Wu wei

Wu wei (traditional Chinese: 無爲; simplified Chinese: 无为; pinyin: wú wéi; a variant and derivatives: Japanese: 無為(むい); Korean: 無爲(무위); Vietnamese: Vô vi; English, lit. non-doing) is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Lao Tzu, the attainment of this purely natural way of behaving, as when the planets revolve around the sun. The planets effortlessly do this revolving without any sort of control, force, or attempt to revolve themselves, instead engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement.

Herrlee Creel considered wu-wei a distinguishing factor between religious Taoism, having it's beginnings in Huang-Lao and emphasizing a striving for immortality, and philosophical Taoism, which emphasized not striving, often considering the search for immortality secondary, laughable or harmful.[1]


Shen Buhai used the term wu-wei to mean that the ruler, though vigilant, should not interfere with the duties of his ministers. The only other book to use the term in this manner is the Tao Te Ching, and since it was composed later sinologist Herrlee G. Creel argued that it may therefore be assumed that Shen influenced the Tao Te Ching.[2]

In the Taoist texts, wu wei ( ) is often associated with water and its yielding nature. In illustration, it can assume any form or shape it inhabits.

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", "without effort", or "without control", 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. One cannot actively pursue wu wei. It manifests as a result of cultivation. The Tao is a guide.

There is another less commonly referenced sense of wu wei; "action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort". In this instance, wu means "without" and Wei means "effort". The concept of "effortless action" is a part of Taoist Internal martial arts such as T'ai chi ch'uan, Baguazhang and Xing Yi. It follows that wu wei complies with the distinguishing feature of Taoism, that of being natural.

In Zen Calligraphy, wu wei has been represented as an ensō (circle); in China, the calligraphic inscriptions of the words wu wei themselves resonate with old Taoist stories.


Several chapters of the most important Taoist text, 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 existent. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.

Related translation from the Tao Tê Ching by Priya Hemenway, Chapter II:

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.

See also


  1. Creel, What Is Taoism? (1979), 9-11
  2. S.Y. Hsieh, 1995. p.92 Chinese Thought: An Introduction https://books.google.com/books?id=-E5LZeR7QKwC&pg=PA92

External links

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