to date Laozi to the sixth century BCE. Others use the story to argue that Laozi did not exist. Based on textual analysis some scholars date the text and its author(s) to the fourth or third centuries BCE. Some texts, such as The Annals of Lü Buwei and the Zhuangzi, contain sayings attributed to Lao Dan. Because those sayings are similar to passages in the Daodejing, some scholars believe that Lao Dan is Master Lao. One legend relates that Laozi was discouraged and decided to leave China. The border guard, Yin Xi, realized that a wise philosopher was about to depart, so he refused to allow Laozi to pass until Laozi recorded his wisdom. Legend has it that Laozi wrote the Daodejing before heading westward.

The expression laozi also could mean “old boy.” There is an ancient legend that Laozi was born at the age of sixty. His mother’s side opened up, and the old boy entered the world with gray hair and the ability to speak. Laozi began to undergo a process of deification in the early Han dynasty (206 BCE–25 CE), and by the later Han dynasty (25–220 CE) Laozi was considered to be an incarnation of the god Lord Lao (Laojun).

There are conflicting versions of what happened to Laozi after leaving China. Some claim that he returned to China and was buried in his hometown of Juren, which is the modern city of Luyi in Henan Province, where a tomb bearing his name can be found today. Some claim he died in India after teaching the Buddha. Others claim that he is immortal and did not die. Laozi is known as the “hidden sage.”

Laozi: The Book

The book that bears the name Laozi consists of two sections: the Daojing (chapters 1–37) and the Dejing (chapters 38–81). Hence the work is known as the Daodejing. In 1973 at Mawangdui near Zhangsha in Hunan Province, a copy of the text was excavated from a tomb that was sealed in 168 BCE. That copy of the text reverses the order of the two sections, beginning with the Dejing, closing with the Daojing. Some propose that this order is significant by placing emphasis on the power (de) over the abstract Way (dao). In 1993 a copy of part of the Laozi written on bamboo slips was excavated from a tomb at Guodian, Jingmen city in Hubei.

Wang Bi (226–249 CE) wrote the most illuminating philosophical commentary on the Laozi. Before the excavations of the text, the Wang Bi redaction was the oldest, most complete, extant version. Hence, the Wang Bi version is the one translated, and chapter references in this article are to the Wang Bi redaction. One significant difference between the Wang Bi version and the excavated versions is that the older excavated versions do not attack Confucian virtues in the direct manner that the Wang Bi version does. The religious Xianger commentary (late second century CE) is older than Wang Bi’s, but it is not complete. The Heshanggong (Master on the Banks of the Yellow River, c. first–second century CE) commentary offers another religious interpretation of the text as a meditation manual.

The Laozi contains such famous sayings as “repay ill will with beneficence” (ch. 63) and “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step” (ch. 64). The text has been translated into many languages and more times into English than the Bible. It is the most important text for early, philosophical, and religious Daoism. The Laozi proposes that the Way (dao) is the cosmic source, generating heaven, Earth, and the myriad things and creatures. The term dao is merely a label for an invisible, spontaneous, effortless process of generation, maintenance, and decay. The Way is empty yet fills all things. It is flexible, soft, avoids friction, and contains complementary opposites. Everything is connected to the Way by its instantiated power (de). People, especially the sage rulers, are urged to follow the spontaneous, effortless, and noncontrolling operations of the Way. People should act by not taking purposeful action (wuwei). They should have no or few desires. They should avoid cunning and technical knowledge. The Laozi encourages people to live simply and to be generous. The text realizes the realities of war and advocates deploying troops when necessary, but it advises that the victor cannot be arrogant about the slaughter. It celebrates the feminine, soft approach. It suggests that people return to the simplicity of a newborn infant or the uncarved block, being authentic and genuine. The text has been used for self-cultivation, meditation, rulership, and, more recently, management insights.

Further Reading

Addiss, S. & Lombardo, S. (1993). Lao-Tzu: Tao te ching [The way and its power]. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Henricks, R. G. (1989). Lao-Tzu, Te-tao ching: A new translation based on the recently discovered Ma-wang-tui texts. New York: Ballantine Books.

Henricks, R. G. (2000). Lao-Tzu’s Tao te ching: A translation of the startling new documents found at Guodian. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kaltenmark, M. (1969). Lao Tzu and Taoism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Source: Sellmann, James D.. (2009). Laozi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1270–1271. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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