The Shiji (Records of the Historian) by the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) court scribe and historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 B.C.E.) offers a “biography” of Laozi. Its reliability has been questioned, but it provides a point of departure for reconstructing the Laozi story.
Laozi was a native of Chu, according to the Shiji, a southern state in the Zhou dynasty (see map and discussion in Loewe and Shaughnessy 1999, 594 and 597). His surname was Li; his given name was Er, and he was also called Dan.
Laozi served as a keeper of archival records at the court of Zhou. Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) had consulted him on certain ritual matters, we are told, and praised him lavishly afterward (Shiji 63). This establishes the traditional claim that Laozi was a senior contemporary of Confucius. A meeting, or meetings, between Confucius and Laozi, identified as “Lao Dan,” is reported also in the Zhuangzi and other early Chinese sources.
“Laozi cultivated Dao and virtue,” as Sima Qian goes on to relate, and “his learning was devoted to self-effacement and not having fame. He lived in Zhou for a long time; witnessing the decline of Zhou, he departed.” When he reached the northwest border then separating China from the outside world, he met Yin Xi, the official in charge of the border crossing, who asked him to put his teachings into writing. The result was a book consisting of some five thousand Chinese characters, divided into two parts, which discusses “the meaning of Dao and virtue.” Thereafter, Laozi left; no one knew where he had gone. This completes the main part of Sima Qian’s account. The remainder puts on record attempts to identify the legendary Laozi with certain known historical individuals and concludes with a list of Laozi’s purported descendants (see W. T. Chan 1963, Lau 1963, or Henricks 2000 for an English translation).
Few scholars today would subscribe fully to the Shiji report. Indeed, according to William Boltz, it “contains virtually nothing that is demonstrably factual; we are left no choice but to acknowledge the likely fictional nature of the traditional Lao tzu [Laozi] figure” (1993, 270). Disagreements abound on every front, including the name Laozi itself. Although the majority takes “Laozi” to mean “Old Master,” some scholars believe that “Lao” is a surname. The Zhuangzi and other early texts refer to “Lao Dan” consistently, but not “Li Er.” The name “Dan” is generally understood to depict the bearer’s “long ears,” a mark of longevity in Chinese physiognomy. According to Fung Yu-lan, Sima Qian had “confused” the legendary Lao Dan with Li Er, who flourished later during the “Warring States” period (480–221 B.C.E.) and was the “real” founder of the Daoist school (daojia) (1983, 171).
In an influential essay, A. C. Graham (1986) argues that the story of Laozi reflects a conflation of different legends. The earliest strand revolved around the meeting of Confucius with Lao Dan and was current by the fourth century B.C.E. During the first half of the third century, Lao Dan was recognized as a great thinker in his own right and as the founder of a distinct “Laoist” school of thought. It was not until the Han dynasty, when the teachings of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others were seen to share certain insights centering on the concept of Dao, that they were classified together under the rubric of philosophical “Daoism.”
I cite these views here only to give a sense of the diversity and volume of research on the Laozi story. It is clear that by 100 B.C.E. if not earlier, Laozi was already shrouded in legends and that Sima Qian could only exercise his judgment as an historian to put together a report that made sense to him, based on the different and sometimes competing sources at his disposal.
The fact that Laozi appears favorably in both Confucian and Daoist sources seems to argue against the likelihood that the figure was fabricated for polemical purposes. It is conceivable that a philosopher known as Lao Dan attracted a following based on his novel reading of the Way and virtue. Deferentially, his followers would refer to him as “Laozi.”
Confucius had sought his advice presumably on mourning and funeral rites, given that the Confucian work Liji (Records of Rites) has Confucius citing Lao Dan four times specifically on these rites. Indeed, various dates have been proposed for the encounter—for example, 501 B.C.E., following the account in the Zhuangzi (ch. 14). In any case, testifying to its appeal, different accounts of the meeting circulated among the educated elite during the Warring States period. Other details then came to be associated with Lao Dan, which formed the basis of Sima Qian’s reconstruction.
Admittedly, this is conjecture. Though I find little reason not to accept the traditional claim that Laozi was a senior contemporary of Confucius, the identity of the “Old Master” no doubt will continue to attract and divide scholarly opinion. In many popular accounts, Laozi is described as the “founder” or “father” of “Daoism.” This begs a number of questions and therefore should not be taken uncritically, and this is the reason why a fairly extended discussion of the Shiji Laozi story is offered here.
The story of Laozi occupies a cherished place in the Daoist tradition. It is important also because it raises certain hermeneutic expectations and affects the way in which the Laozi is read. If the work was written by a single author, one might expect, for example, a high degree of consistency in style and content. If the Laozi was a work of the sixth or fifth century B.C.E., one might interpret certain sayings in the light of what we know of the period. There is little consensus among scholars, however, on the date or authorship of the Laozi, as we shall see below.
With the arrival of the “Way of the Celestial Masters” (tianshidao), the first organized religious Daoist establishment (daojiao) in the second century C.E., the story of Laozi gained an important hagiographic dimension.
The founding of “Celestial Master” or “Heavenly Master” Daoism was based on a new revelation of the Dao by Laozi (on which see Kohn 1998a and 1998b, Kleeman 2016, and the entry on religious Daoism). In the eyes of the faithful, the Dao is a divine reality, and Laozi is seen as the personification of the Dao. Lao Dan is but one manifestation of the divine Laozi, albeit a pivotal one because of the writing of the Daodejing, which in religious Daoism commands devotion as a foundational scripture that promises not only wisdom but also immortality and salvation to those who submit to its power. During the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E.), the imperial Li family traced its ancestry to Laozi. Today, Laozi’s “birthday” is celebrated in many parts of Asia on the fifteenth day of the second lunar month.
The influence of the Laozi on Chinese culture is both deep and far-reaching. One indication of its enduring appeal and hermeneutical openness is the large number of commentaries devoted to it throughout Chinese history—some seven hundred, according to one count (W. T. Chan 1963, 77). The Laozi has inspired an intellectual movement known as xuanxue, “Learning in the Profound”—or “Neo-Daoism,” as some scholars prefer, emphasizing its roots in classical Daoism—that dominated the Chinese elite or high culture from the third to the sixth century C.E. (See the entry on “Neo-Daoism” in this Encyclopedia.) The Laozi played a significant role in informing not only philosophic thought but also the development of literature, calligraphy, painting, music, martial arts, and other cultural traditions.
Imperial patronage enhanced the prestige of the Laozi and enlarged its scope of influence. In 733 C.E., the emperor Xuanzong decreed that all officials should keep a copy of the Daodejing at home and placed the classic on the list of texts to be examined for the civil service examinations (see, e.g., the report in the official Tang history, Jiu Tang shu 8). In religious Daoism, recitation of the Daodejing is a prescribed devotional practice and features centrally in ritual performance. The Daodejing has been set to music from an early time. The term “Laozi learning” (Laoxue) has come to designate an important field of study. A useful work in Chinese that sketches the major landmarks in this development is Zhongguo Laoxue shi (A History of Laozi Learning in China) (Xiong Tieji, et al. 1995); a follow-up effort focusing on Laozi scholarship in the twentieth century by the same lead author was published in 2002.
The influence of the Laozi extends beyond China, as Daoism reaches across Asia and in the modern period, the Western world. In Hong Kong, Taiwan, and among the Chinese in Southeast Asia and beyond, Daoism is a living tradition. Daoist beliefs and practices have contributed also to the formation of Korean and Japanese culture, although here the process of cultural transmission, assimilation, and transformation is complex, especially given the close interaction among Daoism, Buddhism, and indigenous traditions such as Shintō (see Fukui, et al. 1983, vol. 3).
During the seventh century, the Laozi was translated into Sanskrit; in the eighteenth century a Latin translation was brought to England, after which there has been a steady supply of translations into Western languages, yielding a handsome harvest of some 250 (LaFargue and Pas 1998, 277), with new ones still hitting bookstores and internet sites almost every year. Some of the more notable recent translations in English are Roberts 2001, Ivanhoe 2002, Ames and Hall 2003, Wagner 2003, Moeller 2007, Ryden and Penny 2008, and Kim 2012. A forthcoming translation is Minford 2018.
Laozi is an “axial” philosopher whose insight helps shape the course of human development, according to Karl Jaspers (1974). The influence of the Laozi on Western thinkers is the subject of Clarke 2000. Memorable phrases from the Laozi such as “governing a large country is like cooking a small fish” (ch. 60) have found their way into global political rhetoric. At the popular level, several illustrated or “comic” versions of the Laozi reach out to a younger and wider readership (e.g., Tsai Chih Chung, et al. 1995, now available also on YouTube). Some may have come to learn about the Laozi through such best-selling works as The Tao of Physics (Capra 1975) or The Tao of Pooh (Hoff 1982); and there is also A Taoist Cookbook (Saso 1994), which comes with “meditations” from the Daodejing. From nature lovers to management gurus, a growing audience is discovering that the Laozi has something to offer to them. The reception of the Laozi in modern Asia and the West falls outside the scope of this article; nevertheless, it is important to note that the Laozi should be regarded not only as a work of early Chinese philosophy, but also in a larger context as a classic of world literature with keen contemporary relevance.