Whenever I saw a prominent inscription in a palace within the Forbidden City, I would ask the guide for its meaning. One inscription was 為無, which, read right-to-left, is wu wei in Pinyin, or 无为 in simplified characters. The tourist guide gives a long, and fascinating, explanation. More or less, wu wei means “not doing,” or “inaction.” The character 无, wu means “not having something” and 为, wei, means, among other things, “to act.” In this context, wu wei is a principle of Taoism, and it means something like “letting things take their course.” The emperor who put that inscription in his room wanted to be reminded not to be a tyrant, not to unduly impose his authority. A famous maxim of Taoism is wei wu wei 为无为, that liberally translates into “getting things done by doing nothing.”
Wow, I realize, Umesh is a Taoist!
Ever since coming to Berkeley, I have tried to practice wei wu wei, without knowing that it had a name and that it was a centuries-old concept. It is not so easy. After six years, I have gotten pretty good at the “doing nothing” part, but anybody who has ever sent me a paper to referee knows that I am still struggling with the “getting things done” part.
I like Chinese calligraphic art a lot, and so I definitely wanted to find a calligrapy of wu wei and put it in my office as an inspirational poster of sorts. Unfortunately, it was one more thing that I did not have time for.