Let us turn to the historical significance of Zhang's proposition that "the individuated is the real; the collective is the illusory."
First, in Zhang Taiyan's writing, there is little mention of society, and the individual is set up in opposition to the state in a binary relationship. This has much to do with the historical circumstances in which the notion of society was articulated. Late Qing societal organizations such as chambers of commerce, urban guilds, and so forth often functioned as the entities in between state and society and were organized to help with the tasks of state building, society making, and individual making. As an anti-Manchu nationalist, Zhang rejected all social action in this form as attempts to help consolidate and even enhance the power of the
Second, within the individual/state mode of discourse, the individual would never again be an abstract philosophical concept, but would be imbued with a complex structure of meaning. The meaning of the individual, with its absolute sovereignty and absolute equality in existence, had emerged in a concrete social context. Zhang's concept of the individual contained fierce negation of all "coercive" boundaries, such as nationalism, statism, and notions of village and patriarchy. With regard to the state, since the individual was the basis of anarchistic thought, the individual also functioned as the basis for the declaration of popular sovereignty (with the people as individuals). With regard to modern bureaucratic structures, since the concept of the individual eliminated all rationalized social hierarchies, the concept also carried an inherent demand for political equality. With regard to economic structures, since the individual was a rationale for equal rights to the land, the individual was also a source of state socialist thought. With regard to urban groups, since the concept of the individual denied contractual relations, the concept was also the rejection of the individual/society/state mode of discourse. With regard to the patriarchal system and village associations, since the concept of the individual critiqued the gentry-village community (especially that composed of kin and local ties) as an instrument for the expansion of state power, the individual, thus conceptualized, also completely denied the traditional Chinese ethical structure. With this last point, I want to remark on the fact that although on the cultural and intellectual level Zhang promoted the "national essence" and the Chinese tradition, he rejected the clan and other traditional social groups as he developed his concept of the individual. This rejection provided an intellectual logic for modern Chinese antitraditionalism.
One of the central issues in May Fourth antitraditional thought was, as we know, the opposition between the individual, on the one hand, and the family system and traditional ethics, on the other. What deserves particular mention is the fact that Zhang's strong concept of the individual was not yet an intellectual source for capitalist rights to private property or an ethical precondition for a modern state system characterized by democracy. In other words, the individual and its related discourse certainly did not foster a Western-style individualistic culture. On the contrary, within the political, economic, and social sphere, the concept of the individual developed a politically anarchistic, economically socialist, and socially antihierarchical
Third, on the level of politics, Zhang's radical negation of the nation and all social groups, as developed in his concept of the individual, had deep links with his anti-Manchu nationalism. This was because concepts of nation and social groups, as developed by Zhang's contemporaries at the turn of the century, had been predicated upon an acceptance of the legitimate authority of the Qing government. In this fashion, the radical opposition between the individual and the people (which is also a group) in Zhang's thinking had an immediate, practical consequence. The establishment of the Chinese people as a nation meant seizure of political power from the Manchus by the Han people. Moreover, the concept of the individual in principle underscored the hollowness of official state-making endeavors launched by the Qing court. In this sense, the concept of the individual was an integral part of the discursive structure of the modern Chinese people and nation.
Fourth, the concept of the individual is both self-negating and self-transcending. Zhang had argued that, within the opposition of the individual and the state, collective entities lacked subjectivity. In the end, he asserted that entities without subjectivity were but human artifices, thereby bringing up the concept of no-mankind. Furthermore, in consideration of the history of human evolution, he raised the concept of no-organisms, in order to evade the possibility that microorganisms reconstruct humankind and its society through evolution. Finally, based on the Buddhist doctrine of nonbeing, he raised the concept of the nonworld. Actually, all these arcane concepts drew from the Buddhist principles of "man without self" and "dharma without self." The concept of the individual, then, was self-negating because the individual "always took clinging to alayavijnana to be the self, clinging to self-as-real as presented in consciousness, and thoughts of good and evil arose." Moreover, this sort of self and self-as-real were biases and illusory realizations born out of discriminating relations. In other words, what Zhang called the individual and the true (eternal, real, and universal) self were separate. This kind of individual was one without substance, and thus the individual itself was not a phenomenon possessing self-nature and could not become a final source of moral identity. The self thus became a concept of self-transcendence: it had to look elsewhere for substance or self-nature. The separation between the individual and self-nature (ego) was the most prominent characteristic of Zhang's provisional concept of the self. This kind of separation determined that the self would not have its own depth or inherence and could not become a foundation for value or identity. It also determined the inherent logic of Zhang's thought: his emphasis on the individual in the end led to the denial of the individual itself and toward a cosmic type of pursuit for religion, faith, and universality. This was the intellectual dynamic that gave rise to the cosmic vision in his "theory of establishing religion" and "theory of making all things equal."
Fifth, within the framework of the three-natures theory and the "theory of making all things equal," Zhang discussed the question of the individual on the ontological and cosmological levels. In other words, at least in form, the concept of the individual and the concepts of the society and collectivity were unrelated. This means that the concept has nothing to do with what Lucian Pye called "sense of belonging to a collectivity," but rather concerns the problem of the individual's identity—the position and modes of existence—within the cosmos. Whether it be Zhang's demonstration of the individual's subjectivity or his doubts with regard to the real existence of the individual, neither lay within the relationship of individual and society, individual and collectivity, or even individual and self. This special rhetoric concerning the individual and his or her substance determined that Zhang's concepts of freedom and equality would be suprasocial. Thus the relationship of equality among phenomena (including people and things, people and people, and things and things) was a principle of cosmic existence and original (natural) condition, and freedom was another form of expression for this principle and condition. Even though Zhang hinted that this should also be a political and moral principle regulating relations among nations and peoples, this freedom and equality involved no concepts of rights or duty; they did not belong to the spheres of law or morality, much less to the sphere of property. We know already that within the context of "taking the uneven as even," all phenomena have their own character and principles; but we do not know if adjustment or moderation are needed between self and self, or between principle and principle. In other words, in Zhang's mode of discourse, between the individual and the individual there was no mediator of any sort, especially with respect to society.
Zhang's concept of freedom and equality did not contain the principle that the individual precedes the social structure. Nor did it contain the principle that the social structure precedes the appearance of the individual. This was because the term "social" implied a kind of order, an apprehensible entity, a discriminating relationship, a universality, and a despotic and violent potentiality. Zhang's concept of the individual and its related discourse here involved political and social applications, but not political or social science. The political nature of Zhang's social philosophy not only led to differences in his ideas about the individual and its mode of discourse and set them apart from those articulated by Liang Qichao and Yan Fu, but it also led to differences in related ideas developed in modern Western social thought. Zhang's emphasis on self-reliance and the destruction of gongli did not lead to an argument in favor of an individual's absolute subjectivity, but to a case for the supremacy of cosmic principle and the idea of gong. This gong stemmed neither from a ritual system nor from a society, but from a natural principle of absolute equality. The reason Zhang's concept of the individual was fundamentally provisional was because only the gong had an eternal, natural condition. Although Zhang's use of the individual to oppose the nation was apparently an extreme case of individualism, he did not see the individual as a source of value