"It-self-so-ing" and "Other-ing" in Lao Zi's Concept of Zi Ran


Prof. Qingjie James Wang


Zi ran[1]a is one of the oldest philosophical concepts in China. Lao Zi, the founder of Daoism[2], was the one who introduced the concept into the Chinese philosophy.[3] 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 philosophy.[4]

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."[5] In order to understand the meaning of the term more properly, a brief etymological discussion is necessary.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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."[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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."[12]

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[13] is also great.

There are four great things in the universe,

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 ran (it-self-so-ing).[14]


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.[15] 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).[16] 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 ye das).

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 tianw),

after dao's being dao (fa dao daox);

[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).[17] 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 similar use.

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,[18] 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)."[19]

Besides Analects, we can also find similar cases in the Daoist classics such as in Zhuang Zi, even in the Dao De Jing itself.[20]

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 things.


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 one,

two's being two,

three's being three,

and emerge [in the same way] the ten thousand things.


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.[21] That is, in my point of view, the true spirit of Lao Zi's zi ran and dao.[22] 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.[23]

Through de (virtue) they get fostered,

Through wu (thing-ing) they get configured,

Through qi (instrumental doing) they get completed and finished.[24]

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 (it-self-so-ing).

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 (virtue).

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.[25] 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.[26] 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[27] and was popular among critics of Daoism, it was not accepted by the main stream of philosophical Daoism in the history.[28] 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).[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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[32]

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[33], 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."[34] 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.[35] Second, in ancient Chinese, yanas (saying) like mingat (naming) indicated an active saying as well as a command and thus is against dao.[36] 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.[37] 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."[38]

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 and praised.

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 him.

[The great rulers] value their "yan" highly.

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."[39] 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.[40] Sometimes Lao Zi called this other-ing sacred, and something with which one must not interfere.[41] 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.[42] 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. [43] 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.[44]

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?[45]

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 authentic name.

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.

IV. Conclusion

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 respected.

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.[46] 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 "[47] 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 understand.[48]

Qingjie James Wang

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong


[1]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.

[2]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.

[3]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.

[4]See Xun Zi:Jie Bibp, in Vol.2 of Zhu Zi Ji Chengbq [Collection of Classics], 8 vols., (Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1954).

[5]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 "personalized."

[6]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.

[7]Xu Shen , Shuo Wen Jie Zibr, (Beijing: Zhong Hua Books, 1963), p.74.

[8]See Callahan, p.173.

[9]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.

[10]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.

[11]See no.3.

[12]I will discuss the different interpretations of wu wei in the next section of the paper.

[13]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.

[14]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.

[15]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."

[16]Li Yue, Lao Zi Dao De Zhen Jing Xin Zhuby.See Gao Heng, Lao Zi Zhen Gubz, (Beijing, Classics, 1956), p.61-62.

[17]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 not change.

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).


[18]See Gao Heng, p.62.

[19]See The Analects of Confucius, trans. by Arthur Waley, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p.166.

[20]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.

[21]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 person,

(The dao of a) family should be viewed from the family,

(The dao of a) community should be viewed from the community,

(The dao of a) country should be viewed from the country,

(The dao of the) world should be viewed from the world.

How do I know this to be the case (ran) in the world?

Through this (from the cultivation of virtue in the person to that in the world)."

[22]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 more coherent.

[23]The Chinese word shengcf has both meanings as "giving birth" and "keeping alive." My interpretation emphasizes on the second meaning.

[24]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 things' "it-self-so-ing."

[25]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, 1963), p.432.

[26]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.

[27]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.

[28]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, 1954).

[29]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."

[30]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.

[31]See Creel's discussion on it in What is Taoism?

[32]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)

[33]Because of this, we can see why the concept of zi youcq (freedom) comes out of zi ran later in Chinese philosophy.

[34]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..

[35]See ch. 25, ch.51, ch.17 and ch.61.

[36]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.

[37]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, 1986), p.170.

[38]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.

[39]Dao De Jing, ch.37, ch.48.

[40]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 itself.

[41]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 it."

[42]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.

[43]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).

[44]Feng You-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p.101.

[45]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.

[46]See Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 1959), pp.10-14.

[47]See Zhuang Zi, "Tian Xiacy" in vol.3 of Zhu Zi Ji Cheng [Collection of Classics], 8 vols., (Beijing: Zhong-hua Books, 1954).

[48]Si-Ma Qian, Shi Jicz. I use H.G. Creel's translation in his What is Taoism? pp.51-52.