A Taoist philosopher. Lao Tzu is not a proper name, but is a honorific title meaning “Old Master”, though can also be rendered as “Old Child”. Lao Tzu’s real name was Li Erh Tan (surname, personal name, public name), and he was a historian of the imperial archives in the state of Ch’u.
The oldest surviving biography of Lao Tzu can be found in the annals of one of China’s greatest historians: Ssu-ma Ch’ien, written nearly 400 years after Lao Tzu died. From him we know that Lao Tzu was born in the state of Ch’u (presently eastern Honan Province). He writes about Lao Tzu’s meeting with the philosopher Confucious (K’ung Fu-tzu) — two individuals who represented philosophies that would dominate Chinese culture and society for over 2,000 years. Ssu-ma Ch’ien explained:
“When K’ung Fu-tzu went to Ch’u, he asked Lao Tzu to tutor him in the rites. Lao Tzu replied, “The very bones of those you talk about have turned to dust. All that remains of them is their words. You know that when a noble lives in times which are good, he travels to court in a carriage. But when times are difficult, he goes where the wind blows. Some say that a wise mechant hides his wealth and thus seems poor. Likewise the sage, if he has great internal virtue, seems on the outside to be a fool. Stop being so arrogant — all these demands — your self-importance and your overkeen enthusiasm — none of this is true to yourself. That is all I have to say to you.”
K’ung left and said to this followers, “I know that a bird can fly; that fishes swim; that animals can run. Things that run can be trapped in nets. What can swim can be caught in traps. Those that fly can be shot down with arrows. But what to do with the dragon, I do not know. It rises on the clouds and the wind. Today I have met Lao Tzu, and he is like the dragon.”
Ssu-ma Ch’ien later explains that Lao-tzu, having lived in Ch’u and practiced his philosophy for decades, left due to rampant corruption throughout the society. When he reached the border, the gatekeeper asked Lao Tzu to explain his philosophy, and this he reportedly did, in two sections with five thousand characters in a book called the Tao Te Ching. He was never again seen, and it would be some 300 years until Taoism became a major philosophical force throughout China.
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