Wisdom of the Ancients – Laozi’s Philosophy-老子哲学

Laozi, approximately contemporary with Confucius or slightly earlier, founded the Daoist school of thought and is revered as the ancestor of Daoism. During the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong Li Yuan, in order to legitimize his rule, posthumously recognized Laozi as the progenitor, conferring upon him the title “Supreme Mysterious Emperor” and later, during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, as “Supreme Venerable Lord.”

His teachings embody a simple form of dialectics and have profoundly influenced the development of Chinese philosophy, making him one of the great ancient philosophers and thinkers in Chinese history.

Laozi, also known as Lao Dan, traditionally surnamed Li, given name Er, courtesy name Boyang, was born prematurely with a weak and small body but a large head, earning him the name “Dan” due to his large ears.

From a young age, Lao Dan showed intelligence and a love for contemplation. In just three years, he mastered all that his teacher, Master Shang Rongping, had to offer. Shang Rongping, recognizing Zhou as a place where classical works and virtuous scholars gathered, recommended Lao Dan to go there for further education. After three years in Zhou, Lao Dan made significant progress and was recommended as the custodian of the scripture room. The scripture room stored the classics of the Zhou Dynasty, collecting writings and books from all over, making it a comprehensive collection. Lao Dan was responsible for managing the scripture room, providing him with the opportunity to peruse books from all over the world. Three years later, Lao Dan, known for his extensive knowledge, was renowned far and wide. During the Spring and Autumn period, as a sign of respect for knowledgeable individuals, people addressed them with “zi,” hence Lao Dan came to be known as “Laozi.”

Later, witnessing the decline of the Zhou royal family and the constant wars among feudal lords vying for supremacy, Laozi decided to resign from his official post and travel to the western regions to enlighten the local people. Riding a green ox, he left Luoyang and headed west.

One morning, he arrived at the front of Hangu Pass, situated in present-day Xin’an County, Henan Province, a crucial route to the west. The pass featured a narrow path between towering cliffs, as if enclosed in a bamboo tube, hence named Hangu Pass. The gatekeeper, Commandant Yin Xi, was a cultivated and knowledgeable man with an understanding of celestial phenomena. Standing on the city gate, he suddenly saw purple air rising in the east, predicting the arrival of a sage. He went out to meet the sage, and soon enough, a venerable old man with flowing white beard, riding a green ox, approached the gate. Yin Xi, having heard of Laozi’s wisdom, recognized him and saw that Laozi intended to depart. Yin Xi detained Laozi, insisting that he write something to leave behind his wisdom, or he would not be allowed to pass the gate. Laozi had no choice but to agree. After contemplation, he inscribed his wisdom on bamboo slips. Several days later, he completed a roughly five-thousand-word essay named “Laozi,” focusing on “Dao” and “De,” later known as the “Tao Te Ching.”

The “Tao Te Ching” consists of 81 chapters, divided into upper and lower sections, “De” in the first 37 chapters, and “Dao” from the 38th chapter to the end. It reflects Laozi’s philosophy, with “De” symbolizing the return of virtue to the Dao, emphasizing virtue nurturing the Dao. At the same time, it conveys moral implications, aligning with Laozi’s original intent of pure virtue returning to the Dao.

Laozi attempted to establish a comprehensive theory encompassing the universe and all things, stating, “Dao gives birth to One, One gives birth to Two, Two gives birth to Three, Three gives birth to all things.” He abstracted “Dao” as a universal, all-encompassing objective law of nature, explaining the evolution of all things in the universe. In his view, Dao is the primordial force above the heavens and the earth, with “independence and constancy, circulating without peril,” embodying eternal significance. This perspective includes a rudimentary form of materialism.

The “Tao Te Ching” also incorporates rich dialectical thinking. Laozi believed that all things possess contradictory aspects and that “reversal is the movement of the Dao.” The two sides of a contradiction can transform into each other, as seen in “correction returns to odd, goodness returns to bewilderment,” and “misfortune relies on fortune, fortune hides within misfortune.” He proposed that the path of transformation lies in “keeping still,” with “existence and non-existence mutually arising,” and that “non-existence” serves as the foundation, stating, “All things under heaven are born of being, being is born of non-being.” The unity of “being” and “non-being” prevails in the world.

Furthermore, the “Tao Te Ching” reflects many ideas related to governance and the people, such as “The Dao of heaven reduces what has more than enough and supplements what is deficient, while the Dao of man is not so.” Other passages include “People are indifferent to death because they seek life’s extravagance” and “If people do not fear death, how can they be threatened with death?” These expressions manifest a focus on the well-being of the people.

Although the “Tao Te Ching” is only five thousand words, it has profoundly influenced the development of Chinese philosophy. Numerous idioms such as “self-knowledge is enlightenment,” “a good beginning is half the battle,” and “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” have been handed down through generations.