Wuwei is the principle of non-action and it is an essential concept within philosophical Daoism. It has commonly been misunderstood to refer to inaction based upon a doctrine of amorality. Rather, wuwei refers generally to the principle of acting in a way that does not impede the internal nature, or ziran, of all things. The way in which an individual can be said to be enacting wuwei, as well as what the internal nature of all things is, are both contentious and debated issues within philosophical Daoism. The purpose of this essay is twofold: to delineate the prominent definitions of wuwei as developed by the Chinese classics and to note the moral implications of various interpretations.
Historical Definitions of Wuwei
There is no consensual definition of wuwei by the great Chinese classics. The most widely-accepted definitions, however, are from Laozi and Zhuangzi. Additionally, the definition of wuwei by Yang Zhu, as well as the definitions provided by the Expositors, Anti-Sovereignists, and the Huang-Lao school (as ideological offshoots of Zhuangzi) have also been prominent within Daoism. These various interpretations form the essential understanding of wuwei within philosophical Daoism.
Laozi is considered the creator of the term, wuwei, as no records of this term prior to his writings are known to exist (Liu 41). For Laozi, wuwei pertained both to the social realm and to the political realm, and it was understood as a tool for achieving a specific end. Within the political realm, Laozi believed that the most fruitful kind of political action was passive and subtle. By taking action, or youwei, this inevitably leads to poverty. Enacting prohibitions impoverish people, developing cunning produces viciousness, and promoting a legal-framework leads to law-breaking. From this understanding, Laozi promoted the idea that political leadership proved more fruitful by applying wuwei, or non-action (42-43). Within the social sphere, Laozi believed that wuwei could serve as a tool for realizing specific goals. Wuwei was the tool of taking the opposite approach, the approach of non-action, in order to achieve the goal that one would otherwise attempt to reach through youwei (43). This idea is emphasized in the Daodejing, “he who conquers the domain does so by doing nothing” (Byrn 48). Moeller explains this concept by providing the analogy of the child learning a language: while the adult strives with intention to learn a language, they are unlikely ever to master it. The child, merely being receptive to language by observation and practice, is likely to learn language in a way far superior to the adult. While this does not accurately depict why a child can learn a language better than an adult, it does delineate wuwei as an effective receptiveness in comparison to youwei, an ineffective forcefulness. For Laozi, the idea of wuwei was understood as a sociopolitical tool which would lead to fruitfulness.
Zhuangzi significantly altered the meaning of wuwei by taking it literally and removing it from the scope of practical application. Wuwei, for Zhuangzi, was viewed as a transcendental way to attain inner-peace and harmony. Wuwei was a method by which to live the path of “free and easy wandering” (Liu 46-48). This particular path means ceasing to draw distinctions about the world which are then internalized. It is about forfeiting the distinction between happiness and sadness, right and wrong, being and non-being, life and death, and so forth. To draw distinctions is to act by way of imposing subjective perspectives onto the world. The idea of subjectivity is emphasized in the chapter, “Autumn Floods,” where the River God converses with Jo of the North Sea. In the parable, they discuss how the qualities a thing has, such as bigness or smallness, are all related to perspective (Waley 96-109). The concept of Wuwei means to cease to draw these distinctions, stemming from an understanding that all experience is ultimately subjective. Wuwei, to Zhuangzi, is thus the path of complete acceptance and utter indifference to the distinctions imposed by subjective experience.
While less dominant, the conceptions of wuwei by Yang Zhu, the Expositors, the Anti-Sovereignists, and the Huang-Lao school have still been influential within Daoism. For Yang Zhu, wuwei served the goal of maintaining personal well-being and health. It was the process by which one refrained from doing anything for society or for others on the basis that doing so would incur risk, harm, and loss. As such, wuwei was the process by which a person avoided selflessness in order to maintain the self (Liu 45-46). The Expositors, Anti-Sovereignists, and the Huang-Lao school are all seceding schools of thought from Zhuangzi that have modified his ideas to varying extents (48). For the Expositors, wuwei was a means by which one could produce beautiful and natural artwork (48-49). It was the process of losing oneself entirely and becoming perfectly attuned to one’s work in what Westerners would better understand as the “flow state” (Silva). This process is similarly captured in Zhuangzi’s parable of the hunchback balancing cicada wings:
No matter how huge heaven and earth, or how numerous the ten thousand things, I’m aware of nothing but cicada wings. Not wavering, not tipping, not letting any of the other ten thousand things take the place of those cicada wings – how can I help but succeed? (Waley 121)
As for the Anti-Sovereignists and the Huang-Lao school, they were more concerned with achieving political goals rather than aesthetics. The Anti-Sovereignists took a more radical position than Laozi, arguing that the optimal government wasn’t a passive government but the absence of one. They viewed government as infringing upon human nature and that the only way to ensure the safeguarding of human nature and flourishing was to abolish the government. Wuwei, for the Anti-Sovereignists, meant the abolition of the government (Liu 50-52).
The Huang-Lao school, alternatively, viewed wuwei and youwei as both necessary components to the functioning of political society, and even radically interpreted certain forms of activity as still being compatible with wuwei in their later Huainanzi document. Originally, the Huang-Lao school drew a distinction between the realms of wuwei and youwei, arguing that wuwei was to be practiced by the emperor and by royalty whereas youwei was to be practiced by government officials. Wuwei was seen as the path of heaven and thus, as royalty occupied the place of heaven on earth, it was viewed as exclusively a royal path. Youwei, on the other hand, was viewed as the path of man and thus was argued to be necessary for all those within the human realm, such as government officials. One would tend to the heavens and the other would tend to man, but both were necessary if the state was to function (52-54). Their later Huainanzi text radicalized the definition of wuwei, arguing that certain actions were compatible with wuwei so long as they did not infringe upon nature. An individual could still develop their abilities, profit from the world, and act so long as it did not interfere with nature (54-56). For example, to cut down a tree or to dam a river would be youwai because it interfered with nature, but to use a tree for shade or to use a river for bathing would still be wuwei. The distinction is that, even though one benefits from their action, it does not obstruct nature. Tersely, acting is permitted under wuwei so long as it does not interfere with the course of nature.
Moral Implications of Wuwei
In the discussion of the moral implications of wuwei, the concept or ziran is of vital importance. The definition of ziran can be interpreted in different ways depending on its context. In one sense, it can refer to the internal nature of a thing, or in another sense, it can be defined as self-spontaneity (Lai 325-32). Ziran, cosmologically, is also understood as the principle of self-emergence. Unlike in much of Western culture, which understands cosmology as a chain of causal events, the concept of ziran emphasizes the self-generating capacity of individual objects. This means that both the sun and the moon are the source of their sunness of moonness rather than other cosmological bodies (Jianliang 530). Ziran thus refers to the internal nature by which all things emerge and by the spontaneity which, unconstrained, perpetuates a thing’s whole and complete self.
Similarly, Daoism recognizes that the ziran of all things is determined by every other thing. It begins from a sense of universality in which all things are interdependent and interconnected. All things have self-emerged together and are unified harmoniously. From this, there is an ethical valuation of this interdependency and interconnectedness as opposed to ethical valuations from expressions of human-made social order, such as social convention, political ideologies, and so forth. Thus, Daoism is strongly anti-anthropocentric, recognizing and affirming the significance of all things by way of their ziran (528-9).
To recognize ziran is to recognize that all things are ultimately self-contained and harmonious as they are. This recognition is what relates to the principle of wuwei, which is the idea that one should not interfere with the ziran of any particular thing, for it is harmonious and perfect in its own nature. Gao Qingfan’s commentary illustrates this principle:
Those perfectly correct things do not lose their nature… what is long is not too long, what is short is not too short. A duck’s legs, for instance, are short, but if we try to lengthen them, it occasions pain; a crane’s legs are long, but if we try to cut off a portion of them, it produces grief. (qtd. in Jianliang 531)
By recognizing that all things are harmonious, as they are acting in accordance with their ziran, the principle of wuwei acts as an ethical obligation to not interfere (531). As such, wuwei is not about inaction, but about action which does not interfere with the ziran of others.
In a similar vein, the principle of wuwei can be extrapolated as a principle of governance. The idea of wuwei in political action can be thought of as that which does not restrict human needs. Many political systems, such as liberal democracy, focus on the notion of realizing the wills of political actors, whether it be the will of the people, the will of political leaders, or some other construction. This is not the case with wuwei in political thought. Rather, it can be conceived of as avoiding the restriction of human needs (e.g. food, shelter, clothing) (Moeller). Viewed in the affirmative context, wuwei can be viewed as acting to ensure that the infringement upon human ziran (e.g. such as by coercive government policies) are removed (Lai 332-4). Thus, within the political sphere, wuwei can refer to a kind of leadership which does not restrict human needs and which actively works to eliminate unnatural restrictions on human needs.
Finally, wuwei operates according to the principles of “objectless desire,” “unprincipled knowing,” and “non-coercive action” (Jianliang 533-5). Objectless desire refers to the state in which an individual allows themselves to desire something without the need to control that thing or alienate it from its ziran (533). The concept of unprincipled knowing is the process by which one discards all heuristics and ideologies in order to understand things as they really are. It is a form of learning and knowledge which recognizes the subjectivity of all experiences and does not attempt to impose constraints on received information (533-4). Lastly, non-coercive action is the process of realizing one’s objectless desires such that, true to the objectlessness of their desires, they do not impede the ziran of other things (534-5). One can desire shade and acquire it without cutting down a tree. Similarly, one can desire to bathe without damming a river. These culminate in the notion of wuwei, which is to act without diverting the ziran of other things.
Unlike as is commonly assumed, the various definitions of wuwei do pertain to a normative and prescriptive code of morality. The link between all of the definitions is that they extend from the recognition that all things operate according to their ziran and that all things, already functioning harmoniously, should not be impeded. This moral perspective commands an equal respect and consideration for all things while simultaneously demanding that one does not impose themselves upon others. It begins with something much more fundamental than human codes of conduct or rules, arguing its particular prescriptions from a metaphysical understanding instead. It synthesizes the human ziran of desire and action with an equal respect for the ziran of all other things. Lastly, wuwei redirects human attention away from the successful imposition of their will upon reality and, instead, toward a contentedness with all things in their natural state. Wuwei, the Daoist principle of non-action, is a moral principle that focuses on upholding universal and individual harmony.
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