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Laozi (Sixth Century BCE)

(sixth century BCE)

Laozi, according to the Records of History by Sima Qian, is believed to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius (551479 BCE) and the author of the Laozi (Daode jing or Tao-te-ching ), a work roughly five thousand characters long. This and other traditional accounts of Laozi and the date of his work have been seriously challenged, and various hypotheses about the authorship of the work and its date have been proposed. Nevertheless, three incomplete Guodian bamboo versions of the Laozi excavated in 1993 prove that the text was in circulation in the fourth century BCE and may have been composed still earlier.

Laozi is believed to be the first person in Chinese intellectual history to develop a brief theory on the source and grounds of the universe, represented by the concept of Dao (also commonly called Tao in Western writings).

Dao: Source and Grounds

Dao literally means "the way" and was often extended to cover the political or moral principles by which different schools expounded their ideas. Laozi attributed to this term a totally new meaning: "Dao produced the One, One produced the Two, Two produced the Three, and Three produced the ten thousand things" (chapter 42). Here, the One, Two, and Three do not indicate anything specific, just a general cosmological formula: from Nothing to Being, one to multitude, and simple to complex. This formula has been compared to the Big Bang theory of modern astrophysics. Dao is the primordial root of all beings and creatures, and all beings and creatures in turn depend on it. As the ultimate source and grounds of the universe, Dao would be termed a metaphysical, as opposed to an empirical, concept in European philosophy. But in Chinese philosophy there is no dichotomy between the metaphysical and the physical, the ontological and the axiological, the descriptive and the prescriptive, and so on. Dao runs through the whole universe and human life; it is both transcendent and immanent. As the model for human behavior and the object of ultimate concern for human beings, Dao is similar to God, but has nothing to do with will, feelings, or purpose. Dao runs through and embodies "ten thousands things," and de (power or virtue) is in each being. It can be said that Dao is a quasi-metaphysical concept, and de is its manifestation in all beings.

Ziran: the Core Value

The second key concept in Laozi's philosophy is ziran, or naturalness. Laozi advocates that "Man models himself on the earth, the earth models itself on heaven, heaven models itself on the Dao, and the Dao models itself on ziran " (chapter 25). The true meaning and message of this statement is that humans should practice the principle of naturalness, which involves allowing things to unfold without external coercion or, in the case of individual humans, without striving for things such as wealth and power. This permits actualizing natural harmony in human life and with one's surroundings. The word ziran comprises two parts: self (zi ) and so (ran ). Its basic meaning is "self-so." It may be rendered as naturalness to show its adjectival meaning and grammatical function as a noun.

One should not confuse ziran with Nature or the natural world. Ziran is used to indicate Nature in modern Chinese, but in classical contexts words such as tian (heaven), di (earth), and wanwu (ten thousand things) denoted the natural world. Some scholars relate ziran with Thomas Hobbes's (15881679) "state of nature," which is a hypothetical term for scientific argument and suggests that everyone is at war with everyone. Instead, Laozi's ziran is the ideal condition of human societies, namely natural harmony, and represents the highest principle and core value in his philosophy; it is embodied and promoted by Dao. Natural harmony and order are valuable and desirable compared with humanly contrived order, which depresses human nature and arouses resistance and even inevitably leads to chaos. Human nature can only flourish within societies that have natural order, hence ziran is also the optimal condition of individuals. Laozi contends that "the sage should foster the ziran of the ten thousand things and dare not take action" (chapter 64). This leads us to the next fundamental concept: wuwei.

Wuwei: Principled Method

Wuwei also comprises two parts: no (wu ) and action (wei ). Superficially, it means "no action at all," but in fact wuwei only negates some kinds of actions, not all. Obviously, "fostering the ziran of ten thousand things" is not the kind of action wuwei would exclude. The agent of wuwei in Laozi's theory is mainly the sage, the ideal model of rulers, who fosters potential in others instead of directly ordering, forcing, interfering, and interrupting. So there is a social and political message in Laozi that is absent in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi. Laozi's wuwei implies two aspects: Its negative expression suggests preventing certain societal actions, such as oppression, confrontation, and strife, while its positive meaning advocates an alternative, sophisticated manner of behavior for better results of natural development and harmony in societies, such as fostering, assisting, and being patient. In his famous proclamation about "doing nothing yet leaving nothing undone," Laozi clearly reveals the positive objective of wuwei. "Doing nothing" is a means of realizing the end of "leaving nothing undone." Wuwei actually purports to be both a superior approach to and the consummate realization of human activity. It derives from comprehensive humanistic perspectives and considerations, not from fashions or trends of governance aimed at achieving immediate benefits.

Humans make two kinds of mistakes: One is not making enough effort, the other is overdoing. The former mistake is easy to remedy because it does not waste too many resources or shake morale. Correcting the second is more difficult, as in the case of environmental degradation. Here is an additional sense in which wuwei is reasonable and significant.

Reversion: Paradoxical Thinking

Another distinctive feature of Laozi's philosophy is his dialectical or paradoxical thinking, which emerges through doctrines dealing with the unity and transformation of pairs of contradictions. One doctrine concerns the interdependence of opposite things and concepts. For example, "Calamity is that upon which happiness depends; happiness is that in which calamity is latent." Another is the reversibility of opposite sides, such as the "correct can become the perverse, and good may become evil." According to Laozi, all things are in motion and they are changing and proceeding toward their reverse. Thus, humility produces greatness, and ambitions bring about failure. Obverse and reverse sides often exchange positions. Things in both human societies and the natural world can work out to be the very opposite of our expectation and intention.

To sum up, wuwei is the methodological principle for fostering ziran, the core value in Laozi's system. Dao, as the ultimate source and grounds of the universe, is the quasi-metaphysical and axiological foundation for both wuwei and ziran, while the theory of dialectics supports ziran and wuwei from the perspective of human experience.

See also Chinese Philosophy: Daoism.


Chan, Wing-tsit. "The Natural Way of Lao Tze." In A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 136176. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963. This includes a translation of the received version of the Laozi.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989.

Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Henricks, Robert G. Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. This is the translation of the bamboo versions excavated in 1993.

LaFargue, Michael. Tao and Method: A Reasoned Approach to the Tao Te Ching. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Laozi. Tao Te Ching. Translated by D. C. Lau. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1989. This is the translation of silk versions excavated in 1973.

Liu, Xiaogan. "Naturalness (tzu-jan), the Core Value in Taoism: Its Ancient Meaning and Significance Today." In Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, edited by Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue, 211228. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Liu, Xiaogan. "Non-action and the Environment Today: A Conceptual and Applied Study of Laozi's Philosophy." In Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape, edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan, 315340. Cambridge, MA: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 2001.

Slingerland, Edward. Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Xiaogan Liu (2005)

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