The Dao de Jing (道德經 pinyin:dao4 de2 jing1; in the older Wade-Giles transliteration: Tao teh ching) is an ancient Chinese writing orginally named Lao zi (Wade-Giles, Lao tzu, generally accepted to have been penned about 600 BC by a fellow called Lao zi ("Old Master'), who was reputed to be a record-keeper of the Emperor's Court of the Chou Dynasty. The existence of Lao zi is historically supported by mentions of him in scrolls dating back to 400 BC, but the details of his life were not contemporaneously recorded. Chinese historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien wrote a supposed "biography" of him in about 100 BC, indicating that his birth name was Li Erh.
Scholars debate the authorship of the current version of the Dao de jing. Sections of it in its current form have been found engraved on stone tablets dated to 300 BC. The 1973 archeological discovery of complete Chinese "scrolls" (factually silk rolls called the Ma-wang-tui Texts after the village where they were found. Text A, which has more lacunae, is thought to have been written sometime before Text B which has been dated to 200 BC) reveal that the Dao de jing as modernly reported is the same form as that which was written in antiquity, thus limiting the time period during which the writings might have been changed or contributed to.
As early as the 1930s, a way to resolve disputes over authorship without declaring who is right or wrong (a Daoist solution, if you will) may have been proposed. In an essay accompanying a translation by Wai-tao and Dwight Goddard, Dr. Kiang Kang-hu offers, "Three Taoist sages who lived two or three hundred or more years apart, according to history, are commonly believed to be the same man, who by his wisdom had attained longevity? The simpler and more probable solution of the confusion is to accept the historicity of all three but to give credit for the original writing to Lao zi and consider the others as able disciples and possibly editors. The book in its present form might not have been written until the third century BC for it was engraved on stone tablets soon after that time". Credit for some verses might be conditionally given to later Daoists "without detracting from the larger credit that belongs to Lao-Tzu".
What is attributed to Lao zi contains none of the above.
Instead, the Dao de jing is concise, if poetical; purely mystical; and exceedingly practical.
The Dao de jing points out universal truths which have since been independently recognized in other philosophies, both religious and secular. Each English Language interpretation (including even interpretation of the three-character title), of which there are dozens, differs slightly or profoundly from the next. Suffice it to say that Lao zi demonstrated an understanding of such principles as these:
Force begets force. One whose needs are simple will find them fulfilled. Wealth does not enrich the spirit. Self-interest and self-importance are vain and self-destructive. Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned. The harder one tries, the more resistance he will create for himself. The more one acts in harmony with the universe, the more he will achieve, with less effort. The truly wise make little of their own wisdom - for the more they know, the more they realize how little they know. It is wise to repay kindness with kindness and to repay evil with kindness. We are our brothers' keepers. Skill averts waste. When we lose the fundamentals, we supplant them with increasingly inferior values which we pretend are the true values. Stupidity leads to force. The wise are responsible for the foolish. The honest are responsible for the dishonest. The teacher is responsible for his student. Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame. The "feminine" qualities of flexibility and suppleness are superior to "masculine" strength and rigidity. Everything in its own time and place.
Behind all this, Lao zi speaks of the ineffable Dao, or the "Way," which is described as the indivisible and indescribable unifying principle of the universe, from which all flows. It is without time, form or substance, and exterior/senior to these traits. The simpler one becomes, the greater hope he has of co-existing with the Tao, which is the only way one can truly understand it.
In stark contrast to his near-contemporary Confucius, who was steeped in the importance of propriety and form, Lao zi eschewed appearance and ceremony in favor of meaning and substance. He valued the "fruit" above the "flower."