A semi-legendary figure, Laozi was usually portrayed as a 6th-century BC contemporary of Confucius, but some modern historians consider him to have lived during the Warring States period of the 4th century BC. A central figure in Chinese culture, Laozi is claimed by both the emperors of the Tang dynasty and modern people of the Li surname as a founder of their lineage. Laozi’s work has been embraced by both various anti-authoritarian movements and Chinese Legalism.
In traditional accounts, Laozi’s personal name is usually given as Li Er (李耳, Old *rəʔ nəʔ, Mod. Lǐ Ěr) and his courtesy name as Boyang (trad. 伯陽, simp. 伯阳, Old *Pˤrak-lang, Mod. Bóyáng). A prominent posthumous name was Li Dan (李聃, Lǐ Dān).
Laozi itself is a honorific title: 老 (Old *rˤu ʔ, “old, venerable”) and 子 (Old *tsəʔ, “master”). It has been romanized numerous ways, sometimes leading to confusion. The most common present form is Laozi or Lǎozǐ, based on the Hanyu Pinyin system adopted by Mainland China in 1958 and by Taiwan in 2009. During the 20th century, Lao-tzu was more common, based on the formerly prevalent Wade–Giles system. In the 19th century, the title was usually romanized as Lao-tse. Other forms include the variants Lao-tze and Lao-tsu.
As a religious figure, he is worshipped under the name “Supreme Old Lord“ (太上老君, Tàishàng Lǎojūn) and as one of the “Three Pure Ones“. During the Tang dynasty, he was granted the title “Supremely Mysterious and Primordial Emperor” (太上玄元皇帝, Tàishàng Xuānyuán Huángdì).
In the mid-twentieth century, a consensus emerged among scholars that the historicity of the person known as Laozi is doubtful and that the Tao Te Ching was “a compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands”. Alan Watts urged more caution, holding that this view was part of an academic fashion for skepticism about historical spiritual and religious figures and stating that not enough would be known for years – or possibly ever – to make a firm judgment.
The earliest certain reference to the present figure of Laozi is found in the 1st‑century BC Records of the Grand Historian collected by the historian Sima Qian from earlier accounts. In one account, Laozi was said to be a contemporary of Confucius during the 6th or 5th century BC. His surname was Li and his personal name was Er or Dan. He was an official in the imperial archives and wrote a book in two parts before departing to the west. In another, Laozi was a different contemporary of Confucius titled Lao Laizi (老莱子) and wrote a book in 15 parts. In a third, he was the court astrologer Lao Dan who lived during the 4th century BC reign of Duke Xian of the Qin Dynasty. The oldest text of the Tao Te Ching so far recovered was written on bamboo slips and dates to the late 4th century BC; see Guodian Chu Slips.
According to traditional accounts, Laozi was a scholar who worked as the Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou. This reportedly allowed him broad access to the works of the Yellow Emperor and other classics of the time. The stories assert that Laozi never opened a formal school but nonetheless attracted a large number of students and loyal disciples. There are many variations of a story retelling his encounter with Confucius, most famously in the Zhuangzi.
He was sometimes held to have come from the village of Chu Jen in Chu. In accounts where Laozi married, he was said to have had a son named Zong who became a celebrated soldier.
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