Laozi (or Lao Tzu) is the founder of Daoism and the reputed author of Dao De Jing. Based on available historical records, Laozi’s philosophy is closely connected with three ancient books, namely Lian Shan written in the Xia Dynasty, Gui Cang in the Yin Dynasty and the Book of Changes in the Zhou Dynasty.
Laozi’s surname is Li. His given name is Er, and his courtesy name is Boyang. He was said to have served as the Keeper of Archives in the court of Zhou, and he was known a recluse as well as a gentleman with high morals.
It is generally believed that Laozi lived between 600 and 470 B.C., during the Warring States period. His father was said to be a general of the Song who was tricked and killed in action in the summer of 573 B.C. during a war against the Chu. Laozi’s father left behind his wife, two housemaids and a family guard, who all had to flee for their lives.
When they came to Xiangyi of the Chen state, the late general’s wife felt a sharp pain in her abdominal area. It turned out that she was about to give birth. The family guard stopped the carriage by the road side, rushed to a nearby village, and fetched an old lady to help out.
Not long afterwards, a baby boy was born, who would become the prominent Laozi many years later.
According to historical records, when Laozi was born, he was a tiny baby with a big head, broad eyebrows and big ears. His eyes were deep-set with clear pupils, and his nose was high and broad. He was given the name “Dan” due to his big earlobes.
Laozi was very clever as a child. He was keen to learn and always asked the old family guard for stories about the rise and fall of a state, of battles between states, of sacrifices and divinations, of astrological observations, and much more.
Seeing her son’s precociousness, his mother invited Shang Rong to be his teacher, who was proficient in the rituals and music of the Yin and Shang dynasties. Shang Rong was highly respected in Laozi’s family.
One day, Shang Rong said to Laozi,
“Human beings are the most precious thing between Heaven and Earth, and humanity is centered around their king.”
“What is Heaven?” Laozi asked.
“Heaven is a pure being high above,” his teacher replied.
“What dose it mean to be a pure being?”
“A pure being is the firmament.”
“What’s above the firmament?” Laozi asked again.
“A purer being exists there, even purer than the pure beings.”
“What is above the purest being?”
“I dare not make any assumptions, as nothing has been passed on by the earlier sages and there has been no record of this in the ancient books,” his teacher said humbly.
That evening, Laozi asked his mother and the old family guard the same question, and neither was able to give him an answer.
He looked up at the moon and stars in the sky, lost in his thoughts about heaven and the cosmos. He lay awake all night.
Shang Rong later said to Laozi,
“Heaven, earth, humans and a multitude of other things exist in the universe. Heaven has its principles and earth has its laws; human beings have human ethics and objects have their physical properties. Therefore in heaven, there is the sun, the moon, and the stars in motion; on earth, there are mountains, rivers and oceans; among human beings, there are superiors and inferiors, the old and young; among physical objects, some are long, some are short, some are strong and others are fragile.”
“Who put the sun, the moon, and stars in motion then?” Laozi asked, “Who created mountains, rivers and oceans? Who sorts human beings into those categories, and who bestows physical objects their attributes?”
“It’s all done by gods,” his teacher replied.
“How can gods do all of this?”
“Gods have the power of change and the power of creation, so they can do all of these things,” replied his teacher.
“But where did that power come from, and when did they start to have these powers?”
“I dare not make any assumptions, as the teachers in earlier times did not pass down anything in this regard and there was no record about this in the ancient books.”
In the evening, Laozi asked his mother and the old family guard the same question, but neither could come up with an answer.
Laozi thought about what the teacher said to him day and night. His mind was so focused on the issue that it was said he couldn’t taste the food he was eating for three days.
Another day, Shang Rong said to him,
“A monarch is one who acts on behalf of Heaven; the subjects are those ruled by the monarch. If the monarch goes against the will of Heaven, then he should be abolished; if the subjects refuse to follow the monarch, they would be committing a sin. This is the way of governance.”
“Since the subjects were not born monarchs, I can understand the principle for them. However, if a monarch was born by the will of Heaven, why would he ever go against the will of Heaven?” Laozi asked his teacher.
“Gods entrust a monarch to take care of the affairs in the human world on their behalf. When a monarch is born, it’s like sending a general to a faraway battlefield, so he is not bound directly by orders from his sovereign. Thus, a monarch at times goes against the will of Heaven.”
“Gods have the power of change and the power of creation. Why don’t they just create monarchs who act according to their will?”
“I dare not make any assumptions, as the wise men in earlier times did not pass down anything in this regard and there was no record about this in ancient books.”
In the evening, Laozi asked his mother and the old family guard the same question, and again, neither of them could give him an answer.
He visited all the distinguished scholars in Xiangyi to seek knowledge. He was so concentrated in his quest that it was said he could not feel the wetness of the rain or the dryness of the wind.
On another occasion, his teacher told him,
“Regarding all things under Heaven, harmony is the best option. Without harmony, there would be war. When in war, both sides would suffer, and neither would benefit. Therefore, benefiting others is in fact benefiting oneself, and harming others is equivalent to harming oneself.”
“Losing harmony causes great harm to people. So why doesn’t the monarch do something about it?” Laozi asked.
“When people fight among themselves, it only upsets the harmony a little; the disaster is insignificant, and the monarch can take care of it. If the fight is between states, then the harmony is toppled, and the disaster is huge. If it is the monarch who is to blame, then how can the monarch resolve it?” his teacher replied.
“If the monarch cannot handle it, why don’t gods take care of it?”
“I dare not make any assumptions, as the great ones in earlier times did not pass down anything in this regard and there was no record about this in ancient books.”
In the evening, Laozi asked his mother and the old family guard the same question, and like in the past, neither could give him an answer.
Again, he went to visit all the distinguished scholars in the local area and read all the books available in Xiangyi to search for an answer. He was so fixated that it was said he could not distinguish the heat or the coldness of the temperature outside.
Three years went by. One day, Shang Rong went to Laozi’s mother and said,
“My knowledge is too shallow to continue teaching your son, who is very intelligent. I’m here to say farewell, not because I don’t want to teach him anymore or because your son is not diligent enough, but because I have already taught him all that I know, and yet it is not enough to satisfy his endless thirst for knowledge.”
“I find it really hard to continue,” the teacher went on, “Your son is a boy with far-reaching aspirations. Xiangyi is only a remote region. If you want to polish his extraordinary potential, you must send him to the capital city of Zhou, where there are an abundance of books and a great gathering of scholars. It’s a holy land under heaven; he won’t be able to achieve great success without going there.”
Laozi’s mom got worried upon hearing these words and thought,
“Laozi is only 13. It’s a challenge for us to even go back to the capital of Song, not to mention going to the capital of Zhou. Besides, he is my only son. How can I let him go that far all by himself?”
Noticing her concern, Shang Rong said,
“Actually, a friend of mine is a scholar who is serving in the imperial college of the Zhou court. He is very knowledgeable and open-minded. He cherishes talented people and respects those with virtue. He spends his lifetime educating the young and takes great pleasure in helping people; he always recommends talented people to the court.”
“He has taken a number of prodigies under his wing, children with talent selected from ordinary homes, providing them with full board and treating them as his own children,” the teacher went on.
“My friend has heard from me about your son and he has long wanted to meet him. A few of his servants came by the other day and passed me a message, saying they could take your son to Zhou’s capital city. This is a very precious opportunity. Please don’t miss it.”
Laozi’s mother felt overwhelmed by the news, from which she received mixed feelings. She felt happy that her son had the opportunity to go to Zhou upon his teacher’s recommendation, but at the same time, she also felt sad to have to part with her young son.
Three days later, Laozi’s mother and his teacher saw him off as he left for Zhou with the servants of the scholar.
After Laozi arrived in Zhou, he was admitted into the imperial college and studied all disciplines of knowledge, including astronomy, geography, and ethics. He read a wide range of books, such as the Book of Songs, the Book of History, the Book of Changes, the Classic of Rites, and the Book of Music. He also studied cultural relics, various decrees, regulations, and history books.
Laozi made great progress and became a clerk in the Archive Chamber of the Zhou court three years later, upon recommendation from the scholar who took him in.
This position allowed him access to a massive collection of classics, essays, and books. Laozi couldn’t be happier–he buried himself every day in a sea of books, ritual, and music, as well as the essence of moral and ethical principles.
Three years later, he was promoted to the position of the Keeper of the Archives for the royal court of Zhou.