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.