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In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, [dubious ]
Sinologist Herrlee Creel considered Wu wei a distinguishing factor between the more "purposive" religious Taoism of governmental Huang-Lao, emphasizing a striving for immortality, and the philosophical Taoism of the Zhuangzi, which emphasizes Wu wei in the sense of not striving, often considering the search for immortality secondary, laughable, or harmful.
The first is quite in line with the contemplative Taoism of the Zhuangzi. Described as a source of serenity in Taoist thought, only rarely do Taoist texts suggest that ordinary people could gain political power through Wu wei. The Zhuangzi does not seem to indicate a definitive philosophical idea, simply that the sage "does not occupy himself with the affairs of the world."
The second sense appears to have been imported from the earlier governmental thought of "Legalist" Shen Buhai (400 BC - c. 337 BC) as Taoists became more interested in the exercise of power by the ruler. Called "rule by non-activity" and strongly advocated by Han Fei, during the Han dynasty, up until the reign of Han Wudi rulers confined their activity "chiefly to the appointment and dismissal of his high officials", a plainly "Legalist" practice inherited from the Qin dynasty. This "conception of the ruler's role as a supreme arbiter, who keeps the essential power firmly in his grasp" while leaving details to ministers, has a "deep influence on the theory and practice of Chinese monarchy."
Only appearing three times in the first (more contemplative) half of the Zhuangzi, early Taoists may have avoided the term for its association with "Legalism" before ultimately co-opting its governmental sense as well, as attempted in the Zhuangzi's latter half. Thought by modern scholarship to have been written after the Zhuangzi, Wu wei becomes a major "guiding principle for social and political pursuit" in the more "purposive" Taoism of the Tao Te Ching, in which the Taoist "seeks to use his power to control and govern the world (Creel)."
Wu may be translated as not have or without; Wei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of wu wei is "without action", "without effort", or "without control", and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei: "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamental tenets in Chinese thought and have been mostly emphasized by the Taoist school. One cannot actively pursue wu wei. It manifests as a result of cultivation. The Tao is a guide.
There is another less commonly referenced sense of wu wei; "action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort". In this instance, wu means "without" and Wei means "effort". The concept of "effortless action" is a part of Taoist Internal martial arts such as T'ai chi ch'uan, Baguazhang and Xing Yi. It follows that wu wei complies with the distinguishing feature of Taoism, that of being natural.
Several chapters of the most important Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Laozi, allude to "diminishing doing" or "diminishing will" as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already existent. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.
Related translation from the Tao Tê Ching by Priya Hemenway, Chapter II:
Sinologist Herrlee G. Creel believed that an important clue to the development of wu wei existed in the Analects, in a saying attributed to Confucius, which reads: "The Master said, 'Was it not Shun who did nothing and yet ruled well? What did he do? He merely corrected his person and took his proper position as ruler'". The concept of a divine king whose "magic power" (virtue) "regulates everything in the land" (Creel) pervades early Chinese philosophy, particularly "in the early branches of Quietism that developed in the fourth century B.C."
However, no government has long been able to practice "doing nothing" and stay in power. Unable to find his philosopher-king, Confucius placed his hope in virtuous ministers. Apart from the Confucian ruler's "divine essence" (ling) "ensuring the fecundity of his people" and fertility of the soil, Creel notes that he was also assisted by "five servants", who "performed the active functions of government."Xun Kuang's Xunzi, a Confucian adaptation to Qin "Legalism", defines the ruler in much the same sense, saying that the ruler "need only correct his person" because the "abilities of the ruler appear in his appointment of men to office": namely, appraising virtue and causing others to perform.
More important information lay in the recovery of the fragments of administrator (aka "Legalist") Shen Buhai. Shen references Yao as using Fa (administrative method) in the selection and evaluation of men. Shen used the term Wu wei to mean that the ruler, though vigilant, should not interfere with the duties of his ministers, saying "One who has the right way of government does not perform the functions of the five (aka various) officials, and yet is the master of the government". Though not a conclusive argument against proto-Taoist influence, Shen's Taoist terms do not show evidence of Taoist usage (Confucianism also uses terms like "Tao", meaning the "Tao", or "Way" of government), lacking any metaphysical connotation. The later "Legalist" book, the Han Feizi has a commentary on the Tao Te Ching, but references Shen Buhai rather than Laozi for this usage.
Since the bulk of both the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi appear to have been composed later, Creel argued that it may therefore be assumed that Shen influenced them, much of both appearing to be counter-arguments against "Legalist" controls. The thirteenth chapter of the Zhuangzi, "T'ien Tao", seems to follow Shen Buhai down to the detail, saying "Superiors must be without action in-order to control the world; inferiors must be active in-order to be employed in the world's business..." and to paraphrase, that foundation and principle are the responsibility of the superior, superstructure and details that of the minister, but then goes on to attack Shen's administrative details as non-essential.
"Legalism" dominated the intellectual life of the Qin and early Han together with Taoism. Early Han dynasty Emperors like Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE) would be steeped in a Taoistic laissez-faire. But Shen Buhai's book would be widely studied even from the beginning of the Han era.Jia Yi's (200-168 AD) Hsin-shu, undoubtedly influenced by the "Legalists", describes Shen Buhai's techniques as methods of applying the Tao, or virtue, bringing together Confucian and Taoist discourses under the imagery of the Zhuangzi. Many later texts, for instance in Huang-Lao, use similar images to describe the quiescent attitude of the ruler.
The Huang-Lao Huainanzi (Western Han Dynasty 206 B.C. - 9 A.D.), arguing against Legalist centralization, would go on to include naturalist arguments in favour of rule by worthies on the basis that one needs their competence for such things as diplomacy, and defines wu-wei as follows: "What is meant ... by wu-wei is that no personal prejudice [private or public will,] interferes with the universal Tao [the laws of things], and that no desires and obsessions lead the true course ... astray. Reason must guide action in order that power may be exercised according to the intrinsic properties and natural trends of things."