Governing Through Non-action – Ancient Chinese Philosophy

The philosophy of “governing through non-action” is from the Tao Te Ching. According to the book, “Tao” is inactive but has laws that govern the operation of everything in the universe, and everything follows the laws. When it comes to state governance, “governance through non-action” means to rule by following the Tao (the natural laws), without interfering too much or acting presumptuously.

The political philosophy of governance with non-action has been deeply rooted in Chinese culture. According to The Book of Changes, “The Yellow Emperor, Emperor Yao, and Emperor Shun simply wore their upper and lower garments as patterns to the people, and good order was secured all under heaven. The idea of all this was taken, probably, from qian and kun(the first and eighth trigrams, or the first and second hexagrams).” This is a symbol of the harmony between the yin and the yang of the universe. There is a story in The Book of Changes: “Sometimes undeserved misfortune befalls a man at the hands of another, as for instance when someone passes by and takes a tethered cow along with him. That is the wanderer’s gain, the citizen’s loss.… An unexpected evil may accidentally from without. If it does not originate in one’s own nature or have a foothold there, one should not resort to external means to eradicate it, but should quietly let nature take its course. Then improvement will come of itself.” So, according to Lao Tze, politics cannot be seen as an end to achieve the freedom and happiness of human society and to judge the level of virtue, but only as an auxiliary means to solve social problems.

The School of Lao Tze and Chuang Tzu (369-286 BC) developed the idea of governance through non-action. The “non-action” that Taoism preaches do not mean idling away and doing nothing, but doing in accordance with nature and humans. The law of nature, or Tao, is the origin of all things in Heaven and Earth. By following the principle of “non-action,” Man follows the natural law of Heaven and Earth with his spirituality and does not impose anything on nature. At the same time, Man creates a good life for human beings with his mastery of the laws of nature and achieves human survival and development by “non-action.” Based on the ancient sages’ profound understanding of nature, Taoism is a peaceful approach to the relationship between Heaven (nature), Earth, Man, and things, full of ancient wisdom.

Lao Tze took the philosophy of “non-action” as his charter and discussed the way and strategy of governance. Lao Tze said, “Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Tao. The law of the Tao is it’s being what it is.” (Tao Te Ching) The “nature” mentioned therein is the ideal state of “governing through non-action,” that is, following the nature of the world. According to Lao Tze, the politics of the sage is to follow the example of Earth, Heaven, and the Way, and to give the people enough freedom. The sage invariably does nothing, and yet there is nothing that is not done. “I act not, and the people of themselves are transformed. I love quiescence, and the people of themselves go straight. I concern myself with nothing, and the people of themselves are prosperous. I am without desire, and the people of themselves are simple.”

Chuang Tzu inherited and further elaborated the idea of “governance through non-action.” In Chuang-tzu, he said that Heaven, Earth, and morality were the basis for the emperor to govern the state, and governance through non-action was the common practice for emperors to rule the state. The emperor’s virtue is in harmony with Heaven and Earth, so he must adopt a “governance through non-action” policy to govern the country. According to Chuang Tzu, the “non-action” of the monarch and the “action” of his subjects complement each other. The less interference of the monarch, the more active his subjects will be. Chuang Tzu’s explanation of “non-action” throws light on the paradox of “action” and “non-action” in practice.

The further development of Lao Tze and Chuang Tzu’s ideas of “governance through non-action” includes the following aspects: First, the superior must have no activity, but the subordinates must have activity. This is the invariable way.” (Chuang-tzu) Second, a monarch should avoid tyranny. They held that heavy taxes, excruciation, and militarism were the forms of tyranny that made people suffer a lot. The later generations of this school believed that “governing a large country is like cooking small fish.” “Do not disclaim the achievements you have made and do nothing, and yet there is nothing that is not done.” Third, let all things develop freely. Lao Tze believed that “nature” was the minimum of human life. The later generations of the school made a point that “five colors,” “five sounds,” and “five tastes” do harm to people.“Therefore the sage rules the people by emptying their minds, filling their bellies, weakening their wills, and toughening their sinews, ever making the people without knowledge and desire.” (Tao Te Ching)

From the point of view of nature, non-action means no delusion, but no delusion does not mean no action, but actually means no action against the Tao. To not violate the Tao means not to act against nature and human nature, that is, to “do nothing and yet there is nothing that is not done.”Tao is the most fundamental and highest concept in traditional Chinese culture, which has been prevalent all the time in China. Nature generates all things and emphasizes the natural non-action of the Tao of Heaven. The traditional Chinese culture calls for “devoting to explore the relationship between Heaven and Man and finding the reasons for the rise and fall of dynasties” (Records of the Grand Historian) and following the universal principle of “the unity of man and nature,” which calls for obedience to nature, acting in accordance with the objective laws of nature and developing in concert with nature.

In Chuang-tzu, it says, “Heaven and earth have great beauty but do not need words to proclaim it; the four seasons have clear laws of operation and do not need further discussion; the changes of all things have established rule and do not need arguments.” That is to say, the “great beauty,” “clear law,” and “established rule” exist in the creation of “Heaven and Earth” and are connected with the Tao; and “no words,” “no discussion,” and “no argument” embody the philosophy of “non-action” and following the nature. The law of the Tao is its being what it is. The sages do nothing, and yet there is nothing that is not done. The same is true for state governance.

The Analects of Confucius says, “How majestic was the manner in which Shun and Yu held possession of the empire, as if it were nothing to them!”Here, “nothing to them” refers to the idea that Shun and Yu promoted the virtuous and the capable, did not participate in politics for the sake of their own interests, but made the mind of the people their mind, and did nothing to achieve good governance.

Thus in the Huai-nun-tzu, a work of the second century BC, it clarifies the idea of non-action in more detail: “Non-action does not mean doing nothing, but following the nature of things and not taking measures that are out of place; governing through non-action does not mean not governing, but not changing the nature of things.” In other words, in the country’s governance, “non-action” means to deal with public affairs unselfishly. Traditional Chinese culture believes that public affairs will naturally be well arranged if one conducts public affairs with selflessness and sincerity. Only when the ruler promotes the virtuous and appoints the capable unselfishly, and the ministers are ready to serve the people, will the government have legitimacy and legitimate politics.

Liu Zongyuan (773-819), a famous poet and politician in the Tang Dynasty, once wrote an allegorical political essay, The Biography of Guo Tuotuo, the Tree Planter, which graphically embodies the truth of “non-action” in governance. The essay is about a hunchbacked old man who planted trees in Fengle Township, west of Chang’an City (now, Xi’an City in Shaanxi Province). The trees he planted or transplanted never failed to survive and were so tall and luxuriant so that the rich and influential in Chang’an City hired him to plant ornamental trees. When he was asked about the secret of his success, he replied that trees grew well because he followed the nature of the trees. After the tree was firmly planted, he stopped caring about it and let it grow naturally. The people who planted the trees badly were too diligent because they loved and cared for them, checking them in the morning and touching them at night, and shaking them to verify whether they were stable, which hurt the nature of the trees. As a result, “although they say they love them, they actually harm them.” He was also asked if he could apply the reasoning for planting trees to the official governance of the people, and his answer was even more intriguing: “I only know how to plant trees, but I have no idea of how to be an official. But I once saw in the countryside that officials liked to issue many decrees as if they loved the people, but in fact, they brought them disasters. All day and all night, the chiefs came to urge people to plow, encourage planting, supervise the harvest, and persuade them to reel and weave early, raise children, and breed chickens and dolphins. The people were in great distress and tired from day to day to please the chiefs, so they had no time to increase production and stabilize their lives.” This story tells us the profound truth that “great governance” can be achieved by following the nature of the people and ruling through “non-action.”

In Chinese history, there are many other stories about “governance through non-action.” King Wu of Zhou rehabilitated the state after the overthrown of the Shang Government. In 1046 BC, King Wu crushed the cruel and unscrupulous King Zhou of Shang, and the Zhou army won a great victory. According to the records, after the fall of Shang, King Wu put the weapons into the treasury and let his soldiers take off their armor and return to the farm. He raised horses at the foot of Mount Huashan and sang pastoral songs in the fruit and wood forest, practicing the policy of ruling through non-action and making provision for recovery from the war. During the Zhou Dynasty, grain was released, and taxes were reduced, so the people lived and worked in peace and prosperity.

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