Dao, de, wei, wuwei (Lai 2003)

Appreciating wei and wuwei has led to the context of dao and de, in the writings of Karyn L. Lai. The scholarly review acknowledges prior interpretations of de and dao.

De, often translated as “virtue,” is one of two cardinal concepts in the Daodejing, the treatise on dao and de. [8] However, some scholars have noted with concern that analyses of Daoist philosophy have too frequently failed to accord the concept de the significance it is due. [9] [p. 249]

  • [8] The terms dao and de (Pinyin transliteration system) correspond to tao and te (Wade-Giles system commonly used in earlier literature) respectively. The Pinyin system is used in this essay because it is more up-to-date and widely used.
  • [9] With the oldest existing versions of the Daodejing excavated from the Han tombs at Mawangdui in China in 1973, the bamboo strips on which the texts are inscribed are arranged in such a way that the final forty-four chapters of the received text, the De Jing, are placed first. Hence, a translator of the Mawangdui Daodejing has labelled his translation the “Dedaojing.” See Robert Henricks, Lao-tze Te-tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-Wang-Tui Texts (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989). See also Ames, “Taoism and the Nature of Nature,” esp. sec. 4: “Taoism Misnamed.”

There is a range of possible meanings of the concept de deriving from its usage in the chapters of the Daodejing. The term is commonly translated to mean moral principle or virtue in the conventional sense, indicating one’s moral cultivation. This approach has been taken in various ways by Chinese scholars such as Lionel Giles, [10] Wing-tsit Chan, [11] and D. C. Lau. [12]

  • [10] Lionel Giles, The Sayings of Lao Tzu (London: John Murray. 1907).
  • [11] Wing-tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1963). Chan writes, “[t]he main objective of [the Daodejing] is the cultivation of virtue or te” (pp. 10–11).
  • [12] D. C. Lau, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963). Although Lau contemplates a richer interpretation of de, he proceeds very quickly to dismiss the significance of that interpretation, together with the role of de within the Daodejing. He writes: “In its Taoist usage, te refers to the virtue of a thing (which is what it ‘gets’ from the tao). In other words, te is the nature of a thing, because it is in virtue of its te that a thing is what it is. But in the Lao tzu the term is not a particularly important one and is often used in its more conventional senses” (p. 42).

However, the interpretation of de to denote moral goodness is unsatisfactory because it overlooks the vagueness of the text regarding questions of ethics or axiology. Additionally, the interpretation of de as “virtue” or “moral principle” neglects the Daoist criticism of existing norms and values. The Daodejing is incisive in its criticism of contemporary values and virtues in the ancient Chinese context. [13] This criticism was, at its most fundamental level, a universal rejection of the all-too-human activity of promoting values which are superficial and unnecessarily dichotomous, divisive and hence, which tend to mislead:

When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty,
There arises the recognition of ugliness.
When they all know the good as good,
There arises the recognition of evil. . . . (2)

The five colors cause one’s eyes to be blind.
The five tones cause one’s ears to be deaf.
The five flavors cause one’s palate to be spoiled. . . . (12) [14]
  • [13] See Daodejing 5, 18, 19, 20, 38.
  • [14] Chan’s translation from The Way of Lao Tzu. This translation is used throughout this essay, unless otherwise specified.

Against this background of scepticism regarding conventional values, the interpretation of de to denote a conventional sense of moral goodness would sit uneasily with Daoist philosophy. The problem with this interpretation is com- pounded by the fact that there is another term in the Daodejing, shan, which does refer to moral goodness, and which at times occurs in the same passage with de. [15]

  • [15] See Daodejing 8, 27, 30, 49, 54, 61 and 81.

It needs to be noted, however, that Wing-tsit Chan’s and Lau’s analyses of de are not confined to human ethical action. Both scholars recognize multiple interpretations of de. [p. 250] […]

According to Chan’s analysis, de may be understood within an overarching framework, dao, within which individual beings manifest their distinctiveness. In this way, an emphasis on de is an emphasis on the particularity or distintiveness of individual beings. Additionally, the theme of relationality is also important: each thing embodies its particular de within the contextual environment of dao.

Similarly, Lau’s analysis highlights the connection between de and dao, explicitly drawing out the interdependent nature of all existence. On his definition, de refers to the integrity of being a particular thing, rather than to its ability or willingness to conform to predetermined standards. The ontology is particu- larly interesting because all things are seen to embody their distinctive natures in and through their common origin, dao. It is unfortunate, though, that Lau’s analysis stops short of fleshing out this ontology. [17]

  • [17] Lau, Lao Tzu, p. 42.

Chan’s and Lau’s claim that de signifies individuality within the context of the whole is articulated in the Daodejing:

When on cultivates [de] in his person, it becomes genuine [de]
When on cultivates [de] in his person his family, it becomes overflowing [de]
When on cultivates [de] in his person his community, it becomes lasting [de]
When on cultivates [de] in his person the world, it becomes universal. . . . (54)

Here, there is a strong suggestion that the respective function of each individual thing is context-specific rather than normative, and also that de generates different ends in each of these contexts. [p. 251]

With that background, some insight on de is presented by Lai.

Based on the discussion of de in this section, two important features of de may be detected:

(a) there is a strong suggestion of an intrinsic relatedness between individuals within the framework of the dao. Relations are intrinsic rather than extrinsic in that individuals are determined in part by their respective places in the dao. Here, the remarks of Chung-ying Cheng, who contrasts a superficial notion of the term environment with its deeper (Daoist) sense, are pertinent:

  • [According to a superficial sense of the term, environment means] simply “the surroundings,” the physical periphery, the material conditions and the transient circumstances. . . . [However, environment] cannot be treated as an object, the material conditions, a machine tool, or a transient feature. Environment is more than the visible, more than the tangible, more than the external, more than a matter of quantified period or time or spread of space. It has a deep structure as well as a deep process, as the concept of Tao indicates. [24] [p. 252]
  • [24] Cheng, “On the Environmental Ethics of the Tao and the Ch’i,” p. 353. [p. 253, editorial paragraphing added]

A corollary to the theme of intrinsic relatedness is that of interdependence of individuals. The interdependent relation between the self and others within the context of the whole engenders a relational and contextual concept of the self. Within such a structure, individuals can only achieve full realization in the context of their interdependence with others.

(b) Associated with the deeper notion of environment articulated in (a), de seems to provide the specifications for an individual’s integrity in the context of its relations with other individuals. Within an environment where interdependence is emphasized, the integrity of individuals is important as it is necessary to prevent the obliteration of individual distinctiveness, interests and needs, which might too easily be subsumed under the rubric of the whole.

These two features—interdependence and integrity—are held in a finely tuned balance. The individual seeks and attains meaning within contextual and relational boundaries and affiliations. However, if these are overly restrictive, the integrity of the individual will be diminished or eradicated. Hence, de is important in setting the extent of self-determination. De refers to (a development or cultivation of) the distinctive characteristics of individuals. Yet, the sense of integrity is far removed from any suggestion of independent, separate existence. In the view of the Daodejing, severe fragmentation of the different forms of life is brought about partly by the imposition of a rigid axiological framework upon all aspects of existence; this cuts up the uncarved block, so to speak (see Daodejing 28). [p. 253]

This background understanding then has an influence on the third section of the article in “Interdependence and integrity: Dao and de allowing for spontaneity: wuwei and ziran“.

… an understanding of dao from a purely ontological point of view can be limiting. At points in the Daodejing, the concept is referred to not as an ontological reality but as a metaphysical ideal. In this latter sense, dao is an abstraction, not an actual existence. In other words, it also functions as a conceptual tool or a psychological device to assist in the visualization of an ideal state of affairs whereby particulars come together in fulfilment of their particular de, in a way that is maximally possible within an environment that includes multiple others. This vision draws from an integration of the concepts dao and de. [p. 254]

The maintenance of the integrity of each individual entity is also espoused in two integral Daoist concepts, non-action (wuwei) and spontaneity (ziran):

He who takes action fails.
He who grasps things loses them.
For this reason the sage takes no action (wuwei) and therefore does not fail.
He grasps nothing and therefore he does not lose anything.
. . . He learns to be unlearned, and returns to what the multitude has missed (Tao).
Thus he supports all things in their natural state (ziran) but does not take any
action. (64)  [p. 255]

Scholars have often puzzled over of both these concepts, notorious for their ambiguity. The first, wuwei, is most frequently though somewhat misleadingly translated as “non-action.” This translation evokes a sense of passivity and inaction, rendering any suggestions for activity or change incoherent. Some scholars have argued that the interpretation of wuwei as “non-intrusive action” or “non-interfering action” is more philosophically profound and interesting. [33] These latter translations support a meaningful rendition of the concept wuwei both at the sociopolitical level (arguing against the imposition of artificial, conformist and universally binding norms) and at the metaphysical level (acknowledging the inappropriateness and fatality of imposing egocentric or anthropocentric norms upon other individuals or species). [34] [pp. 255-256]

  • [33] See the comprehensive discussions of wuwei by Benjamin Schwartz, “The Ways of Taoism,” in The World of Thought in Ancient China (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), and Angus C. Graham, “Heaven and Man Go Their Own Ways” in Disputers of the Tao (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing, 1989).
  • [34[ See Daodejing 5, discussed later in this section.

The term ziran has often been translated as “nature” or “natural.” It functions both as a noun, corresponding with the notion of the natural environment, or as an adjective which means “spontaneous.” [….] [p. 256]

From this analysis, the two sets of concepts, dao and de, and wuwei and ziran, are seen in their fullest cooperation:

the recognition and valuing of individual distinctiveness (de) entails an appreciation of its spontaneous expression (ziran);

allowing for (wuwei) spontaneity, on the other hand, is not simply idiosyncratic and uncoordinated self-fulfilment.

The realization of each individual is meaningful only within the context of its relatedness and responsivity to others within the whole (dao). The affirmation of the value of individual beings within the environmental context feeds into a complex holism which emphasizes both the integrity and interdependence of individuals. [p. 258, editorial paragraphing added]

The writing continues with “A Daoist Proposal for an Environmental Ethic” that includes:

  • Anti-Anthropocentrism
  • Against Human Separateness and Other Dualisms
  • Holism and Integrity

Based on this rather thorough scholarly interpretation, I’m now preferring to think of wei as “willful action”, and wuwei as “non-intrusive action”.


Lai, Karyn. 2003. “Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics: A Daoist Perspective.” Environmental Ethics 25 (3): 247–66. https://doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics200325317. Cached at https://www.academia.edu/750666/Conceptual_Foundations_for_Environmental_Ethics_A_Daoist_Perspective

Karyn L. Lai (2003) Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics

#dao, #de, #wei, #wuwei, #ziran