Laozi was an important Chinese philosophical and religious figure from between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. His greatest work was the Tao Te Ching, the main text of the Taoist philosophy, but his life has become shrouded in myths and legends that have obscured his story to the point that even his existence is doubted by some scholars. Despite Laozi’s enigmatic nature, the Tao Te Ching is the cornerstone of a complex spectrum of philosophical and religious movements. Along with the later author Zhuangzi, Laozi serves as the primary thinker behind Taoism as a movement of both thought and practice.
Born Li Er around the village of Quren (modern day Henan Province) in China, Laozi was an important official in the court of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C.- 256 B.C.) He served as a shi or court scholar, and he worked as an archivist for the Emperor. His position as an archivist and imperial official would have given him access to many of the classics of Chinese thought up to that point, and he would have become a skilled and knowledgeable scholar by the end of his career. Having a broad understanding of other currents of thought would certainly have contributed to his eventual recognition as one of the greatest sages of Chinese history.
The life of Laozi comes to us primarily in the form of legends and parables of his life, as well as through the teachings of the Tao Te Ching. Most of the stories suggest that he never established a school in which to teach his philosophy, but he still managed to gather a large following of disciples and students willing to listen to his work. Among the most famous of those said to have interacted with him was Confucius, yet another great Chinese thinker, whom he criticized for his pride and ambition. The connection between the two thinkers is tenuous at best, and it is unlikely that they ever really met.
One of the central legends of Laozi’s life was the story of his departure for the west. In this tale, Laozi becomes fed up with the degeneracy of court life and the collapsing Zhou Dynasty, and he decides to leave China for the west. Coming to the Xiangu pass (the main overland exit from China at the time) the legendary guardian of Xiangu, Yinxi asked Laozi to write a book of his teachings. He is said to have written a 5,000 character volume of his teachings on the Tao (the way) and the Te (virtue) after which he left, never to be seen again. This story of the writing of the Tao Te Ching is interesting because of how mythical the life of Laozi had become by the time this tale was written.
The primary idea behind Taoism is known as wu-we or non-action. The idea is that by reducing the amount of impact people have on surrounding events, they can more fully allow the Tao, or the way things are, to unfold. By behaving effortlessly, without thinking and planning everything to be done, beings are able to become more effectively in harmony with the Tao. Because of the importance of non-action and lack of control over other beings, rituals and hierarchical religious practices were seen as unnecessary, leaning more to individualistic philosophical systems than religions.
The concept of yin and yang is also important to a Taoist understanding of the world. When something is recognized, it is only in light of that thing’s opposite. Good exists because of evil, light exists because of dark. The taijitu, popularly called a yin/yang symbol, represents the monism of Taoism, while also reflecting the idea of opposites as part of a whole.
As Taoism developed, the more philosophical branch became less and less important, only remaining popular amongst the upper classes, and a more mythical religious Taoism developed. This strain of the tradition centered less on the philosophical ideas of the Tao Te Ching and blended with Chinese folk religion to incorporate alchemy, exorcism, divination, traditional medicine, and obtaining immortality. Where rituals were seen as unnecessary in early Taoism, they became essential to religious Taoism. Individualism gave way to a more traditional, clerical religion.
In religious Taoism Laozi was identified with divinity, and he became an important deity for many Taoists. The ideas in the Tao Te Ching became divinely written scripture in this understanding. Today religious Taoism is an important part of Chinese culture, and priests wearing distinctive vestments can be seen performing rituals in large Taoist temples both in mainland China and Taiwan. Laozi’s life and work have been shrouded in 2500 years of myth and religious experience, but his words can still offer quite a lot to the modern world.
Kaltenmark, Max. “Laozi (Chinese Daoist Philosopher).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/330163/Laozi>.
“Laozi.” Princeton University. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. <https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Laozi.html>.