Understanding and Illustrating the Laozi
Commentaries From the 3rd Century B.C.E.
The enormous influence of the Laozi or Daodejing (ca. 4th-3rd centuries B.C.E.) on Chinese intellectual history is all out of proportion to its exceedingly brief length. Though Laozi scholarship has thrived in the West, the oldest extant commentaries of this text – Understanding Laozi (Jie Lao 解老) and Illustrating Laozi (Yu Lao 喻老) – remain practically unexplored. Questions abound concerning their authorship and philosophical orientation, and we lack reliable translations of them in English. I argue, based on textual evidence and consideration of recent archaeological finds, that the two commentaries were written by different individuals sometime during the 3rd century B.C.E., neither of whom was Han Feizi (their purported author). I then provide probable dates and historical contexts for the commentaries, followed by full translations of each. Last revision: Fall 2006.