« Red Pine | Main | Dido Sings the Wuwei Blues (Part 2) »

January 15, 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

If I may, this whole "wu-wei" thing sounds remarkably like the principle behind the Western maxim, 'Festina lente':


Wow, lots here. Let me latch on to one thing I am picking up. When you say that wuwei "...suggests a sweet and skillful understanding of the situation based on a harmonious and intuitive grasping of what is happening right in front of your eyes concerning how and when to act (or not)" I generally agree with you. It is not a matter of "knowing" but of something like intuition or sensing or apprehending. But there is a difference here with Confucianism (you seem to suggest a connection when you invoke "Confucian sensibility"). The "happening right in front of you" part for a Taoist is, I believe, less a matter of social network and relationship and more a matter of ziran ("occurrence appearing of itself), a larger "Nature" in context. Thus, there would be much less of an expectation for a Taoist to do the right social thing. If Aeneas felt he had to leave Dido than so be it. He can just do it, without remorse, without guilt, without worry. And Dido should not become so enthralled with her relationship with him. Taoism, in other words, is not a source of love stories....

Hi Sam!

Thank you for your comment. Point taken regarding Confucianism versus Daoism--- I agree completely.

That is, the method for _choosing_ one's course of action is similar, as is an emphasis on cultivating personal sensibility. However, how any action is **afterward** judged as being right or wrong, that is where the differences can be seen. I agree completely and think in the case of daoism-- this becomes rather problematic. I came across this paper on wuwei this morning, which you've probably already read, and while I am not at all crazy with the philosopher's presentation of wuwei, I agree that how one can judge what was in fact a natural and going with the flow action and what is not is problematic to say the least. Like Huizong.... should he have in fact ignored the situation like he did? Or should he-- have like the Lady Dido- stood up and took fate in his hands.

That is to ask the question (again): Isn't a better understanding of wuwei-- not "non action" but rather-- knowing when to act and when not to act based on feeling. I would term it a hesitation to act but wish to make a distinction between categorical non-action... that is just pure Peony, of course.

And regarding Dido and daoism.... the Lady begs to differ..

I'll take a stab at this -- in fact, I'm in the middle of typing up lecture notes for taoism, so this issue is on my mind.

I'm no Taoism expert for sure -- and I'm pretty sure that my understanding of many Chinese philosophers gets filtered through my strong liberal bias (as many a Fox News commentator would suspect!). Those caveats added:

Wu-wei strikes me as more than just "not thinking" or even "not thinking too much." It's about how you think about something, not the absence of thinking. Now, admittedly, I can see the "how" and the "what" interacting in a way as well -- perhaps some ways of thinking are manifested in "not thinking too much". Here's where you get the inevitable references to psychological concepts of "flow" -- where a certain degree of "knowing how" results in not much "thinking that" when you are in the midst of action. It just "flows" from one's capacities (bike riding, figure skating, etc). You react in a non-intentional manner to changing circumstances around you in an effortless but yet highly meaningful and goal oriented way.

So I think flow is a part of it all, but it doesn't capture the whole thing for me.

Part of it, for me, is about the way in which a person thinks about the target of their actions. I may be right, but I always understood "wei" not just to mean "thinking" but "capturing". So to "wei" an object is to grab it, to own it, to label it (with words, perhaps). It is to place the object under one's power.

If this is right, to "wuwei" would mean to not engage the target of one's thinking in this way. Instead, one remains "open" to a kind of independence on the part of the object, a kind of irreducibility, a kind of mystery. You remain "open to development" from the outside. You realize that "names" cannot capture the object, and that you cannot "own" or "control" it.

Here's where relationships come in. In good relationships, each party remains "open" to the other as an actual irreducible entity. Each "sees" the other as a person, and not as an object. In doing this, one acts in a way that is always open to the differences of the other agent, open in a way that suggests an "ongoing conversation". To "wei" in a relationship is to own the other, to control them, to give them a name and a definition that they must conform to. It is to see the other as a tool.

Perhaps this is part of what Taoism is up to -- but the "other" is "life" in general. One must remain open to it, open to a continuing conversation. You "submit" in a way, you forfeit control over an element of what it means to live. Relationships can easy be seen in a similar way, as I suggested above.

A liberal reading, for sure. But regardless, this is a wuwei I can live with and get my head around.


I must say, this claim has me intrigued:

"Taoism, in other words, is not a source of love stories...."

Why not? Seems to me to be a rich and fertile ground for talking about what love might actually look like, and thus seems to work as a great context for telling some good love stories (and maybe even serve as the context for criticizing other relationships as falling short of that ideal).


1. Wuwei literally means without action. Very simple on the semantic level. Hansen's gloss of "wei" as "deeming" seems very undermotivated in the source texts, which consistently explain the phrase as relating to action. I think debates about the mode of life privileged by Daoists should not be phrased as debates on "the meaning of wuwei", since we should not assume that said mode is simply equivalent to wuwei. The Daoists also talk about simplicity, stillness, understanding reversal, suckling at cosmic breasts, and so on; "wuwei" might subsume these other things or it might not. The texts use multiple favored expressions in describing the privileged mode.

2. The fact that Daoists sometimes prize some kind of action or other makes many commentators scramble to explain that "wuwei" does not *really* signify non-action, but rather action of a particular kind. This strikes me as unobjectionable provided one does not conflate the wuwei-heavy Laozi with the skill-enamored Zhuangzi. Notwithstanding the conflation of the two in pursuit of aestheticized, effective living by centuries of interpreters, Laozi really doesn't talk much about any kind of acting at all. "Not doing, yet nothing is undone" plausibly refers to situations in which the subject/agent's acting is not required to yield an optimal result. The paean is to non-interference, not mucking about. Nowhere does the Laozi explicitly valorize a style of life *radically* devoid of action, nor radically devoid of desires or thinking--consider its picture of the common life of the people (and that in related texts like the Zhuangzi primitivist chapters), who function more or less as normal humans but are simple and contented.

3. Importation of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind goes only so far to elucidate the state(s) the Daoists prize, because it would be much better to have some clear, self-conscious explanation from the texts themselves. Such is generally lacking owing to stylistic and genre factors; we can "fill in the blanks" of a story like Cook Ding's, but I would feel more comfortable with an acknowledgment of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, which could point in a number of directions.

4. Daoist ideas might do much to generate or add interest to love stories, but that is exactly the last thing any of the classical authors would spend time on. While none of the Masters is particularly given to romance, Confucians would seem to be the friendliest to explorations of human emotions in general. Classical Daoist texts do consistently seem to want a way out of normal human relationships, or a cosmic perspective that somewhat undermines their importance.

Hi Sam,

As you know from my email, I was as "intrigued" as Chris by the above comment. The daoist texts have been used to explain everything from self-help to war over the centuries and centuries (and many, many centuries) right? So, why couldn't they indeed have something to say about Love?

Chris, as always we see eye-to-eye (existentially speaking)... I only dislike the word "ideal"... as if we are talking about "flow" or the "natural state of things"... I just don't think that word is helpful.

I would like to find a good book about the fluctuations in the Helen myth over the ages.... but in fact, how could anyone really judge whether Helen's act was wuwei or not? When the Mood swept over her, is it wuwei to just go with the flow (her love was like a fish) or is it wuwei to go against the mood?

With regard to the paper by Ronald de Sousa that I linked to above, while I wasn't crazy about his presentation of wuwei, I agree that judging what is wuwei and what is not wuwei presents a problem-- since it implies a Wrong Path and that is rather hard to judge.

Should Huizong have faced up to the facts? or was he in fact going with the natural course of things? In this way, both Huizong and Helen were swept along.... but is that what is meant by wuwei? or is Dido who at the right time (according to her feelings) stood up and took fate into her hands and acted... this sensitivity about when to act and when not to act? When you try and really think about it, it really seems as slippery as a fish, don't you think? So, I will just go back to my own definition of wuwei:


the cultivation of a heightened sensitivity to social and natural context to be better able to remain committed to knowing when to act and when not to act (with an emphasis on both non-thinking action as well as non-over-thinking acton)....

Hi Stephen,

Your 2) was perhaps the point of my entire long-winded Post! I am glad you wrote. Thanks. I feel that your explanation also sits well with the Japanese understanding of 無為 (mu-i) as well. I wonder if there a corresponding (but independentally developed non-daoist) concept from India that does not come from Buddhism?

Anyway, what does this have to say about Helen? Dido? or Aeneas? How can one ever really judge? The tears of things and even the other Roman slogan par excellance 'Festina lente' seems so much easier to get a handle on somehow, doesn't it? Maybe not..?

Sam, et al:

Your comment about love in Daoism reminded for some reason of this passage in Zhuangzi (Legge translation, cut and pasted):

-Begin Quote-

When Zhuangzi's wife died, Huizi went to condole with him, and, finding him squatted on the ground, drumming on the basin, and singing, said to him, 'When a wife has lived with her husband, and brought up children, and then dies in her old age, not to wail for her is enough. When you go on to drum on this basin and sing, is it not an excessive (and strange) demonstration?' Zhuangzi replied, 'It is not so. When she first died, was it possible for me to be singular and not affected by the event? But I reflected on the commencement of her being. She had not yet been born to life; not only had she no life, but she had no bodily form; not only had she no bodily form, but she had no breath. During the intermingling of the waste and dark chaos, there ensued a change, and there was breath; another change, and there was the bodily form; another change, and there came birth and life. There is now a change again, and she is dead. The relation between these things is like the procession of the four seasons from spring to autumn, from winter to summer. There now she lies with her face up, sleeping in the Great Chamber; and if I were to fall sobbing and going on to wall for her, I should think that I did not understand what was appointed (for all). I therefore restrained myself!'

-End Quote-

There's something interesting about this; for some reason I've always found it kind of touching but I've never been able to say why. Thoughts, anyone?

Hi Chris,

Believe it or not, I did not even notice this earlier, longer comment of your's until just a minute ago (In fact, when I wrote you my email earlier this morning, it was before I read this) so I guess we really do see eye-to-eye on this issue. Particularly, this aspect which you described so well of remaining open to how things unfold, without defining or seeking to overly impose one's will or intention-- to me, this is especially so when it comes to human relations... a kind of emphasis on mutual consensus and remaining open to conversation. And, based on your comment-- too- I can see why you would think that Dido also needs to let go of how she thought things "should" have been..

On "wei" 為 in Japanese, this word only means "to do" or "to act" and also "to become" or "in order to" "for the purpose of"... so to my mind there is less a grasping element as there is this focus on imposing the will. That is how the Japanese feels to me and the Chinese could very well be different.


I also found this to be very touching. Perhaps some would think this is a call for self-restraint in all things-- love/mourning/feeling/agency in general... Is it a normative claim? Or could it be a call to for people to freely go with what feels appropriate given one's character and the human context (the feelings of those around you-- including the imagined feelings of the deceased) The Legge translation has a feeling of "should... "

If you ever have time I would love to see the Chinese
"and if I were to fall sobbing and going on to wall for her, I should think that I did not understand what was appointed (for all). I therefore restrained myself!'


Here's the passage in full (merely cut and pasted from D Sturgeon's Chinese Text Project, so no trouble at all):


Legge does a nice job of preserving the poetry of that penultimate line, I think.


The imposition of will remains close, in my mind, to "grasping." Certainly to translate "wei" _as_ "grasping" would be wrong, but my thinking is that "to grasp" is implied in "to impose the will." My feeling is that there's an element of "control" implied here, and that it operates against the backdrop of some conception (usually instrumental) of "how things are" or "how things should be" (as you suggested). In this sense, the Taoists remind me at times of Gabriel Marcel, who seemed to want to draw attention to our typical desire to treat life as a "problem to be solved" (think in terms of science, perhaps) as opposed to a "mystery to be lived." To "wuwei" is, in my thinking, to be goal-directed but without such a kind of intentional grasping or "problem-orienting" mentality.

I think Stephen is right that the Taoists are not going to bust out in song about romance, for sure. There's too much of a ritualistic-artificial-contrived element to all of that to be of much interest to them. But I still think that the yu-wei/wu-wei theme can be used to think about what love/a relatiionship _should_ be, in a more natural and primordial sense, when you strip away the artificial layering. True relationships, perhaps, have partners who are "open" in a non-grasping sense to an open-ended process of reciprocal (and mysterious!) "conversation" that is free of static ideals and concepts of what should and should not be the case, how a relationship should go, or of what defines the other person. Each relinquishes control and "submits" in a sense to the dialogue.

I have always found Zhuangzi's pot wailing to be very moving, actually. Clearly he loved his wife a great deal and he was not about to allow his "grasping" definition of what the relationship was or meant to get in the way of the evolution of that relationship.

Here's my take on this.
I think Zhuang Zi is warning us not to take the natural love that is an element of the Way of humankind and make it into Love (the capitalization here signifying the infusion of expectation and desire and hope and fear, etc.). He tells us at various points to give up joy and sorrow, suggesting a certain emotional detachment. Way will move as it will, regardless of our feelings. If we create attachments to any particular facet of Way, even close loving relationships, we risk blinding ourselves to the natural unfolding of things or, worse, we might be inspired to believe that we can do something (even, in Dido's case, suicide) in an attempt to intervene in the natural unfolding of things (suicide on account of love is clearly a conscious effort that violates wu-wei; Dido, Zhaung Zi might argue, is unnaturally cutting her life short due to too much attachment to Love).

So, yes, human love is Way, but making love into Love can turn us away from Way.

I agree that Zhung Tzu's wife's death is a key reference here. Here is Watson's translation:

Chuang Tzu's wife died. When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. "You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old," said Hui Tzu. "It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing - this is going too far, isn't it?"

Chuang Tzu said, "You're wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

"Now she's going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate. So I stopped."

I read this as Zhuang Zi doing the ritually inappropriate thing. And his explanation suggests the limitations of our loving relationships. Yes, he loved his wife. When she first died he felt a loss. But then, upon reflection, he embraced her death as simply another transformation of Way. Graham (in the volume on "experimental essays") uses this scene (if I remember correctly) to demonstrate how Taoists would require us to cut off our emotional attachments fairly quickly upon the death of a loved one. Zhuang Zi, I think, tells us to scamper away like the young pigs of this section:

Confucius said, "I once went on a mission to Ch'u, and as I was going along, I saw some little pigs nursing at the body of their dead mother. After a while, they gave a start and all ran away and left her, because they could no longer see their likeness in her; she was not the same as she had been before. In loving their mother, they loved not her body but the thing that moved her body...

"She was not the same as she had been before..." Way has changed. To cling to a extinguished past of what Way once was is human folly, something the baby pigs would not do.

Lives end, loves end but, as Zhuang Zi says elsewhere, "there can be no loss."

Sam's point: "She was not the same as she had been before..." Way has changed. To cling to a extinguished past of what Way once was is human folly, something the baby pigs would not do."

This is exactly what I meant in the last paragraph of my post, more clearly stated.

Hi guys,

For what it's worth, this is how I would translate the text below. You can see how my translation makes clear several differences in interpretation of this text including

* ritual appropriateness → nature (Natural)
* this is one man's personal response... and there is less stress on "should" than the Roman reading would suggest (I am basing this on my Japanese sources-- which you know I usually am friendly too. After all they have been doing this a 1000 years).

Forgive typos and pinyin mistakes-- I need to get the laundry out on the line or its curtains.

When Zhuangzi's wife died, Huizi found him singing and drumming.

Huizi asked him: "Zhuangdi, is it right to to be singing and beating during a time of mourning for afterall was it not your wife who lived with you all these years, raising your children? Isn't crying-- rather than singing and drumming-- the natural response?"

Zhuangdi replied: "Is my response not natural? Was I not devastated when she first died? Did I not cry then?

"Thinking about it, though, I decided, humans have no real "birth" and therefore she had no real "form." Never having been born, I felt she never really had form as such. That is, there is no ultimate start and only this thing called "change" was born during the murky birth of heaven and earth. So it was only qi that was born into form and into existence. And when this existence dies, it goes back to its origins-- and this is no different than the changing of the seasons. From spring to summer, from summer to fall, from fall to winter, this is the natural way of the world. That humans can return to a peaceful slumber in a great room within nature-- in this happy state, why would I then cry thinking of her like that? To cry after thinking of it in this way would be to ignore what is Natural to me."

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)