The Texts of Taoism
General Introduction

Chapter 4

Sze-mâ Khien's Lâo-dze

It seems desirable, before passing from Lâo, and Kwang in this Introduction, to give a place in it to what is said about them by Sze-mâ Khien. I have said that not a single proper name occurs in the Tâo Teh King. There is hardly an historical allusion in it. Only one chapter, the twentieth, has somewhat of an autobiographical character. It tells us, however, of no incidents of his life. He appears alone in the world through his cultivation of the Tâo, melancholy and misunderstood, yet binding that Tâo more closely to his bosom.

The Books of Kwang-dze are of a different nature, abounding in pictures of Tâoist life, in anecdotes and narratives, graphic, argumentative, often satirical. But they are not historical. Confucius and many of his disciples, Lâo and members of his school, heroes and sages of antiquity, and men of his own day, move across his pages; but the incidents in connexion with which they are introduced are probably fictitious, and devised by him 'to point his moral or adorn his tale.' His names of individuals and places are often like those of Bunyan in his Pilgrim's Progress or his Holy War, emblematic of their characters and the doctrines which he employs them to illustrate. He often comes on the stage himself, and there is an air of verisimilitude in his descriptions, possibly also a certain amount of fact about them; but we cannot appeal to them as historical testimony. It is only to Sze-mâ Khien that we can go for this; he always writes in the spirit of an historian; but what he has to tell us of the two men is not much.

And first, as to his account of Lâo-dze. When he wrote, about the beginning of the first century B.C., the Tâoist master was already known as Lâo-dze. Khien, however, tells us that his surname was Lî, and his name R, meaning 'Ear,' which gave place after his death to Tan, meaning 'Long-eared,' from which we may conclude that he was named from some peculiarity in the form of his ears. He was a native of the state of Khû, which had then extended far beyond its original limits, and his birth-place was in the present province of Ho-nan or of An-hui. He was a curator in the Royal Library; and when Confucius visited the capital in the year B.C. 517, the two men met. Khien says that Confucius's visit to Lo-yang was that he might question Lâo on the subject of ceremonies. He might have other objects in mind as well; but however that was, the two met. Lî said to Khung, 'The men about whom you talk are dead, and their bones are mouldered to dust; only their words are left. Moreover, when the superior man gets his opportunity, he mounts aloft; but when the time is against him, he is carried along by the force of circumstances1. I have heard that a good merchant, though he have rich treasures safely stored, appears as if he were poor; and that the superior man, though his virtue be complete, is yet to outward seeming stupid. Put away your proud air and many desires, your insinuating habit and wild will. They are of no advantage to you;—this is all I have to tell you.' Confucius is made to say to his disciples after the interview: 'I know how birds can fly, fishes swim, and animals run. But the runner may be snared, the swimmer hooked, and the flyer shot by the arrow. But there is the dragon:—I cannot tell how he mounts on the wind through the clouds, and rises to heaven. To-day I have seen Lâo-dze, and can only compare him to the dragon.'

In this speech of Confucius we have, I believe, the origin of the name Lâo-dze, as applied to the master of Tâoism. Its meaning is 'The Old Philosopher,' or 'The Old Gentleman2.' Confucius might well so style Lî R. At the time of this interview he was himself in his thirty-fifth year, and the other was in his eighty-eighth. Khien adds, 'Lâo-dze cultivated the Tâo and its attributes, the chief aim of his studies being how to keep himself concealed and remain unknown. He continued to reside at (the capital of) Kâu, but after a long time, seeing the decay of the dynasty, he left it and went away to the barrier-gate, leading out of the kingdom on the north-west. Yin Hsî, the warden of the gate, said to him, "You are about to withdraw yourself out of sight. Let me insist on your (first) composing for me a book." On this, Lâo-dze wrote a book in two parts, setting forth his views on the Tâo and its attributes, in more than 5000 characters. He then went away, and it is not known where he died. He was a superior man, who liked to keep himself unknown.'

Khien finally traces Lâo's descendants down to the first century B.C., and concludes by saying, 'Those who attach themselves to the doctrine of Lâo-dze condemn that of the Literati, and the Literati on their part condemn Lâo-dze, verifying the saying, "Parties whose principles are different cannot take counsel together." Lî Rtaught that by doing nothing others are as a matter of course transformed, and that rectification in the same way ensues from being pure and still.'

This morsel is all that we have of historical narrative about Lâo-dze. The account of the writing of the Tâo Teh King at the request of the warden of the barrier-gate has a doubtful and legendary appearance. Otherwise, the record is free from anything to raise suspicion about it. It says nothing about previous existences of Lâo, and nothing of his travelling to the west, and learning there the doctrines which are embodied in his work. He goes through the pass out of the domain of Kâu, and died no one knowing where.

It is difficult, however, to reconcile this last statement with a narrative in the end of Kwang-dze's third Book. There we see Lâo-dze dead, and a crowd of mourners wailing round the corpse, and giving extraordinary demonstrations of grief, which offend a disciple of a higher order, who has gone to the house to offer his condolences on the occasion. But for the peculiar nature of most of Kwang's narratives, we should say, in opposition to Khien, that the place and time of Lâo's death were well known. Possibly, however, Kwang-dze may have invented the whole story, to give him the opportunity of setting forth what, according to his ideal of it, the life of a Tâoist master should be, and how even Lâo-dze himself fell short of it.

Second, Khien's account of Kwang-dze is still more brief. He was a native, he tells us, of the territory of Mäng, which belonged to the kingdom of Liang or Wei, and held an office, he does not say what, in the city of Khî-yüan. Kwang was thus of the same part of China as Lâo-dze, and probably grew up familiar with all his speculations and lessons. He lived during the reigns of the kings Hui of Liang, Hsüan of Khî, and Wei of Khû. We cannot be wrong therefore in assigning his period to the latter half of the third, and earlier part of the fourth century B. C. He was thus a contemporary of Mencius. They visited at the same courts, and yet neither ever mentions the other. They were the two ablest debaters of their day, and fond of exposing what they deemed heresy. But it would only be a matter of useless speculation to try to account for their never having come into argumentative collision.

Khien says: 'Kwang had made himself well acquainted with all the literature of his time, but preferred the views of Lâo-dze, and ranked himself among his followers, so that of the more than ten myriads of characters contained in his published writings the greater part are occupied with metaphorical illustrations of Lâo's doctrines. He made "The Old Fisherman," "The Robber Kih," and "The Cutting open Satchels," to satirize and expose the disciples of Confucius, and clearly exhibit the sentiments of Lâo. Such names and characters as "Wei-lêi Hsü" and "Khang-sang Dze" are fictitious, and the pieces where they occur are not to be understood as narratives of real events3.

'But Kwang was an admirable writer and skilful composer, and by his instances and truthful descriptions hit and exposed the Mohists and Literati. The ablest scholars of his day could not escape his satire nor reply to it, while he allowed and enjoyed himself with his sparkling, dashing style; and thus it was that the greatest men, even kings and princes, could not use him for their purposes.

'King Wei of Khû, having heard of the ability of Kwang Kâu, sent messengers with large gifts to bring him to his court, and promising also that he would make him his chief minister. Kwang-dze, however, only laughed and said to them, "A thousand ounces of silver are a great gain to me, and to be a high noble and minister is a most honourable position. But have you not seen the victim-ox for the border sacrifice? It is carefully fed for several years, and robed with rich embroidery that it may be fit to enter the Grand Temple. When the time comes for it to do so, it would prefer to be a little pig, but it cannot get to be so. Go away quickly, and do not soil me with your presence. I had rather amuse and enjoy myself in the midst of a filthy ditch than be subject to the rules and restrictions in the court of a sovereign. 1 have determined never to take office, but prefer the enjoyment of my own free will."'

Khien concludes his account of Kwang-dze with the above story, condensed by him, probably, from two of Kwang's own narratives, in par. 11 of Bk. XVII, and 13 of XXXII, to the injury of them both. Paragraph 14 of XXXII brings before us one of the last scenes of Kwang-dze's life, and we may. doubt whether it should be received as from his own pencil. It is interesting in itself, however, and I introduce it here: 'When Kwang-dze was about to die, his disciples signified their wish to give him a grand burial. "I shall have heaven and earth," he said, "for my coffin and its shell; the sun and moon for my two round symbols of jade; the stars and constellations for my pearls and jewels;—will not the provisions for my interment be complete? What would you add to them?" The disciples replied, "We are afraid that the crows and kites will eat our master." Kwang-dze rejoined, "Above, the crows and kites will eat me; below, the mole-crickets and ants will eat me; to take from those and give to these would only show your partiality."

Such were among the last words of Kwang-dze. His end was not so impressive as that of Confucius; but it was in keeping with the general magniloquence and strong assertion of independence that marked all his course.


back 1 Julien translates this by 'il erre à l'aventure.' In 1861 I rendered it, 'He moves as if his feet were entangled.' To one critic it suggests the idea of a bundle or wisp of brushwood rolled about over the ground by the wind.

back 2 The characters may mean 'the old boy,' and so understood have given rise to various fabulous legends; that his mother had carried him in her womb for seventy-two years (some say, for eighty-one), and that when born the child had the white hair of an old man. Julien has translated the fabulous legend of Ko Hung of our fourth century about him. By that time the legends of Buddhism about Sâkyamuni had become current in China, and were copied and applied to Lao-dze by his followers. Looking at the meaning of the two names, I am surprised no one has characterized Lao-dze as the Chinese Seneca.

back 3 Khang-sang Dze is evidently the Käng-sang Khû of Kwang's Book XXIII. Wei-lêi Hsü is supposed by Sze-ma Käng of the Thang dynasty, who called himself the Lesser Sze-mâ, to be the name of a Book; one, in that case, of the lost books of Kwang. But as we find the 'Hill of Wei-lêi' mentioned in Bk. XXIII as the scene of Käng-sang Khû's Tâoistic labours and success, I suppose that Khien's reference is to that. The names are quoted by him from memory, or might be insisted on as instances of different readings.