water and wuwei in the Daodejing

Richard Brown
2 min readFeb 7, 2024

The stunning rivers, streams, and waterfalls in Taroko Gorge this morning set me off thinking about the close connection between the ideas of water and wuwei, or effortless action, in the Daodejing. Here are some of the parallels that can be drawn between them.

Water is so flexible that it can flow around any obstacle and adapt to the shape of any container storing it without losing its essential nature. This quality mirrors the principle of wuwei, which calls for a spontaneous and fluid approach to life that is in harmony with the natural flow of the Dao. Just as water effortlessly shapes itself to its environment, you too should be willing to adjust your actions based on the needs of each specific situation.

Even though water is soft and yielding, it possesses the persistence and strength to erode the hardest rocks and tallest mountains over time. In the same way, you can accomplish far more through gentle persuasion and patience than by pushing people until they drop and forcing them to carry out unreasonable tasks.

By naturally flowing to the lowest and foulest places, water exemplifies the importance of humility in leadership. Showing that you are willing to get your hands dirty, so speak, is a far more effective way of motivating your team than hitting them with a constant barrage of emails or phone calls. Actions speak far more eloquently than words!

Just as water is essential for all life, nourishing everything without striving or contention, wuwei means working for the benefit of everyone without discrimination or expectation of reward. By enabling your team members to grow and flourish, you too will thrive and prosper. Wuwei is not a zero-sum game. It is a win-win for everyone.

By operating quietly in the background without demanding recognition or reward, water and wuwei show that true strength and success come from embracing softness, flexibility, humility, and the natural flow of life. You can achieve far more by letting things take their course rather than relying on raw power and brute force to push through your own agenda.

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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.