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Lǎozǐ (Chinese: 老子), or Lao Tzu, the designation of the Chinese author of the celebrated treatise called Dào Dé Jīng, and the reputed founder of the religion called Daoism. The Chinese characters composing the designation may mean either "the Old Son", which commonly assumes with foreigners the form of "the Old Boy" or "the Old Philosopher". The latter significance was attached to them by John Chalmers in his translation of the treatise published in 1868 under the title of The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality, of "the Old Philosopher," Lau-tsze. The former is derived from a fabulous account of Lǎozǐ in the Shénxiān Zhuàn; "The Account of Spirits and Immortals", of Gé Hóng in the 4th century CE. According to this, his mother, after a supernatural conception, carried him in her womb sixty-two years (or seventy-two, or eighty-one—ten years more or fewer are of little importance in such a case), so that, when he was born at last, his hair was white as with age, and people might well call him "the old boy". The other meaning of the designation rests on better authority. We find it in the Kǒngzǐ Jiāyǔ, or "Narratives of the Confucian School", compiled in the 3rd century CE from documents said to have been preserved among the descendants of Confucius, and also in the brief history of Lǎozǐ given in the historical records of Sīmǎ Qiān (about 100 BCE). In the latter instance the designation is used by Confucius, and possibly it originated with him. It should be regarded more as an epithet of respect than of years, and is equivalent to "the Venerable Philosopher".

All that Qiān tells us about Lǎozǐ goes into small compass. His surname was Lǐ (李), and his name Ěr (耳). He was a native of the state of Chǔ, and was born in a hamlet not far from the present prefectural city of Zhōukǒu in Hénán province. He was one of the recorders or historiographers at the court of Zhōu, his special department being the charge of the whole or a portion of the royal library. He must thus have been able to make himself acquainted with the history of his country. Qiān does not mention the year of his birth, which is often said, though on what Chinese authority does not appear, to have taken place in the third year of King Dìng, corresponding to 604 BCE. That date cannot be far from the truth. That he was contemporary with Confucius is established by the concurrent testimony of the Lǐjì and the Jiāyǔ on the Confucian side, and of Zhuāngzǐ and Sīmǎ Qiān on the Daoist. The two men whose influence has been so great on all the subsequent generations of the Chinese people—Kǒngzǐ (Confucius) and Lǎozǐ—had at least one interview, in 517 BCE, when the former was in his thirty-fifth year. The conversation between them was interesting. Lǎo was in a mocking mood; Kǒng appears to the greater advantage. If it be true that Confucius, when he was fifty-one years old, visited Lǎozǐ as Zhuāngzǐ says (in the Tiān Yùn, the fourteenth of his treatises), to ask about the Dào (道), they must have had more than one interview. John Chalmers, however, has pointed out that both Zhuāngzǐ and Lièzǐ (a still earlier Daoist writer) produce Confucius in their writings, as the lords of the Philistines did the captive Samson on their festive occasions, "to make sport for them". Their testimony is valueless as to any matter of fact. There may have been several meetings between the two in 517 BCE, but we have no evidence that they were together in the same place after that time. Qiān adds:—"Lǎozǐ cultivated the Dào and virtue, his chief aim in his studies being how to keep himself concealed and unknown. He resided at (the capital of) Zhōu; but after a long time, seeing the decay of the dynasty, he left it, and went away to the Gate (leading from the royal domain into the regions beyond—at the entrance of the pass of Hángǔ, in the northwest of Hénán). Yǐn Xǐ, the warden of the Gate, said to him, 'You are about to withdraw yourself out of sight; I pray you to compose for me a book (before you go)'. On this Lǎozǐ made a writing, setting forth his views on the dào and virtue, in two sections, containing more than 5000 characters. He then went away, and it is not known where he died". The historian then mentions the names of two other men whom some regarded as the true Lǎozǐ. One of them was a Lǎo Lái, a contemporary of Confucius, who wrote fifteen treatises (or sections) on the practices of the school of Dào. Subjoined to the notice of him is the remark that Lǎozǐ was more than one hundred and sixty years old, or, as some say, more than two hundred, because by the cultivation of the Dào he nourished his longevity. The other was "a grand historiographer" of Zhōu, called Dān, one hundred and twenty-nine (? one hundred and nineteen) years after the death of Confucius. The introduction of these disjointed notices detracts from the verisimilitude of the whole narrative in which they occur.

Finally, Qiān states that "Lǎozǐ was a superior man, who liked to keep in obscurity", traces the line of his posterity down to the 2nd century BCE, and concludes with this important statement:—"Those who attach themselves to the doctrine of Lǎozǐ condemn that of the literati, and the literati on their part condemn Lǎozǐ, thus verifying the saying, 'Parties whose principles are different cannot take counsel together'. Lǐ Ěr taught that transformation follows, as a matter of course, the doing nothing (to bring it about), and rectification ensues in the same way from being pure and still".

Accepting the Dào Dé Jīng as the veritable work of Lǎozǐ, we may now examine its contents. Consisting of not more than between five and six thousand characters, it is but a short treatise—not half the size of the Gospel of Mark. The nature of the subject, however, the want of any progress of thought or of logical connection between its different parts, and the condensed style, with the mystic tendencies and poetical temperament of the author, make its meaning extraordinarily obscure. Divided at first into two parts, it has subsequently and conveniently been subdivided into chapters. One of the oldest, and the most common, of these arrangements makes the chapters eighty-one.

Supposed harmony with Biblical teaching

Some Roman Catholic missionaries, two centuries ago, fancied that they found a wonderful harmony between many passages and the teaching of the Bible. Montucci of Berlin ventured to say in 1808: "Many things about a Triune God are so clearly expressed that no one who has read this book can doubt that the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed to the Chinese five centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ". Even Rémusat, the first occupant of a Chinese chair in Europe, published at Paris in 1823 his Mémoire sur la vie et les opinions de Lao-Tseu, to vindicate the view that the Hebrew name Yahweh was phonetically represented in the fourteenth chapter by Chinese characters. These fancies were exploded by Stanislas Julien, when he issued in 1842 his translation of the whole treatise as Le Livre de la voie et de la vertu.

The most important thing is to determine what we are to understand by the Dào, for is merely its outcome, especially in man, and is rightly translated by "virtue". Julien translated Dào by "la voie" (the way). Chalmers leaves it untranslated. "No English word", he says (p. xi.), "is its exact equivalent. Three terms suggest themselves—the Way, Reason and the Word; but they are all liable to objection. Were we guided by etymology, 'the Way' would come nearest the original, and in one or two passages the idea of a way seems to be in the term; but this is too materialistic to serve the purpose of a translation. 'Reason' again seems to be more like a quality or attribute of some conscious being than Tau is. I would translate it by 'the Word,' in the sense of the Logos, but this would be like settling the question which I wish to leave open, viz. what resemblance there is between the Logos of the New Testament and this [Chinese] Tau". Later sinologists in China have employed "nature" as our best analog of the term. Thus Watters (Lao-tzŭ, A Study in Chinese Philosophy, p. 45) says:—"In the Tao-tê Ching the originator of the universe is referred to under the names Non-Existence, Existence, Nature (Tao) and various designations—all which, however, represent one idea in various manifestations. It is in all cases Nature (Tao) which is meant". This view has been skilfully worked out; but it only hides the scope of "the Venerable Philosopher". "Nature" cannot be accepted as a translation of Dào. That character was, primarily, the symbol of a way, road or path; and then, figuratively, it was used, as we also use way, in the senses of means and method—the course that we pursue in passing from one thing or concept to another as its end or result. It is the name of a quality. Sir Robert Douglas has well said (Confucianism and Tâouism, p. 189): "If we were compelled to adopt a single word to represent the Taou of Laou-tsze, we should prefer the sense in which it is used by Confucius, 'the Way', that is, μέθοδος".

The doctrine of "the way"

What, then, was the quality which Lǎozǐ had in view, and which he thought of as the Dào—there in the library of Zhōu, at the pass of Hángǔ, and where he met the end of his life beyond the limits of the civilized state? It was the simplicity of spontaneity, action (which might be called non-action) without motive, free from all selfish purpose, resting in nothing but its own accomplishment. This is found in the phenomena of the material world. "All things spring up without a word spoken, and grow without a claim for their production. They go through their processes without any display of pride in them; and the results are realized without any assumption of ownership. It is owing to the absence of such assumption that the results and their processes do not disappear" (chap. 2). It only needs the same quality in the arrangements and measures of government to make society beautiful and happy. "A government conducted by sages would free the hearts of the people from inordinate desires, fill their bellies, keep their ambitions feeble and strengthen their bones. They would constantly keep the people without knowledge and free from desires; and, where there were those who had knowledge, they would have them so that they would not dare to put it in practice" (chap. 3). A corresponding course observed by individual man in his government of himself becoming again "as a little child" (chaps. 10 and 28) will have corresponding results. "His constant virtue will be complete, and he will return to the primitive simplicity" (chap. 28).

Such is the subject matter of the Dào Dé Jīng—the operation of this method or Dào, "without striving or crying", in nature, in society and in the individual. Much that is very beautiful and practical is inculcated in connection with its working in the individual character. The writer seems to feel that he cannot say enough on the virtue of humility (chap. 8, etc.). There were three things which he prized and held fast—gentle compassion, economy and the not presuming to take precedence in the world (chap. 67). His teaching rises to its highest point in chap. 63:—"It is the way of Dào not to act from any personal motive, to conduct affairs without feeling the trouble of them, to taste without being aware of the flavor, to account the great as small and the small as great, to recompense injury with kindness". This last and noblest characteristic of the Dào, the requiting "good for evil", is not touched on again in the treatise; but we know that it excited general attention at the time, and was the subject of conversation between Confucius and his disciples (Confucian Analects, XIV, 36).

What is said in the Dào on government is not, all of it, so satisfactory. The writer shows, indeed, the benevolence of his heart. He seems to condemn the infliction of capital punishment (chaps. 73 and 74), and he deplores the practice of war (chap. 69); but he had no sympathy with the progress of society or with the culture and arts of life. He says (chap. 65):—"Those who anciently were skilful in practicing the Dào did not use it to enlighten the people; their object rather was to keep them simple. The difficulty in governing the people arises from their having too much knowledge, and therefore he who tries to govern a state by wisdom is a scourge to it, while he who does not try to govern thereby is a blessing". The last chapter but one is the following:—"In a small state with a few inhabitants, I would so order it that the people, though supplied with all kinds of implements, would not (care to) use them; I would give them cause to look on death as a most grievous thing, while yet they would not go away to a distance to escape from it. Though they had boats and carriages, they should have no occasion to ride in them. Though they had buff-coats and sharp weapons, they should not don or use them. I would make them return to the use of knotted cords (instead of written characters). They should think their coarse food sweet, their plain clothing beautiful, their poor houses places of rest and their common simple ways sources of enjoyment. There should be a neighboring state within sight, and the sound of the fowls and dogs should be heard from it to us without interruption, but I would make the people to old age, even to death, have no intercourse with it".

On reading these sentiments, we must judge of Lǎozǐ that, with all his power of thought, he was only a dreamer. But thus far there is no difficulty arising from his language in regard to the Dào. It is simply a quality, descriptive of the style of character and action, which the individual should seek to attain in himself, and the ruler to impress on his administration. The language about the Dào in nature is by no means so clear. While Sir Robert Douglas says that "the way" would be the best translation of Dào, he immediately adds:—"But it is more than the way. It is the way and the way-goer. It is an eternal road; along it all beings and things walk; but no being made it, for it is Being itself; it is everything, and nothing, and the cause and effect of all. All things originate from Taou, conform to Taou and to Taou at last they return".

The Dào and the Deity

Some of these representations require modification; but no thoughtful reader of the treatise can fail to be often puzzled by what is said on the point in hand. Julien, indeed, says with truth (p. xiii.) that "it is impossible to take Tao for the primordial reason, for the sublime intelligence which has created and governs the world"; but many of Lǎozǐ's statements are unthinkable if there be not behind the Dào the unexpressed recognition of a personal creator and ruler. Granted that he does not affirm positively the existence of such a Being, yet certainly he does not deny it, and his language even implies it. It has been said, indeed, that he denies it, and we are referred in proof to the fourth chapter:—"Dào is like the emptiness of a vessel; and the use of it, we may say, must be free from all self-sufficiency. How deep and mysterious it is, as if it were the author of all things! We should make our sharpness blunt, and unravel the complications of things; we should attemper our brightness, and assimilate ourselves to the obscurity caused by dust. How still and clear is Dào, a phantasm with the semblance of permanence! I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God ()".

The reader will not overlook the cautious and dubious manner in which the predicates of Dào are stated in this remarkable passage. The author does not say that it was before God, but that "it might appear" to have been so. Nowhere else in his treatise does the nature of Dào as a method or style of action come out more clearly. It has no positive existence of itself; it is but like the emptiness of a vessel, and the manifestation of it by men requires that they endeavor to free themselves from all self-sufficiency. Where did it come from? It does not shock Lǎozǐ to suppose that it had a father, but he cannot tell whose son it is. And, as the feeling of its mysteriousness grows on him, he ventures to say that "it might appear to have been before God".

There is here no denial but express recognition of the existence of God, so far as it is implied in the name (帝), which is the personal name for the concept of heaven as the ruling power, by means of which the fathers of the Chinese people rose in prehistoric time to the idea of God. Again and again Lǎozǐ speaks of heaven just as "we do when we mean thereby the Deity who presides over heaven and earth". These last words are taken from Watters (p. 81); and, though he adds, "We must not forget that it [this heaven] is inferior and subsequent to the mysterious Tao, and in fact produced by the latter", it has been shown how rash and unwarranted is the ascription of such a sentiment to "the Venerable Philosopher". He makes the Dào prior to heaven and earth, which is a phrase denoting what we often call "nature", but he does not make it prior to heaven in the higher and immaterial usage of that name. The last sentence of his treatise is:—"It is the Dào—the way—of Heaven to benefit and not injure; it is the Dào—the way—of the sage to do and not strive".

Since Julien laid the Dào Dé Jīng fairly open to Western readers in 1842, there has been a tendency to overestimate rather than to underestimate its value as a scheme of thought and a discipline for the individual and society. There are in it lessons of unsurpassed value, such as the inculcation of simplicity, humility and self-abnegation, and especially the brief enunciation of the divine duty of returning good for ill; but there are also the regretful representations of a primitive society when men were ignorant of the rudiments of culture, and the longings for its return.

When it was thought that the treatise made known the doctrine of the Trinity, and even gave a phonetic representation of the Hebrew name for God, it was natural, even necessary, to believe that its author had had communication with more western parts of Asia, and there was much speculation about visits to India and Judea, and even to Greece. The necessity for assuming such travels has passed away. If we can receive Sīmǎ Qiān's histories as trustworthy, Lǎozǐ might have heard, in the states of Zhōu and among the wild tribes adjacent to them, views about society and government very like his own. Qiān relates how an envoy came in 624 BCE—twenty years before the date assigned to the birth of Lǎozǐ—to the court of Duke Mù of Qín, sent by the king of some rude hordes on the west. The duke told him of the histories, poems, codes of rites, music and laws which they had in the middle states, while yet rebellion and disorder were of frequent occurrence, and asked how good order was secured among the wild people, who had none of those appliances. The envoy smiled, and replied that the troubles of China were occasioned by those very things of which the duke vaunted, and that there had been a gradual degeneration in the condition of its states, as their professed civilization had increased, ever since the days of the ancient sage, Huángdì, whereas in the land he came from, where there was nothing but the primitive simplicity, their princes showed a pure virtue in their treatment of the people, who responded to them with loyalty and good faith. "The government of a state", said he in conclusion, "is like a man's ruling his own single person. He rules it, and does not know how he does so; and this was indeed the method of the sages". Lǎozǐ did not need to go further afield to find all that he has said about government.

The Daoism of today

We have confined ourselves to the Daoism of the Dào Dé Jīng without touching on the religion Daoism now existing in China, but which did not take shape until more than five hundred years after the death of Lǎozǐ, though he now occupies the second place in its trinity of "The three Pure or Holy Ones". There is hardly a word in his treatise that savors either of superstition or religion. In the works of Lièzǐ and Zhuāngzǐ, his earliest followers of note, we find abundance of grotesque superstitions; but their beliefs (if indeed we can say that they had beliefs) had not become embodied in any religious institutions. When we come to the Qín dynasty (221-206 BCE), we meet with a Daoism in the shape of a search for the fairy islands of the eastern sea, where the herb of immortality might be gathered. In the 1st century CE a magician, called Zhāng Dàolíng, comes before us as the chief professor and controller of this Daoism, preparing in retirement "the pill" which renewed his youth, supreme over all spirits, and destroying millions of demons by a stroke of his pencil. He left his books, talismans and charms, with his sword and seal, to his descendants, and one of them, professing to be animated by his soul, dwells on the Lónghŭ mountain in Jiāngxī, the acknowledged head or pope of Daoism. But even then the system was not yet a religion, with temples or monasteries, liturgies and forms of public worship. It borrowed all these from Buddhism, which first obtained public recognition in China between 65 and 70 CE, though at least a couple of centuries passed before it could be said to have free course in the country.

Even still, with the form of a religion, Daoism is in reality a conglomeration of base and dangerous superstitions. Alchemy, geomancy and spiritualism have dwelt and dwell under its shadow. Each of its "three Holy Ones" has the title of Tīanzūn, "the Heavenly and Honored", taken from Buddhism, and also of Shàngdì or God, taken from the old religion of the country. The most popular deity, however, is not one of them, but has the title of Yù Huáng Shàngdì, "God, the Perfect King". But it would take long to tell of all its "celestial gods", "great gods", "divine rulers" and others. It has been doubted whether Lǎozǐ acknowledged the existence of God at all, but modern Daoism is a system of the wildest polytheism. The science and religion of the West meet from it a most determined opposition. The "Venerable Philosopher" himself would not have welcomed them; but he ought not to bear the obloquy of being the founder of the Daoist religion.

(James Legge)


Abel-Rémusat. Mémoire sur la vie et les opinions de Lao-Tseu. Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1823.

Chalmers, John. The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality, of "the Old Philosopher," Lau-tsze. London: Trübner & Co., 1868.

Douglas, Robert K. Confucianism and Taouism. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1879.

Julien, Stanislas. Le Livre de la voie et de la vertu. Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1842.

Lǎozǐ. Dào Dé Jīng.

Montucci, Antonio. De Studiis Sinicis in Imperiali Athenaeo Petropolitano. Berlin: Quien, 1808.

Watters, T. Lao Tzŭ, 老子 A Study in Chinese Philosophy. Hong Kong: Printed at the "China Mail" Office, 1870.

This article is derived from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition article "Lâo-Tsze" published in 1911, which is in the public domain.