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Lao Tzu is traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism, a school of thought that developed in ancient China. Taoism is seen as one of the three main pillars of traditional Chinese thought. The other two pillars are Buddhism, which was transmitted to China from India, and Confucianism, which was founded by Confucius. Thus, Lao Tzu is regarded as a very important figure in Chinese history, and even revered by many as a deity in the Taoist pantheon.
The Debated Existence of Lao Tzu
Unlike Confucius, Lao Tzu is a much more difficult character to pin down. For a start, some modern scholars are skeptical about his existence, and argue that there is no ‘historical’ Lao Tzu, and that he is an entirely legendary figure.
An Illustration of Lao-Tzu. Photo source: (patriziasoliani /CC BY-NC 2.0)
According to Chinese tradition, however, Lao Tzu lived during the 6th century BC. The ancient Chinese historian, Sima Qian, said that Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius. In addition to this, a biography of Lao Tzu can be found in Sima Qian’s work, the Shiji, known also as the Records of the Grand Historian.
Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat (三教) (Public Domain)
Sima Qian’s Shiji
In Sima Qian’s Shiji, it is written that Lao Tzu was a native of the state of Chu, which is located in what is today the southern part of China. It is also written in this ancient source that Lao Tzu’s personal name was Li Er (李耳), and that he served as a keeper of archival records at the Zhou imperial court. There have also been claims that Lao Tzu was consulted by Confucius on certain matters of ritual, and subsequently heaped praises on him.
Records of the Grand Historian (Public Domain)
Sima Qian also wrote that Lao Tzu lived in the state of Zhou long enough to witness its decline. As a result, Lao Tzu decided to depart. When Lao Tzu arrived at the northwestern border that separated China from the rest of the world, he met an official in charge of the border crossing by the name of Yin Xi.
It was this official who requested Lao Tzu to put his teachings into writing. The result of this request was a book which consisted of about 5000 Chinese characters, and is known today as the Tao Te Ching (道德经). Lao Tzu seems to have disappeared after this, and neither his date nor place of death is recorded in Sima Qian’s account.
The Tao Te Ching
The Tao Te Ching is undoubtedly the work Lao Tzu is best known for. Additionally, it is one of Taoism’s major works. Nevertheless, it may be pointed out that the authorship of this important piece of writing has been debated throughout history.
For instance, it has been suggested that that the text was not written by a single author, but by several different authors. Additionally, some have speculated that the contents of the Tao Te Ching were first circulated orally before being written down.
Ink on silk manuscript of the Tao Te Ching, 2nd century BC, unearthed from Mawangdui. (Public Domain)
On the one hand, it has been argued that it was Lao Tzu’s disciples who kept their master’s teachings alive through oral transmission, and the lessons were later compiled by one / several of Lao Tzu’s students.
It may be also possible that the compiler(s) of the Tao Te Ching had access to other oral traditions. In this case, it would mean that the Tao Te Ching contained not only the lessons of Lao Tzu, but potentially of other Chinese sages as well.
According to Chinese legend, Laozi (Lao Tzu) left China for the west on a water buffalo. (Public Domain)
Regardless of its origins, the Tao Te Ching and the philosophy it expounds is argued to be a way of thinking that was in direct opposition with that of Confucianism. Although both schools of thought addressed the social, political, and philosophical questions faced by ancient Chinese society, each took a distinct approach. Confucianism, for instance, focused on social relations, good conduct, and human society. By contrast, Taoism took a more mystical approach, and focused on the individual and nature.
Other important features of Taoism were its anti-authoritarian stance, its promotion of simplicity, and its recognition of a natural, universal force known as the Tao. Whilst it may be said that Confucianism better suited the tastes of China’s rulers, Taoism was nevertheless a highly influential force, and remains so in Chinese culture even today.
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