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You-Wu (Being-nonbeing)

You behaves roughly like an existential quantifier in Classical Chinese and wu like its negation. So "You X" says simply that X exists and "Wu X" denies it. This use, however, is grammatically most elegantly treated as an extension of their use as two-place predicates (transitive verbs). "S you/wu X" says that S has/lacks X. This analysis neatly generates the straightforward existential sentence because pre-verbal terms (e.g., topic or subject) are optional even in assertions. Where the context signaled the topic or subject is S, "You X" could be thought of as "With regard to S, there is X." Alternately, in the "pure" case, one might think of "you X" as "the world (universe of discourse) has X."

The you-wu pair feature in the question of whether or not Chinese philosophy has a concept of being—and what it is. A related question concerns rules for interpreting Western philosophy into Chinese. Into what Chinese concept should we translate "being?" The two main rivals are you-wu and shi-fei. (See SHI-FEI for related discussion.) We will approach the question from the reverse angle, "should we use the word 'being' in translating or interpreting Chinese philosophy. Angus Graham suggests that we should avoid 'being' and 'essence' on the grounds that the Western concept is the abstract object linked to the verb "to be (or its translations in Indo-European languages)."

Graham's analysis drew on Aristotle's response to Parmenides doctrine that forbade saying anything about being other than "it is." Parmenides was committed to metaphysical monism, the doctrine that there is only permanent, all embracing being with no distinctions, properties or change. He treated being and identity as the same thing because he confused two distinct meanings of ‘to be’: existence and predication. On the one hand, 'is' has the meaning of "exists." "What is, simply is and cannot not be." On the other hand, 'is' links a thing to its predicates or properties. If we focus merely on the verb and the principle "what is-not cannot become what is" then it will seem to entail that "what is-not old cannot become old." He concludes that things cannot change. Similar arguments supposedly motivated Parmenides conclusion that there could be no motion.

Aristotle's categories distinguished a number of different senses of 'being' which underlay the different ways we can predicate things of a subject (what it can be said to be). One of these is what came to be known as the essence or essential predication. Graham seemed to conclude that we should avoid either term in discussing Chinese philosophy. This indeed gives us reason to to worry that Aristotle's rich concept of "being" (including all the categories) would not coincide exactly with either you/wu or shi/fei. However, Aristotle's doctrine is similarly difficult for modern Western students. For most of us, the concept of being coincides roughly to existence, not predication. It does not, therefore, appear to be misleading to translate the you-wu pair as being and non-being. (Of course, whether doing so in a translation of Aristotle will help or hinder intelligibility is a distinct issue.)

By an interesting coincidence, an argument by the Neo-Daoist, Guo Xiang, almost paraphrases Parmenides—Wu is simply wu and cannot become you. The contrast is immediate: "You, though it goes through endless transformation, never becomes wu." Where Parmenides moved inexorably to permanence, Guo Xiang did not see change as any kind of philosophical problem. Things change, but they do not cease to exist. What the grammar of Chinese explains is not the absence of the concept of being, but the absence of a problem of permanence and change.

The question of 'essence' in Chinese complicated by combining the problem of identity and change with Aristotle's grammatical analysis of truths into subject (substance) and predicate (attribute) structure. The analysis (and the concept of a sentence) was unattested in Chinese thought. (See Philosophy of Language.) Aristotle then drew a further distinction between accidental attributes and those without which the thing would not be what it is. Graham was right in the sense that there was no similarly structured metaphysical theory but it is not clear that it has anything to do with you and wu. It’s roots lie in the absence of anything sufficiently resembling subject-predicate grammatical analysis or its corollary of substance-property metaphysics. (Graham, however, does attribute a concept like ‘essence’ to ancient thinkers. See CH’ING.)

You and wu pose problems in Chinese philosophy primarily in theory of language and metaphysics. Mo Tzu presents a theory of language under which he justifies including in public discourse the claims "there are spirits; there is no fate." He justifies this by a series of arguments that we should use words in ways that correspond to historical examplars (arguably the coiners of terms), to the testimony of people using their eyes and ears, and to the utility of such use in promoting good behavior. He identifies his conclusion as "knowing the way to you-wu.

The pair emerge in philosophy again in Laozi’s Dao-te Jing. There Laozi speaks of you-wu "arising together." Lacking any marking that distinguishes use from mention, his slogan allows two interpretations. One says that the terms you and wu arise together and the other that existence arises with non-existence. It’s hard to say, offhand, what the latter amounts to. The more natural linguistic reading is buttressed by the fact that the claim arises in the context of a series of similar claims about many opposites–beautiful-ugly, good-not-good, before-after and etc. Laozi operates with an implicit contrast theory of language. A word has meaning only by virtue of having a contrast with its opposite. To know any term X, to know how to use it, is to know not only what to call X, but also what to call not-X.

Applying this analysis to you-wu yields a puzzle like the puzzle of the reference of "nothing." It treats you and wu as referring expressions with an extension. Ancient Chinese linguistic theory tended to analyze all such words as names–ming. In Laozi’s analysis, the puzzle is trying to think of the two names "emerging together." Supposedly to do so is to think of making a distinction in things. However, if we divide anything off from being, it appears that we then "have" whatever has been divided off so it must count as part of you rather than wu. Thus it seems impossible to imagine the pair of "names" emerging from a single distinction. Laozi declares this the "gateway to a myriad of mysteries."

In other passages, Laozi seems to favor wu. Wu symbolizes his dao of reversal, which favors what convention usually disfavors. In one passage, he says wu gives rise to you. This has lead many to conclude that dao is wu.

The puzzle emerges in cosmological form in Neo-Daoism, which arose following the decline of the superstitious and cosmological Han. It called itself "mysterious learning." Wangbi (226-249) read Laozi’s discussions alongside the yin-yang cosmology contained in the I Jing. He postulated that wu was the "original reality" while you was merely a functional state of wu. His "substance-function" dichotomy was influential on Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism though it was never explained with any clarity (some suspect it was precisely because it could not be explained with any clarity). The effect was to treat wu as not only real, but as the most basic reality. This eventually understanding Buddhist Nirvana as a positive notion. Neo-Confucians objected to the implication that reality had no moral content–a view they attributed to both Buddhism and Daoism.

The alternative Neo-Daoist analysis came from Guo Xiang (discussed above). He insisted that wu simply was not and could not be the gateway to anything. So, he concluded, you must be self-engendered and eternal. What there was could change into other things that exist, but never ceased to exist. He analyzed the unity of cosmology as arising from the fact that in its arising, all of you interacts with all the rest of you. Guo Xiang, perhaps drawing on Chuang Tzu’s perspectivalism, relativizes wu. All wu makes sense only relative to some other term. There is no wu simpliciter.

The you-wu issue extends into the theory of Buddhism mainly in the theory of the "emptiness" of all Dharmas, or the emptiness of the Buddha-nature, nirvana or satori. It isn’t clear that anyone subsequently focuses on the linguistic version of the puzzle about you-wu.


Chan, Wing tsit. 1963 A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press) .

Chao, Y. R.. 1955 "Notes on Chinese Grammar and Logic," Philosophy East and West 5/1 pp. 31-41.

Chen, Guying. 1977 Laozi: Text, Notes, and Comments (San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center) .

Fung, You lan. 1947 The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.) .

Graham, Angus. 1959 "Being in Western Philosophy compared with SHI/FEI and YOU/WU in Chinese Philosophy," Asia Major NS 7/1,2 .

Graham, Angus. 1989 Disputers of the Dao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (La Salle, IL: Open Court) .

Lau, D. C. (tr.). 1963 Laozi: Dao Te Jing (Baltimore: Penguin Books) pp. 192.

Wu, Yi. 1986 Chinese Philosophical Terms (Lanham, MD: University Press of America) .



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Book of Changes



Names, terms, words, fame


¬O «D

This-not, right-wrong, assent-dissent



way, guide, discourse


¤ý ´]

Wangbi (Neo-Daoist)



Lack, not-exit, do not


³± ¶§

Moon-sun, Female-male principle


Have, exist


|³ µL

Have-lack, being-nonbeing