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  • The Political Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness by Viren Murthy
  • Carine Defoort
Murthy, Viren. The Political Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness. Leiden: Brill, 2011. viii, 268 pp. $148 (cloth)

Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 (or Zhang Binglin 章炳麟) (1869–1936) is known as one of the important revolutionaries of early twentieth-century China. Anti-Manchu, a scholar of "national learning," and a critic of Western influence, Zhang cannot easily be categorized as either conservative, reformer, or revolutionary. Viren Murthy's study shows the intricacies and evolution of Zhang's thought, with a focus on his Buddhist inspiration, more specifically the Yogācārā (Consciousness-only) school. He starts out from Zhang's personal experience of maltreatment and torture, when he was put in jail (1903–06) after being accused of plotting against the Qing regime. Zhang spent the following years in Japan (1906–10), where he was influenced by Japanese thinkers and German idealism. Out of intellectual debates with reformers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, Murthy unravels Zhang's own "unique philosophy of negation" (p. 5) as a criticism of Western categories and institutions, and more particularly of global capitalist modernity. On an even broader scope, Murthy's study also offers an entrance into tensions between old and new, nationalism and universalism, tradition and global modernity.

The first chapter, which also functions as introduction to the intellectual scene, immediately throws the reader into a rather dense debate on modernity, capitalism, and Zhang Taiyan. Drawing on Japanese, Western, and Chinese scholarship, Murthy argues that the contrast between Zhang's anti-Manchu nationalism and his Buddhist self-negation was conditioned by global capitalist modernity. He heavily draws on the ideas of the contemporary public intellectual Wang Hui, with whom Murthy worked in Beijing, but also on other scholars such as Takeuchi Yoshimi, Chang Hao, Alex Schneider, and Georg Lukás. The second chapter analyzes shifts in Zhang's views, moving away from Kang Youwei's reformist ideal of a multiracial nation-state toward an anti-Manchu Han nationalism considered modern as well as rooted in the past.

The following chapters all concern the integration of Buddhism into Zhang Taiyan's thought. Chapter 3 shows how Zhang differed from Liang Qichao in using Yogācārā Buddhism to counter capitalist modernity and entities entailed by it such as science, universal laws and ethical principles, nation-building, and imperialism. Buddhist insights combined with the Daoist idea of confusion (huo) helped to deconstruct the notion of the subject and to create a provisional subject willing to sacrifice itself in a revolutionary context. In Chapter 4, Murthy argues that Zhang negated the ideas of (Hegelian) evolution and historical progress, and that he saw the world as constituted of appearances caused by fluctuations of consciousness resulting from "karmic seeds." Convinced of the world's illusionary nature, Zhang cherished self-negation and the end of history. The fifth and last chapter shows how Zhang warned his contemporaries against the oppressive nature of such notions as "rationality," "equality," and "universal principle" as means to control man and dominate the world. Using Buddhism and inspired by Zhuangzi's idea of "equalization" (qi), Zhang rejected the homogenizing influence of global capitalism in favor of an embrace of particularities and a detachment from words.

The conclusion argues that Zhang Taiyan's critical stance against the homogenizing power of capitalist modernity, its evolutionary visions, and its abstract principles is still relevant today. As Murthy notes, "Zhang's work is especially significant in Chinese intellectual history since it is one of the first attempts to overcome the alienation caused by capitalism in thought by invoking Buddhist categories" (p. 242). Murthy tries to show how Zhang's legacy has been critically adopted by his student and cultural critic Lu Xun and by Murthy's own teacher, the "new leftist" Wang Hui. Murthy's book can probably be situated in this line of intellectual heritance. Readers less acquainted with the topic will probably have a hard time following the intricacies of Murthy's arguments. Murthy's work reads as a sophisticated reflection for insiders.

Carine Defoort
University of Leuven


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