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Lao-tzu, Laozi, Lao Zi, Lao tzu, Lao Tse, Laotze, Li Erh, Lao Tan, Lao Tun. Traditional depiction.
Lao Zi on a buffalo

Lao-tzu (Laozi, Lao Zi, Lao tzu, Lao Tse, Laotze, and other variants), is the name of a legendary Chinese thinker, the alleged author of the ancient text known as the Lao-tzu, or the Tao-te Ching, also called Dao-de Jing. However, little can be said about him with certainty, and Tao-te Ching is regarded by many scholars as a compilation. Be that as it may, Lao Zi (Lao-tzu) means "Master Lao" or "Old Master". His original name was Li Erh, and is also called Lao Tan or Lao Tun.

Lao Zi is still venerated, but is an obscure figure. The main source of information about his life is a biography by the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien, who wrote in about 100 BC. He says Lao Zi was a native of a village in the district of Hu in the state of Ch'u (Honan province now), and was appointed to the office of scholar (shih) at the royal court of the Chou dynasty.

The historian also tells of a meeting of Lao Zi with the younger Confucius (551479 BC). The sources are inconsistent and contradictory, however. And Confucius allegedly was so impressed with Lao Zi that he compared him to a dragon that rises to the sky, riding on the winds and clouds. In another ancient classic, the Chuang-tzu, Lao Zi is said to have instructed Confucius on points of ceremony too.

In another early classic of Taoism, the Chuang-tzu, Lao-tzu is described as one of Chuang-tzu's own teachers, and the same book contains many Lao-tzu discourses.

According to one legend Lao Zi went to the west on a water buffalo when he was 160 years old. On his way he came to the Hsien-ku pass. The guardian of the pass begged him to write a book for him, and Lao Zi wrote about the Way (Tao, "the Premier Principle" etc.) and the te (its "prowess, power, etc."). Then he left, and "nobody knows what has become of him," says Ssu-ma Ch'ien, the historian.

Sides to Being Legendary

Ssu-ma Ch'ien also alludes to other men that Lao Zi was sometimes identified with. One was Lao-Lai-tzu, another was an astrologer named Tan. Ssu-ma Ch'ien adds, "Maybe Lao Zi has lived one hundred and fifty years, some say more than two hundred years." The ancient Chinese believed that superior men could live very long. However, Chuang-tzu, the Taoist sage of the 300s BC, speaks of the death of Lao Zi without emphasizing any unusual longevity.

Many scholars have asked whether there was a historical Lao Zi, among other reasons because the Tao-te Ching that is handed over, contain sayings where some may date from the time of Confucius; others are later; and the book as a whole dates from about 300 BC. It has also been considered that the name Lao Zi represents a certain type of sage rather than an individual.

During the Later Han dynasty (AD 25-220), Lao Zi had become a mythical figure. Several stories about his birth appeared. In one of them his mother is said to have carried him seventy-two years in her womb - another says sixty-two years. And his hair was white already when he got out of the womb. One legend explains his family name, Li, thus: the baby came to light at the foot of a plum tree, and then said that li ("plum") should be his surname.


The Tao-te Ching is marked by a very compressed style.

The "superior virtue" of Taoism is a latent power present in the heart.

The earliest surviving medical book, The Yellow Emperor's Esoteric Classic (3rd century BC?), presents itself as the teachings of the Yellow Emperor. Its ancient occupation acupuncture theory and practice is considered an outlet of Taoist emphasis on direct observation and experience of the nature of things.

A Taoist secret of efficacy is to follow the nature of things.

Taoists set high standards in the arts.

A synthesis of Taoism and Buddhism was realized in the Ch'an (Japanese: Zen) tradition (from the 600s CE and onward). In Ch'an, teachings that allegedly came from ancient Taoist mystics were integrated. Ch'an Buddhism deeply influenced Neo-Confucianism, the renaissance of Confucian philosophy in Sung times (9601279).

Read more:

Laozi, Lao Tzu, Li Erh, Lao Tan, Literature  

Allen, William Cully, and Hsiao-Lan Hu. 2005. Taoism. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. 1992. Wen-tzu: Understanding the Mysteries. Lao-tzu.. London: Shambhala.

Cooper, Jean C. An Illustrated Introduction to Taoism: The Wisdom of the Sages. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom.

Hendricks, Robert G., tr. 1991. Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching. London: Rider.

Kreger, D. W. 2011. The Secret Tao: Uncovering the Hidden History and Meaning of Lao Tzu. Palmdale, CA: Windham Everitt.

Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. 2000. Encyclopedia of Taoism. Vol 1. London: Routledge.

Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. 2000. Encyclopedia of Taoism. Vol 2. London: Routledge.

Roberts, Moss, tr. 2001. Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way. Laozi. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Welch, Holmes. Taoism: the Parting of the Way. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965. — Excellent.

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