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Lao Tzu (Lao Zi) and Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing)

Page history last edited by Meng Yu 10 years, 6 months ago


Lao Tzu (Lao Zi) is one of the most important philosophers in the late of Spring and Autumn Period when hundreds of schools began to flourish. He was considered as the founder of the School of Daoism and influenced the philosophers of the Warring State Period such as Chuang Tzu and Han Fei Zi. The text Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) is a traditional treatise of Daoism and bearing the name of its author, the Lao Tzu as well. Daoism, as both philosophical and religious way of thinking, is of great significance in the formation of Chinese mind. Meanwhile, Daoism anticipates a great deal of Western philosophy, particularly postmodernism because “Daoism shares postmodern views of the plurality and instability of meanings and identities, and the decentered, perspectival text” (Combs 3).


Life and Works

The date of Lao Tzu is about 600 BC to 500 BC. Little is known of Lao Tzu’s life and rhetorical activities. According to the legend, Lao Tzu was the keeper of the archives at the imperial court of Zhou Dynasty. He witnessed the decline of Zhou and the growing power of Zhou’s states. Lao Tzu decided to retire and to lead a life of hermit outside Zhou. The officer of the border asked him to write down his ideas before his leaving. Then Lao Tzu composed the book of 5000 characters, which is not too long even by the standard of Modern Chinese text. The key concept of the treatise is “Dao”. And there are several ways of translations of Dao and each translation clarifies the essence of the Dao De Jing.


Philosophy & Views of Rhetoric

Dao means “way” or “path”. It also has the extended meaning as method or approach. “Dao De Jing” means the way of being virtue (the meaning of De). Lao Tzu manifests people could live with the nature in harmony through following the way of being virtue, in other words, through wuwei (nonaction, spontaneity). Unlike the Greek’s dichotomous of the physical and soul, Daoism insists the world is constructed by two abstract forces, and these two forces are independent, interrelated and interchangeable. From this perspective, Dao means the mutual conversion of the two opposing forces. The eternal Dao also means the universal truth and the origins of the universal. The first two sentences of Dao De Jing illustrates Lao Tzu’s view of reality: “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be defined is not the unchanging name” (Chapter1) Lao Tzu advocates the language is limited and can not reflect the reality well. His notion of unspeakable Truth shares the similarity with the ideas of Gorgias, which is “Nothing exists; Even if existence exists, it cannot be known; even if it could be known, it cannot be communicated.” Gorgias stresses the existence is impossible while Lao Tzu emphasizes the reality exists but couldn’t be expressed, because everything is ever lasting, unstable and not distinctive from other things. Being different from the Greek’s being enthusiastic of categorizing, Lao Tzu avoids distinguishing things.


Lao Tzu believes the language is inability while the reality is infinite; as a result, Lao Tzu attempts to find modes of expression which is not confined in words. Sage always pays attention to the reality rather than the words. As Lao Tzu said, ” credible words are not eloquent; eloquent words are not credible” (Chapter 81).


Combs’s critique about the comparison between Western rhetoric and the Daoism rhetoric is fair:

Certain comparisons to the West are appropriate; one will not find an explicit definition of rhetoric or an inventory of the “rhetorical cannons” of the Daoist sages. Daoists never treat rhetoric as a distinct subject, but incorporate ideas on language and communication in their overall philosophy. Furthermore, persuasion, in general, is not an end for rhetoric. Rhetoric is used to serve Daoism, and its persuasiveness is designed to make Daoists views accessible and appealing to potential adherents (Combs, 4).


Translations and Resources

Since Dao De Jing was written in classical Chinese and there is no punctuation in classical Chinese, it is hard to interpret into vulnerable Chinese; what’s more, some expressions and the words in Dao De Jing are vague and abstract. The interpretation of the Dao De Jing has been a controversial topic for scholars since Han Dynasty (206 BC-200 AD) in China and it is harder to translate into other languages. There are now at least ten English versions of Dao De Jing within different disciplines of north America.


For more information:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy




Several versions of translations:



Quotes about Lao Tzu




Combs, Steven C. The Dao of Rhetoric. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Print.

“Dao De Jing” . Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tao_Te_Ching

Feng, Youlan, and Derk Bodde. A Short History Of Chinese Philosophy, Ed. By Derk Bodde. n.p.: New York, Macmillan Co., 1950. Print.

Laozi., and Dagao Chu. Tao Tê Ching. Illustrated ed. London ; Boston: Unwin Paperbacks, 1982. Print.

Lao Zi”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laozi

Lipson, Carol S., and Roberta A. Binkley. Rhetoric Before And Beyond The Greeks / Edited By Carol S. Lipson, Roberta A. Binkley. n.p.: Albany : State University of New York, 2004. Pp115-117. Print.

Oliver, Robert Tarbell. Communication and Culture in Ancient India and China. N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1971. Print.


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