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  • On Wu-wei as a Unifying Metaphor
  • Chris Fraser
Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. By Edward Slingerland. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 352 . $60.00.

This provocative work is the most ambitious general study of pre-Qin thought to appear in more than a decade. It deals with what is increasingly recognized as one of the period's key themes, the ethical ideal of perfected action and the processes of cultivation, or uncultivation, by which it might be achieved. The book has two specific aims, one substantive, one methodological (p. vii). The substantive aim is to show that the notion of wu-wei, which Slingerland renders as "effortless action," functioned as a shared ideal and problematic for both Daoists and Confucians and that internal tensions in this ideal motivated much of the development of Warring States thought (p. 5). The methodological aim is to illustrate the fruitfulness of conceptual-metaphor theory, familiar from the work of Lakoff and Johnson, by employing it to articulate and support the book's substantive theses (p. vii).

For Slingerland, wu-wei is "a state of personal harmony in which actions flow freely and instantly from one's spontaneous inclinations . . . and yet nonetheless accord perfectly with the dictates of the situation at hand, display an almost supernatural efficacy, and (in the Confucian context at least) harmonize with the demands of conventional morality" (p. 7). Slingerland expands on this characterization in various ways, without making it entirely clear how all the features he identifies fit together. On the one hand, he explains that wu-wei is a phenomenological feature of the agent's subjective mental state: "wu-wei properly refers not to what is actually happening (or not happening) in the realm of observable action but rather to . . . the phenomenological state of the doer" (p. 7), primarily one of effortlessness and unselfconsciousness (pp. 29-33). But wu-wei is also "action that . . . accords in every particular with the normative order of the cosmos" (p. 5), so beyond its phenomenological features, it must include an objective normative component as well. Another remark suggests that wu-wei fundamentally is not a phenomenological state after all, since "it represents not a transitory state but rather a set of dispositions" (p. 7). Probably these various statements are meant to emphasize that the crux of wu-wei is to achieve and sustain a certain sort of psychological state, which then reliably generates effortless, normatively appropriate, efficacious action.

The phrase 'wu-wei' plays essentially no role in Confucian texts and is absent from large chunks of the Zhuangzi. So Slingerland's thesis that wu-wei is the joint [End Page 97] ideal of both Daoist and Confucian thought faces a daunting justificatory challenge, which he proposes to meet by applying conceptual metaphor theory (p. 10). On his interpretation, wu-wei is not to be understood literally, as "non-doing," since in the state denoted by wu-wei, the agent is not actually inactive, doing nothing at all (p. 11). This gap between literal meaning and actual reference indicates that the term 'wu-wei' functions metaphorically, referring to "a metaphorically conceived situation" in which an action occurs even though the agent exerts no effort (p. 11). Slingerland hypothesizes that wu-wei became a technical term for effortless action because it is the most general of a network of conceptual metaphors for effortlessness and unselfconsciousness, including families of metaphors for "following" (p. 29), "ease" (p. 30), and "forgetting" (p. 33). This network expresses a unified, "deeper conceptual structure," appeal to which justifies the claim that "apparently diverse ideals of perfected action" are in fact articulations and developments of a single metaphorically conceived ideal, though the term denoting it—'wu-wei'—may not appear in a particular text (p. 11).

Once we have a grip on the conceptual structure of wu-wei through the families of metaphors that constitute it, we can identify wu-wei as a central problematic of pre-Qin thought and trace its development by examining the use of these metaphors in texts from the Book of Odes and the Book of History (chapter 1) through the Xunzi (chapter 7). Each...


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