Wu-wei (無爲, wúwéi) is a central concept in early Chinese philosophy. However, different schools of thought conceptualized the notion differently, so it is difficult to briefly capture its multiple senses and uses.
Our focus here will be on one sense of wu-wei in the context of a famous story from Zhuangzi, a Daoist text. Here, wu-wei will be understood as “acting without desire.”
The concept has applications in Chinese philosophy to ethics, social and political philosophy, and even in the creation of art.
1. The Dao
The starting point for understanding wu-wei is the Dao (道, dào), a concept central to Chinese philosophy. The Dao is the natural structure of the world which applies to different realms and situations: there is a natural way of raining, there is a natural way in organizing a society, and there is a natural way of acting in a given circumstance.
The Dao is understood as a normative standard that is objective, not the fruit of human design, and normative in a physical as well as in a metaphysical sense: it describes how things should be and what ought to happen. Everything in the world has a particular Dao that is aligned to the natural structure of the world.
2. Acting according to the natural structure of a situation
Wu-wei occurs when a person’s actions align with the Dao. It is a cognitive and behavioral state of serenity or passivity, or a technique for gaining control of one’s actions by aligning them to the natural way of a given situation. One commentator explains that wu-wei is “acting effortlessly and spontaneously in harmony with a normative standard, i.e., the Dao, and thereby acquiring an almost magical efficaciousness in moving through the world.”A person who is attuned to this structure just follows its way.
As an example of wu-wei, consider this vignette from the Zhuangzi:
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox …. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing . . . music. Cook Ting . . . said, ‘When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup. . . A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years . .’
This story is meant to illustrate that Ting is not acting because he wants to, but because it is what he ought to do. He just lets the Dao unfold through his actions. The Dao of the cook, in this situation, is to cut up the ox. His performing the role of the cook corresponds to the natural way of the situation, as does the technique he employs. In being serene or passive, Ting allows for a harmony of his actions with the Dao, cutting up the ox almost in a magical flow.
3. Acting without desire
Does Ting, however, have a desire to conform to the Dao? Does he desire to act not on desire?
The point of the story is to show that Ting does not act on his personal desires. Ting’s actions follow directly from the Dao of that particular situation, which is aligned with the overall natural structure of the world. Ting himself is acting, but not based on his desire: he is becoming instead an instrument of the Dao.
Pursuing subjective desires interferes with the Dao. The result of this interference is an imbalance between the outcome generated by the desiring agent and the outcome that would have been attuned to the Dao. This imbalance is detrimental to the whole structure of things.
Acting wu-wei, however, leads to the right results or to outcomes attuned to the Dao. In this vignette, Ting becomes a master cook and his knife lasts longer than expected. Because he does not let his personal desires interfere with the way of doing things that Ting is “successful.” Ting is wu-wei because he allows his actions to be guided solely by the Dao of the specific circumstance – unbridled by his subjective desires.
Isn’t there, then, a desire to be wu-wei? It is, again, the other way around: according to the Dao as a normative standard, Ting ought to be wu-wei by allowing the natural way of the situation to unfold through his actions.
How can anyone achieve the state of acting wu-wei?
Acting wu-wei could be considered a skill, an instrument of self-control, or the result of self-cultivation. The self has to be cultivated into serenity, into accepting the natural way of things, and into following it. This again is not a desire, but a consequence from what ought to be.
There are applications of wu-wei in many areas. In ethics, it concerns how people ought to act; for example, helping one’s parents as well as strangers, when the Dao of a situation requires. In different schools of political philosophy, wu-wei is a principle of governance. The ideal ruler acts wu-wei, not trying to advance his or her own agenda, but to align the state-machinery to the Dao. In aesthetics, the artistic value of a painting is its capturing the Dao of the depicted situation. To do this, artists must act wu-wei, creating art through aligning their work with the Dao of the situation.
Of course, it takes time and effort to become wu-wei. But Chinese philosophy does not portrait wu-wei as a cheap way out of difficult situations. On the contrary, acting wu-wei requires constant self-cultivation.
 Wu is a particle that negates a noun/noun phrase and often works as a negative existential (so it works like the negations in “I lack free time” or “It is not that case that I have free time”). Wei is often translated as “activity/action/to do” (it can also function like “in virtue of”). So, the most literal translation would be “lacking activity/action” or “non-action” or “in absence of or without doing”. There are other and widespread translations such as “effortless action,” “non-action,” or “in absence of or without doing.” This article focuses on the notion mentioned above, since it is the most accurate, but keeping in mind that any translation of this term is interpretative.
The concept of wu-wei is deployed very differently, even in Daoist texts. The Daodejing– also: Tao Te Ching, Tao Te King – as well as the Zhuangzi place special emphasis on wu-wei. Both these texts belong to a philosophical tradition labeled Daoism. The concept of wu-wei is also employed in other Chinese philosophies, such as “Legalism” and “Confucianism”.
The Daodejing (道德經, Dàodéjīng) is a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to Laozi (老子, Lǎozǐ), who is supposed to have lived in the 6th century BCE. The text’s authorship, date of composition and date of compilation are debated. The oldest excavated portion dates back to the late 4th century BCE, but modern scholarship dates other parts of the text as having been written—or at least compiled—later than the earliest portions of the Zhuangzi. Together with the Zhuangzi, it is often considered foundational for “Daoism”; see Creel (1970) and Hansen (2000). In the Daodejing, there is a concept-pair, wu-yu (without desire), meaning something like “action without desire”; and wu-wei, which might be used to mean “not act”.
The Zhuangzi (莊子, Zhuāngzǐ) is an ancient Chinese text from the late Warring States period (476–221 BCE) which contains stories and anecdotes that exemplify the carefree nature of the ideal Daoist sage. The text is a compilation but it has been attributed to its name-giver, Master Zhuang, a person about very little is known; see Creel (1970) and Hansen (2000).
Other strands in Chinese philosophy to employ wu-wei are Legalism and Confucianism.
“Legalism” refers to a group of Chinese Philosophers advocating a strong state through standardization of the instruments of government; see Schneider (2018).
“Confucianism” refers to a group and long-lasting tradition in Chinese Philosophy. As diverse as it is, Confucianism emphasizes knowledge and learning, virtues and rites as well as roles and society; see Nivison (1996).
 See Creel (1970).
 See Slingerland (2000, p. 294).
 Translated by Watson (1964).
 In contemporary Romanization: Ding.
 What if the Dao tells Ting to do something he does not want to? Then, in classic Chinese philosophy, Ting would be behaving unnaturally and unethically. The Dao being the natural and metaphysical normative standard, if Ting acts contrary to it, Ting’s actions will not be successful.
 It should be noted that some strains of Chinese philosophy require children to actively seek ways to help their parents but see no ethical obligations towards people who are not family members.
Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 1: The Four Moral Sprouts by John Ramsey
Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 2: The Cultivation Analogy by John Ramsey
How to Establish Social Order? Three Early Chinese Answers by Henrique Schneider
About the Author
Henrique Schneider is a professor of philosophy of economics at the Nordakademie in Elmshorn and Hamburg, Germany. His research addresses economics and philosophy, as well as early Chinese philosophy, especially Legalism. His book on a Chinese legalistic philosopher, Hanfei, An Introduction to the Political Philosophy of Hanfei was published in 2018. https://www.nordakademie.de/die-nordakademie/team/