Wuwei: Artistic and Philosophical Foundations

Wuwei: (无为)

The Chinese characters are first discussed separately below with their literal translations:

: without
: doing, making, acting, performing, becoming, helping, supporting, benefiting. While all of the English words are verbs, and are given in the present progressive verb tense, they can also be considered in the future and past tense as well.

The concept of wuwei emerged from the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. The dates are from 770-476 BC, which was in the early part of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC).

Achieving wuwei involves the cultivation of a particular mental state or viewpoint. It seeks to disconnect, and therefore free, the individual from any entanglements that arise when the results of actions are considered most important. It is living a life in a more natural, spontaneous, and uncontrived way. Laozi would say it is being in harmony with the Way, the Dao. He closely associates it with the characteristics of water, where it flows unimpeded, yet yielding to objects that are within its path.

In Laozi’s Dao De Jing, chapters two, forty-seven, and forty-eight express wuwei from the viewpoint of Daoism.

From Chapter 2:
Thus, the sage conducts affairs through take-no-action
He spreads his doctrines through wordless teaching
He lets things grow without his initiation
He nurtures all things but takes possession of nothing
He promotes all things but lays no claim to his ability
He accomplishes his work but takes no credit for his contribution
It is because he takes no credit
That his accomplishment stays with him forever.

Chapter 47:
Without going out of the door
One may know the all-under-heaven
Without looking through the window
One may see the Dao
The further one goes
The less one knows
Therefore, the sage knows without going about
Understands without seeing
And accomplishes without taking action.

Chapter 48
The pursuit of learning is to increase day after day
The pursuit of the Dao is decrease day after day
It decreases and decreases again
Till one get to the point of take-no-action
He takes no action and yet nothing is left undone
In order to govern all under heaven
One should adopt the policy of doing nothing
A person who likes to do anything arbitrary
Is not qualified to govern all under heaven.

We can also go outside the Chinese philosophies and into those from ancient India, more specifically the Bhagavad Gita. From chapter two, verses 47-50, in this epic tale of Hindu wisdom, Lord Krishna is explaining to Arjuna why it is right to go ahead and fight the battle that is in front of him.

You have the right to work, but not to the fruit of work
You should never engage in action for the sake of reward
Nor should you long for inaction.
Perform work in this world, Arjuna
As a man established within himself–without selfish attachments
And alike in success and defeat.
For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.

Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment
And you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness
Those who are motivated only by desire for fruits of action are miserable
For they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do
When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind
There is no cause for worry
Whether things go well or ill
Therefore, devote yourself to the discipline of yoga
For yoga is skill in action.


The Classic of the Dao: A New Investigation
Wang Keping
Foreign Languages Press: Beijing 1998

The Bhagavad Gita
Eknath Easwaran
Niliri Press: 1985

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