Daodejing: the wuwei paradox

Richard Brown
2 min readFeb 20, 2024

In Daodejing Chapter 43, Laozi cannot resist the temptation to voice his frustration at the unwillingness or inability of other people to practice wuwei, or effortless action, despite its obvious benefits — at least to him:

Teaching without words,
The benefits of effortless action,
Few in all-under-heaven
Apply them.

In Daodejing Chapter 70, he strikes a similar chord, complaining that even though his teachings are simple to grasp nobody follows them:

My words are very easy
To understand and to practice.
Yet no one in the world
Can understand and practice them.

The question that Laozi does not explore in any depth is why so few, if any, of his contemporaries were inspired to embrace the Dao and the practice of wuwei. Was it because his ideas were far too radical for people, particularly members of the ruling elite, to accept? Or because of his failure to convince them of the need to change? Or perhaps even because of the perception that his calls for a return to nature were totally impractical and would never work in the real world?

The answer to these three questions is, to some degree or other, yes. For the harsh truth is that despite the poetic beauty and lyrical eloquence of the Daodejing, Laozi signally failed to persuade any state ruler to adopt the principles and practices of wuwei during his lifetime.

Indeed, one of the biggest paradoxes of the Daodejing is that despite the enduring popularity of the text over more than two millennia, its teachings about wuwei have never been applied at scale in government, business, or other sectors.

What is the reason for this massive disconnect between ideal and action? Does it mean that wuwei is little more than a beautiful dream? These are subjects I will return to in future entries.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.