A core Course of General Education An outline of the Traditional Chinese Culture 中国传统文化概览 Shandong University Contents

Section 6 Eminent Personnel in the Ancient Times

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Section 6 Eminent Personnel in the Ancient Times

Lao Zi

Famous Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao Zi (also known as Lao Tzu, Lao Tse or Lao Tze) was born at Ku Prefecture (today’s Luyi County of Henan province) in the later years of the Spring and Autumn Period. His real name was Li Er and his courtesy name was Dan. Lao Zi was an older contemporary of Confucius and once worked as an archivist in the imperial library of the Zhou Dynasty before he retired from public life.

It is widely believed that he was the author of the Taoist scripture Lao Zi (also known as Tao Te Ching, or Dao De Jing, roughly translated as Book of the Way and Its Virtue). Slightly more than 5 000 characters, this book is considered as one of the most influential texts on Chinese philosophy and religion. The core of Lao Zi’s thought is “Tao” (the Way), by which he refered to the condition of the universe before the creation of the heaven and the earth. Therefore, it is from Tao that all the elements of the universe are derived. Reversal enables Tao to have a circular movement, that is, when the development of anything brings it to one extreme, a reversal to the other extreme takes place. Using Tao as the point of departure of his philosophy, Lao Zi believed that soft and weak overcome hard and strong (“Of all things yielding and weak in the world, none is more so than water. But for attacking what is unyielding and strong, nothing is superior to it.”). He upheld the idea of stillness and tranquility (“Attain utmost vacuity, hold fast to quietude.”) and suggested that only through “cleansing and purifying the distracting thoughts” can one understand one’s true self. For him, it was more important to “see the simplicity, to realize one’s true nature, to cast off selfishness, and to temper desire”. Lao Zi attached importance to the withdrawal in oneself, especially through the cultivation and regulation of mentality with one’s own efforts. Politically, Lao Zi advocated ruling by non-action or inaction (“wu wei”), on which he wrote that “I take no action and people are reformed. I enjoy peace and people become honest. I do nothing and people become rich. I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.” and “If you try to change it (the universe), you will ruin it. If you try to hold it, you will lose it.” Lao Zi also took an anti-war stance: “Weapons are the tools of fear; a decent man will avoid them, except in the direst necessity.” The idealistic state in his description is naturalistic, even primitive and in isolation: “Let your community be small, with only a few people.” Lao Zi believed that the force behind the motion of the universe is overwhelming: “What is higher is pulled down, and what is lower is raised up; what is taller is shortened, and what is thinner is broadened; Nature’s motion decreases those who have more than they need and increases those who need more than they have.” Lao Zi’s pursuit of vacuity and action through non-action echoes the reality of his time, a period torn by ceaseless wars among states. His philosophy reflects the exploration of an intellectual for the ultimate solution of the social order and individual freedom.

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