Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2004
Published: 2004

The reconstructed portrait of Laozi


His name was originally ‘Li Er’ and he worked as an archivist at the court of a monarch from the ruling Zhou dynasty. But he became generally known by the name of ‘Laozi’, which means something like ‘Old Master’. For Laozi (*604–†531 bce) was mainly a philosopher and he wrote Daodejing (= ‘Book on the Way and the Virtue’). Laozi believed that it was better to adapt oneself spontaneously to the circumstances of life than to force, to worry, or to try to get hold on something. He clearly distinguished knowledge from wisdom and he attached great value to simplicity, integrity, compassion, and modesty. His advice was to live according to wu wei (= ‘without striving’), like bending reed in the wind. Or, like Laozi himself phrased it: “What gives way, will be whole. What bends, will straighten. Act without striving and nothing will be out of balance” (Daodejing, fragments from chapter 22 and chapter 3). He ended his days in seclusion. As a national religion and political theory the ideas of Laozi — denominated ‘Daoism’ — would have great, lasting influence on Chinese history.

How should we picture the appearance of Laozi? The written sources remain completely silent in this matter. The earliest paintings from China on which humans have been depicted true to nature to some extent date from the third and second century bce. Therefore, the image of Laozi has to be build up entirely from assumptions. He worked as a civil servant at the court of the then highest man in power of China. Consequently Laozi belonged to the upper class of Chinese society and, in general, its fashion of clothing appears to have been rather consistent from those early images up till the end of the nineteenth century ce. So we can quite safely assume that Laozi, as visible on the earliest paintings, wore a long garment that covered the body completely, with long, loose sleeves. He probably had long hair that had been tied together into a little bun, possibly in combination with a small headgear. There are no direct indications that Laozi wore a beard or moustache.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Laozi? From sixth century China bce only few objects of art have been preserved. It's clear though that Laozi lived at a time in which the way of depicting was changing (for that matter in contrast to the mentioned way to dress, or the practice of writing, for example) — in the age that's currently known as Dong Zhou (= ‘Eastern’ Zhou). Firm, symmetrical, and geometric decorations gradually made room for spontaneous, expressive, or even realistic creations. It's significant that exactly during this age the brush as a tool and silk as a sub-soil went into use, whereas bronze, jade, and wood had been the basic materials up till then. Apart from this development, it's clear that only a simple, smooth style without ornaments fits the philosophy of Laozi. In fact — just like the appearance of Laozi — this contemporary style has to be invented altogether, though inspired by later examples.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. The shape of the face, the hairdo, the pleated garment, and the way Laozi leans on his stick were taken from one or more of the earliest paintings. These also show, in more than one occasion, the almost abstract ends of the garment. The style is sober and simply consists of black lines, without colour or shades of grey. The lines are somewhat expressive due to the strong alternation of thick and thin. Laozi was reproduced in side view, without depth, because at his time this way of depicting must still have been the most common one.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated.


  • Laozi, Daodejing (Zhongguo ca. 550 bce). The literal meaning of the title is ‘way virtue book’. The text consists of 81 short, poetic chapters. Many different translations and interpretations of Daodejing exist because the text can be explained in multiple ways. The original, Chinese text of the quotations reads “Qu ze quan, wang ze zhi. Wa ze ying, bi ze xin” (from chapter 22) and “Wei wu wei, ze wu bu zhi” (from chapter 3). The best non-Chinese counterpart of wu wei is perhaps no spang (= ‘no stress’, ‘don't worry’) in Sranan.
  • Examples of the earliest paintings in Chinese art on which humans have been depicted true to nature to some extent:
    • Painting on silk containing the representation of a woman and a phoenix, Zhongguo: Changsha: Hunan Provincial Museum (Zhongguo 3rd century bce). The painting was found in 1949 ce in a grave near the city of Changsha.
    • Painting on silk containing the image of a man accompanied by a dragon, a phoenix, and a fish, Zhongguo: Changsha: Hunan Provincial Museum (Zhongguo 3rd century bce). The painting possibly represents the deceased nobleman ascending to heaven. It was discovered in a grave near Changsha.
    • T-shaped, painted silk banner (feiyi), Zhongguo: Changsha: Hunan Provincial Museum (Zhongguo ca. 168 bce). The banner was found in 1972 ce in the grave of a noblewoman, in tomb 1 of mound Mawangdui, near the city of Changsha. It's approximately 2 m. long and it contains scenes from the life of the noblewoman and the afterlife, with representations of humans, birds, snakes, dragons, and other creatures.
    • Painted tiles, usa: Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 25.10 (Zhongguo 1st century bce). On these tiles — discovered in 1915 ce near Luoyang — members of a local royal household have been reproduced with expressive brush strokes.

Alternatives for ‘Laozi’: Lao Zi / Laotzu / Lao-tzu / Lao Tzu / Laotsu / Lao-tsu / Lao Tsu / Laotze / Lao-tze / Lao Tze / Laotse / Lao-tse / Lao Tse.

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