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  One of the Gnostic Saints listed in The Gnostic Mass

Lao-tzu 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 Teh Ching (alternately Dao De Jing, among others). 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 influence on Chinese Literati, through the ideas of individualism, freedom, carefreeness, and, even if the author never speaks about art, which may well be the cornerstone of Chinese aesthetic.

His life

Little is known about Lao-tzu's life. His historical existence is strongly debated as is his authorship on the Tao Teh Ching. Regardless, he has become an important culture hero to subsequent generations of Chinese people. Tradition says he was born in Ku Prefecture (苦縣 Kǔ Xiàn) of the state of Chu (state), which today is Lùyì County of Henan province, in the later years of Spring and Autumn Period. Some legends say he was born with white hair, having spent eight or eighty years in his mother's womb, which is given as an explanation for his title, which can be both read as "the old master" and "the old child".

According to the tradition, Lao-tzu was an older contemporary of Confucius and worked as an archivist in the Imperial Library of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC) court. Confucius intentionally or accidentally met him in Zhou, near the location of modern Luoyang, where Confucius was going to browse the library scrolls. According to these stories, Confucius, over the following months, discussed ritual and propriety, cornerstones of Confucianism, with Lao-tzu. The latter strongly opposed what he felt to be hollow practices. Taoist legend claims that these discussions proved more educational for Confucius than the contents of the libraries.

Afterwards, Lao-tzu resigned from his post, perhaps because the authority of Zhou's court was diminishing. Some accounts claim he travelled west on his water buffalo through the state of Qin and from there disappeared into the vast desert. These accounts have a guard at the western-most gate convincing Lao-tzu to write down his wisdom before heading out into the desert. Until this time, Lao-tzu had shared his philosophy in spoken words only, as was also the case with Socrates, Jesus, Siddhartha and Confucius (whose Analects were most likely compiled by disciples). Lao-tzu's response to the soldier's request was the Tao Teh Ching.

Some of the modern controversies concerning Lao-tzu's life include:

  • The discussion requested by Confucius might have been fabricated by Taoists to make their school of philosophy sound superior to Confucianism.
  • The actual author(s) of Tao Teh Ching might have created a fictitious character so the origin of the text would look more mysterious, thus making it easier to popularize.
  • Arguments have been put forth that Lao-tzu was a pseudonym of Dan, Prefect of the Grand Scribes; or of an old man from Lai, a prefecture in the state of Qi (state); or of some other historical person.

His work

See main article: Tao Teh Ching

Lao-tzu's famous work, the Tao Teh Ching, has been widely influential in China. The book is a mystical treatise covering many areas of philosophy, from individual spirituality to techniques for governing societies.

If we refer to this book, we can draw in few lines what and how Lao-tzu was thinking. He emphasised a specific "Tao", which often translates as "the Way", and widen its meaning to an unnameable inherent order or property of the universe : "The way Nature is". He highlighted the concept of wu-wei, or "action through inaction". This does not mean that one should sit around and do nothing; but that one should avoid explicit intentions, strong will, and proactive action and then reach real efficiency by following the way things spontaneously increase or decrease. Actions taken in accordance with Tao (Nature) are easier and more productive than actively attempting to counter the Tao. Lao-tzu believed that violence should be avoided when possible, and that military victory was an occasion to mourn the necessity of using force against another living thing, rather than an occasion for triumphant celebrations. Lao-tzu also indicated that codified laws and rules result in society becoming more difficult to manage.

As most other Chinese ancient thinkers, his method of explaining his ideas often uses paradoxes, analogies, and the reuse or appropriation of ancient sayings. Using ellipsis, repetition, symmetries, rhymes, rythm, his writings are poetic, dense and often obscure. They often served as a starting point for cosmological or introspective meditations.

Although Lao-tzu does not have as deep an influence in China as Confucius, he is still widely respected by the Chinese. Confucius and Lao-tzu are the best-known Chinese philosophers in the Western world.


The name Lao Zi is an honorific title. Lao (老) means "venerable" or "old". Zi (子) translates literally as "boy", but it was also a term for a rank of nobleman equivalent to viscount, as well as a term of respect attached to the names of revered scholars. Thus, "Lao Zi" can be translated roughly as "the old master".

Lao-tzu's personal name was Lǐ Ěr (李耳), his courtesy name was Boyang (伯陽), and his posthumous name was Dān, (聃) which means "Mysterious".

Lao-tzu is also known as:

  • Elder Dan (老聃)
  • Senior Lord (老君)
    • Senior Lord Li (李老君)
    • Senior Lord Taishang (太上老君 Tàishàng Lǎojūn)
  • Taoist Lord Lao Zi (老子道君)

In the Li Tang Dynasty, in order to create a connection to Lao-tzu as the ancestor of the imperial family, he was given a posthumous name of Emperor Xuanyuan (玄元皇帝), meaning "Profoundly Elementary;" and a temple name of Shengzu (聖祖), meaning "Saintly/Sagely Progenitor."


  • A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. "Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you." But of a good leader, who talks little, When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, They will all say, "We did this ourselves." (Tao Teh Ching, chapter 17)
  • "Scholars of the highest class, when they hear about the Tao, take it and practice it earnestly. Scholars of the middle class, when they hear of it, take it half earnestly. Scholars of the lowest class, when they hear of it, laugh at it. If it were not laughed at, it would not be fit to be the Tao." (Tao Teh Ching, chapter 41)

External links


  • Wing-tsit Chang, "The Natural Way of Lao Tzu". Chapter 6, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: University Press, 1963. ISBN 0-691-01964-9
  • Robert Henricks (translator). Lao-Tzu, Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989. ISBN 0-345-37099-6
  • Arthur Waley (translator). The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. New York: Grove Press, 1958. ISBN 0-394-17207-8
  • Holmes Welch. Taoism: the Parting of the Way. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965. ISBN 0-8070-5973-0

Large portions of this article came from: Wikipedia. (2004). Lao Zi. Retrieved Sept. 20, 2004.

Document Source

  • This page was originally sourced from Thelemapedia. Retrieved May 2009.