Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism generally name the three main pillars of Chinese thought, although it should be obvious that like any “ism,” they are abstractions—what they name are not monolithic but multifaceted traditions with fuzzy boundaries. Its reliability has been questioned, but it provides a point of departure for reconstructing the Laozi story.
In the case of “Daoism,” it designates both a philosophical tradition and an organized religion, which in modern Chinese are identified separately as , respectively. Laozi was a native of Chu, according to the , a southern state in the Zhou dynasty (see map and discussion in Loewe and Shaughnessy 1999, 594 and 597).
Philosophical Daoism traces its origins to Laozi, an extraordinary thinker who flourished during the sixth century B. In religious Daoism, Laozi is revered as a supreme deity. He lived in Zhou for a long time; witnessing the decline of Zhou, he departed.” When he reached the northwest border then separating China from the outside world, he met Yin Xi, the official in charge of the border crossing, who asked him to put his teachings into writing.The name “Laozi” is best taken to mean “Old ( (Records of the Historian) by the Han dynasty (206 B. The result was a book consisting of some five thousand Chinese characters, divided into two parts, which discusses “the meaning of Dao and virtue.” Thereafter, Laozi left; no one knew where he had gone.This completes the main part of Sima Qian's account.The remainder puts on record attempts to identify the legendary Laozi with certain known historical individuals and concludes with a list of Laozi's purported descendants (see W. Chan 1963, Lau 1963, and Henricks 2000 for an English translation).Few scholars today would subscribe fully to the report.
Indeed, according to William Boltz, it “contains virtually nothing that is demonstrably factual; we are left no choice but to acknowledge the likely fictional nature of the traditional Lao tzu [Laozi] figure” (1993, 270).Disagreements abound on every front, including the name Laozi itself.Although the majority takes “Laozi” to mean “Old Master,” some scholars believe that “Lao” is a surname.The and other early texts refer to “Lao Dan” consistently but not “Li Er.” The name “Dan” is generally understood to depict the bearer's “long ears,” a mark of longevity in Chinese physiognomy. Graham (1986) argues that the story of Laozi reflects a conflation of different legends. During the first half of the third century, Lao Dan was recognized as a great thinker in his own right and as the founder of a distinct “Laoist” school of thought. if not earlier, Laozi was already shrouded in legends and that Sima Qian could only exercise his judgment as an historian to put together a report that made sense to him, based on the different and sometimes competing sources at his disposal.According to Fung Yu-lan, Sima Qian had “confused” the legendary Lao Dan with Li Er, who flourished later during the “Warring States” period (480–221 B. E.) and was the “real” founder of the Daoist school () (1983, 171). The earliest strand revolved around the meeting of Confucius with Lao Dan and was current by the fourth century B. It was not until the Han dynasty, when the teachings of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others were seen to share certain insights centering on the concept of Dao, that they were classified together under the rubric of philosophical “Daoism.” It is clear that by 100 B. The fact that Laozi appears favorably in both Confucian and Daoist sources seems to argue against the likelihood that the figure was fabricated for polemical purposes.Conceivably, a philosopher known as Lao Dan could have attracted a following based on his novel reading of the Way and virtue.