‘Wú Wéi’ (无为) means, in Chinese, ‘non-doing’, or ‘doing nothing’. It sounds like a pleasant invitation to relax, or worse, fall into laziness or apathy. Yet this concept is key to the noblest kind of action, according to the philosophy of Daoism, and is at the heart of what it means to follow ‘Dào’ (道) – ‘the way’. According to the central text of Daoism, the ‘Dào Dé Jīng’ (道德经),the way never acts,yet nothing is left undone. This is the paradox of Wú Wéi : it doesn’t mean ‘not acting,’ it means ‘effortless action,’ or ‘actionless action’. It means being at peace, while engaged in the most frenetic tasks, so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency. Something of the meaning of Wú Wéi is captured when we talk of being ‘in the zone’, at one with what we’re doing, in a state of profound concentration and flow. Wú Wéi is closely connected to the Daoist reverence for the natural world, for it means striving to make our behaviour as spontaneous and inevitable as certain natural processes, and to ensure that we are swimming with, rather than against, currents. We are to be like the bamboo that bends in the wind, or the plant that adjusts itself to the shape of a tree. Wú Wéi involves letting go of ideals that we may otherwise try to force too violently onto things. It invites us instead to respond to the true demands of situations, which tend only to be noticed when we put our own ego-driven plans to one side. What can follow is a loss of self-consciousness, a new unity between the self and its environment. But none of this means we won’t be able to change or affect things if we strive for Wú Wéi. The Dào Dé Jīng points out that we should be like water, which is submissive and weak, and yet which can’t be surpassed for attacking what is hard and strong. Through gentle persistence and a compliance with the specific shape of a problem, an obstacle can be worked around and gradually eroded. The idea of achieving the greatest effects by wise, strategic passivity has been central to Chinese notions of politics, diplomacy and business. In the manuals on wisdom produced by Daoists, we are repeatedly told that rather than impose a plan or model on a situation, we should let others act frantically, and then likely adjust ourselves as we see the direction that matters have evolved in. In China’s Táng (唐) dynasty, many poets likened Wú Wéi to the best aspects of being drunk. It wasn’t alcoholism they were promoting, but the decline in rigidity and anxiety that sometimes comes with being a little drunk, and which can help us to accomplish certain tasks. One poet compared someone inspired by Wú Wéi to a drunk man who falls uninjured from a moving cart. Such is their spiritual momentum, that they are unaffected by accidents and misfortunes that might break those of a more controlled and controlling mindset. Theories of painting from the Táng period onwards made Wú Wéi central to artistic practice. Rather than labouriously attempting to reproduce nature as faithful copyists, the artist should find nature within themselves, and surrender to its calls. The painter’s task is not to imitate the external surface of things, but to present the ‘Guǐ (鬼)’ or ‘spirit’ of things like mountains, trees, birds and rivers, by feeling some of this spirit in themselves, and then letting it ‘flow out’ through the brush, onto silk or paper. It followed that Daoist thinkers revered not just the finished work of art, but the act of painting itself. It considered artist studios as places for applied philosophy. The Táng dynasty poet, Fú Zài (符载), described a big party that had been thrown to witness the painter, Zhāng Zǎo (張璪), in action. ‘Right in the middle of the room, he sat down with his legs spread out, took a deep breath and his inspiration began to issue forth. ‘Those present were as startled as if lightning was shooting across the heavens, or a whirlwind was sweeping up into the sky. ‘The ink seemed to be spitting from his flying brush. ‘He clapped his hands with a cracking sound. ‘Suddenly, strange shapes were born. ‘When he’d finished, there stood pine trees, scaly and riven, crags steep and precipitous, clear water and turbulent clouds. ‘He threw down his brush, got up and looked around in every direction. ‘It seemed as if the sky had cleared after a storm, to reveal the true essence of ten thousand things.’ Fú Zài added of Zhāng, whose works are sadly now lost, that he had ‘left mere skill behind’, and that his art was ‘not painting’, but ‘the very Dao itself’. A good life could not be attained by Wú Wéi alone, but this Daoist concept captures a wisdom we may at times be in desperate need of : when we’re in danger of damaging ourselves, through an overly stern and unyielding adherence to ideas which simply don’t fit the demands of the world.

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