"Other-ing" in Lao Zi's Concept of Zi Ran
Prof. Qingjie James Wang
Zi rana is one of
the oldest philosophical concepts in China. Lao Zi, the founder of Daoism,
was the one who introduced the concept into the Chinese philosophy. In the
history of Chinese philosophy, zi ran was often used to designate something which
exists above and in most cases, in opposition to ren weib, i.e.,
something made by human being. Therefore, zi ran is also interpreted as tian ranc,
i.e., something which is made by heaven and has nothing to do with human being. Clearly
enough, this interpretation of zi ran as tian ran is based upon an absolute
separation and an antagonism between heaven (nature) and human being. It then implies that
zi ran cannot be achieved without totally rejecting human activities and the human
desires behind those activities. Because of this, Daoism was criticized as a doctrine
"blindly following heaven but ignoring human being" in the history of Chinese
In what follows I shall discuss two
interrelated senses of Lao Zi's concept of zi ran. In light of a non-traditonal
reading of the chapters where the term zi ran occurs in the Dao De Jing, I
shall argue, first of all, that zi ran as Dao is not something above or against
human being. It is rather within the human world as it is within heaven, earth and
everything else in the universe. It is the natural way of everything's becoming
his/her/itself, i.e., a natural process of "it-self-be-coming,"
"it-self-growing," and "it-self-so-ing." I call it the positive sense
of zi ran. In contrast with the positive sense of zi ran as
"it-self-so-ing," the negative sense of zi ran may be called as
"other-ing," which is also expressed in Lao Zi's concept of wu wei.
Whether the negative sense of zi ran or wu wei is understood as
"having-no-activity," as "acting without desires/intentions," or
"acting with a yielding attitude," all of these, I shall claim, are only
different ways or means for letting others, helping others, and encouraging others on the
ways to their own "it-self-so-ing," i.e., "other-ing." Following this
interpretation, I hope that most of the traditional "inconsistent"
understandings of zi ran as well as those of wu wei could have a better and
more coherent comprehension.
I. Etymological meaning of zi ran
and its philosophical implications
In the English translations of the
Chinese philosophical literature, the term zi ran is often understood as
"nature," "spontaneity," and currently as "self-so-ing" or
"self-becoming." In order to understand the meaning of the term
more properly, a brief etymological discussion is necessary. As we know, the
term zi ran is composed of two Chinese characters, i.e., zi and ran.
According to the Shuo Wen lexicon, one of the oldest Chinese dictionaries written
2000 years ago, the character zi was a pictograph representing a nose (bid)
in ancient Chinese. However, in ancient classical Chinese texts zi
was rarely used in its literal meaning as "nose." Its two extended uses and
metaphorical meanings, i.e., its use as a preposition meaning "from ..." and its
use as a reflexive adverb meaning "self-..." are the two most common cases we
can find in the pre-Qin classical Chinese texts. W. A. Callahan suggests that the
connection between the literal meaning of zi as "nose" and its extended
meanings as "from ..." and as "self-..." may be seen from the facts in
popular Chinese culture. For example, a Chinese often points to her nose, rather than to
her heart, in referring to her perspective.
Compared with zi, which is used
in ancient Chinese as a preposition or as an adverb, the other character ran is
used in the most cases as a "pronoun" which means "like this" ( ru
cie) and has a function of affirmation, meaning "yes, it is like
this!" In order to clarify this affirmative function of ran in ancient Chinese
language further, we need to emphasize two more points. First, the word ran, being
affirmative, presupposes a process of identification as well as distinction. That is to
say, when we say that "it is like this," we presuppose at the same time that
"it is not like that." Second, as a "pronoun" ran and its
negative bu ranf often had a different use from shig
("yes") and its negative feih("no") in the ancient
Chinese language. According to A.C. Graham, the difference between shi and ran
was sometimes expressed by Later Moist philosophers. Whereas shi/fei were used to
distinguish between names, i.e., to identify or to deny existence of a thing or of a
quality of the thing , e.g. "a horse" / "not a horse", ran/bu ran
were often used to distinguish between propositions, i.e., to affirm or to negate an
action, e.g. "to ride a horse"/ "not to ride the horse."
Having clarified the ordinary meaning of
the characters zi and ran, we come to that of the combination of them, i.e.,
the meaning of the term zi ran. According to the grammar of ancient Chinese, if zi
has a noun following as in zi dongi (from the east), zi xij
(from the west), it should be taken as prepositional "from ...." If zi is
followed by a verb as in zi lek (self-enjoying), zi weil
(self-defense), zi fam (self-flourishing), etc., it should be understood
as a reflexive adverbial "self-...." In the term zi ran, ran
follows zi. Although ran is not a verb, it is a verbal pronoun which
pronounces a process rather than a thing. It affirms an action rather than a substance or
a quality. Therefore, the word zi in zi ran should be understood as the
reflexive adverbial "self...." Moreover, because the English word
"self" has a stronger egoistic tone than the Chinese word zi which refers
to the human self but is not restricted to that, I would like to put the neutral pronoun
"it" before "self" in order to weaken the egoistic tone of
"self." In view of all these considerations, I propose that the appropriate
understanding and translation of the Chinese term zi ran is
"it-self-so-ing" or "it-self-becoming." I will use this translation
throughout my discussion.
The philosophical importance of our
understanding of zi ran as "it-self-becoming" or
"it-self-so-ing" consists in a two-fold implication of the term. On the one
hand, the Chinese character ran indicates that it is "it-self-be-coming"
or "it-self-so-ing." This "be-coming" or "so-ing"
emphasizes that all things in the universe, including human beings, by their different,
unique but correlated ways of being, i.e., coming, growing, flourishing, ripening,
declining and dying, provide a picture of organic differentiating within the larger
process of the universe as a whole. Thus understood, zi ran as
"it-self-be-coming" may be more properly seen as "be-coming-it-self."
That is to say, those ways of "becoming" or "so-ing" should also be
ways of everyone's identification, realization, completion, and individualization. On the
other hand, the character zi in zi ran reveals that it is "it-self-becoming"
and "it-self-so-ing." It emphasizes not only the identification but also
the distinction between "it-self" and others. It is thus against any kind of
external interference, oppression and coercion. According to this interpretation of zi
ran, everything in the universe is both its way of self-be-coming and asks to be left
alone in the process of such be-coming or it-self-so-ing. In my view, this twofold
implication, or the two aspects of the original meaning of the Chinese term zi ran, which
I call the positive and the negative sense of the term respectively, were what Lao
Tzu tried to reveal through his use of the term in his Dao De Jing.
II. "It-self-so-ing" and
the positive sense of zi ran in the Dao De Jing
In order to make Lao Zi's philosophical
understanding of the term "zi ran" clearer, let us examine in some detail
how he used the term in the Dao De Jing. There are five occurrences of the term zi
ran in the Dao De Jing. They are chapters 17, 23, 25, 51, 64 of the popular
Wang Pi version of the book. I would like to divide these five chapters into two groups in
light of the two senses of zi ran discussed above. Chapter 25 and chapter 51 could
be seen to focus on the positive sense of zi ran, while chapter 17, chapter 23 and
chapter 64 on the negative sense of the term.
In the past 2000 years of the Chinese
philosophy these two senses, especially the positive sense of zi ran, seemed not
very clear in our understanding of Lao Zi. One reason for this, I think, is that chapter
25 and chapter 51 of the Dao De Jing have been continuously misread in the past.
The traditional reading of chapter 25, for example, suggests a hierarchical ranking of
the universe with human being on the lowest level. Therefore, in order to reach the
highest rank which is dao and zi ran, a human being should diminish or
restrict herself by modeling herself after earth, and then through earth after heaven, and
then through earth and heaven after dao and zi ran. Following this reading
we Chinese were taught for a long time that Lao Zi and Daoism gave us a pessimistic
philosophy of life which leads to a rejection of the self and human value.
Also based on this understanding of zi ran and its domination over human being,
wu wein as a negative expression of zi ran or dao is
often interpreted as to teach human being "doing nothing."
The problem can be seen clearer in the
traditional reading and translation of chapter 25, which says,
Dao is great.
Heaven is great.
Earth is great.
And human being is also
There are four great things in the
And human being is one of them.
Human being models himself after Earth.
Earth models itself after heaven.
Heaven models itself after dao.
And dao models itself after zi
There are two common points shared by
almost all important interpretations and commentaries on this chapter of the Dao De
Jing in the history of Chinese philosophy. First, almost all commentators of the
Dao De Jing agree that the last sentence of the chapter cannot be understood in an
ordinary sense of "modeling." As a matter of fact, there is nothing to be
modeled after except after the process of being the dao itself.
Second, we are told that Lao Zi gave us a hierarchical order of the universe with the dao
at the top, human beings at the bottom, and with heaven and earth inbetween, though all of
them are called the "great." Because of this interpretation, we human being
became the "smallest" of the four "great."
The interesting thing is that these two
points have been repeated for thousand of years, but few pointed out that they are
actually inconsistent with each other. This inconsistency, in my point of view, can be
seen at least from the following three considerations. First, there is a grammatical
inconsistency. If "zi ran" cannot be used as something referring to an
entity or to an object of the modeling here, how can the other terms such as "dao,"
"heaven," "earth" be used in that way, especially when we consider all
those four sentences having the exactly same grammatical structure? Second, there is a
semantical inconsistency in using the word "great." If the universe follows the
hierarchical order as those traditional Lao Zi commentators suggested, how can we
legitimately call human being "great?" If human being must "model"
herself after, and thus is inevitably restrained by earth, heaven, and dao, is she
still "great?" If so, what is the difference between the "greatness"
of heaven, earth, dao and that of human being? Third, there is a logical
inconsistency in using the term of zi ran. As we have discussed above, the term zi
ran implies a strong sense of "it-self-so-ing." How is it logically possible
to say, as most of the traditional commentaries have suggested, that not only dao
but also heaven, earth and human being should fa zi rano (to be
"it-self-so-ing"), on the one hand, and that human being's
"itself-so-ing" must also be mediated through "modeling" after earth
and heaven, on the other hand? Does that make human being not "it-self-so-ing"
or at least being less "it-self-so-ing?"
In order to avoid all these problems or
inconsistencies, I would like to introduce a non-traditional reading and give a different
interpretation of chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing. This non-traditional reading was
made first time by a Daoist scholar Li Yuep in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
The reading changes the traditional punctuation of the last four sentences and reads some
words, e.g., daq (great), tianr (heaven), dis
(earth) etc., as verbs instead of as adjectives or nouns. I believe that this
reading will not only be well justified by textual evidence from the Dao De Jing
itself, but will also provide a much clearer picture of the positive sense of Lao Zi's
concept of zi ran.
In comparison with the traditional
reading above, this reading could lead to a new translation of chapter 25 as:
Dao is great-ing (dao da).
Heaven is great-ing (tian da).
Earth is great-ing (di da).
And human being is also great-ing (ren
There are four great-ing in the universe
(guo zhong you si dat),
And human being is one of them (er
ren ju qi yi yanu).
Human being models himself after earth's
being earth (ren fa di div),
after heaven's being heaven (fa tian
after dao's being dao (fa
[that is,] after zi-ran /
it-self-so-ing (fa zi ran).
Along with a change of the reading, our
old understanding of chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing would also be changed. First,
this reading does not hold a hierarchical order in the universe. The relation among dao,
heaven, earth and human being is parallel rather than hierarchical. It is in this sense
that Lao Zi called human being "one of the four great-ing." Thus understood,
human being's modeling after earth's being earth, heaven's being heaven and dao's
being dao is not being restrained by any of the external entities. Just like
earth's being earth, heaven's being heaven, and dao's being dao, human being
has its own way of being. Therefore, to model after earth's being's earth, heaven's being
heaven, dao's being dao is to ask a human being to be itself and that is
"it-self-so-ing" (zi ran). Second, the reading of da in "di
da,""tian da,""dao da,""ren ye da"
as a verb rather than an adjective leads us to the interpretation that earth, heaven, dao
and human being are always in the process of changing, becoming, growing, living and
being. That is "so-ing" / ran. It corresponds also to the above reading
of the second di in "fa di di," the second tian in "fa
tian tian," the second dao in "fa dao dao" as verbs
rather than as nouns. Clearly enough, here di di (earth's being earth), tian
tian (heaven's being heaven), and dao dao (dao's being dao) are
Lao Zi's illustrations of di da (earth is great-ing), tian da (heaven is
great-ing), and dao da (dao is great-ing). If all shi, yuan,
fan, which accompany with da, are read as verbs, there is no reason then not to read and
to interpret da also as a verb, meaning a processing of being great, i.e., being oneself.
In some other chapters of the Dao De Jing such as chapters 34, 41, 45, 29, we can find
There might be two possible objections
against this non-traditional reading and interpretation of chapter 25 of the Dao De
Jing. First, someone may claim that the new punctuation of the last four sentences of
the chapter and the use of the second di, tian and dao as verbs
rather than nouns is incompatible with the custom of the traditional punctuation and with
the traditional use of those words in the ancient Chinese language. Second, someone may
argue further that the interpretation of the relation among human being, earth, heaven and
dao not as hierarchical but parallel is not consistent with Lao Zi's thought of the
hierarchical order of the creation of the universe expressed in some other places in the Dao
De Jing, e.g., in the famous chapter 42, where the order of the creation of the
universe is given.
It seems easier to answer the first
objection which is more technical. In the pre-Qin classical literature it is not very hard
to find similar ways of punctuation and of using two exactly same words together with one
of them as a verb. As Li Yue pointed out, the most famous example can be
seen in 12:11 of the Analects:
Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about
government. Confucius replied," Let the prince be a prince (jun juny),
the minister a minister (chen chenz), the father a father (fu fuaa)
and the son a son (zi ziab)."
Besides Analects, we can also
find similar cases in the Daoist classics such as in Zhuang Zi, even in the Dao
De Jing itself.
As for the answer to the second
objection, I would like to change the punctuation of the first four sentences of chapter
42 too and to introduce a new reading of it in light of my interpretation of chapter 25.
As we know, the traditional reading of chapter 42 of the Dao De Jing says,
Dao produced the one.
The one produced the two.
The two produced the three.
And the three produced the ten thousand
This traditional reading and
interpretation has been used for thousand of years for the explanation of Lao Zi's as well
as the dominant Chinese view of the creation process of the universe and served as the
philosophical grounding of the Chinese cosmology. However, it seems to me that there is no
reason why we cannot read, if it could not be called a better reading, chapter 42 of the
Dao De Jing in the same way as we read chapter 25. Hence, according to my new reading
and interpretation, chapter 42 could be translated as
Through dao emerges one's being
two's being two,
three's being three,
and emerge [in the same way] the ten
This new reading and interpretation of
chapter 42, like that I did for chapter 25, does not accept dao as an absolute
entity which is the substantified creator of the universe. Rather, it suggests a
naturalistic process of becoming, growing and being, and therefore has legitimized each
individual's unique being in the universe. That is, in my point of view,
the true spirit of Lao Zi's zi ran and dao. Thus understood,
there is no inconsistency between chapter 25 and chapter 42 of the Dao De Jing. In
other words, chapter 42 should not be seen as a refutation of the above interpretation of
chapter 25. It is rather a strong support for it.
In light of the above reading and
interpretation of chapter 25 and chapter 42 of the Dao De Jing, it should be easier
to see chapter 51 as another place where Lao Zi discusses his positive zi ran.
Compared with chapter 25 where Lao Zi talked about zi ran of human being, earth,
and heaven, chapter 51 seems to focus on the zi ran of the ten thousand things in
the universe. Here is my translation of the chapter 51 of the Dao De Jing:
Through dao ten thousand things
have emerged and are alive.
Through de (virtue) they get
Through wu (thing-ing) they get
Through qi (instrumental doing)
they get completed and finished.
Therefore the ten thousand things esteem
dao and honor de (virtue).
Dao is esteemed and de is
honored without having merit.
They appropriate themselves as zi ran
Therefore, because of dao the ten
thousand things have emerged and are alive,
They are fostered,
They are growing, nurturing, maturing,
ripening, reserving and declining.
To keep alive without possession,
To act without holding on,
To grow without lording over,
This is called the profound de
Very clearly, this chapter discusses the
relation between dao and the growing, living and existing of the ten thousand
things. To me, at least two implications can be derived from my reading of the chapter.
First, just as in chapter 25 and in chapter 42, dao is not understood as a
substantified and transcendent entity which exists beyond or outside the existence of the
ten thousand things. That is to say, there is no "causal creator" of the
universe and of the ten thousand things. Dao is rather a process and a force going
on within and with every one of the ten thousand things. It may not be the case, as the
traditional interpretation holds, that dao as the "creator" shows mercy
by "giving birth without possession," "acting without holding on to"
and "growing without lording over." Instead, if there is no "creator"
at all, such things as "possession," "holding on to" and "lording
over" cannot obtain even in the first place. Second, everything has
its unique way of existence as "growing, nurturing, maturing, ripening, reserving and
declining." That is a natural and spontaneous way which makes one thing to be itself,
and therefore, to be distinguished from being anything else. From both of these, we can
once again see the positive dimension of Lao Zi's zi ran.
III. Wu wei,
"other-ing" and the negative sense of zi ran in the Dao De Jing
Chapters 17, 23 and 64 are three other
places where the term zi ran occurs in the Dao De Jing. Unlike chapter 25
and chapter 51, these three chapters seem to give more emphasis on wu wei, which
can be seen as the negative dimension of zi ran, i.e., non-interference by others.
Although a comprehensive discussion of wu wei is not the main task of this essay, I
do think that my interpretation and discussion of the positive sense of Lao Zi's zi ran
will help us to understand better Lao Zi's concept of wu wei. That is to say, wu
wei as a Daoist philosophical guiding principle for human behaviors might not be fully
understood without a positive understanding of zi ran.
There are at least three major
interpretations of Lao Zi's and the Daoist concept of wu wei in the history of
Chinese philosophy. Among them the simplest one is the literal
interpretation of the term as "doing nothing," which can be seen from the
concept of wu shiac ("having-no-activity") in the Dao De
Jing (e.g. in ch.2, 48, 57, 63). Although this interpretation reflects some earliest
Daoist hermits' genuine attitude of life and was popular among critics of
Daoism, it was not accepted by the main stream of philosophical Daoism in the history.
Compared with the first interpretation which focuses on "doing something" or
"doing nothing," the second one focuses on "having intentions/desires"
or "not-having intentions/desires" of an agent in her doing things. The
interpretation of wu wei as non-intentional spontaneity is also described by Lao Zi
as wu yuad ("no-desire," e.g., in ch.1, 3, 34, 57, 64, etc..),
wu xinae ("no-mind," e.g., in p.49), or wu yi weiaf
("purposeless," e.g., in ch.38). In the third interpretation of
the term, wu wei is seen as action which does not force, but yields. It recommends
strongly a passive or a soft attitude rather than an aggressive or a strong attitude of
action. In the Dao De Jing, we are given not only a family of terms but also
several famous metaphors to illustrate this soft and yielding attitude: the terms such as
that of seag ("withholding," ch. 59), jianah
("being frugal," ch.67), rou ruoai ("softness and
weakness," ch.79), wei xiaaj ("to place oneself below
others," ch.61), wu ziak ("to grasp nothing," ch.64), fual
("to help," ch.64), shunam ("to follow," ch.23), cian
("deep love," ch.67), bu zhengao ("not competing,"
ch.3, 8, 22) and bu gan wei tian xia xianap ("not daring to be
ahead of the world,"ch.67), etc., the metaphors such as those of water (ch.78),
female (ch.10), infant (ch.10), etc. .
In the scholarship of the Dao De Jing
and Daoism these three interpretations of wu wei co-exist. Obviously, they are not
always compatible with each other. For example, the first interpretation
advocates an absolute non-action while the second and the third interpretations do not. In
order to explain or to avoid the problem of the incompatibility, scholars either prefer a
political rather than a purely philosophical interpretation of wu wei, or else they
trace the different origins of the ideas of wu wei back to the early Daoists.
According to the latter approach, these different ideas of wu wei have been by
their nature inconsistent with each other from the very beginning. The
incompatibility was also explained by a historical development of the concept of wu wei
in the Chinese political and philosophical tradition from Confucius, early Daoists, Zhuang
Zi to the Legalist and the Huang-Lao Daoists in the Huai-Nan Zi.aq
Although all of these explanations make
sense to some extent and from some perspectives, they do not seem to have paid enough
attention to the ontological difference between "I" and the "other"
which, in my point of view, is assumed by and thus is crucial to all the three major
interpretations of Lao Zi's wu wei. That is to say, the true philosophical spirit
of Lao Zi's wu wei should not only be read as refraining from or even as
eliminating the action or the desire of the action from the agent, but also, or more
importantly, as requiring the agent to recognize and to have respect the existence and the
distinctness of the recipients of that action, i.e., the existence and the distinctness of
the other. In light of my previous discussion of the positive sense of zi ran
as "it-self-be-coming," or "it-self-so-ing," I would like to call this
negative dimension of zi ran "other-ing," and to claim that only
on the basis of the principle of "other-ing," according to which every unique
and distinct way of existence should not be arbitrarily interfered with, coerced or
oppressed from outside, Lao Zi's concept of wu wei could be
clarified and interpreted in a better way.
Let us now see how this principle of
other-ing expresses itself as wu wei, i.e., the negative sense of zi ran, in
chapters of 17, 23, 64 of the Dao De Jing where Lao Zi's term zi ran occurs.
For example, in the beginning of chapter 23 Lao Zi says:"xi yan zi ran ."ar
Traditionally the sentence is translated as "Nature says few words."
Here zi ran is understood as an entity and as the subject of the sentence. I doubt
about this reading and understanding. There are at least two problems in this
understanding. First, this popular and traditional translation and interpretation of zi
ran as an entity seem to be inconsistent with all other places where the term is used
in the Dao De Jing. Second, in ancient Chinese, yanas
(saying) like mingat (naming) indicated an active saying as well as a
command and thus is against dao. That is why Lao Zi repeated in
saying that dao of rulership by its nature is wu yanau
(non-aggressive saying), wu mingav (non-positive naming). Also because
of that, zi ran was later understood as being against ming jiaoaw
(naming-morals/institution) in the neo-Daoism of Wei and Jin period (220-420).
Accordingly, not zi ran but a ruler, as in most of Lao Zi's sayings, should be
understood as the real subject of the sentence. Thus , a better translation
and interpretation of the first sentence of chapter 23 of the Dao De Jing would be:
"Seldom issuing commands is in accordance with zi ran."
This interpretation of zi ran as
"seldom issuing commands (from the ruler)" can be seen more clearly in chapter
17 of the Dao De Jing where the concept of zi ran is also used. The chapter
may be translated as follows:
The best (rulers) are those whose
existence is (merely) known by the people.
The next best are those who are loved
The next are those who are feared.
And the next are those who are despised.
It is only when one does not have enough
trust/faith (xinax) in others that others will have no trust/faith in
[The great rulers] value their "yan"
Tasks have been accomplished
successfully and works completed.
Nevertheless people say: I am simply
being natural/my-self-so-ing (wo zi ranay).
Having combined chapter 17 and chapter
23, we may see that for Lao Zi zi ran (being natural or it-self-so-ing) is
different for a ruler and for common people. They have different ways of
"it-self-so-ing." On the one hand, from the side of a ruler, zi ran means
not or seldom issuing commands or wu wei. On the other hand, from the side of the
people, thanks to non-commanding or non-interfering by the ruler, people can complete
their own works of living in the way of zi ran as "self-be-coming" or
"self-so-ing." Putting these two sides together, Lao Zi led us to his famous
conclusion of the appropriation of dao or of zi ran as
"non-action but nothing is left undone." Here
"non-action" refers to the side of ruler or superiors, to the negative sense of
zi ran, while "nothing is left undone" refers to common people or inferiors,
to the positive sense of zi ran. Just like all other pairs such as youaz
and wuba, yinbb and yangbc, etc., in
the Dao De Jing, these two sides are differentiated from each other, but are always
complementary to each other as indispensable partners. For a ruler, "the people"
is a different "other" and thus has its own way of "self-so-ing."
Recognition of such other-ing is the basis for a ruler to adopt wu wei, that
is, to leave alone people's "self-so-ing." Without the wu wei of the
ruler, there would be no "self-so-ing" of the people, i.e., the other relevant
to the ruler. Of course, the zi ran of other as the other-ing in Lao Zi, as I have
discussed about the positive sense of zi ran above, should not be understood as
something entified or substantified, e.g., essence. It is rather something unnamed,
ungrasped and uncomprehended. That are "ways (dao)" of others.
Sometimes Lao Zi called this other-ing sacred, and something with which one must not
interfere. Also because wu wei as "seldom issuing
commands" (ch.23) or "being frugal in giving commands" (ch.17) is based on
a recognition of the "other-ing," Lao Zi emphasized the word
"faith/trust" (xin) in chapter 17. According to Lao Tzu, a ruler should
first of all "trust or have a faith in others/people" in order to be the true
and the best ruler, otherwise he would not be really trusted (bu xinbd)
by others/people. That is, he would be merely "loved and praised, (qin yu zhibe),"
"feared (wei zhibf)," or even "despised (wu zhibg)."
This recognition of and respect for
"self-so-ing" and "other-ing" does not necessarily lead to "doing
nothing" or "letting being alone." In many cases "I" could do
something to the "other" without interfering or blocking its way toward
"it-self-so-ing." It would rather help or support this
"it-self-so-ing." This helpful support without interfering is called by Lao Zi fubh
in chapter 64, i.e., the fifth and the last place where zi ran occurs in the Dao
De Jing. In that chapter Lao Zi said,
[Thus the sage] is able to help/support
(fu) the ten thousand things in their ways toward "self-so-ing" (zi
ran) but dares not to act/interfere.
Here wu wei is interpreted as
"helping or supporting things in their 'self-so-ings.'" But this interpretation
is still pretty vague and thus needs further discussion.
First, Lao Zi's concept of fu
indicates that the key to understanding wu wei consists neither in "doing
something" nor "doing nothing," neither in "doing with
intention/desire" nor "doing without intention/desire." Rather, the point
is how to do things so as to fit or support the "it-self-so-ing" of the
thing. In some situations I ought not to do anything because that is the
best way to support (fu) "it-self-so-ing" of things. But in some other
situations I may need to do something because that is the best way. 
Therefore, wu wei as either one of above mentioned senses is only a means toward zi
ran (it-self-so-ing) while zi ran should be the end of wu wei. That is
to say, zi ran might call for "having-no-activity," but
"having-no-activity" is neither necessary nor sufficient for leading to zi
ran (it-self-so-ing). The basis for us to judge an action as wu wei or not is
to see whether it is to support/help (fu) a thing's zi ran (it-self-so-ing).
Second, if we should understand Lao Zi's
wu wei in light of zi ran, the next question would be how to judge whether
what I do really supports/helps rather than interferes with or blocks a thing's zi ran (it-self-so-ing).
Feng You-lanbi suggests that wu wei as fu zi ran means that
... a man should restrict his activities
to what is necessary and what is natural. "Necessary" means necessary to the
achievement of a certain purpose, and never overdoing. "Natural" means following
one's [d]e with no arbitrary effort.
To me, Feng's suggestion does not take
us a step forward, since we may still ask how one judges whether one's action is overdoing
or arbitrary. What is the criterion for judging "necessary" or
"natural" action? How can I know the "it-self-so-ing" of the other in
order to behave "necessarily" and "naturally?" If I take the other as
the criterion of the judgement, how do I know what is the real criterion of the other? If
I take myself to be the criterion, how can I really avoid overdoing or arbitrariness?
In order to find a way to solve such
problem, I suggest to change our traditional way of asking the question. If wu wei,
as discussed above, should be understood from zi ran, and if zi ran must be
understood as non-entified or non-substantial "it-self-so-ing," then simply to
ask about doing "what," as Feng did, may be misleading. Any affirmative answer
to the "what" question or to the question of the criterion for what is necessary
and natural for the "other's" zi ran (it-self-so-ing) would treat zi
ran as an entity and would thus eliminate the other-ing of the other. Because of this,
Lao Zi said in the famous first chapter of the Dao De Jing,
The dao that can be told of is
not the authentic dao.
The name that can be named is not the
Thus understood, when Lao Zi defined wu
wei as fu zi ran in the chapter 64, what he was really interested in, from my
point of view, is not a question such as how "I" can "know" or
"name" the other's "it-self-so-ing" or "identify" myself
with the other's known "it-self-so-ing." It is rather a question how
"I" can behave in such a way that the other's "it-self-so-ing" will
have a maximum room of growing and realization. I think that those are two different
questions. One is a theoretical question of "what to know," while the other is a
practical question of "how to do." The answer to the first question assumes or
requires my knowledge of the other's zi ran (it-self-so-ing). But the answer to the
second question may not necessarily involve such an assumption or requirement. It requires
rather an attitude, e.g., showing respect for the other's zi ran. This attitude
"recognizes" the other-ing of the other but does not need to specify what the
other-ing of the other is. When Lao Zi put together "helping and supporting the ten
thousand things in their ways toward "it-self-so-ing" (fu zi ran)
together with "not dare to interfere with" (fu gan weibj) in
chapter 64, he did not provide any substantified criterion. Rather, he advocated a soft or
yielding attitude such as se (withholding), wei xiabk (to place
oneself below others), etc., so that the other things are not only allowed but also
encouraged to be in their ways of "it-self-so-ing." This soft and yielding
attitude should not be interpreted simply as something passive or as a rejection of
participation of any kind. It is rather an attitude that calls for or inviting a better
kind of participation.
Therefore, all the three traditional
interpretations of wu wei can be consistently and coherently explained on the basis
of the principle of "the other-ing," which is the key to understanding the
negative sense of Lao Zi's concept of zi ran, i.e., "non-interference by the
other." Here, whether wu wei expresses itself as
"having-no-activity," as "acting without desire/intention" or
"acting with a yielding attitude," all of these are only different ways or means
for letting others, helping others, or encouraging others on the way
(dao) to their own "self-so-ings." Which way will best serve this purpose
will depend on specific situations. Therefore, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to
argue which one is the only or true interpretation of wu wei.
Above, I have examined all five
occurrences of Lao Zi's concept of zi ran in the Dao De Jing and discussed
both the positive and the negative senses of it. In this way, I attempt to provide a
relatively coherent and comprehensive picture of Lao Zi's zi ran in the Dao De
Jing. In sum, the positive sense of Lao Zi's zi ran insists that everything in
the universe has its own unique and indispensable "it-self-so-ing." All things
are emerging, growing, flourishing, ripening, declining, demising and there need be no
creator before or beyond these natural ways of "it-self-so-ing." In light of the
positive sense of zi ran, we can see that the negative sense of the term is only
the other side of the same zi ran. That is to say, the positive sense of zi ran
as everything's "it-self-so-ing" implies that any kind of coercion, interference
or oppression of the "it-self-so-ing" should be reduced, eliminated and morally
blamed, and that the sphere of "other-ing" and the other must be established and
I must caution, however, that the terms
such as "self" or "other" in my discussion should not be understood in
an absolute or a strong substantial and dualistic sense, which, as we are told, dominate
the modern understanding of nature in the West. My discussion of Lao Zi's
concept of fu in our understanding of the negative sense of zi ran has
already indicated that there is not and should not be an absolute separating line between
"self" and the "other." Fu cannot be possible without an
ontologically assumed common ground between my "it-self-so-ing" and that of the
"other." That was expressed in a famous Chinese philosophical slogan --
"Everything between heaven and earth belongs to the same body "
However, that all things belong to the same body does not mean that there is no
differentiation among them. Therefore, in understanding Lao Zi's concept of zi ran,
we should avoid two extremes. One extreme is to substantialize both "self" and
the "other," so that the "it-self-so-ing" or zi ran becomes
"essence" of existence and the "object" of knowledge. The other
extreme is to eliminate completely both "self" and the "other," so
that the "it-self-so-ing" or zi ran is reduced to some kind of pure
emptiness or totally indeterminable random spontaneity. In both cases, we would lose the
"it-self-so-ing." The advantage of Lao Zi's interpretation of zi ran, an
attempt to take a "middle way" between the two extremes, consists, as I have
discussed above, in his treating zi ran primarily as a practical issue rather than
as a theoretical one. Following this way, theoretical paradoxes such as "no-action
but nothing is left undone" (wu wei er wu bu weibl) and "being
able to help and support the ten thousand things in their ways toward 'it-self-so-ing' but
daring not to act and interfere" (neng fu wan wu zhi zi ran er fu gan weibm)
turn out to be practically efficient guidelines, just as Si-MaTanbn, a
sympathizer of Daoism in the early Han period, correctly commented,
The Daoists advocate not acting, but
they also say that, by virtue of this non-action, nothing is left undone. The content of
these words is easy to put into practice, but the words themselves are difficult to
Qingjie James Wang
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Writing of this article was supported by a
research grant from Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities. An early version of the first
two sections of this article was presented at The American Philosophical Association 70th
Annual Meeting, Pacific Division, Seattle, April 3-6, 1996. I would also like to thank
James Allard, Chung-ying Chen, Wes DeMarco, Xin-yan Jiang, Graham Parkes, Lynda Sexson,
Michael Zimmerman for their critical comments on the whole article and their valuable
suggestions for the revision.
There is a controversy about the
authorship of the Dao De Jing in the history of Chinese philosophy. My discussion
here simply follows the traditional saying that Lao Zi was the founder of Daoism and the
author of the Dao De Jing.
Zhang Dai-Lian, Zhong Guo Zhe Xue Da
Gangbo (The History of the Philosophical Problems in China),
(Beijing: The Chinese Social Science Press, 1982), p.421.
See Xun Zi:Jie Bibp, in
Vol.2 of Zhu Zi Ji Chengbq [Collection of Classics], 8 vols.,
(Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1954).
There are several problems of these
existing English translations. For examples, first, the translation of zi ran as
"nature" may misread it as a noun which refers to an entity rather than to a
process of growing and becoming. Second, the translation of "spontaneity" may
miss the "active" sense of the term zi ran. Third,
"self-so-ing" or "self-becoming" may mislead our understanding of the
term to fall into an egoistic trick, i.e., to make the naturalistic process
The etymological interpretation and
discussion of zi ran in this section follows greatly from W. A. Callahan's
linguistic discussion of Lao Zi's zi ran.However, I do not agree with his
philosophical interpretation of Lao Zi's zi ran. It seems to me that his
interpretation gives a too strong impression that Lao Zi is a perspctivist philosopher.
Moreover, his translation of zi ran as "perspectival
action-discrimination" sounds awkward to a Chinese ear. It may serve only as one of
the possible interpretations rather than, as he did, a translation.As for Callahan's
translation and discussion, see W. A. Callahan, "Discourse and Perspective in Daoism:
A Linguistic Interpretation of zi ran." in Philosophy East and West,
vol.39, no.2 (April 1989), pp. 171-189.
Xu Shen , Shuo Wen Jie Zibr,
(Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1963), p.74.
See Callahan, p.173.
See A. C. Graham, " 'Being' in
Western Philosophy Compared with shi/fei and you/wu in Chinese
Philosophy," in Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature,
(Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), pp.322-359.
It seems to me that the two senses of the
Chinese term zi ran are very similar to the two senses of the conception of freedom
or liberty discussed by Isaiah Berlin, i.e., the positive sense and the negative sense of
the concept as "being free to ..." and as "being free from. See Isaiah
Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Four Essays On Liberty, (London:
Oxford University Press), pp. 118-172.
I will discuss the different
interpretations of wu wei in the next section of the paper.
Both Wang Pi'sbs and He Shang
Gong'sbt editions of the text have the character "wangbu/king"
instead of "renbv /human being" here. The two Silk
Manuscripts of the Lao Zi had wang too. However, Fu Yi'sbw and Fan
Ying Yuan'sbx texts have ren. Many modern scholars followed Fu and Fan
and believed that the replacement of ren by wang is for political reasons.
Also considering that wang is here understood as the representative of human being,
I follow Fu and Fan's reading.
In most cases of the translation of the Dao
De Jing, I follow Wing-Tsit Chan's translation in A Source Book in Chinese
Philosophy, pp.139-176, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), with a reference to
D.C. Lau's translation -- Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (London: Penguin Classics, 1963),
and with my modification in some cases.
See Wang Pi and Ho Shangong's
commentaries. Wang Pi comments in Chan, p.321. "To follow zi ran as its
standard is to model after the square while within the square and the circle while within
the circle, and not oppose zi ran in any way."
Li Yue, Lao Zi Dao De Zhen Jing Xin
Zhuby.See Gao Heng, Lao Zi Zhen Gubz, (Beijing, Classics,
Generally speaking, there are two basic
ways of the use of the word da in the Dao De Jing. One is used as adjective
while the other as verb. Lao Zi clearly downplayed the former use and favored the latter.
For example, in the same chapter 25, just before Lao Zi calls human being, earth, heaven, dao
"great-ing" (da), he gave a verbal interpretation of da.
There is something undifferentiated and yet complete,
Which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.
It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name. I call it dao.
If forced to give it a name, I shall call it great-ing (da).
Now great-ing means functioning everywhere (shica).
Functioning everywhere means far-reaching (yuancb).
Being far-reaching means returning to the origin (fancc).
See Gao Heng, p.62.
See The Analects of Confucius,
trans. by Arthur Waley, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p.166.
For example, in the Zhuang Zi, ch.
12, "tai chu you wu wu"cd (In the beginning nothing is noth-ing. );
in the Dao De Jing, ch. 71 "...... yi qi bing bing ye, shi yi bu bing ......"ce
(because the sage recognizes this disease to be disease, he is free from it.); etc.
This reading may also have a strong
support from chapter 54 of the Dao De Jing. It reads,
"..... (The dao of a) person should be viewed from
(The dao of a) family should be viewed from the family,
(The dao of a) community should be viewed from
(The dao of a) country should be viewed from the
(The dao of the) world should be viewed from the
How do I know this to be the case (ran) in the
Through this (from the cultivation of virtue in the
person to that in the world)."
It is not my intention to claim that my
reading of Chapters 25, 42, etc. of the Dao De Jing is the only way to read and to
understand them. What I would like to claim is rather that my reading and interpretation
may open another alternative to understand Lao Zi. I hope that this way of interpretation
of Lao Zi would finally make our understanding of Lao Zi's philosophical spirit richer and
The Chinese word shengcf
has both meanings as "giving birth" and "keeping alive." My
interpretation emphasizes on the second meaning.
I interpret "sheng zhicg,"
"xu zhich," "ting zhici," "du
zhicj" etc. as saying that it is through or because of dao that
ten thousand things have "sheng," "xu," "du,"
"ting" etc.. Here I would like to make a distinction between "being
caused by" and "being so because of ..." "Being caused by" is a
strict causal relation. But "being so because of" is not necessarily a causal
relation. Because I don't think Lao Zi's dao, deck, wucl,
qicm should be understood here as substantifying entities, I interpret
the relations between them and ten thousand of things as the latter rather than as the
former. That is to say, they are not creators of but different ways of ten thousand
This Daoist spirit can be seen later in
Hui Neng'scn interpretation of Chan Buddhism in his famous verse,
"Fundamentally perfect wisdom has no tree/ Nor has the bright mirror any stand/
Buddha nature is forever clear and pure/ Where is there any dust." See Wing-Tsit
Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Also see David Loy's discussion of it in
"Wei-Wu-Wei: Nondual Action," Philosophy East and West, 35, no.1
(January 1985), pp.73-76.
Herrlee G. Greel described it as
"...... the idea of complete nonparticipation in worldly affairs." See Herrlee
G. Greel, "On the Origin of Wu Wei," in What is Taoism? (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1970), p.76.
For example, Guo Xiangco (died
in 312), a major commentator of Zhuang Zi, criticized this interpretation of wu wei by
saying:"Hearing the theory of wu wei, some people think that lying down is
better than walking. These people are far wrong in understanding the idea of Zhuang
Zi." in Guo Qingfan, Zhuang Zi Ji Shicp, in Vol.3 of Zhu
Zi Ji Cheng [Collection of Classics], 8 vols., (Beijing: Zhong-hua Books,
A development of this interpretation
leads to a Buddhist rejection of both the agent and the recipient of an action, e.g.,
no-self and no-objects. A contemporary view of this interpretation can be seen in David
Loy, "Wei-Wu-Wei: Nondual Action."
Creel made a distinction between
"contemplative" Daoism and "purposive" Daoism and pointed out that
"logically and essentially they are incompatible." See "On Two Aspects in
Early Daoism," in What is Taoism? p.45.
See Creel's discussion on it in What
An extensive and historical study on the
concept of wu wei in the ancient history of Chinese philosophy can be found in
Roger Ames, The Art of Rulership -- A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought,
(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983)
Because of this, we can see why the
concept of zi youcq (freedom) comes out of zi ran later in
For examples, see Wing-Tsit Chan, A
Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p.151; Ellen M. Chen, The Dao Te Ching, (New
York: Pragon House, 1989), p.113, etc..
See ch. 25, ch.51, ch.17 and ch.61.
For example, in the Zhou Licr,
"yan" was defined as a saying which is initiative and active while "yucs"
as a saying which is corresponding and passive.See Kang Xi Zi Dianct
(Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1958), p.1146.
Here I follow H.G. Creel and A. C. Graham
and interpret the sentence from a perspective of political philosophy. As Graham
emphasized in his comparison between Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, "Lao-tzu, which is
written from the view of point of the prince, is pervaded by an awareness of the
uselessness of trying to control political forces, which however the ruler can guide by
locating the crucial points and moments and exerting the minimum pressure to the maximum
effect." See A. C. Graham, Chuang-Tzu -- The Inner Chapters, (London: Mandala,
I follow Chen Gu-ying's interpretation
and Ames and Young's translation. See Chen Gu-ying, Lao Zi Zhu Shi Yu Ping Jiacu,
(Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1984), pp.157-160.
Dao De Jing, ch.37, ch.48.
It should be noticed that the idea of
'other' which is contained in Lao Zi's negative sense of "zi ran" as
"wu wei" is not that of the absolute other, e.g., the "other"
who has nothing to do with the "I" or who is against the "I." Everyone
is the "I" and the "other" at the same time. It is the "I"
in the sense that it has its unique and distinct way of "it-self-so-ing." It is
also the "other" in the sense that it is an "other" of another
"I." Therefore, on the one hand, as an "I" it should be against any
kind of outside interference or coercion which could block or interfere with its
"self-so-ing." On the other hand, as an "other" it should also
recognize and respect the other "I"s' unique ways of their
"self-so-ings." Therefore, according to Lao Zi, a respect for other-ing of the
other is not mercy, or using a more popular contemporary philosophical term, not
"charity" from "I," from the ruler or the "advantaged." It
is rather required by the unnameable and non-substantified zi ran of the other
For example, in chapter 29 of the Dao
De Jing, the empire or "all under the sky" is seen as a "sacred vessel.
It should not be acted on. He who acts on it harm it. He who holds on to it loses
Roger Ames made a similar point of wu
wei, but from a different direction, in his "Putting the [D]e Back into
Taoism" when he said:" Wu-wei, then, is a negation of that kind of
'making' or 'doing' which requires that a particular sacrifice its own integrity in acting
on behalf of something 'other,' a negation of one particular serving as a 'means' for
something else's 'end.'" See Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, ed. by
J.Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames, (Albany: SUNY, 1989), p.137.
In the Huai Nan Zi, a Daoist
classic after the Dao De Jing and the Chuang Zi, a later Daoist saw this
point very clear when he said:
...... suppose one were to use fire to dry out a well,
or to use the water of the Huaicv River for irrigating the
mountains, that would be to exert the ego-self and thus to behave against zi ran
(it-self-so-ing). Hence, that can be called taking action (you weicw).
Suppose instead one were to use boats on water, wagon on sand, sledges on the mud, and
baskets [for transporting earth] in the mountains, making ditches in the summer [when the
rainfall occurs] and making retaining ponds in the winter, where the land is high, taking
it for agriculture, and where it lies low, using it as ponds. Such would not constitute
what I have called "you wei."
See Huai Nan Zi, ch.19, "xiu wu xuncx,"
in Vol.7 of Zhu Zi Ji Cheng, [Collection of Classics], 8 vols., (Beijing:
Zhong-hua Books, 1954).
Feng You-lan, A Short History of
Chinese Philosophy, (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p.101.
This is the question asked by Zhuang Zi
in his "Qi Wu Luncx." See A. C. Graham, Chuang-Tzu -- The
Inner Chapters, pp.48-61.
See Martin Heidegger, Introduction to
Metaphysics, (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 1959), pp.10-14.
See Zhuang Zi, "Tian Xiacy"
in vol.3 of Zhu Zi Ji Cheng [Collection of Classics], 8 vols., (Beijing:
Zhong-hua Books, 1954).
Si-Ma Qian, Shi Jicz. I
use H.G. Creel's translation in his What is Taoism? pp.51-52.