Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing? Part II

(Scott Barnwell continues his guest-posting on this topic. Here is Part II of Scott’s thoughts. This post also appears on his own blog. Please address Scott directly in your comments.)

Laozi 老子

The first person to be investigated will be Laozi 老子, the “Old Master”; his supposed text being the Laozi or the Daodejing 道德經 (The Classic on the Way and Its Power). Although the Laozi has long been regarded to be the work of more than one author in both China and the West, Sima Qian 司馬遷, in his biography of Laozi, gives no indication that he thought the text was written by more than one person. Although he reports that there was uncertainty about the actual author, he seems to have felt the most plausible one was Lao Dan 老聃, “Old Long-ears” (a.k.a. Li Er 李耳[1]), the keeper of the Zhou archives from the southern state of Chu 楚 whom Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.E.) had gone to see.[2] The words exchanged at this famous meeting are always different in the various accounts we encounter.[3] The Lüshi Chunqiu, Zhuangzi, Liji, Hanshi Waizhuan, Xinxu, and Baihu Tong also all affirm that Lao Dan was a teacher of Confucius’; however, they do not suggest he was the author of the Laozi.[4]

Sima reports that Laozi cultivated Dao and De and recommended self-effacement and avoiding fame (自隱、無名) as something to aim for. Witnessing the degeneration of the Zhou regime, he left, but before he disappeared, the keeper of the pass Yin Xi 尹喜 implored him to write a book. Sima does not refer to Lao Dan’s book as the Laozi or Daodejing, but it is clear that the book he was supposed to have written on “the ideas of Dao and De” (道德之意), in two sections (Pian 篇: i.e., an upper 上 and lower 下) of more than five thousand words was the same one.[5] We do not know whether it was divided into chapters (Zhang 章), what order they might have been in or even whether the Dao Pian 道篇 preceded the De Pian 德篇, (as it does in the received text).

Sima acknowledges the existence of Lao Laizi 老萊子, also from Chu, also a contemporary of Confucius who wrote a book in fifteen Pian on “the utility of Daojia” (道家之用) – which perhaps refers to Sima’s father’s “Daoists.” Sima does not say anyone thought Lao Laizi was the author of the Laozi, but that seems to be implied.[6] Stories did exist that had Lao Laizi speaking down to Confucius, just as Lao Dan apparently had, [7] though Sima Qian believed them to be two separate people, as seen in his biography of Confucius’ disciples.[8] That both Lao Dan and Lao Laizi were from the southern state of Chu seems to be more than a coincidence, as (1) chapters 14 and 23 of the Zhuangzi locate Lao Dan in the south, (2) ancient editions of the Laozi or proto-Laozi have been only found in the territory of this ancient state,[9] and (3) a number of other “thinkers,” such as Liu An 劉安 (the prince of Huainan), Huan Yuan 環淵, Sima Jizhu 司馬季主, Zhan He 詹何, etc. are connected to the Laozi or its ideas and came from Chu.[10]

Sima says Laozi was believed to have lived a long time – 160-200 years old – by “maintaining Dao and nourishing longevity” (脩道而養壽). Sima does acknowledge that some believed the Grand Historiographer Dan 太史儋 of the 4th century B.C.E. was Laozi, but he says no one knew for sure. This may indicate that some thought both Lao Dan 老聃 and Taishi Dan 太史儋 were the same person, who lived from the sixth century to fourth century.

Sima says that in the Han Dynasty, those who studied (the teachings of) Laozi looked down on the Ru 儒 – Classicists, Literati, Confucians – who in turn looked down on them: “Their daos were not the same” (道不同), he says. So, among other things, Han “Daoists” recognized themselves as being anti-Confucian.

The biography (of Laozi, Zhuangzi 莊子, Shen Buhai 申不害 and Hanfei 韓非) concludes with Sima Qian’s father (the Taishi Gong 太史公) saying Laozi esteemed the Dao, emptiness, nothingness, responding to change in Wuwei mode and that his book was written in a manner difficult to understand. He further comments that Zhuangzi “scattered/released” (散) Dao and De but ultimately returned to naturalness or spontaneity (Ziran 自然), a concept of some significance in the Laozi. Shen Buhai was interested in matching names (名) to realities (實) and Hanfei clarified right and wrong but had little kindness (少恩). He says all four of them had their basis in “the ideas of Dao and De” (道德之意) but Laozi was the most profound.

Ban Gu, in his Han Documents, accepts Lao Dan as the author: “Lao Dan wrote words on emptiness and nothingness in two Pian, depreciating “benevolence” (Ren) and “duty” (Yi) and rejecting teaching the rites (Li)” (老聃著虛無之言兩篇,薄仁義,非禮學。).[11]

Did Lao Dan write or contribute to the Laozi? This has been doubted and debated for centuries. The earliest mention of him is difficult to ascertain because the dates of most of the Warring States texts is uncertain. It would seem that no texts believed to be from the fourth century B.C.E. quote Lao Dan or the Laozi, but many from the third, second, etc. do.[12] Let us recall that Lao Dan was supposed to have been an elder contemporary of Confucius (c. 550 – 480 B.C.E.), and so unsurprisingly, the Laozi does not mention him or any thinkers that came after. Of course, the text also does not mention any historical figures or events, defying clear dating. Wiebke Denecke believes this to be a deliberate attempt to seem primordial. She argues that the Laozi’s “involvement with Confucian, Mohist, and even Chuci traditions reveals its keen awareness of the discursive battlefield of Late Warring States China. Laozi’s denial of historical context cleverly creates a completely unprecedented intellectual niche, and is a brilliant attempt to make a strong bidding for its own ideological, historical, and cosmic precedence in the fierce competition among schools, books, and opinions in Late Warring States China.”[13] I think this is fairly plausible, although I would not go so far as to say the entire text shows a keen awareness of Warring States philosophizing. There is much original material in the Laozi.

Wing Tsit Chan believed that the Laozi contains the ideas of Lao Dan (of the sixth century B.C.E.) but that the book was written in the fourth century B.C.E. He makes clear that this is just a ‘belief,’ however. But it is somewhat credible because, as he writes: “The time that had elapsed between the enunciation of the doctrines and the compilation of the book may have been centuries. Certainly that was the case with the Analects, the Mozi, the Zhuangzi, the Book of Changes, and many others. In the process extraneous material, whether ideas or words, must have crept in, through unintentional mistakes and sometimes through deliberate forgery. Practically no ancient Chinese classic is free from these.”[14] Consequently, we cannot proclaim that no sayings of a Lao Dan of the sixth century can be found in the present text, especially if the text derives from a long oral tradition.

We might expect that if such an influential thinker existed prior to Confucius, and indeed taught him, it would be mentioned in some of the texts between the fifth and third centuries. The Analects (Lunyu 論語) of Confucius, believed to have been assembled by his disciples and their lineages do not mention Lao Dan. The Laozi’s maxim to “repay ill will with goodwill” (報怨以德)[15] is discussed in 14.34 of the Analects, however, the maxim is not said to be Lao Dan’s, and both texts could simply be addressing a common saying, the Laozi with approval, the Analects with disapproval. Confucius may not even have said the remarks recorded in Analects 14.34.[16]

Mozi 墨子 (c. 470-390 B.C.E.) does not mention Lao Dan or any ideas found in the Laozi, although eighteen chapters of his book have long been lost. Neither the Chunqiu Zuozhuan 春秋左傳 nor the Guoyu 國 語 (c. fourth century B.C.E.) mention Lao Dan/Laozi. Mengzi 孟子 (c. 385 – 300 B.C.E.) also does not mention him or the text, though he does mention Confucius, Mozi, Yang Zhu 楊朱, etc.[17]

Xunzi 荀子 (c. 310-230 B.C.E.) mentions Laozi once, in chapter 17: “Laozi had insight into crouching down but lacked insight into stretching out … if there is crouching down but no stretching out, the noble and base cannot be distinguished” (老子有見於詘,無見於信。… 有詘而無信,則貴賤不分。). Xunzi may have read or heard sayings ascribed to Laozi while in Lanling 陵令 in Chu or perhaps when at Jixia 稷下 in Qi 齊. He may have been thinking of Laozi 39: “The exalted (Gui 貴) is rooted in the base (Jian 賤).”

The Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋, a large text put together by numerous scholars under the patronage of Qin’s prime minister Lü Buwei 呂不韋 (c. 290-235 B.C.E.) mentions Lao Dan in several places, including: “Lao Dan valued Rou” (老耽貴柔).[18] Rou, meaning, softness, flexibility, resilience, is an important concept in the Laozi, being found in chapters 10, 36, 43, 52, 55, 76, and 78.[19]

In the Zhuangzi, a text currently believed to have been written by many authors between the late fourth to early second centuries B.C.E., Lao Dan appears in twelve chapters and is more often a spokesman for the “philosophy” found in that book rather than the Laozi. Many sentiments he expresses (in the non-Inner Chapters)[20] are to be found in the Laozi, such as a dim view of 仁義, “benevolence and duty” and an admiration for Pu 朴, “simplicity” in Zhuangzi 14, as well as a reference to the virtues of an infant found in Laozi 55, in Zhuangzi 23.[21] Of the three anecdotes in the Inner Chapters, none seem to draw from any sayings in the Laozi, but they are not inconsistent or contrary to it in any way either. In chapter 5 Laozi mentions that “life and death are one cord” (死生為一條), “acceptable and unacceptable are one string” (可不可為一貫), which is consonant with chapter two of the Laozi. And in chapter 7 he expounds Zhuangzi’s ideal of freedom, but we read him speaking of the ideal ruler: “(his) accomplishments cover the world yet seem not to come from himself, (his) transforming influence extends to the myriad things and yet the people do not rely on him” (功蓋天下而似不自己,化貸萬物而民弗恃). This is consonant with parts of the Laozi.[22] Nowhere in the Zhuangzi is there any mention of a Laozi text or that Lao Dan wrote anything; but, there is no mention of texts by anyone.[23]

The Hanfeizi 韓非子, supposedly written by Hanfei (c. 280-230 B.C.E.), contains two chapters that comment on and give examples illustrating the Laozi text. Tae Hyun Kim believes they were written by different authors and were based on different Laozi texts.[24] Hagop Sarkissian agrees, claiming that Jie Lao 解老 is a third century pre-Qin text probably written by a Jixia scholar of a Laozi-Mengzi bent, and that Yu Lao 喻老 was also written in pre-Qin third century but by a less travelled writer, probably a minister of a small state. [25] Both Kim and Sarkissian note there is no anti-Confucianism in these two commentaries, and, coupled with evidence from the Guodian proto-Laozi, believe the Laozi was not yet anti-Confucian. I think it premature to make this claim, since we do not know whether all versions of “the Laozi” in the fourth and third centuries were “Confucian-friendly.” I also think it is still possible one or both commentaries were written in the early Han, taking advantage of the prestige the Laozi had at that time.[26]

The chapter titles of the two Hanfeizi commentaries, Jie Lao 解老 and Yu Lao 喻老 suggest the text was known as the Laozi, but the titles could’ve been added at any time. No quotation within these two commentaries mentions Lao Dan or Laozi.[27] Whomever wrote these commentaries may or may not have been associated with a/the Laozi lineage. Sarkissian seems to believe that the Hanfeizi commentaries comment on selected passages of a more complete Laozi whereas Kim believes the authors comment on all they had. It is impossible to know. It is also possible that the authors commented on more than we now have but that that material was lost. Since the Guodian proto-Laozi has material not commented on in the two commentaries, I find Kim’s hypothesis less persuasive.

The oldest complete editions of the Laozi text we have were discovered in 1973 in a tomb at Mawangdui 馬王堆, Hunan province. In that tomb two copies of the text were written on silk along with some other previously unknown texts. The tomb was sealed in 168 B.C.E. but manuscript A has been dated to no later than 206 B.C.E. and manuscript B sometime between 206 and 194 B.C.E.[28] How old manuscript A is and how old its redaction or recension is has yet to be determined. It has been determined that manuscript B is not copied from manuscript A, but how old their source texts are can only be guessed. These two manuscripts contain virtually all the content of the later received editions but the order of the (unmarked) chapters is different, most notably, chapters 38-81 come before chapters 1-37.[29] The latter manuscript B also titles the two halves “De” and “Dao,” but neither A nor B contain the name Lao Dan or Laozi.

In 1993 a number of bundles of inscribed bamboo slips were found in a tomb, dated approximately to 300 B.C.E., at Guodian 郭店, Hubei province, (near the old capital of Chu). The content of three of these bundles are entirely passages from the Laozi, with an additional, previously unknown “text” (on slips identical to bundle “C”) named Taiyi Shengshui 太一生水. These “Laozi parallels,” as some have called them, are either entire chapters or parts of thirty-one of the chapters found in the Mawangdui and received texts and constitutes only about one third of the complete text.[30] The order of these “chapters” is completely different from anything previously known to us. Being found on three distinct bundles of bamboo, it would seem these were not considered a single book, and they seem to be copied from different sources.[31] However, excluding the Taiyi Shengshui, since there is no non-Laozi material found in them I will call them a proto-Laozi.[32]

It would seem that the Laozi went through the hands of a number of editors from at least 300 B.C.E. Whether the Guodian editor removed or excluded any passages or chapters we do not know. Some scholars have regarded the Guodian proto-Laozi an “excerpt” from a bigger collection, possibly the complete 81-chapter edition. This is a possibility, although the fact that no chapters from 67–81 are to be found makes the idea of the entire 81-chapters edition unlikely. As Bruce Brooks has determined, at most there could have been 72.[33] Of course, the Guodian proto-Laozi could have been the largest collection at the time, or the compiler could have drawn from several small proto-Laozis, not having available to him a complete text. We simply do not know. All we do know is that by 300 B.C.E. at least some of the material later found in our 81-chapter Laozi was collected together and buried in a tomb, and again, this material is not ascribed to Lao Dan or Laozi.

The editors of the two Mawangdui manuscripts don’t appear to have removed any material, as all of the passages found in the Guodian text, and the Hanfeizi commentaries and quotes, are found in the Mawangdui manuscripts.[34] Moreover, the Guodian proto-Laozi does not contain any “lost” material. And, aside from the occasional line here and there, no editor since the time of the Mawangdui redactions has removed or added any material, the text being effectively fixed (though not the order).[35]

There are numerous theories about how the Laozi came to be. Arthur Waley believed the Laozi to have been the work of “an anonymous Quietist” around 240 B.C.E. who was engaged with “Realists” Confucians and the doctrines of Yang Zhu.[36] He believed it to represent, and was intended for, quietist sage-rulers: it was not intended to encourage ordinary people to live a Daoist life, although a Daoist ruler would inevitably lead his subjects in this direction.[37] He wrote, “Proverbs of the people and of the patricians (Junzi 君 子), maxims of the strategist and realist, of the individualist (Yang Zhu school); above all, sayings of the older Daoists which though they had very little apparent influence on conduct were at that period accepted as ‘spiritual’ truths, much as the Sermon on the Mount is accepted today – all these conflicting elements the author of the Daodejing reproduces or adapts, subtly weaving them together into a pattern perfectly harmonious and consistent, yet capable of embracing and absorbing the most refractory elements.”[38]

With regards to the reputed author, Lao Dan, Waley wrote that the Laozi, “owing to its constant use of sayings which everyone connected with the name Lao Dan (Laozi, the Master Lao), naturally came to be regarded as embodying the teaching of this legendary Quietist. Whether it was definitely put into the world as a record of the teachings of Lao Dan or whether this ascription was merely one that grew up in the minds of readers we cannot know.”[39] On this last point Angus Graham argued that Lao Dan was co-opted by Daoists, taking advantage of his authority as a teacher of Confucius.[40]

D.C. Lau believed that the Laozi was a multi-authored anthology of sayings of the fourth and early third centuries B.C.E. that were the “common property to followers of various schools sharing a common tendency in thought that came to be known as Daoism.”[41] Lau doesn’t seem to have explained what this tendency was, though he felt the text contained the ideas of Jixia thinkers, Yang Zhu, Guan Yin 關令 and Zhuangzi.[42] If the sayings were common property, however, why don’t we find any of them in the texts of other “schools?” Following Lau, David Hall and Roger Ames believe the Laozi is “a deliberately collated and edited collage of largely rhymed wisdom literature that was drifting about in the early Chinese tradition,[43] but again, we have no evidence that these sayings were “drifting about.”[44] The fact that none of the Laozi’s aphorisms or passages are found in earlier texts (e.g., Shijing, Shangshu, Yijing, Mengzi, Zuozhuan, Mozi, Guanzi) suggests that these were taken from a small, close-knit “community” or something similar. Although several sayings are introduced as being not original, as being derived from another source or “common” saying, (e.g., chapters 22, 41, 42 and 69), the sayings do not appear in any text we can be sure was written earlier. And texts containing parallel passages or quotations that came afterwards most often attribute it to Laozi or Lao Dan.

Lau further believed there to have been at least two more similar works/collections: a Laochengzi 老成子and a Zhengchangzhe 鄭長者, both found in the Hanshu Yiwenzhi under Daojia. [45] Lau concludes that in the late Warring States period “there were a number of works which were Daoist in content, appearing under various titles all of which meant ‘old man’ or ‘elder,’ and … that the Laozi was only one of these works.” Although possible, this is highly speculative and unverified.

Kristopher Schipper regards the Laozi as a philosophical text that does not belong to any particular ‘school.’[46] Nonetheless, he thinks it most likely that “the tradition which produced, over a number of centuries, the aphorisms of the Daodejing was not that of ‘philosophers,’ but rather reflects the wisdom which originated among the diviners and the astrologers, the scribes and the annalists.”[47] He too says many of the sayings “appear in other, much older texts,” many of which were “skillfully transformed in such a way as to have them say the opposite of the truths they were originally meant to convey.”[48] It is true that there are numerous counter-intuitive sayings and paradoxes, but that doesn’t mean they are re-workings of popular sayings, especially since there is no textual evidence.

Michael LaFargue, Harold Roth, and Russell Kirkland have all contributed to a fairly credible theory. LaFargue believes the Laozi to be the work of a small group of Shi 士 he calls “Laoists” or a “Laoist community” and originated in an oral tradition.[49] He argues that,

“[E]ach ‘chapter’ is made up primarily of sayings that originally were independent of each other, each saying part of the oral tradition of a small ancient Daoist community which I refer to as the ‘Laoist’ School. These sayings were artfully arranged in ‘sayings collages’ by Daoist teachers whom I refer to as the composers of the chapters” who sometimes altered or added to the sayings as well as borrowed sayings from outside their community.”[50]

He believes the authors had many similarities with Mengzi and his followers in that they were idealistic Shi who sought to change the system:

“The very high respect with which some individual Shi were regarded, led other Shi to gather around them, to learn their ideas about good government and practice self-cultivation [of desired states of mind] under their guidance, and by association with them to gain credentials that would get for them the government appointments they desired. This led to the formation of many small and informal Shi-schools, groups of men gathered around one or more teachers, living with or near him, and often travelling with him as he went from state to state trying to influence rulers with his advice. This is the kind of group that gathered around the Confucian teacher Mengzi, and this is the kind of group I believe also responsible for the Daodejing. This latter group was one among several groups sharing a common world-view opposed to Confucianism, groups that came later to be called by the general name Daoist. Other roughly contemporary Daoist groups are known to us from an anthology of writings that goes under the name Zhuangzi. Graham recently suggested a new term, Laoist (after Laozi, the legendary author of the Daodejing) to refer to the specific thought of the Daodejing, in contrast to the somewhat different (“Zhuangist”) Daoism represented in the Zhuangzi.”[51]

Thus, he does not view the text as addressed to rulers as most scholars do, as they would not be competent to understand the sayings.[52] I think this is true of many of the aphorisms, but not everything in the book. In general though, it seems that a teacher or master would be very helpful for comprehension.[53] Indeed, LaFargue conjectures that the sayings were “composed by teachers in the Laoist school and given to students to meditate on.”[54] But this doesn’t rule out potential rulers, as the tomb at Guodian where the proto-Laozi was interred seems to have been that of the Chu royal tutor, whose student may have been the crown prince Qingxiang 頃襄.[55] If so, would this tutor be a “Laoist” or “Daoist?” I suspect the answer might be no, as the tomb contained many other texts with very little in common with the proto-Laozi.[56]

Similar to LaFargue, Harold Roth believes the Laozi “is likely an apocryphal collection of poetic verses compiled within an early Daoist master-disciple lineage.”[57] One could imagine also that the lineage could have begun more as a master-master group, as a group of elders, treated more or less as equals. He writes that “at best we can speculate about their having formed small communities to follow their distinctive inner cultivation practice, [although] there is no clear evidence of a well-established social organization that extended over several generations.”[58]

Roth believes that the Laozi belongs to a tradition which also produced the “Inner Training” (Neiye 内業) text, the Zhuangzi and the Huainanzi 淮 南子. This tradition was centred around the categories of self-cultivation, specifically “the attainment of the Dao through a process of emptying out the usual contents of the conscious mind until a profound experience of tranquility is attained,” a cosmology based on the Dao as a unifying power and the political application of these two.[59] Furthermore, some members of this lineage “created and transmitted a body of doctrinal texts that evolved over time in response to the changing circumstances in which the members of this ‘distinct lineage’ found themselves.”[60]

Russell Kirkland prefers to interpret the Lao in Laozi as referring to community elders. His theory runs as follows:

“Various traditions of oral wisdom had circulated for some decades in Chu, where they were committed to writing by various different hands, recirculated, reedited, and rewritten. Some of the parties involved—conceivably themselves visitors to the early Jixia academy in Qi—learned of the cultivational practices suggested in the text called the Neiye, and added new material of a related nature. Others—archaeologists claim that it was the tutor to the crown prince of Chu—gathered three such texts and refocused them on practical tasks that might befall a future ruler; those texts were buried in the tomb at Guodian. Later, someone else—hardly imaginable as a Jixia participant—added an introspective “maternal voice” to the growing body of “the elders’ wisdom,” while others—quite likely at Jixia—continued to add new socio-political messages, and even applications for real or aspiring warmongers and executioners. Eventually, some redactor brought all those materials together, added new flourishes of his own, and produced something very like “the full text” that we know today.”[61]

I think this is a quite plausible story, but the connection to the Jixia “academy” in Qi has no evidence to support it that I’m aware of. To be sure, Jixia was not the only concentration or gathering of intellectuals in ancient China. Regional lords in Wei 魏, Zhao 趙, Qin 秦 and Chu 楚 also patronized great numbers of scholars.[62] However, it seems just as likely that the authors/compilers did not reside in any intellectual centre such as these.

In a later post, I will explore whether the Laozi originates in a quietist or mystical tradition, as many scholars have argued for or against, or a philosophical tradition. Scholars of philosophy tend to deny or de-emphasize the mystical aspect, while religious scholars tend to emphasize it. Perhaps the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between.

Next: Zhuangzi 莊子

[1] Curiously, according to Yang Xiong’s 揚雄 (c. 55-20 C.E.) Fangyan 方言 8.1, ‘Li Er 李耳’ was a Huainan-Chu word for ‘tiger.’ Cf. Axel Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, University of Hawaii Press, 2007, 349.

[2] Shiji 史記 63: Laozi Hanfei Liezhuan 老子韓非列傳.

[3] See Shiji 63 and 47, Zhuangzi 13, 14 (2), 21 and Liji 7 (4).

[4] There are four places in the Ritual Records (Liji 禮記 • 曾子問) Lao Dan is quoted (in meetings with Confucius), all having to do with mourning rites. Only Laozi 31 has to do with mourning rites.

[5] The Mawangdui text B had 5467 characters (some have deteriorated, but the total is indicated), the Wang Bi “received” text 5268.

[6] If so, this unambiguously connects Laozi with Daojia 道家.

[7] Zhuangzi 26.

[8] Shiji 67 records that Confucius learnt from 老子 in Zhou and 老萊子 in Chu.

[9] At Guodian, Jingmen city, Hubei province, Mawangdui, near Changsha, Hunan province, and the Xiang Yu Concubine Manuscript (項羽妾本) examined by Fu Yi 傅奕 (fl. 600 C.E.) from a pre-Han tomb.

[10] One might also mention the Chuci 楚辭, but the connection to the Laozi’s worldview is slight. It needs to be said too, that Chu was host to Ru/Confucians and Mohists as well: it was not a Daoist state.

[11] Hanshu 59 B, Yang Xiong Zhuan 揚雄傳.

[12] This assumes that the anecdotes about him in chapters 3, 5, 7, 11, 12, 13 (2), 14 (3), 21, 22, 23, 25 and 27 of the Zhuangzi do not date from the 4th century, which is difficult to prove.

[13] The Dynamics of Masters Literature, Harvard University Press, 2011, 229.

[14] The Way of Lao Tzu, Prentice Hall, 1963, 72-3. Victor Mair, in his “[The] File [on the Cosmic] Track [and Individual] Dough[tiness]” also believes that the Laozi may contain material from the sixth century B.C.E., with more material added, gradually becoming anti-Confucian and anti-Mohist over the next few centuries. Sino-Platonic Papers 20, 1990, 16-17.

[15] Laozi 63.

[16] In the “Record on (serving as an) Example” (Biaoji 表記), the 33rd chapter of the Han Dynasty compendium Ritual Records Confucius is presented with a different perspective than that of the Analects.

[17] D.C. Lau thought this significant (Tao Te Ching, The Chinese University Press, 1996, 127 (originally published in 1963). However, the relatively contemporary text Zhuangzi, which also mentions Confucius, Mozi, Yang Zhu and others does not mention Mengzi. Not many would be comfortable concluding that Mengzi did not live before the Zhuangzi was compiled.

[18] Lüshi Chunqiu 17.7. Dan 耽 is apparently a variant of Dan 聃.

[19] Some places in the Mawangdui “Huang-Lao” Silk Manuscripts, a.k.a. the Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經, also privilege the soft and feminine (e.g., Mingli 名理, Shundao 順道). See also Cixiongjie 雌雄節, though it doesn’t mention 柔. Zhuangzi 33 associates the feminine and a mild, tranquil, yielding nature with Lao Dan.

[20] “Inner Chapters” (Neipian 内篇) refers to the first seven chapters of the Zhuangzi.

[21] Though not word-for-word. But as Arthur Waley once observed, “It is unlikely in the extreme that the commentator rushed to a copy of the Daodejing in order to quote a single sentence. He quoted from memory, and his memory unconsciously smoothed out and simplified the difficult clause.” (The Way and Its Power, Grove Press, 1958, 131, (originally published in 1934). Herbert Giles, in his “The Remains of Lao Tzu” in The China Review, disagreed (1885-6, 236).

[22] E.g., chapters 2, 10, 17, 51, and 77.

[23] Except to some references to early Chinese Classics.

[24] “Other Laozi Parallels in the Hanfeizi” in Sino-Platonic Papers 199, March 2010, 47-9.

[25] “Laozi: Re-visiting Two Early Commentaries in the Hanfeizi” M.A. Thesis, University of Toronto, 2001.

[26] Cf. Bruce Brooks “The Present State and Future Prospects of Pre-Hàn Text Studies” in Sino-Platonic Papers, 46, 1994, 28.

[27] There are five quotations from the Laozi in the remainder of the Hanfeizi, three of them attributed to Lao Dan/Laozi. chapter 31 quotes Laozi 36; chapter 38 quotes Laozi 17, 64 and 65; chapter 46 quotes Laozi 44.

[28] Derek Herforth, “Two Philological Studies on the Mawangdui Laozi Manuscripts,” M.A. Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1980, 4. Cf. Robert Henricks, Lao-Tzu: Te-Tao Ching, Modern Library, 1993, p. xviii, (originally published in 1989).

[29] Some of the chapters are marked: manuscript A’s “Dejing” section contains a number of “periods,” many of which occur between today’s Zhang 章, “chapters.”

[30] Edward Shaughnessy, “The Guodian Manuscripts and Their Place in Twentieth-Century Historiography on the Laozi” in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 65: No. 2, 2005, 451.

[31] Kim, 2010, 23. That these were copied from different sources does not mean they themselves were not excerpts from a larger single text.

[32] William Boltz in his “The Fourth-Century B.C. Guodiann Manuscripts from Chuu and the Composition of the Laotzyy” argues that we should not exclude the Taiyi Shengshui material from consideration in our theories about this Guodian material. (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119, No. 4, 1999, 595-6.)

[33] “Probability and the Gwodyèn Dàu/Dv Jing” in the WSWG Newsletter 13, Mar 1999, 61.

[34] Chapter 12 of the Huainanzi is an exposition of the Laozi as well, dating from around the middle of the second century B.C.E. All of the quotations found there, and throughout the rest of the Huainanzi, are found in the Mawangdui and received texts. The same is true of the mid-second century B.C.E. Hanshi Waizhuan 韓詩外傳.

[35] Again, we do not know when the source text of the Mawangdui recension was compiled. Presumably it was sometime in the third century B.C.E.

[36] The Way and Its Power, Grove Press, 1958, 86, (originally published in 1934). “Realists” is Waley’s translation of Fajia 法家, more problematically called “Legalists.”

[37] Ibid. 91-2.

[38] Ibid. 97.

[39] Ibid. 104.

[40] “The Origins of the Legend of Lao Dan” in Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, 1986.

[41] Tao Te Ching, The Chinese University Press, 1996, xl, (originally published in 1963).

[42] Guan Yin, or (Guan) Yin Xi 尹喜, was the border guard Sima Qian records was the recipient of Lao Dan’s two Pian on Dao and De (Shiji 63) and who is paired with Lao Dan in Zhuangzi 33.

[43] Dao De Jing, Ballantine Books, 2003, 113.

[44] With two exceptions: the aforementioned maxim found in Laozi 63 and (supposedly) discussed by Confucius in Lunyu 14.34 and Laozi 79 contains a variation of a Shangshu 尚書 passage about who receives Heaven’s assistance and appears to be a popular aphorism.

[45] Lau, 1996 (1963), xii, 133. The words/vocabulary of the latter in the Hanfeizi 34 are reminiscent of the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, etc.: “…夫虛無無見者…,” “夫虛靜無為而無見也。” and Hanfeizi 37 “體道,無為無見也。.” The texts have been lost, as has the Laolaizi 老萊子, which Lau does not mention.

[46] The Taoist Body, University of California Press, 1993 (1983), trans. by Karen C. Duval, 184-5.

[47] Ibid. 185.

[48] Ibid. 185.

[49] Tao and Method, SUNY Press, 1994, 127-8.

[50] The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, SUNY Press, 1993, ix-x.

[51] Ibid. 195.

[52] Tao and Method, 242.

[53] This is expressed also by Donald Harper in his “The Sexual Arts of Ancient China as Described in a Manuscript of the Second Century B.C.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 47, No. 2, 1987, 561.

[54] Tao and Method, 128.

[55] See Jennifer Lundin Ritchie’s “An Investigation into the Guodian Laozi” M.A. Thesis, The University of British Columbia, 2010, 96.

[56] Although, we are in the dark with regards to who owned or copied the texts and why they were buried with him.

[57] Original Tao, Columbia University Press, 1999, 205 n1.

[58] Ibid. 178.

[59] Ibid. 7.

[60] Ibid. 173-4.

[61] Taoism: The Enduring Tradition, Routledge 2005, 65-6 (originally published in 2004).

[62] Shiji 85.

5 replies on “Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing? Part II”

  1. Hi Scott,

    Great post and series!

    Given that you raise the issue of the so-called “Taiyi shengshui” text and its relation to the Dao De Jing, I thought it might be useful to quote a bit from an essay that John Gordon and I published in Asian Philosophy some years ago. Our main interest is in the meaning of “dao,” especially as seen through passage [25] of the DDJ. The interesting thing is that the word zi 字 is used in both TYSS and DDJ 25 in reference to a thing rather than a person. This is highly unusual; in all other cases of which we are aware, when used as a verb it references a person (to zi is to give a person a special kind of name). So the use of zi in this idiosyncratic way suggests some connection between TYSS and DDJ, though the details are murky (especially because TYSS is physically identical to bundle C of Guodian, and a version of [25], also with zi, appears in bundle A). Here is page 22 from our article:

    The so-called Taiyi Shengshui can also shed some light on the meaning of the discussion of dao in [25]. Indeed, the appearance in the Taiyi Shengshui of zi bears importantly on the relation between that text and the Dao De Jing, as we discuss below.33 The text of strips 10–12 of Taiyi Shengshui runs as follows, in Henricks’s translation:

    What is below is soil; yet we refer to it (wei zhi) as the earth: what is above is air; yet we refer to it as heaven. In the same way, ‘the Way’ is its designation (zi). ‘But, may I ask, what is its name (ming)?’ One who uses the Way to work at his tasks certainly relies on its name; for this reason his tasks are completed and he endures. When the Sage works at his tasks, he also relies on its name; as a result his deeds are achieved and he suffers no harm. With heaven and earth, ‘name’ and ‘designation’ both stand together. But when we move beyond these domains, we can think of nothing that would fit [as a name].34

    In other words, just as we use the word ‘earth’ to refer to this ball of soil that we live on, so is ‘dao’ the designation for the ‘thing chaotically formed’ of [25]. With the thing we call earth, we can see, touch and comprehend the stuff to which it is referring – it is tu, or soil. The text seems to say that for things as extensive as heaven and earth, the zi and ming are the same, but for anything beyond the domain of heaven and earth, the ming is beyond our comprehension, and so we can only (in Henricks’s translation) ‘designate (zi)’. This is in accordance with [25], where the ming is unknown but a zi can be assigned. It seems possible that the Taiyi Shengshui is here referring directly to [25], as the thing of [25] is clearly seen to be greater than heaven and earth. Both texts use dao as a zi. Thus the ‘it’ of strips 10–12 of the Taiyi Shengshui can be seen as the ‘thing’ of [25].
    There has been much debate over how to view the text that has come to be called the Taiyi Shengshui. Is it to be considered a part of the Dao De Jing text found at Guodian, or should it be seen as a separate text? William Boltz argues for the latter – in fact, as noted above, dividing the Taiyi Shengshui material itself into two separate texts – when he writes that ‘The C manuscript consists of six texts, each self-contained on from two to eight bamboo strips, none linked by a common strip to another, but all physically part of a single manuscript document’.35 He adds that this evidence, in turn, supports the conclusion that the Dao De Jing ‘arose through a process of textual “sifting-and-choosing” whereby preexisting passages were included or excluded when the text was finally “fixed” in a form close to when we know from the Mawangdui manuscripts and from the received version’.36 Martin Kern has similarly argued that not only is there no positive evidence to separate the Taiyi Shengshui material from the rest of bundle C, but there is ‘positive evidence not to separate them’.37 Xing Wen also argues that the Guodian Dao De Jing and the Taiyi Shengshui are one text, but maintains that the Guodian Dao De Jing and the received Dao De Jing represent two different systems of thought.38 Bruce Brooks, on the other hand, argues that the Taiyi Shengshui was likely associated with the Guodian Dao De Jing only by the copyist, and that we should consider it a separate text.39 Given the close relationship in both topic and language of [25] and the Taiyi Shengshui strips 10–12, particularly their similar usage of zi, we argue that the texts might in fact be closely related.40

    [34] HENDRICKS, op. cit., note 27, pp. 123–126.
    [35] BOLTZ, op. cit., note 27, p. 6.
    [36] Ibid., p. 7.
    [37] KERN, MARTIN, personal communication.
    [38] XING, WEN (1999) Lun Guodian Laozi yu jinben Laozi bu shu yi xi: chujian Taiyishengshui ji qi yiyi, Guodian Chujian Yanjiu (Shenyang, Liaoning Jiaoyi Chubanshe), pp. 165–186.
    [39] BROOKS, E. BRUCE (1999) DDJ. Warring States Workshop E-mail communication No. 1948, 25 October 1999.
    [40] Exactly what the relation might be is difficult to say. The bamboo strips [25] are part of bundle A, not bundle C, so if we are right that the presence in [25] and the Taiyi Shengshui material of ‘zi’ is significant, then this suggests that all three bundles might derive from some common source.

    • Thanks for this Steve, I once believed that the Taiyi Shengshui was “unassimilated” material, that was later assimilated, in part, in spirit only. Now, I am unsure. I think “Bruce Brooks, on the other hand, argues that the Taiyi Shengshui was likely associated with the Guodian Dao De Jing only by the copyist, and that we should consider it a separate text,” seems a bit more persuasive. Perhaps the copyist had some material he wanted to copy and used some “leftover” blank slips that he had used to copy Laozi C. The author, of at least the second part you quote, may still have been thinking about “chapter 25,” of course.

  2. Very provocative thoughts, Steve!

    The Taiyi Shengshui appears a very difficult text and the interpretation/translation of it may vary greatly depending on one’s scholarship/judgment on individual early scripts.

    For the difference between “ming” and “zi,” I appreciate your insight on the connection with Laozi Ch. 25, though I have a different take of it. So far as I know, while ming refers to the proper name of a person or thing in ancient Chinese, the word “zi” may be best translated as “byname” – i.e. not the proper name, but e.g. the middle name or some alias that a person goes by.

    In my view, with the clarification of this distinction, we may discern another connection between Lao Zi Chapter 25 and the Taiyi Shengshui. That is, the reason the Dao is put under a “byname” (zi) in both cases is that it cannot be “properly named.” (see. Eg. Ch 1 of Laozi). The use of the “zi” in this context, therefore, indicates that we can only have some expedient bynames for such an original matter as “dao.”

    In the light of this analysis, my translation and interpretation of the key line in the Taiyi passage may run roughly as follows:

    … 上,(氣)也,而謂之天。道,亦其字也。青昏其名。…

    1) … what is above is the qi (air?) and is called heaven/sky (tian). Dao, is also its byname; and this usage just makes its proper name obscure… (in other words, dao is a byname for what is called heaven, which compares well to Lao Zi Ch 25 in which it goes by the byname of “dao” and the expedient proper name of “da 大 (the great)” – whose meaning has close relation with tian 天 in early scripts. )

    2) There is of course the other possible interpretation that does not take Dao and Tian as connected in the above sentence. In that case, we should say that “dao goes only by its byname – as its proper name is obscured…”

    All in all, I find your argument for the non-personal use of “zi” interesting. But heaven and earth are oftentimes personified in early Chinese literature as the primal father and mother. I guess we don’t need a big stretch to have a personal relation with Dao and to apply a “zi” for it….

  3. I’ve just added this to my Laozi piece:

    The Peking University has recently received a copy of the Laozi from the Western Han era that, like the Mawangdui editions has the De section before the Dao section. However, unlike the Mawangdui texts, the De section is labelled Laozi shangjing 老子上經 and the Dao section, Laozi xiajing 老子下經. Additionally, although the ordering of chapters (章) is unknown to me at this time, reports make clear that there are chapter division marks.

    See here:

  4. I am currently working on my Zhuangzi “installment,” but have replaced the last paragraph on my Laozi article to:

    Returning to the picture Sima Qian and his father paint, should we believe anything they have to say about Laozi? We will likely never know their sources, yet as we have seen, the Laozi text is likely to be a collection of “wisdom literature” and had no single author. We shall also see that there is no evidence that a historical Zhuang Zhou – Zhuangzi – founded his “philosophy” on what is to be found in the Laozi, partly because we do not know for sure what parts of the Zhuangzi text he wrote and partly because we don’t know how big the collection-that-came-to-be the Laozi (Daodejing) was when he was alive, (if it existed at all). The same could be said of Shen Buhai and Hanfei, whom Sima Qian said were influenced by Laozi; the texts that are believed to be their works are also likely to be the work of multiple authors. Strangely, the Simas never acknowledge this now-apparent fact about ancient Chinese texts. We might allow, however, that the Laozi contains at least a few sayings or writings of a 6th century man Lao Dan and/or contains a worldview that derives from such a man. We might also allow that Zhuangzi, Shen Buhai and Hanfei had some familiarity with these sayings/writings/worldview and that to some degree influenced what they themselves taught or wrote.

    I just re-read what you wrote Huaiyu, i.e., “dao is a byname for what is called heaven, which compares well to Lao Zi Ch 25 in which it goes by the byname of “dao” and the expedient proper name of “da 大 (the great)” – whose meaning has close relation with tian 天 in early scripts.) I don’t feel it compares well with laozi 25, for the text reads: 天大,地大,道大,王亦大。 and 人法地,地法天,天法道,道法自然。 (Guodian text). It is obvious 天 and 道 do not refer to the same thing. I think the Lüshi Chunqiu had it right when an author paraphrased chapter 25 as : 道也者,至精也,不可為形,不可為名,彊為之名,謂之太一。 (LSCQ 5.2: 大樂). Note, 大一 equals 太一.

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