Lao Tse

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Lao Tse

(c. sixth century to fifth century BCE)

In China, Lao Tse (老子; pinyin Lăozi; Wade-Giles Lao-tzu; pronounced approximately lao-dzuh) is revered as one of the three great sages, an elder contemporary of Confucius (sixth to fifth century BC), keeper of the imperial archives at Loyang in the Honan province during the sixth century BCE. [1] and the author of the classic of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, or the 'Classic of the Way and Its Power'.

Spellings of the name Lao Tse varies, and include; Lao Tsu, Lao-Tzu. Lao Zi, and Laozi. The name Lao Tse itself is an honorific. Lao (老) is translated as "venerable" or "old", and Tse (子) can be translated literally as "child" or "offspring", but it was also a term for a rank of nobleman equivalent to viscount [2] [3], as well as a term of respect attached to the names of revered scholars. Thus, "Lao Tse" can be translated as "the old master”, or perhaps more elegantly, “the old boy.” [4]

Personal life

Historians date Lao Tse's birth in or around 600 b. Chr. in a village named Ku-dzjen, in Juren in the State of Chu. His family name would have been Li, his forename Ri, his adult name Poh-yang and his posthumous title of honour Tan. [5]

Lao Tse is believed by some to have been a teacher of Confucius. A popular account of their meeting is reflected in the quote[6][7] often translated more or less:

"I know that birds can fly and fish can swim and beasts can run. But dragons! I shall never know how they ride wind and cloud up into the sky. Today I saw Lao Tzu. What a dragon!"

But Lao Tse's existence is disputed by historians. Stanford's online Philosophy Encyclopedia[8] states the Tao Te Ching is a composite text "written and rewritten over centuries with varied input from multiple anonymous writers"[9], whereas Merriam-Webster's Lao Tse entry[10] (although they use the Lao-Tzu spelling) states as a fact that he was a "6th century b.c. Chinese philosopher" originally (named) Li Erh.

Sadly, the exact details surrounding Lao Tse and the creation of the Tao Te Ching have been lost to the centuries, but most popular versions[11][12][13][14] of the legend go something like this:

© Image: Louis Komjathy/Kang Siqi, Ph.D. Center for Daoist Studies
Image courtesy Louis Komjathy/Kang Siqi, Ph.D. Center for Daoist Studies


The aphorisms found in the Tao Te Ching are considered to be at the core of the Taoist canon, and, by reflection, Lao Tse is generally considered to be, if not the father of Taoism, then at least the first identifiable codifier of Taoist thought.

Lao Tse was the keeper of the archives (what we might today think of as 'the wise man') in one of the many kingdoms that are now part of China. When he saw that the kingdom was in decline, he decided to leave. Upon reaching the border, the official in charge of the border pass stopped him and asked him to put his teachings into writing.

Because of, or perhaps despite, being indubitably very wise, Lao Tse managed to do this in just a few weeks, producing a volume of a little over 5 000 Chinese characters.

An early chapter reads:

Something amorphous and consummate existed before Heaven and Earth. Solitude! Vast! Standing alone, unaltering. Going everywhere, yet unthreatened. It can be considered the Mother of the World. I don't know its name, so I designate it, 'Tao'.

Compelled to consider it, name it 'the Great'.

Handing the completed text to the guard, he famously mounted his bull, and disappeared off, heading westward. (Images of Lao Tse riding his bull are still popular in China to this day.)

The earliest manuscript copies of this text date back to the second century BCE, but for many (like the Bible) it was assumed to have a divine origin in any case, with Lao Tse revered not merely as an author, or even a prophet, but as an immortal. [15]

Whatever its origins, the Tao Te Ching is a repository of enormously powerful ideas. Just one of these is the notion of 'yin' and 'yang'. These are the two aspects of everything in reality. Yin, the feminine aspect, is dark, soft and yielding. Yang, the masculine aspect is bright, hard and inflexible. Everything in the world consists of both elements, and everything is in a state of flux, changing to be come more yin, or more yang.

Human beings are born soft and flexible; yet when they die that are stiff and hard... Plants sprout soft and delicate, yet when they di they are withered and dry... Thus the hard and stiff are disciples of death, the soft and flexible are disciples of life. Thus an inflexible army is not victorious, an unbending tree will break.

The stiff and massive will be lessened, the soft and fluid will increase.

Another message of the Tao Te Ching is that everything follows certain patterns, 'the way'. Human beings should also 'follow the way', and yield to the times and influences. However, the lessons of this are not as passive and negative as many seem to assume. It is part of the philosophy that the 'way' applies to very small as much as to the great things. [16]


  1. English, J., Feng, Gia-Fu. (1972). Tao Te Ching. Vintage Books: New York.
  4. Mitchell, Stephen. (1991). Tao Te Ching Harper Perennial
  5. Störig, H.J. (1950) Kleine Weltgeschichte der Philosophie
  15. Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, edited by Ian P. McGreal (HarperCollins 1994)
  16. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. pp 160-161