Published on 2023.12.14




Speaking of Laozi (老子,571-471B.C.), we do not know much about him. Sima Qian (司馬遷,135 or 145B.C.-?) once said that the surname of Laozi was Li (李), with the given name Er (耳) and the courtesy name Dan (聃). He did not further explain why the surname was Li. According to the pre-Qin tradition, the surname followed by the character “zi (子)” is a respectful title, such as Kongzi (Confucius 孔子,551-479B.C.), Yanzi (晏子,578-500B.C.), Mengzi (Mencius 孟子,372-289B.C.), Zhuangzi(莊子,369-286B.C.), Xunzi (荀子,313-238B.C.) and so on. Laozi’s name begins with Lao (老), so why his surname is Li? In the early Western Han Dynasty (202B.C.-AD8), even knowledgeable scholars like Sima Qian could not solve this mystery. There has been a long-standing debate about Laozi’s surname. However, what interests us the most is his given name Er (耳, meaning “ears”) and courtesy name Dan (聃). According to the classic The Origin of Chinese Characters (《說文解字》), “Dan (聃) means ears with big earlobes”. Laozi has a pair of thick and long earlobes. We cannot help but ask, why is his given name and courtesy name both related to ears? “Er” describes the physiological feature of his large earlobe on the one hand, but on the other hand it is also closely related to anther Chinese character sheng (聖, meaning “sage”) since the structural part of sheng (聖) is Er (耳). The book explains that sheng (聖) means tong (通, to get through or to know). So, what do they really want to know? The bamboo slips Five Elements (《五行》) unearthed in Guodian(郭店), Hubei Province uncovers the mystery for us. There are the sentences like “The thought of becoming a sage should be light. Then, one can understand the sage and do not forget it. If so, one will have acute hearing for the teachings of the gentleman. When one hears, clear and gentle words are formed in the heart, then one becomes a sage. (“聖之思也輕,輕則形,形則不忘,不忘則聰,聰則聞君子道,聞君子道則玉音,玉音則形,形則聖。”)” To put it simply, it means that a gentleman with noble virtues can understand the way of heaven through mere “listening” (聽). Therefore, the passage directly says that “hearing and knowing makes a sage”. Therefore, the names Er (耳) and Dan (聃) are added to Laozi by his students, who sincerely attribute the features of being a sage to Laozi.1

Qian. Since Confucius was much younger than Laozi and learnt from Laozi, Laozi could be considered as Confucius’ teacher. As a teacher, Laozi directly warned Confucius against pride, complacency, and excessive thoughts and desires which would bring no good at all.After that, Laozi said nothing, giving no additional information, and naturally the conversation ended. Regarding li, Laozi did not mention it at all. In fact, there was no need to discuss it in Laozi’s philosophy of life.

Then, due to the political decline of the Zhou Dynasty, Laozi left Hangu Pass for the west in a carriage pulled by an ox. No one knew where he was gone. At that time, the director of the Hangu Pass (函谷關關令) Yin Xi (尹喜,? -?) asked Laozi to write down his teachings, so Laozi reluctantly wrote two articles totaling 5,000 words and left.(Records of the Grand Historian: Biography of Laozi and Han Feizi 《史記‧老子韓非列傳》& Lives of Immortals 《列仙傳》) Sima Qian claimed that Laozi lived up to 160 or over 200 years old. Among all the legends about Laozi in later generations, the most famous one is that Laozi went to India and became the Buddha, preaching to local people. This legend first appeared in the late Eastern Han Dynasty (AD25-220).Another legend says that the mother of Laozi was an elderly woman. The pregnancy lasted for 81 years and resulted in a difficult labor. Finally, his mother had her left armpit cut open and then gave birth to Laozi. (Collections in Yuzhi Tang 《玉芝堂談薈》)

Laozi was a hermit, and he resolutely resigned from his position and headed west when the political situation was chaotic. The question left behind is whether Tao Te Ching (always called as the writer’s name Laozi《道德經》) is written by Laozi? Or is there another author? After talking about Laozi, Sima Qian also listed two other possible authors in his book: Lao Laizi (老萊子) and Taishi Dan (太史儋). Sima Qian aimed to record facts as they were, so he did not completely refute the divergent views of Lao Laizi and Taishi Dan. Lao Laizi was also a hermit in the State of Chu at the roughly same time as Confucius while Taishi Dan was the Grand Scribe (太史) of Zhou Dynasty in the early Warring States Period (770 B.C.-221B.C.). Regarding the author, the Guodian bamboo slips Tao Te Ching (including three versions: A, B, and C) provides some new clues for the speculation. According to Mr. Li Xueqin (1933-2019), the Guodian bamboo slips were completed around 300 BC, later in the mid Warring States Period. These three versions of Tao Te Ching have different chapter structures from the popular edition and account for about one-third of its length. The words of the three versions are slightly different from the popular edition, but they do not repeat themselves in content. This textual feature leads to significant academic controversies. To put it simply, do the versions A, B, and C of bamboo slips Tao Te Ching have one original version? If the speculation holds, are they edited for a certain purpose? Or are they respectively independent and serve as the source of the popular edition? We by far cannot provide a definitive answer.

It is worth mentioning that the version A of bamboo slips Tao Te Ching says: “If we could renounce the cunning talking and thinking, it would benefit the people a hundredfold (“絕智棄辯,民利百倍”)” and “If we could renounce falsehood and hypocrisy, people will restore their pure mind (“絕偽棄慮,民複季子。”)”. But in the popular edition it says: “If we could renounce our sagness and wisdom, it would benefit the people a hundredfold. If we could renounce our benevolence and righteousness, the people would again be filial and compassionate. (“絕聖棄智,民利百倍;絕仁棄義,民複孝慈”)” The comparison shows clearly that the popular edition is finally designated to oppose Confucianism, asking people to abandon “Sageness (聖)”, “Wisdom (智)”, “Benevolence (仁)” and “Righteousness (義)”. According to the popular view in academic community, the bamboo slips Tao Te Ching does not have a tendency against Confucianism, therefore it should exist before the fierce competition between the Confucianism and Taoism. The discovery of the bamboo slips Tao Te Ching cannot confirm who the author is, but it can well prove the existence of Tao Te Ching as an ancient book from the pre-Qin period, which is by no means a work from the Qin and Han dynasties.

Laozi expressed his positive ideas in an opposite way. He discussed human concepts as if in a paradox, however, he kept pondering the value of nature. Sometimes he considered Tao (道) as something vague, uncertain, and dull; sometimes he regarded Tao as something direct, simple, and plain. Laozi believed that the value of humanity went against the value of Tao. The development of civilization in the 21st century has dragged humanity into various survival crises, making it hard to save itself. Laozi once said, “My words are easy to understand and easy to act on. But no one in the world can understand or act on them”. He also said that “Fewer words or orders are the real Tao” and “Tao would be plain and tasteless if spoke out”. These words are telling people to reduce our desires, lower our subjectivity, and listen to the laws of nature. It is stunning that such simple words are actually from an enlightening warning 2,500 years ago.




1. With the record of Lives of Immortals (《列仙傳》), the posthumous title of Laozi is Dan (耼).

2. Reference to Records of the Grand Historian: Biography of Laozi and Han Feizi (《史記·老子韓非列傳》), but there is another different record in Records of the Grand Historian: The Hereditary House of Confucius (《史記·孔子世家》): Laozi said to Confucius: The people who have strong perception with good sight and an exquisite sense of hearing always not far from death, because they like commenting on others. The people who have a silver tongue and a broadly knowledgeable mind always harm themselves as they prefer to expose the fault of others. As the son, people should not be self-centered. As the bureaucrat, people should not highlight themselves. (辭去,而老子送之曰:“聰明深察而近於死者,好議人者也。博辯廣大危其身者,發人之惡者也。為人子者毋以有己,為人臣者毋以有己。”)

3. In Tao Te Ching, there are two articles – Tao Ching (〈道經〉) and Te Ching (〈德經〉), in the popular edition of Tao Te Ching, the Tao Ching was putted ahead of Te Ching, but in the version of silk texts which excavated in Mawangdui (馬王堆) with opposite arrangement.

4. Reference to The Book of the Later Han: Biography of Langyi and Xiangkai (《後漢書·郎顗襄楷列傳》).


Dr. Wong Kwan Leung

Dr. Wong Kwan Leung is the associate professor at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Dr. Wong’s main research interests are the Pre-Qin Scholastic Thoughts, Unearthed Warring State and Qin Dynasty Literature and Confucianism. He has published over 30 research papers and 2 academic monographs.

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