Lao Zi and the Canon of Virtue


Many different systems of belief have taken root in China. The present article looks at some of the concepts used in Chinese religions and at the connections which exist between them.

Joan has translated many of the Chinese classics and her book on the subject is expected shortly.

Lao Zi was a great philosopher in Chinese history. Very little is known about his personal life, but it is believed that he was born in 604BC. Lao Zi is his name in pin yin, the official Romanisation of Mandarin Chinese, but his name also appears as Lao Tze or Lao Tzu. I always regard him as a serious and mysterious figure - a profound learned recluse but to many people he is the Supreme Lord of the Daoist Religion. The Daoists claim Lao Zi as their religious founder and place him on the high altar of their Daoist Temples.

Confucianism was promoted by the Imperial Courts of China as the religion of the elite-ruling class of China and it represented power, authority and righteous virtue over two thousand years in our Chinese society. Daoism was promoted by the Daoist high priests, the self-appointed disciples of Lao Zi. For thousands of years these clever high priests created a fantasy playground for all ages and all classes to worship Lao Zi as their god alongside numerous other immortals, ghosts, and sacred animals such as the monkey and dragon.

Daoist temple
Daoist Temple. © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

These magical practices, elixirs, fortune telling, feng shui and faith healings penetrated and dominated part of the lives of Chinese people ranging from emperors to laymen, rich and poor, and also well educated scholars to ignorant people throughout history even to the 21st century. In your readings, you will find that many famous intellectuals and top ranking Chinese scholars carried out Daoist practices but some of the best Chinese art, painting and literature incorporate the Daoist spirit.

When I was five years old, just recovering from a serious high fever, my mother told me, “The Monkey King is your newly adopted god-father. He saved your life and from now on, he will protect you. You must try to be a good girl and pay your respects to him especially on his birthday”. As any typical five years old, I was glad to have such a famous godfather and also looked forward to enjoying all the fancy offerings (delicious foods), interesting ceremonies and burning of incense etc on his birthday.

I have a friend, successful and married with five children in a good home. Her scientific training does not prevent her from observing these fancy, superstitious traditional Daoist rituals. However most of us, regardless of age, are playful Daoists at heart. Deep inside of us there is a happy wanderer, a beautiful fairy and a romantic artist. Lao Zi was a righteous scholar, a romantic traveller, a tough old pessimist and an atheist. He left his philosophical writing behind but not as a sorcerer's handbook. Daoist temples are well known for their theatrical display but Lao Zi, the recluse would never dream of people using his name to turn him into a showy sage and a supreme lord, almost into the almighty.

Nevertheless this is part of our precious Chinese culture and it has a positive and priceless value. We thank Lao Zi wholeheartedly because for thousands of years, he has provided a soothing and numbing morphine which has relieved Chinese headaches and heartaches. This is definitely one of the best philosophical texts we Chinese can contribute to people all over the world to share and to enjoy. It is short and sweet and captures the imagination of the global literary world. It is abstract and poetic, so it is easy to translate, because you can interpret it in whatever way you like to suit your moral sensibility. No wonder the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching - meaning Classic of the Way and Virtue, and known traditionally as The Canon of Virtue) is the world's most translated classic next to the Bible in China. Over 2,500 years ago, his strong ethic was the father of the non-aggressive approach to life. It helped to mould a tolerant and peaceful Chinese society. If he lived today, I think he would have been given the award of the Nobel Prize of Peace!

Some excerpts from The Canon of Virtue

From Chapter 1

The Dao that can be discussed is not the eternal Dao. All of the things that can be named in this world are not real things. The Dao of the universe comes from nothing, with no beginning and no ending. The Universe, the Mother of the World gives birth and names to all things. To follow the Nothingness of Dao, we possess the wonder of all things around us.

From Chapter 9

To fill up a cup to the brim, it will spill easily, It is far better to stop pouring before it is full. To sharpen a razor-sharp spear, the blade will get broken easily. To display a full household of precious treasures; it will never last long. To boast your wealth and success will lead to your downfall with no one but yourself to blame. To retire immediately after your achievement and success is wise; it is the way of nature.

From Chapter 12

The five bright colours blind the eyes; The five music notes deafen the ears; The five fine foods dull the palate; Too much entertainment will drive you delirious; Too much desire and greed bring you misery.

From Chapter 56

The wise will not preach; the one that will preach is unwise. He is quiet and obscure; reserves his opinion and judgement to himself, And brilliantly and subtly solves peoples' disputes. This is what he will become, Te Dao, the Divine and Wondrous 'Way' of the Universe. No one should get too close to him; No one should keep totally away from him; Not to let him profit by you; not to be harmed by you; No one can bring him glory; no one can bring him disgrace; Such a person is the, 'World' and is honoured by all.

God of Longevity
Fu Lu Shou, the god of longevity,
is one of the folk deities associated
with Daoism


The Canon of Virtue written by Lao Zi, is his only know written work before he disappeared into the wilderness. Legend has it that Lao Zi wrote this 5,000 character booklet at the request of the frontier official Yin Xi in the most westerly gate of China which was at that time, the Han Gu Gate. Yin had heard of Lao Zi's reputation and greatly admired his philosophical teachings and persuaded him to write something down before leaving. This is the last we heard of him and we do not know when or where he died. The Dao De Jing became one of the greatest philosophical texts in ancient Chinese literature. A hundred years later, the Daoists adopted this great book as their 'Bible'. According to the Educational Institute of the United Nations, their statistics show that in China, with the exception of the Christian Bible, the most popular book and the best seller with the most translations is Lao Zi's Dao De Jing.

Dao - The Way or the Path

In short. Tao or Dao, the Way or the Path, is supposed to be the same one force as the origin of all forces in the Universe. To Lao Zi, the Way has no beginning and no ending; is without substance and is invisible. A healthy and happy life can only flourish in accordance with Dao. Returning to Nature and to simplicity is the only way to live in harmony and peace. Lao Zi's Utopian idealism captures many learned people's imagination. The romantic retreat to the countryside and the mountain would serve a spiritual escape for many of the unsuccessful scholars and the disappointed courtiers. In short, the Confucians are activists. They are the high and low ranking officials of the country with power and wealth. The Daoists are pessimists, the recluses who turn to Nature to seek consolation for their failure. In their leisure time they engage themselves in writing poems with a cup of wine beneath the moon.

A Brief Biography of Lao Zi

It was said that Lao Zi was born in the year 604BC. His family name was Li and his first name was Er. He was a native of the State of Chu, which existed in the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. His life was rather obscure and legend says that Lao Zi's mother carried him for 13 months, some say 12 years and when he was born, he had white hair and wrinkled skin. This is why he was called 'Lao Zi', which means 'old master'.

His father was a veteran soldier who was wounded in battle and crippled for life. His mother was a very capable person, weaving to support the family. Lao Zi was the only child of the family and his parents sent him to the best teacher to study. He was always the best student in the class. Soon he became a distinctive and learned man and acquired great knowledge in astrology, genealogy, alchemy and herbal medicine. His fame travelled far and wide and he was appointed to a public position in the state of Zhao. He refused this proposal and left Chu with his parents and his newly wedded wife.

Later he spent the prime years of his life as a gentleman recluse, until at the age of 57, the emperor of Zhou invited him to his court and appointed him to the position of royal court librarian and historian. Specialising in matters such as astrology and divination, he was in charge of the royal sacred books.

A great Chinese historian, Shi Chi, records a historical meeting between Lao Zi and Confucius. It was a small but formal meeting and Confucius and his students and attendants travelled all the way from the State of Lu to the State of Chu to ask Lao Zi to tutor them in the knowledge of ancient rites and rituals. Lao Zi was not amused at the elaborate behaviour of Confucius and his company. He lectured Confucius for his pride and ambition. As for Confucius, we are told that he was deeply impressed by the 'Old Sage'. Confucius was a pretentious man and did not show any signs of displeasure or disappointment. On the contrary, he praised Lao Zi and said:

Birds fly; Fishes swim; Animals walk; Dragon is obscure and divine; Old Sage is a dragon with wonder within him and all around him.

See also :

A guide to Religions in China

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2009 by Joan Chan, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye 23, Page 12

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