1902 Encyclopedia > Lao-Tsze (or Lao-Tse; Laozi)

(also known as: Lao-Tse, Lao-Tsu, Laou-Tsze, Laozi, etc.)
Semi-legendary Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism

(fl. c. 604 B.C.)

LAO-TSZE, or LAOU-TSZE, the designation of the author of the celebrated treatise called Tâo Teh King, and the reputed founder of the religion called Tâoism. The Chinese characters composing the designation may mean either "the Old Son," which commonly assumes with foreigners the form of "the Old Boy," or "the Old Philosopher." The latter significance is attached to them by the Rev. Dr Chalmers in his translation of the treatise published in 1868 under the title of The Speculations on Netaphysics, Polity, and Morality of "the Old Philosopher," Lâo-tsze, The former is derived from a fabulous account of Lâo-tsze which appeared in the Sh_n Hsien Chwan, "The Account of Spirits and Immortals," of Ko Hung, in our 4th century. According to this, his mother, after a supernatural conception, carried him in her womb sixty-two years (or seventy-two, or eighty-one—ten years more or fewer are of little importance in such a case), so that, when he was born at last, his hair was white as with age, and people might well call him "the old boy." The other meaning of the designation rests on better authority, We find it in the Kiâ Yü,. or "Narratives of the Confucian School," compiled in our 3d century from documents said to have been preserved among the descendants of Confucius, and also in the brief history of Lâo-tzse given in the historical records of Sze-ma Ch’ien (about 100 B.C,). In the latter instance the designation is used by Confucius, and possibly it originated with him. It should be regarded more as an epithet of respect than of years, and is equivalent to "the Venerable Philosopher."

All that Ch’ien tells us about Lâo-tsze goes into small compass. His surname was Lî, and his name Urh. He wag a native of the state of Ch’û, and was born in a hamlet, which we must place not far from the present prefectural city of Kwei-teh in Ho-nan province. What is of more importance, he was one of the recorders or historiographers at the court of Châu, his special departmerit being the charge of the whole or a portion of the royal library. He must thus have been able to maker himself acquainted with all the history of his country and of the men who had played the most distinguished part in its affairs. Ch’ien does not mention the year of his birth, which is often said, though on what Chinese authority does not appear, to have taken place in the third year of King Phing, corresponding to 604 B.C. That date cannot be far from the truth. That he was contemporary with Confucius is established by the concurrent testimony of the Li Kî and the Kiâ Yü on the Confucian side, and of Chwang-tsze and Sze-ma Ch’ien on the Tâoist. The two men whose influence has been so great on all the subsequent generations of the Chinese people, and whose views are now more attentively studied by thinking men of other nations than ever they were before—Khung-tsze and Lâo-tsze—had at least one interview, in 517 B.C., when the former was in his thirty-fifth year. The conversation between them was interesting. Lâo was in a mocking mood; Khung appears to the greater advantage.

If it be true that Confucius, when be was fifty-one years old, visited Lâo-tsze, as Chwang-tsze says (in the Thien Yun, the fourteenth of his treatises), to ask about the Tâo, they must have had more than one interview. Dr Chalmers, however, has pointed out that both Chwang-tsze and Lieh-tsze (a still earlier Tâoist writer) produce Confucius in their writings, as the lords of the Philistines did the captive Samson on their festive occasions, "to make sport for them." Their testimony is valueless as to any matter of fact. There may have been several meetings between the two in 517 B.C., but we have no evidence that they were together in the same place after that time. Ch’ien adds—"Lâo-tsze cultivated the Tâo and virtue, his chief aim in his studies being how to keep himself concealed and unknown. He resided at (the capital of) Châu ; but after a Iong time, seeing the decay of the dynasty, he left it, and went away to the Gate (leading from the royal domain into the regions beyond,—at the entrance of the pass of Han-kû, in the north-west of Ho-nan). Yin Hsî, the warden of the gate, said to him, ‘You are about to withdraw yourself out of sight; I pray you to compose for me a book (before you go).’ On this Lâo-tsze made a writing, setting forth his views on the tâo and virtue, in two sections, containing more than 5000 characters. He then went away, and it is not known where he died," The historian then mentions the names of two other men whom some regarded as the true Lâo-tsze. One of them was a Lâo Lâi, a contemporary of Confucius, who wrote fifteen treatises (or sections) on the practices of the school of Tâo. Subjoined to the notice of him is the remark that Lâo-tsze was more than one hundred and sixty years old, or, as some say, more than two hundred, because by the cultivation of the Tâo he nourished his longevity. The other was "a grand historiographer" of Châu, called Tan, one hundred and twenty-nine (? one hundred and nineteen) years after the death of Confucius. The introduction of these disjointed notices detracts from the verisimilitude of the whole narrative in which they occur.

Finnaly, Ch’ien makes the remark that "Lâo-tsze was a superior man, who liked to keep in obscurity," traces the line of his posterity down to the 2d Century B.C., and concludes with this important statement:—"Those who attach themselves to the doctrine of Lâo-tsze condemn that of the literati, and the literati on their part condemn Lâo-tsze, thus verifying the saying, ‘Parties whose principles are different cannot take counsel together.’ Lî Urh taught that transformation follows, as a matter of course, the doing nothing (to bring it about), and rectification ensues in the same way from being pure and still."

Leaving these scanty historical notes, and accepting the Tâo Teh King as the veritable work of Lâo-tsze, we must now try to give the reader some idea of its contents. Consisting, it has been seen, of not more than between five and six thousand characters, it is but a short treatise,—not half the size of our Gospel of St Mark, The nature of the subject, however, the want of any progress of thought or of logical connexion between its different parts, and the condensed style, with the mystic tendencies and poetical temperament of the author, make its meaning extraordinarily obscure,—as native scholars and Sinologists have found to their cost. Divided at first into two parts, it has subsequently and conveniently been subdivided into chapters. One of the oldest, and the most common, of these arrangements makes the chapters eighty-two.

Some Roman Catholic missionaries, nearly two centuries ago, fancied that they found a wonderful harmony between many passages and the teaching of our sacred Scriptures. Montucci of Berlin, who had adopted their views, ventured to say in 1808:—"Many things about a Triune God are so clearly expressed that no one who has read this book can doubt that the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed to the Chinese five centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ." Even Remusat, the first occupant of a Chinese chair in Europe, published at Paris in 1823 his Mémoire sur la Vie et les Opinions de Lâo-tsze, to vindicate the view that the Hebrew name Jehovah was phonetically represented in the fourteenth chapter by Cbinese characters. These fancies were exploded by the late Stanislas Julien, when he issued in 1842 his translation of the whole treatise as Le Livre de la Voie et de la Vertu.

The most important thing is to determine what we are to understand by the Tâi, for Teh is merely its outcome, especially in man, and is rightly translated by our word "virtue." Julien, we have just seen, translated Tâo by "la voie." Chalmers leaves it untranslated. "No English word," he says (p. x.), "is its exact equivalent. Three terms suggest themselves—the way, reason, and the word; but they are all liable to objection. Were we guided by etymology, ‘the way’ would come nearest the original, and in one or two passages the idea of a way seems to be in the term ; but this is too materialistic to serve the purpose of a translation. ‘Reason,’ again, seems to be more like a quality or attribute of some conscious being than Tâo is. I would translate it by ‘the Word,’ in the sense of the Logos, but this would be like settling the question which I wish to leave open, viz., what resemblance there is between the Logos of the New Testament and this Chinese Tâo." Latterly some Sinologues in China have employed "nature" as our best analogue of the term. Thus Watters (Lâo-tsze, A Study in Chinese Philosophy, p, 45) says "In the Tâo Teh King the originator of the universe is referred to under the names Non-Existence, Existence, Nature (Tâo), and various designations,—all which, however, represent one idea in various manifestations. It is in all cases Nature (Tâo) which is meant." This view has been skilfully worked out; but it only hides from us the scope of "the Venerable Philosopher." "Nature" cannot be accepted as a translation of Tâa.That character was, primarily, the symbol of a way, road, or path; and then, figuratively, it was used, as we also use way, in the senses of means and method,—the course that we pursue in passing from one thing or concept to another as its end or result, It is the name of a quality. Professor Douglas has well said (Confucianism and Tâoism, p. 189):—"If we were compelled to adopt a single word to represent the Tâo of Lâo-tsze, we should prefer the sense in which it is used by Confucius, ‘the way,’ that is, ______."

What then was the quality which Lâo-tsze had in view, and which lie thought of as the Tâo—there in the library of Chan, at the pass of the valley of Han, and where he met the end of his life beyond the limits of the civilized state? It was the simplicity of spontaneity, action (which might be called non-action) without motive, free from all selfish purpose, resting in nothing but its own accomplishment. This is found in the phenomena of the material world. "All things spring up without a word spoken, and grow without a claim for their production. They go through their processes without any display of pride in them ; and the results are realized without any assumption of ownership. It is owing to the absence of such assumption that the results and their processes do not disappear" (chap. ii.). It only needs the same quality in the arrangements and measures of government to make society beautiful and happy. "A government conducted by sages would free the hearts of the people from inordinate desires, fill their bellies, keep their ambitions feeble, and strengthen their bones. They would constantly keep the people without knowledge and free from desires ; and, where there were those who had knowledge, they would have them so that they would not dare to put it in practice" (chap. iii.). A corresponding course observed by individual man in his government of himself becoming again "as a little child" (chaps. x. and xxviii.) will have corresponding results. His constant virtue will be complete, and he will return to the primitive simplicity" (chap. xxviii.).

Such is the subject matter of the Tâo Teh. King,—the operation of this method or Tâo, "without striving or crying," in nature, in society, and in the individual. Much that is very beautiful and practical is inculcated in counexion with its working in the individual character. The writer seems to feel that he cannot say enough on the virtue of humility (chap. viii., &c.). There were three things which he prized and held fast,—gentle compassion, economy, and the not presuming to take precedence in the world (chap. 1xvii.). His teaching rises to its highest point in chap. 1xiii:—"It is t he way of Tâo not to act from any personal motive, to onduct affairs without feeling the trouble of them, to taste without being aware of the flavour, to account the great as small and the small as great, to recompense injury with kindness." This last and noblest characteristic of the Tâo, the requiting "good for evil," is not touched on again in the treatise; but we know that it excited general attention at the time, and was the subject of conversation between Confucius and his disciples (Confacian Analects, xiv. 36).

What is said in the Tâo on government is not, all of it, so satisfactory. The writer shows, indeed, the. benevolence of his heart. He seems to condemn the infliction of capital punishment (chaps. lxxiii. and lxxiv.), and he deplores the practice of war (chap. Ixix.) ; but he had no sympathy with the progress of society or with the culture and arts of life. He says (chap. 1xv.):—"Those who anciently were skilful in practising the Tâo did not use it to enlighten the people ; their object rather was to keep them simple. The difficulty in governing the people arises from their having too much knowledge, and therefore he who tries to govern a state by wisdom is a scourge to it, while he who does not try to govern thereby is a blessing." The last chapter but one is the following:—"In a small state with a few inhabitants, I would so order it that the people, though supplied with all kinds of implements, would not (care to) use them; I would give them cause to look on death as a most grievous thing, whiie yet they would not go away to a distance to escape from it. Though they had boats and carriages, they should have no occasion to ride in them. Though they had buff-coats and sharp weapons, they should not don or use them. I would make them return to the use of knotted cords (instead of written characters). They should think their coarse food sweet, their plain clothing beautiful, their poor houses places of rest, and their common simple ways sources of enjoyment. There should be a neighbouring state within sight, and the sound of the fowls and dogs should be heard from it to us without interruption, but I would make the people to old age, even to death, have no intercourse with it."

On reading these sentiments, we must judge of Lâo-tsze that, with all his power of thought, he was only a dreamer. But thus far there is no difficulty arising from his language in regard to the Tâo. It is simply a quality, descriptive of the style of character and action, which the individual should seek to attain in himself, and the ruler to impress on his administration. The language about the Tâo in nature is by no means so clear. While Professor Douglas says that "the way" would be the best translation of Tâo, he immediately adds:—"But Tâo is more than the way. It is the way and the waygoer. It is an eternal road; along, it all beings and things walk; but no being made it, for it is being itself; it is everything and nothing, and the cause and effect of all. All things originate from Tâo, conform to Tâo, and to Tâo at last they return."

Some of these representations require modification; but no thoughtful reader of the treatise can fail to be often puzzled by what is said on the point in hand. Julien, indeed, says with truth (p. xiii.) that "it is impossible to take Tâo for the primordial Reason, for the sublime Intelligence, which has created and governs the world" ; but the fact is that many of Lâo-tsze’s statements are unthinkable if there be not behind the Tâo the unexpressed recognition of a personal creator and ruler. Granted that he does not affirm positively the existence of such a Being, yet certainly he does not deny it, and his language even implies it. It has been said, indeed, that he denies it, and we are referred in proof to the fourth chapter:—"Tâo is like the emptiness of a vessel ; and the use of it, we may say, must be free from all self-sufficiency. How deep and mysterious it is, as if it were the author of all things! We should make our sharpness blunt, and unravel the complications of things ; we should attemper our brightnesd and assimilate ourselves to the obscurity caused by dust. How still and clear is Tâo, a phantasm with the semblance of permanence! I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God (Ti)."

The reader will not overlook the cautious and dubious manner in which the predicates of Tâo are stated in this remarkable passage. The author does not say that it was before God, but that "it might appear" to have been so. Nowhere else in his treatise does the nature of Tâo as a method or style of action come out more clearly. It has no positive existence of itself; it is but like the emptiness of a vessel, and the manifestation of it by men requires that they endeavour to free themselves from all self-sufficiency. Whence came it ? It does not shock Lâo-tsze to suppose that it had a father, but he cannot tell whose son it is. And, as the feeling of its mysteriousness grows on him, he ventures to say that "it might appear to have been before God."

There is here no denial but express recognition of the existence of God, so far as it is implied in the name T?, which is the personal name for the concept of heaven as the ruling power, by means of which the fathers of the Chinese people rose in prehistoric time to the idea of God. Again and again Lâo-tsze speaks of heaven just as "we do when we mean thereby the Deity who presides over heaven and earth." These last words are taken from Watters (p. 81); and though he adds, "We must not forget that this heaven is inferior and subsequent to the mysterious Tâo, and was in fact produced by it," it has been shown how rash and unwarranted is the ascription of such a sentiment to "the Venerable Philosopher." He makes the Tâo prior to heaven and earth, which is a phrase denoting what we often call "nature," but he does not make it prior to heaven in the higher and immaterial usage of that name. The last sentence of his treatise is:—"It is the Tâo—the way—of Heaven to benefit and not injure; it is the Tâo—the way—of the sage to do and not strive."

It is impossible to go, in the present article, into an exposition of the Tâo Teh King at greater length. Since Julien laid it fairly open to Western readers in 1842, there has been, it appears to the writer, a tendency to overestimate rather than to underestimate its value as a scheme of thought and a discipline for the individual and society. There are in it, indeed, lessons of unsurpassed value, such as the inculcation of simplicity, humility, and self-abnegation, and especially the brief enunciation of the divine duty of returning good for ill ; but there are on the other hand the regretful representations of a primitive society when men were ignorant of the rudiments of culture, and the longings for its return.

When it was thought that the treatise made known the doctrine of the Trinity, and even gave a phonetic representation of the Hebrew name Jehovah, it was natural, even necessary, to believe that its author had had cornmunication with more western parts of Asia, and there was no end of speculation about visits to India and Judaea, and even to Greece. The necessity for assuining such travels has passed away, and they have ceased to be thought of. If we can receive Sze-mâ Ch’ien’s histories as reliable, Lâo-tsze might have heard, in the states of Châu and among the wild tribes adjacent to them, views about society and government very like his own. Ch’ien relates how an envoy came in 624 B.C.—twenty years, that is, before the date assigned to the birth of Lâo-tsze—to the court of Duke Mû of Ch’in, sent by the king of some rude hordes on the west. The duke told him of the histories, poems, codes of rites, music, and laws which they had in the middle states, while yet rebellion and disorder were of frequent occurrence, and asked how good order was secured at all amotig the wild people, who had none of those appliances. The envoy smiled, and replied that the troubles of China were occasioned by those very things of which the duke vaunted, and that there had been a gradual degeneration in the condition of its states, as their professed civilization had increased, ever since the days of the ancients age, Hwang Tî, whereas in the land he came from, where there was nothing but the primitive simplicity, their princes showed a pure virtue in their treatment of the people, who responded to them with loyalty and good faith. "The government of a state," said he in conclusion, "is like a man’s ruling his own single person. He rules it, and does not know how be does so ; and this wits indeed the method of the sages." Lâo-tsze did not need to go further afield to find all that lie has said about government.

We have confined ourselves to the Tâoism of the Tâo Tek King without touching on the religion Taoism now existing in China, but which did not take shape until more than five hundred years after the death of Lâo-tsze, though he now occupies the second place in its trinity of "The three Pure or Holy Ones." There is hardly a word in his treatise that savours either of superstition or religion. In the works of Lieh-tsze and Chwang-tsze, his earliest followers of note, we find abundance of grotesque superstitions; but their beliefs (if indeed we can say that they had beliefs) had not become embodied in any religious institutions. When we come to the Ch’in dynasty (221-206 B.C.), we meet with a Tâoism in the shape of a search for the fairy islands of the eastern sea, where the herb of immortality might be gathered. In our first century a magician, called Chang Tâo-ling, comes before us as the chief professor and controller of this Tâoism, preparing in retirement "the pill" which renewed his youth, supreme over all spirits, and destroying millions of demons by a stroke of his pencil. He left his books, talismans, and charms, with his sword and seal, to his descendants, and one of them, professing to be animated by his soul, dwells at this day on the Lung-hû mountain in Keang-se, the acknowledged head or pope of Tâoisin. But even then the system was not yet a religion, with temples or monasteries, liturgies, and forms of public worship. It borrowed all these from Buddhism, which first obtained public recognition in China between 65 and 70 A.D., though at least a couple of centuries passed before it could be said to have free course in the country.

Even still, with the form of a religion, Tâoism is in reality a conglomeration of base and dangerous superstitions. Alchemy, geomancy, and spiritualism have dwelt and dwell under its shadow. Each of its "three Holy Ones" has the title of Thien Tsun, "the Heavenly and Honoured," taken from Buddhism, and also of Shang Ti or God, taken from the old religion of the country. The most popular deity, however, is not one of them, but has the title of Yü Wang Shang Tî, "God, the Perfect King." But it would take long to tell of all its "celestial gods," "great gods," "divine rulers," and others. It has been doubted, we have said, whether Lâo-tsze. acknowledged the existence of God at all, but the Tâoism of the present day is a system of the wildest polytheism. The science and religion of the West will meet from its most determined opposition. The "Venerable Philosopher" himself would not have welcomed them. The shrieking of our steam-engines, the bustle of our commerce, and the onward march of our various enterprises would have nearly driven him mad; but he ought not to bear the obloquy of being the founder of the Tâoist religion. (J. LE.)

The above article was written by James Legge, LL.D; missionary in Malacca and Hong Kong; Professor of Chinese at Oxford, 1875; author of The Notions of the Chinese concerning God and Spirits, and an edition of the Chinese classics.

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