Wu wei is one of the most important concepts of Taoism. Wu is translated as none and wei is translated as doing, so literally wu wei means doing nothing. The word seems to be paradoxical because Lao Tsu was teaching people to do things to achieve the state of wu wei. In fact, wu wei means not to do things that violate the natural law. The Taoist notion of wu wei provides individuals a harmony way of living and a peaceful way of governing nation. Lao Tsu was born in 571 BC in the state of Chu during the Spring and Autumn (also called Ch’un ch’iu, 770BC-476BC).
He was one of the greatest philosophers in the whole Chinese history. During that time, there were seven states in the country. Although these states all belonged to Zhou Dynasty, they were actually independent and the Emperor of Zhou could not control them. The states were fighting with each other for more land and resources. During that chaos, more than ten religions came out including the Taoism and the Confucianism. Since the Spring and Autumn was war time, basically most of these religions were teaching people how to govern a state along with some military thinking.
The concept of wu wei was used to teach governors a new way of governing the states and finding a way to bring everything into harmony. In order to govern a state, Lao Tsu mentioned in Tao Te Ching that a state may be ruled by correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; but the kingdom is made one’s own only by freedom from action and purpose. (Chapter 57, Tao Te Ching) In his point of view, people would be in poverty if the tax rates are too high and the taboos are too much in the state.
To improve citizens’ living standards and happiness, wu wei should be used. When using wu wei to govern the state, the taboos would be reduced and citizens would be taxed at a proper rate so that they could maximize their wealth and government could collect enough tax to run the country. In the meantime, government policies would not change much because another purpose of wu wei is to building a harmonious society and that requires a stable social condition. Rulers should follow the natural rhythms and people then would keep their order.
In Chinese history, the wu wei was only used in Han Dynasty since the Confucianism dominated afterwards. At the beginning of Han Dynasty, the founder of Han–Liu Bang implemented wu wei in governing the country. Since it was post-war period, people were tried and lacked of food, Liu believed that the thing people needed most was rest. He halved the tax just as the way Lao Tsu said and asked the officers to ignore unimportant sues. Eventually, he succeeded and the state developed quickly during that time.
Lao Tsu said in Tao Te Ching that “Yet take no action, and the people nurture each other; Make no laws, and the people deal fairly with each other; Own no interest, and the people cooperate with each other; Express no desire, and the people harmonize with each other. ” (Chapter 57, Tao Te Ching) In fact, wu wei seems like quite difficult to achieve currently. Situation has changed compared to the agrarian age, countries cannot only focus on domestic issues like Liu Bang did. Instead, nations have to deal with international wide issues such as international trades, immigration, and culture communication.
Economic development is the first priority for most countries because they need to gain more competitiveness on the world stage. Although it is a right way to achieve social harmony, wu wei could not be easily implemented because for most developing countries economic development cannot slowdown in short-term and some least developed countries even cannot solve famine due to poverty. Wu wei is still an ideal way for the governments to govern. Wu wei is not equal to doing nothing, it means that governments should follow the natural law and adjust themselves and their policies based on the development of society.
Economy, for instance, cannot grow freely because the financial crises have already approved that a certain degree of government control would have positive effects on economic development. The saying in Tao Te Ching that “The way takes no action, but leaves nothing undone. When you accept this, the world will flourish, in harmony with nature. ” (Chapter 37, Tao Te Ching) shows the best outcome if wu wei is implemented. Thus, governments could use wu wei to figure out a better way which consists with the society to develop and could lead to social harmony.
Does wu wei still work out in today’s modern society? The answer is that wu wei still has great impact on the society, but in a different way. Wu wei was brought out nearly 2500 years ago when it was in agrarian society. At that time, economy is based on subsistence agriculture and Lao Tsu, to some degree, did not like technology because he thought that technology would block the way for people pursuing “Dao”. (Tao) However, things are quite different in these days, the two industrial revolution totally changed the world. Manufacturing is the first industry and new techniques are invented.
Humans started burning fossil fuels which would release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In order to develop in a faster pace, a great number of countries are willing to sacrifice environment. In Edward Slingerland’s words, we are currently not practicing wu wei. (Slingerland, 2000) Human beings and the natural world are not in a proper relationship nowadays. Global warming, climate change, air pollution, and sea level rising are all influencing humans’ living conditions. From Taoism’s view, human beings and the natural world are interconnected, therefore, we have to seek the harmony with the nature.
Wu wei is telling us that human being should stop exploiting natural resources and violate the ecological laws. Human beings are now learning that relationship is the key to the survival of our species on the social level. (Garver & Brown, 2009) People should search for the balance between economic growth and environmental health. Human being should find out a sustainable way to develop and that will benefit our future generations. Although it takes a long time to reach the state of harmony, it still the right thing to do and the thing people must do.
The relationship between people is the foundation of society. Humans have languages to communicate and express feelings which is the basic element of society. A harmonious society should be based on harmonious interpersonal relationship and positive relationship is the key for society to stay stable and develop. In fact, the relationship is not good as it used to be because people are facing more pressures from the society, which makes people feel exhausted. The public is fickle and people are spending their live time in pursuing fame and fortune.
From Lao Tsu’s saying “Does not contend, so none contend against him. ” (Chapter 22, Tao Te Ching) we can learn that Lao Tsu was teaching people to accept wu wei and stay calm. People could make correct decisions and solve the problems in interpersonal relationships properly. In addition, people should adjust their social conduct based on the development of society and trying to find the best state. Thus, Wu Wei could help people to build a positive relationship and as mentioned before, it is critical for human beings to build a harmonious society. Wu Wei can be a guideline for personal development.
Taoism believes that people should regulating their own conducts to pursue Dao. But according to Tao Te Ching, if anyone could be said to have affected proper order while remaining inactive (wu-wei), it was Shun-a Chinese ancient god. Normal people can only be close to the state of wu wei because wu wei is an ideal state. Wu Wei is not equal to laziness, and being lazy is not the right thing to do (Thum, 2015). Wu wei does allow people to do things and pursue what they want, however, people should control themselves in the meantime, they cannot be greedy and should obey the natural rules.
Wu wei tells us that people should follow the peace deep insight their heart and try to ignore the disturbance from outside. Individuals should also feel the natural flows and try to coordinate with them. Just as Lao Tsu said that the best of man is like water, which benefits all things, and does not contend with them. (Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching) A person is able to find the harmony with the world or with himself/herself only when the person finds the peace inside him/her. Thus, people could follow the Taoist notion of wu wei and have personal development.
Even though the concept of wu wei came out two thousand years ago, it is still useful today. Wu Wei can be a guidance for a lot of things such as government, society and individuals. Governors could use wu wei to govern their countries in order to develop with the natural flow. Human beings could follow wu wei to get personal development and social harmony which is based on interpersonal relationship. Most importantly, wu wei could lead humans to find the harmony with the world in terms of the balance between human and the nature. Therefore, it is a wise choice to learn the Taoist notion of wu wei.