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  • Laozi
  • 老子
Portrait by Zhang Lu
  • Trad. 6th century BC
  • Sometimes 4th century BC

Quren Village, Chu (present-day Luyi, Henan)
DiedTrad. 5th century BC
Notable workTao Te Ching
EraAncient philosophy
RegionChinese philosophy
Notable ideas
Honorific Name
Hanyu PinyinLǎozǐ
Literal meaning
  • the Old Master
  • or
  • the Old One
Personal Name
Hanyu PinyinLǐ Ěr
Courtesy name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Hanyu PinyinLǐ Bóyáng
Posthumous Name
Hanyu Pinyin
  • Lǐ Dān
  • Lǎo Dān
Hanyu PinyinLǎojūn
Literal meaningthe Old Lord
Japanese name

Laozi (/ˈldzə/, Chinese: 老子), also romanized as Lao Tzu and various other ways, was a semi-legendary ancient Chinese philosopher, author of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism along with the Zhuangzi. Laozi is a Chinese honorific, typically translated as "the Old Master". Modern scholarship generally regards his biographical details as invented, and his opus a collaboration. 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 (in 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 as the progenitor of the popular surname Li. In some sects of Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religion, it is held that he then became an immortal hermit.[2] Certain Taoist devotees held that the Tao Te Ching was the avatar – embodied as a book – of the god Laojun, one of the Three Pure Ones of the Taoist pantheon, though few philosophers believe this.[3] The Tao Te Ching had a profound influence on Chinese religious movements and on subsequent Chinese philosophers, who annotated, commended, and criticized the texts 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, and was the product of multiple authors.


Laozi /ˈldzə/ is the modern pinyin romanization of 老子. It is not a personal name, but rather an honorific title, meaning 'old' or 'venerable'. Its structure matches that of other ancient Chinese philosophers, such as Kongzi, Mengzi, and Zhuangzi.[4]

Traditional accounts give Laozi the personal name Li Er (, Lǐ Ěr), whose Old Chinese pronunciation has been reconstructed as *C.rəʔ C.nəʔ.[1] Li is a common Chinese surname which also has the meaning meaning 'plum' or plum tree when used as a common noun; there is a legend tying Laozi's birth to a plum tree.[5] Laozi has long been identified with the persona Lao Dan (, Lǎo Dān).[6][7][8] Dan similarly means "Long-Ear" or "the Long-Eared One". The character is the Chinese word for 'ear'.[9]

Laozi is recorded bearing the courtesy name Boyang (, Bóyáng), whose Old Chinese pronunciation has been reconstructed as *pˤrak laŋ.[1] The character was the title of the eldest son born to the primary wife, or an uncle of the father's family who was older than one's father, also used as a noble title indicating an aristocratic lineage head with rulership over a small to medium domain, and as a general mark of respect. The character 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,[10] in the Zhuangzi,[10] and by some modern scholars.[11]


By the mid-twentieth century, consensus had emerged among Western scholars that the historicity of a person known as Laozi is doubtful and that the Tao Te Ching is "a compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands",[12][13] with an author being invented afterwards.[14] The book's conspicuous absence of a central Master figure place it in marked contrast with nearly all other early Chinese philosophical works.[15][16]

As of 2023, the oldest manuscript containing text from the Tao Te Ching dates to the late 4th century BC, 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 was still undergoing revisions and modifications.[17] 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.[18] Analysis of early commentary on passages that appear in the received Tao Te Ching supports an accretionary evolution for the text rather than a singular authorship event.[19]

Traditional accounts[edit]

The earliest biographical 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.[20]

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. He was born in the village of Quren (曲仁里, Qūrén lǐ) in the southern state of Chu,[21] within present-day Luyi in Henan.[22] He was said to be the son of the Censor-in-Chief of the Zhou dynasty and Lady Yishou (益壽氏), and was a scholar who worked as the Keeper of the Archives for the royal Zhou court. 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 called Lao Laizi [zh] (老莱子), one of the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, 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[23][24] 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.[25] 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.[26][27]

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.[26][28] A.C. Graham suggested that the Confucian version of the story presented in the Book of Rites was the original, which was borrowed and re-interpreted by the followers of Zhuang Zhou.[29] His birthday is popularly held to be the 15th day of the second month of the Chinese calendar.[30] 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.

Tao Te Ching[edit]

Carving of Laozi at Ping Sien Si Temple in Perak, Malaysia

The Tao Te Ching is one of the most significant treatises in Chinese cosmogony. It is often called the Laozi, and has always been associated with that name. The identity of the person or people who wrote or compiled the text has been the source of considerable speculation and debate throughout history.[31][32] 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. The Tao Te Ching stands as an exemplar of this literary form.[33] Unlike most works of its genre, the book conspicuously lacks a central "master" character and seldom references historical people or events, giving it an air of timelessness.[34]

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.[35] Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point.[36]

Wu wei, 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".[37]

This concept is used to explain ziran, 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. Tao Te Ching 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.[36]

Alan Chan 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" (谷神, gushen) and 'soul' (, po), bear a metaphysical context and cannot be easily reconciled with a purely ethical reading of the work.[36]


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, the other founder of Taoism, had a great deal of influence on Chinese literati and culture.[38] 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.[39]

Han dynasty[edit]

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 Taoist tradition, Laozi came to be seen as a personification of the Tao. He is said to have undergone numerous "transformations" and taken on 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.[40]

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. 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.[41] 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 990 years and spent his life traveling to reveal the Tao.[40]

Tang dynasty[edit]

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,[42] including the emperors of the Tang dynasty.[43][42][44] 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.[45] 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" (太上皇帝, Tàishàng Xuán Yuán Huángdì).[46] In 743, Emperor Xuanzong declared him the "Sage Ancestor" (聖祖, Shèngzǔ) of the dynasty with the posthumous title of "Mysterious and Primordial Emperor" (皇帝, Xuán Yuán Huángdì). Emperor Xuanzong also elevated Laozi's parents to the ranks of "Innately Supreme Emperor" (先天太上, 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" (聖祖大道金闕天皇大帝, Dà Shèngzǔ Gāo Shǎng Dàdào Jīnquē Xuán Yuán Tiānhuáng Dàdì).

A seventh-century work, the Sandong Zhunang (三洞珠囊; "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.[47]

Tamil Nadu[edit]

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.[48][49] His Jeeva Samadhi can be found in the southwestern corridor of the Dhandayuthapani Temple, Palani, Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu.[50]


Many contemporary philosophers have seen Laozi as a proponent of limited government.[51] The right-libertarian economist Murray Rothbard suggested that Laozi was the first libertarian,[52] likening Laozi's ideas on government to Friedrich Hayek's theory of spontaneous order.[53] 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."[54] 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."[55][56] Philosopher Roderick Long argues that libertarian themes in Taoist thought are actually borrowed from earlier Confucian writers.[57]

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 1937 book Nationalism and Culture.[58] In his 1910 article for the Encyclopædia Britannica, Peter Kropotkin also noted that Laozi was among the earliest proponents of essentially anarchist concepts.[59] 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.[60] 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."[61]


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  13. ^ Chan (2000), p. 4
  14. ^ Lewis (1999), p. 61.
  15. ^ Denecke (2011), pp. 208, 212–213.
  16. ^ Lewis (1999), p. 91.
  17. ^ Shaughnessy (2005).
  18. ^ Chan, Alan (2018) [2001]. "Laozi". In Edward N. Zalta; Uri Nodelman; et al. (eds.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University Department of Philosophy. The discovery of two Laozi silk manuscripts at Mawangdui, near Changsha, Hunan province in 1973 marks an important milestone in modern Laozi research. The manuscripts, identified simply as 'A' (jia) and 'B' (yi), were found in a tomb that was sealed in 168 B.C.E. The texts themselves can be dated earlier, the 'A' manuscript being the older of the two, copied in all likelihood before 195 B.C.E." [...]
    "Until about two decades ago, the Mawangdui manuscripts have held the pride of place as the oldest extant manuscripts of the Laozi. In late 1993, the excavation of a tomb (identified as M1) in Guodian, Jingmen city, Hubei, has yielded among other things some 800 bamboo slips, of which 730 are inscribed, containing over 13,000 Chinese characters. Some of these, amounting to about 2,000 characters, match the Laozi. The tomb...is dated around 300 B.C.E.
  19. ^ Queen, Sarah A. (2013). "Han Feizi and the Old Master: A Comparative Analysis and Translation of Han Feizi Chapter 20, "Jie Lao," and Chapter 21, "Yu Lao"". In Paul R. Goldin (ed.). Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy. Springer. pp. 197–256. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-4318-2_10. ISBN 978-94-007-4317-5.
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  30. ^ Stepanchuk, Carol (1991). Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China. San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals. p. 125. ISBN 0-8351-2481-9.
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  33. ^ Schaberg, David (2015). "On the Range and Performance of Laozi-Style Tetrasyllables". In Joachim Gentz; Dirk Meyer (eds.). Literary Forms of Argument in Early China. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 123. Brill. pp. 87–111. ISBN 978-90-04-29970-2.
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  39. ^ Roberts (2004), pp. 1–2.
  40. ^ a b Chan (2000), pp. 3–4
  41. ^ Simpkins & Simpkins1999, pp. 11–12.
  42. ^ a b Woolf, Greg (2007). Ancient civilizations: the illustrated guide to belief, mythology, and art. Barnes & Noble. pp. 218–219. ISBN 978-1435101210.
  43. ^ Latourette, Kenneth Scott (1934), The Chinese: their history and culture, Volume 1 (2 ed.), Macmillan, p. 191, retrieved 8 February 2012, T'ai Tsung's family professed descent from Lao Tzu (for the latter's reputed patronymic was likewise Li)
  44. ^ Hargett, James M. (2006). Stairway to Heaven: A Journey to the Summit of Mount Emei. State University of New York Press. p. 54 ff. ISBN 978-0791466827.
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  48. ^ "Siddha Bhoganathar: An Oceanic Life Story". www.palani.org. Retrieved 14 April 2023.
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  51. ^ Dorn (2008), pp. 282–283.
  52. ^ Rothbard, Murray (2005). Excerpt from "Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Toward Laissez Faire", The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. IX, No. 2 (Fall 1990) at mises.org
  53. ^ Rothbard, Murray (2005). "The Ancient Chinese Libertarian Tradition", Mises Daily, (5 December 2005) (original source unknown) at mises.org
  54. ^ Dorn (2008).
  55. ^ Boaz, David (30 January 2009). "Libertarianism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 4 May 2015. Retrieved 21 February 2017. An appreciation for spontaneous order can be found in the writings of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (6th century bce), who urged rulers to "do nothing" because "without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony."
  56. ^ Boaz (1997).
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  61. ^ Le Guin (2009), p. 20.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]