Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Wuwei (無為) – What does it mean?

Let me restart the conversation Hagop and I started on the Velleman post, but focus on more on wuwei 無為 just by itself. Here’s what Hagop had to say and how I responded:


I’m teaching the Zhuangzi right now in my Chinese philosophy class, and will be discussing Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow along with the stories of the skilled exemplars during our meeting today. Velleman mentions others having made the connection before. I, too, was pointed in the direction of Czikszentmihalyi (by David Wong), but can’t recall at the moment who has written of them together.

As for whether ‘flow’ is a good interpretation of wu-wei, I think there is room to quibble. The phrase ‘wu-wei’ appears two or three times in the inner chapters, and none in relation to Cook Ding. There’s a lot more talk about wu-wei in the outer chapters.

What’s more, the inner chapters seem to include many exemplars who literally ‘do nothing’ (as opposed to acting in a skilled-yet-spontaneous fashion). Think of Zhuangzi’s advice to sit in a gourd or lounge under a tree, or the big yak that is the foil for the weasel (aka Hui Zi), or Zi Qi of South Wall sitting still, or the trees Zhuangzi likes to talk about. All these exemplars are literally doing nothing, and not engaged in flow-like skill activity.

In fact, Butcher Ding is alone as a “skilled” exemplar in the inner chapters (am I foregetting anyone?). Other skilled individuals are mocked. Consider this passage (Watson 2003, 37):

“There is such a thing as completion and injury–Mr. Zhao playing the lute is an example. There is such a thing as no completion and no inury–Mr. Zhao not playing the lute is an example.”

This makes me think that the Butcher is not so central to Zhuangzi’s philosophy and, by extension, that flow is not so central to it either.

(If we are talking about the text as a whole, though, there is more support for the interpretation of wu-wei as flow. In fact, since wu-wei occurs far more often in the outer chapters, along with other stories of skilled exemplars, then perhaps wu-wei as something like ‘flow’ is a later development of the Zhuangist school.)


Hagop, I agree with you about the “flow” interpretation of Zhuangzi, and I think it’s not merely a quibble. What always struck me were the power of the unintuitive examples in the De Chong Fu (”Sign of Virtue Complete” in Watson): People who’ve had their feet, hands, or noses lopped off for offenses against the kingdom, who aren’t skilled in much if anything, and who, like the useless tree, get along in life precisely by being *unskilled*, i.e. useless. Most noteworthy is Ai Tai Tuo who is both ugly and stupid, yet is someone who can be described as complete in talents 才 and power 德. I’ve never been sure that those examples were even compatible with a “flow” reading, particularly when paired with excellence in skill.


Despite the title of this post, I think it’s clear what wuwei means at a base level: “non-doing.” But the problem is how further to understand it — non-intentional doing? non-purposive doing? non-forced, effortless, doing? some other thing? Each of those understandings of it implies very different things, suggests very different examples and images, and seems to commit people to very different readings of Daoism. My own thought about the Zhuangzi is that there is more emphasis on something like “non-learned action” in both of senses of “learned”–picked up through training and picked up through advanced education or acculturation.

Another point is how much the concept of wuwei is particular to Daoism. There seems to be really one Confucian instance of it–the two-character phrase itself, at any rate–with the “non-doing” meaning, in Analects 15.5:


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.” [Legge]

But is the concept more generally influential in Chinese philosophical temperament? If so, in which sense or senses, and why?

April 13, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | 17 Comments