By John J. Emerson


The author of the Tao Te Ching is the most elusive of figures. Arthur Waley, and A. C. Graham have both concluded that none of the identifications proposed in the Chou literature are convincing or useful.1According to Graham, Confucius' teacher, the Chou archivist "Lao Tan" (seen in in Chuang Tzu and elsewhere) was a minor Confucian sage, an elder and teacher of Confucius, who was later appropriated by the Taoists to give the prestige of age to their tradition. In anecdotes in Chuang Tzu, Lao Tan teaches Chuangism; whenever Lao Tan is quoted elsewhere in the literature, the quotations are from the present Tao Te Ching. Likewise, whenever "Lao Tzu" is cited in the literature, he is either Lao Tan, or else simply the author of the book which has been given his name -- there is no other, independent tradition. (Graham also rather summarily dismisses Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Lao Lai Tzu and Li Erh.)

Three traditions link the Tao Te Ching in some way to the state of Ch'in. One recounts that Lao Tan made a "journey to the west" (to Ch'in) and disappeared, after first dictating his book to Kuan Yin Tzu. Another identifies the Chou archivist Lao Tan with the Chou Grand Historian Tan , who in 374 B.C. visited Ch'in, predicting its triumph. Finally, it is said that Lao Tzu's son Tsung, a Wei general, fled to Ch'in in 275 and founded a family there.

In this article, the book sometimes called Lao Tzu will be called the Tao Te Ching; its author will be referred to as the author of the Tao Te Ching, leaving questions of identification open. (The question of plural authorship should also be regarded as open, but "author or authors" is too clumsy). "Lao Tzu" and "Lao Tan" will designate the persons called by those names in the old literature; the Grand Historian Tan will be so called in order to distinguish him from Lao Tan (which is written with a different graph for Tan).

Graham essentially treats all these stories as myths or propaganda. While I do not think that any of them can be taken at face value, I think that there may be a germ of truth in some of these stories. In particular, I think that it is significant that Lao Tzu's son was said to have come to Ch'in from the state of Wei.

Wei was one of the important cultural centers of the time. Notably, Hui Liang Wang, whose dialogue with Mencius opens that book was King Hui of Wei (Liang being an archaic honorific designation of that state: Hui ruled 369-318 B.C.). There is also reason to believe that the present text of Mo Tzu was put together in Wei, and aspects of the teachings of the militarist school may also ultimately be traceable to Wei sources. (See Appendix).

The crucial figure for my argument here is Chung-shan Prince Mou of Wei (Mou Tzu) -- a shadowy figure in early Chinese philosophy, denounced in Hsun Tzu but a treated positively in Chuang Tzu and the Lu Shih Ch'un Ch'iu. In one of the two passages in Chuang Tzu, Mou Tzu serves as a spokesman for Chuangism -- exactly as Lao Tan does in other very similiar passages in that text: in this passage, Mou Tzu explains to the logician Kung-sun Lung that Chuang Tzu is too vast for quibbling logicians even to try to comprehend, and Kung-sun Lung runs away, struck dumb in amazement.2

The second passage, from section classified by Graham as "Yangist", is more significant:

"Chung-shan Prince Mou said to Chan-tzu: 'My body is here by the river and the sea, but my heart lingers on by the city gate-towers of Wei. What's to be done?'

'Give weight to life. See life as heavy and profit will be light to you.'

'Well though I know it, still I am unable to conquer myself.'

'If you cannot conquer yourself, let go. Are there not aversions which are from the daemonic in us? To be unable to conquer oneself, yet force oneself not to let go, this is what is called "being wounded twice over". Men who wound themselves twice over are the sort that never live long".

Prince Mou was a prince of 10,000 chariots, and to hide away in the caves of the cliffs was harder for him than for a commoner. Even though he had not attained the way, we may say that he had an idea of it.3

Mou Tzu is also denounced in Hsun Tzu's "Against Twelve Philosophers", which attacks important thinkers of his time, most of whom (including T'o Hsiao in this passage) are unknown or relatively obscure today: "There are those who take advantage of the world of today, adorning and embellishing evil doctrines and illicit arguments, thereby disturbing and disordering the empire; evasive and quibbling, they cause the confused empire to forget the origins of right and wrong, disorder and order. Letting their nature run free, comfortable in their licentiousness, living like beasts, unable to accept the ordering principles of civilization; yet their advocacy is reasonable enough, and their arguments make enough sense, to cheat and confuse the ignorant crowd: these men are T'o Hsiao and Wei Mou."4

Both passages plausibly might be related to the Tao Te Ching. In both of them, Mou Tzu sounds like a Taoist or Yangist. Not much more than that can be concluded from Hsun Tzu's polemic, but his denunciations could easily apply to the Tao Te Ching, and I think that it is significant that neither Lao Tzu, Lao Tan or any other possible author of the Tao Te Ching (a text which must have existed in Hsun Tzu's time, and which he certainly would have denounced) is mentioned in this chapter of Hsun Tzu.

In the Chuang Tzu interview with Chan Tzu just cited, Mou Tzu yearns for the bright lights of the city, confessing his inability to live happily in reclusion. This squares with the place of the Tao Te Ching in the Yangist-Taoist tradition: the Tao Te Ching is clearly a recipe-book for statesmen, among other things, and represents a definite movement away from reclusive self-cultivation. But there is another tantalizing piece of evidence here: the graph for the name Chan Tzu has the same phonetic as the graph for the Chou Grand Historian Tan , and the words were anciently tolerably close in pronunciation: tam and tiam.5

There are several passages in the Tao Te Ching which are of special interest when the Wei origins of the text are under consideration. Of all the Chinese states, Wei was the one most influenced by the non-Chinese Ti people. For several hundred years, ending in 408 B.C. with their defeat and annexation by Wei, the non-Chinese Ti people had ravaged northwest China. Over the years that had become increasingly Sinified, intermarrying with the Chinese, allying themselves with Chinese states, and involving themselves in the internal politics of these states. When they finally surrendered, they joined the Chinese multi- state system as semi-autonomous feudal dependencies of Wei. Mou Tzu's Chung Shan was one of these, a Wei outpost on the other side of Wei's great enemy Chao; the "Shang Marches" were another, a buffer between between Wei and its western adversary Ch'in. (The timing of the annexation of Chung Shan, the location of Chung Shan vis-a-vis Chao, and the subsequent status of Chung Shan all suggest that Chung Shan's capitulation was brought about at least as much by diplomatic as by military means.)6

As in Islam (Ibn Khaldun and the Bedouins) and Rome (Tacitus and the Germans), the Chinese had a notion of the "Noble Savage", who was loyal, brave, frugal, honest, and tough. For the Chinese, these noble savages were the Ti. The Primitivist chapters in the Tao Te Ching and perhaps also in Chuang Tzu may have a Ti reference:

"Reduce the size and population of the state. Ensure that though there are tools ten times or a hundred times better than those of other men the people will not use them .... bring it about that the people will return to the use of knotted rope [for record-keeping, rather than writing]" (Ch. 80.)

"Hence the large state, by taking the lower position, annexes the small state; and the small state, by taking the lower position, is annexed" (Ch. 61). "The reason why the River and the sea are able to the king of the Hundred valleys is that they are good at humbling themselves before them."(Ch. 66).7 The latter two passages seem exactly to describe the Wei policy toward its smaller dependent states.


I believe that the following is the best answer yet to the question "Who was the author of the Tao Te Ching?" I do not believe that there is a better positive answer: but it still may be that, as yet, we simply have no way of knowing.

Like Graham, I think that Lao Lai Tzu, Li Erh, and Lao Tzu's origins in the state of Ch'u should simply be ignored, and that "Lao Tzu" in the early literature either means "the author of the Tao Te Ching", or else Lao Tan. And I also agree with Graham that Lao Tan was a Taoist fictional character borrowed from an obscure Confucian legend. In Chuang Tzu's "Inner Chapters", Lao Tan does not meet with Confucius; the earliest sure date for the stories of Lao Tan's meeting with Confucius and of his journey to the west is 240 B.C. in the Lü Shih Ch'un Ch'iu: the "Outer Chapters" of Chuang Tzu probably are not much earlier than that and might well be later. In any case, Lao Tan's funeral in the "Inner Chapters" contradicts the story of the journey to the west.8

I propose, first, that Mou Tzu was the author of the late strategic layer of the Tao Te Ching, which I have described in an earlier paper. (It essentialy comprises Chs. 62-81, several "Primitivist" chapters earlier in the book, and the chapter- endings introduced by the formula "Therefore the Sage".) The late layer is highly sophisticated and a little cynical, with affinities to Shen Tao, Shen Pu-hai, the Primitivists in Chuang Tzu, the "School of Names", and the militarist text Sun Tzu. Both the content and the dating of this layer are consistent with what we know about Mou Tzu, the friend of Kung-sun Lung denounced by Hsun Tzu. While the late layer unquestionably develops themes present in the older layers of the Tao Te Ching, it leaves out others, and it is heavily loaded with sly political devices which are very rare in the rest of the book.9

Second, the Grand Historian Tan might be identifiable with Mou Tzu's more reclusive teacher Chan Tzu, and might be credited with the earlier, less political and more poetic layers of Lao Tzu. This is riskier, since Chan Tzu's other appearances are not of any value for our purposes; but in the existing literature the attachment of anecdotes to sages can be quite random.10 The advantage of this identification is double: first, it recognizes the layered nature of the text; and second, it eliminates some of the chronological difficulties in the traditional account: Lao Tzu's son Tsung in 275 B.C. need not have been the son of the Grand Historian Tan (eminent in 374 B.C.), but rather the son of Mou Tzu.

On this account, Lao Tan's journey to the west and his description as a Chou archivist are simply backward contaminations from the true stories of the Grand Historian Tan and of Mou Tzu's son Tsung. As Graham has pointed out, under the Han the Taoists needed to minimize their connections with Ch'in, and Lao Tan was pressed into service for that purpose. Thus, when Hsun Tzu attacked Mou Tzu, either he was attacking an independently-circulating version of the works of Mou Tzu alone (later incorporated into the Tao Te Ching), or else he was attacking something like the present text of the Tao Te Ching, which at that time was circulating under Mou Tzu's name.

The identification of the author of the Tao Te Ching as an archivist or historian seems particularly apropos; when Graham suggested that Lao Tzu must have been a "carefree fisherman by the river" rather than an "dry-as-dust" archivist.11 I think he was wide of the mark. First of all, while fishermen, woodgathers, and the like are an important trope in the Taoist pastoral literature, there is no reason to believe that any of the Taoist sages really were obscure nobodies. Archivists, especially the archivist from the rump state of Chou, were powerless but relatively safe members of the elite, and one can easily imagine a Yangist or Taoist accepting such a position. Furthermore, archivists were the custodians of secrets: whatever the ruling myth of any given dynasty, its archivist possesses the information required either to support or deflate that myth. The irony about history characteristic of the Tao Te Ching is what one might expect from an archivist (or Grand Historian) keenly aware of the inaccuracies in whichever pious official story was being promulgated at any given moment.

It cannot be said that Wei's sponsorship of philosophy did it much good. While Wei did survive until 225 B.C.,12 successive military defeats in 341 B.C., 328 B.C. and 296 B.C. destroyed its power. When Mencius arrived in 322 B. C., Wei was probably already doomed -- and the Tao Te Ching didn't seem to have helped much either. Whatever its long-term benefits for the greater world, Wei's turn to philosophy was to no avail.



The following two speculations about the significance of Wei for classical Chinese philosophy are worth presenting, though they do not fit into the flow of my argument. Both especially center on the state of Chung Shan and the Ti influence in northwest China.

Prusek has pointed out that in the third chapter of Mo Tzu, "On Dyeing" ("So Jan"), that of the six names on the last of the four lists of rulers whose fate was linked to their ministers' good or bad advice, four or five had some connection with the state of Chung Shan or with the Ti people. The list includes the last ruler of Chung Shan (conquered in 296 B.C.); the last ruler of Sung (destroyed in 284 B.C.); two Chin nobles who had both fought against, and allied themselves with, the Ti people (both of them killed with their families in a power struggle in 490 B.C.); and finally the Chin ruler who was defeated by his Han, Wei, and Chao vassals in 453 B.C., effectively ending Chin's supremacy -- a man who only four years earlier had conducted a major campaign against the Ti.13

Of these five, only the defeated ruler of Chin was really prominent in Chinese history, and it is reasonable to conclude that this chapter was produced in the former Chin cultural area, very likely in Chung Shan or Wei. (It also may have originated in Han, Chao, or even Ch'in; but Wei's cultural committment was greater than that of these other states, and the final destruction of Chung Shan would have a different pathos for Wei than for the other states).

The chapter "On Dyeing" ("So Jan") is almost identical to the chapter "Tang Jan" in the Lu Shih Ch'un Ch'iu, (datable to 240 B.C.) Interestingly, it is at the end of this latter chapter that we find tacked on the earliest datable reference to Lao Tan's meeting with Confucius (as mentioned above).14
It is generally agreed that the first seven chapters of Mo Tzu are late. The first three chapters are especially eclectic: "The reason that these men became famous and successful is that they were able to endure shame and humiliation" and "The big rivers do not despise the little brooklets for tributaries" (Ch. 1.) These lines, which hardly sound Mohist, are extremely close to the passages from Chs. 61 and 66 the Tao Te Ching cited above. This chapter also concludes with some remarks about an unsuccessful "Chief of a Thousand Chariots": that would be a small state, and Chung Shan and Sung were the last of the small states to be destroyed.

Reliance on good advisers and good ministers is one of the most prominent themes in these seven late chapters of Mo Tzu. The canonical chapters of Mo Tzu often appear in two or three slightly different versions, and A.C. Graham has classified these various versions into three groups (not all three of which are found for any given chapter): a purist or fundamentalist anti-feudal version, a more accomodationist version seemingly intended to be argued before an existing ruler, and finally a Ch'u version which made special concessions to the especially aristocratic culture of that state.15

Arguably, the first seven chapters of the present version of Mo Tzu was produced for a Wei audience which had recent memories of the destruction of Chung Shan; the author would certainly have been an advocate of the accomodationist version of the text, though there is no reason to believe that that version was itself produced at this time.

A second possible Wei influence is on the Militarist school. Mark Edward Lewis has argued that the kind of "samurai" loyalty- to-the-death characteristic of the Chinese military caste originated in the northwest border wars, very possibly under Ti influence.16 This kind of loyalty was an innovation, replacing ascribed loyalty to a clan and a state with a sworn absolute personal loyalty to an individual military leader. While this kind of loyalty is a factor in the histories and is referred to in the works of the philosophers, for the philosophers it is a pre-existing principle: the Confucians and Yangists especially, do not advocate or defend it. Wei seems to have been the state within which Ti influence was strongest, so that if this principle was in fact learned from the Ti, as Lewis suggests, transmission may have been through Wei.



Chan, Wing-tsit, Chung kuo Che-hsueh Tz'u-tian Ta-chuan, Shui-niu Publishing, Taipei, 1983.

Chan, Wing-tsit, The Way of Lao Tzu, Library of Liberal Arts, 1963.

Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, tr. Graham, A.C., Allen and Unwin, 1981.

Chuang Tzu Chi Shih, Kuo-chia Publishing, Taipei.

Emerson, John, "A Stratification of Lao Tzu", Journal of Chinese Religions, Fall 1995 (#3), pp. 1-27.

Gernet, Jacques, A History of Chinese Civilization, Cambridge, 1972.

Graham, A.C., Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, Inst. E. Asian Philosophies, Singapore, 1986.

Graham, A.C., Divisions in Early Mohism Reflected in the Core Chapters of Mo-tzu, Inst. E. Asian Philosophies, Singapore, 1985.

Hermann, Albert, An Historical Atlas of China, Aldine, 1966.

Hsun Tzu, ed. Wang Chung-lin, San Min Publishing, Taipei, 1974.

Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa, BMFEA Bulletin #29, Stockholm, 1957.

Lau, D.C., tr., Tao Te Ching, 1982, Chinese U. Press, Hong Kong.

Lewis, Mark Edward, Sanctioned Violence in Early China, SUNY, 1990.

Li Xue-qin, Eastern Chou and Ch'in Civilization, Yale 1985.

Lü Shih Ch'un Ch'iu, Yi-wen Publishing, Taipei, 1974.

Mencius, The Works of Mencius, tr. Legge, Dover, 1970.

Mo Tzu, The Works of Mo Tzu, tr. Mei, Confucius Pub. Co., Taipei, 1976.

Tao Te Ching, tr. Lau, D. C., Chinese U. Press, Hong Kong, 1982.

Prusek, Jaroslav, Chinese Statelets and the Northern Barbarians in the period 1300--300 B.C., Humanities Press, 1971.

Waley, Arthur, The Way and its Power, Grove, 1958.

1 Waley, pp. 101-108; Graham, 1986, pp. 111-125, "Origins of the Legend of Lao Tan"; see also Chan, 1963, pp. 35-59. My argument is primarily based on Graham.

2 Chuang Tzu, Graham tr. p. 154; see Prusek, pp. 196, 200-1.

3 Chuang Tzu, Graham tr., p. 229; Lü Shih Ch'un Ch'iu, Book XXI, "Ch'a Wei".

4 Hsun Tzu, pp. 105, 110; my translation. Besides the aforementioned T'o Hsiao, the only unidentifiable names in this chapter of Hsun Tzu are Ch'en Chung and Shih Ch'iao, who seem to be primitivist members of the "Nung-chia" rather than Taoists -- though this sect may indeed have had an influence on Taoism: Graham, 1986, pp. 67-110: "The Nung-Chia 'School of the Tillers' and the Origins of Peasant Utopianism in China".

5 Karlgren, 1957, p. 165; Chuang Tzu Chi Shih, p. 979; Lü Shih Ch'un Ch'iu, Book XXI, "Ch'a Wei" chapter. The name "Tan" is written with the "man" classifier (#9); in the LSCC story the phonetic "Chan" appears without a classifier; in Chuang Tzu it is written with the "eye" classifier (#109) and pronounced "Chan".

6 What I say about Wei, Chin, and Chung Shan history is derived almost entirely from Prusek, especially pp. 150-206.

The relationships between Wei and its neighbors and dependencies can be seen on the map on p. 8 of Herman, 1966; the "Shang Marches" are the area west of the Huang Ho bordering on Ch'in. Note that Han, like Wei, controls non-adjacent dependencies.

7 All citations from the Tao Te Ching are from Lau's translation.

8 Lao Tan's funeral: Chuang Tzu, Graham tr., p. 65. Confucius' meeting with Lao Tan: Lü Shih Ch'un Ch'iu, Book II, "Tang Jan". Most of this chapter is identical with the Mo Tzu chapter "So Jan", which probably originated in Wei; the Lao Tan -Confucius story is tacked onto the end. See Appendix.

9 Emerson, 1995. For the purposes of the present paper, the "early" and "middle" layers proposed in 1995 are merged and called "early"; the "late layer" stays the same.

10 Chan Tzu appears a a prognosticator in Han Fei Tzu's "Chieh Lao" chapter, and is referred to as a master-fisherman in Huai Nan Tzu's "Yuan Tao" and "Lan Ming" chapters.

11 Gernet, p. 103.


12 Graham, 1986, p. 116

13 Prusek pp. 195-6, 201, 205; Mo Tzu, Ch. 3, pp. 20-21.

14  "Tang Jan", Lü Shih Ch'un Ch'iu, Book II, p. 57

15 Graham, 1985

16 Lewis, pp 75-80; p. 279 n. 103.