Quite a few people who study the Tao love the idea that the name Lao Tzu / Laozi has the dual meaning of “Old Master” and “Ancient Child.” They feel this is a higher level of wisdom that points to the childlike sense of wonder in the heart of a Tao sage. The idea is appealing because it matches what many think is cool about the Tao. There are authors who write about this, professors who teach this — and they all seem quite sure about it.
Unfortunately, an idea that sounds cool isn’t necessarily right. Lao Tzu / Laozi does not mean Old Child, Ancient Child, Old Son, Ancient Son, Old Boy, Ancient Boy, or other similar permutations — not today nor at any time in history; not in Mandarin or any Chinese dialect.
In a different context, the character tzu or zi can mean “child” or “son,” and that’s the source of misconception. In the context of an honorary title, it can only mean “master” or “great teacher” and that’s it. There is no double meaning, veiled hint, skillful pun, or hidden humor. Whatever higher level of wisdom people imagine is just that — unfounded imagination.
Upon hearing this, some may shrug and say: “Whatever. I’ll just let the scholars fight it out.” This assumes the point is a matter of scholarly debate, but it’s not. It’s simply a matter of logic and actual (as opposed to imagined) linguistic meaning. To a native speaker of Chinese, there is no controversey.
When applied as an honorific, the tzu character is used for many other great teachers from Chinese history. Some of the better known ones in the West are Chuang Tzu, Sun Tzu, and Confucius (Kong Tzu). In the Pinyin system these would be written as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Kongzi respectively.
The tzu character is used in the exact same way for all of these sages (for our specific examples, we can also note that it is used in the exact same way for them during the same period in Chinese history). Therefore, if it really does have a dual meaning for Lao Tzu, it must also have the same dual meaning for all of them. This means Chuang Tzu becomes “Chuang Child,” Sun Tzu becomes “Sun Child,” Confucius becomes “Kong Child,” and so on for all the other sages with the same title.
Some of the people who think Lao Tzu means “Old Child” also believe that Taoism is diametrically opposite to Confucianism. To them, the idea that the strict, un-Tao-like Confucius can be the Kong Child would probably be contradictory. And how about the Art of War having been written by Sun Tzu, the Sun Child? Does that point to the hidden wisdom that warfare is, um… child’s play?
Clearly, this makes no sense. The idea that Lao Tzu can mean “Ancient Child” leads to strange conclusions — unless we come up with additional, equally contrived theories to explain why it’s true only for Lao Tzu, or perhaps only for Taoist sages, but not for anyone else.
How did the misconception come about in the first place? There are several primary sources: 1) superstitious stories invented by the Chinese about Lao Tzu being born old; 2) Western misunderstanding of the Chinese language, largely by academics who can’t speak Chinese but are nevertheless seen as authorities on the subject; 3) puns made by the Chinese, not intended to be taken seriously; 4) a few Chinese people who perpetuate the misconception because they don’t know their own language all that well, thereby unwittingly giving the notion an aura of authenticity. If a Chinese person says Lao Tzu means Old Son or some such, then you just know it has to be true, right?
In the actual Chinese language, the two characters lao tzu can have another meaning when used in another context, but it’s like absolutely nothing imagined by Western academics.
In this other context, the tzu character looks the same but is pronounced in a different pitch. An English speaker probably won’t be able to tell the difference. When pronounced this way, the meaning is 1) father and 2) a rude and crude way to refer to oneself.
For instance, when a bully wants to pick a fight, he may say: “lao zi zo ni!” This can be translated as “I’ll beat you up!” And if we break it down linguistically, we’ll see that what it says has the compressed meaning of: “I, your daddy, will beat you up!”
The rude and crude part of it is the assertion of oneself over another, similar to the American expression, “who’s your daddy?” Only someone who has no class would be so insulting to someone else. Therefore, the phrase can only be suitable for people at the lowest level of Chinese society — illiterate and ignorant criminals, gangsters, thugs, and so on.
Note that in this situation the reality is almost the exact opposite of the misconception. The alternative meaning of lao tzu turns out to be more like father than son.
Note also that none of this implies that the original author of the Tao Te Ching has a name that can mean “Old Master,” “Father” and “Self” all at the same time. The different contexts don’t mix at all. Nor do they “bleed” into each other. Some Westerners may have trouble understanding this point, but there is no mystery to it. It’s common to most languages.
For instance, in English, the word “fast” means completely different things when we say “that car is fast” (meaning quick), “hold fast” (meaning unmoving), and “starting a fast” (meaning food restriction). We’re pretty comfortable with the different contexts, we know they have nothing to do with one another, and we can figure out the intended meaning based on the other words that are being said in conjunction. It’s exactly like that with Chinese.
How can the few Western writers who are still enamored with “Ancient Child” be so far off the mark? Friends who know me constantly hear me say that the study of the Tao in the West is filled with numerous misconceptions — but I think even they will be taken by surprise when they glimpse the full extent of the situation.