Laozi’s famous slogan has puzzled interpreters for centuries and has given rise to numerous interpretations. Arguably, Laozi knew it was paradoxical since the complete slogan is wu-wei and yet wu not-wei. The first character is not the main problem (see You-wu). Wu is simply "does not exist." In this phrase, however, interpreters treat it as a negative prescription: "avoid wei." Chinese texts include many similar uses and we commonly read other declarative sentences in The Laozi as prescriptions. So, let us take it as saying that one should lack wei–whatever that is. Saying what wei is is the harder problem.

Textbook interpretations say wei means "purpose." In modern Mandarin, the character has two different tones. The fourth tone reading is usually translated as "for the sake of." In the second tone reading, the character would normally be translated as ‘to act.’ Thus, translators argue, wu-wei really means no purposive action. The whole slogan is "no purposive action and yet do act."

The second tone reading, however, has another important use. Grammar textbooks call it the putative sense–"to deem, regard or interpret." Wei functions in this sense in belief ascriptions. Unlike English, classical Chinese belief and knowledge contexts were not grammatically parallel constructions (i.e., like "believe that P" and "know that P"). In Chinese, the grammatical object of "to know" was either a noun phrase (He knew Kelly’s-having-eaten-the-rice) or a verb phrase (he knew [how] to defer to authority). The closest counterpart of a belief claim like "A believed that T was P" was the structure: A yi (with/using) T wei (interprets/regards/deems it as) P. A more common way of asserting the same thing was simply to write "A Ps T" (where the P becomes a transitive verb). (In Chinese no inflection marks such part of speech changes.)

Wei also figures in a related way in some knowledge contexts. Usually the counterpart of propositional knowledge is A zhi (knows) T’s P-ing. However, when the imbedded predicate is a noun phrase, the form changes to A zhi (knows) T1’s wei-ing (counting as/amounting to?) T2. (The tempting parallel to verbal contexts is "A knows-to interpret/deem T1 as T2.")

A related variant adds a ‘human’ radical to wei. Typical translations of this character include ‘artificial’ or ‘false’. It corresponds to the pivotal contrast between tian and ren. Wei is something done by humans rather than something "natural." This variant is particularly central in the Confucian text, The Xun Tzu, which contrasts the conventional dao handed down through tradition with natural behavior. The si (thought) of the sage kings is wei (a product of artifice, not nature). Other meaning-related homophones include the archaic linking verb wei (only-is) and the verb wei (to call/name).

If we think of "to deem or regard" as a component of Laozi’s use of wei, it will help us explain his doctrine better than the purpose analysis. Little in The Laozi suggests any theory of voluntary, deliberate, or purposive action that could motivate objecting to it. The translators’ glosses (and later tradition) import a Buddhist or Western opposition of reason vs. desire or emotion. Emotions disrupt rational processing. Thus, in Indo-European thought privileging mind and ideas over heart and feelings normally implies a favorable attitude toward intellect and knowledge. Laozi, however, attacks knowledge as much as (or more than) he does desires. Indo-European thought links mind/ideas to language and stresses the incommensurability of feelings. Laozi, by contrast, opposes desires precisely because of their link to language.

The key to understanding the slogan, then, may be to study the suggestive links between wei, knowledge, desires and names. The Zhuangzi, portrays Laozi as following Shen Dao in opposing knowledge. Shen Dao, however, does so on what look like Stoic or fatalistic grounds. (See Shen Dao.) The Zhuangzi suggests that Laozi accepted the "abandon knowledge" slogan, but rejected the fatalistic basis.

The Zhuangzi also notes a paradox in Shen Dao’s position. It was a dao that could not dao (guide us). (I.e., logical determinism has no implications for behavior.) "Abandon knowledge" is itself knowledge of the type it seemingly rejects, i.e., guidance or advice. To follow it is to disobey it. The "Inner Chapters" of The Zhuangzi mostly avoided the wu-wei slogan. It is far more frequent in the Laozi influenced "outer Chapters."

We will, accordingly, develop Laozi’s alternative reason for using the "abandon knowledge" slogan: his theory of names. The core idea is that ordinary (guiding) knowledge is based on names and thus relies on social conventions. Daoism is suspicious of social conventions (favored by Confucianism). Allowing conventions to control us amounts to losing our natural spontaneity.

The basic Confucian model required that to follow conventions, we have to "rectify" names. That is we must interpret things in the environment to be of the type mentioned in the Book of Rites. The model of "knowledge" combined mastery of a text of instructions with the ability to apply its names in guiding our action. Interpreting (wei) is done in acting (wei).

Laozi’s analysis uses his famous contrast theory of "names" (descriptive terms). Learning a word requires learning its opposite. To learn a name (X) is to learn how to make a distinction between what is X and what is not-X. For each distinction, there are two "names." Laozi highlights the distinctions of beautiful/ugly, good/not-good, and existing-not-existing (See You-wu and Shih-fei.). The model arouses suspicion that the way we divide the world up into things reflects social convention. When our parents teach us a name, they correct our usage until we make the distinction in the accepted, inherited, conventional way. We come to regard those distinctions as natural, but looking at their genesis provokes doubt.

Notice, further, that we do not count as having learned the terms unless we guide our action in the "normal" way with them. For example, merely using "beautiful" and "ugly" in describing works of art the same way our parents and teachers do, will invite further "teaching." If we prefer the ugly, our teachers will correct us. Learning a name implicitly draws learning to desire properly in its wake.

Along with the distinctions, then, we learn socially appropriate desires. This is most clear when we consider purely evaluative distinctions like good/not-good. The guidance is more context dependent when it involves more "world-guided" evaluative terms such as ‘beautiful’, ‘brave’, ‘wise.’ The point can even be made about seemingly non-evaluative distinctions such as ‘before/after’ and ‘elder/younger’ since they figure in descriptions of appropriate ritual action.

Laozi’s metaphor for this complex analysis is his invitation to be like the "nameless, uncarved, p’u (block, wood, simplicity) which he says is simply freedom from desire. The antidote to socialization is to reverse the process that instills the names, distinctions and desires. To pursue learning is to add to every day; to pursue dao is to forget every day. We forget and forget until we return to the simplicity of a newborn child.

So, mastering a language is learning an appropriate set of unnatural desires and distinctions. The socially constituted desires ruffle our natural tranquillity, create competition and strife. They distort and constrain our natural spontaneity. The Daoist objection to desires is not their interference with intellect, but their conventional character. It comes from the nature-convention contrast rather than the reason-emotion one. Implicitly, in contrast to Buddhism, Laozi does not object to such "natural" desires as that for food, sex, and physical comfort. The "cultured" or "sophisticated" desires cause the trouble.

"Knowledge" is the combined result of names, distinctions, desires and wei–acting toward a thing according to conventional categories. We deem or interpret it to be something mentioned in a learned rule and treat it accordingly. To wei is thus to act on social conventions. To lack wei is to escape the constraints of socialization of our desires, distinctions and names. We are to avoid acting toward something on the basis of the name we give it or the conventional category to which we assign it. Implicitly, natural actions are acceptable.

Laozi’s "solution" may avoid fatalism, but it still conceals a paradox. As I suggested above, Laozi probably noticed this and adopted the more complicated formula: wu-wei yet wu not-wei. The paradox arises because Laozi, like Shen Dao is trying to give us advice to avoid linguistic-based advice. Following Laozi’s advice requires that we apply contrasting terms (‘conventional’ and ‘natural’) in a particular way. We identify language with conventions rather than nature. Then we adopt a non-natural desire (valuing the natural) and finally act on the basis of that desire.

The action is seeking to "forget" knowledge and return to the state of the uncarved block. The problem arises when we try to not-wei. We must interpret or deem something to count as wei and something else as not-wei. Laozi’s philosophy thus can only work like Wittgenstein’s ladder. When you have seen the point, you have to throw it away. To avoid wei we must avoid avoiding wei. The famous opening of The Laozi may be a rationalization that the paradox is inescapable for any dao that guides us (dao used as a verb). "Any dao that can dao is not a constant dao. [Because] any name that can name is not a constant name."

What we should do after we get the wu-wei insight and throw it away is hard to say–which is probably why Laozi did not say it.

As we noted, The early Zhuangzi hardly mentions the slogan. However its use in the later writings in the text invites us to construct a Zhuangzi version of the slogan. This usual view associates wu-wei with The Zhuangzi ideal of skillful behavior that becomes second nature. The most famous model was the butcher who carved oxen with the grace of a dancer. Such behavior requires a focus and absorption that is incompatible with ordinary self-consciousness, purpose and rehearsal of instructions. We experience mastery as "becoming one with the activity."

The wu-wei ideal also informs the Neo-Daoist slogan "Sage within; king without." It suggests (following Zhuangzi) that Daoist wu-wei may be consistent with being a good Confucian. Being a scholar-official is as much a skill as being a butcher and one may practice it with the same attitude of inner emptiness. As long as one takes the "right" attitude, one may pursue any activity consistent with Daoism. Neo-Daoists conform to Confucian roles without regarding or interpreting them as ultimately right–or as anything else.

With the importation of Indo-European Buddhism from India, wu-wei started to be interpreted via the Western conceptual apparatus contrasting desire or purpose and reason. This shaped the modern Chinese interpretation and probably undermined the ideal so that it became the target of attack among "modern" Chinese who regarded Daoist non-striving as the source of Chinese passivity. The activist reformer, Kang You-wei (Kang have-wei) took the denial of the slogan as his scholarly name.




Know, knowledge, know-how



With, using

K’ang You-wei

±d ¦³ ¬°

K’ang You-wei (Qing Confucian reformer)



Simplicity, uncarved block, wood



Human, social realm



Think, thought,



Nature, sky, heaven



way, guide, discourse



Do, deem, regard, for the sake of,



Artificial, false, artifice



Is only



Call, say



Lack, not-exit, do not


µL ¬°



¦³ µL



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Hansen, Chad. 1992 A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. xv-448.

Lau, D. C. (tr.). 1963 Laozi: Dao Te Ching (Baltimore: Penguin Books) pp. 192.

Wu, Yi. 1986 Chinese Philosophical Terms (Lanham, MD: University Press of America) .