In English, "Venerable Master" or "Old Master." An honorific title for a mysterious Chinese philosopher and Daoist (Taoist) sage, supposed author of the Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching in English: "The Classic of The Way and Virtue"), venerated as the deity known as Taishang laojun (Tai-shang Lao-Chün, in English "Highest Venerable Lord") or Huanglao jun (Huang Lao-Chün, in English "Yellow Venerable Lord") by the adherents of Daoism (Taoism), lived apparently in the period circa 500–400 b.c. during the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty.
What little is known about his life comes from the account of his supposed life in the Shiji (Shi Chi, "Records of the Historian"), written by the Chinese historian Sima Qian (Ssu–ma Ch'ien) around 100 b.c. According to him, Laozi's family name was Li, his supposed given name was Er Dan (Erh Tan, in English "long ears," probably a reference to the traditional Chinese symbol of wisdom and longevity rather than a reference to the sage's real name). Apparently, he worked as an archivist at the Zhou imperial court, before leaving in disillusionment and making his way westward in search of wisdom. Scholars are divided as to the historicity of Sima Qian's account of the alleged encounter between Laozi and confucius at the Zhou court, in which Laozi berated Confucius for his arrogance and lack of understanding; many scholars have attributed that account to subsequent anti–Confucian polemics of the Daoists.
Some scholars have questioned Sima Qian's attribution of the authorship of the Daode Jing to Laozi, as there is no mention of an author in all extant versions of the Daode Jing. Sima Qian had recounted a legend in which Laozi, weary of living and heading westward in search of wisdom, penned down his philosophy at the request of the "Keeper of the Pass" (i.e., frontier guard). Contemporary textual analysis of the received text points to the existence of several redactional layers. Although the received text is traditionally divided into 81 chapters of 5,000 characters, the earliest extant manuscripts—the Guodian text (circa 300 b.c.) and the Mawang dui (Ma–wang Tui) texts (168 b.c.)—while preserving the contents of the work albeit in an inverted order, suggest that the original was probably a continuous work of some 5,400 characters, in all likelihood written or edited by a single author.
The Daode Jing presents the Dao as a nameless, undefinable, spontaneous, eternal, cyclical and ever– changing cosmological essence. It advocates that one engages in "non–action" (wu–wei ) to be in harmony with the Dao. Here, "non–action" is not mere passivity, but rather, taking only those actions that would be in harmony with the cosmological ordering of things in the Dao. The utopian society which the Daode Jing presents is one of harmony between ruler and ruled, in which the Sage–Ruler embodies wu–wei as a way of governing, viz., governing behind the scenes in a manner that the subjects are not even aware that they are being governed. This philosophy has attracted many adherents both in the Far East and in the Western world, making the Daode Jing the most translated ancient Asian treatise in the European languages in the 19th and 20th centuries.
See Also: chinese philosophy.
Bibliography: m. kaltenmark, Lao–tzu and Taoism (Stanford 1969). w. t. chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton 1963) 136–176. k. y. ch'en, Lao–tzu: Text, Notes, and Comments (San Francisco 1981). d. c. lau, tr. Chinese Classics: Tao Te Ching (Hong Kong 1982). a. c. graham, Disputers of the Tao (LaSalle, IL 1989). e. wong, Lao–tzu's Treatise on the Response of the Tao (San Francisco 1993). r.g. henricks, tr. Lao–tzu's Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian (New York 2000).
[j. y. tan]