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Lao Zi

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Lao Zi (老子 lao3 zi5, also spelled Lao Tzu, Lao Tse or Lao Tze in Wade-Giles), was a famous Chinese philosopher of approximately the 4th century BC. He is credited with writing the seminal Daoist work, the Dao De Jing.


His name in full was Li Er (李耳 li3 er3), courtesy name Boyang (伯陽), and his posthumous name was Dan (聃 dan1), meaning "Mysterious". He 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 tai4 shang4 lao3 jun1) "Absolutely Superior"
  • Taoist Lord Lao Zi (老子道君)
  • Li Boyang (李伯陽)

In the Li Tang Dynasty, in order to create a connection to Lao Zi as their ancestor, 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 Progenitor."

His life

Not much is known about his life. Born in Ku Prefecture (苦縣 ku3 xian4) of the state of Chu[?] (楚 chu3) (today Luyi County (鹿邑 lu4 yi4) of Henan) in the later years of Spring and Autumn Period. Legends said he was born with grey hair.

He was an older contemporary of Confucius and worked as an archivist in the Imperial Library of the Zhou's court. Legends said Confucius intentionally or accidentally met him in Zhou (approx. today Luoyang) where Confucius was going to browse the library scrolls and requested Lao Zi to discuss about rituals and propriety. During the following month of discussion, Confucius actually learns more from Lao Zi than from the books.

Afterwards Lao Zi resigned from his post as the authority of Zhou's court was diminishing. Nothing was known about him then. Legends said he travelled west into the state of Qin and dwelt far away from China.

Some of the modern standpoints of controversies about his life are:

1. "Lao Zi" literally means "an old man" so he probably was a fictitious character. Discussion requested by Confucius was probably fabricated by Taoists to make their school of philisophy sounded superior to Confucianism.

2. The actual author(s) of Dao De Jing created such a fictitious character so origin of the text would look more mysterious, thus making it easier to popularize.

3. Lao Zi was probably a pseudonym of Dan, Prefect of the Grand Scribes (Tai Shi Dan 太史儋 tai4 shi3 dan4), an old man from Lai (Lao Lai Zi 老萊子 lao3 lai3 zi5) or some actual characters. Note: Lai was a prefecture of the state of Qi[?] (齊 qi2)

His work

His famous work, the Dao De Jing (c.f.), has been greatly influential in China. The book is a mystical treatise covering many areas of philosophy, from individual spirituality to techniques for governing societies. He believed in "Tao" (pinyin: Dao), which translates to "the way ahead", and implies an unnameable inherent order or property of the universe. He believed in the concept of wu-wei, or "action through inaction". This does not mean that one should sit around and do nothing; but rather, that actions taken in accordance with Tao are easier and more productive than actively attempting to counter the Tao. Lao Zi 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 Zi also indicated that codified laws and rules are just going to make managing society more difficult. See Dao De Jing.

Although Lao Zi does not have the same influence as Confucius in China, he is still respected by the Chinese. Confucius and Lao Zi are the only Chinese philosophers that have become widely known in the Western world.

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