One of the central Daoist concepts. Wuwei is presented as a seemingly paradoxical slogan in Lao Zi’s Dao-De-Jing, the literal sense of which is non-action. The apparent paradox arises because the fact of conforming to wu-wei is a kind of action wei-ing. The term ‘wu-wei’ means one, or combined more than one, of the following depending on contexts and being sensitive to situations (especially see Chapters 2, 3, 10, 18, 25, 37, 40, 43, 48, 63, and 64 of the Dao-De-Jing):
(1) do not do those things that are against being natural (non-excessive)
(2) one should restrict one’s activities to what is natural (or what is naturally needed)
(3) do not do those things that go beyond natural limitation; for when a thing reaches one extreme, it reverts from it
(4) cultivate oneself within and act in a natural (non-excessive) way, consciously/reflectively or spontaneously [a non-excessive but conscious natural way can be eventually developed into a highly-natural (effortless or spontaneous) way through cultivation]
(5) act without pretentious “acting”
(6) avoid doing unnecessary or excessive things in achieving something
(7) avoid actions based merely on socialized values or desires, such as status, fame, or rank.
(8) pursue the dao [capturing the (fundamental) way things are] through language engagement in a natural or non-excessive way: pay due attention to both the significant role of language (via guidance through language) in the dao pursuit and the limitation of language, instead of indiscriminately rejecting any rule-like guidance through language
What is at issue is what counts as being natural (non-excessive), what is naturally needed, or the natural limitation of a thing. Their identities are context-sensitive.
Fraser, Chris (2008), “Wu-Wei, the Background, and Intentionality,” in Searle’s Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy: Constructive Engagement, ed. Bo Mou, Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill, 63–92.
Lai, Karyn (2007), “Ziran and Wuwei in the Daodejing: An Ethical Assessment,” Dao 6:4, 323–38.
Slingerland, Edward (2003), Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, New York: Oxford University Press.
Zhu, Rui (2002), “Wu-Wei: Lao-Zi, Zhuang-Zi and the Aesthetic Judgment,” Asian Philosophy 12:1, 53–63.
Author Citation Information
Mou, Bo. "Wuwei," ODIP: The Online Dictionary of Intercultural Philosophy (2020), Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (ed.), URL = < >.