WuWei Revisited

Scott Barnwell revisits one of our favorite topics:

Off and on over the past 18 months I’ve been working on a new essay for my blog series “Classical Daoism – Is There Really Such a Thing?” The essay is on Wuwei 無為 and whether it could be considered a defining feature of a group or tradition we call (early) Daoism. I’ve got some thoughts I hope some may feel like addressing. As far as I can tell, wuwei does not have just one meaning or usage. I think there are a few different uses and would like to know if others would differentiate them as I do.

Pretty much everyone who has written on the subject is quick to point out that wuwei is not a prescription for inaction, passivity, etc. I think this partially true, for, while I think it’s impossible for any living animal not to engage in action/activity, I think one prevalent use of wuwei is that of non-interference. While the recommendation of non-interference does not mean one should never do anything (e.g., plant crops, cook and eat food, raise children), it does suggest one do less, one refrain from acting in many circumstances where we might feel like we should be doing something. This interpretation allows some actions and perhaps even some interference — minimal action). It may also denote refraining from maladaptive or “unnatural” action, i.e., action that is not yin 因 and goes against the grain (li 理) or fails to conform to the situation or the times (yushi 與時). Many have also argued that it is only specific types of action that are being suggested for one to reduce or refrain from — e.g., coercive action, action intended to fulfill one’s desires or self-interest, action that imposes itself on others or the world, contrived action, or evil deeds.

Another usage is nowadays the most common: wuwei refers to refraining from purposive or deliberate action, or, put positively, wuwei is non-purposive action. This is the usage many find in the Zhuangzi, even though many of the passages which suggest non-purposive action to do not mention wuwei at all. I do think “non-interference” and “non-purposive action” are distinct, though many scholars mention or conflate both in their explanations (e.g., Feng Youlan, Roger Ames, Angus Graham, Chris Fraser).

Personally, I find “non-interference” to be the best “translation” of wuwei in the Laozi – as opposed to “non-purposive action” – and the latter more prevalent in the Zhuangzi. (Laozi 38 being an exception, although it is more explicitly specified: wuyiwei 無以為).

There is also the fact that certain thinkers do not suggest wuwei for everyone, but only for rulers (e.g., Shen Dao, Shen Buhai, Zhuangzi syncretists, Hanfei, Lüshi Chunqiu, Guanzi, Chunqiu Fanlu). There doesn’t seem to be any indication in the Laozi that its authors DON’T hold this view.



68 replies on “WuWei Revisited”

  1. Interesting as always, Scott! I have very little memory of the relevant texts, or of the commentary I’ve read (Fraser and a bit of Slingerland). But without deliberate effort I can’t refrain from commenting. So I’ll try a couple of simple questions about the concepts.

    Wei as Interference

    I want to ask what you mean by “interference.” It seems offhand that any action or inaction is an interference with something. Lying on the ground is interfering with the path of the rain, the path of the weeds, and maybe the path of wagon wheels.

    In moral, legal, or social contexts, when we speak of “interference” we often mean (a) interference with other people’s purposive action, or else (b) meddling in affairs that are properly up to other people.

    If (a) is what you mean, then there would seem to be an especially stark contrast between “non-interference” and “non-purposiveness,” for non-interference would be all about protecting purposive action.

    If (b) is what you mean, then wu-wei would seem to mean something like respect for rights.

    I think you are saying “non-interference” suggests refraining from maladaptive or “unnatural” action.

    How would “non-interference” suggest refraining from maladaptive action?

    How would “non-interference” suggest refraining from “unnatural” action? Because “interference” is taken as just shorthand for interference with the natural path? In that case the leading concept would seem to be “natural path” – which one might even reasonably identify with whatever we would do if we were being non-purposive, non-deliberate?

    Wei as Purposive/Deliberate Action

    It would seem offhand that unlike spiders, we can’t do anything complex without purpose/deliberateness, unless on the basis of lots of practice doing it deliberately first. Is that sometimes the idea—that wu-wei is a condition we should aim to achieve by way of an extraordinary degree of the opposite? Or is the idea rather that we shouldn’t be doing complex things?

    Or is the idea that we are like spiders?

    • Hello Bill,

      By interference I mean to meddle in others’ affairs, to hamper or hinder their activities. Obviously, just killing and eating food (plant or animal) can count as interference, but I am not thinking so rigorously (and neither were the ancient Chinese, imo). While wuwei could suggest a “respect for rights,” it may have more practical motivations (rather than ethical ones), such as efficacy: things will turn out “better” if we don’t interfere. And people may not be involved at all: Nature, the Dao, will take care of everything without our interference or assistance.

      re: “I think you are saying “non-interference” suggests refraining from maladaptive or “unnatural” action. How would “non-interference” suggest refraining from maladaptive action?”

      Sorry, when I wrote “It may also denote …” I was referring to wuwei and not non-interference. I am saying that wei is often regarded as referring to unnatural, contrived action and thus wuwei is meant to advocate not acting in this way.

      re: “It would seem offhand that unlike spiders, we can’t do anything complex without purpose/deliberateness, unless on the basis of lots of practice doing it deliberately first. Is that sometimes the idea—that wu-wei is a condition we should aim to achieve by way of an extraordinary degree of the opposite? Or is the idea rather that we shouldn’t be doing complex things? Or is the idea that we are like spiders?”

      Good questions. Ed Slingerland has written alot about this: trying not to try. I think there is purpose/deliberateness initially but that it eventually drops away and that is when one’s activity becomes “masterful.” However, it would seem that some ancient writers suggested that we be like spiders. I tend to think they are speaking hyperbolically, but that could reflect my limited mind.

  2. Hey Scott and Bill; I wonder if “wei” could just be a placeholder for specific types of activity as determined by the context of activity — ruling, for example, as a type of activity that involves “the usual suspects” of things that rulers normally do. That, as opposed to “wei” denoting a much broader class of action — interference, purposive/deliberate behavior, “unnatural” activity, etc. So, in some contexts, any one of those latter sorts of activity might still be describable as wuwei. For example, a Daodejing-ist sage might “do without doing” just by not doing the typical kinds of things that sages are expected to do: invent irrigation, figure out how to make silk, translate harmony into brass bell tones — you know, the classics. But such a sage might still engage in other purposive or deliberate behavior or interfere with certain natural processes. So, the idea would be that wuwei applies to particular types of activity as conventionally determined, rather than to a general class of action specified “a priori.” I guess I don’t know the literature enough to know if anyone has suggested this already, but here it is for your consideration.

    • Manyul,
      I’m not entirely clear on the relevance of “convention” you mentioned in your reply. But with regards to your: ““wei” could just be a placeholder for specific types of activity as determined by the context of activity,” I think this is well-said. Thus, most passages which use the term have a certain meaning in mind, bound to a certain context, with a “target” in mind, (to use LaFargue’s terminology). Put in negative terms, wuwei could mean no excessive action – which is perhaps another way of saying “(relative) non-interference” – in one passage; could mean “no (overly) purposeful action” in another; or no coercive, obtrusive, maladaptive, “unnatural” action in others.

      I personally dond’t think the authors of the Daodejing would object to practical things like irrigation, making silk fabric, or relatively harmless things like composing music. Instead, they would remind us to “know when to stop (zhizhi 知止)” and “know what is sufficient (zhizhu 知足)” – know what to be content with and know to ceasewhen things are getting excessive.

  3. I guess the simpler, perhaps also “a priori,” way of putting what I just said is that “wuwei” denotes non-conventional action, where the substance of such action is determined by the particular convention.

    • Hi Manyul,
      re: “I wonder if “wei” could just be a placeholder for specific types of activity as determined by the context of activity … as opposed to “wei” denoting a much broader class of action — interference, purposive/deliberate behavior, “unnatural” activity, etc.”

      I think the context is a determining factor, although the Daodejing is notorious for regularly omitting context. By “broader class of action” it seems you feel that I am suggesting wei to be referring inclusively to all of these. But I tend to think that sometimes it refers to but one of them (in the context given), and another in a different text (or place in the same text). I will ponder further your thought-provoking reply. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Scott! That helps a lot.

    Manyul, one worry is that your proposal would seem to allow cockamamie schemes to count as wu wei. They seem out of the spirit of the thing—maybe because they’re excessively purposive/deliberate?

    • I’m not so sure “scheming” should be ruled as anti-wuwei. The Daodejing at times seems to suggest that a ruler can and should “do” some relatively minor things (e.g., limiting exposure to things that will ignite their desires) but which will have relatively major effects. This minimal action will go unnoticed by the people, they will think things developed naturally of themselves (ziran 自然). Accordingly, they will not feel the weight of the ruler and will not push back.

    • Hey Bill; I’m not quite as worried about that since merely seeming “out of the spirit” of the thing or being “excessively purposive/deliberate” as objections would be question-begging. On my suggested reading, one would agree with Scott that scheming shouldn’t be ruled out of hand as falling under wuwei in some contexts.

      In general, the idea of doing something without purpose is a fun idea, but I don’t know that the Daodejing is the right place to look for that. There seems to be plenty of purpose for the sage to adopt, it’s just that the means to pursuing certain ends are presented, very vaguely, as not the means that one would normally expect.

  5. To me, the gerund “scheming” suggests deception, which isn’t what I was thinking of. I had in mind cockamamie schemes, with the emphasis on “cockamamie”—that is, weird or Rube-Goldbergy programs intended to achieve the usual ends of ruling or whatever. Roundabout ways. Silly walks. Strangely complex tax incentives. Making and using a special saddle so you can hold the regular reins with your toes, so that you can save grooming time by combing your hair when already en route.

    True, there may be other reasons for not doing these things. Which brings us to the question (if it is a question) how much work “wu wei” is supposed to do in the account of how one should live. For example, if it is supposed to be the summary account of the best way to live, then the fact that there are prima facie reasons for not being cockamamie wouldn’t seem to matter.

    Why might doing something the conventional way be undesirable?

    Suppose the convention is to do X. The most effective other way is Y. So if one person does Y, that’s wu wei, but if lots of people start doing it, it isn’t?

    I was taking “purposive or deliberate action” to mean action such that one takes the particular action on the basis of a particular dedicated bout of articulate thought about the point of it. Things done more or less automatically based on habits and skills earlier deliberately acquired for particular purposes wouldn’t count as “purposive or deliberate” actions, as I was understanding the term.

    • Cockamamie schemes are weird because they are unconventional — that seems true by lots of synonymy between the terms. Whether they are effective in accomplishing certain contextual ends or not is indeterminate if we just stop at their unconventionality.

      I don’t know that wuwei is ever offered clearly as a way to live, as opposed to getting some particular sorts of things accomplished. That said, if life itself were thought to have a purpose, living unconventionally to achieve it would fit right in as wuwei, wouldn’t it?

      It’s true that if everyone starts to do something in the unconventional way(s), then it no longer is unconventional. But that’s only a problem if we began this by thinking that wuwei has some kind of intrinsic value as opposed to instrumental value contingent on its effectiveness in producing certain desired outcomes.

    • Hmm! OK … so, the idea would be that for some main projects such as ruling, unconventionality as such tends to add a significant increment of effectiveness (which might be outweighed, if one were thinking of weighing, by other qualities of a course of action, such as its cockamamity)?

    • Yes, “tends to” is important. If we don’t have a lot of stake in the Daodejing as being anything more than a set of “how to” advice poems written cryptically (choose your reasons for why), then wuwei seems to be a principle (of surprise, to put it prosaically) that is championed for its effectiveness. It would, of course, take some skill, I imagine, to think of the right unconventional actions for producing certain outcomes. How do you “fill their bellies” for example, in an unconventional way?

    • Hmm again! Very interesting, Manyul.

      On the question of how unconventionality tends to promote effectiveness, I think you’re conceiving the action as aiming to influence a second party, and the unconventionality works by making the action unexpected. Is that how you’d explain the idea that acting on the basis of convention is not ideal ?

    • Yes, I think so. The DDJ text doesn’t really seem like a navel gazing text as much as a guide to public action in a world where much of that is governed explicitly by conventions of ritual and norms of proper conduct. Or at least that is what rival daos of the period seem to preach.

  6. Would the argument against convention apply with the same force as advice against doing whatever people naturally tend to do, because that sort of action too would be common and so expected—at least if natural tendencies are similar across the species?

    • I think the argument would certainly apply when the two categories coincide — conventional and natural — AND when the activities in question are detrimental to attaining some specified goal that is desirable. That said, the Daodejing seems often read as holding that, at the time of its composition, people had been led astray by civilization and its underpinnings from what they might naturally tend to do; hence, civilization is bad. But that seems too simple as a reading. The Daodejing seems to suggest that among the things people naturally tend to do is to respond in certain ways to certain promptings of civilization — they become covetous, for example, when notions of property and theft are introduced; judgmental when standards of various sorts are introduced. Returning to some kind of unspoiled state is more difficult than responding to civilization’s promptings; so doing what humans as a species tend to do without the promptings of a feverish civilization (to borrow from Plato) isn’t something the Daodejing expects to be a common inertial direction or a default state.

  7. Hi Scott. At the risk of seeming all mystically squishy, I would suggest that since wuwei is descriptive of an experience, the best way to understand something of what it means is to in some sense experience it.  To look for objective definitions of it and then (ostensibly) to attempt to apply them is to get the cart before the horse.
    Also, I think our understanding of what wuwei is about is aided by an understanding of some of the core philosophical Daoist thoughts about what it means to be empty.  If “qi is emptiness waiting for the presence of beings” (Zz 4; Ziporyn) and we are invited to emulate that, then this presence as a non-presence, this providing of an occasion (or space) for things to happen, this non-being the change, might very well be a way of ‘defining’ wuwei.
    Scott (too)

    • Hi Scott,

      re: “I would suggest that since wuwei is descriptive of an experience, the best way to understand something of what it means is to in some sense experience it. To look for objective definitions of it and then (ostensibly) to attempt to apply them is to get the cart before the horse.”
      — I don’t see any cart-before-horse. Most of us can, and have, experienced non-interference, non-coerciveness, adaptive action. Ziporyn’s “empty waiting for things” appears to suggest action that is yin 因, goes with the grain (li 理) or conforms to the situation or the times (yushi 與時).

    • Suppose Smith, Jones, and Davis have each written a poem about “wu wei.” But they mean different things by the term. Smith means “not meddling in other people’s affairs.” Jones means “acting without deliberating first about the actions.” Davis means “not using conventional means to influence people.”


      Now Lee, a stranger to the poets, reads the poems and has these three separate text exchanges:

      Lee: Your poem advises “wu wei.” What do you mean by the term ‘wu wei’?
      Smith: The only way to understand that is to try it, and experience it for yourself.

      Lee: Your poem advises “wu wei.” What do you mean by the term ‘wu wei’?
      Jones: The only way to understand that is to try it, and experience it for yourself.

      Lee: Your poem advises “wu wei.” What do you mean by the term ‘wu wei’?
      Davis: The only way to understand that is to try it, and experience it for yourself.

      In each case, Lee’s response should be: “Experience what? I have to know what you mean by the term first. Otherwise I won’t know how to take your advice to try it, and if I do happen to try it I won’t know whether the thing I’m experiencing is the thing you’re talking about.”


      Kim is a friend of Smith who knows what Smith means by the term. Kim reads Smith’s poem, and they have a text exchange:

      Kim: Your poem advises wu wei. But what’s that really like? What will it mean in my life?
      Smith: The only way to understand that is to try it, and experience it for yourself.

      Since Kim already knew what Smith meant by the term, the whole conversation could be restated as follows without changing its meaning.

      Kim: Your poem advises not meddling in other people’s affairs. But what’s that really like? What will it mean in my life?
      Smith: The only way to understand that is to try it, and experience it for yourself.

      Smith’s answer makes sense. But I think Smith and Kim here are both neglecting something important. The overall meaning or significance or importance of a way of living is not just in what it is like to live that way. For any way of living I might try will also have an effect on others, which may be good or bad. And personal experience may not be a good way to find out about that at all. For example, the experience of using my millions for a nice house and lavish entertainment rather than for famine relief may not give me a good picture of the overall impact of that choice; other kinds of inquiry might do a much better job.

    • Bill and Scott,Thank you for your responses. It would probably have been best if I had not commented at all, but having done so it would probably be best if I replied to your responses.
      I think we can certainly come to rational approximations of what philosophical ‘Daoists’ meant by wuwei, but ultimately, I think their understanding was rooted in an experience that cannot be summed up in words, and thus, unless we are similarly willing to explore that experience, our approximations will fall wide of the mark and our words will be dead words. I do not mean to imply by this that they were ‘sages’–I see no reason to believe there has ever been any sages.  But they were, nevertheless, involved in and committed to an exploration of their mystical visions and this gave birth to attempts to express it in words.
      In this regard, I see the Daoist vision as being comparable to Zen. Few indeed are the non-Zennist scholars who would not fear to tread on the ground of Zen–it is understood that Zen is not reducible to words. To discuss it is to negate it. So, even Zennist scholars discuss it while acknowledging that they are thereby negating it. Similarly, Zhuangzi speaks of using “reckless” words and thus suggests that we also listen “recklessly”. .I understand that I have jumped into a pool of scholars and that scholars have a need to retain objectivity. I also appreciate that without (your–for I have little) scholarship all my particular blabber would be impossible. Still, I don’t believe that scholarship is in any way compromised by admitting to the limiting aspects of its objectivity.
      Bill, with respect to your concluding statement that there is a more important consideration than how it feels to live in a certain way, namely whether it is good or bad relative its social outcomes, I would like to point out that this further illustrates my point made above. Simply put, this is not a Daoist concern. “The sage does this as a matter of course, not because it is the ‘right’ thing to do.”  From the Daoist point of view, concerns about right and wrong merely demonstrate bondage to right and wrong.  The hackles this most likely raises in some only serves to again makes the point. This lack of concern about right and wrong  is also rooted in experience and can only seem as diabolic outside of that experience. But by the same token, that’s just fine–it’s just not Daoism, and a discussion of Daoism would best take this into consideration whether agreed with or not.
      In saying all this, I have, no doubt, opened yet another can of worms and once again demonstrated what wuwei especially and Daoism generally is not.  All the best.  Scott     

    • Hi Bill,

      re: “I have to know what you mean by the term first. Otherwise I won’t know how to take your advice to try it, and if I do happen to try it I won’t know whether the thing I’m experiencing is the thing you’re talking about.”

      I think that is exactly right.

      @ Scott Bradley, while I do believe that the early Daoist tradition was involved in mysticism (see here), I think it is far from clear that all writers in that tradition who wrote about wuwei were mystics or were basing their concepts on mystical experiences.

    • Scott Bradley,

      Thanks for replying!

      You write,

      Bill, with respect to your concluding statement that there is a more important consideration than how it feels to live in a certain way, namely whether it is good or bad relative its social outcomes,

      Actually the way I was conceiving my point is slightly different from that—and this might be interesting (or not). I took you to be saying that the best way to understand the meaning of the way of acting/living/being that is wuwei is to experience it. Thus I took you to be talking, not about the meaning of the term, but about the significance of the activity: what it implies, what it carries with it (though the rest of us had been talking only about the meaning of the term, and touching on other issues only because one way to test a hypothesis about the meaning of a term in a text is to see whether, on that hypothesis, the text in question turn out to be saying manifestly unreasonable things).

      The words ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ and ‘import’ are interestingly ambiguous as between semantic meaning and simple importance. ‘Value’ too, in some fields, is used for something like semantic meaning—as in the value of a variable in algebra. These are all about something like implication or entailment, or if you like, what the word or action stands for, what it carries with it, what it represents.

      What a thing means, what it carries with it, what it represents or entails, is sort of a broad way of conceiving what the thing is. In that sense, what I’m talking about is what wuweiing is.

      What wuweiing brings along with it, what it means or implies, is not limited to what it means for the person wuweiing. That is to say, how we live affects others too. That is not itself a judgment about right and wrong, though it’s likely to be relevant to that. I didn’t mean to be talking about right and wrong, because I do remember that the DDJ puts that down; I wanted to sidestep the issue. I said that how a person lives affects others in ways that can be good for the other persons, or bad for them. Are you saying it doesn’t? Or just saying you don’t care, or that wuweiers don’t care?

      I am not denying that there are ways of life that can lead one to ignore impacts on others and be happy with that. I’m not sure that’s true for most people, but my point is simply independent of that.

      From the Daoist point of view, concerns about right and wrong merely demonstrate bondage to right and wrong.

      Is that a reason for not being concerned about right and wrong? How would it be such a reason?

      Is it based on the idea that concern about X always demonstrates bondage to X? Or is there something special about right and wrong, that makes it impossible to have concern without bondage?

      On the one hand:

      Although I hadn’t raised the issue, earlier, I do happen to think that as a general policy or pattern, simply ignoring the impact on other people when choosing or testing a way of life is indeed wrong. To do you the respect of putting my cards on the table, I’d say it’s base, and that regarding it, “Eeew” is true.

      On the other hand:

      IF it is true in general that some way of living X happens to do about as well as can be done for the neighbors of Xers and others affected, and this way of living, once experienced, tended to be valued by Xers and tended to involve their not caring about others, then I might think Xing constitutes some kind of exception to the Eew proposition I advanced just above.

      Do you think wuweiing meets those conditions?

    • (I want to add that nothing I said just above depends in any way on supposing that what it feels like to wuwei can be described in words.)

    • Anyway my point was that for knowing what wuweiing means, what it is in the broad sense, what it represents in the world, experience is not enough to know it all and may not suffice for an understanding of the greater part, the bulk of it.

    • Hi Bill. I’m not sure I have understood all your comments, but I will try to address your questions as best I can. I am also wary of using this forum to expound on all my opinions about Daoism, but have to take responsibility for having begun. Part of the difficulty with most all that philosophical Daoism has to say (at least in its more radical aspects—those that cut against the grain of ‘normal’ human behavior) is that, to my thinking, it dwells in the realm of the fantastic. It’s all essentially hypothetical. If this is the case, and we wish to understand what it is saying, we must somehow try to approximate it in our own experience—we are required to in some way attempt to ‘practice’ the fantastic in it. This sets up a kind of dialectic between our understanding and our experience, each informing the other. We might call this imaginative meditation. Zhuangzi (whose thought is my primary interest), I believe, advocates this by inviting us to meditatively think about these possibilities: suppose you depended on nothing? How would that feel?  Seen from the point of view of their sameness all things are one. Language is thus a necessary part of the process, but only half of it.We are all in bondage to right and wrong (to being ‘moral’) (which, among other reasons, is why we do so much of the latter—America’s ‘moral’ exceptionalism being an excellent case in point). So, once again a dialectic becomes necessary. Even the supposed sages took pains to tell us that the practice of wuwei (which to my thinking doesn’t ‘care’ about right and wrong) makes other beings flourish.Is this the aim/goal of wuwei? If it were, it wouldn’t be wuwei. Thus, some form of dialectic seems to be necessary between these two—caring and not caring(Walking Two Roads?)—so as to move toward a better understanding and practice of wuwei. We must begin where we are. It is also worth noting that we needn’t worry overmuch about ‘sages’ being sociopaths—and it would only be they who actually practiced wuwei. Perhaps discussions of wuwei as a fixed ideal should come with a warning: Performed by sages; do not try this at home.”Or just saying you don’t care, or that wuweiers don’t care?” I care because I can’t help but care, but a true hypothetical wuweier would not (merely) care — to my thinking. The point of Daoism (in my view) is to realize what it’s like tobe Nature-like, and Nature doesn’t care. (But humanity cares, and finds it necessary to care, so humans can return to their caring informed by this other perspective; Walking Two Roads; this would be caring without caring). “Is that [my: “concern about r & w demonstrates bondage to r &w.”] a reason for not being concerned about right and wrong? How would it be such a reason?” Can we care about r & w without caring about it(without being in bondage to it)? Can we help others by not helping others? Can we be with others without being with others? Can we say something without saying something? Can we be angry without being angry? Can we be sorrowful without being sorrowful? The answer to all these, from the point of view of Daoism, is a hypothetical ‘yes’. However, humans being as they typically are,express concern about r & w because they believe they are writ in heaven and don’t think it will all come out in the wash. (Don’t let it “all bask in the broad daylight of Heaven”.)”Do you think wuweiing meets those conditions?” That is, do I think a wuweier does not care about r & w [does not cling to them as to “sworn oaths”, as writ in heaven] and consequently does what is best for others? Yep. Though only hypothetically.Thanks for the dialogue.  Scott  

  8. OK, I’m a couple of months late to the party here but will chime in rather than emailing Scott, in case anyone else will wants to discuss.

    I don’t accept the statement that “wu wei is descriptive of an experience” as a given. It could also be a philosophy of life, a guiding moral principle, or an unachievable yet valuable ideal.

    Bill’s 3 poets frame the concept pretty well, I think, and the device captures the Daoist lesson about the approximation inherent in words and terms beautifully.

    I think of each entity in the universe, including processes and relationships as having a ziran, which I picture through the metaphor of a dance. And — when not disturbed by clunky human intervention — all of these entities dance together in one great dance.

    wuwei then would be perceiving this dance, finding its rhythm, and dancing your dance in time. It’s purposeful — you intend to dance — but as with, say, actual salsa dancing, you can’t do it well if you are calculating your steps and desperately trying to find the beat (as I know all too well.)

    It takes years of practice, and/or perhaps cultural fluency, to be able to join in without effort, just dancing along. You are not meddling with others but you should be interacting with and influencing them nonetheless.

    To hammer the metaphor, Confucian style conventional behavior would be like recognizing the value of dance, but ordering everyone at the salsa part to stop what they’re doing and dance your favorite polka instead.

  9. Mark, I find that image attractive, interesting, and deep. It makes me think of an idyllic pre-technological tribal life with nature.

    And then I think, we’ll never stop global warming that way; and I think of the salsa dance as an image of free-market capitalism.

    Our being social animals, political animals, means not just that we dance in harmony (or, alas, not); it means that our collectivities too are dancers in a larger dance (or, alas, not).

    Hansen, following somebody else I think, presents the early Ru as a bunch of people focused especially on dancing, on trying to dance us back into the great harmonious dance we’ve been falling away from. They want to lead by example, but then there’s something about rules.

    In your picture, there are two problems with what the Confucians are doing, right? There’s the ordering (see Analects 2.3) and there’s the fact that polka goes against the convention, which is salsa.

    On the rhythm of life and nature:

  10. I hope someone who knows the history better than I chimes in (pun!), but performing the music for, for example, the guqin (Robert Eno and Chad Hansen like to call the early Ru “the zither players” sometimes, I think), was a less regimented thing than the choreography for ceremonial court dances. If that is true, the musical performances were more like blues jam sessions (well, sort of), at least if historical reconstructions of qin playing are any indication. I could be totally wrong about this, I realize.

    But if that is correct, then on Mark’s point about this way of construing wuwei — as an effortless kind of virtuosity in living with others that is the result of practice and fluency — I don’t think there was much difference in what the Ru or Zhuang types were after. The Daodejing folks, I think, were after something else — more strategic in the ways I’ve indicated above and less about performing a life.

  11. Manyul — Yes blues, or perhaps some other folk music — bluegrass, zydeco, klezmer, gospel, sufi, sub-saharan — that’s a bit more participatory, more spiritual, with dancing, singing. There are plenty of modern analogues.

    There is something a bit colder in the DDJ approach as we’ve received it. No way to know if this is intended or an artifact of our text’s history. It’s stereotypically more Northern Chinese.

    “Effortless virtuosity” — yes, I sometimes define mastery as “when you can’t explain how you did it any more.” But that definition may be a bit too individual and egoistic. I also get a sense of living in harmony and deep understanding of the dao, which can be simple. Virtuosity is a path that us over-educated types can use to get back to Dao, but others in a well-led society might never lose it.

    I don’t mean this all to sound New Agey and mystical. I write mostly about NFL football these days — my second book “Controlled Chaos” is out later this month — and surprisingly Daoist concepts are commonplace.

    The most grizzled hard-case coaches talk about players “letting the game come to them,” about “the game slowing down” for players as they gain mastery, about “being in the zone” which is now almost a cliche for living in Dao.

    Bill — you explained what I meant better than I did, thanks. I want to be clear that I also intend a meaning that includes non-human and even abstract entities as dancers. In my football example, each game, each play, each season is a living organism with its own ziran that needs to be observed with fresh eyes and adjusted to. There is a powerful dynamic in the NFL between experience, which gives wisdom and confidence vs. age/games played, which wear down bodies, build up injuries, possible accumulated brain trauma.

    Our scientific understanding of ecosystems is a good example of the practical use of wuwei in this sense. 100 years ago, the effect of say, cutting down a forest or introducing a pollutant was seen as a single cause-and-effect. Now we understand the incredibly intricate interactions of an ecosystem and how complicated the effects of such an intervention can be.

  12. Thanks Mark. It would seem you feel wuwei has one meaning (used by all). Is that true? Would “clunky human intervention” be your translation-interpretation of wei?

    • Hmm, I suppose I have been thinking of it that way but not consciously. Anything I say is definitely an interpretation, I claim no knowledge of classical Chinese.

      But clunky human intervention sounds about right. Or acting against rhythm — I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of trying to say something in a group conversation but your timing — your perception of the right moment to interject – is off, so you keep interrupting or getting interrupted? like that.

    • IE there may be many wu-weis, I’ve never really considered that. I always want some kind of underlying essence but that’s probably me being Western.

  13. Manyul, I wonder, does the idea of performance, dancing to be seen, maybe mark a distinction between Ru and Zhuang?


    Mark, you write,

    I want to be clear that I also intend a meaning that includes non-human and even abstract entities as dancers.

    I find that statement really interesting, for two different reasons.

    First, because it’s a reminder of a nest of questions about the very idea “abstract entity.” The phrase tends to suggest to me things that do not, cannot, change, like the number 4 or courage. Of course I mean courage in the abstract! My couragemight change. My courage and my relation to my father are immaterial entities and can change. Are they abstract entities? Maybe not, because they’re particular. Immaterial and somewhat general entities can change, such as the attitude of Americans toward France. (The language of the Chinese philosophers has always had names for what we might call abstract and indeed unchanging entities, yes?) … …

    Second and more interestingly, in connection with the remark of mine that I think prompted yours:

    Our being social animals, political animals, means not just that we dance in harmony (or, alas, not); it means that our collectivities too are dancers in a larger dance (or, alas, not).

    Some unnamed worry about this claim of mine, as an elaboration of the wuwei idea, has been nagging at me, and now I think I’m starting to put my finger on it—helped also by Richard Madsen’s quote from Fei Xiaotong in Madsen’s essay “Confucian Conceptions of Civil Society,” in Daniel Bell ed. Confucian Political Ethics (maybe I’m starting to read things), p. 4f.:

    Fei has given the following vivid account of the difference between Confucian and Western ways of thinking about the configuration of relationships that constitute a society.

    In some ways Western society bears a resemblance to the way we bundle kindling wood in the fields. A few rice stalks are bound together to make a handful, several handfuls are bound together to make a small bundle, several small bundles are bound together to make a larger bundle, and several larger bundles are bound together to make a stack to carry on a pole. Every single stalk in the entire stack belongs to one specific large bundle, one specific small bundle, and one specific handful. Similar stalks are assembled together, clearly classified, and then bound together. In a society these units are groups. … The group has a definite demarcation line.

    The configuration of Chinese society, on the other hand, is

    like the rings of successive ripples that are propelled outward on the surface when you throw a stone into water. Each individual is the center of the rings emanating from his social influence. Wherever the ripples reach, affiliations occur.

    Now, I think Fei Xiaotong has got it wrong in a couple of respects. First, Westerners are members of all sorts of different kinds of partly overlapping organizations and groups. Our groups aren’t neatly nested like a Platonic/Aristotelian taxonomy. (Fei is closer to the mark if he’s talking only about official political organization; but even there we’re members of different overlapping districts: school districts, sewer districts, etc. And can Fei have meant that meritocratic-or-patrilineal feudal organization didn’t emphasize nested collections?) Second, the ripple picture he paints suggests an absence of formal inequality, which seems misleading about Confucianism.

    But maybe Fei is onto something important nevertheless, with his bundles versus ripples, and maybe it’s this—I’m asking—maybe traditional Chinese thought thinks in terms of relations, not groups. Or rather, more specifically—I’m asking—maybe traditional Chinese thought tends not to contemplate corporate agents, as Western thought does. In the West we say the city does this, the county does that, the company does this, the club does that. We assume a robust conceptual distinction between the actions/activities of the corporate entity and the actions/activities of any individual members or officials. I guess what makes it natural for Westerners to do this, is that we think of corporate entities as making decisions by way of processes (other than simply “the king decides.” That is, we think of corporate entities as making decisions by way of several people performing roles.

    I don’t mean something so extreme as to imply that the Mencius would never speak of one state invading another. Like Fei Xiaotong, I have in mind a matter of degree, of tendency.

    (The idea of corporate agency is different from what the phrase “fiduciary community” suggests to me: a kind of relationship that could obtain between, say, father and son. )

    If that guess about China is right—that old China doesn’t much think of corporate agency—then maybe the idea that “our collectivities too are dancers in a larger dance (or, alas, not)” is alien to the spirit of old China.

    How about that?

    • Bill, for the Ru, I think dancing to be seen in the ceremonial context is different from playing zithers. From what the historians say, it seems zithers were often played privately, with no audience and not in any ceremony, when the Ru played. So, with the zither playing, maybe there is less difference in the “point” of the virtuosity from the skill virtuosity models we find in the Zhuangzi.

    • What Fei says doesn’t sound right to me. Early Chinese society (or societies) was/were made up of lineages, lineages of sub-lineages, and on. But I’m no expert.

    • “our collectivities too are dancers in a larger dance (or, alas, not).”

      Yes, and I was think there is usually less tangible dancer (the Daoist reality) that’s more important than the legal structure (the Confucian reality.) EG, we usually have — at least in retrospect — a sense of when a romantic relationship was “alive” — young, mature, aging, dead. A project, a song (esp. a jam), a business, a campaign — they all have a vitality, a life unrelated to the signing of papers or the cessation of actual effort and motion. Sensing that life accurately — and acting accordingly — is one of my favorite graces.

  14. I see, Manyul, by “performing” you just meant playing, e.g. jamming. But still maybe the contrast holds? That a difference between the Zhuang qua dancers rather than pushers (a la Saltveit) and the Ru qua dancers rather than pushers (a la 2.3) is that the Ru thought the ritual was always about being seen?

    Scott, I agree.

    And to me, lineages and sublineages suggest bundled bundles more than thousand-node networks, at least at first. But maybe that’s partly because as a Westerner of 2015 I tend to associate “lineage” with “family” and tend to think of families as synchronic groups rather than as, well, lineages.

    Hm. How unnatural is it to think of lineages and sub-lineages as ripples—I mean, as thousand-node networks, which is how I read Fei’s idea—rather than as bundled bundles? IF one didn’t think of family lines as patrilineal, then one might think of them as thousand-node networks. Straight toward the past I link directly with two, then four, eight, etc; toward the future I similarly branch out; and everyone else is the same way Patrilineality blocks that view of the past, but leaves room for it on the future side. And even links toward the past branch out in the sense that, if we include sideways steps by way of brothers and then their descendants, making lines of relationship between me and ever more people, spreading outward and weakening ad infinitum, even if toward the past we’re all descendants of the same greatfather.

    Legge’s note to Analects 7.30 says “the duke Chao had violated an important rule,–that which forbids the intermarriage of parties of the same surname.” That rule suggests some kind of pro-rippling and anti-bundling picture to me. And yet—surely in some sense you are right that lineages and sub-lineages are bundled bundles and were seen as such.

    The point I want to propose is that early Chinese tended not to think of groups or organizations (e.g. lineages or states) as agents. If we think of families as lineages, i.e. as almost entirely either dead or unborn, it becomes especially hard to think of families as agents, though we could think of them as patients, and one could think of them as having qualities, such as traditions or general practices (things done by the members or by holders of various positions). And if we think of other groupings on the model of families, the point might carry over to them too?

  15. Hi again Manyul,

    What you say about the Daodejing reminds me of a kind of picture of martial arts: the ruler as the kind of master who can beat you using hardly any motion, because she’s out-thinking you, faking you out all the time—predicting your moves and being unpredictable. She’s thinking faster and better. Her unpredictability is presumably a combination of sheer speed and sheer cockamamieness.

    Saying that A’s moves are faster than B’s might be pretty much exactly the same as saying that whatever B can do, A can do more naturally?

    Or one might think of a reformer of socialism who influences people to promote prosperity largely by removing rules and relying on the invisible hand. Or one might think of—was this Feynman in his first autobiography?—nudging a few ants to make the whole troop march in an endless circle without further nudging (as they follow their scent-trail).

    The picture you see in the Daodejing is that of a largely libertarian governor who occasionally nudges the ants in unpredictable ways to keep them from getting too focused on dangerous things? The nudging might be called wuwei because it is unconventional—one isn’t “doing” any of the recognized Things to Do.

    Or maybe it could be called wuwei because one is thinking of the gongfu master; only a master ruler would be skilled enough, smooth enough, flowy enough, to fake out the people with so little visible activity.

    I don’t know if there was any familiar concrete analog, in the time of the Daodejing, to my image of the gongfu master in movies.

    • Bill — this is close to what I was getting at above, except I wouldn’t emphasize cleverness and “faking out” as much. I think much of it is instinctual when you reach a level of mastery, but it’s well-honed instinct derived from years of training.

      This is a big part of the method of the football coach I write about these days, Chip Kelly.I quote Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine in my conclusion:

      “It seems like Chip Kelly is hellbent on proving that everyone else overthinks football, but he does it in a way that nobody can figure out.”

      And Kelly himself told another reporter “I don’t think about what I think as much as you think about what I think.” They took it as a joke but I think it was a serious and important statement.

      A lot of his training of players is based on doing plays in practice more than any other team, a thousand times or more so that in game time you aren’t slowed by thinking. He doesn’t give players instructions during games for the same reason.

    • I too wouldn’t emphasize cleverness and faking. And over-thinking seems wildly inappropriate for the Daodejing (and Zhuangzi). There does seem to be manipulation going on, but many of these English words have negative connotations which are probably not in keeping with the text as a whole. The Daoist ruler seems to me to be benign, if not often benevolent. That is not to say that critics have not accused the text and its supporters of endorsing disingenuous manipulation or that what one (Daoist) ruler deems benign or in the people’s interest is in fact more in their own interest. The Daoist sage is said to take the people’s heart-minds as his own, however, if the people want things the sage deems harmful (e.g., aggressive warfare, excess and luxury), it seems to me that he would quietly steer them elsewhere. Is this interference? Yes. Is this manipulation? Yes. Is this in keeping with wuwei? I think also yes.

    • Hi Mark, very interesting indeed!

      I do see that about being practiced, about the “instinctual,” and was very inadequately trying to allude to it in my second paragraph about speed being “naturalness.”

      I was trying to worry (explore, poke at) Manyul’s idea of unconventionality as wuwei in the Daodejing (aside from whether or not it’s right about the text); I was trying to use the example of the gongfu master to suggest that wuwei in manner might be mistaken for wuwei in substance—something like that.

      How about this in the abstract: Whatever kind of action is pretty much paradigmatically youwei—say, interference, or blocking—couldn’t one with practice get really good at it, really nonclunky? Would it then count as wuwei? ‘Wuwei’ might then be defined simply as skill (at whatever)?

      But maybe one thinks that whatever it is about interference that makes interference partly paradigmatic of wuwei—whatever that thing is, it is absent from highly skilled interference. What would that thing be?


      Ping-pong (as I recall it) feels to me like the same sort of balance as musical improvisation, a careful balance between the expected and the unexpected. (Is salsa dancing like that, unlike the polka?) But then I think: in ping-pong one actually wants to maximize unexpectedness. Maybe the similarity I feel is because in ping-pong one is constrained toward something like a balance by (a) the need to stay in a nearly automatic flow, (b) the need to be responsive, hence receptive, to what the other person has done, and (c) the instrumental value of setting up false expectations by being briefly predictable.


      Manyul’s Daodejing’s wuwei seems to privilege the point of view of others. Something counts as wuwei because it’s not a recognized action (not a recognized kind of action, or not noticed at all). It doesn’t look like action.


      Insofar as wuwei was associated with unconventionality, might that have been because conventionality itself was thought of as clunky, as straining against the nature of things? (Whereas to me conventionality suggests going with the flow.)


      Hm. The football team’s wuwei is a corporate wuwei, a corporate virtuosity. I wonder if there’s any ancient Chinese discussion of anything like that in the context of military training or at least military discipline.

      (For the Greeks, staying in military formation, holding the line, was a paradigm of justice and law, for order as the backbone of the strength of the group.)

      Is the Daodejing’s social ideal a kind of collective wuwei?

      Analects 1.12 is sometimes read as being about practiced naturalness rather than social harmony, but if one reads it as being about both—practicedly natural social harmony—one might think of it as a kind of collective wuwei, which might seem to imply a conception of collective agency. (That would be wuwei as skilled conventionality.) Or one might instead think of it simply as the wuwei of the members.


    • Hi Bill; thanks (as always) for the opportunity to get back into this discussion. Re: that my reading of DDJ’s wuwei “seems to privilege the point of view of others. Something counts as wuwei because it’s not a recognized action (not a recognized kind of action, or not noticed at all). It doesn’t look like action.” I’m not sure what work you want such privileging to do, if any. Any account of wuwei as reactive or responsive to some other thing (other people, situations, the universe, etc) privileges that other thing in a very vague sense.

      But that actually makes me think of how one’s own perspective can be “un-privileged” so that it disappears into the perspective of the other. Putting it this way makes the sort of privileging of the other that you point out seem consistent with the DDJ as promoting a receding-into-obscurity viewpoint from which to conduct activity. So, if that makes sense, I very much welcome your observation about my reading of the DDJ’s wuwei.

    • By privileging a point of view I mean taking that point of view’s view as definitive. I was trying to argue that (not the DDJ’s sage ruler but rather) the account of ‘wuwei’ you find in the DDJ was privileging the view of the sage-ruler’s others, as distinct from her own view. (Distinct: when the people say “we did it ourselves,” is the ruler supposed to share their perspective on that?) That privileging seemed odd to me in light of your emphasis on wuwei as going against convention—as Mark’s helpful gloss at 2:06 below brings out. For example, what you say here about disappearing into the perspective of the other sounds to me a lot like being purely conventional.

      More replies maybe tomorrow, guys.

    • Sorry, I’ll try again in a less tangled way.

      If Smith uses a term that literally translates as
      (sc. doing by) “not doing”
      to mean
      (sc. acting to influence one’s subject people in a way that) “either (a) the people do not notice that they are being acted on to be influenced, or (b) that way is not a conventionally recognized way of acting to influence” (with no suggestion that (c) the party doing the wuweiing does not notice the acting-to-influence),
      then Smith is using that term as though, as if, something counts as “doing” only if and insofar as the people or convention recognize it as “doing.” In that sense Smith’s language, Smith’s wording, privileges the viewpoint of the people (the parties to be influenced) or convention.

      Manyul, you propose, maybe rightly, that the DDJ is using such a term in such a way.

      I think there’s some slight—maybe only slight—tension between that proposal and the proposal that the DDJ values wuwei so understood, especially (b) unconventionality.

      And I wonder whether your 2:52 above is eliding disappearing from the people’s view (receding into obscurity) with disappearing into the people’s view (coming to share it). If we address the prima facie slight tension between wording and values by saying that the wording reflects the value “sharing the people’s viewpoint,” then I think the tension goes from slight to severe.

      Which still doesn’t necessarily mean the reading is inaccurate. But it might mean we have to ascribe to the DDJ the view that the sage ruler herself hardly knows what she’s doing, in influencing the people. And there are passages that could support that. Is that the idea?

    • The DDJ certainly implies a consciously sneaky or manipulative leader, but I suppose the best would be instinctive leaders just as Butcher Ding or the bell-stand maker carve without thought.

      Some conservatives have posited capitalism as just wuwei leadership, just creating conditions that let citizens do the right thing without direct instruction. My favorite modern example — which these same conservatives generally dislike, oddly — is the bottle bill.

      In addition to helping clean up bottles and cans, it has become in many ways the best anti-poverty program at least for many folks unable to hold traditional jobs. And I think it’s entirely possible that those who created the policy never even imagined this advantage.

    • Thanks, Bill. If one values unconventional action, that necessarily depends upon what happens to be conventional. In that sense, the unconventional of course “privileges” the conventional — by being parasitic on the conventional. So, I’m not sure I see the tension.

      With regard to disappearing into another’s perspective, I’m not sure (again) where the tension lies. The point is metaphoric, of course, that when I take another’s perspective — or, more importantly, understand it — and use that strategically to direct the other toward some action or goal that uses the other’s own motivation or trajectory, then I am not forcing the other into something that I want, but pointing her toward it. In that sense, my own perspective figuratively “disappears.”

      That all seems consistent with unconventionality, though maybe interesting complications can occur: suppose we’re all in an aikido dojo and the conventional practice is to use one’s opponent’s force in such ways to direct her momentum by understanding her perspective and motivated movement. I imagine that, skill being equal, aikido opponents might “get nowhere” unless there is pretense on the part of one to act as the aggressor for the sake of practice. Maybe that just means that if everyone is after unconventionality, the ability (or need) to act unconventionally disappears. I don’t know — at this point I’m following a whimsical eddy of discussion. Maybe it’s useful.

    • Thanks Manyul. Your comments always get better the more I read them.

      I want to try once again about “privileging,” because I’m only 80% sure I’ve got my thought across. I’ll avoid the word ‘privileging’, since it seems to be getting in the way.

      A handbook for pet owners or birthday clowns might frequently talk about how not to be “scary.” The book might or might not use quotes like that with the term. It would be understood that by “scary” the book means “scary to a pet” or “scary to a small child.” “Scary” things, as the book means the term, might include wearing a uniform or talking in a deep bass voice. They would not include glancing meaningfully at the mom and the cake knife and unplugging the telephone. That’s because what counts as “scary” as the book uses the term is all and only what would be scary to the children or the pet. In that respect the book’s use of the term takes up, speaks as from, the point of view of the children or the pet. That’s not the same as taking account of the point of view of the children or the pet. Listing “the things that would scare the pet” takes account of the pet’s point of view, but doesn’t take it up, doesn’t speak as from it.

      Scariness is a kind of appearance. It naturally takes modifiers of the form ‘to…’. This feature of the word ‘scary’ makes it kind of natural to use the word ‘scary’ in a way that takes up some particular point of view (and neglects others), as the handbook for birthday clowns or pet owners does .

      The terms ‘table’, ‘inaction’, and ‘intentional device’ aren’t like that. To succeed in using ‘table’ to cover all and only the things that the Joneses would regard as tables, never mind whether they are actually tables, would require a very special context or set-up.

      Manyul, I gather your reading of ‘wuwei’ in the DDJ is like that. Like this:

      taking no action (to rule the people)

      the DDJ means
      taking no action (to rule the people)
      that those people would recognize as such

      Thus unconventionality might help make a course of action “wuwei” according to the DDJ (although lots of kinds of unconventional devices to influence people might be especially noticeable as devices to influence people, precisely because they stand out as being unusual things to do).

      There are activities that might be very conventional as influence devices among the ruling classes or their advisers, but not recognized as influence devices by the masses, such as simply facing south, being good to one’s family, respecting the people’s rights, push-polling, and the “nudge.” I guess these might fall within what you’re calling unconventional and wuwei.

      I said the kind of usage I think you’re ascribing to the DDJ is a kind that needs a special context or set-up. It’s a weird enough sort of use of language that special steps have to be taken to make sure the reader won’t misunderstand. Now, I don’t see any such set-up in the DDJ; on the contrary, the prima facie appearance to my causal eye is that ‘wuwei’ throughout really does mean doing virtually nothing.

      So I can think of two ways to go, to defend your proposal or something like it.

      One is that the text is in a kind of code, at least with respect to this term, meant not to be understood by the casual reader. The key to the code is separate, perhaps a purely oral tradition. The ruler should be like Feynman nudging the occasional ant to keep them all marching in a circle. He understands and uses, but does not adopt, the people’s viewpoint. His viewpoint is invisible to them.

      The other is a more Confucian reading. Facing south, treating one’s family well, respecting the people’s rights: these are powerful devices for influencing the people. But if the people see them as influence devices, they don’t work as well as they should. And if the rulers who do them see them as influence devices, they don’t work as well as they should, and maybe some of them aren’t even really being done. So they shouldn’t be seen as influence devices; it’s wrong to think of doing such things as doing things to influence the people. Don’t act “to influence the people.” The king should just be a good boy who loves his mother, a Zaphod Beeblebrox or rather a Tommen Lannister.

      On this latter reading the sage does vanish into—adopt—the people’s viewpoint in a way, except maybe that (a) when they ask for special favors, in their shortsighted way, he never does anything; and (b) he visibly does have the standard distinct viewpoint in a way, the kind of viewpoint others have for themselves. He loves his own mother.

    • Also, Bill, your coda at the end of the 8:01 comment caught my eye: “I don’t know if there was any familiar concrete analog, in the time of the Daodejing, to my image of the gongfu master in movies.” I imagine the martial skills involved in training and combat were fairly well developed at the time. I would not be surprised if there were models of skill, of the heights that the movies now portray, available at the time of DDJ’s composition.

    • Movies today portray wildly unrealistic skill in combat as though it were real, with great vividness of sight and sound, to such large audiences that we feel these images are common property. The master exhausts a fairly skilled opponent simply by stepping slightly out of the way of each blow; Neo fends off a frenzied Agent Smith with just one arm while his gaze is elsewhere. Short of that, what you say seems quite possible; but I wonder what we know about it.

    • One relevant point is that some of the skill virtuosi stories in Zhuangzi either predate or are contemporaneous with the stretch of time within which DDJ’s composition is likely.

    • Manyul, you appear to state as fact “some of the skill virtuosi stories in Zhuangzi either predate or are contemporaneous with the stretch of time within which DDJ’s composition is likely,” but what evidence would you say supports that?

    • Manyul, I forgot to make explicit that in calling the movie portrayals realistic, vivid, and part of the public culture, I meant to be replying precisely to the point that there are allegations about e.g. food preparation in the Zhuangzi! Still, the latter could have been influential, or could indicate the presence of an idea in the culture.

    • Bill:

      For the Greeks, staying in military formation, holding the line, was a paradigm of justice and law, for order as the backbone of the strength of the group.

      Interesting. Chip Kelly on the other hand designs plays that give his players opportunities for improvisation based on observing the defense’s choices and shifting in real time. The goal of a spread offense is to atomize the play and create one-on-one matchups.

      In my admittedly uneducated view, Daoism is in large part a critique of the rigid approximations of reality that social humans rely on, but which mask the nuance of reality; traditions, words, laws, job definitions, piano keys which eliminate all but 88 of the infinite tones.

      Kelly for example has a motto: “players not positions” and he favors multi-position players, guys who convert from one to another, interchangeable players to make it impossible to predict what each will do. As protean as possible.

      One reason, I argue, is to be better at adapting to the inevitable unpredictable bounces and injuries — hence, “Controlled Chaos”.

  16. Very interesting thoughts, thanks. Manyul: at the risk of putting words in Bill’s mouth, perhaps the “privileging of the point of view of others” could mean using convention (society, humans) as the standard, as opposed to some deeper, more timeless standard (heaven, nature, the Dao). Convention could at times coincide with ultimate reality, whatever you call it, and you wouldn’t want to automatically reject it during that time.

    Bill — sorry, I missed your second paragraph, it was right there (faster = more naturally). Though I’m sure there are times when slow beats (too deliberately) fast. Need to let the fight come to you.

    You write:

    I was trying to use the example of the gongfu master to suggest that wuwei in manner might be mistaken for wuwei in substance—something like that.

    This makes me thing of the “drunken kungfu” genre, e.g. “Drunken Master.” I take it to be an update on Zhuangzi’s drunk falling off the cart. Manner is wrong but presumably the underlying substance is right.

  17. Drunken Master is an example of wuwei manner and youwei substance (fighting), no?

    Hmm. In football maybe Kelly is right. But it’s the rigid phalanx that took Alexander from the Nile to the Indus, yes? (Why exactly are the terracotta warriors each different?) Does Sunzi write anything about the actions, skills, or training of soldiers as distinct from commanders? If so I should have a look. There’s a certain danger in independently competent soldiers, even a danger in expressing respect for soldiers.

    As I think about it I think maybe the main (though not the only) Greek application of the military-formation metaphor to social/moral issues was about having the courage (or whatever) to stick to the program, no matter what. Maintain your post. Still that implies a program, a post. I suppose uniformity makes the courage easier?

    Mark, if you had said we humans shouldn’t rely on rules, my reply would be here (skip down to the asterisk divider):

    That reply mentions that an advantage (mostly) of order is general transparency of society. I think I remember that somewhere early in The Wandering Daoist by Deng-Ming Dao there’s a vivid general description of old China, imperial China, as oceanically opaque: as consisting of depths upon depths of things you wouldn’t ever learn to expect; always something strange around the next corner, atop the next mountain, just beyond the mist. (I’ve lost my copy; I never finished the book.)

    An extremely good book about the disadvantages of a focus on transparency is Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. It’s one of the best books I know on the human condition.

    I suspect that one use of the metaphor of military formation (taxis : order, arrangement) was to help e.g. Aristotle to have a vision of law other than as a set of articulated rules (pace defenses of Confucian Role Ethics by contrast with Aristotle on law). Aristotle departs from the imperative sentence conception of law (nomos: norm, convention) in a number of ways and places, and I think that’s happening in Politics 16 where he is defending the “rule of law” as opposed to the rule of an human, and says that if there’s regular rotation of leaders, that’s already a taxis, therefore the rule of law obtains. But there are other ways to take the passage.

  18. Hm. Don’t know anything about Aristotle or Deng-Ming Dao or James Scott, sorry. I don’t see Daoism as rigidly pacifist, allowing for sorrowful necessity in defense – and in most kungfu movies, the reluctant hero defends widows and orphas etc, so I’m assuming the need to fight. But empire building I’m certain would not be enough reason for arms, and the need for a phalanx would prove it. EG Tywin Lannister: “If you have to say that you’re the king, you’re not the king.”

    Empire building would be forcing a larger size on the polity rather than recognizing its natural size. How much conflict in Eurasia has come from imposed or drawn borders that didn’t follow the “natural” ones?

    The DDJ and ZZ seem to be quite comfortable with opacity if not fully preferring it. It’s a defense against coup in ZZ 9.2 (“Cracking the Safe”) and wise leadership in DDJ’s notorious ch. 3 (“causing the people to be without knowledge and desire”).

    • Hi Mark,

      I just meant to be recommending James Scott, not alluding to him. I have no idea whether Deng-Ming Dao is, as they say, anybody; it’s just a book I had. I remember being impressed by what I read.

      Arya wants revenge for what was done to her family and friends, like some reluctant heroes in martial arts movies. But Aristotle and I didn’t mean to be recommending or endorsing empire-building (he said the natural and correct size for a state is small enough to keep things personal, and I’m nostalgic for that dream). I thought you were challenging the general valuing of “rigid (military etc.) formation” at least partly on grounds of comparative ineffectiveness, and I just meant to be saying that one area where rigid formation has seemed especially effective is in (Iron Age) battle. But since you’re not opposing all rigidity or regularity, I guess Alexander was just beside the point.

    • Ha! Arya’s question is way too ego-driven for a Daoist, I suspect, like all revenge. But her dedication is approaching skill virtuosi levels and the Faceless Ones certainly ping my Dao-dar, though I can’t tell if it’s a death cult or what they are trying to accomplish.

      My sense is that from a Daoist perspective rigid formations are undoubtedly useful tools — just like the words that the Laozi employs after decrying their limits — but less than ideal, flawed and vulnerable but devastating against undisciplined fighters.

      This is where the skill comes in — the ability to improvise is a deeper skill, the next stage in mastery beyond the rigid formations. In WW2, American troops (and British spies) were able to prevail against seemingly invincible German forces in large part by being less rigid. But even the most “cowboy” special forces unit uses years of rigorous training to get the point where they are able to improvise.

  19. Manyul —

    Can’t seem to reply directly to your comment at 3:53 above but am very intrigued. Can you recommend a source where I can find more on these chronology issues?

    some of the skill virtuosi stories in Zhuangzi either predate or are contemporaneous with the stretch of time within which DDJ’s composition is likely.

    • Dates are always in dispute, but here’s the Brooks’s datings for DDJ and Zhuangzi, respectively, which is a sample and online here (http://www.umass.edu/wsp/resources/overview.html#ws ). The overlap makes contemporaneity (is that a word?) probable:

      Dau/Dv Jing: c0350-0249. This was originally the text of a meditation group (DDJ 14,c0350), but it quickly developed into a body of rulership wisdom. It ostensibly opposes war (DDJ 30-31, c0314), but explores the contemporary Sundz’s doctrine of tactical frugality: winning with minimum effort. As a statecraft text, it came to emphasize the advantages of weakness rather than strength (DDJ 53; objected to by LY 16:8, c0285); on the whole, the DDJ presents what might be called the power politics of the powerless. The text must have had at least three proprietors during the long period of its growth (disciple-transmission generations run about 40 years), and two shifts in characteristic emphasis may be discerned in the text, independently implying three compilers.

      Jwangdz: c0280-c0190. A collection of texts, the oldest of which stem from several small protest groups who were in revolt against the hard times of the early 03rd century; some of these groups went on to make statecraft recommendations themselves. Most of the JZ existed by 0240; a few additional chapters were added in early Hàn.

    • Sorry, I didn’t yet see that Mark asked this question. We have early manuscripts of the Daodejing but unfortunately don’t have any of the Zhuangzi. I suspect there was overlap, but there’s no evidence.

    • I should back down and say that it is merely speculative, though not improbable, that there were such accounts of skill or feats of wonder of the sort we find in Zhuangzi, while the DDJ was in composition. I’m not sure it’s so important. Skillful, non-conventional action need not be effortless. If I’m already reading wuwei as unconventional action in the DDJ, I don’t need also to take into account effortlessness since I’m not committed to that as being part of wuwei.

    • I agree. I was curious though whether there were activities that might lead people to the idea of powerful effortless action: activities familiar from experience, striking enough to lead thinkers in that direction. It’s possible, but I gather we just don’t have any evidence.

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