Laozi, the Founder of Taoism

Laozi statue
Laozi statue in yuanxuan taoist temple guangzhou, China.

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Laozi, also known as Lao Tzu, is a Chinese legendary and historical figure who is considered to be the founder of Taoism. The Tao Te Ching, Taoism’s most sacred text, is believed to have been written by Laozi.

Many historians consider Laozi to be a mythical figure rather than a historical one. His existence is widely contested, as even the literal translation of his name (Laozi, meaning Old Master) indicates a deity rather than a man.

Regardless of historical perspectives on his existence, Laozi and the Tao Te Ching helped to shape modern China and had a lasting impact on the country and its cultural practices. 

Fast Facts: Laozi

  • Known For: Founder of Taoism
  • Also Known As: Lao Tzu, Old Master
  • Born: 6th Century B.C. in Chu Jen, Chu, China
  • Died: 6th Century B.C. possibly in Qin, China
  • Published Works: Tao Te Ching (also known as Daodejing)
  • Key Accomplishments: Chinese mythical or historical figure who is considered to be the founder of Taoism and the author of the Tao Te Ching.

Who Was Laozi? 

Laozi, or the “Old Master,” is said to have been born and died sometime during the 6th Century B.C., though some historical accounts place him in China closer to the 4th Century B.C. The most commonly accepted records indicate that Laozi was a contemporary of Confucius, which would place him in China at the end of the pre-Imperial era during the Zhou Dynasty. The most common biographical account of his life is recorded in Sima Qian’s Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, which is believed to have been written around 100 B.C.

An artist's rendering of the Taoist sage Laozi (Lao Tzu).

The mystery surrounding the life of Laozi starts with his conception. Traditional accounts indicate that Laozi’s mother gazed upon a falling star, and as a result, Laozi was conceived. He spent as many as 80 years in his mother’s womb before emerging as a fully grown man with a grey beard, a symbol of wisdom in ancient China. He was born in the village of Chu Jen in the state of Chu.

Laozi became a shi or an archivist and historian for the emperor during the Zhou Dynasty. As a shi, Laozi would have been an authority on astronomy, astrology, and divination as well as a keeper of sacred texts.

Some biographical accounts state the Laozi never married, while others say he married and had a son from whom he was separated when the boy was young. The son, called Zong, became a celebrated soldier who triumphed over enemies and left their bodies unburied to be consumed by animals and the elements. Laozi apparently came across Zong during his travels throughout China and was dismayed by his son’s treatment of bodies and lack of respect for the dead. He revealed himself as Zong’s father and showed him the way of respect and mourning, even in victory.

Toward the end of his life, Laozi saw that the Zhou Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and the dynasty was devolving into chaos. Laozi became dismayed and traveled west toward undiscovered territories. When he reached the gates at Xiangu Pass, the guard of the gates, Yinxi, recognized Laozi. Yinxi would not let Laozi pass without giving him wisdom, so Laozi wrote down what he knew. This writing became the Tao Te Ching, or the central doctrine of Taoism.

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Sima Qian’s traditional account of Laozi’s life says he was never seen again after passing through the gates to the west. Other biographies state that he traveled westward to India, where he met and educated the Buddha, while others still indicate that Laozi himself became the Buddha. Some historians even believe that Laozi came to and left from the world many times, teaching about Taoism and gathering followers. Sima Qian explained the mystery behind Laozi’s life and his reclusiveness as an intentional casting off the physical world in search of a quiet life, a simple existence, and inner peace.

Later historical accounts refute the existence of Laozi, denoting him as a myth, albeit a powerful one. Though his influence is dramatic and long-lasting, he is revered more as a mythical figure rather than a historical one. China’s history is well-kept in an enormous written record, as is evident by the information that exists about the life of Confucius, but very little is known about Laozi, indicating that he never did walk the earth.

Tao Te Ching and Taoism 

Taoism is the belief that the universe and everything it encompasses follows a harmony, regardless of human influence, and the harmony is made up of goodness, integrity, and simplicity. This flow of harmony is called Tao, or “the way.” In the 81 poetic verses that make up the Tao Te Ching, Laozi outlined the Tao for individual lives as well as leaders and ways of governance.

The Tao Te Ching repeats the importance of benevolence and respect. Passages frequently use symbolism to explain the natural harmony of existence. For example:

Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and hard, nothing is so effectual. Everyone knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and gentleness conquers the strong, but few can carry it out in practice.

Laozi, Tao Te Ching

As one of the most translated and prolific works in history, the Tao Te Ching had a strong and dramatic influence on Chinese culture and society. During Imperial China, Taoism took on strong religious aspects, and the Tao Te Ching became the doctrine by which individuals shaped their worship practices. 

Laozi and Confucius 

Though the dates of his birth and death are unknown, Laozi is believed to have been a contemporary of Confucius. By some accounts, the two historic figures were actually the same person.

Confucius Presenting the Young Gautama Buddha to Laozi.
Confucius Presenting the Young Gautama Buddha to Laozi. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

According to Sima Qian, the two figures either met or were discussed in conjunction with one another several times. Once, Confucius went to Laozi to ask about rites and rituals. He returned home and remained silent for three days before proclaiming to his students that Laozi was a dragon, flying amongst the clouds.

On another occasion, Laozi declared that Confucius was confined and limited by his pride and ambition. According to Laozi, Confucius did not understand that life and death were equal.

Both Confucianism and Taoism became pillars of Chinese culture and religion, although in different ways. Confucianism, with its rites, rituals, ceremonies, and prescribed hierarchies, became the outline or physical construction of Chinese society. By contrast, Taoism emphasized the spirituality, harmony, and duality present in nature and existence, especially as it grew to encompass more religious aspects during the Imperial Era.

Both Confucianism and Taoism maintain influence over Chinese culture as well as many societies across the Asian continent.