Lao-tzu (formerly written LAO-TSE), one of the most remarkable men of the Chinese Empire, the author of the Tao-to-king, and founder of the religious sect known as Taoists (or Tauists), was born in the kingdom of Tsu B.C. 604. His family name was Le, or Plum; in his youth he himself was called Urh, or Ear, a name given him on account of the size of his ears. When he came to be known as a philosopher he was honorably called Pe-yang and was surnamed Lao-tzu (old boy), or Lao-kun-tzu (old prince). Tradition asserts that his father was a poor peasant, who remained a bachelor until he was seventy years old, and then married a woman of forty. Lao-tzu was probably a great student in early life, and when yet a youth was promoted to an office connected with the treasury or the museum under the Chow dynasty. While in the service at the court of Chow he visited the western parts of China, and there probably became acquainted with the rites and religion of Fuh, or Buddha. The duration of Lao-tzu's service at the court is entirely uncertain. When the Chow dynasty was hastening to its fall, and the whole country torn up into petty states warring with each other, and anarchy every where prevailing, Lao-tzu retired into obscurity. For this course he has been often and severely censured; but when we consider that the corruption of the government was too great for him to overcome, it does not appear that he was to blame for retiring with pure hands from his connection with it. There is no trustworthy account of the time or manner of his death, Lu some writers have assigned the date of B.C. 523 to th it event. Szu Ma-chien, in relating his retirement from the government, simply says, "He then went away, anl no one knows his end." His life seems to have been that of a contemplative philosopher-far more occupied with thoughts of the invisible and the mysterious than with sublunary things. He became so celebrated as a philosopher that Confucius went to see him, and left him deeply impressed with his extraordinary character, and evidently regarded Lao-tzu as something wonderful — divine; yet, while all agree that Confucius was almost carried away by his admiration of Lao-tzu, the latter has been accused of jealousy and spite against Confucius. His writings, however, give no color to the charge; nor is it likely that Confucius himself would have always spoken of Lao-tzu in such high terms of esteem and admiration, and even quoted the opinions of his rival as sufficient answers to the queries of his disciples, had he not received kind treatment and attentions at the hands of Lao-tzu, the advocate of a doctrine that "man is to be rendered immortal through the contemplation of God, the repression of the passions, and the perfect tranquillity of the soul," the author of " a moral code inculcating all the great principles found in other religions: charity, benevolence, virtue, and the free-will, moral agency, and responsibility of man." Lao-tzu has at different periods enjoyed the patronage of the Chinese government, there being, indeed, a constant struggle for ascendency between his supporters and those of Confucius during several centuries at the beginning of our era. Emperors have paid homage to him in his temple, and one of them wrote a commentary on his book. When we turn aside from definite history and give our attention to legends, there is no end to the mysteries thrown around his birth and being. His followers have transferred him from the ranks of ordinary mortals into an incarnation of deity, and have clothed his philosophic treatise with the authority of a sacred book, being probably moved to this course by a desire to make their founder equal to Sakyamuni, SEE GAUTAMA, and to give enhanced importance to his works. He is represented as an eternal and self-existing being, incarnated at various times upon the earth. One account represents him as having been conceived by the influence of a meteor, and after being carried in the womb for seventy-two (another author says eighty-one) years, at last delivering himself by bursting a passage under his mother's left arm. From having gray hairs at birth, and looking generally like an old man, he was called Lao-tzu — i.e., the old boy. He is reported to have had the gift of speech at birth. It is also said that, as soon as he was born, he mounted nine paces in the air, each step producing a lotus-flower, and, while poised there, pointed with his left hand to heaven and with his right hand to earth, saying, "Heaven above — earth beneath — only Tao is honorable." The eighty-one chapters of the Tao-to-kin, are said to have been obtained from him by Yin-hsi, the keeper of the Han-ku Pass, through which he was leaving the country on his retirement from office.
The Tao-to-king seems to have received its present name about B.C. 160. Before that, it was known as the teachings of Hwang and Lao — i.e., the emperor Hwang (B.C. 2600) and Lao-tzu; also as the Book of Lao-tzu. There is much uncertainty and confusion in regard to the text. Some editors, having in view the tradition that Lao-tzu wrote a book of 5000 characters, have cut down those in excess of that number without much regard for the sense of the author. Others have added characters to explain the meaning, thus incorporating their commentary into the text. The occasional suppression of a negative particle, by some editors, gives an exactly opposite meaning to a sentence from that of other editions. To ascertain the true text is in many instances impossible. The style is exceedingly terse and concise, without any pretension to grace or elegance. The work is full of short sentences, often enigmatical or paradoxical, and without apparent connection. Quite probably the book is composed of notes for philosophical discourses, which were expanded and explained by Laotzu while orally instructing his disciples. As contributing to the obscurity of the style, we must consider that the topics discussed are exceedingly abstruse, and that Lao-tzu labored under the disadvantage of writing in the infancy of literary language in China, and was compelled to use a very imperfect medium for communicating his thoughts.
There has been much discussion and much difference of opinion as to what Lao-tzu really intended by Tao. The word means a path, a road; the way or means of doing a thing; a course; reason, doctrine, principle, etc. Lao-tzu sometimes uses it in its ordinary senses, but it is evident that in general he uses it in a transcendental sense, which can only be ascertained by a careful study of his writings. Tao is something which existed before heaven and earth, and even before deity. It has no name, and never had one. It can not be apprehended by the bodily senses; it is profound and mysterious; it is calm, void, solitary, and unchanging; yet, in operation, it revolves through the universe, acting everywhere, but acting mysteriously, spontaneously, and without effort. It contains matter, and has an inherent power of production; and although itself formless, yet comprehends all possible forms. It is the ultimate cause of the universe, and is the model or rule for all creatures, but chiefly for man. It represents also that ideal state of perfection in which all things acted harmoniously and spontaneously, good and evil being then unknown, and the return to which constitutes the summum bonum of existence. French and English writers generally have translated Tao by "Reason," some adding "or Logos." There are some striking similarities between Tao and Logos; and in all the translations of the Scriptures into Chinese the Logos of John is rendered by Tao. Julien, decidedly dissenting from the common translation of Tao, adopts "Voie" or "Way" — giving just cause for his dissent in the fact that Lao-tzu represents Tao as devoid of thought, judgment, and intelligence. Julien's "Way," however, is also objected to, as implying a way-maker antecedent to it, while Tao was before all other existences. The "Nature" of modern speculators probably answers more nearly than anything else to Tao, although it will by no means answer all the conditions of the use of Tao by Lao-tzu.
(1.) The teachings of Lao-tzu on speculative physics may be summarized as follows: All existing creatures and things have sprung from an eternal, all- producing, self-sustaining unity called Tao, which, although regarded as a potential existence, is also distinctly denominated non-existence, Lao-tzu considering it equivalent to the primeval Nothing or Chaos. Mr. Watters (see below) thus combines these apparently contradictory views: "Though void, shapeless, and immaterial, it yet contains the potentiality of all substance and shape, and from itself produces the universe, diffusing itself over all space. It is said to have generated the world, and is frequently spoken of as its mother 'the dark primeval mother, teeming with dreamy beings.' All things that exist submit to it as their chief, but it shows no lordship over them. All the operations of Nature (Tao) occur without any show of effort or violence — spontaneously and unerringly. Though there is nothing done in the universe which Nature does not do, though all things depend upon it for their origin and subsistence, yet in no case is Nature visibly acting. It is in its own deep self a unit-the smallest possible quantity, yet it prevails over the wide expanse of the universe, operating unspent but unseen." Lao-tzu's account of the origin of the universe is, "Tao begot 1, 1 begot 2, 2 begot 3, and 3 begot the material universe," which has been explained by commentators that Tao generated the Passive Element in the composition of things, this produced the Active Element, and this the harmonious agreement of the two elements, which brought about the production of all things. The next thing to Tao is heaven — i.e., the material heaven above us. This is pure and clear, and if it should lose its purity would be in danger of destruction. The earth is at rest, the heavens always revolving over it, producing the various seasons, vivifying, nourishing, killing all things. Then come the "myriad things" — all animate and inanimate existences, that spring from Tao which, although in itself impalpable, bodies itself forth in these objects, and thus becomes subject to human observation. This manifestation of Tao in each object constitutes its Te. Te is generally translated "Virtue," but this rendering is inadequate. It seems frequently to refer to the specific nature of the object spoken of, which is derived from Universal Nature (Tao). Following the popular ideas of his country, Lao-tzu speaks of five colors, five sounds, and five tastes, and regards all things as arranged in a system of dualism — e.g. a wooden vessel, in the case of which solidity gives the object, and hollowness the utility. In representing pure existence as identical with non-existence, he anticipated Hegel, of our own century, who says, "Seyn und Nichts ist dasselbe" — Being and Non-being are the same. He agrees with those modern philosophers who maintain that God made all things out of himself, but differs from them in never introducing personality into his conception, and consequently excluding will and design from the primordial existence.
(2.) In politics he assigns the original choice of a sovereign to the people, and holds that he whom the people elect is the elect of heaven. He conceives of the sovereign as rather the model and instructor than the judge and ruler of the people. He compares the ruling of a kingdom to the cooking of a small fish, which is easily spoiled by too much cooking. The first duty of the ruler is to rectify himself. This done, it will be easy for him to regulate his kingdom. He speaks in strong terms against military oppression, and has a poor opinion of fire-arms. He opposes capital punishment and excessive taxation. He thinks the people should be kept ignorant — the ruler should empty their minds and fill their stomachs; weaken their wills and strengthen their bones. The intercourse of different states with each other should be regulated by courtesy and forbearance.
(3.) In ethics, Lao-tzu held that in the beginning virtue and vice were unknown terms. Man, without effort, constantly lived according to Tao. In the next stage, man — though in the main virtuous-was occasionally sliding into vice, and was unable to retain the stability of unconscious goodness. Then came a period of filial piety and integrity; and, finally, the days of craft, and cunning, and insincerity. He makes no express statement as to the moral condition of human beings at birth, but it may be inferred from some expressions that he regards the spirit as coming pure and perfect from the great Mother, but susceptible of bad influences, which lead it astray. With him, Tao is the standard of virtue, the guide and model of the universe. To meet the desire of men for something more tangible, he refers to heaven, earth, and the sages of olden times, but nowhere to a personal god, and there is no clear evidence of his belief in such a being. The virtues which distinguish the perfect man are freedom from ostentation, humility, continence, moderation, gravity, and kindness. Much and fine talking are to be avoided. He assigns a low place to learning, which, he says, adds to the evil of existence; and, if we were to put away learning, we would be exempt from anxiety. There is one passage that seems to refer to a future life, but it is very obscure; and the only future Lao-tzu appears to anticipate is absorption into Tao. Most, minds will see little difference between absorption into non-existence and annihilation. At chapter 16 of his Tao-to- king, where he refers to this subject, he says, "When things have luxuriated for a while, each returns home to its origin. Going home to the origin is called stillness. It is said to be a reversion to destiny. This reversion to destiny is called eternity. He who knows (this) eternity is called bright. He who does not know this eternity wildly works his own misery. He who knows eternity is magnanimous. Being magnanimous, he is catholic. Being catholic, he is a king. Being a king, lie is heaven. Being heaven, he is Tau. Being Tau, he is enduring. Though his body perish, he is in no danger." And again, at chapter 28 "He who knows the light, and at the same time keeps the shade, will be the whole world's model. Being the whole world's model, eternal virtue will not miss him, and he will return home to the absolute." The attainment, then, of this state of absolute vacuity he looks upon as the chief good, and warns such as have attained to it to keep themselves perfectly still, and to avoid ambition. And, in alluding to the fact that emptiness or non-existence is superior to existence, he says that the former may be said to correspond to use, the latter to gain. "Tau is empty." "The space between heaven and earth may be compared to a bellows; though empty, it never collapses, and the more it is exercised the more it brings forth." To enforce this theory he draws an illustration from common life and says, "Thirty spokes unite in one nave, and by that part which is non-existent (i.e., the hole in the center of it) it is useful for a carriage-wheel. Earth is moulded into vessels, and by their hollowness they are useful as vessels. Doors and windows are cut out in order to make a house, and by its hollowness it is useful as a house." Since the 2d century A.D. the Taoists have greatly spread in China, Japan, Cochin-China, Tonquin, and among the Indo-Chinese nations. In our day they are especially popular with the common people, and in some parts of China their influence rivals that of the Buddhists. They have, however, greatly corrupted the teachings of their founder; the worship of original Taoism has been degraded into the lowest idolatry, while its priests are jugglers and necromancers, among whom scarcely a trace of the pure spirit of Lao-tzu can be found. See J.P.A. Remusat, Memoire sur la Vie et les Opinions de Lao-tseu (1829); John Chalmers, The Speculations on Metaphysics, Polity, and Morality of the old Philosopher Lao-tseu, with an Introduction (Lond. 1869, 8vo); the valuable articles of T. Watters in the Chinese Recorder, volume 1 (1868); Pauthier, La Chine (Paris, 1837, 2 volumes, 8vo), pages 110-120; Stanislas Julien, Le Livre des Recompenses (Paris, 1848, 8vo); Neumann, Lehrsaal des Mittelreichs (Munich, 1856, 8vo); Legge, Life and Teachings of Confucius (Lond. 1867, 8vo), chapter 5; Loomis, Confucius and the Chinese Classics, page 278 sq.; Pall Mall Gazette (London), September 3,1869, page 11 sq. See also articles on Lao-tzu in Chambers, Cyclop.; Thomas, Biogr. Dict.; and Brockhaus, Conversations-Lex. (S.L.B.)