Daodejing Laozi (Tao-te Ching, Tao Te Ching)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Daodejing Laozi (Tao-te Ching, Tao Te Ching)

Daodejing Laozi (Tao-te Ching, Tao Te Ching) (ca. 500 B.c.)

A stimulus to meditation and serenity, the Daodejing (Tao-te Ching [Classic of the way of power]) guides seekers of the idealized Dao (Tao [way]) to wisdom and harmony. Described in scripture as holy, silent, and permanent, the Dao is the source of sacred power over life. A compilation of folk wisdom traced back to the Chinese emperor Huangdi around 2500 B.C., the canon claims as one of its authors Laozi (Lao Tzu, fl. 500 B.C.), a diviner and court librarian at Lo-yang (present-day Luoyang in the west-central Chinese province of Henan). He began distilling aphorisms on two parchment scrolls, which he completed in three days. The final version took shape during a time of military upheaval, when ordinary Chinese longed for peace and stability and foresaw the overthrow of corrupt evildoers. In the opening stave, the text—like the Zohar, the mystical text of Hebrew school of Kabbalah—depicts the Dao as a mystery of all mysteries and a door to wonders, a sentiment shared by the Indian tantrists, Japanese Buddhists, and Hebrew psalmists.

The Daodejing applies the simplest of metaphors to explain the functionality of the “way,” from the spokes that extend a hub into a wheel, and clay that enfolds empty space to make a pitcher, to the opening of a room to the outside world with the addition of doors and windows. Specific comments on the Dao describe it as a great unity—“Silent and void, it stands alone and does not change, goes round and does not weary” (stave 25:56). Just as the Hebrew PSALMS urge “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10), in stave 16, Laozi suggests stilling the mind to await the secrets of eternity. In contrast to the inexhaustible and ever-faithful Dao, in stave 38, the text describes the decline of civilization as the collapse of virtue, charity, righteousness, and courtesy. As religion loses its sincerity, Laozi characterizes ritual as a dry husk of spirituality and a preface to social chaos. His austere advice served not only his own time but future adherents he could not have imagined. In translation into Japanese and English, the enigmatic Daodejing has calmed and reassured readers in subsequent phases of global unrest.

Laozi’s mystic aphorisms have yielded thousands of tomes of commentary. Chief among the contrasts with Confucius’s ANALECTS (ca. 210 B.C.) is the Dao’s emphasis on inclusion. Similar in beneficence to the Meditations (ca. A.D. 180) of the Roman emperor MARCUS AURELIUS and the Zoroastrian or Mazdan doctrines in the AVESTA (ca. 530 B.C.), the Dao acknowledges female intellect and accords honor to the lowest in society. Like his Chinese predecessors, Laozi embraces the concept of yin and yang, particularly in the matter of gender, in stave 42. Of Earth’s beginning, in stave 52, he credits a world mother, a divine nour- isher who protects humanity with maternal regard. Stave 28 advises the blending of the male and female aspects of personality into an androgynous whole. As a display of strength, he exhorts the individual “to hold fast to the submissive” (stave 52:119). The author admires villagers who content themselves with home and who avoid materialism, arrogance, and artificial mannerisms. Prefiguring the tone of TAO QIANS Poems (ca. A.D. 420), the philosopher’s wise words encourage humility, selfdenial, and silent contemplation, whether in the farmer or the emperor.

Displays of power, which Laozi addresses in stave 30, result in the constant commissioning of soldiers to battlefields. He views short-term combat as a waste of troop power and a destruction of fields, which grow thick with thorn and thistle that compromise earth’s motherhood. For the plotter and schemer, wise observations urge pacifism rather than ambition and promote compromise over imperial striving and military confrontation. Of the insatiable lust for control, Laozi explains, “Know when to stop and you will meet with no danger” (stave 44:100).

The success of the Daodejing as a handbook to rulers earned godhood for Laozi in A.D. 165, when Emperor Huan established four shrines for the philosopher’s veneration. During the Tang dynasty, his text carved in stone offered scriptural advice in every provincial capital. In the Qing dynasty, the autobiographical novelist Cao Xueqin and his successor, Gao E, applied Daoist principles to China’s most famous novel, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1791), the story of the collapse of feudalism.


Laozi. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Aleister Crowley.

New York: Weiser, 1995.

Mair, Victor H. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.