Reflections on artisan metaphors in the Laozi 老子: Who cuts the “uncarved wood” (pu 樸)? (Part 1)

Andrej Fech*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


In this article, I argue that the Laozi 老子 offers a variety of cosmogenic accounts, including the one expressed by means of the artisan metaphors of “uncarved wood” (pu 樸), “vessels” (qi 器), and “cutting” (zhi 制). These metaphors and the images related to them often appeared in the given context in ancient Chinese literature depicting the physical emergence of the world as a process of progressive differentiation out of the original state of “chaos.” Thus, this account ultimately served as a cosmic justification for the establishment of distinctions and hierarchy within human society. However, as used in the Laozi, the artisan metaphors promulgate a type of social hierarchy that is characteristically informed by the values of ziran 自然 and wuwei 無為. My argumentation goes against the common tendency of Western scholars to regard the notions of craft appearing in the Laozi as relating exclusively to human activities, connoting “artifice,” that is, as detrimental to the “natural” run of the Way. By referring to the most prominent traditional commentaries of the work, I argue that this view was supported only marginally, if at all, in early China and that its emergence appears to be a reaction to and a rejection of the initial Western interpretation of the same terms, one that was heavily influenced by the Christian worldview.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12487
Number of pages10
JournalPhilosophy Compass
Issue number4
Early online date26 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Philosophy


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