Laozi was a great thinker and philosopher who is regarded as the founder of both philosophical and religious Daoism. The Daode jing or, Classic of the Way and Virtue is attributed to him. The slightly later philosopher, Zhuangzi, took two ideas from the Daode jing: “the Way models itself on that which is naturally so” and “[an effective ruler] governs by non-action.” He further developed these ideas and also became associated with the beginnings of Daoism. Ever since, the ideas of Laozi and Zhuangzi have been inseparable in people’s minds and so they are collectively referred to as Lao-Zhuang.
Most of what is known about Laozi comes from legends. According to Sima Qian’s (ca. 145–86 BCE) Shi ji (Records of the historian), Laozi was born in Hu township (in modern Luyi county, Henan province) of the Chu state during the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–256 BCE). He served as a scribe in charge of managing and preserving documents and books in the imperial archives. It is said that while he held this position, Confucius (551–479 BCE) twice consulted with him about the rites. When the Zhou dynasty was collapsing, Laozi left to go into seclusion in the Western Regions, riding a blue ox. On his westward journey, when he went through the Hangu Pass, the guard, Yin Xi, received Laozi with warm hospitality and requested him to record his thoughts before departing forever. Laozi agreed and wrote the Daode jing.
The Daode jing records Laozi’s thoughts and represents the quintessence of Daoist philosophy. The book concentrates on Laozi’s thoughts regarding cosmology, political advocacy, statecraft, morality, and conduct. It constructs a brief yet broad and profound framework which encompasses cosmology, views on life, and methodology. Because it treats all of these topics, it has been called “the king of the myriad classics.” Next to the Bible, the Daode jing is the second most widely circulated work translated into foreign languages, according to statistics from UNESCO.
As was noted above, Laozi’s philosophy is broad and profound, covering a wide range of fields such as philosophy, nature, statecraft, democratic thought, military affairs, self-cultivation, hygienics, aesthetics, and more. For Laozi, the first consideration of statecraft is expressed in the following: “The sage does not have any fixed convictions; his concern is with the concerns of the common people.” His other ideas on governance often involved the concept of “non-action.” It is by non-action that the world can be won. Related to the idea of non-action is his belief that “not knowing about [sovereignty] is ideal; the next best is being intimate [with the people] and praising them.” The ruler, he felt, could “manage affairs that involve non-action,” and could “teach without speaking.” His ideas about the military were unconventional and he recommended deploying troops in unusual ways and claimed that “those who use the dao (Way) to assist the ruler do not need to overpower the world by weapons.” Soft and hard also play an important role. Laozi pointed out that “the softest thing in the world can overcome the hardest.” This is his metaphor for self-cultivation and personal conduct. The “softest thing” is like water, as is the superior good. “The superior good,” he wrote, “benefits the ten-thousand things, but does not compete with them. It remains in places men reject and, therefore, it is like the Way.”
Laozi holds a revered place in the Daoist religion and was given the honorific title of “Most Exalted Lord Lao.” His birthday was set on the fifteenth day of the second month in lunar calendar. Religion and philosophy aside, Daoism is also one of the important roots of Chinese culture. The Way (dao) is Daoism’s core value and it is supported by Virtue (de). Together they are revealed in such doctrines as “the Way models itself on that which is naturally so,” “serenity leads to profundity,” “good intentions bring happiness,” “the superior good is like water,” and “be frugal and simple, be kind and caring.” In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to Laozi in China. The Research Center for Laozi Culture was established in his hometown in Luyi county of Henan province. In 2014, The Legends of Laozi was included among the national treasures of intangible cultural heritage. Altogether, these two events have been a positive promotion of Laozi and his philosophy.