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

Science and Society in East and West | Joseph Needham | 2004

In appreciating change, a useful translation of wéi and wú wéi (i.e. 為 and 無為 in traditional characters; 为 and 无为 in simplified characters) is the ways of “willful action” and “natural order” as juxtaposed. This sense goes beyond a dictionary definition of 為 and 無, into the context of science and philosophy in Chinese and western contexts, in the writings of Joseph Needham.

It seems clear, at any rate, that the early superiority of Chinese science and technology through long centuries must be placed in relation to the elaborate, rationalised and conscious mechanisms of a society having the character of ‘Asiatic bureaucracy’. It was a society which functioned fundamentally in a ‘learned’ way, the seats of power being filled by scholars, not military commanders.

Central authority relied a great deal upon the ‘automatic’ functioning of the village communities, and in general tended to reduce to the minimum its intervention in their life.

I have already written (above, pp. 1-2) of the fundamental difference between peasant-farmers on the one hand and shepherds or seamen on the other.

This difference is expressed epigrammatically in the Chinese terms wei 為 and wu wei 無為.

Wei meant application of the force of will-power, the determination that things, animals, or even other men, should do what they were ordered to do, but wu wei was the opposite of this, leaving things alone, letting Nature take her course, profiting by going with the grain of things instead of going against it, and knowing how not to interfere. [53]

  • [53] I remember during the war I had a friend in the Foreign Office in London who had a huge Chinese scroll beside his desk, with these two characters alone on it, and later when later on I became Master of Caius , I found that it was essentially a practical dictum; things worked better if you left the College Lecturers, the Dean and Chaplain and the Kitchen Office to get on with it without any interference from above.

Wu wei was the great Taoist watchword throughout the ages, the untaught doctrine, the wordless edict. [54] It was summarised in that numinous group of phrases which Bertrand Russell collected from his time in China, ‘production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination. [55]

  • [54] See SCC, vol 2, p. 564.
  • [5S] SCC, vol. 2, p. 164: from Bertrand Russell, The Problem of China (1922), p. 194.

Now wu wei, the lack of interference, might very well be applied to a respect for the ‘automotive’ capacity of the individual farmers and their peasant communities. Even when the old ‘Asiatic’ society had given place to ‘bureaucratic feudalism’ such conceptions remained very much alive in Chinese political practice and government administration that had been inherited from ancient Asian society and from the single pair of opposites, ‘villages-princes’.

Thus, all through Chinese history, the best magistrate was he who intervened least in society’s affairs, and all through history, too, the chief aim of clans and families was to settle their affairs internally without having recourse to the courts. [56]

[p. 16, editorial paragraphing added]
  • [56] An aspect of the darker side of this is given in the partly autobiographical account of my old friend Kuo Yu-Shou (1963).

It seems probable that a society like this would be favourable to reflection upon the world of Nature. Man should try to penetrate as far as possible into the mechanisms of the natural world and to utilise the sources of power which it contained while intervening directly as little as possible, and utilising ‘action at a distance’.

[pp. 16-17, editorial paragraphing added]

Conceptions of this kind, highly intelligent, sought always to achieve effects with an economy of means, [57] and naturally encouraged the investigation of Nature for essentially Baconian reasons. Hence such early triumphs as those of the seismograph, the casting of iron, and water-power. [58]

  • [57] One can see what this implies by imagining a city on the side of a hill above a river, where water was needed for the upper streets. The Confucians would have had squads of men pedalling square-pallet chain-pumps to send up the water from the river; but the Taoist way would have been quite different. They would have taken off a derivate canal from the river at a higher level and by guiding it along the contours, they would have reached the upper streets of the city on a wu wei principle.
  • [58] One might add the magnetic compass, deep borehole drilling, and the escapement of clockwork, and many other inventions listed below.

It might thus be said that this non-interventionist conception of human activity was, to begin with, propitious for the development of the natural sciences. For example, the predilection for ‘action at a distance’ had great effects in early wave-theory, the discovery of the nature of the tides, the knowledge of relations between mineral bodies and plants as in geo-botanical prospecting, or again in the science of magnetism

It is often forgotten that one of the fundamental features of the great breakthrough of modern science in the time of Galileo was the knowledge of magnetic polarity, declination, etc.; and unlike Euclidean geometry and Ptolemaic astronomy, magnetical science was a totally non-European contribution. [59] Nothing had been known of it to speak of in Europe before the end of the 12th century, and its transmission from the earlier work of the Chinese is not in doubt. If the Chinese were (apart from the Babylonians) the greatest observers among all ancient peoples, was it not perhaps precisely because of the encouragement of non-interventionist principles, enshrined in the numinous poetry of the Taoists on the ‘water symbol’ and the ‘eternal feminine? [60]

  • [59] See Needham (1960a).
  • [60] Cf. SCC vol. 2, p. 57.

However if the non-interventionist character of the ‘villages-prince’ relationship engendered a certain conception of the world which was propitious to the progress of science, it had certain natural limitations. It was not congruent with characteristi­cally occidental ‘interventionism’, so natural to a people of shepherds and sea-farers. Since it was not capable of allowing the mercantile mentality a leading place in the civilisation, it was not capable of fusing together the techniques of the higher artisanate with the methods of mathematical and logical reasoning which the scholars had worked out, so that the passage from the Vincian to the Galilean stage in the development of modern natural science was not achieved, perhaps not possible.

[p. 17]

In medieval China there had been more systematic experimentation than the Greeks had ever attempted, or medieval Europe either; [61] but so long as ‘bureaucratic feu­dalism’ remained unchanged, mathematics could not come together with empirical Nature-observation and experiment to produce something fundamentally new. The suggestion is that experiment demanded too much active intervention, and while this had always been accepted in the arts and traqes, indeed more so than in Europe, it was perhaps more difficult in China to make it philosophically respectable.

[pp. 17-18]
  • [61] Nathan Rosenberg has suggested to us that a new attitude almost of deference to experimental results arose in Europe from the 16th century onwards, with the dominance of the bourgeoisie. which was not paralleled elsewhere. This attitude is very similar to that of merchants interested in quantitative accounting. See Rosenberg & Birdzell (1986).

There was another way, also, in which medieval Chinese society had been highly favourable to the growth of the natural sciences at the pre-Renaissance level. Traditional Chinese society was highly organic, highly cohesive.

The State was responsible for the good functioning of the entire society, even if this responsibility was carried out with the minimum intervention. One remembers that the ancient definition of the Ideal Ruler was that he should sit simply facing the south and exert his virtue (i.e. 德) in all directions so that the Ten Thousand Things would automatically be well governed. As we have been able to show over and over again, the State brought powerful aid to scientific research. [62] Astronomical observatories, for example, keeping millennial records, were part of the civil service; vast encyclopaedias, not only literary but also medical and agricultural, were published at the expense of the State, and scientific expeditions altogether remarkable for their time were successfully accomplished (one thinks of the early +8th-century geodetic survey of a meridian arc stretching from Indo-China to Mongolia, and of the southern hemisphere to within twenty degrees of the south celestial pole). [63]

  • [62] SCC, vols 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 passim.
  • [63] See Beer, Ho Ping-Yü, Lu Gwei-Djen, Needham, Pulleyblank & Thompson, ‘An Eighth-Century Meridian Line; I-Hsing’s Chain of Gnomons and the Pre-History of the Metric System’ (1964).

The writing by Joseph Needham is in the book General Conclusions and Reflections. The section (a) Science and Society in East and West has a sourcing footnote.

  • [1] First published in the J. D. Bernal Presentation Volume (London, 1964), and then in Science and Society (1964) 28, 385, and Centaurus (1964), 10, 174; collected in The Grand Titration (Allen & Unwin, London, I969), and further revised for publication here.


Needham, Joseph. 2004. “General Conclusions and Reflections.” In The Social Background, edited by Kenneth Girdwood Robinson. Vol. VII:2. Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge University Press. Online archive at https://archive.org/stream/ScienceAndCivilisationInChina/Science_and_Civilisation_in_China_Vol_7-2_General_Conclusions_and_Reflections

Needham, Joseph. 2004. “General Conclusions and Reflections.” In The Social Background, edited by Kenneth Girdwood Robinson. Vol. VII:2. Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge University Press.

#chinese, #%e7%82%ba, #%e7%84%a1%e7%82%ba, #science, #wei, #wu-wei, #%e6%97%a0%e4%b8%ba, #%e4%b8%ba