Wu Wei

One Chinese word that means several English words. Acceptance, diplomacy, patience, compassion, humility, impartiality, and ambuscade. The strategy of flow. The opposite of contending, competing, arguing, ranting, boasting, invading, and winning.

WuWei is hard to learn, hard to do, and hard to maintain. But it makes everything else easier. See DrivingMetaphor.


Nothing Accomplished

Do I understand correctly WuWei is the literal translation of the above two Chinese words? If it is what I think it is then it is a phrase with TaoistCulturalAssumption.

What is listed in the first paragraph then go beyond my understanding as a native speaker, sans Taoist philosophies.


Does this relate to the ExtremeWay?

Somewhat. As I understand it, both are concerned with Aggressiveness, Communication, Testing and Simplicity. ExtremeProgramming seems less concerned with diplomacy, though maybe a little with PeopleWhoDontNeedToKnow. WuWei pages like ConquerWithCompassion and SoftlySoftlyCatcheeMonkey seem to have less to do with XP.

Don't forget XP interactions with the computer. Listen to what the code is telling you. Understand it and its needs. Don't force your vision onto it; be diplomatic. Let the machine do the work. Seek the points of leverage. -- DaveHarris

Sure, and of course XP could take up activities like the ones I quote if it's applied to politics. Ah, hell, let's have a page: ExtremePolitics.

But there are still contradictions in any prescriptive formulation of WuWei. WuWei is essentially the process of accepting and harmonizing with flow. Just as you can't catch water in a net, there's no set of rules, no matter how flexible, extensive, or subtle, that can capture flow. XP comes closest when it rules that, when there is consensus that a practice needs changing, the practice is changed. WuWei reminds us, however, that this rule has its exceptions too. -- PeterMerel.


Documentation is a key area in which the ExtremeWay is WuWei. My company is really big on documentation because documentation is "useful, valuable, important and the right thing to do". And it's very particular about the sorts of documentation that is needed.

One piece is a RACI matrix. (RACI is Responsible, Accountable, Consent, Inform.) The matrix has various columns of people and rows of tasks. At the intersection is an "X" if that person should be R or A or C or I. (No, it ain't grammatically consistent!) On the first project that used this thing, tasks included all sorts of stuff from throughout the 6-month waterfall. The X's were filled in about 4 weeks before the end of the project.

Do the math. Whatever a RACI matrix might do for you, it couldn't in this case. But we have to do something around here to control projects and improve quality. So we did.

-- KielHodges


A common "translation" of WuWei is "not doing". When a problem arises, many people feel they have to "do something" about it and they do something that's counter-productive because there are no productive alternatives - except doing nothing which people don't see as an alternative.

More subtly, WuWei is "not doing" is the sense of not "contending, competing, arguing, ranting, boasting, invading, and winning." So you might choose to do something subtle that others would discount as nothing at all. -- KielHodges

To put this into a business context, Peter Drucker said that the important thing is not to "do things right" but to "do the right thing", i.e. the choice of what to do is more important than how to do. I think the application of WuWei would say that there may be NoThing? which is right to do at this juncture. -- TimDiggins

"Not doing" (NotDoing maybe?) links up nicely with the central tenet of AlexanderTechnique?. -- JoachimNoreiko?


And the Buddha said, "Don't just do something, stand there!" -- DanielBerrigan?

(That's why we're called Human Be-ings [HumanBeing] not 'Human Do-ings'.)

"If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." -- NeilPeart

And sometimes, that is the appropriate choice!

It's important to distinguish WuWei from passivism. WuWei is not pushing, nor just standing there, but harmonizing with your partner(s) in order to dance. This distinction is too easily lost. Dig out SunTse for an explanation of WuWei in action.

As for Buddha, "WuWei" spots him a few years. The term itself is taoist, from LaoTse, coming as a reaction against KungFuTse's concept of Li - order - which Kiel's RACI matrix exhibits in spades. But the notion is older still. You can see plenty of it in the BhagavadGita, which antedates Buddha by three millennia.

Not to say Buddha was not a great fool too :-)

-- PeterMerel

I am not sure (I don't know) if WuWei was coming as a reaction against Li; I think they are just two opposite methods to keep Zhong(or Dao).

and, when KungFuTse was 70 years old, he said that he had need not to keep Li in mind to do things, because what he did would never departure from Zhong. -- GuangjunMa


Yes, LaoTse (as usually translated) superficially advocates literally doing nothing, but the deeper meaning is as Peter describes.

To be fair to DanielBerrigan?, he wasn't doing nothing when he just stood there. (The government certainly didn't think so as he was jailed for it several times.)

-- KielHodges


I take issue with the assertion that the BhagavadGita was written 3 millennia before the time of the Buddha--it is usually dated at the time of, or slightly after, the Buddha. See http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/de.htm where it is dated 500-100 BCE. The Vedas and some of the Upanishads antedate the Buddha, but the Mahabharata (of which the Gita is a part) was mostly composed after the Buddha's death. -- EdBuffaloe

As I understand it the date is in some dispute, with religionists pushing it back and secularists pushing it forward. Victor Mair has championed the filiation of LaoTse from the Gita; the notion is that either Lao derives directly from it, or the two share some common lost ancestor. My reading of the two makes this seem plausible, but then again I also find it plausible that ChuangTse created the TaoTeChing as a political strawman, or that the TaoTeChing is really just a sex manual, or that it's a book about Go strategy. I also like the idea that the repetitive nature of the poetry suggests its origin as an oral tradition. Whatever - I truly doubt the filiation issues can be conclusively settled at this date. It remains, however, quite certain that Lao and WuWei antedate Buddhism. -- PeterMerel


This is interesting. I never doubted that the Tao was older than Buddhism. I have read both the Gita and TaoTeChing several times but never felt there was much common ground between them, and I always assumed that TaoTeChing was much older. Can you give me the name of Victor Mair's book? I'd like to check it out. -- EdBuffaloe


Interesting discussion, just want to add my two cents (I am a Chinese programmer and read a bit about Tao).

A most popular usage of WuWei is WuWeiErZhi? which means "govern while doing nothing". It clearly shows that WuWei is not passive, but emphasizes that you should not leave your mark of effort when you try to solve a problem. Instead, let the problem reveal its own solution and use it [i.e. not everything is a nail even when you have a hammer. Or, I recently read somewhere, if there is no solution, there is no problem :-)].

I also believe the Tao is very Chinese. From my recollection, LaoTse was the head of Library of a country, Zhou, in China when there were 7 countries fighting each other. One day he figured it all out (DeDao?) and decided he would live a life of freedom (from constraining things of the life to achieve the freedom of heart). The governor of the last gate of somewhere in China pleaded with him to write down his great thought. So he wrote the 600 words of TaoTeChing (that is, Dao De Jing - Book of Dao and De, so named because the first character of the first chapter is Dao, the first character of the last chapter is De). And he rode off into the sunset, and a purple light shined.

I don't remember the details but that is not my problem to solve. ;-) If I find the right source, I will post it here.

It is a beautiful story and reflects the basic idea of LaoTse: Dao is something you have to figure out (Dao Ke Dao, Fei Chang Dao -- the Dao that can be expressed is not the eternal Dao). A analogy of programming may be "interface", once it is expressed (implemented), it is a class and is restricted in many ways (compromises have already made for you regarding performance, usage and its relation with the environment, etc..)

-- ghw


I can do Anything,

I can't do Everything,

I must do Something,

and Sometimes that's Nothing.

-- David B.

It's the second ISBN link on the LaoTse page.


Don't forget, doing something (anything) is no different from doing nothing. Therefore, something might as well be done. -- Bob

And the best something might be nothing.
Interesting. According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calque, laissez-faire is originally a word-for-word translation of WuWei.

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