By Koo Hao Wei
The book of Huainanzi is a unique piece of work as a result of its fusion of various ancient Chinese schools of thought. Its purpose was purported to serve as a “model curriculum for a monarch-in-training” (Major & Queen et al. 1). The monarch, at various chapters of the book is (implicitly) asked to reflect upon and emulate the qualities of a Sage that the book enumerates in detail. This provides us an insightful opportunity to understanding how certain theoretical concepts – from various ancient Chinese schools of thought – can be practical. In this essay, I argue that the Sage’s quality of non-action is not passivity (which is so commonly misconstrued), but a maxim of acting according to certain conditions. The argument proceeds in three sections: Firstly, how common misconception of non-action arises because we take into account only its literary expression. Secondly, non-action is to act under the mental state of “stillness” that is self-sufficient. Thirdly, how non-action is acting in accordance to nature impartially.
Misconception of non-action
Non-action, also known as 无为 wuwei, literally means “doing nothing” (Major & Queen et al. 898). It was a concept originally found in Daodejing and Zhuangzi. The literary expression of non-action is so severed from its contextual meaning that, when taken as it is, it relates to us the misconception of idling as practicing non-action. Take a look at this excerpt for experimental purposes:
“The ruler’s technique [consists of] establishing non-active management and carrying out wordless instructions. Quiet and tranquil, he does not move; by [even] one degree he does not waver […] Therefore […] his conduct is [taken as] a model and gnomon for the world.” (Liu An, 295: 9.1)
The above excerpt appears conflicting with our notion of a ruler. We expect a ruler that is “a model and gnomon for the world” (as is from western perspective) to be deliberative and proactive in his governance. Instead, the case of the Huainanzi’s non-active ruler appeared to us like a puppet that is otherwise.
Non-action is to act under the mental state of “stillness” that is self-sufficient
However, that is not what non-action means for the case of the Huananzi. Instead, non-action is to act under the mental state of “stillness” that is self-sufficient. This is paradoxically reflected in one of the quotes which referred to the Sage, stating: “In stillness [he] take no deliberate actions, yet there is nothing left undone” (Liu An 59: 1.9). There are two crucial parts to understand from this quote. Firstly, in “stillness [he] take no deliberate actions”, the focus is not on the word “actions”, but the contrast between “stillness” and “deliberate”. It does not follow that in “stillness [the Sage] take no deliberate actions” means that he does not act at all. It just means that he does not go about deliberated form of actions. There might possibly be other forms of actions that the Sage abides. So “stillness” and “deliberate” here more accurately refer to states of mind, on how the mind wills certain actions. Secondly, when the Sage acts in “stillness” and “yet there is nothing left undone”, it does not intend to convey that the Sage possesses some form of supernatural power that then helps him to accomplish things without acting. Instead, it means that it is through the “stillness” of mind that the Sage wills actions such that “there is nothing left undone”. So “stillness” is a state of mind that is hinted to have the qualities of self-sufficiency and being efficacious.
Ordinary people saw non-action as its literary expression simply because the only time when they are non-active is when they are doing nothing (Major & Queen et al. 898), and their mind is still. But when they are interacting with things, they say that they are doing something. This is because the ordinary people misconstrue the “thoughts, feelings and actions [that] arise [from] contact with external stimuli” (Major & Queen et al. 898) as their nature, when the mind is reactive. They thought that since most of their lives consists of interacting with things around them, the times when they are not doing anything are not a reflection of their nature while the former is. With this the ordinary people intentionally sought (this is the “deliberate” state of mind) the by-product of interaction with external stimuli, thinking that all those times when they are not acting and their mind is still, it is actually an inadequacy.
A Sage, regardless of whether he is doing something, is always indistinguishable from doing nothing (Major & Queen et al. 898) because he understands that his true nature is the mind that is still and self-sufficient. This is best illustrated in the Huananzi’s metaphorical description of the Sage as a mirror. It describes that the Sage resembles a mirror that constantly stores nothing, but responds by reflecting how things appear (Liu An 220: 6.3). In the likeness of a mirror, the Sage “can undergo ten thousand transformation without injury” (Liu An 220: 6.3) because he interact “externally […] with things, but internally [he does not] lose [his] genuine responses” (Liu An 53: 1.5). A functional mirror that does not store anything reveals the self-sufficient nature of the Sage’s mind. The function of mirror, as responding by reflecting how things appear, reveals the still nature of the Sage’s mind. So the stillness of mind is self-sufficient, such that it has an infinite application that guides the Sage in acting effectively. Unlike the ordinary people who finds inadequacy in themselves, the Sage finds complete contentment.
Acting in accordance to the nature of things impartially
Immediately after the above excerpt – on the non-active ruler as a model and gnomon for the world – the Huananzi continued to show how the ruler acts in non-action:
“[The ruler’s] advancing and withdrawing respond to the seasons; his movement and rest comply with [proper] patterns. His likes and dislikes are not based on ugliness or beauty; his rewards and punishments are not based on happiness or anger.” (Liu An 296: 9.1)
The meaning of non-action that the Huananzi intends to convey is clear – it is not that the ruler does not act at all, but that he acts, and he does so impartially according to the circumstances the natural world presents to him. The responding to (four) seasons and compliance with (nature’s) patterns are particularly laid out in the Huainanzi’s chapter five, such as the “prescrib[ing] [of] ritual behaviour, colours of vestments, and actions of government for each of the year’s twelve months” (Major & Queen et al. 173). Ugliness and beauty denotes a subjective perception of values, while happiness and anger denotes emotional prejudices. Linking back to the theoretical concept of non-action, we can see why it is important for the ruler to do as the above quote says. When the ruler realizes that his own nature is still and self-sufficient, he is like the Sage that finds complete contentment in himself, there is no reason for him to deviate from his response to seasons and compliance with pattern of nature. It is even clearer, that when he understands that the “thoughts, feelings and actions [that] arise [from] contact with external stimuli” (Major & Queen et al. 898) are not of his nature, there is no need for a standard of ugliness or beauty, or to reward and punish based on emotions. This is because the need for standards of values occur only to those who find themselves inadequate.
The presentation of non-action thus far indicates that non-action is a mental, conceptual framework that guide actions, not impede actions. An assessment of the presentation is that it effectively clarified the common misconception of the term non-action. However, the presentation remains inadequate when it comes to expounding the “layers of accrued association, meaning, and implication[s] [that] are exceptionally rich” (Major & Queen et al. 898) about non-action.
Liu, An. The Huainanzi: A guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China. Eds. & Trans. John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer and Harold D. Roth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Print.