Skip to content Skip to footer

Laozu’s Tao Te Ching: ancient philosophy for modern times

THREE DECADES AGO, Chinese archeologists found an ancient book written on 800 strips of bamboo. It was more than 23 centuries old.

The text was identified as a partial copy of the Tao Te Ching (道德經), the book on which Taoism (or Daoism) is based—and which introduced the world to the classic Chinese sage Laozu (老子), also written as Lao Tzu or Laozi.

Various Taoist temples were built in China. Image: Sohu

This earliest extant manuscript of the Taoist classic was found in an ancient tomb of Guodian (郭店) in Hubei’s Jingmen city (荊門市) in October 1993.

Although the tomb of an ancient high-ranking official had attracted tomb-robbers twice, it was fortunate that the invaluable manuscripts of Tao Te Ching, and other Taoist and Confucian masterpieces remained miraculously intact for thousands of years.   

Ancient manuscripts of Tao Te Ching were found in a tomb of Guodian. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The scattered strips were dated back to the Warring States period (BC 475 – 221).  Traditionally attributed to the famous sage Laozu, the founder of Taoism, the classic was filled with short, simple aphorisms, some of which stand alone, and some of which are associated together. The 81 short chapters offer advice on how to live, how to understand reality, and the place of the human being in the universe.

As an ancient philosophy and wisdom for modern times, Taoism emerged in the Spring and Autumn period (BC 770 – 481), times characterized by societal turmoil as rival political factions competed for power.

These ideas were originally transmitted orally, but were eventually collected into a book. They taught people to pursue a path towards virtue, integrity and goodness. The grand master’s legacy was later inherited by Zhuangzi (莊子), who is another important proponent of philosophical Taoism.

The masterpiece not only influences ancient Chinese calligraphy and painting, poetry, Chinese medicine, science and various aspects, it also inspires political leaders and business magnets nowadays. 


Laozu asserted that water was the origin of the world. He held the character of water to be most virtuous, hailing that “the best of men is like water” (上善若水).

Laozu held the character of water to be most virtuous. Image: Rui Xu/Unsplash

The classic highlights that water nourishes all things and does not compete with them. (水利萬物而不爭).

In the sage’s mind, humans with the greatest virtue should be benevolent and keep faith, sincerity and a profound level of love. 


Meanwhile, the masterpiece accentuates the concept of Tao (道), which is the origin of the universe and states “the Tao that can be told of is not the absolute Tao” (道可道 非常道). Tao can be understood as referring to “the way”, in the sense of path or direction, but also can mean doctrine.

A statue of Laozu was built in honour of his wisdom. Image: Wikimedia Commons

This means the universe is dominated by the formless Tao, which encapsulates the powerful yet humble rules that govern nature.

Laozu believed that people should live in harmony with nature without desires. When there is no desire, humans are at peace and goodness in their minds.

Moreover, the masterpiece argues that all things embrace Yin and Yang, and harmony can be achieved by balancing the two forces.


Ancient Chinese landscape painting is the most exemplary form of the Taoist spirits of merging one’s thought with the universe.

Renowned calligrapher Wang Xizhi (王羲之) in the Jin Dynasty, poets Su Shi (蘇軾), Lu You (陸游) and painter Guo Xi (郭熙) in the Song Dynasty, were inspired by Taoist philosophy.

Ancient painter Guo Xi curated renowned painting entitled Early Spring. Image: Baidu

Guo’s most famous painting, entitled Early Spring (早春圖), exemplified the philosophical Taoism in its depiction of a harmonious universe. Auspicious mountains, water and clouds on an early spring formed the majestic natural landscape and nourished livings significantly. Guo’s landscape paintings depicted the virtues of natural world.


Today, Taoist beliefs have influenced some political and business leaders, including former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Alibaba’s Group founder Jack Ma Yun, on the world stage.

Ban Ki-moon gave a piece of calligraphy to Barack Obama. Image: public domain

As a devout fans of Tao Te Ching, Ban gave former US President Barack Obama a piece of calligraphy as a birthday present when he visited the White House.

The calligraphy displays the Taoist motto saying the best of men is like water.

Ban said water symbolizes wisdom, flexibility and gentle strength, adding that he had applied such virtues while leading the UN as water is synonymous with life and peace.

Also, Alibaba’s Ma has created one of the world’s leading e-commerce platforms and consumer marketplaces, vanquishing Amazon in the giant Chinese market.

Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma loves reading Tao Te Ching. Image: Sohu

He has loved reading Tao Te Ching and extracted some context in the classic as his leadership and management philosophy to achieve balance in a business world filled with contradictions and conflicts. 

For more than 2,400 years, the Tao Te Ching has been one of the most influential masterpieces to guide people to build a better world with virtue and integrity. Taoism is still regarded as one of the greatest philosophical documents, and remains a source of continual interest and inspiration to scholars, literati and even leaders in political and business fields.

Image at the top from Joshua Earle on Unsplash.

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Be the first to know the latest updates

[yikes-mailchimp form="1"]