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Wu-Wei: The Beautifully Difficult Art of “Non-Action”

Daoism and Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese martial arts incorporate Chinese philosophical concepts to enrich and augment the experience and process of practicing martial arts. Chinese martial arts are not unique in relating spiritual or philosophical concepts with physical movements, but Chinese philosophy provides unique ways to appreciate the connection between body and spirit. Allen’s essay on Daoism and Chinese martial arts mentions how the Chinese “took martial arts beyond self-defence or alleged medical benefits, to merge with Buddhist meditation and Daoist inner alchemy” (Allen 1). Through the synthesis of Chinese philosophical thought and pragmatic physical effectiveness, Chinese martial arts become more than a physical discipline. They become a pragmatic path toward enlightenment by emphasizing self-cultivation and effectiveness.

Pragmatism is the name of the game.

It is not enough for a Chinese martial art to exist in sole pursuit of spiritual goals. Chinese martial arts such as Taijiquan are designed to “remain effective instruments of violence” (Allen 2). Chinese martial artists do not separate combat from philosophical thinking. By improving their combat skills, martial artists perfect their philosophy. Simultaneously, a deeper understanding of philosophy helps perfect their physical training.

The Chinese “Immortal”

Martial arts provide tangible anecdotes and analogies aiding the understanding of intellectual Daoist concepts in classics such as the Zhuangzi and Daodejing. One key Daoist concept is that of the “immortal”. Unlike Western thought which sees immortals as “souls which never die” (Allen 4), the Chinese understanding of “immortal” is one who is “content with time and abide by [its] passing” (Allen 4). The practice of martial arts focuses on inner alchemy and self-awareness, cultivating a deeper understanding of what it means to be “immortal”. Chinese martial arts is a practical method toward accomplishing the aims of Chinese philosophical thought —understanding Dao in pursuit of becoming “immortal”. One experiences Daoist philosophy in a corporeal sense through practicing Chinese martial art. A student of Chinese martial arts simultaneously cultivates their mind and spirit while pursuing physical and combative effectiveness.


Another concept central to Chinese philosophical thought is Wu-Wei, often translated as “non-action”. The practice of Chinese martial arts relates Wu-Wei to tangible experiences, shedding light on the true nature and application of Wu-Wei in our daily lives. Wu-Wei is easily misunderstood. How can “non-action” ever be an effective approach in life? Why would anybody strive to achieve the ability to utilize “non-action”? Chinese martial arts provide an answer. Allen’s research illustrates that Wu-Wei does not equate to “doing nothing” (Allen 9) or that “nothing be done” (Allen 9). The correct understanding of Wu-Wei is that “nothing seems to be done” (Allen 9) — It is the art of accomplishing a lot without seeming to exert unnecessary effort.

Through the practice of Chinese martial arts, the functional effectiveness of non-deliberate action is realized. By developing one’s proficiency in Chinese martial arts, one experiences Wu-Wei by “responding to ten thousand situations as if vanishing into them, unaware of any affairs requiring effort” (Allen 10). Evidently, the development of one’s martial prowess provides context to understand and apply difficult-to-grasp Chinese philosophical ideas. By engaging in Chinese martial arts, we develop a holistic approach to life that is effective and pragmatic both corporeally and philosophically.

The Philosophical Reset Button: A Manifesto

Slote is quick to decry the present state of Western philosophy. According to Slote, “Western thought has been exceedingly intellectualistic and rationalistic” (Slote 1). Because of this present state of “rationalism run amok” (Slote 1) in Western thought, a lot of philosophical imbalances need correcting. Slote believes that a possible cure lies in Chinese philosophy, which focuses less on extremes but instead praises the values of “emotion and sane ordinary living more than has been typical in the West” (Slote 1). Slote believes that by incorporating and applying Chinese philosophical concepts, Western thinking will be better balanced and all parties involved will benefit.

A key distinction between Chinese and Western philosophical thought lies in the appraisal of concepts such as rationalism, empathy and emotion. While Western philosophical thought upholds rationalism over empathy and emotion, Chinese philosophy upholds empathy and emotion as central to morality. Altruism serves as an example. According to Slote, the Western philosophical tradition mistakenly utilizes a rationalistic understanding of the human condition to explain and encourage altruism (Slote 7). The difficulty here is that if Western thought acts out of pure rationality (or at least explains behaviors via intellectual and/or rational explanations) rather than empathy, then morality is achieved only because that’s what people “ought” to do, not because that’s what people “want” to do out of their own motivations and self interests. In other words, Western thinking generalizes a lot of experiences which simply do not correspond to how we authentically deal with our daily lives. Very few people attempt to rationalize all factors at play when deciding whether or not to donate to charity — they act based on their own subjective experiences, empathy and emotions at that particular moment in time.

Chinese philosophical thought brings emotions and empathy to the fore, emphasizing a holistic approach between cognition and emotion. Going back to the altruism example listed above, Slote argues that empathy via Chinese philosophy provides a convincing argument supporting altruism because empathy allows one to experience pain in the other’s stead (Slote 8). By being empathetic and altruistic toward others, we simultaneously relieve the pain of other people while relieving our own pain at watching fellow human beings suffer.

Cognition and emotion, joined at the heart

The inseparable nature of cognition and emotion is crucial to Chinese philosophical thought. Western rationalism intentionally separates the intellect from the body, such as the Greeks with an “extraordinary resistance to sheer bodily experience” (Slote 1). The Chinese do no such thing. Slote notes that holistic understanding of cognition and emotion derives from the Chinese language itself. For example, the Chinese character “Xin” translates to “heart-mind” (Slote 9), emphasizing the close relationship between intellect and emotion. When these concepts are applied in ethics, it becomes easier to explain and understand ethical considerations and problems without overly relying on pure intellectual theory. Utilizing a Chinese philosophical approach developed with an eye toward pragmatism and practical application, Western ethics can become more holistic and realistic in both approach and application.

Finally, the emphasis of Chinese philosophy on appreciating ordinary life and staying away from extremes is one Slote believes will greatly benefit the West. The West’s unhealthy obsessions with extremes (extreme rationalizing, extreme spirituality, extreme denial of bodily appetites or extreme pursuit of hedonistic pleasures etc) can be counteracted by understanding and implementing principles of Chinese philosophical thought such as the connection between cognition and empathy as well as the appreciation of simple, daily ordinary life.


Works Cited

Allen, Barry. “Daoism and Chinese Martial Arts.” Springer Science Business Media Dordrecht (2014): 251–66. Print.

Slote, Michael. “The Philosophical Reset Button: A Manifesto.” Dao (2015): 1–11. Print.