Sinologist Herrlee Creel considers wu wei, as found in the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi, to denote two different things.
- An "attitude of genuine non-action, motivated by a lack of desire to participate in human affairs" and
- A "technique by means which the one who practices it may gain enhanced control of human affairs."
The first is quite in line with the contemplative Taoism of the Zhuangzi. Described as a source of serenity in Taoist thought, only rarely do Taoist texts suggest that ordinary people could gain political power through wu wei. The Zhuangzi does not seem to indicate a definitive philosophical idea, simply that the sage "does not occupy himself with the affairs of the world".
The second sense appears to have been imported from the earlier governmental thought of "legalist" Shen Buhai (400 BC – c. 337 BC) as Taoists became more interested in the exercise of power by the ruler. Called "rule by non-activity" and strongly advocated by Han Fei, during the Han dynasty, up until the reign of Han Wudi rulers confined their activity "chiefly to the appointment and dismissal of his high officials", a plainly "Legalist" practice inherited from the Qin dynasty. This "conception of the ruler's role as a supreme arbiter, who keeps the essential power firmly in his grasp" while leaving details to ministers, has a "deep influence on the theory and practice of Chinese monarchy", and played a "crucial role in the promotion of the autocratic tradition of the Chinese polity", ensuring the ruler's power and the stability of the polity.
Only appearing three times in the first (more contemplative) half of the Zhuangzi, early Taoists may have avoided the term for its association with "Legalism" before ultimately co-opting its governmental sense as well, as attempted in the Zhuangzi's latter half. Thought by modern scholarship to have been written after the Zhuangzi, wu wei becomes a major "guiding principle for social and political pursuit" in the more "purposive" Taoism of the Tao Te Ching, in which the Taoist "seeks to use his power to control and govern the world."