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Lao Tzu

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"

Lao Tzu is a major figure in Chinese philosophy whose historical existence is debated. He is recognised as the founding father of Taoism.

As with most other ancient Chinese thinkers, Lao Tzu's way of explaining his ideas often uses paradox, analogy, appropriation of ancient sayings, repetition, symmetry, rhyme and rhythm. The writings attributed to him are poetical and dense. In this quote, Lao Tzu is trying to express that great things start from humble beginnings. In the original, the text refers to "1,000 li journey". A li is an old Chinese measure of distance which converts to 360 miles or 576 km.e.

Little is known about Lao Tzu's life. His historical existence is strongly debated, as is his authorship of the seminal Taoist work, Tao Te Ching. Some legends say he was born with white hair, having spent eight or eighty years in his mother's womb.

According to tradition, Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius and worked as an archivist in the Imperial Library of the Zhou Dynasty court during the 6th century BC. Confucius intentionally or accidentally met him in Zhou, where Confucius was going to browse the library scrolls. According to these stories, Confucius discussed the cornerstones of Confucianism with Lao Tzu. The latter strongly opposed what he felt to be hollow practices, hence the birth of Taoism. Lao Tzu is an important culture hero in China.

Our Expert Says...
Professor David Crystal

The impact of the quotation arises from the fact that it is applicable to a wide range of different types of situations where something needs to be done. It is by no means restricted to travelling. Not surprisingly, therefore, many languages have proverbs which express this insight, emphasising the 'first step' as the one that counts. In this translation, we have a neat counterpoint between 'thousand miles' and 'single step'. The rhythmical parallelism is reinforced by the contrast in vowel length and consonant sonority: note especially the long vowels and liquid consonants in 'miles', and the short vowels and plosive consonants in 'step'. The force of this quotation lies in its final word.

Lao Tzu


Biography of Lao Tzu

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