On the meaning of “individualism” in China, a discussion of Erica Fox Brindley’s <em>Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics </em>(Part 2, Chapter 2)
I found this chapter quite difficult by comparison with the first. No doubt I’ve missed much, but I can say first of all that it provides an interesting contrast to chapter 1. Where the Mohist works seem to insist on a more objective order of things–people are more or less naturally ordered and endowed with certain capacities by virtue of their position in that order, those considered in this chapter recognize human agency by demanding its forfeiture, by demanding that “individuals give up fundamental agencies associated with the conventional self and replace them with the agency or authority of a single , higher, divine entity shared by all human beings” (p. 35). The passage in which the process by which the individual attains value through a threefold process of divestment, reinvestment, and attainment of higher value (p. 41), is perhaps the clearest expression of this point. A fleeting thought during my reading was of the process of creating a U.S. marine (or at least my stereotypical view of the process). In the movies, this process begins with the attempt at a total breakdown of the old self and continues, perhaps, by building up a new person who, once “perfected,” achieves higher value as he/she is granted a mission. A major distinguishing characteristic of the Laozi is its disavowal of faculties of conscious thought or wisdom. Virtue comes less through a striving to align one’s thought with the outside authority than it is about becoming one with the Dao. I particularly enjoyed the very brief discussion of how religious and intellectual authorities (on the practice necessary to become a virtuous leader) neatly positioned themselves by at once questioning and affirming the authority of the sovereign. One is reminded of present-day courtiers, mainly economists, whispering in the ears of presidents and prime ministers. The conception of the ruler’s position with respect to the people also provides a contrast to the hierarchical order of the Mohists. Here there is the ruler and there is the people. The virtuous ruler is directly connected to the people; his virtue is theirs, indeed, seems to determine theirs. The people are dependent on the ruler for self-attainment. They have no means of direct access to an enlightened state, depending entirely on the ruler and his connection to Dao to show them the way through his example. Despite the differences with the Mohists, this is also a fundamentally passive agency.
I’m led to wonder, finally, about the role of intellectual courtiers in various societies, including those of the present. In these texts, it is the sages. In my comment above, the economists. One might also point to advocates of the role of a vanguard in bringing about socialist revolutions. Others might have better knowledge of these matters. I’m open to suggestions.
I had a hard time with this chapter too. For me it was mostly because the argument about agency in Daoism challenges my preconceptions.
First of all though, I want to say that I love your marine example. That does make a whole lot of sense! This idea that you can achieve something greater, only after you have subjected yourself to utterly self-negating discipline, is a pretty fascinating paradox. Your example makes me think of martial arts too. There is something very self-negating about the boring and tedious things you have to do in the beginning…
I also love that you used the word “becoming” in your re-phrasing of the author’s account, which brings me to the reason why I had trouble with this chapter, especially with following her interpretations. I was thinking before I read your post that words like “becoming,” “belonging,” and “participation” seem much more appropriate to the logic of Daoist thinking. But the author describes the Dao as a “larger” principle, a “higher” form of “universal” authority “over” humans. I’m surprised that she never uses the word “immanent” to characterize Daoist thinking. I am no specialist in Daoism, but based on things I have read, and conversations my dad and I have had about the similarities between taiji quan and yoga (I practice the latter, he the former), I have come to understand the Dao (Brindley notes Daoism was possibly influenced by the yogic traditions of ancient India), as an immanent force or principle that is “of” this world and not “beyond” nor “above” this world. Yes, it is ultimate and all encompassing, but it also resides in the smallest of things, imperceptibly everywhere. I also have always thought that everyone potentially has direct access to it, regardless of how cultivated his or her sovereign is. By working upon the self, one can exercise a kind of sovereign control over one’s own life, and order will spontaneously coalesce around the cultivated individual. (I credit Farquhar and Zhang’s article “Biopolitical Beijing” in Cultural Anthropology for this idea). In the other words, the ruler in these texts might be metaphorical – and could possibly include individuals who work to exercise virtuous rule over the self, as well as any number of other ruler-ruled dyads, e.g. that of a teacher in relation to students, etc. But since my own understanding is likely very confused and unscholastic, I’ll try making my point in a different way.
Brindley writes, “Indeed, one might argue that even though texts such as the Laozi and the ‘Zi Yi’ take the ruler as their primary audience, this does not mean that the authors really understood the scope of self-cultivation to be restricted in such a manner” (pg. 50). I am not satisfied with the counter-argument that follows, but I would argue that she contradicts herself in insisting that there is a “clear hierarchical dependency of the people’s cultivation on that of their sovereign” given what she tells us about the political context (a discussion that I also really enjoyed). Doesn’t this background suggest that religious experts and intellectuals would write in a way that would reassure their main audience, while possibly having other things in mind? I mean, these early texts – it seems to me – are incredibly polysemous and metaphorical, and surely these experts and intellectuals had other interests and understandings that went beyond political theory.
Be that as it may, it is interesting to see such an account of Daoist thinking.