Biographies

Lao Tzu by Jon Fergus

Introduction to the Philosopher [Laotze] and His Book the Tao Teh by Walter Gorn Old


Traditional Biographical Sources

Biography from the Shiji of Sima Qian:

Lao Tzu was a native of the hamlet of Ch’ü-jen in the village of Li in Hu County of [the state of] Ch’u. His praenomen was Erh, his agnomen Tan, and his cognomen Li. He was a scribe in the Chou office of archives.

Confucius went to Chou, intending to ask Lao Tzu about the rites. Lau Tzu said, “Those of whom you speak have all already rotted away, both the men and their bones. Only their words are here. Moreover, when a gentleman obtains his season, he will harness his horses. When he does not obtain it, he will move on like tumbleweed rolling in the wind. I have heard that

An able merchant has the deepest storerooms, but they look empty.
A gentleman has the fullest virtue, but he appears foolish.

Cast off your arrogant airs and many desires, sir, your contrived posturing and your over-weening ambition. All of these are of no benefit to your person. What I have to tell you is this, and nothing more.

Confucius departed. He fold his disciples, “Birds I know can fly, fish I know can swim, and beasts I know can run. For that which runs, one can make snares. For that which swims, one can cast lines. For that which flies, one can make arrows with strings attached. As for the dragon, I can never know how it mounts the wind and clouds and ascends into the sky. Today I have seen Lao Tzu; is he perhaps like the dragon?”

Lao Tzu cultivated the Way and its virtue. His teachings emphasized hiding oneself and avoiding fame. After living in chou for a long time, he saw Chou’s decline, and left. When he reached the pass, the Prefect of the Pass Yin his said, “Since you are going to retire from the world, I beg you to endeavor to write a book for us.” Lao Tzu thus wrote a book in two sections which spoke of the meaning of the Way and its virtue in five thousand and some characters and then departed. No one knows where he finally ended.

Some say [Lao Tzu] was Lao Lai Tzu, also a man of Ch’u. He composed a book in fifteen sections which spoke of the ideas of Taoism and was a contemporary of Confucius.

Supposedly, Lao Tzu lived to be a 160 years old, some say over 200; his great longevity came through cultivating the way.

The scribes record that 129 years after Confucius died Tan, the Grand Scribe of Chou, had an audience with Duke Hsien of Ch’in (r. 384-362 B.C.) and said, “In the beginning Ch’in and Chou were united. After 500 years of union, they separated. Seventy years after they have separated, a Hegemon will emerge there [Ch’in]. Some say that Tan was Lao Tzu. Others say he was not. Our generation does not know the truth of the matter.

Lao Tzu was a gentleman who retired from the world. The praenomen of Lao Tzu’s son was Tsung. Tsung was a general of Wei. He was enfeoffed at Tuan-kan. Tsung’s son was Chu. Chu’s son was Kung. Kung’s great-great-grandson was Chia. Chia served as an official to Emperor Hsiao-wen of Han (r. 180-157 B.C.) and Chia’s son Chieh was the Grand Mentor to [Liu] Ang, King of Chiao-hsi (r. 164-154 B.C.), at which time he took up residence in Ch’i.

Those nowadays who study Lao Tzu denigrate Confucianism, and Confucianism also denigrates Lao Tzu. Can this be what is meant by “Those whose ways are not the same do not take counsel with each other?” Li Erh “did nothing, and [the people] transformed themselves, kept still, and [the people] rectified themselves.”

— William H. Nienhauser, The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume 7: The memoirs of pre-Han China


Anecdotes from The History of Sze-Ma Chien (from “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” Volume XII: Medieval China, ed. Charles F. Horne, 1917, pp. 396-398)

Zhuangzi (莊子), tr. James Legge


Selected Translations of Works by Lao Tzu


Selected Articles, etc. related to Lao Tzu


See also:

The Real Origin of the Tao by Derek Lin

A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Chapter 7) by Wing-Tsit Chan

Biographies of Lao Zi and Confucius in the Shiji: An Illustration of Sima Qian’s Historiographical Stance by Derong Chen

Lao-Tzu’s Taoteching: With Selected Commentaries from the Past 2,000 Years, tr. Red Pine (see Introduction)

The Tao of China by Don Lehman Jr., chapters 4, 35 & 47

The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993

Lao Tzu and Taoism, Max Kaltenmark, translated by Roger Greaves, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969)