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Individualism in Early China

Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Poliltics

Erica Fox Brindley
Copyright Date: 2010
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    Individualism in Early China
    Book Description:

    Conventional wisdom has it that the concept of individualism was absent in early China. In this uncommon study of the self and human agency in ancient China, Erica Fox Brindley provides an important corrective to this view and persuasively argues that an idea of individualism can be applied to the study of early Chinese thought and politics with intriguing results. She introduces the development of ideological and religious beliefs that link universal, cosmic authority to the individual in ways that may be referred to as individualistic and illustrates how these evolved alongside and potentially helped contribute to larger sociopolitical changes of the time, such as the centralization of political authority and the growth in the social mobility of the educated elite class. Starting with the writings of the early Mohists (fourth century BCE), Brindley analyzes many of the major works through the early second century BCE by Laozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and Han Feizi, as well as anonymous authors of both received and excavated texts. Changing notions of human agency affected prevailing attitudes toward the self as individual—in particular, the onset of ideals that stressed the power and authority of the individual, either as a conformist agent in relation to a larger whole or as an individualistic agent endowed with inalienable cosmic powers and authorities. She goes on to show how distinctly internal (individualistic), external (institutionalized), or mixed (syncretic) approaches to self-cultivation and state control emerged in response to such ideals. In her exploration of the nature of early Chinese individualism and the various theories for and against it, she reveals the ways in which authors innovatively adapted new theories on individual power to the needs of the burgeoning imperial state. With clarity and force, Individualism in Early China illuminates the importance of the individual in Chinese culture. By focusing on what is unique about early Chinese thinking on this topic, it gives readers a means of understanding particular "Chinese" discussions of and respect for the self.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6067-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxx)

    The imperial beginnings of China tell a story not just of concrete changes in state structure, policy, and military power but also of important developments in ideology. Well before the First Emperor of the Qin proclaimed sovereignty over a unified empire in 221 BCE, the concept that all should be united under a single great cosmic authority had clearly begun to take root in religious and intellectual circles as well as in political discourse.¹ Alongside this focus on a unified authority that extends beyond and helps shape individual behaviors, a widespread debate on universal human nature (xing性) began to...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Individual Agency and Universal, Centralized Authority in Early Mohist Writings
    (pp. 1-28)

    In searching for the roots of individualism, we begin with an unlikely source: the writings of the early Mohists. Unlike the ConfucianAnalects—a rough contemporary of the early Mohist writings— which focuses deeply on the cultivation of individual moral autonomy, early Mohist writings underscore the importance of an individual’s conformism to Heaven’s will.¹ This appears to be a far cry from any notion of individualism with which we might be familiar. Certainly, conformism per se is not equal to individualism. This does not mean that the two must be unrelated or that one cannot serve as the fertile ideological...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Centralizing Control: The Politics of Bodily Conformism
    (pp. 29-53)

    Conformist ideologies were also popular in fourth-century BCE texts such as theLaozi, Guanzi, Zhuangzi, and even some Ru texts, uncovered from tomb excavations at Guodian, that were in circulation around the same time. In the following two chapters we examine a diversity of viewpoints on conformism that date roughly to this period, many of which depart significantly from the early Mohist conception of it. We do so in order to narrate the different stages of development in ideas about human agency that made individualistic movements of the late fourth century BCE possible. Each in their own way, these conformist...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Decentralizing Control and Naturalizing Cosmic Agency: Bodily Conformism and Individualism
    (pp. 54-76)

    In the textual record we also find ideologies dating to the fourth century BCE that went beyond the sovereign to address bodily conformism at a more universal level. Zhuangzi in particular spoke of spiritual attainment in terms of the relatively decentralized power of the Dao that might obtain in each individual, and not merely in leaders of the state. While he still stressed each individual’s conformity to or communion with the single higher authority, Zhuangzi nonetheless addressed bodily agency in terms of an individual’s personal and unique link to the cosmos. This approach to human agency, which viewed self-cultivation in...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Two Prongs of the Debate: Bodily Agencies vs. Claims for Institutional Controls
    (pp. 77-103)

    Starting from about the third century BCE, authors ubiquitously grounded their proposed programs for education, self-cultivation, and legal and political reform in arguments concerning the natural biological conditions of humankind. Hardly a thinker existed who did not have some opinion concerning the relationship between innate, universal human functions such asxingand the goals of either self-cultivation or social order and control. Intriguingly, unlike the approaches found in earlier writings such as the core chapters of the Mohists and fourth-century BCE conformist texts—which allocated great powers to external sources of authority of all kinds—authors of this later period...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Servants of the Self and Empire: Institutionally Controlled Individualism at the Dawn of a New Era
    (pp. 104-120)

    Having distinguished between individualistic writings that more fully idealize one’s natural, internal sources of authority and writings that idealize institutional, external controls in society, we now proceed to examine writings from the third through second centuries BCE that at once idealize both types of control.¹ By adapting the demands of individualistic trends to those of the centralizing state or to Ru ritual norms, many writers of the third and second centuries BCE promoted individual agency and achievement while also providing a mechanism of external control over individual agency. Below, we examine writings that present syncretic mixtures of individualism and institutionalism....

  11. CHAPTER SIX Conclusion
    (pp. 121-130)

    In an environment of increasing social mobility and political centralization, intellectuals from the fifth through the third centuries BCE put forth competing conceptions of human agency, each of which presented a different view of the sources of authority and power that underlie an individual agent’s actions. This book draws connections between the growth of a universalistic conception of the self in relationship to Heaven’s—or cosmic—authority and power. Such a universalized conception of the self was epitomized in an elaborate discussion concerningxing(human nature), which spawned the growth of a relational form of individualism in early China. It...

  12. Postscript: A Note on Chinese Individualism, Human Rights, and the Asian Values Debate
    (pp. 131-136)

    Translating concepts from one cultural, historical context to the next is never an easy task. In using the term “individualism” in my analysis of intellectual developments related to the self, I show readers that certain early Chinese views can justifiably be compared with, or translated as, “individualism.” By granting Chinese history its own idealistic notions of the self and analyzing such notions according to how they dignify and empower the individual, I refute the well-worn accusation that Chinese cultures lack a concept of individual prerogatives. In ancient China, indeed, an individualistic movement developed to promote the cultivation of an individual’s...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 137-188)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 189-200)
  15. Index
    (pp. 201-208)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 209-210)