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Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu & the Tao:
An Academic Perspective

Lao Tzu & the Tao
There are dozens of academic theories of the origins of the Tao and the existence of Lao Tzu.  Few Sinologists believe there was a "Lao Tzu".   Most theories about the Tao Te Ching have been revised or challenged by the discovery of very old versions of the Tao in 1973 and 1993.  Prior to this discovery, the standard versions (still used in 95% of all the published versions I've seen) were apparently from around 200 AD.  Apparently, because there are actually copies of copies of the original texts.  They may have been free of errors and identical to the originals, but this is historically unlikely.


The Ma Wang Tui Texts
In 1973 in Hunan, China, two copies of the Tao were found in a tomb of the son of an ancient Prime Minister.  These copies are original and must logically predate the death of the occupant, who was buried on April 4, 168 BC.  These texts have a lot more grammatical particles than the standard text, which helps clarify the meaning of some of the more cryptic lines.  There is little punctuation and no chapter divisions.  Apparently separating the book into 81 chapters came later.  A few sections of the Ma Wang Tui text are in a different order than the standard.


Guodian Texts
In 1993 in Hubei, China, texts from 300 BC were discovered, also in a tomb.  These are far earlier again and not nearly as complete.  This leads many to believe that the Tao Te Ching evolved, with more structure and new sections being added to it over time. The problem is, the more we discover, the more possibilities there are. 

For example, did the texts' contents vary in different locations? 

Maybe someone figured: "no way I'm putting our best copy of the Tao in John Doe's tomb.  When is he going to read it in there anyway?"  The extant copy looks a lot like a draft anyway with several obvious spelling mistakes.

So, although the texts don't help us determine much about Lao Tzu, the person, they do help clarify some of the vague passages of later texts.  If you are really interested in these earlier texts, this book covers it well, although its readability suffers from its intentional, academic style.

coverRobert G. Henricks - Lau Tzu's Tao Te Ching -

Features original Chinese text and detailed commentary.        Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching



Other Evidence
There are short but impossible biographies of La Tzu in historical records, but the interesting evidence comes from the Tao itself.  Many sections are in a rhyming format.  This suggests it was formatted to be easily remembered and handed down verbally.

One appealing possibility is that the Tao's wisdom was written down and formatted by a wise scholar, who became the legend. 

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