PART 2
(Part 4.3 – - – Part 4.2 – - – Part 4 – - – Part 3 – - – Part 1)

Laozi 老子
Updated Aug. 16 2012.

The first person to be investigated will be Laozi 老子, the “Old Master”; his supposed text being the Laozi or the Daodejing 道德經 (The Classic on the Way and Its Power). Although the Laozi has long been regarded by some to be the work of more than one author in both China and the West, Sima Qian 司馬遷, in his biography of Laozi, gives no indication that he thought the text was written by more than one person. Although he reports that there was uncertainty about the actual author, he seems to have felt the most plausible one was Lao Dan 老聃, “Old Long-ears” (a.k.a. Li Er 李耳[1]), the keeper of the Zhou archives from the southern state of Chu 楚 whom Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.E.) had gone to see.[2] The words exchanged at this famous meeting are always different in the various accounts we encounter.[3] The Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋, Zhuangzi 莊子, Liji 禮記, Hanshi Waizhuan 韓詩外傳, Xinxu 新序, and Baihu Tong 白虎通 also all affirm that Lao Dan was a teacher of Confucius’; however, they do not suggest he was the author of the Laozi.[4]

Sima reports that Laozi cultivated Dao and De and recommended self-effacement and avoiding fame (自隱、無名) as something to aim for. Witnessing the degeneration of the Zhou regime, he left, but before he disappeared, the keeper of the pass Yin Xi 尹喜 implored him to write a book. Sima does not refer to Lao Dan’s book as the Laozi or Daodejing, but it is clear that the book he was supposed to have written on “the ideas of Dao and De” (道德之意), in two sections (Pian 篇: i.e., an upper 上 and lower 下) of more than five thousand words was the same one.[5] We do not know whether it was divided into chapters (Zhang 章), what order they might have been in or even whether the Dao Pian 道篇 preceded the De Pian 德篇, (as it does in the received text).

Sima acknowledges the existence of Lao Laizi 老萊子, also from Chu, also a contemporary of Confucius who wrote a book in fifteen Pian on “the utility of Daojia” (道家之用) – which perhaps refers to Sima’s father’s “Daoists.” Sima does not say anyone thought Lao Laizi was the author of the Laozi, but that seems to be implied.[6] Stories did exist that had Lao Laizi speaking down to Confucius, just as Lao Dan apparently had, [7] though Sima Qian believed them to be two separate people, as seen in his biography of Confucius’ disciples.[8] That both Lao Dan and Lao Laizi were from the southern state of Chu seems to be more than a coincidence, as (1) chapters 14 and 23 of the Zhuangzi locate Lao Dan in the south, (2) ancient editions of the Laozi or proto-Laozi have been only found in the territory of this ancient state,[9] and (3) a number of other “thinkers,” such as Liu An 劉安 (the prince of Huainan), Huan Yuan 環淵, Sima Jizhu 司馬季主, Zhan He 詹何, etc. are connected to the Laozi or its ideas and came from Chu.[10]

Sima says Laozi was believed to have lived a long time – 160-200 years old – by “maintaining Dao and nourishing longevity” (脩道而養壽). Sima does acknowledge that some believed the Grand Scribe Dan 太史儋 of the 4th century B.C.E. was Laozi, but he says no one knew for sure. This may indicate that some thought both Lao Dan 老聃 and Taishi Dan 太史儋 were the same person, who lived from the sixth century to fourth century.

Sima says that in the Han Dynasty, those who studied (the teachings of) Laozi looked down on the Ru 儒 – Classicists, Literati, Confucians – who in turn looked down on them: “Their daos were not the same” (道不同), he says. So, among other things, Han “Daoists” recognized themselves as being anti-Confucian, and perhaps countercultural.

The biography (of Laozi, Zhuangzi 莊子, Shen Buhai 申不害 and Hanfei 韓非) concludes with Sima Qian’s father (the Taishi Gong 太史公) saying Laozi esteemed the Dao, emptiness, nothingness, responding to change in Wuwei mode and that his book was written in a manner difficult to understand. He further comments that Zhuangzi “scattered/released” (散) Dao and De but ultimately returned to naturalness or spontaneity (Ziran 自然), a concept of some significance in the Laozi. Shen Buhai was interested in matching names (名) to realities (實) and Hanfei clarified right and wrong but had little kindness (少恩). He says all four of them had their basis in “the ideas of Dao and De” (道德之意) but Laozi was the most profound.

The literatus Huan Tan 桓譚, as reported in the Han Documents, accepted Lao Dan as the author: “Lao Dan wrote words on emptiness and nothingness in two Pian, depreciating “benevolence” (Ren) and “duty” (Yi) and rejecting teaching the rites (Li)” (老聃著虛無之言兩篇,薄仁義,非禮學。).[11]

Did Lao Dan write or contribute to the Laozi? This has been doubted and debated for centuries. The earliest mention of him is difficult to ascertain because the dates of most of the Warring States texts are uncertain. It would seem that no texts believed to be from the fourth century B.C.E. quote Lao Dan or the Laozi, but many from the third, second, etc. do.[12] Let us recall that Lao Dan was supposed to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius (c. 550 – 480 B.C.E.), and so unsurprisingly, the Laozi does not mention him or any thinkers that came after. Of course, the text also does not mention any historical figures or events, defying clear dating. Wiebke Denecke believes this to be a deliberate attempt to seem primordial. She argues that the Laozi’s “involvement with Confucian, Mohist, and even Chuci traditions reveals its keen awareness of the discursive battlefield of Late Warring States China. Laozi’s denial of historical context cleverly creates a completely unprecedented intellectual niche, and is a brilliant attempt to make a strong bidding for its own ideological, historical, and cosmic precedence in the fierce competition among schools, books, and opinions in Late Warring States China.”[13] I think this is fairly plausible, although I would not go so far as to say the entire text shows a keen awareness of Warring States philosophizing. There is much original material in the Laozi.

Wing Tsit Chan believed that the Laozi contains the ideas of Lao Dan (of the sixth century B.C.E.) but that the book was written in the fourth century B.C.E. This is a credible belief because, as he writes: “The time that had elapsed between the enunciation of the doctrines and the compilation of the book may have been centuries. Certainly that was the case with the Analects, the Mozi, the Zhuangzi, the Book of Changes, and many others. In the process extraneous material, whether ideas or words, must have crept in, through unintentional mistakes and sometimes through deliberate forgery. Practically no ancient Chinese classic is free from these.”[14] Consequently, we cannot proclaim that no sayings of a Lao Dan of the sixth century can be found in the present text, especially if the text derives from a long oral tradition.

We might expect that if such an influential thinker existed prior to Confucius, and indeed taught him, it would be mentioned in some of the texts between the fifth and third centuries. The Analects (Lunyu 論語) of Confucius, believed to have been assembled by his disciples and their lineages does not mention Lao Dan. The Laozi’s maxim to “repay ill will with goodwill” (報怨以德)[15] is discussed in 14.34 of the Analects, however, the maxim is not said to be Lao Dan’s, and both texts could simply be addressing a common saying, the Laozi with approval, the Analects with disapproval. Confucius may not even have said the remarks recorded in Analects 14.34.[16]

Mozi 墨子 (c. 470-390 B.C.E.) does not mention Lao Dan or any ideas found in the Laozi, although eighteen chapters of his book have long been lost. Neither the Chunqiu Zuozhuan 春秋左傳 nor the Guoyu 國語 (c. fourth century B.C.E.) mention Lao Dan/Laozi. Mengzi 孟子 (c. 385 – 300 B.C.E.) also does not mention him or the text, though he does mention Confucius, Mozi, Yang Zhu 楊朱, etc.[17]

Xunzi 荀子 (c. 310-230 B.C.E.) mentions Laozi once, in chapter 17: “Laozi had insight into crouching down but lacked insight into stretching out[17b] … if there is crouching down but no stretching out, the noble and base cannot be distinguished” (老子有見於詘,無見於信。… 有詘而無信,則貴賤不分。). Xunzi may have read or heard sayings ascribed to Laozi while in Lanling 陵令 in Chu or perhaps when at Jixia 稷下 in Qi 齊.

The Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋, a large text put together by numerous scholars under the patronage of Qin’s prime minister Lü Buwei 呂不韋 (c. 290-235 B.C.E.) mentions Lao Dan in several places, including: “Lao Dan valued Rou” (老耽貴柔).[18] Rou, meaning softness, flexibility, and resilience, is an important concept in the Laozi, being found in chapters 10, 36, 43, 52, 55, 76, and 78.[19]

In the Zhuangzi, a text currently believed to have been written by many authors between the late fourth to early second centuries B.C.E., Lao Dan appears in twelve chapters and is more often a spokesman for the “philosophy” found in that book rather than the Laozi. Many sentiments he expresses (in the non-Inner Chapters)[20] are to be found in the Laozi,such as a dim view of 仁義, “benevolence and duty” and an admiration for Pu 朴, “simplicity” in Zhuangzi 14, as well as a reference to the virtues of an infant found in Laozi 55, in Zhuangzi 23.[21] Of the three anecdotes in the Inner Chapters, none seem to draw from any sayings in the Laozi, but they are not inconsistent or contrary to it in any way either. In chapter 5 Laozi mentions that “life and death are one cord” (死生為一條), “acceptable and unacceptable are one string” (可不可為一貫), which is consonant with chapter two of the Laozi. And in chapter 7 he expounds Zhuangzi’s ideal of freedom, but we read him speaking of the ideal ruler: “(his) accomplishments cover the world yet seem not to come from himself, (his) transforming influence extends to the myriad things and yet the people do not rely on him” (功蓋天下而似不自己,化貸萬物而民弗恃). This is consonant with parts of the Laozi.[22] Nowhere in the Zhuangzi is there any mention of a Laozi text or that Lao Dan wrote anything; but, there is no mention of texts by anyone.[23]

The 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi is someone’s account of various important “thinkers” in the pre-Qin era. Lao Dan is grouped with Guan Yin 關尹, apparently referring to Guanling Yin Xi 關令尹喜 that Sima Qian mentioned Laozi meeting on his way out of the country. The portrayal of Laozi is not unlike the brief one offered by Xunzi above. The relevant passage reads:

To regard the root as refined and ‘things’ as unrefined, to regard accumulation as insufficient; serenely residing alone with the numinous spirits: these were some of the ancient methods of the Dao. Guan Yin and Lao Dan heard of these views and were pleased with them. They established them using (the concept of) constant non-existence and administered them using (the concept of) Grand Unity (Taiyi). They deemed gentleness, weakness and modesty the external manifestation and emptiness and harmlessness its internal substance.

Lao Dan said: “To know the masculine, (but) preserve the feminine, is to serve as the world’s stream; To know the pure, (but) preserve the impure, is to serve as the world’s valley.”[22a] Whereas everyone chooses to be first, he alone chose to be last;[22a1] which is called accepting the leftovers of the world.[22b] Whereas everyone chooses to be filled, he alone chose to be empty, (for) without storing up (he still) had more than enough.[22c] (Majestic, yet still possessing more than enough.) In conducting himself, he was unhurried and economical. Free from deliberate activity (Wuwei ), he laughed at the skilful.[22d] Whereas everyone seeks good fortune, he alone was bent and (remained) whole,[22e] if only to remove (himself) from blame.[22f] He regarded depth as a foundation and restraint as a standard; for it is said “what is unyielding will be destroyed, what is sharp will be blunted.”[22g] Always magnanimous with things and not depriving people (of them), this can be called reaching the ultimate. Guan Yin and Lao Dan, they are truly great Zhenren.[22h]


以本為精,以物為粗,以有積為不足,澹然獨與神明居,古之道術有在於是者。關尹、老聃聞其風而悅之,建之以常无有,主之以太一,以濡弱謙下為表,以空虛不毀萬物為實。 … 老聃曰:「知其雄,守其雌,為天下谿;知其白,守其辱,為天下谷。」人皆取先,己獨取後,曰受天下之垢;人皆取實,己獨取虛,无藏也故有餘,巋然而有餘。其行身也,徐而不費,无為也而笑巧;人皆求福,己獨曲全,曰苟免於咎。以深為根,以約為紀,曰堅則毀矣,銳則挫矣。常寬容於物,不削於人,可謂至極。關尹、老聃乎!古之博大真人哉!

The Hanfeizi 韓非子, supposedly written by Hanfei (c. 280-230 B.C.E.), contains two chapters that comment on and give examples illustrating the Laozi text. Tae Hyun Kim believes they were written by different authors and were based on different Laozi texts.[24] Hagop Sarkissian agrees, claiming that Jie Lao 解老 is a third century pre-Qin text probably written by a Jixia scholar of a Laozi-Mengzi bent, and that Yu Lao 喻老 was also written in pre-Qin third century but by a less travelled writer, probably a minister of a small state. [25] Both Kim and Sarkissian note there is no anti-Confucianism in these two commentaries, and, coupled with evidence from the Guodian proto-Laozi, believe the Laozi was not yet anti-Confucian. I think it premature to make this claim, since we do not know whether all versions of “the Laozi” in the fourth and third centuries were “Confucian-friendly.” I also think it is still possible one or both commentaries were written in the early Han, taking advantage of the prestige the Laozi had at that time.[26]

The chapter titles of the two Hanfeizi commentaries, Jie Lao 解老 and Yu Lao 喻老 suggest the text was known as the Laozi, but the titles could’ve been added at any time. No quotation within these two commentaries mentions Lao Dan or Laozi.[27] Whomever wrote these commentaries may or may not have been associated with a/the Laozi lineage. Sarkissian seems to believe that the Hanfeizi commentaries comment on selected passages of a more complete Laozi but it is impossible to know for sure. It is possible that the authors commented on more than we now have but that that material was lost, for we know more passages had been written and associated with each other from the existence of the Guodian proto-Laozi.

The oldest complete editions of the Laozi text we have were discovered in 1973 in a tomb at Mawangdui 馬王堆, Hunan province. In that tomb two copies of the text were written on silk along with some other previously unknown texts. The tomb was sealed in 168 B.C.E. but manuscript A (jia 甲) has been dated to no later than 206 B.C.E. and manuscript B (yi 乙) sometime between 206 and 194 B.C.E.[28] How old manuscript A is and how old its redaction or recension is unknown: the text may have been in the family for a generation or two. It has been determined that manuscript B is not copied from manuscript A, but how old their source texts are can only be guessed. Matthias Richter suggests that the older manuscript A “relies to a greater degree on the competence of the reader and is better suited for use within a certain situational context that could ensure the correct interpretation and transmission of its texts,”[28a] and that “readers were apparently expected to be familiar with the texts.”[28b] Manuscript B, on the other hand, shows “an effort to control and unify orthography. This effort, though not always successful, fits the assumption made above that this manuscript was meant to preserve and transmit the text beyond a narrowly defined circle.”[28c] These two manuscripts contain virtually all the content of the later received editions but the order of the (unmarked) chapters is different, most notably, chapters 38-81 come before chapters 1-37.[29] The latter manuscript B also titles the two halves “De” and “Dao,” but neither A nor B contain the name Lao Dan or Laozi. Furthermore, the Peking University has recently received a copy of the Laozi from the Western Han era that, like the Mawangdui editions has the De section before the Dao section. It is beginning to seem that this order may precede the traditional one.[29a] However, unlike the Mawangdui texts, the De section is labelled Laozi shangjing 老子上經 and the Dao section, Laozi xiajing 老子下經. Additionally, although the ordering of chapters (章) is unknown to me at this time, reports make clear that there are chapter division marks.[29b]

In 1993 a number of bundles of inscribed bamboo slips were found in a tomb, dated approximately to 300 B.C.E., at Guodian 郭店, Hubei province, (near the old capital of Chu).[29c] The content of three of these bundles are entirely passages from the Laozi, with an additional, previously unknown “text” (on slips identical to bundle “C”) named Taiyi Shengshui 太一生水. These “Laozi parallels,” as some have called them, are either entire chapters or parts of thirty-one of the chapters found in the Mawangdui and received texts and constitutes only about one third of the complete text.[30] The order of these “chapters” is completely different from anything previously known to us, inasmuch as an order can be discerned.[30a] Being found on three distinct bundles of bamboo, it would seem these were not considered a single book, and they seem to be copied from different sources.[31] However, excluding the Taiyi Shengshui, since there is no non-Laozi material found in them, nor are any Laozi parallels found mixed in with the other Guodian materials (e.g., the Yucong 語叢), I will call them a proto-Laozi.[32]

It would seem that the Laozi went through the hands of a number of editors from at least 300 B.C.E. Whether the Guodian editors removed or excluded any passages or chapters we do not know. Some scholars have regarded the Guodian proto-Laozi an “excerpt” from a bigger collection, possibly the complete 81-chapter edition. This is a possibility, although the fact that no chapters from 67–81 are to be found makes the idea of the entire 81-chapters edition unlikely. As Bruce Brooks argues, at most there could have been 72.[33] Of course, the Guodian proto-Laozi could have been the largest collection at the time,[33a] or the compiler could have drawn from several small proto-Laozis, not having available to him a complete text. We simply do not know. All we do know is that by 300 B.C.E. at least some of the material later found in our 81-chapter Laozi was collected together and buried in a tomb, and again, this material is not ascribed to Lao Dan or Laozi.

The editors of the two Mawangdui manuscripts don’t appear to have removed any material, as all of the passages found in the Guodian text, and the Hanfeizi commentaries and quotes, are found in the Mawangdui manuscripts.[34] Moreover, the Guodian proto-Laozi does not contain any “lost” material. And, aside from the occasional line here and there, no editor since the time of the Mawangdui redactions has removed or added any material, the text being effectively fixed (though not the order).[35]

There are numerous theories about how the Laozi came to be. Arthur Waley believed the Laozi to have been the work of “an anonymous Quietist” around 240 B.C.E. who was engaged with “Realists,” Confucians and the doctrines of Yang Zhu.[36] He believed it to represent, and was intended for, quietist sage-rulers: it was not intended to encourage ordinary people to live a Daoist life, although a Daoist ruler would inevitably lead his subjects in this direction.[37] He wrote, “Proverbs of the people and of the patricians (Junzi 君子), maxims of the strategist and realist, of the individualist (Yang Zhu school); above all, sayings of the older Daoists which though they had very little apparent influence on conduct were at that period accepted as ‘spiritual’ truths, much as the Sermon on the Mount is accepted today – all these conflicting elements the author of the Daodejing reproduces or adapts, subtly weaving them together into a pattern perfectly harmonious and consistent, yet capable of embracing and absorbing the most refractory elements.”[38]

With regards to the reputed author, Lao Dan, Waley wrote that the Laozi, “owing to its constant use of sayings which everyone connected with the name Lao Dan (Laozi, the Master Lao), naturally came to be regarded as embodying the teaching of this legendary Quietist. Whether it was definitely put into the world as a record of the teachings of Lao Dan or whether this ascription was merely one that grew up in the minds of readers we cannot know.”[39] On this last point Angus Graham argued that Lao Dan was co-opted by Daoists, taking advantage of his authority as a teacher of Confucius.[40]

D.C. Lau believed that the Laozi was a multi-authored anthology of sayings of the fourth and early third centuries B.C.E. that were the “common property to followers of various schools sharing a common tendency in thought that came to be known as Daoism.”[41] Lau doesn’t seem to have explained what this tendency was, though he felt the text contained the ideas of Jixia thinkers, Yang Zhu, Guan Yin 關尹 and Zhuangzi.[42] If the sayings were common property, however, why don’t we find any of them in the texts of other “schools?” Following Lau, David Hall and Roger Ames believe the Laozi is “a deliberately collated and edited collage of largely rhymed wisdom literature that was drifting about in the early Chinese tradition,[43] but again, we have no evidence that these sayings were “drifting about.”[44] The fact that none of the Laozi’s aphorisms or passages are found in earlier texts (e.g., Shijing, Shangshu, Yijing, Mengzi, Zuozhuan, Mozi, Guanzi) suggests that these were taken from a small, close-knit “community” or something similar. Although several sayings are introduced as being not original, as being derived from another source or “common” saying, (e.g., chapters 22, 41, 42 and 69), the sayings do not appear in any text we can be sure was written earlier. And texts containing parallel passages or quotations that came afterwards most often attribute it to Laozi or Lao Dan.

Lau further believed there to have been at least two more similar works/collections: a Laochengzi 老成子and a Zhengchangzhe 鄭長者, both found in the Hanshu Yiwenzhi under Daojia. [45] Lau concludes that in the late Warring States period “there were a number of works which were Daoist in content, appearing under various titles all of which meant ‘old man’ or ‘elder,’ and … that the Laozi was only one of these works.” Although possible, this is highly speculative and unverified.

Kristopher Schipper regards the Laozi as a philosophical text that does not belong to any particular ‘school.’[46] Nonetheless, he thinks it most likely that “the tradition which produced, over a number of centuries, the aphorisms of the Daodejing was not that of ‘philosophers,’ but rather reflects the wisdom which originated among the diviners and the astrologers, the scribes and the annalists.”[47] He too says many of the sayings “appear in other, much older texts,” many of which were “skillfully transformed in such a way as to have them say the opposite of the truths they were originally meant to convey.”[48] It is true that there are numerous counter-intuitive sayings and paradoxes, but that doesn’t mean they are re-workings of popular sayings, especially since there is no textual evidence.

Michael LaFargue, Harold Roth, and Russell Kirkland have all contributed to a fairly credible theory. LaFargue believes the Laozi to be the work of a small group of Shi 士 he calls “Laoists” or a “Laoist community” and originated in an oral tradition.[49] He argues that,

“[E]ach ‘chapter’ is made up primarily of sayings that originally were independent of each other, each saying part of the oral tradition of a small ancient Daoist community which I refer to as the ‘Laoist’ School. These sayings were artfully arranged in ‘sayings collages’ by Daoist teachers whom I refer to as the composers of the chapters” who sometimes altered or added to the sayings as well as borrowed sayings from outside their community.”[50]

He believes the authors had many similarities with Mengzi and his followers in that they were idealistic Shi who sought to change the system:

“The very high respect with which some individual Shi were regarded, led other Shi to gather around them, to learn their ideas about good government and practice self-cultivation [of desired states of mind] under their guidance, and by association with them to gain credentials that would get for them the government appointments they desired. This led to the formation of many small and informal Shi-schools, groups of men gathered around one or more teachers, living with or near him, and often travelling with him as he went from state to state trying to influence rulers with his advice. This is the kind of group that gathered around the Confucian teacher Mengzi, and this is the kind of group I believe also responsible for the Daodejing. This latter group was one among several groups sharing a common world-view opposed to Confucianism, groups that came later to be called by the general name Daoist. Other roughly contemporary Daoist groups are known to us from an anthology of writings that goes under the name Zhuangzi. Graham recently suggested a new term, Laoist (after Laozi, the legendary author of the Daodejing) to refer to the specific thought of the Daodejing, in contrast to the somewhat different (“Zhuangist”) Daoism represented in the Zhuangzi.”[51]

Thus, he does not view the text as addressed to rulers as most scholars do, as they would not be competent to understand the sayings.[52] I think this is true of many of the aphorisms, but not everything in the book. In general though, it seems that a teacher or master would be very helpful for comprehension.[53] Indeed, LaFargue conjectures that the sayings were “composed by teachers in the Laoist school and given to students to meditate on.”[54] But this doesn’t rule out potential rulers, as the tomb at Guodian where the proto-Laozi was interred seems to have been that of the Chu royal tutor, whose student may have been the crown prince Qingxiang 頃襄.[55] If so, would this tutor be a “Laoist” or “Daoist?” I suspect the answer might be no, as the tomb contained many other texts with very little in common with the proto-Laozi.[56]

Similar to LaFargue, Harold Roth believes the Laozi “is likely an apocryphal collection of poetic verses compiled within an early Daoist master-disciple lineage.”[57] One could imagine also that the lineage could have begun more as a master-master group, as a group of elders, treated more or less as equals. He writes that “at best we can speculate about their having formed small communities to follow their distinctive inner cultivation practice, [although] there is no clear evidence of a well-established social organization that extended over several generations.”[58]

Roth believes that the Laozi belongs to a tradition which also produced the “Inner Training” (Neiye 内業) text, the Zhuangzi and the Huainanzi 淮南子. This tradition was centred around the categories of self-cultivation, specifically “the attainment of the Dao through a process of emptying out the usual contents of the conscious mind until a profound experience of tranquility is attained,” a cosmology based on the Dao as a unifying power and the political application of these two.[59] Furthermore, some members of this lineage “created and transmitted a body of doctrinal texts that evolved over time in response to the changing circumstances in which the members of this ‘distinct lineage’ found themselves.”[60]

Russell Kirkland prefers to interpret the Lao in Laozi as referring to community elders. His theory runs as follows:

“Various traditions of oral wisdom had circulated for some decades in Chu, where they were committed to writing by various different hands, recirculated, reedited, and rewritten. Some of the parties involved—conceivably themselves visitors to the early Jixia academy in Qi—learned of the cultivational practices suggested in the text called the Neiye, and added new material of a related nature. Others—archaeologists claim that it was the tutor to the crown prince of Chu—gathered three such texts and refocused them on practical tasks that might befall a future ruler; those texts were buried in the tomb at Guodian. Later, someone else—hardly imaginable as a Jixia participant—added an introspective “maternal voice” to the growing body of “the elders’ wisdom,” while others—quite likely at Jixia—continued to add new socio-political messages, and even applications for real or aspiring warmongers and executioners. Eventually, some redactor brought all those materials together, added new flourishes of his own, and produced something very like “the full text” that we know today.”[61]

I think this is a quite plausible story, but the connection to the Jixia “academy” in Qi has no evidence to support it that I’m aware of. To be sure, Jixia was not the only concentration or gathering of intellectuals in ancient China. Regional lords in Wei 魏, Zhao 趙, Qin 秦 and Chu 楚 also patronized great numbers of scholars.[62] However, it seems just as likely that the authors/compilers did not reside in any intellectual centre such as these.

Returning to the picture Sima Qian and his father paint, should we believe anything they have to say about Laozi? We will likely never know their sources, yet as we have seen, the Laozi text is likely to be a collection of “wisdom literature” and had no single author. We shall also see that there is no evidence that a historical Zhuang Zhou – Zhuangzi – founded his “philosophy” on what is to be found in the Laozi, partly because we do not know for sure what parts of the Zhuangzi text he wrote and partly because we don’t know how big the collection-that-came-to-be the Laozi (Daodejing) was when he was alive, (if it existed at all). The same could be said of Shen Buhai and Hanfei, whom Sima Qian said were influenced by Laozi; the texts that are believed to be their works are also likely to be the work of multiple authors. Strangely, the Simas never acknowledge this now-apparent fact about ancient Chinese texts. We might allow, however, that the Laozi contains at least a few sayings or writings of a 6th century man Lao Dan and/or contains a worldview that derives from such a man. We might also allow that Zhuangzi, Shen Buhai and Hanfei had some familiarity with these sayings/writings/worldview and that to some degree influenced what they themselves taught or wrote.

Next: Zhuangzi 莊子


[1] Curiously, according to Yang Xiong’s 揚雄 (c. 55-20 C.E.) Fangyan 方言 8.1, ‘Li Er 李耳’ was a Huainan-Chu word for ‘tiger.’ Cf. Axel Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, University of Hawaii Press, 2007, 349.

[2] Shiji 史記 63: Laozi Hanfei Liezhuan 老子韓非列傳.

[3] See Shiji 63 and 47, Zhuangzi 13, 14 (2), 21 and Liji 7 (4).

[4] There are four places in the Ritual Records (Liji 禮記 • 曾子問) Lao Dan is quoted (in meetings with Confucius), all having to do with mourning rites. Only Laozi 31 has to do with mourning rites.

[5] The Mawangdui text B had 5467 characters (some have deteriorated, but the total is indicated), the Wang Bi “received” text 5268.

[6] If so, this unambiguously connects Laozi with Daojia 道家.

[7] Zhuangzi 26.

[8] Shiji 67 records that Confucius learnt from 老子 in Zhou and 老萊子 in Chu.

[9] At Guodian, Jingmen city, Hubei province, Mawangdui, near Changsha, Hunan province, and the Xiang Yu Concubine Manuscript (項羽妾本) examined by Fu Yi 傅奕 (fl. 600 C.E.) from a pre-Han Chu tomb.

[10] One might also mention the Chuci 楚辭, but the connection to the Laozi’s worldview is slight. It needs to be said too, that Chu was host to Ru/Confucians and Mohists as well: it was not a Daoist state.

[11] Hanshu 59 B, Yang Xiong Zhuan 揚雄傳.

[12] This assumes that the anecdotes about him in chapters 3, 5, 7, 11, 12, 13 (2), 14 (3), 21, 22, 23, 25 and 27 of the Zhuangzi do not date from the 4th century, which is difficult to prove.

[13] The Dynamics of Masters Literature, Harvard University Press, 2011, 229.

[14] The Way of Lao Tzu, Prentice Hall, 1963, 72-3. Victor Mair, in his “[The] File [on the Cosmic] Track [and Individual] Dough[tiness]” also believes that the Laozi may contain material from the sixth century B.C.E., with more material added, gradually becoming anti-Confucian and anti-Mohist over the next few centuries. Sino-Platonic Papers 20, 1990, 16-17.

[15] Laozi 63.

[16] In the “Record on (serving as an) Example” (Biaoji 表記), the 33rd chapter of the Han Dynasty compendium Ritual Records Confucius is presented with a different perspective than that of the Analects.

[17] D.C. Lau thought this significant (Tao Te Ching, The Chinese University Press, 1996, 127 (originally published in 1963). However, the relatively contemporary text Zhuangzi, which also mentions Confucius, Mozi, Yang Zhu and others does not mention Mengzi. Not many would be comfortable concluding that Mengzi did not live before the Zhuangzi was compiled.

[17b] “Stretching out” is a translation of Shen 伸, which many scholars believe Xin 信 is a loanword for

[18] Lüshi Chunqiu 17.7. Dan 耽 is apparently a variant of Dan 聃.

[19] Some places in the Mawangdui “Huang-Lao” Silk Manuscripts, a.k.a. the Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經, also privilege the soft and feminine (e.g., Mingli 名理, Shundao 順道). See also Cixiongjie 雌雄節, though it doesn’t mention 柔. Zhuangzi 33 associates the feminine and a mild, tranquil, yielding nature with Lao Dan.

[20] “Inner Chapters” (Neipian 内篇) refers to the first seven chapters of the Zhuangzi.

[21] Though not word-for-word. But as Arthur Waley once observed, “It is unlikely in the extreme that the commentator rushed to a copy of the Daodejing in order to quote a single sentence. He quoted from memory, and his memory unconsciously smoothed out and simplified the difficult clause.” (The Way and Its Power, Grove Press, 1958, 131, (originally published in 1934). Herbert Giles, in his “The Remains of Lao Tzu” in The China Review, disagreed (1885-6, 236).

[22] E.g., chapters 2, 10, 17, 51, and 77.

[22a] From Laozi 28.

[22a1] Perhaps alluding to Laozi 67.

[22b] Perhaps alluding to Laozi 78.

[22c] Perhaps alluding to Laozi 81.

[22d] Perhaps alluding to Laozi 19.

[22e] Alluding to Laozi 22.

[22f] Perhaps alluding to Laozi 9.

[22g] Perhaps alluding to Laozi 9 and/or 4/56.

[22h] Zhenren 真人 is a term for a perfect sage-like person coined by the author(s) of the Zhuangzi. “Genuine Person” or “Authentic Person” might be good glosses, though they fail to suggest a rare type of sage. Perhaps “Real Person,” (as in a real musician or a real man) is best.

[23] Except to some references to early Chinese Classics.

[24] “Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi” in Sino-Platonic Papers 199, March 2010, 47-9.

[25] “Laozi: Re-visiting Two Early Commentaries in the Hanfeizi” M.A. Thesis, University of Toronto, 2001. Sarah Queen also demonstrates that the two commentaries were written by different authors in “Han Feizi and the Old Master: A Comparative Analysis and Translation of Han Feizi Chapter 20, “Jie Lao,” and Chapter 21, “Yu Lao” in the Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei, Paul R. Goldin ed., Springer, 2013.

[26] Cf. Bruce Brooks “The Present State and Future Prospects of Pre-Hàn Text Studies” in Sino-Platonic Papers, 46, 1994, 28. The Jie Lao chapter, however, appears to observe the Qin taboo on the character Zheng 正 which is replaced by Duan 端 (with one exception) (Sarkissian, p. 61). If this is truly a Qin taboo observation, then the commentary was likely written during Qin Shihuangdi’s reign, in the latter half of the 3rd century. The “Laozi” text it comments on would therefore precede that.

[27] There are five quotations from the Laozi in the remainder of the Hanfeizi, three of them attributed to Lao Dan/Laozi. chapter 31 quotes Laozi 36; chapter 38 quotes Laozi 17, 64 and 65; chapter 46 quotes Laozi 44.

[28] Derek Herforth, “Two Philological Studies on the Mawangdui Laozi Manuscripts,” M.A. Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1980, 4. Cf. Robert Henricks, Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching, Modern Library, 1993, p. xviii, (originally published in 1989).

[28a] “Textual Identity and the Role of Literacy in the Transmission of Early Chinese Literature” in Writing & Literacy in Early China, University of Washington Press, 2011, Li Feng and David Prager Branner eds., p. 220.

[28b] Ibid. p. 235.

[28c] Ibid. p. 223.

[29] Some of the chapters are marked: manuscript A’s “Dejing” section contains a number of “periods,” many of which occur between today’s Zhang 章, “chapters.”

[29a] In addition to the two Mawangdui manuscripts and this new Peking University manuscript, the Laozi Zhigui 老子指歸 of Yan Zun 嚴遵 (c. 80 – 0 B.C.E.) appears also to have had this ordering. Alan K.L. Chan writes that Yan Zun’s “ ‘explanation of chapter division’ … explains, on cosmological grounds, that the Laozi is divided into 72 chapters. More precisely, in agreement with yinyang theory, the first part is divided into 40 chapters, and the second into 32. The Zhigui as it now stands begins with chapter 38 of the modern Laozi … This is often deemed problematic because the current Zhigui is thought to be the second part, which should have 32 chapters according to Yan Zun’s own explanation. But, the apparent inconsistency disappears if we take the current Zhigui to be the first part of the original.” (“The Essential Meaning of the Way and Virtue: Yan Zun and ‘Laozi Learning’ in Early Han China” in Monumenta Serica 46, 1998, p. 111-112 n22) Chan notes that this agrees with the order of the two Mawangdui manuscripts (one being pre-Han and the other being early Han) and also that the Hanfeizi 20 commentary on the Laozi begins with chapter 38 (though it doesn’t follow any noteworthy order after that). Chan further notes that there is a preface to the Zhigui which explains the arrangement of the Laozi and it too starts with chapter 38, though there are doubts as to whether Yan Zun was the author (p. 112 n22). Aat Vervoorn also makes this argument in “Zhuang Zun: A Daoist Philosopher of the Late First Century B.C.” in Monumenta Serica, Vol. 38, 1988-89, p. 79-80. He concludes, “as far as Zhuang Zun was concerned, Book One of the Laozi was that part of the text now known as the Dejing, and that the Gist was written according to this ancient arrangement of the Laozi, an arrangement which faded from memory not long after the end of the Han dynasty and was not reconfirmed until the discovery of the Mawangdui manuscripts in 1973″ (p. 80).

[29b] http://tinyurl.com/beuvecr

[29c] Hongkyung Kim believes that a number of the other Guodian texts were influenced by Xunzi and since he went to Chu in 286, the Guodian texts, including the Laozi materials, were written after that time (The Old Master: A Syncretic Reading of the Laozi from the Mawangdui Text A Onward, SUNY Press, 2012, p. xxi) He fails to consider that Xunzi was instead influenced by them (or ideas like them), as Paul Goldin does (After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy, University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, p. 37, 57).

[30] Edward Shaughnessy, “The Guodian Manuscripts and Their Place in Twentieth-Century Historiography on the Laozi” in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 65: No. 2, 2005, 451. Additionally, grave-robbers breached the tomb twice prior to excavation, which makes it impossible to know whether this was all of the Laozi material in the tomb. (See Stephan Peter Bumbacher “The Earliest Manuscripts of the Laozi Discovered to Date” in Asiatische Studien 52.4, 1998, p. 1180.

[30a] The three Guodian bundles can be divided into subgroups by observing that some “chapters” begin at the end of another on the same bamboo slip and so must follow it. In bundle A they are (a) 19, 66, 46, 30, 64 (pt.2), 37, 63, 2, 32; (b) 25, 5; (c) 16; (d) 64 (pt.1), 56, 57; and (e) 55, 44, 40, 9. In bundle B they are (a) 59, 48, 20, 13; (b) 41; and (c) 52, 45, 54. In bundle C they are (a) 17, 18; (b) 35; (c) 31; and (d) 64 (pt. 2). We do not know the order of the subgroups within each bundle; that is, for example, bundle A might begin with the (e) chapters. See Hongkyung Kim’s The Old Master, p. 19-20 of the eBook version.

[31] Kim, 2010, 23. That these were copied from different sources does not mean they themselves were not excerpts from a larger single text.

[32] William Boltz in his “The Fourth-Century B.C. Guodiann Manuscripts from Chuu and the Composition of the Laotzyy” argues that we should not exclude the Taiyi Shengshui material from consideration in our theories about this Guodian material. (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119, No. 4, 1999, 595-6.) In his PhD dissertation, however, Dirk Meyer argues that the Taiyi Shengshui should definitely be considered a separate text (“Meaning-Construction in Warring States Philosophical Discourse: A Discussion of the Paleographic Materials from Tomb Guodian One” PhD diss., Leiden University, 2008, p. 282-85) and is in agreement with Donald Harper in his paper “The Nature of Taiyi in the Guodian Manuscript Taiyi Sheng Shui: Abstract Cosmic Principle or Supreme Cosmic Deity?” presented at the International Symposium on the Guodian Chu Bamboo Slips and Related Excavated Materials, 2000. Sarah Allan divides the Taiyi Shengshui into two parts, the cosmogony, and the rest – which she considers to be part of the proto-Laozi (as lost passages) (“The Great One, Water, and the Laozi: New Light from Guodian” in T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 89.4-5, 2003, p. 257).

[33] “Probability and the Gwodyèn Dàu/Dv Jing” in the WSWG Newsletter 13, Mar 1999, 61.

[33a] Steve Farmer believes that “most of the missing sections of the Laozi were not composed until after the texts in the Guodian bundles” partly because (33) many of the missing chapters have “higher exegetical indices” than anything seen in the Guodian texts, especially chapters 1 and 38. (“Neurobiology, Stratified Texts, and the Evolution of Thought: From Myths to Religions and Philosophies.” Expanded version of a 2006 talk given in Beijing, p. 33-34)

[34] Chapter 12 of the Huainanzi is an exposition of the Laozi as well, dating from around the middle of the second century B.C.E. All of the quotations found there, and throughout the rest of the Huainanzi, are found in the Mawangdui and received texts. The same is true of the mid-second century B.C.E. Hanshi Waizhuan 韓詩外傳.

[35] Again, we do not know when the source text of the Mawangdui recension was compiled. Presumably it was sometime in the third century B.C.E.

[36] The Way and Its Power, Grove Press, 1958, 86, (originally published in 1934). “Realists” is Waley’s translation of Fajia 法家, more problematically called “Legalists.”

[37] Ibid. 91-2.

[38] Ibid. 97.

[39] Ibid. 104.

[40] “The Origins of the Legend of Lao Dan” in Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, 1986.

[41] Tao Te Ching, The Chinese University Press, 1996, xl, (originally published in 1963).

[42] Guan Yin, or (Guan) Yin Xi 尹喜, was the border guard Sima Qian records was the recipient of Lao Dan’s two Pian on Dao and De (Shiji 63) and who is paired with Lao Dan in Zhuangzi 33.

[43] Dao De Jing, Ballantine Books, 2003, 113.

[44] With two exceptions: the aforementioned maxim found in Laozi 63 and (supposedly) discussed by Confucius in Lunyu 14.34 and Laozi 79 contains a variation of a Shangshu 尚書 passage about who receives Heaven’s assistance and appears to be a popular aphorism.

[45] Lau, 1996 (1963), xii, 133. The words/vocabulary of the latter in the Hanfeizi 34 are reminiscent of the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, etc.: “…夫虛無無見者…,” “夫虛靜無為而無見也。” and Hanfeizi 37 “體道,無為無見也。.” The texts have been lost, as has the Laolaizi 老萊子, which Lau does not mention.

[46] The Taoist Body, University of California Press, 1993 (1983), trans. by Karen C. Duval, 184-5.

[47] Ibid. 185.

[48] Ibid. 185.

[49] Tao and Method, SUNY Press, 1994, 127-8.

[50] The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, SUNY Press, 1993, ix-x. Dirk Meyer similarly believes the Laozi is an anthology of formally unrelated units of thought (Philosophy on Bamboo: Text and the Production of Meaning in Early China, Brill Publishers, 2012, p. 185; Cf. “Meaning-Construction in Warring States Philosophical Discourse: A Discussion of the Paleographic Materials from Tomb Guodian One” PhD diss., Leiden University, 2008, p. 251), or, “an anthologized collection of different thoughts, brought about by different people all through different periods.” (diss. P. 284). It is what he terms an non-argument text, an authority-based text, or an context-dependent text, which means the text relies on external (i.e., orally disseminated) information to be understood.

[51] Ibid. 195.

[52] Tao and Method, 242. Carine Defoort would side with LaFargue, as she believes the Laozi was “written by and for those who saw themselves as the real but unrecognized sources of order, those advisors (in fact or in spe) with less power and prestige than the ruler.” (Review of Hans-Georg Moeller’s Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory in China Review International. Volume: 14. Issue: 1, 2007, 179.

[53] This is expressed also by Donald Harper in his “The Sexual Arts of Ancient China as Described in a Manuscript of the Second Century B.C.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 47, No. 2, 1987, 561. Dirk Meyer believes it to be “impossible,” “unattainable,” and “illfounded” to attempt to reconstruct a “philosophical edifice” or coherent system of thought for a text like the Laozi, since the textual community that first compiled the anthology no longer exists and their orally-transmitted interpretations are “irretrievably lost.” At best, he argues that we can only devise an “idiosyncratic interpretation” of the philosophy behind the text in but “highly tentative and hypothetical terms.” (Philosophy on Bamboo, p. 232-4)

[54] Tao and Method, p. 128.

[55] See Jennifer Lundin Ritchie’s “An Investigation into the Guodian Laozi” M.A. Thesis, The University of British Columbia, 2010, 96. Robert Henricks’ “The Ruler’s Agenda: A Proposed Reading of Section One in Unit A of the Guodian Laozi” in Daojia Wenhua Yanjiu 1999) argues that the Guodian proto-Laozi revolve around the theme of rulership, and, I would add, a unique approach to rulership.

[56] Although, we are in the dark with regards to who owned or copied the texts and why they were buried with him. For some ideas, see Enno Giele’s “Using Early Chinese Manuscripts as Historical Sources” in Monumenta Serica Vol. 51, 2003.

[57] Original Tao, Columbia University Press, 1999, 205 n1.

[58] Ibid. 178.

[59] Ibid. 7.

[60] Ibid. 173-4.

[61] Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Routledge 2005, 65-6 (originally published in 2004).

[62] Shiji 85.