Basic facts about the life of Laozi are difficult to verify. Although he is traditionally believed to have lived in the sixth century b.c.e., the earliest information regarding his life and work is found in the works of a Chinese historian of the second century b.c.e. According to this source, Laozi was a native of a small village in the south of China in a state then called Chu, which corresponds roughly to the modern-day region of eastern Henan Province. It is said that he served as an official historian to the royal house of Zhou and became well known for his versatile learning. He has been associated with the Li clan, a family whose existence is historical fact, but it seems that this connection was created during the Han dynasty, several centuries after Laozi supposedly lived. At this time, the Li clan decided to adopt him as their ancestor, a practice that was common among noble families who wished to relate themselves to heroes of China’s past. Some scholars contend that Laozi is a wholly fictitious person, posited by later generations of his followers who wished to ascribe various writings of Daoism to a single source.
Dao De Jing
The document attributed to Laozi, the Dao De Jing, or the Way and Its Power, is the oldest text of the Chinese mystical tradition. Known also as the Laozi after its alleged author, it is a short text of about five thousand Chinese characters. The work is probably not as old as tradition holds it to be. It was most likely compiled from various aphorisms that emerged during China’s Warring States period, around 250 b.c.e. Scholars dispute whether it is the product of a single mind or simply a collection of adages drawn from several ancient sources. The Dao De Jing can be read in various ways: as a philosophical handbook on how to live prudently in the world, as a discourse on the ways of politics, as a treatise on military strategy, and as a religious tract. Chinese scholars have written hundreds of commentaries on it. A body of popular belief and religious ritual emerged from it that continues to be practiced as one of the major religions of China today.
Laozi believed that genuine knowledge of and insight into the nature of things could be obtained only through mystic intuition. He maintained that all things were composed of two opposite aspects, a kind of unity of...
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