1. Antistate and Antigovernmental Significance in the Concept of Individuality
Zhang Taiyan's concept of individuality was not only a philosophical or moral idea but also a political one. It was developed in opposition to a worldview rooted in the concept of "publicness (gong)–grouping (qun)," which, in the context of the late Qing, was not merely an abstract moral idea but a substitute term for (and moral foundation of) the modern nation-state and its many modes of social organization. These organizations include the chambers of commerce, learned societies, national assemblies, political parties, and gentry-village communities. The modern concepts such as public principle, evolution, materialism, and naturalism were the most important and dynamic elements in the modern Chinese discourse of the nation-state. The question I pose here: What was the relationship between Zhang's concept of the individual and the discursive network of the nation-state? To put it more directly, as a founding figure of the concept of the modern nation-state and a theorist for the late Qing racial revolution, Zhang made nationalism an especially significant theme during his entire writing career and revolutionary praxis. His provisional concept of the individual was not only a critique and negation of the nation, the government, and social groups—all collectives aimed at the creation of a modern nation-state and at social mobilization—but also a rejection of the very concept of the "nation." If the concept of the individual was a key element in the discourse of the modern nation-state, then how and in what way did this concept constitute a negation of the discourse? How did this contrariety come about? The political use of the concept of the individual formed a social context
The political significance of Zhang's concept of the individual can be seen, first, in the concept's negation of the nation and the state. In several of his treatises—including "On the Nation" and "On Politics of Representation" —Zhang applied his analytical reasoning to political questions and developed his concepts of individuality and self-nature into a critique of the modern nation-state. In "On the State" Zhang writes, "The ‘subjectivity’ of the state, first, is artificially ascribed rather than substantively endowed. The construction of the state, furthermore, is the outcome of external power dynamics rather than the extension of inherent, natural principles. The business of the state, above all, is base and sullied, rather than pure and sacred." The first point above is clearly the most important: it establishes the foundation for the two ensuing points. It is precisely in the discussion of whether the state possesses "subjectivity" that Zhang posits the individual and the nation as fundamentally opposed to each other. Invoking the atomistic view of the Buddhist Yogacara school, he argues that "all entities are composed of myriad constituents and thus do not possess their own being. The individuated entities that form the composite, however, can be said to have true being. In contrast, the composite has false being. Since the nation is composed of the people, each person provisionally can be said to be a true being. But the nation has no true being." By drawing an analogy between the atomistic model of matter and the composition of society and nation, Zhang refutes all theories that regard the nation as the subject and the people as object: "Some have said, ‘The nation itself has its institutions and laws. Although the people from time to time will be renewed, the institutions and laws cannot be renewed. These being so, [the nation] is thus called a subject.’ But this is not true. Institutions and laws change of themselves and do not necessarily follow the old principles. Even if they do not change, they are only the ‘expressive appearances' bestowed by previous generations."
What deserves attention is the fact that when he touches on the relationship between the nation and the individual, Zhang discusses the issue of who is the subject; but he does not believe that the subjectivity of the individual is absolute. It has only relative priority within its relations to the nation and other social groups. Since it is merely "nearer to reality than the composite" but is itself still a "false phenomenon," then the conclusion that the nation is a "false being" is not only an extrapolation but follows naturally upon the position of nation in the order of things. Zhang did not elaborate on the relationship between subjectivity and that of "differentiated positions." In principle, the concept of self-nature precluded any hierarchical order or discriminating relationship.
Why did he argue that the world had certain hierarchical order? On the one hand, the assumption of hierarchical order is necessitated by his stress on the priority of the individual; on the other, the issues discussed by Zhang were not ontological but political
The argument concerning the individual's priority over the group aimed at the idea of national sovereignty, which, in the formulations of Zou Rong, Chen Tianhua, Sun Yatsen, Liang Qichao, and Yan Fu, accentuated the freedom of the totality above that of the individual. The fact that Zhang argued against the sovereignty of the nation from the perspective of Yogacaric thought regarding self-nature means that his discussion of sovereignty did not involve relations between nations—in which case, he was a firm nationalist (and not a statist). Zhang's second criticism of the nation denies the actual significance of the nation's geographical establishment (national boundaries) and its hierarchical construction. It follows upon his idea that all distinctions among things lacking self-nature are the product of "false thoughts." His analysis of the illusory nature of national sovereignty, boundaries, and hierarchical structure leads to the third criticism, that the nation was not a moral wellspring but a lair of iniquity. Only the individual—each and every individual—was a creator of value. Collective activities were not the achievements of abstract groups or the fame of the group's leader but were the individual's creation. Implicit in this conclusion were doubts regarding the right of collective cause to command the lives of individuals and interpret their significance. Viewed from the perspective of modern revolutionary history, this pertains to the rationale of revolution, the ethicality of the call to revolution, the validity of the modernist tendency to link the self with the macroprocess of history, and the natural legitimacy of the modern nation-state and its enterprises. Whereas a religious cause, which calls for the dedication of the lives of those who pursue it, often does not sacrifice anyone else, "the cause of the nation is different. Is it racial revolution? Political revolution? Social revolution? At any rate, it is not to be accomplished by dint of the individual going through hell and high water. If I advocate [the revolution's] commencement, then hundreds of millions of people will follow me and go through hell and high water…. If one can only speak of corpses and regard it as something worthy of lofty fame, then how is [carrying out revolution] different from banditry?" In the eyes of Zhang, those such as Yao, Shun, Washington, Napoleon, Bahktin, and Kropotkin, who saw their calling as working for social change and the national project, could not be compared with those such as Sakyamuni, Epicurus, Chen Zhongzi, and Guan Ying, who risked their lives for all humankind, because the former had made their names as a result of the sacrifice of others.