The Relationship between Authority and Authenticity in the Laozi: Employing Wu無as a Philosophical Framework
Thirty spokes converge at one hub, but the utility of the cart is a function of the nothingness (wu) inside the hub. We throw clay to shape a pot, but the utility of the clay pot is a function of the nothingness inside it. We bore doors and windows to make a dwelling, but the utility of the dwelling is a function of the nothingness inside it. Thus, it might be something (you) that provides the value, but it is nothing that provides the utility.
2. Dao, Wu, and You
system constructed upon constancy,13 wu and you, rooted upon the grand one.
Dao that can be spoken of is not the constant dao. Names that can be designated, are not constant names. With an absence of names, the world begins, with the presence of names, all beings are mothered. Therefore, while consistent in the absence of desires one can observe its subtleness, while consistent in desires one can observe its boundaries. Those two, simultaneously emerge but differ in name, both are called profound. Profound and abstruse, it is the gate to all subtleties.
There is a thing—it came to be in the undifferentiated, generated before heaven and earth. What stillness! What emptiness! Alone it stands fast and does not change. Moving about in cycles and never endangered, it can be mother to the world. I do not know its name, I style it as Dao. If forced to name it, it is called grand. Grand means to proceed, to proceed means distance, distance means return. Therefore, Dao is grand, heaven is grand, earth is grand, the king is also grand. In the land there are four grandees, the king occupies one of them. Humans emulate earth, earth emulates heaven, heaven emulates Dao, Dao emulates the natural course of all.
Returning is the movement of Dao; weakening is its function. All beings in the world generate from you, you generate from wu.17
Dao generates one, one generates two, two generates three, three generates the myriad things and beings.
3. The Wu (無) and Zi (自) Constructions
The heavens are lasting and the earth enduring. The reason the world is able to be lasting and enduring is because it does not live for itself. Thus, it is able to be long-lived. It is on this model that the sages withdraw their persons from contention yet find themselves out in front, put their own persons out of mind yet find themselves taken care of. Isn’t is simply because they are unselfish that they can satisfy their own needs? (Translation by Hall and Ames, p. 86).
Dao give things their life, and their particular efficacy is what nurtures them. Events shape them, and having a function consummates them. It is for this reason that all things honor Dao and esteem efficacy. As for the honor directed at Dao and the esteem directed at efficacy, is not a result of being ordained, but of being consistent in its own self-so (ziran自然). Dao gives them life and nurtures them, rears and develops them. It brings them to fruition and maturation, nourishes and guards over them. Dao gives things life yet does not manage them. It assists them yet makes no claim upon them. It rears them yet does not lord over them. It is this that is called profound efficacy (xuande 玄德). (Chapter 51)
Dao is constantly nameless. Although in this unworked state it is of little consequence, no one in the world would dare to condescend to it. Were the nobles and kings able to respect this, all things would defer on their own accord (zibin自賓). To the heavens and the earth would come together to send down their sweet honey, and without being so ordered, the common people would see that it is distributed equitably on their own accord (zijun自均). (Chapter 32)
Dao constantly does things non-coercively and nothing is left undone.29 Were the nobles and kings able to respect this, all things would be able to develop along their own lines (zihua自化). Having developed along their own lines, were they to desire to depart from this, I would realign them with a nameless scrap of unworked wood. Realigned with this nameless scrap of unworked wood, they would leave off desiring. In not desiring, they would achieve equilibrium, and all the world would be properly ordered of its own accord (ziding自定). (Chapter 37)
It is because the most excellent do not strive to excel that they are of the highest efficacy. And it is because the least excellent do not leave off striving to excel that they have no efficacy. Persons of the highest efficacy neither do things coercively nor would they have any motivation for doing so. Persons who are most authoritative (ren) do things coercively and yet are not motivated in doing so. Persons who are most appropriate (yi) do things coercively and indeed do have a motive for doing so. Persons who are exemplars of ritual propriety (li) do things coercively and when no one pays them any heed, they yank up their sleeves and drag others along with them. Thus, only when we have lost sight of Dao is there excellence, only when we have lost sight of excellence is there authoritative conduct, only when we have lost sight of authoritative conduct is their appropriateness, and only when we have lost sight of appropriateness is their ritual propriety. As for ritual propriety, it is the thinnest veneer of doing one’s best and making good on one’s word, and it is the first sign of trouble. “Foreknowing” is tinsel decorating the way and is the first sign of ignorance. It is for this reason that persons of consequence: set store by the substance rather than the veneer and by the fruit rather than the flower. Hence, eschewing one they take the other.
Hence in the words of the sages: we do things non-coercively and the common people develop along their own lines (zihua自化); we cherish equilibrium and the common people order themselves (zizheng自正); we are non-interfering in our governance (wushi 無事) and the common people prosper themselves (zifu自富); we are objectless in our desires (wuyu無欲) and the common people are of themselves like unworked wood (zipu 自朴). (Chapter 57)
The five colors blind the eye, the hard riding of the hunt addles both heart and mind, property hard to come by subverts proper conduct, the five flavors destroy the palate, and the five notes impair the ear. It is for this reason that in the proper governing by the sages: the exert their efforts on behalf of the abdomen rather than the eye. Thus, eschewing one they take the other.
Hence because the sages do things non-coercively they do not ruin them, and because they do not try to control things, they do not lose them. The common people always ruin things they do, just on the very brink of success. Thus, it is said: if you are as careful at the end as you are at the start, you will be free of failure. It is for this reason the sages in leaving off desiring do not prize property that is hard to come by, and in studying not to study, return to what most people have passed over. Although they are quite capable of helping all things follow their own course (ziran自然), they would not think of doing so. (Chapter 64)
Conflicts of Interest
- Ames, Roger T., and David L. Hall. 2003. Daodejing: Making This Life Significant—A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books Press. [Google Scholar]
- Chen, Guying. 2015. Zhongguo Zhexue de Chuangshizhe Laozi Xinlun中国哲学的创始者—老子新论. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju中华书局. [Google Scholar]
- Chen, Guying. 2016. Laozi Jinzhu jinyi老子今注今译. Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan商务印书馆. [Google Scholar]
- Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly. 2014. Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. New York: Springer Press. [Google Scholar]
- Feng, Youlan. 1959. Laozi zhexue taolun ji老子哲学讨论集. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju中华书局. [Google Scholar]
- Feng, Youlan. 1987. Zhongguo Zhexue shi Dagang中国哲学史大纲. Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan商务印书馆. [Google Scholar]
- Gao, Ming. 2013. Boshu Laozi Jiaozhu帛书老子校注. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju中华书局. [Google Scholar]
- Hansen, Chad. 1992. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Hu, Shi. 1987. Zhongguo Zhexue shi Dagang中国哲学史大纲. Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan商务印书馆, vol. 1. [Google Scholar]
- Lai, Karyn. 2007. Ziran and Wuwei in the Daodejing: An Ethical Assessment. Dao 6: 325–37. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Moeller, Hans-Georg. 2006. The Philosophy of the Daodejing. New York: Columbia University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Rosemont, Henry, Jr. 2006. Explorations in Early Chinese Cosmology. Journal of the American Academy of Religion Studies L/2: 11–65. [Google Scholar]
- Slingerland, Edward. 2003. Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Slingerland, Edward. 2014. Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity. New York: Broadway Books Press. [Google Scholar]
- Wang, Bo. 1991. Laozi Zhexue Zhong Dao He you Wu de Guanxi Shita 老子哲学中 “道” 和 “有”、 “无” 的关系试探. Zhexue Yanjiu哲学研究 8: 38–45. [Google Scholar]
- Wang, Zhongjiang. 2010. Dao yu Shiwu de Ziran: Laozi "Dao Fa Ziran" Shiyi Kaolun道与事物的自然：老子"道法自然"实义考论. Zhongguo zhexue 中国哲学 8. [Google Scholar]
- Wang, Zhongjiang. 2019. Abnormalities and Return: An Exploration of the Concept of Fan 反 in the Laozi. Religions 10: 32. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Yan, Lingfeng. 1983. Lao Lie Zhuang sanzi yanjiu wenji老列庄三子研究文集. Taipei: Guoli Bianyi Guan Zhonghua Congshu Bianshen Weiyuanhui国立编译馆中华丛书编审委员会. [Google Scholar]
This paper uses the transmitted version of the Laozi as this is the main version which has been handed down from generation to generation for almost two millennia. References to other versions are made where necessary.
I do not elaborate on the discussion of images in the Laozi, for a philosophical interpretation of images, see (Moeller 2006) Moeller, Hans-Georg. The Philosophy of the Daodejing. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu無 in the Laozi and in Ancient Chinese Philosophy in general has been translated and interpreted in various ways, ranging from a simple “non” to a more complex “nonbeing”. In this paper I propose two routes for translation depending on the broader context. First, I do not support the translation of you as “Being” due to the heavy philosophical connotations of “being”, rather as something like “presence”. In a relation to you I maintain in this case that wu can refer to the “absence of” or “non-presence”, which indicates that wu does not mean “nothing” as in “nothingness” but rather does have a function. In other contexts, while understood as an adjective, wu has a much broader interpretation as it modifies the noun or verb following.
The distinction between “ontological” and “metaphysical” refers to two different levels of understanding Dao. The former refers to a concrete reality, while the latter is more abstract in the sense that it incorporates the “cosmological” meaning of Dao, i.e., Dao as a generative force and the beginning of the cosmos.
See introduction to Ames and Hall translation of the Daodejing (Ames and Hall 2003, pp. 36–53). In this paper, I propose to call it “wu-constructions” instead of “wu-forms”. In my view, there is a slight difference between the two terms. Whereas the term “forms” may have the connotations of something fixed, inflexible and independent, the term “construction” is understood as something interdependent that is always in relation to something else. In the framework of this paper, wu is not interpreted as a fixed ontological entity, but rather as a flexible term which comes to full realization through its relationships. In the cosmological section of this paper, wu is always understood in its relation to you有 and Dao. In the section on political philosophy, wu is realized through the different terms attached to it (such as action, knowledge, and desires) and the parallel relation between these constructions to zi 自(self).
The most well-known cosmological statement in the Laozi appears in Chapter 42: “Dao generates the one, the one generates the two, the two generate the three, the three generate the myriad beings.” In my view, the concrete entities the numbers ‘one, two, and three’ refer to remains a mystery—as any concrete interpretation will inevitably disregard any other option. Furthermore, all interpretations given throughout the long history of commentaries that we can trace as far back as the Post-Han commentator Wang Bi王弼, have done more to show us something about the philosophy promoted by the interpreter rather than an ‘original meaning’ of the text. Nevertheless, the fact that the options are endless, comes to show that regardless of the concrete meaning of ‘one, two, and three’, we begin with Dao (as a generating force) and ‘end up’ with multitude.
The discussion of ‘authenticity’ in this paper does not refer to the Western philosophical (especially in the philosophy of ethics) ‘baggage’ prescribed to this word over the last few centuries, rather refers to the Greek origin of the word ‘authentikós’ meaning ‘originally, primary, at first hand’, which is also equivalent to ‘authént(ēs)’: ‘one acting on one’s own authority’. This definition of ‘authenticity’ is closer to the implications of ‘self-X’ (zi自X) as prescribed by the Laozi.
The earliest written version of the Laozi known to us today is the Guodian郭店 bamboo version (fourth century BCE) excavated from a tomb which presumably belonged to the tutor of the crown prince, meaning that this text might have first appeared in written form during the historical period known as the ‘Warring States period’. In general, the assumption is that before ancient texts appeared in written form they were circulated orally, meaning that the Laozi might be based on an oral tradition preceding the first written versions by hundreds of years. If this is the case, we cannot be sure what the ‘original’ version was, who ‘authored’ it or when it first came into formulation. However, the terms wu and you in their earliest forms appear on oracle bones which are dated to the Shang (商) Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE), meaning that they were not new terms by the time the Laozi came into being. In general, they do not incorporate a philosophical meaning prior to the Laozi. In the Zhou Book of Changes (Zhouyi周易) for example, they merely come to state the presence or absence of auspicious or ominous situations, which was probably the main function of these terms in early divination practices.
(B. Wang 1991) Wang Bo 王博. Laozi zhexue zhong dao he you wu de guanxi shitan老子哲学中“道”和“有”、“无”的关系试探. Zhexue yanjiu哲学研究1991/8.
We can understand Taiyi太一 here as a term indicating Dao. See (B. Wang 1991).
Chang or Heng 恒are interchangeable terms indicating constancy or permanence. However, in the Daoist context, this permanence is not a fixed ontological entity, it is a concept that incorporates transformations and changes. The change of the seasons is constant, but not one season is permanent. Linguistically, it does not hold just one designated fixed definition and can be understood or translated in many ways. As a derivative of permanence, I elsewhere describe it as ‘ongoing’.
It can be argued that wuming comes before youming, while a hint to this assumption is derived from the etymology of the words ‘beginning’ (shi始) and ‘mother’ (mu母).
Chapter 32 opens with the statement “Dao is constantly nameless”. There are two points we must pay attention to for a reading that further resonates with the rest of the text. First, all depends on how we understand the word chang (or heng as it appears in the earlier versions). If we understand it as designating a fixed and constant ontological entity, then we arrive at a meaning that tells us that Dao is one-sided and nameless. However, if we understand it as something which incorporates a mode of transformation and change, we have a more open reading. Another point is that we ought to read the Chapter from beginning to end along with other Chapters in the Laozi. As the same passage tells us—at some point there are names: “When we start to regulate the world we introduce names. But once names have been assigned, we must also know when to stop. Knowing when to stop is how to avoid danger.”
This fan反 character is a phonetic loan for 返 (fan) which means ‘return’ and not ‘reverse’. See (Z. Wang 2019) Wang Zhongjiang王中江: “Abnormalities and Return: An Exploration of the Concept Fan返 in the Laozi”. Religions. Vol. 10/1, 2019.
Our reading of this passage will radically differ if we look at the Guodian郭店 version. In the Guodian version the phrase is written as such: “All beings/things in the world emerge from you and wu”. The Guodian version tells us that on the cosmological level of generation wu and you are equal, one is not prior to the other, it is the function of both together that create the myriad things. This reading resonates with both Chapter w and Chapter 11 quoted above. Both wu and you are phases of Dao, without preference to one over the other. Historically speaking, it was not until the Wang Bi and the Xuanxue school in the Wei-Jin period that wu was elevated over you and thought to come before in the sequence of time. See (Chen 2015) Chen Guying 陈鼓应: Zhongguo zhexue de chuangshizhe Laozi xinlun中国哲学的创始者——老子新论. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju中华书局85: 88–90.
Yan Lingfeng 严灵峰maintains that Dao is you. See (Yan 1983) Lao Lie Zhuang sanzi yanjiu wenji老列庄三子研究文集. Guoli bianyi guan zhonghua congshu bianshen weiyuanhui国立编译馆中华丛书编审委员会.
“Flow” is a psychological theory proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. See (Csikszentmihaly 2014) Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly. Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. New York: Springer Press.
For an example of this phenomenon see (Slingerland 2003) Slingerland, Edward, Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and (Slingerland 2014) Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity, New York: Broadway Books Press.
Another interesting and inspiring analysis of wuwei is found in Chad Hansen’s book A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, where he analyzes the concept through emphasizing both the linguistic and social function of wei: “To wei is to assign something to a name category in guiding action … it focuses less on the action than the evaluative categorizations that guide actions … For Laozi, wei signals socially induced, learned, patterns of response—the opposite of autonomous or spontaneous response” (Hansen 1992, pp. 213–14). This interpretation is insightful due to the definition of wei which can very well be understood as something that hinders our ‘autonomous response’, however, it ties wuwei together with ziran, instead of understanding them as ‘parallel’. My claim is that wuwei is something that Dao or the ruler do, while ziran refers to the modes of the beings, things and people. Thus, it is not the people who ought to ‘wuwei’.
For example, see (Lai 2007) Lai, Karyn. “Ziran and Wuwei in the Daodejing: An Ethical Assessment”. Dao 6: 325–37.
Those interpretations are problematic in many ways, especially when the so-called subject is not a living being but can refer to great things such as heaven and earth. Philosophically speaking, heaven and earth cannot have a self, for this would cause several contradictions in what we call the natural world. The word ‘self’ is an isolating term, one that constructs and promotes individualism—which would lead us eventually to go against a philosophy that promotes the relational, whether this relational is in the context of human beings (relationships among humans, i.e., society) or within the wider context of relation to the world and everything included within the cosmos. In Chinese, the term zi originates from the image of a nose—which brings to mind two connotations, neither related to the English term of the ‘self’. The first connotation is physical, and if it is to mean self-then this self should be understood as the personal body, not the indication of a ‘soul’ or ‘ego’ as the English term incorporates. Second, the nose is something we use to breathe and to smell, thus it is a sensatory organ. The two connotations put together give us a corporeal understanding, something that connects us to the natural world rather than isolates from it. Being ‘zi’, we become an integral part of the universe. I suggest that the term ‘self’ as we understand it in English would be more suitably understood as ‘si私’ in Ancient Chinese, a term which indicates personal desires and incorporates the ‘mental/psychological realm’ as opposed to a more physical one.
However, ziran has less than half of the appearances of wuwei in the Laozi—this suggests that ziran does not refer to Dao or the ruler. In a similar matter, the words Dao, ruler, sages and the personal subject ‘I’ have more appearances than ‘wanwu’ (萬物) or ‘min’ (民). Thus, we can conclude that the focus of this book is directed at the ruler and not at the common people.
See (Z. Wang 2010) Wang Zhongjiang 王中江. Dao yu shiwu de ziran: Laozi “daofa ziran” shiyi kaolun道与事物的自然：老子“道法自然”实义考论. Zhongguo zhexue中国哲学 2010/8.
Heaven and earth do not have generative powers. Although they are cosmological phenomena, they are not the forces that generate this world, rather things (wu物) that are generated by Dao.
Examples are manifold, to cite them would take us off the main text in discussion herein. For brief and informative account of the connection between cosmology and politics in ancient China see (Rosemont 2006) Rosemont, Henry, Jr. ed. “Explorations in Early Chinese Cosmology”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion Studies L/2: 11–65.
The Mawangdui 馬王堆 version of the Laozi has “Dao is constantly nameless” (“道恒無名”), see (Gao 2013) Gao Ming高明. Boshu Laozi jiaozhu帛书老子校注, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju中华书局.
According to Lin Xiyi’s 林希逸 (1193–1271 AD) commentary. The character ‘yi以’ means ‘purposefully’. ‘wuyiwei’ (無以為) then means that something is done without intentions. See (Chen 2016, p. 215).
The term pu朴 which literally means ‘simplicity’, is translated in many cases to ‘unworked wood’. In Daoist thought, unworked wood is a metaphor for simplicity as it serves as the raw material which has yet been worked on or brought to a certain defined form and function. This metaphor goes beyond mere simplicity as it incorporates a much broader meaning in the sense where it is something undefined and formless without inflicting external restrictions. Thus, the undefined and formless is more flexible and original, or more ‘authentic’ in the sense where it is not forced to become a defined entity.
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Small, S.Y. The Relationship between Authority and Authenticity in the Laozi: Employing Wu無as a Philosophical Framework. Religions 2019, 10, 79. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10020079
Small SY. The Relationship between Authority and Authenticity in the Laozi: Employing Wu無as a Philosophical Framework. Religions. 2019; 10(2):79. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10020079Chicago/Turabian Style
Small, Sharon Y. 2019. "The Relationship between Authority and Authenticity in the Laozi: Employing Wu無as a Philosophical Framework" Religions 10, no. 2: 79. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10020079