Source: p 67, Introducing Philosophy for Canadians: A Text with Integrated Readings (2011 1 ed) by Solomon, McDermid

How can one act without acting?

The question above is based on pp 65-67, which summarises Confucius and Dao De Jing by Lao-zi each to one page; but I cannot induce the answer to the above question from the excerpts.

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    Confucius and Lao-zi are different. But they both spent their life to teach people how to manage a country. As Colin explained below, "wuwei" is to manage a country without doing or saying anything, but let people do their business. It is pretty much like Liberty or Republic. – user115350 Jun 24 '16 at 4:11
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    i read some of the tao te ching and would suggest that's what the entire book is actually asking – user6917 Jun 25 '16 at 17:08

Understanding the Characters

Parsed literally wu-wei (無為) means "non-action" ("without" would be a different character bu) but "acting without acting" is a reasonable translation for the meaning of the phrase in Daoism.

Wu-wei in Confucianism

As a caveat, the term does also occur in the Analects twice and a few times in the Mengzi, but in most of the passages, the Daoist meaning would not make grammatical sense, e.g., "don't be a petty scholar" = wuwei xiaoren ru. One passage, however, could be the same idea as the Daoists :

The Master said, "May not Shun be instanced as having governed efficiently without exertion? What did he do? He did nothing but gravely and reverently occupy his royal seat." (Analects 15.5)

The phrase "without exertion" is wuwei. The passage raises three issues at once. First, it could mean either "without exertion" or "without action" depending on exactly how we understand wei (a character that can mean action and intention and effort). Second, it admits of two solutions relative to supposed splits between Confucians and Daoists. Since the Analects is a constructed text, it's possible that something in Analects 15 is a later addition by a rival school. Alternately, it's quite fair to point out that the division into schools is something that happened later in the history of Chinese thought than the supposed rivals themselves may have existed.

Wu-wei in Daosim

Putting aside whether Confucianism too has a notion of wuwei, the star of the show for wuwei and trying to understand it is Daoism (in classical text the term occurs in 104 paragraphs by ctext's count). Daoism is a composite school with several branches such that it's not common for scholars of Chinese philosophy to see the Daodejing and Zhuangzi as representing the same perspective. Instead, they are seen as representing different strands.

In the Zhuangzi, the term occurs many times, the basic concept is "action without intention" there. In other words, it is when you do not strive for a particular end or goal but rather take thing as they come. A quintessential quote:

Non-action (makes its exemplifier) the lord of all fame; non-action (serves him as) the treasury of all plans; non-action (fits him for) the burden of all offices; non-action (makes him) the lord of all wisdom. The range of his action is inexhaustible, but there is nowhere any trace of his presence. He fulfils all that he has received from Heaven, but he does not see that he was the recipient of anything. A pure vacancy (of all purpose) is what characterises him. When the perfect man employs his mind, it is a mirror. It conducts nothing and anticipates nothing; it responds to (what is before it), but does not retain it. Thus he is able to deal successfully with all things, and injures none (Zhuangzi).

The Daodejing also gives wuwei a prominent if difficult to decipher role:

When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal. (2)

The Dao in its regular course does nothing (for the sake of doing it), (3)

Therefore a sage has said, 'I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.' (57)

Precisely what this means and how it relates to having ends at all is a question of debate among scholars. Also whether Confucianism too is committed to wuwei is deeply debatable.

The Question Itself

To return more directly to the question, I'm going to assume we're referring to the philosophically important meaning in Daoism rather than trivial "not doing". In that case, "action without acting" means to accomplish things without obsessing over them or even necessarily caring about whether they happen or not. Alternately to be so in tune with the Dao that things happen with no exertion.

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  • Is this related to Mushin no shin? – user2818782 Jun 24 '16 at 9:23
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    In some senses of "related", yes. Mushin no shin is a concept in Japanese zen buddhism (= Chan Buddhism in China = a form of Buddhism that has a lot of interaction with Daoism). And both are ideas about effortless action. The means for wuwei are not as explicitly defined by classical Daoism as they would be for a zen practioner. – virmaior Jun 24 '16 at 9:25
  • @user2818782 "Mushin no shin" is an explicit contradiction. In it, "shin" is first denied and then affirmed. "Wu wei" has no contradiction. In it, "wei" is simply denied. – Colin McLarty Jun 25 '16 at 7:26

The philosopher Alan Watts has an interpretation that I find very clarifying. He says the effortless-effort (wuwei) is like using a sailboat instead of a motor boat to travel at sea. In the sense that the engine of the motor boat must work hard while the sail does nothing but harness the wind.

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While the modern textbook rendition of ``acting without acting'' is fairly close to the point, the phrase was really not offered as a logical paradox in ancient China. It just says not acting. (Wu=not, or without and wei=acting, or doing, or can even be rendered as intending. Ancient and classical Chinese do not distinguish these the way modern languages do).

It was offered as (possibly surprising) deep ethical advice which could be rendered as ``(get things done by) not doing''. The best life, or rule in a kingdom, is one without disorder. Roughly: if as ruler or sage you follow the way, rather than busying yourself with things, let alone innovating; then others will also, and all will be well. For more nuance, read those philosophers. Or see the answers to Did Confucius say "Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws"?

It is a huge topic in scholarship on Chinese philosophy and I will not attempt references. But I will mention an interesting, extensive, and innovative current take on it by Francois Jullien The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China.

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There has been two good answers, so I'm going to offer a different take on it, by way of an illustration.

Consider learning how to draw; there you have in front of you a jar with cherry-blossom in it, and also a sheet of paper and a pencil in your hand; at first you will be looking closely at the cherry-blossom and trying to get its proportion right on the page, and this is labourious - it takes time.

But at some point, the effort vanishes and the pencil moves gracefully across the page and though you are holding the pencil and are aware of the pencil it's as though it's simply an extension of your hand; and what you see in front of you is what you're putting down.

Another illustration: pick up the jar of cherry-blossom, you don't think of the action and how it should be done, you merely pick it up. Of course once it cost you effort but that was almost a lifetime ago, when you were young and an infant and that effort of learning has been forgotten.

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Finding the meaning of Wuwei in English may be a fool's errand. The Chinese have volumes of philosophy on the word, in their own language. One should not expect an easy "meaning" of the word in English. However, it is very possible to explain varying other subjects which are closely related to Wuwei, and permit yourself to amalgamate them as part of your search for its meaning.

One such related subject I can offer is the idea of not acting because one has put oneself in a position to not need to act. Consider a case where you are a supervisor managing several employees. One employee does something disrespectful to the other. An action might be to reprimand the employee, telling them what they should do. However, this action may have unintended consequences. You could build ill will within your group. After all, now the entire group knows that tattling to mommy/daddy works.

Not acting would be letting the situation go. The two employees do whatever they do, and you wash your hands of the issues. Perhaps one of them leverages a lawsuit against your company. That's okay, it's their fault. You did no action, so there were no consequences for an action you took. It's all everyone elses' fault.

Acting without acting would be very similar to "not acting," but with a slight twist. If you have previously been engaging with your employees, and you are aware of their temperament, you may decide there's a good chance that they can work the issue out on their own. However, you don't merely wash your hands of the issue. You stay in contact with it, observing the interactions between the two. If it ever looks like the situation will spiral out of control into a lawsuit, you can act to mitigate the situation. However, even when you do have to act, you do so minimally. You don't try to solve the problem as much as maintain an environment for the others to solve the problem between themselves.

The two key takeaways from this example related to Wuwei are:

  • One builds an environment conducive to permitting others to solve their problems, rather than spending that energy solving their problems directly.
  • One does not merely let things play out. One is constantly in contact with the issue, ready to act if the environment was insufficient for the others to handle this on their own.
  • If one does need to act, one acts to build an environment conducive to letting others solve the problem, rather than solving it for them.
    • In practice, one will always be acting continuously, if one follows this philosophy. The ideal of Wuwei may have no action, but the implementation of it may have subtle action which leads one closer to being able to have no action for future situations. The softness and subtleness of such action is typically valued.

I hope this related example is helpful in your continued search for a singular meaning for Wuwei.

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I am no expert in ancient Chinese. This is a wild guess at best:


无 /woo/: without.

为 /wei/: strife, forceful means, exertion.

无为/woo wei/: without imposing; without the use of forceful means; without bending others to your will; without strife; without struggle; without exertion.

而: grammatical connector, similar to "to".

治: to rule, to manage.

无为而治: to rule without imposing; to rule without the use of forceful means; to rule without bending others to your will; to rule without strife; to rule without forceful exertion.

If this aphorism advocates ruling in the manner of a lighthouse instead of a border collie, then "without acting" or "doing nothing" is definitely not what it means. Yet, lighthouses have no effect on sheep, and it was sheep themselves who make the border collie efficient. Where this piece of aphorism applies, the people must be very reasonable; it is no surprise that a sheep culture also produces ruthless tyrants.

"Action without acting" is probably a mystified translation. Misinterpretations of ancient Chinese by modern yet pre-scientific Chinese scholars have been a major source of Chinese muddleheadedness. It is possible that the Chinese population experienced a degenerating process around 210BC similar to that of the ancient Greeks.

Evidence that supports my interpretation:


In the Art of War, there is a sentence 胜可知,而不可为 (victory can be foreseen but cannot be achieved by strife) where 为(wei) means "by strife","by forceful means" or "by strenuous, deliberate exertions" or "by struggle."


Bertrand Russell in his Problem of China quoted a Taoist fable that captured a similar naturalistic spirit:

Perhaps it is not clear what I mean by "the mechanistic outlook." I mean something which exists equally in Imperialism, Bolshevism and the Y.M.C.A.; something which distinguishes all these from the Chinese outlook, and which I, for my part, consider very evil. What I mean is the habit of regarding mankind as raw material, to be moulded by our scientific manipulation into whatever form may happen to suit our fancy. The essence of the matter, from the point of view of the individual who has this point of view, is the cultivation of will at the expense of perception, the fervent moral belief that it is our duty to force other people to realize our conception of the world. The Chinese intellectual is not much troubled by Imperialism as a creed, but is vigorously assailed by Bolshevism and the Y.M.C.A., to one or other of which he is too apt to fall a victim, learning a belief from the one in the class-war and the dictatorship of the communists, from the other in the mystic efficacy of cold baths and dumb-bells. Both these creeds, in their Western adepts, involve a contempt for the rest of mankind except as potential converts, and the belief that progress consists in the spread of a doctrine. They both involve a belief in government and a life against Nature. This view, though I have called it mechanistic, is as old as religion, though mechanism has given it new and more virulent forms. The first of Chinese philosophers, Lao-Tze, wrote his book to protest against it, and his disciple Chuang-Tze put his criticism into a fable[38]:—

Horses have hoofs to carry them over frost and snow; hair, to protect them from wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, and fling up their heels over the champaign. Such is the real nature of horses. Palatial dwellings are of no use to them.

One day Po Lo appeared, saying: "I understand the management of horses."

So he branded them, and clipped them, and pared their hoofs, and put halters on them, tying them up by the head and shackling them by the feet, and disposing them in stables, with the result that two or three in every ten died. Then he kept them hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and grooming, and trimming, with the misery of the tasselled bridle before and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them were dead.

The potter says: "I can do what I will with clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; if rectangular, a square."

The carpenter says: "I can do what I will with wood. If I want it curved, I use an arc; if straight, a line."

But on what grounds can we think that the natures of clay and wood desire this application of compasses and square, of arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols Po Lo for his skill in managing horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood. Those who govern the Empire make the same mistake.

Although Taoism, of which Lao-Tze was the founder and Chuang-Tze the chief apostle, was displaced by Confucianism, yet the spirit of this fable has penetrated deeply into Chinese life, making it more urbane and tolerant, more contemplative and observant, than the fiercer life of the West.

Source: Russell, Bertrand. Problem of China, 1922.

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Wu-wei is most exemplified in the Taoist sage, with non action being the most characteristic virtue.

Therefore the sages: Manage the work of detached actions Conduct the teaching of no words They work with myriad things but do not control They create but do not possess They act but do not presume They succeed but do not dwell on success It is because they do not dwell on success That it never goes away

Seems like an attitude of, in vulgar terms, ambivalence toward opposing terms (like good and evil).

That said, the tao is a religion, and non action, living in with the tao, at least perfected, is deeply spiritual.

the mystery Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

Not sure if the sage is taught or naturally endowed.

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