Laozi Research Paper

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Laozi, a book also known as Daodejing (The Way and Its Power) or The Book of Five-Thousand Characters (because it contains just about that number of Chinese characters), refers to the text that set forth in eighty-one poems the principles of Daoist philosophy and religion; its alleged author is also known as Laozi.

Laozi (Lao-tzu), who is commonly credited with writing the Daoist classic, the Daodejing (The Way and Its Power), was among the most influential figures in Chinese history, second to, if not equal to, the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE). Ideas in the Daodejing, although seemingly mysterious and paradoxical, are subtle and profound and have influenced every aspect of Chinese civilization (government, philosophy, religions, sciences, medicine, arts, and martial arts).

The name “Laozi” means “old master.” Little information about the man exists. The earliest record of Laozi is in Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), written during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) by Sima Qian (145–87? BCE). In his biography of Laozi, Qian gave Laozi’s birth name as Li Er, also known as Li Dan, the name of a staff official at the imperial library of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). Laozi cultivated learning but did not reveal his knowledge or ability. As the Zhou dynasty declined, Laozi decided to leave. At the city gate, at the request of the gatekeeper, he wrote two books, Dao and De, with a total of about five thousand characters (words). No one knew where he went then, and Qian wrote that some people said Laozi lived to the age of 160 or 200 and attributed his longevity to the cultivation of dao (the Way).

Qian’s account of Laozi’s life includes a visit Confucius made to Laozi. Using Confucius as a medium, Qian referred to Laozi as a dragon, the most auspicious and grand symbol in Chinese civilization to illustrate the breadth, depth, and versatility of his words. Qian also mentioned another person, Lao Laizi, who also wrote Daoist text and who also was the contemporary of Confucius, but Qian did not identify Laozi as Lao Laizi. Some modern scholars question whether Laozi was the contemporary of Confucius and date him in the third century BCE, during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). Other scholars support Sima Qian’s dating.

During the second century BCE, at the end of the Han dynasty, folk beliefs blended with Daoist ideas and developed the religion of Daoism. After that Laozi was venerated as the founder, and the Daodejing became a text with magical and protective power for followers of several schools of religious Daoism. When Buddhism became popular in China, legend claimed that Laozi went to the West and was reincarnated as Buddha. During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) Laozi was honored as an imperial ancestor to enhance the prestige of the imperial family, who had the same last name. Temples were built for Laozi, and Daoist monasteries were popular throughout the Tang dynasty. Moreover, the Daodejing, as a book about philosophy and governance, was adopted as a text in the imperial government’s civil service examination for sixty-six years, along with Confucian classics. From the third through the tenth centuries “Laozi” was a common name for Chinese intellectuals as well as religious people.

The Daodejing consists of eighty-one short chapters of philosophical prose, which often are paradoxical; therefore, commentaries on the text became important. Ho-shang Gong’s commentary of the Han dynasty and Wang Bi’s commentary of the fifth century became the standard version. Recent tomb excavation unearthed an earlier version of this text that has slight variations. Some scholars believe that the Daodejing is an anthology by more than one author. The thought in the book, however, is consistent.

The Daodejing states that a metaphysical, all-encompassing, and organic dao (Way) is the originator and sustainer of all things in the universe. It can’t be described. As the Daodejing states, “the Dao that can be told is not the constant Dao,” yet this dao is modeled after naturalness or spontaneity and can also be discerned in ordinary or even lowly things.

The Daodejing draws its inspiration from the observation of nature, for which it has a profound preference. It exhorts frugality, contentment, and tranquility and promotes few desires. Moreover, contrary to common assumptions, it claims that the weak overcome the strong and that the soft overcome the hard. The Daodejing states, “Of all things in the world, nothing is more soft and weak than water, yet none could rival water in dissolving the hard and the strong.” Some scholars believe that the Daodejing teaches people means of self-preservation during troubled times. The Daodejing also proposes ways for a sage ruler to govern. Its ideal society is a simple and primal society where people are content. Moreover, its best government has only a shadowy existence: it interferes little with people’s lives either in taxation or labor conscription. The Daodejing states, “I [the ruler] practice wu-wei [nonactions] and the people were self-transformed; I love tranquility, and the people became pure and good . . .” But the Daodejing is not just a creed for simplicity and contentment, it also embraces and understands changes, making it a seemingly simple but profound text.

Ideas in the Daodejing have been applied in Chinese government, notably during the early Han dynasty under the emperors Wen and Jing (180–141 BCE). Under the name of “Huang-Lao” (combining the name of the legendary Yellow Emperor with “Laozi”), the early Han government was frugal and nonactive and levied light taxes to allow citizens to recover from the heavy taxation and wars of the previous Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). Near the end of the Han dynasty and for the next several centuries, religious Daoism thrived. People revered Laozi as a deity; philosophers adopted ideas from the Daodejing and eventually wrote a large collection of Daoist scriptures. Daoism also influenced Chinese arts. Along with Zhuang Zi (Master Zhuang), another Daoist classic written during the Warring States period, the Daodejing inspired literati landscape painting, most notably during the Song dynasty (960–1279). The scene was usually of one or two scholars strolling among mountains and trees. Daoist ideas also inspired many of China’s most treasured poems. People often consider Li Bai (701–762 CE), a Daoist of the Tang dynasty, to be China’s greatest poet.

During the early Qin dynasty Daoism also inspired Chinese primitive sciences and martial arts and influenced Chinese medical theories and practices. Daoists’ search for a longevity elixir promoted the development of alchemy (a chemical science and speculative philosophy that aimed at, among other goals, the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life).

Laozi’s Daodejing fundamentally changed Chinese civilization. It balanced goaloriented, ethically motivated, and duty-bound Confucianism with a sense of individual freedom in its tranquil appreciation of the beauty of nature and understanding of changing and unpredictable fortunes. Since the late eighteenth century the Daodejing has also attracted many Western minds. Today it is one of the books most translated into English. Scholars and laypersons explore and perceive its ideas from different angles, comparing it with Christianity, appreciating its tranquility and love of nature, seeking an individual’s freedom from highly structured modern society, or simply studying the ritual and practices of the religion of Daoism. Western intellectuals have freely interpreted and explored the text in their own search for a space in a highly standardized and bureaucratic world. Regardless of whether Laozi or more than one author wrote the Daodejing, it has significantly influenced Chinese civilization, and its influence has spread beyond the Chinese horizon and into world history.


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