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Zhang Taiyan's Concept of the Individual and Modern Chinese Identity
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On June 29, 1906, Zhang Taiyan was released from prison upon completing his term, and he left for Japan, where he became managing editor of the revolutionary organ Minbao. Between September 9, 1906, and October 10, 1908, when the paper ceased publication, Zhang published, apart from numerous political essays, a series of essays on philosophy and religion that spelled out the theoretical basis of his sociopolitical concepts. These essays were well circulated at the time, and they elicited considerable response in the printed media of the day. Zhang used these essays both to launch attacks on major contemporary thinkers such as Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Yan Fu and to articulate an alternative worldview that was sharply different from a modernist one based on concepts of publicness (gong), grouping, and evolution.

Among the core concepts of Zhang's worldview were "the individual" and "self-nature." Zhang Taiyan developed concepts about individuality (geti), subjectivity, and other terms to attack contemporary constructions of the nation, the government, the family, the society, and humankind. In doing so, he sought to establish a new ethical revolutionary morality that drew upon a Yogacaric interpretation of Zhuangzi's Qiwu lun (On the equality of all things).[7] This is the most complicated and difficult period in Zhang Taiyan's thought, not only because his prose is archaic and obscure but also because he employed a difficult Buddhist vocabulary to express his social thought. To add to the difficulty, the relationship between his intellectual system—in which self-nature and the individual were positive concepts—and his politics contained elements of contradiction. There are

two points to this contradiction. First, the concept of the individual, as developed by intellectuals of his day, has served as an important foundation for modern moral and political thinking; this was especially true in the modernist critique of tradition. In the case of Zhang, however, there is a critical dimension to his conception of the individual that was aimed at the denial of the self in modern political thought. Furthermore, Zhang's concepts of self-nature and the individual are opposed to the universal and the collective. They are ostensibly anticollective. But in truth, in Zhang's thinking there was no more important practical mission than construction of a collective national identity.

Many have tried to explain this contrariness of Zhang Taiyan's thought as a contradiction between practical missions and future ideals. They have also pointed to sudden changes and confusion in Zhang's own thinking. But in the interpretation of modern Chinese identity and its multifaceted nature, these explanations are less than useful. Zhang's criticisms of modernity (especially his criticism of the modern concept of time, which leads directly to notions of progress and evolution) became the core ideas for modern morality and literary theory for his students, including Lu Xun. The concept of the individual has, of course, become a key element of modern thought within May Fourth literature, and its rationality is built on a progressive notion of time. How did Zhang Taiyan's concept of the individual, which denies the self and opposes modernity, become an intellectual fountainhead of modern identity (as it did for Lu Xun)?

Before analyzing the sociopolitical import of Zhang Taiyan's concept of the individual, I would like to outline the various nuances of Zhang's concept of this key subject and spell out its implications. To begin with, Zhang's individual is an absolute, subjective entity: "[The individual] does not come into being because of the world, the society, the nation, or other people. Thus the individual fundamentally has no responsibility toward the world, the society, the nation, and toward people."[8] In other words, the individual is not a constituent of the world, a member of society, a citizen of the nation, a follower of a religion, or a relative or friend of others. The condition of being an individual is, in fact, an "absolute" standing above and beyond all commands or external discipline, whether legal, political, social, or economic.[9]

Second, the limit of individual freedom lies in the proscription against harming others. The basic meaning of individual freedom is a freedom of refusal; aided by this freedom, individuals are able to resist the claims of things that assume the form of the suprapersonal, whether social, historical, or natural. Conservative, reclusive, or suicidal behavior is the highest expression of individual subjectivity, because it is a behavior of refusal. It expresses the individual's freedom to refuse all the things that "even the gods cannot interfere with," such as responsibility and duty. Zhang compares public principle (gongli) to heavenly principle (tianli) and sees both as the antithesis of individual freedom.[10]

Unlike tianli, which is grounded in metaphysics, gongli is societal and "uses the society's ever-abiding power to suppress the individual." In this regard the ruthlessness and mercilessness of gongli even surpass the heavenly principle.[11] In other

words, modern society and its organizational ideology are far more suppressive than the traditional authoritarian society, which grounded its ethical system in the concept of heavenly principle.

Third, Zhang Taiyan regards this absolute concept of the individual as a cosmic principle that is intended to make all things equal. In Zhang's thinking, the concept of the individual provides the foundation of a mode of knowledge as well as a system of ethics for coping with the world. This means that his concept of the individual, just like the concept of the individual embedded in a modern worldview, was intended to solve basic problems of social identity. However, Zhang does not take universalistic concepts as true social law; he accepts instead an absolute individual subjectivity. Zhang quotes Zhuangzi, especially the qiwu ("making all things equal") chapter, and praises the Daoist philosopher's teaching that all beings should be allowed to follow their preferences. This teaching, according to Zhang, is far superior to the theory of public principle (gongli). Furthermore, Zhang draws attention to Hegel's notion that "all matters accord with reason; all things are beautiful." Zhang points out that the two positions, by Zhuangzi and Hegel, seem comparable. The former, however, takes the human mind as the root of difference and an obstacle in making things equal, while the latter takes common purpose as the ultimate destination and sees the multitude as a passage toward that destination. There is an immense distance, then, between Zhuangzi and Hegel, according to Zhang.[12] By underscoring the differences between the two, Zhang Taiyan shaped his concepts of qiwu and the individual into a cosmic view that is antideterministic and antiteleological.

In the same fashion, Zhang attacks evolution, materialism, and naturalism by calling attention to his conception of the individual, and reveals the absurdity and falsehood of public principle (gongli). Evolution, materialism, and naturalism were key concepts that lay the foundation of modern notions of science and its publicness (gong), which in turn became the basis of a theory of social change. Zhang argues, however, that natural law, such as the principle of evolution, does not in itself bear relevance to human affairs: "To follow natural law offers no merit and to oppose it is no crime." But those who subscribe to evolution hate those who do not and accuse them of violating the laws of nature.[13] In the eyes of Zhang Taiyan, the modern worldview was composed of public principle (gongli), evolution, materialism, naturalism, and similar "fundamental intellectual delusions." If one allowed these delusions to create a moral order, then the gongli of these delusions would provide a foundation for a dangerous despotism, for they would not only eliminate human intelligence but would also take away human happiness and freedom, especially those of the individual. Only by completely wiping out these delusive concepts could the natural order be saved from the interference and intimidation of the supranatural world formed by these concepts and names.

Zhang's criticism of a worldview of gongli was derived from the Buddhist theory of cosmic "truth," especially its ideas regarding dependent causation and impermanence. It was not, however, a simple extension of Buddhist thought. When Zhang opposed individual subjectivity against the various kinds of gongli, as seen

above, he perceived this gongli as merely a repressive power surrounding and oppressing the individual. Although the individual had no self-nature to speak of, the individual was a relatively real entity, even an adequate foundation of morality for "the restoration of all Chinese."[14]

However, the connection between the individual and morality as discussed above should not be seen too simplistically. The individual took precedence over gongli, evolution, materialism, and nature, on the one hand, and government, nation, society, and family, on the other. This priority, however, derived from the individual's proximity to, rather than true possession of, self-nature. Furthermore, the link between the individual and morality was established within the complex relationship between the individual and the Buddhist "nonself." What the Buddhists called the self meant governance and substance: "The eternal is called the self; the unmoving is called the self; and the indestructible is called the self."[15] The concept of nonself entails that nothing that exists is an independent, unchanging, self-existent, and self-determining substance, and nothing possesses a self-governing principle or capacity. Because of this dependent causation, all phenomena arise within the conditions of interdependence and thus are relative and provisional.

If the concept of the individual—which opposed that of publicness (gong) and the consequent "impartial" modern worldview and ethics of the family, nation, and society—was to be reduced to nonself, might this not lead to moral nihilism? Or, if the individual had no self, then did a true self exist? If it did, then how did the true self relate to the individual? Using suicide as an example, Zhang argued that the person who undertook suicide to "save the self" did not "take the form as the self." Thus outside the form there must be something called the self. Suicide could be explained as a means of escaping the self-form that is shackled by the world and of attaining the true self. The self that committed suicide was thus the alayavijnana in an illusory form.[16] Compared with the self-form, which lacked substance, universality, and eternity, only alayavijnana was the true self: it was a universal, eternal, subjective, and "completely free self." On the one hand, it was the source of the self, the other, and all phenomena; on the other hand, it abided amid all phenomena.[17] Zhang thus treated the true self, alayavijnana, and suchness as a single substance possessed by all things: it was permanent and immutable. Since he believed that alayavijnana was not limited to the individual, what he called the "eternal," "unmoving," and "indestructible" "self" was in fact a "greater self," a universal substance that transcended the world of phenomena, much like the Kantian notion of the "thing-in-itself." The moral implications of this would be: "If we can substantiate the nonself, then the world will begin to possess the great compassion of equality."[18] Thus, Zhang regarded the principle of equality not as an ethical rule but an ontological state. This was the basis of the linkages that he identified between Yogacaric thought and Zhuangzi's concept of qiwu. It was also the intellectual bridge that led him from the concept of the individual—advanced as the antithesis of the impartial and grouping—to the concept of a supreme publicness (dagong) that transcended the individual.


Zhang's criticism of the worldview of gongli begins with a defense of subjectivity and concludes with a negation of the individual and the individual's subjectivity. His ultimate goal, therefore, is not the absolute, subjective individuality, but universality in the ontological sense. This kind of universality is the origin of the cosmos and of the ethics and morality that society should adhere to. This suggests that Zhang did not make the individual's subjectivity the ultimate moral foundation: it only serves as the premise of his criticism of "public principle" and a worldview associated with it. His concept of the self as nonself actually approximated those "public" ideals (gong) from an ontological perspective. His universal principle, however, certainly did not impose on the individual restrictive demands in the name of gong, particularly the restrictive moral codes formed within a hierarchical social structure.[19]

Through the negation of the universal (gongli) Zhang arrives at an affirmation of the universal (dagong), and the new foundation of identity is confirmed. This peculiar thinking process is constructed in the language of the Buddhist Yogacara school and the thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi. We will see that these apparently difficult, self-contradictory, abstract ideas were closely tied with Zhang Taiyan's direct engagement with sociopolitical issues.

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Zhang Taiyan's Concept of the Individual and Modern Chinese Identity
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