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Cameron Freeman

A working definition of the Chinese term ‘wuwei’ (nonaction, doing nothing)

The teachings of Laozi says the Dao cannot be named or spoken, that it is the mother of all things, mysterious (Sources:79-80) and can only be known through a inexplicable intuition (Sources:78). This connection to the Dao enables a "sage" to respond "spontaneously, harmoniously and adapt to any situation that arises" (Sources:263). To achieve this subtle "intuition" of the Dao or the Way, Laozi uses the term "wuwei" that is "doing nothing" as a means to an end that resolves distinctions and separateness and guides one back to simplicity and alignment with the Dao. (Sources:79). Laozi's concept "wuwei" is a specific approach or instruction of governing for the "ruling classes". This sounds paradoxical in that by "doing nothing" a worthy ruler can acquire an empire (Sources:90), an outcome that implies he has done something. It is through this paradox that the definition of "wuwei" takes shape and form.

What does Laozi mean by "doing nothing"? In the Daodejing, Laozi teaches us that our "doings", that is our pursuits and ambitions lead one to conflict and blinds us from the Way. For example, if there is pride, people will compete. If we value luxurious items, people will envy, covet and steal (Sources:80). Therefore, the sage who detaches himself from his desires, motives, rewards, punishments, and empties his mind of all distinctions and precedents, becomes content and tranquil. He sets a moral example by which the people correct themselves. By doing nothing the sage king brings order to the empire. (Sources:81, 87). This concept of neutrality, of no intentional action is the heart of governing by wuwei.

How does one establish an effective and just government by doing nothing? A sage king is like the eye of the hurricane, he is indifferent to the strife around him. He is calm and his attachments are diminished. He clears his mind of thoughts and prejudices and achieves tranquility so that he may respond, in accordance to the Way, intuitively and adapt to any situation that may arise (Sources:256). In this state, the sage king sees all things clearly. He understands their position and relationship to one another. The sage king does not intervene directly in state affairs. (Sources:261). His position is like the mind in the body. He does not obstruct his governing officials, just as the mind does not interfere directly with the functioning of the body's organs, allowing them to fulfill their proper duties (Sources:258). The leader leads and the follower follows. If the leader follows he ceases being a leader. Therefore the sage king does not take action. He listens while others speak. He reflects while administrators propose. He observes while his ministers act in accordance to their duties (Sources:269). Hence the sage king acts without effort (wuwei). Both leader and follower are complementary and content and the state is governed by one who does no governing (Sources:387-388).

To summarize, the concept of doing nothing (wuwei) does not mean sitting idle and saying nothing (Sources:388), otherwise each thing will follow its own desires and ambitions leading to chaos. The principle of "no action" for the ruler is two fold, "in stillness a sage, in motion a king" (Sources:263), meaning the sage ruler is quiet and clear of all knowledge, prejudices, desires and ambitions. He is neutral. He is indifferent to his own ego. In this extreme meditative state, the sage ruler can intuitively recognize the Dao pattern and what response is required. He employs his administrators and officials to initiate the required action. The sage king delegates everything and does nothing. This is how a sage ruler attains the principle of wuwei and acquires an empire.


Theodore de Bary, Wm, and Irene Bloom
1999 Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1: From Earliest Times to 1600. 2nd Ed. Columbia University Press.