Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu. Ink by Muxi Fachang, 13th century.

The First Taoist

Lao Tzu (also spelled Lao Zi) is the legendary writer of the Tao Te Ching, the old classic about Taoism. He is also regarded as the first of the Taoists, both in time and in importance. Still, nothing is know for certain about Lao Tzu - not even if he ever lived.

       Chinese tradition makes Lao Tzu a contemporary of Confucius (Kung Fu Tzu or Kong Fuzi), the most famous of Chinese philosophers, and by far the most influential on the values and mentality of Chinese society. Confucius, whose existence is well documented, lived 551-479 BC.

The Senior Lao Tzu

But Taoist tradition makes Lao Tzu the senior to Confucius, to the extent that he would have been born around 600 BC. This should be viewed with some skepticism, since it might just have been a way of claiming Lao Tzu's superiority over the other philosopher: In China, as well as in many other cultures, wisdom is regarded as increasing with age. Also, old ideas are respected much more than new ones.

Lao Tzu meets the border guard Yin Hsi, who convinces him to write the Tao Te Ching.
Lao Tzu meets the border guard Yin Hsi, who convinces him to write the Tao Te Ching.

       So, the Taoists would prefer to have Lao Tzu the senior to Confucius, especially since Confucianism and Taoism to a large extent have contradictory views. One could even call Lao Tzu and Confucius opposites. The latter speaks of the necessity of a fixed order, whereas Lao Tzu recommends to let go and trust the sublime working order of nature.

Lao Tzu in History

The Taoists are not without support for their claim of Lao Tzu's seniority, though. The most solid historical source to Lao Tzu and his life, also the oldest one, is Shih Chi, the book of Chinese history written by Ssu-ma Ch'ien around 90 BC. In this book, Lao Tzu is indeed reported to be a senior contemporary to Confucius.

       Shih Chi even describes a meeting between Lao Tzu and Confucius, where Lao Tzu is portrayed as both older and wiser, giving the latter a lesson that is almost humiliating.

       The name Lao Tzu is not likely to be genuine, though. It means Old Master and is more of an honorific title. Shih Chi states that his name was really Li Er. He was a public servant at the imperial archives, who late in his life left this high position in disgust, traveled to the West on a water buffalo, and wasn't heard from again.

Lao Tzu departs on a water buffalo. Painting by Chao Buzhi, 11th Century.
Lao Tzu departs on a water buffalo. Painting by Chao Buzhi, 11th Century.

Lao Tzu's Parting Gift

Legend has it that before leaving, Lao Tzu rested at the house of a border guard named Yin Hse, who was delighted at listening to the wisdom of his guest. The guard said that Lao Tzu must write down his thoughts, for the benefit of mankind.

       Lao Tzu seemed indifferent to the idea, but when the guard woke up the next morning, Lao Tzu was gone, but he had left the Tao Te Ching text behind.

       Actually, the book was originally called Lao Tzu, like its legendary writer. That's still the name in use for it among many scholars, in China as well as the rest of the world.

The Age of the Tao Te Ching

There is little chance of dating Lao Tzu's life with any certainty. If Lao Tzu did exist and was the writer of the Tao Te Ching, he must at least have lived before the oldest version of the text we have discovered. That's around the year 300 BC, from which the Guodian manuscripts date.

       On the other hand, we may find older manuscripts in the future. Many Chinese scholars still insist that Lao Tzu and his text are from the 6th century BC.

       Some scholars don't regard the Tao Te Ching as a book written by one author, but as a compilation of proverbs and other bits and pieces, which may of course partly be of very old origin. The text is not autobiographical in any way, so it contains few clues as to its creation.

Lao Tzu Reveals Himself

But there is one chapter of the Tao Te Ching, where the author seems to reveal himself, overcome by sentiment, sighing at the futility of trying to remain sane in an ignorant world. It's chapter 20, where Lao Tzu writes:

Other people are joyous, like on the feast of the ox,
Like on the way up to the terrace in the spring.
I alone am inert, giving no sign,
Like a newborn baby who has not learned to smile.
I am wearied, as if I lacked a home to go to.

Other people have more than they need,
I alone seem wanting.
I have the mind of a fool,
Understanding nothing.

The common people see clearly,
I alone am held in the dark.
The common people are sharp,
Only I am clumsy,
Like drifting on the waves of the sea,
Without direction.

Other people are occupied,
I alone am unwilling, like the outcast.

       That has a ring of despair. Lao Tzu the outcast, the involuntary hermit, trapped in his own oddity. But in the last lines of the chapter, Lao Tzu finds solace in the greatest of sources:

I alone am different from the others,
Because I am nourished by the great mother.

       The great mother is Tao, the Way, of which Lao Tzu speaks all through the book. He regards it as the principle out of which the whole world sprung and the law to which everything in it must conform. That's a mighty mother, with whom one is never alone.

So, did Lao Tzu exist?

Today, there is no way of knowing if Lao Tzu ever existed, and if he did, no way to make sure if he wrote the Tao Te Ching. Future archaeological discoveries may reveal the truth, but until then we can only speculate. So I do.

       Starting with the Tao Te Ching text, some things about it are obvious to me. Its structure - such as the many repetitions, the lack of logical order in the subjects treated, the rhymes, et cetera - strongly suggests a compilation of proverbs and such, probably to a large extent from oral tradition.

       That can make the origin of the Taoist philosophy very old, indeed, vastly preceding Confucianism and other Chinese philosophies. The advanced abstract ideas about Tao as a principle of the cosmos actually suggest an origin before the emergence of agrarian society, where myths and thoughts became more earthbound.

       But that doesn't necessarily exclude Lao Tzu, either as a major ancient source to the Taoist ideas, or as a kind of editor, making the first compilation of them in a book. I would put my vote on the latter possibility.

Lao Tzu. Stone rubbing from the 13th Century.
Lao Tzu as he is usually portrayed: an old funny-looking man. Stone rubbing from the 13th Century.

       In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu frequently mentions the sage ones of antiquity, as if quoting them. Sometimes the text strongly suggests that he does. It makes sense. No man is an island. Although Lao Tzu may have added his own ideas and his own poetic flare to things, he would have had sources of old on which to ponder and speculate. If he worked at the imperial archives, Lao Tzu would certainly have had excellent access to such sources.

       But the Tao Te Ching text is focused and clear all through, in a way that implies one mind, not many, and one idea of the book as a whole. Lao Tzu may have used material from sources old already at his time, but he sculpted them into a unifying principle, that of Tao, and showed stringency in applying it to all kinds of subjects and perspectives. Thereby, Lao Tzu created what was to be Taoism.

My Taoism Books:

Tao Te Ching - The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Te Ching

The Taoism of Lao Tzu Explained. The great Taoist philosophy classic by Lao Tzu translated, and each of the 81 chapters extensively commented. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.

Tao Quotes - the Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Tao Quotes

The Ancient Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. 389 quotes from the foremost Taoist classic, divided into 51 prominent topics. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

       More about the book here.

My Other Websites:

I Ching Online

The 64 hexagrams of the Chinese classic I Ching and what they mean in divination. Try it online for free.

Qi Energy Exercises

The ancient Chinese life energy qi (chi) explained, with simple instructions on how to exercise it.

Life Energy

The many ancient and modern life force beliefs all over the world explained.

Creation Myths

Creation stories from around the world, and the ancient cosmology they reveal.

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Other Books by Stefan Stenudd:

Cosmos of the Ancients. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Cosmos of the Ancients

The Greek philosophers and what they thought about cosmology, myth, and the gods. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

QI - increase your life energy. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Qi - Increase Your Life Energy

The life energy qi (also chi or ki) explained, with exercises on how to awaken, increase and use it. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

Aikido Principles. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Aikido Principles

Basic Concepts of the Peaceful Martial Art
Aikido principles, philosophy, and basic ideas. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

Sunday Brunch with the World Maker. Novel by Stefan Stenudd. Sunday Brunch with the World Maker

Fiction. A brunch conversation slips into the mysterious, soon to burst beyond the realm of possibility. Click the image to see the book at Amazon.

Stefan Stenudd, Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction. Stefan Stenudd

About me

I'm a Swedish author and aikido instructor. In addition to fiction, I've written books about Taoism and other East Asian traditions. I'm also an historian of ideas, researching ancient thought and mythology. Click the image to get to my personal website.