Individualism in China

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Last updated: June 6, 2019

Individualism – the lack of it or the excess of it – has often been considered a major problem in the modernization of China. In the early decades of this century reformers championed individualism in opposition to traditional authority in both thought and social life, and especially in opposition to the “Confucian” family system. Others contended that what thwarted China’s modernization was not the absence of individualism but rather a surplus of it. The common term for “individualism” in modern East Asia (in Chinese ge-ren zhu-i) represents a Western idea, and implies that no such “ism” exsited in traditional thought.Thus it symbolizes the challenge of a new idea to traditional values and suggests the advocacy of change. Nevertheless, in the earlier Chinese tradition the problem of the “individual” – his relation to the the group, his role in society, his rights in the sense of due him as a human being – has been the subject of as much thought and discussion as in the West. The problem of “individualism” has existed in China’s past as well as in its present.

Deeply involved with the problem of the self and person, Confucius himself had set guide lines for the discussion.In the Analects reveals his basic stand. “One cannot flock with birds or herd with beasts. If I am not to associate myself with humankind, then what am I to do? If Way prevailed in the world, what need would there be to change things? ” (18:6) “To associate oneself with others” is a fundamental premise of Confucius’ thought.

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There can be no fulfillment for the individual in isolation from his fellows. Distinguishing them from birds and beasts, Confucius associated his own fulfullment with the fulfillment of others.Another passage elaborates this theme when Confucius is asked what it takes to be truly human: “The humane man, if he seeks to establish himself, will help others to succeed.

To be able to judge other by what one know of oneself is the method of achieving humanity. ” (6:28) Reciprocity, then, becomes the basis of self-cultivation. One defines one’s self in relation to others and to the Way which unites them. Apart from the web of reciprocal obligations or moral relations one can have no real identity. And yet these realtions alone, it is equally important to recognize, do not define one totally.In the opening lines of the Analects Confucius asserts that the true gentleman or noble man must be prepared to stand on his own even if others fail to recognize or appreciate him. One’s interior self exsits at the center of this web and there exists its own autonomy.

It is the delicate balance both in the self-development of the Confucian individual and in the development of Confucianism as a whole. In Confucianism this development focuses on the self-cultivation and self-fulfillment of the person in a cosmic or social setting.In this respect it might better to be referred to as Confuican “personalism,” which does not set the individual over against state or society. For one thing one would distinguish between individualism and “individuality. ” The existence of the latter does not always imply the presence of the former. Many flourishing cultures have recognized that individuality in arts, crafts, and performs in traditional cultures, without affirming an equal right to individuality of expression in other fields or among all classes of society.

In China the great cultural flowering of the Sung is a case in point. Further, in regard to the assertion of individualism itself, we may distinguish two main types in traditional China. There is, first of all, the individulism of the recluse, who has largely withdrawn from society, such as some forms of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Though it has a positive aspect in affirming the individual’s freedom from society and his own transcendent value, from the standpoint of society this has no effect on the status of other individuals. “It makes no positive claim within society. (Etienne Balaza) By contrast, there is a more affirmative and socially defined individualism which seeks to establish the place of the individual or self in relation to others, to secure his status in some institutional framework. Confucianism attempts this in relation to the family and state. However, Confucianism made a bad bargain for the individual.

He was made to sacrifice more to the group than he got in return. It remains true that the Confuican almost alone in traditional China concerned himself with defining and establishing some positive role for the individual in society.It was by virtue of this active social and political endeavor that Confucianism became a vehicle for the growth of a new humanism and individualism in Neo-Confucianism. At the same time, the question of the relation between this new trendcies deriving from Buddhism and Taoism remains a real one throughout this period. This is because none of these systems falls wholly within one or the other of our categories. The Confucian conception of the self is not without a metaphysical aspect, nor the Buddhist and Taoist wholly without some social orientation.

All three have a common ground as they deal with one or another aspect of the human condition. The type of individualism recognized by Confucianism, especially in terms of moral character and intellectual attainments, had been manifested to a remarkable degree by certain individuals in traditional China. In Sung (960-1279) we odserve a striking increase in the number of independent and creative minds and an unprecedented expression of individual interests and tastes in art, poetry and culture. Nevertheless, this increase too apear to have confined largely to the social elite: the scholar-officials, the bureaucratic gentry.

During that period, the Confucian revival of the eleventh century, the dominant thinker of the age, Chu Hsi was set to a large extent by the priorities already established in Sung society and culture. As the matter of fact, if we can identify the Confucianism and the succeeding period as “Neo-Confucianism,” it is because we have a reformulation of traditional values to meet new problem and challenges, and the Neo-Confuicanism introduces new concepts, philosophical formulas and literary strategies about individualism in the revitalization of tradition.


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