Lao Tzu (lou dzə) [key], fl. 6th cent. B.C., Chinese philosopher, reputedly the founder of Taoism. It is uncertain that Lao Tzu [Ch., = old person or old philosopher] is historical. His biography in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Records of the Historian (1st cent. B.C.) says he was a contemporary of Confucius and served as curator of the dynastic archives until retiring to the mythical K'un-lun mountains. He allegedly transmitted his teachings to a border guard who subsequently compiled the Lao Tzu, also titled the Tao-te ching [Classic of the Way and Virtue]. Scholars date the work in the 4th–2d cent. B.C., with some strata perhaps as old as the 6th cent. B.C. Its parables and verse, written in incantatory language, advocate passive and intuitive behavior in natural harmony with the Tao, a cosmic unity underlying all phenomena. It emphasizes the value of wu-wei, "nonstriving" or "non-[purposeful ]action," by which one returns to a primitive state closer to the Tao, a stage of creative possibility symbolized by the child or an uncarved block. It also promotes a laissez-faire approach to government.
See translations by J. J. L. Duyvendak (1954), W. Chan (1963), D. C. Lau (1963), S. Mitchell (1988), and V. Mair (1990).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.