Laozi’s notions of wuwei and ziran

Daoist thinker Laozi.

In early Daoist philosophy, dao is a fundamental concept. From the ancient text of the Daodejing, consisting of 81 chapters, we may first understand dao as a metaphysical concept. In metaphysical terms, dao could mean the origination and principles attached to beginnings of life, material things, and reality. However, dao also covers meta-ethical ideas, which water down to concepts such as wuwei and ziran. In this post, we’ll be exploring these ideas specifically. And to better illuminate them, we shall consider a counter-argument from Confucian thought and see how Laozi might’ve defended his position.


Wuwei is literally translated as ‘no action’. Yet, such literal interpretation isn’t very helpful. A better way to understand the concept of wuwei is to analyse its usage in the Daodejing whilst keeping in mind Laozi’s concept of dao which is based on the principles of non-being and being, where non-being and being bear equal importance. In Daodejing 11:

Thirty spokes

Share one hub.

Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.

Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

Here, we see that non-being – the holes between the spokes of a wheel, the emptiness of a clay vessel, and the empty spaces of the doors and windows of a room – gives rise to the usefulness of the parts that are already in being. We can look at a cup as another example. If the cup was not to have empty space, it cannot hold water and such a cup serves no use. Perhaps for Laozi, wuwei, akin to a cup’s emptiness, is much needed for an action’s usefulness. Without it, action would be of no use.

Another interpretation of wuwei is that it is a methodology for the doing of things, as in Daodejing 48:

… in pursuit of the way [dao] one does less every day. One does less and less until one does nothing at all [wuwei], and when one does nothing at all [wuwei] there is nothing that is undone. …

From this interpretation, wuwei can mean effortless action – to hack away at what is unnecessary until one is left with maximal efficiency and nothing is left undone. We can also interpret wuwei as non-interference with the concept, ziran.

Ziran can be seen as either a noun or an adjective. As a noun, ziran denotes nature. Specifically, ziran denotes various aspects of the natural world and emphasises a naturalistic perspective for dao. In Daodejing 25, a human society which models after dao is ultimately modelled after ziran (nature):

… Man models himself on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the way [dao],
And the way [dao] on that which is naturally so.

According to this interpretation, dao conforms to the ways of nature and is indifferent to all creatures, including humans. This means that dao disregards any form of human control. As such, the best response to a naturalistic dao is wuwei – to not cause unwarranted action in ziran (nature) and let things naturally be.

As an adjective, ziran denotes spontaneity and it’s grounded in a Daoist notion of self, one that is free to articulate itself within an ever-changing environment. From this interpretation, wuwei does not disturb the ziran (spontaneity) of the individual. Instead, it appreciates the spontaneity of oneself or another person. Notice that, here, we get an action-guiding principle rather than an entity or natural world which ziran (nature) refers to. When applied to individuals, the action-guiding principle of ziranwuwei promotes optimal self-realisation of the individuals, given their context.

It seems that for Laozi, ziranwuwei serves as a know-how guide which respects individual spontaneity, rather than a normative how-to guide which prescribes a fixed course of action. This action-guiding principle of ziranwuwei is perhaps described most clearly in Daodejing 64:

… He who takes action [wei] fails.
He who grasps things loses them.
For this reason the sage takes no action [wuwei] and therefore does not fail.
He grasps nothing and therefore he does not lose anything.
People in their handling of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed. …

Laozi might say that taking action (wei) causes unnecessary interference with the ziran (spontaneity) of an individual, whereas not taking action (wuwei) does not. Moreover, he might stress that since dao is modelled after ziran, an individual who adopts the action-guiding principle of ziranwuwei is able to act in accordance to dao.

We’ve been speaking hitherto of the concepts – ziran and wuwei – which make up an ethical framework that warrants respect for individual spontaneity. Now, I wish to contrast the concept of wuwei to that of youwei. Whilst wuwei may mean passive action, youwei is the opposite – meaning deliberate action. One who does youwei is one that plans, devises, and manipulates. The normative codes of conduct given by li (rituals; rites) that is endorsed in Confucianism is based on the principles of youwei. Hence, a Confucianist might highlight liyouwei as an objection to Laozi’s notion of ziranwuwei.

Confucius thinks that benevolence is a characteristic element of humanity.

In Confucianism, the concepts ren (benevolance; compassion) and li are put in high regard. It could be said that ren and li are interdependent – ren manifests in li. Confucius might say that through li-behaviours, one learns about ren. The result is a ren-person who has practical wisdom with an ability to learn from others in order to reflect on one’s own situation, and to apply these insights to one’s actions. In other words, through the educational function of li, one gains a reflective ability to be educated about moral values such as ren. In Analects 12:1, we see a short discourse on this:

Yen Yüan asked about benevolence. The Master said, ‘To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes benevolence. If for a single day a man could return to the observance of rites through overcoming himself, then the whole Empire would consider benevolence to be his. However, the practice of benevolence depends on oneself alone, and not on other.’

Yen Yüan said, ‘I should like you to list the items.’ The Master said, ‘Do not look unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not listen unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not speak unless it is accordance with the rites; do not move unless it is in accordance with the rites.’

Yen Yüan said, ‘Though I am not quick, I shall direct my efforts towards what you have said.’

However, the Confucian method for cultivating ren is in conflict with Daoism, as seen in Daodejing 19:

Abandon sageliness and discard wisdom;
Then the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Abandon humanity [ren] and discard righteousness;
Then the people will return to filial piety and deep love. …

Indeed, it seems that Laozi is against li’s educational function, since people seem to benefit, somehow, by discarding wisdom. Laozi might argue that since li-practices are artificial and that li is considered to be youwei, it follows that li-practices are against a naturalistic and spontaneous dao. I would agree with Laozi and add that the manipulative doing (of li-youwei) for one to cultivate ren and other moral values is not compatible with the natural non-doing (of ziranwuwei) for one to be acting in accordance to dao. Hence, as an educational tool, li opposes wuwei and impedes the self-realisation of individuals.

Nevertheless, I think that the principles of liyouwei and ziranwuwei are running in parallel lines that will never meet and agree with each other, as suggested in Daodejing 38:

… Hence when the way [dao] was lost there was virtue; when virtue was lost there was benevolence [ren]; when benevolence [ren] was lost there was rectitude; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [li]. …


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