Laozi (Chinese: “Master Lao” or “Old Master”), also known as Lao Jun, Tai Shang Lao-Jun, or Tai Shang Xuanyuan Huangdi, and Lao Dun or Lao Dan, was the first Chinese Daoist philosopher and the alleged author of the Daodejing.
Modern historians doubt that the Daodejing was composed by one person but recognise Daoism’s effect on Buddhism. Confucians, popular religion, and the Tang dynasty (618–907) regarded Laozi as a philosopher, saint, and imperial ancestor.
Laozi is the current pinyin romanization of 老子. Not a name, but an honorary term meaning “old” or “venerable master”. The name structure mirrors that of ancient Chinese philosophers like Kongzi, Mengzi, Zhuangzi, etc.
The Laozi personal name Li Er (李耳, Lǐ Ěr) has been reconstructed as *C.rəʔ C.nəʔ, based on traditional tales. Laozi was born on a plum, hence the popular Chinese surname Li, meaning “plum tree”. The posthumous name Dan (聃, Dān) of Laozi is notable.
Both signify “Long-Ear” or “the Long-Eared One”. The Chinese character 耳 meant “ear” or “ears” in ancient times.
Laozi used the courtesy name Boyang (弯陽, Bóyáng), reconstructed from Old Chinese pronunciation as *pˤrak laŋ. The character 伯 signified the eldest son of the primary wife or an older uncle of the father’s family, and was used as a noble title and mark of respect.
The character 陽 represents yang, the masculine life force in Taoism. Lao Dan was employed more broadly by Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian, Zhuangzi in his Taoist classic, and several modern researchers.
Life of Laozi
Laozi is unknown despite his historical significance. The Shiji (“Records of the Historian”) by Sima Qian is his main source of biographical information. This historian from 100 BCE knew little about the philosopher.
He claims that Laozi was from Quren, a village in Hu, Chu, which is now Luyi in eastern Henan province. His family name was Li, his name Er, and his nickname Dan.
He was named shi at the Zhou dynasty royal court (1046–256 BCE). Shi today means “historian,” but in ancient China they were astrology and divination specialists who managed sacred manuscripts.
Western scholars agreed in the mid-20th century that Laozi was unlikely and that the Tao Te Ching was “a compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands”.
The oldest Tao Te Ching quote text was written on Guodian Chu Slips bamboo slips in the late 4th century. These are intermingled up with quotes from other writings, demonstrating that the Tao Te Ching was not yet a distinct book. The oldest complete Tao Te Ching writings were found in a tomb in Mawangdui in the early 2nd century BCE.
The first reference to Laozi is found in Sima Qian’s 1st-century BC Records of the Grand Historian. In his multiple renditions of Laozi’s biography, Sima Qian has different doubts.
According to Sima Qian, Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius in the 6th or 5th century BC. His real name was Er or Dan. was born in the village of Quren (曲仁里, Qūrén lĐ), Chu, Henan, now Luyi.
He was the son of the Zhou dynasty Censor-in-Chief and Lady Yishou (益壽氏, Yìshòu shì). and was a scholar and Zhou imperial court archives keeper. This gave him access to the Yellow Emperor and other classics, and he composed a two-part novel before moving west.
Another contemporary of Confucius, Laozi (老莱子), wrote a 15-part work. In the story, Zong the Warrior overcomes an adversary and leaves their carcasses for vultures to consume. Zong’s father, Laozi, who is traveling and teaching the Tao, appears by chance and reveals himself to be his father.
Laozi advises his son to respect a defeated opponent and not disrespect their dead, which would draw revenge. Zong orders his warriors to bury the enemy after being convinced. Both parties’ dead are buried and a permanent peace is formed.
Third, the court astrologer Lao Dan, who lived during Duke Xian of Qin’s 4th century BC reign , became weary of Chengzhou’s moral degradation and recognized the kingdom’s collapse.
At 80, he went west to live as a hermit on the uninhabited border. Yinxi, the city guard, recognized him at the western entrance.
The guard asked the elderly master to write his knowledge for the country before letting him pass. Laozi wrote the Tao Te Ching, but the current edition has later modifications. In some stories, the sentry became a disciple and left with Laozi, never to be seen again.
Later, the “Old Master” traveled to India and taught Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. Others think he was Buddha.
Laozi never opened a school, although he drew many students and disciples, according to legend. Many stories recount his meeting with Confucius, most memorably in the Zhuangzi.
The 15th day of the second month of the Chinese calendar is his traditional birthday. Laozi married and had a son who became a famous Wei soldier during the Warring States period.
Quotes from Lao Tzu
- Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu
- Silence is a source of great strength. – Lao Tzu
- The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. – Lao Tzu
- Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. – Lao Tzu
- When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you. – Lao Tzu
- Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. – Lao Tzu
- The wise man does not lay up his own treasures. The more he gives to others, the more he has for his own. – Lao Tzu
- A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. – Lao Tzu
- To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. – Lao Tzu
- If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. – Lao Tzu
- He who knows himself is enlightened. – Lao Tzu
- Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. – Lao Tzu
- The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. – Lao Tzu
- When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. – Lao Tzu
- Act without expectation. – Lao Tzu
- Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. – Lao Tzu
- Nature is not human hearted. – Lao Tzu
- He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty. – Lao Tzu
- The power of intuitive understanding will protect you from harm until the end of your days. – Lao Tzu
- The wise man is one who, knows, what he does not know. – Lao Tzu
- To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease. – Lao Tzu
- Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love. – Lao Tzu
- If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. – Lao Tzu
- If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them. – Lao Tzu
- Because of a great love, one is courageous. – Lao Tzu
- The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be. – Lao Tzu
- The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world. – Lao Tzu
- The words of truth are always paradoxical. – Lao Tzu
- At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want. – Lao Tzu
- Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge. – Lao Tzu
- When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you. – Lao Tzu
- Water is the softest thing, yet it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness. – Lao Tzu
- He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened. – Lao Tzu
- The sage does not hoard. The more he helps others, the more he benefits himself. – Lao Tzu
- The master has no possessions. The more he does for others, the happier he is. – Lao Tzu
- When you realize the greatness of the Tao, the whole world will seem like home. – Lao Tzu
- The best fighter is never angry. – Lao Tzu
- If you want to be happy, be. – Lao Tzu
- Stop thinking, and end your problems. – Lao Tzu
- One who is too insistent on his own views, finds few to agree with him. – Lao Tzu
Julianne has a bachelor’s in communication and journalism working with Psychic Spirituality & Relationships. She has also practiced numerology, tarot, and other psychic arts.