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Individualism in Early China

Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Poliltics

Erica Brindley

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xii

Chinese culture is often characterized as a culture of obligation rather than individual freedom. This characterization is not just a stereotype; it is rooted in various nineteenth- and twentieth-century constructions of Chinese identity, as such an identity is compared to that of the “West.” 2 ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

This project has assumed more than a dozen different guises, and working on it has undoubtedly taken its toll on many individuals besides myself. I am indebted to all the great mentors, guides, friends, and family members in my life who gave critical input and who helped support me emotionally, intellectually, and financially over the years. ...

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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 ...

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CHAPTER ONE Individual Agency and Universal, Centralized Authority in Early Mohist Writings

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pp. 1-28

In searching for the roots of individualism, we begin with an unlikely source: the writings of the early Mohists. Unlike the Confucian Analects—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 ...

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CHAPTER TWO Centralizing Control: The Politics of Bodily Conformism

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pp. 29-53

Conformist ideologies were also popular in fourth-century BCE texts such as the Laozi, 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, ...

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CHAPTER THREE Decentralizing Control and Naturalizing Cosmic Agency: Bodily Conformism and Individualism

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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. ...

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CHAPTER FOUR Two Prongs of the Debate: Bodily Agencies vs. Claims for Institutional Controls

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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 ...

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CHAPTER FIVE Servants of the Self and Empire: Institutionally Controlled Individualism at the Dawn of a New Era

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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...

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CHAPTER SIX Conclusion

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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. ...

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Postscript: A Note on Chinese Individualism, Human Rights, and the Asian Values Debate

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pp. 131-135

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.” ...


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pp. 137-188

Works Cited

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pp. 189-200


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pp. 201-207

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860677
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833862

Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 663886651
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Individualism in Early China

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Subject Headings

  • Individualism -- China -- History.
  • Self (Philosophy) -- China -- History.
  • Philosophy, Chinese -- To 221 B.C.
  • Philosophy, Chinese -- 221 B.C.-960 A.D.
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