Some Thoughts on the Classical Chinese Concept of “Wuwei” (Non-Action) and the Concept of Emergent Self-Order in Complexity Science

The other day, I had a conversation with Andrew Sheng, a Distinguished Fellow of the Fung Global Institute, and Chief Adviser of the China Banking Regulatory Commission. Though he’s trained primarily as an economist, he is well-versed in Chinese philosophy and has a profound understanding and insight of it, complemented also with his knowledge of complexity science.

During our conversation, he exclaimed: “Wuwei is self-order!”

That got me to pause and think.


For those unfamiliar with the classical Chinese concept of “wuwei,” “wuwei” is often translated as non-action, effortless action, or non-deliberate action. In the Analects, Confucius described the legendary sage-king, Shun, who ruled by wuwei. He did nothing but simply made himself reverent and took his ritual position facing south, and yet he ruled effectively without exertion. (Analects 15.5) The Daodejing describes wuwei using a myriad of metaphors. Wuwei, like water is fluid and naturally finds the shortest path downwards. Despite its fluidity, it has the power to wear down rocks. (Daodejing 8. 78) The infant, though its bones are weak and its sinews soft, has a strong and firm grasp. It can cry loudly all day and yet its throat does not become hoarse. (Daodejing 55)

Sunzi, in his Art of War, gives us some concrete ideas about how to wuwei. According to Sunzi, the best wars are won without fighting. And yet, even if one had no choice but to engage in battle, fighting a war should be as wuwei as possible. To do that, one must observe the patterns and processes of Heaven, Earth, and Man, i.e. the patterns/processes of the weather, of the ground, and of people’s behaviour (both as individuals and as groups), and ride on those patterns/processes to gain an advantageous position in war. In other words, instead of spending one’s resources, one should use the energy and resources of the opponent and of nature to gain an advantage. In this way, the general fights without (much) effort, and wins.

Hanfeizi also gives us concrete examples of how a ruler could rule with wuwei. The ruler must first create a set of conditions that will allow him to rule without any effort. This involves establishing a system of laws and policies, a system of rewards and punishment, and to appoint the best and most reliable people to carry out the appointed task. When problems arise, the established systems and the people-in-charge ought to resolve the matter by themselves, and the ruler will not need to intervene, thus he is able to rule using wuwei.

Wuwei is always desired not just because it uses the least effort and resources, but also because sometimes, positive action (youwei) would be counter-productive, resulting in a worse consequence then if you have left it alone. For example, to go to war with a country over a problem that could have been easily settled by other means, could spell destruction for one’s own city. Or, to always youwei and respond to the child’s every whims and fancies would result in a spoilt brat.

So, from a classical Chinese perspective, wuwei is always desired so as to conserve one’s limited resources and to prevent making things worse. It takes a keen discerning mind to decide when to act positively (youwei), and even so, the most wuwei approach should always be taken (don’t just throw everything at the problem and expect it to be fixed).

All that is fine and well, but what about this thing about wuwei as self-order?

To me, this concept is not only a perfect summation of what wuwei is about, but its background in complexity science enriches the understanding of wuwei.

In complex systems (e.g. human societies), self-order is a phenomenon that emerges, not from a single linear cause, but from a complex web of interactions and conditions. Self-order can emerge from a truly chaotic situation. There appears to be order brought about (or manipulated behind the scenes) by an agent, but in reality, there is no one agent who calls the shots, there is no purpose, no deliberately intended order. But the order arises simply as a result of everyone just doing their own thing. It is not deliberate and spontaneous. And most importantly, it is decentralised and does not result from an authoritative order.

Just as how there are some problems that resolve by themselves when you leave it alone, to (not-)act with wuwei is to be able to recognise when certain problems are capable of self-resolution through a soon-to-emerge self-order. (Self-order is not necessarily self-resolution, it could go the other way and make the situation worse.) One must have a keen discerning mind to see and tell the difference. In which case, the ruler or wise man, can simply ride on the wave, on the process/pattern of that emergent self-order to arrive at where he wishes to go. And by not doing anything, one has done accomplished all that needs to be done. And if the conditions are not right for self-resolution by self-order to occur, the least bit of effort one needs to do is to at least create the conditions (as in the case of Hanfeizi) that would allow self-order to emerge time and time again.

I’ll end with a quote from the Daodejing:

The Dao in its regular course does nothing (for the sake of doing it), and so there is nothing which it does not do.
If princes and kings were able to maintain it, all things would of themselves be transformed by them.
If this transformation became to me an object of desire, I would express the desire by the nameless simplicity.

Simplicity without a name
Is free from all external aim.
With no desire, at rest and still,
All things go right as of their will.


(Daodejing, 37, trans. James Legge)