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Wu wei (Traditional Chinese characters: 無爲 Simplified Chinese characters: 无为) is an important tenet of Taoism that involves knowing when to act and when not to act. Another perspective to this is that "Wu Wei" means natural action - as planets revolve around the sun, they "do" this revolving, but without "doing" it; Or as trees grow, they "do", but without "doing". Thus knowing when (and how) to act is not knowledge in the sense that one would think "now is the right time to do this, but rather just doing it, doing the natural thing.

Wu may be translated as not have or without; Wei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei : "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamental tenets in Chinese thought and have been mostly emphasized by the Taoist school. The aim of wu wei is to achieve a state of perfect equilibrium, or alignment with the Tao, and, as a result, obtain an irresistible form of "soft and invisible" power. There is also another uncommon interpretation of wu wei (" action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort"). In this instance, Wu means " without" and Wei means "Effort" , so it follows Wu wei is not ("non-action"). It can be argued that this error propagated widely in English publications as a result of translations made by academics who are non practising Taoists. The concept that wu wei means "effortless action" is clearly exemplified in the Taoist Internal martial arts such as Tai chi, Baguazhang and Xing Yi .


In the traditional (partly Confucian) Chinese understanding of governance, a prince has only to sit at the right place, facing south, with a prince's traditional attributes, and his country will be well governed. In Lun Yu II.1., Confucius compares a virtuous prince to the North Pole in which he finds himself: he does not move and everything turns around him. There are magical justifications behind this idea of a power obtained by "inaction." It is the Chinese "correspondence", or "synchronicity" theory, where the macrocosm is reflected, or even duplicated, in microcosms. According to the theory, ordering the Emperor's palace is governing the country well: the palace is a homothetic reproduction of the country. Chinese history is full of examples of natural disasters cured by means such as the opening of a new door in the walls of the Imperial palace.

Some philosophers, for example Wang Chong, have questioned this theory. A more pragmatic view may interpret this as a means to restrain the prince from abuse of power, enjoining him to 'do' as little as possible.

In the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to erode even solid stone (e.g., Grand Canyon]]) and move mountains (e.g., landslide]s). Water is without will (i.e., the will for a shape), though it may be understood to be opposing wood, stone, or any solid aggregated material that can be broken into pieces. Due to its nature and propensity, water may potentially fill any container, assume any shape; given the Water Cycle water may potentially go "anywhere", even into the minutest holes, both metaphorical and actual. Droplets of water, when falling as rain, gather in watersheds, flowing into and forming rivers of water, enjoining the proverbial sea: this is the nature of water. Furthermore, whilst always yielding downwards, water finds its own level in the 'dark valley' — where biological life is regenerated — analogous to the fecund reproductive organs.


Several chapters of the most important Taoist scripture, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Laozi, allude to "diminishing doing" or "diminishing will" as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.

Related translation from the Tao Te Ching by Priya Hemenway:

The Sage is occupied with the unspoken
and acts without effort.
Teaching without verbosity,
producing without possessing,
creating without regard to result,
claiming nothing,
the Sage has nothing to lose.

Wu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. This does not mean a dulling of the mind; rather, it is an activity undertaken to perceive the Tao within all things and to conform oneself to its "way."

One way of envisioning wu wei is through Laozi's writings on how a ruler should govern their kingdom. The advice that was given is that it is similar to frying a small fish (too much poking and the meal is ruined). In other words, create general policies and direction, but do not micromanage. To do this well, you must understand the ways of your people and not go against the grain.


As one diminishes doing — here 'doing' means those intentional actions taken to benefit us or actions taken to change the world from its natural state and evolution — one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao, the already present natural harmony. As such one begins to cultivate Tao, becomes more in harmony with Tao, and, according to another great ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'. This is very similar to more contemporary ideas about "choiceless awareness" and the clarity it brings by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. It is in the state of Ming that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this pointless point of non-action, there is nothing that is left undone.' It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that a sage begins to perform wei wu wei, or 'action without action.' Thus the sage will be able to work in harmony with Tao to accomplish what is needed, and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.

An example of active non-action using wu wei, would be to teach in such a way that no course of action is dictated to a student (they are just told raw facts for use, and left to their own creative devices), so they assume that they have been taught nothing, that is, until their learnings have been integrated in their lived experience. As is said in the comicbook summarization Zen Speaks, "A good teacher teaches the student that they already know the answer."

The ultimate: harmony with the Tao

Taoists have long sought immortality, and they saw working in perfect harmony with Tao as the way to achieve this. When one works in perfect harmony with Tao, one is not using more energy than needed, nor is one doing things that cause the body or spirit to break down. Some Taoists believe they can, in theory, live forever, while others merely point out that meddling and selfish cleverness are the principal causes of a premature death. Zhuang Zi proposed an illustration of this idea: A tree with a twisted trunk will not be cut by any lumberjack and will live its whole life in peace, thanks to its uselessness. A dramatic description of the ultimate person is found in chapter 2 of Zhuang Zi:

A fully achieved person is like a spirit! The great marshes could be set on fire, but she wouldn't feel hot. The rivers in China could all freeze over, but she wouldn't feel cold. Thunder could suddenly echo through the mountains, wind could cause a tsunami in the ocean, but she wouldn't be startled. A person like that could ride through the sky on the floating clouds, straddle the sun and moon, and travel beyond the four seas. Neither death nor life can cause changes within her, and there's little reason for her to even consider benefit or harm.[1]


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