Laozi Composes the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The compilation of the central Daoist classic, the Dao De Jing, provided Chinese culture with one of its most distinctive and enduringly influential statements.

Summary of Event

The Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching; possibly sixth century b.c.e., probably compiled late third century b.c.e.; The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of “the Old Philosopher, Lau-Tsze,” 1868; better known as the Dao De Jing), traditionally considered the foundational work of Daoism (Taoism), was often simply called the Laozi (Lao Tzu), after its supposed author. It was also known as the Five Thousand Character Classic, referring to its approximate length in the received text, which was edited as part of an early commentary by Wang Bi. Laozi Wang Bi

The work traditionally consists of eighty-one chapters, divided into two parts: the Dao Jing, or “Classic of the Way” (chapters 1-37), and the De Jing, or “Classic of Virtue/Power” (chapters 38-81). No chapter is longer than one page, and many are only a few lines. The order of the parts, interestingly, is reversed in some of the manuscripts, which some have seen as shifting the emphasis from the traditional cosmological emphasis to a social/political interpretation.

Daoism holds that a universal principle—the dao, or “way”—underlies everything as a supreme pattern and a principle of growth. This dao may be attained by observing nature, returning to a state of infancy, practicing nonaction, and controlling the breath, which is the life force. One who possesses dao must appear soft and weak and conceal his or her power; the exhibition of power only reveals that one does not possess it. Possessing the dao makes one a sage fit to rule.

Like many ancient works, the Dao De Jing has been viewed as more unified than may in fact be the case. Many contemporary scholars believe the work to be a kind of anthology of sayings, perhaps from various schools of thought. The connections among the chapters, and sometimes between individual lines, are certainly not always evident. Some general themes, however, can be discerned in the work as a whole, including the importance of wu wei, “not acting” or acting in accordance with the dao rather than forcing one’s will, and in general the complementarity of opposites. Whether these themes are thought to be the foundation of Daoist sensibility, or merely an influential later expression of it, depends in large part on what dates are assigned to the work.

According to tradition, Laozi (the Old Master) was an older contemporary of Confucius (Kongfuzi, K’ung-Fu-Tzu; 551-479 b.c.e.). This would place the Dao De Jing in the late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e. Confucius is said to have met Laozi, and this notion might seem to be confirmed by the important Daoist text Zhuangzi (c. 300 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991), and also attested to by the biographical entry in the Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian, 1960) of Sima Qian. The latter identifies Laozi as the author of “a work in two books, setting out the meaning of the way and virtue in some five thousand characters,” which he is said to have written as he was leaving for the west, at the request of a gatekeeper.

Modern critics have cast doubt on all the details of this simple picture. The biography in question is late and plainly not authoritative, mixing together ill-assorted claims. The material in the Zhuangzi is equivocal, admitting of adulteration. If Laozi lived so early and wrote the Dao De Jing, as the traditional story claims, historians ask why his views are not mentioned by a philosopher such as Mencius (Mengzi, Meng Tzu, 372-289 b.c.e.), who was so concerned to reply to the critics of Confucianism.

Some scholars have doubted whether Laozi ever existed at all. Even if he did, others have questioned whether his name should really be associated with the compilation of the Dao De Jing, which many scholars now date to the beginning of perhaps the mid-fourth or third century b.c.e. A popular date among revisionist scholars has been 250 b.c.e., though more recent arguments (for example, on the basis of comparative poetics) have suggested that 350 b.c.e. might be a likelier date—the partial text found at Guodian in 1993 has been thought to date from about 300 b.c.e. A few scholars, however, have continued to defend dates closer to the earlier, traditional dating of the text.


In his much-admired 1963 translation and commentary, The Way of Lao Tzu, Wing-tsit Chan suggested that “no one can understand China or be an intelligent citizen of the world without some knowledge of the Lao Tzu.” Since its creation, the Dao De Jing has exerted a pervasive influence on two dozen centuries of Chinese culture, as well as on the many other cultures within the Chinese sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. During the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907 c.e.), Daoism was particularly influential, with emperors patronizing the philosophy and the deified Laozi taken as the dynasty’s original ancestor.

Daoism has also proven to have broad appeal throughout the Western world during the past two centuries. It has thus served as a primary stimulus to increased interest in, and knowledge of, the central concepts of Daoist thought, as those have come to play—perhaps in part because of that stimulus—a greater role in the philosophical and religious conversations of an increasingly cosmopolitan planet. The philosophy’s exoticism and attraction often lie in its direct opposition to the mainstream Western philosophy of molding nature to human will, taking direct action to change the world, and viewing the world through the lens of rigorously defined and mutually exclusive categories.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Alan K. L. Two Visions of the Way: A Study of the Wang Pi and the Ho-shang Kung Commentaries on the Lao-Tzu. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. A comparative study of the two chief traditional commentaries on the Dao De Jing. Notes, glossary, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, J. J. The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000. A study of the influence of the Dao De Jing and Daoism on Western cultures. Chronological and linguistic appendices, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohn, Livia, and Michael LaFargue, eds. Lao-tzu and the “Tao-te-ching.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Important collection includes a dozen essays by leading scholars. Glossary, bibliographies, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laozi. Dao De Jing, “Making This Life Significant”: A Philosophical Translation. Translated by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. New York: Ballantine, 2003. Well-known experts on Chinese philosophy offer a translation based on the Mawangdui texts, but keeping the traditional order, and an interpretation in terms of a philosophy of process. Lengthy introductions, glossary, distributed commentary, appendix, bibliography, thematic index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laozi. Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way. Translated by Moss Roberts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. This version attempts to combine impressive scholarship with a poetic approach to the text. Introduction, detailed distributed commentary, notes, bibliography of Chinese and English sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laozi. The “Daodejing” of Laozi. Translated by Philip J. Ivanhoe. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002. A new scholarly translation of the traditional Wang Bi text. Introduction, notes, bibliography, index, and an appendix that examines different ways of translating the first chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laozi. Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching”: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian. Translated by Robert G. Henricks. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Translation of the incomplete version, with about two thousand characters, discovered in 1993 at Guodian, written on bamboo strips and dating from about 300 b.c.e. Chinese text, introduction and notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laozi. Tao Te Ching. Translated by D. C. Lau, edited by Sarah Allan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Everyman’s Library, 1994. Lau’s respected translation, valuable glossary, and appendices on the problem of authorship and the nature of the work are supplemented by Allan’s chronology, bibliography, and useful introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laozi. Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition. Translated by Jonathan Star. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001. Besides his translation, the author provides a word-for-word rendering, with detailed defining glosses, which makes it possible for readers to explore the text in unusual detail. Notes, concordance, list of radicals, bibliography, and a detailed commentary on translating the first chapter.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Confucius; Laozi; Mencius; Wang Bi; Zhuangzi. Dao De Jing (Laozi)

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