Over at the Log, Victor Mair’s post WU2WEI2: Do Nothing opens with a gorgeous photo of the throne room of the Forbidden City (n.b.: “wu” is on the right, “wei” on the left) and proceeds to a description of the Chinese phrase and related terms:

The grammarians argue over whether this is an injunction (“do nothing”) or a negative declarative sentence (“there is no action”). It is normally rendered in English as a noun. Regardless of the part of speech, WU2WEI2 has had an enormous impact on Chinese thought for the past two millennia and more.

In the Afterword to my Bantam translation of the Tao Te Ching / Dao De Jing, I pointed out a number of Sanskrit terms (e.g., AKRTA [non-action], AKARMA [inaction], NAISKARMYA [freedom from action or actionlessness], KARMANAM ANARAMBHAN [noncommencement of action] — diacriticals omitted here), especially numerous in the Bhagavad Gita, that mean essentially the same thing as WU2WEI2. The Indian notions, while equally subtle and elusive, are quite different in their moral implications. Whereas the Taoist concept is both ethical and socio-political, the Hindu complex of ideas is metaphysical and existential.

The comment thread has quotes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and much discussion. Highly recommended.


  1. I wonder if I am the only one who felt that the article and associated discussion entirely missed the point of the two characters wúwèi 無為 “Do nothing” written above above the imperial throne … the implicit érzhì 而治 “and rule” that completes the four-character phrase : wúwèi érzhì 無為而治 “Do nothing and rule”, a quotation from the Analects of Confucius.

  2. Excellent point, and I suggest you add it to the Log thread. It takes a Confucian scholar to properly interpret Confucian throne rooms!

  3. Mair is a wonderful guy. He publishes, possibly at his own expense, a series of short papers (“Sino-Platonic Papers”) by young or non-professional scholars, especially looking for somewhat unorthodox approaches. His special interests include the relationships between the literary language and popular languages, the relationships between Chinese and non-Chinese languages, and the influences of steppe Indo-Europeans (Tokharians) on Chinese culture. Archeology has been supporting him in recent decades and a version of his thesis seems to be becoming mainstream.
    People here especially should check out “Sino-Platonic Papers” on the net, or in a good library. Encouraging new approaches is one of his goals, so you’re sure to find some clunkers, but there will be some great stuff too.

  4. marie-lucie says

    JE, Thank you for the reference to “Sino-Platonic Papers”, for anyone interested in East Asia, especially, but not limited to, its linguistics.

  5. Richard Wilhelm: “He does the non-doing,
    and thus everything falls into place.”
    Stephen Mitchell: “Pratice not-doing
    and everything will fall into place.”
    It would be interesting to knows when the inscription made its first confirmed appearance above the throne.

  6. A.J.P. Chinaman says

    “He does the non-doing,
    and thus everything falls into place.”

    He does the non-doing? That’s not even the correct mood, for god’s sake, apart from being total wank. These are all very clunky translations. “Less is more” would be better (in all ways).

  7. A.J.P. Asian-American says

    Actually, the bast translation could probably be found somewhere in here, but I don’t have time to look right now.

  8. A.J.P. The preferred term says

    (I mean the best equivalent, not the best translation.)

  9. A.J.P. Exxon says

    You know when I said ‘I don’t have time’, I really meant ‘I’m not going to have time, because I’m being forced to “watch” television with my family this evening, but I’d be delighted if somebody else would try’.

  10. I discovered a site that helps you translate texts in any language you want. French Translator it is like a free dictionary. I think it is new.It works great!
    [You’re welcome, you stupid spammer! I have kept the comment because it’s being discussed, but replaced the spam URL with example.com. –LH]

  11. marie-lucie says

    The above message is an ad from the site.

  12. The LH server recovers from its technical difficulties and the first post to get through is from a spambot? Figures. I thought I recognized the translate tool. It’s nothing more than Google Translate. They have a widget so you can put it on your site (unless you have WordPress subdomain like me).

  13. ðíáÞú
    A new translation:
    Það Alvald, sem um er talað, er ekki Vegur eilífðarinnar.
    Það nafn,sem unnt er að fá Þvi, er ekki ímynd hins elífa.
    (URL: substitute “a” for “*” in this: http://home.p*ges.*t/onkellotus/TTK/Icelandic_Unknown_TTK.html

  14. Christophe Strobbe says

    The LH server recovers from its technical difficulties and …

    Was the recovery an example of 无为/wúwéi?

  15. No, I’m afraid it involved a fair amount of wéi.

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