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Zhang Taiyan's Concept of the Individual and Modern Chinese Identity
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4. The Omission of Societal Space
in the Binary Formulation of Individual and Nation

Within the particular nationalist atmosphere of the late Qing, Zhang Taiyan employed the "reality" of the individual to negate the "falsity" of the nation, and used the negative freedom of the individual to critique the freedom of the nation-state. Thus the provisional concept of the individual had profound political implications. Instead of posing a three-way, nation/society/individual relation in discussing the problem of the individual, Zhang elided society, configuring it together with nation in opposition to the individual. In this way, the relationship of mutual stimulation and restraint between nonnational and nongovernmental social organizations, and the nation or government, did not fall within the sphere of discussion.

One of the primary motifs of modern Chinese thought is the formation of the concept of the society, and the popularity of concepts of gong (public) and qun (grouping) that was directly related to the influx of Western thought and learning regarding "society." Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao's theoretical investigation and political practice concerning "learned groups" (learned societies), "commercial groups" (chambers of commerce), and "national groups" (national associations) developed around the pivot of the relationship between society and the nation (primarily the imperial court). This was how the power of a morally constituted society could check imperial authority and complete the reconstruction of the social and political systems. For Liang Qichao and Yan Fu, the individual's autonomy was inseparable from the establishment of social contract groups and modern state systems. On the one hand, the autonomous social grouping could mediate the process of social mobilization necessary for the establishment of the modern nation-state. On the other, the restraint imposed on the state by the autonomous social grouping


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provided a public space for individual freedom, hence the fact that so many Western scholars used the designations "civil society" and "public sphere" to explain the theory and practice of the modern Chinese "grouping." In other words, Liang and Yan's individual was a concept within the category of the grouping and the nation-state. According to Liang Qichao, "The reason why our China does not establish an independent nation is only because our people lack the virtue of independence."[52] Liang's formulation of the individual's independence used the establishment of national morality as its means and the establishment of an independent nation-state as its end, and the formation of the social group was a mediating stage.

However, Zhang's concept of the individual not only opposed the nation but was asocial. As he said in "Sihuo lun," "What mankind commonly acknowledges is that one cannot encroach on society for the sake of the individual, nor encroach on the individual for the sake of society." What was referred to here as society included the nation, the government, and all social groups organized by people as individual units. The individual did not come into being because of the nation, society, or other people, and thus did not acknowledge laws, responsibilities, or duties.[53] Within the entire order of phenomena, no phenomenon composed of other constituents had self-nature— "not only the nation, but all of its villages, settlements, groups, and assemblies." It was only each person who truly possessed self-nature.[54] "Wuwu lun" fully expressed the various aspects of Zhang's social thought: that is, there was no government, no settlements, no humankind, no groupings, and no world. The development of the Five Nonexistences involved three stages. At the first stage, there was no government and no settlements; at the second, no humankind and no groupings; at the third, no world. Zhang first treated the individual as an element within all social organizations. These organizations structured discriminating relations, all of which had no self-nature. Thus on the social level, the denial of the nation and other social groups originated in the demand that the individual be liberated from all discriminating relationships. This suggests that Zhang's social thought not only was anarchist but also antisocial. Thus the individual as social atom could also be divided, because, "speaking of the atom, at root it has no space, but later takes shape through mutual contact. Since it has no space, it is amassed into a unity. How could there have been mutual contact? This shows that all talk about the atom is nonsense."[55] This is why he denied humankind, the living beings, and the world altogether.

One particularly important aspect of Zhang's denial of social collectivities is his idea of "no-settlement." Why did Zhang reject the autonomous social group so valued by Liang Qichao and others? According to the Western historical experience, especially that of western Europe, were not civil society and the public it engendered the base conditions for the limitation of state power and the formation of democratic society? The key to an answer to these questions is the fact that society, in Zhang's definition, comprised all kinds of nonindividual collectivities, including the nation, which is quite different from the Habermasian civil society standing outside the state and bearing special relation to the individual's private domain. More important, within the late Qing context, both the dynamism of urban


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charter associations and the practice of forming them, and the reinterpretation and utilization of the social functions of kin and gentry-based communities, aimed to establish the modern nation-state and carry out social mobilization. The formation of western European civil society took place in the context of the development of the nation-state. In late Qing China, however, various social groups were formed against the background of the decline of the state apparatus. European civil society, and the public sphere built on it, played a crucial role in restricting the despotic state and became a social foundation of the democratic system. In the Chinese case, the civic groups and gentry-village communities employed by the Qing government and a sector of intellectuals had a completely different significance. These groups not only aimed primarily to establish a nation-state but were state or quasistate organs in their very conception, establishment, and social functioning. Founders and members of late Qing learned societies, chambers of commerce, and other social organizations were usually gentry and intellectuals with close ties to the government, and some were officials themselves. The appearance of these social organizations was part of the top-down national reform movement of the late Qing. This demonstrates the lack of a clear division between the activities of these social groups and those of the state. Civic organizations themselves were important means for state making, especially the means for the state authority to penetrate grassroots society and strengthen its political and economic control. The state was at the center of all societal activities. This helped to explain the ambiguity of the concept of "the groupings" in the late Qing: most social organizations used the grouping as a rubric, and the highest level of grouping was the "great grouping," which referred to the nation-state. Once we see this, we recognize that Zhang's critique of "the settlement" and all kinds of social grouping was an integral part of his critique of the nation.


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