Daoist non-action

Han Feizi, Liezi, Martin Gabel, Walt Disney—but not quite Miles Davis

Don’t just do something, stand there!

Ancient Chinese thought is replete with the virtues of Daoist non-action (wuwei 無為)—both personal and political (cf. Confucius and Laozi, as well as Liezi).

However, it took a long time to enter the language of Western, um, philosophy. Thanks to the intrepid researchers of quoteinvestigator.com, we have a drôle list of candidates for the popular expression “Don’t just do something, stand there!”. I might have guessed Miles Davis, whose minimal style prompted him to dispense sage advice like “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there“.

But rather, the site adduces Martin Gabel (1945), Adlai Stevenson citing Dwight D. Eisenhower (1956), Elvis Presley, and Clint Eastwood. A likely vehicle for the popularising of the phrase may have been the White Rabbit in Walt Disney’s Alice in wonderland (1951).

I’ve already cited Disney as a Zen-like source of wisdom (see note here).

As to the ancient Chinese political extension of wuwei, in the words of the wiki page, Han Feizi’s ideal “enlightened ruler strikes terror into his ministers by doing nothing”. Pace Tweety McTangerine, dismantling the entire apparatus of humane democratic government in order to maintain the brute power of an evil kleptocracy really doesn’t count.

And over in the “United” “Kingdom”, this display from Jacob Tree-Frog, “the physical embodiment of arrogance, entitlement, disrespect, and contempt for our parliament” (soon mocked in a series of memes) wasn’t quite what Laozi had in mind (see also Some non-Daoists):


See also e.g. How to bibleAncient Chinese humour, The Tao of Pooh, and Bambi reconsidered.

4 thoughts on “Daoist non-action

  1. Pingback: A rare duet for qin and erhu | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Thinking outside the (music) box | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Ancient Chinese humour—with a moral | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Ancient Chinese humour—with a moral – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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