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Lao Tzu

Pinyin LAOZI (Chinese: “Master Lao,” or “Old Master”), original name (Wade-Giles romanization) LI ERH, deified as LAO-CHšN, T’AI-SHANG LAO-CHšN, or T’AI-SHANG HSšAN-YšAN HUANG-TI, also called LAO TUN, or LAO TAN (fl. c. 6th century BC, China), the first philosopher of Chinese Taoism and alleged author of the Tao-te Ching (q.v.), a primary Taoist writing. Modern scholars discount the possibility that the Tao-te Ching was written by only one person but readily acknowledge the influence of Taoism on the development of Buddhism. Lao-tzu is venerated as a philosopher by Confucianists and as a saint or god by some of the common people and was worshiped as an imperial ancestor during the T’ang dynasty (618-907).

Despite his historical importance, Lao-tzu remains an obscure figure. The principal source of information about his life is a biography in the Shih-chi (“Historical Records”) by Ssu-ma Ch’ien. This historian, who wrote in about 100 BC, had little solid information concerning the philosopher. He says that Lao-tzu was a native of Ch’ü-jen, a village in the district of Hu in the state of Ch’u, which corresponds to the modern Lu-yi in the eastern part of Honan province. His family name was Li, his proper name Erh, his appellation Tan. He was appointed to the office of shih at the royal court of the Chou dynasty (c. 1111-255 BC). Shih today means “historian”, but in ancient China the shih were scholars specializing in matters such as astrology and divination and were in charge of sacred books.

The question of whether there was a historical Lao-tzu has been raised by many scholars, but it is rather an idle one. The Tao-te Ching, as we have it, cannot be the work of a single man; some of its sayings may date from the time of Confucius; others are certainly later; and the book as a whole dates from about 300 BC. Owing to these facts, some scholars have assigned the authorship of the Tao-te Ching to the astrologer Tan; while others, giving credit to a genealogy of the descendants of the philosopher, which is related in the biography by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, try to place the life of Lao Tan at the end of the 4th century BC. But this genealogy can hardly be considered as historical. It proves only that at the time of Ssu-ma Ch’ien a certain Li family (see above) pretended to be descended from the Taoist sage; it does not give a basis for ascertaining the existence of the latter. The name Lao-tzu seems to represent a certain type of sage rather than an individual. Encyclopaedia Britannica

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