Taoism > Masters > Lao-tzu

Who Was Lao-tzu

Lao-tzu by Eskild Tjalve
(click the picture to enlarge)
Almost everything we know about Lao-tzu comes from the Historical Records of Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Lao-tzu is also one of the basic characters of the Chuang-tzu's stories - unfortunately they are mostly fiction.

According to Ch'ien, Lao-tzu was born in the state of Ch'u, and his birthplace was in the nowadays Ho-nan province. He was a curator at the Royal Library in Chou when he met Confucius to talk about rites. This conversation offers much insight into the huge differences between Taoists and Confucians.

Lao-tzu surname was Li; his name was Erh (meaning ear) - this is why we find him also under the name of Li Erh. As for the name "Lao-tzu" it is only a nickname meaning the Old Sage.

Disguised with the morals at the royal court, Lao-tzu would left and gone West. He met the Guardian of the mountain pass who asked him to compose a book of wisdom. This is how Tao-te ching took birth.

"Lao-tzu cultivated the Tao and its attributes - wrote Ch'ien in his records -  the chief aim of his studies being how to keep himself concealed and remain unknown."

Confucius meets Lao-tzu
Confucius meets Lao-tzu
These notes are almost all we have about Lao-tzu's thinking. There's no further indication concerning the life of the sage in the West; he simply gets out of our sight the minute he passes the boundary of the state of Chou.

At Lao-tzu's Death

Surprisingly enough, a story in the book Chuang-tzu offers us details about Lao-tzu's death. This story describes the funerals of the master with many grieving disciples. Nonetheless - James Legge concludes - this narration might be just another of Chuang-tzu's fancies: "to give him the opportunity of setting forth what, according to his ideal of it, the life of a Taoist master should be, and how even Lao-tzu himself fell short of it".

Further Resources

- Teachings about Lao-tzu and his Tao-te ching, his meeting with Confucius and the explanation of the master's concepts are provided through our 12-lesson email course. Click here to learn more.

- Also we published a paper on the meaning of the story about the death of Lao-tzu. Click here to learn more...


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