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Tao Jiang

Mar 24, 2022

Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China

Contestation of Humaneness, Justice, and Personal Freedom

Oxford University Press, USA 2021

When we think of pre-Buddhism Chinese philosophy, ideas such as filial piety and “the Dao” might come to mind. But what was at stake in the philosophical debates of early Chinese thinkers, from Confucius to Zhuangzi? What were the epistemic legacies that they have left for the world?

In Origins of Moral Political Philosophy in Early China (Oxford University Press 2021), Tao Jiang remaps the intellectual landscape of early Chinese philosophy (6th to 2nd centuries BCE) and reveals that most if not all of the classical Chinese philosophers, from Confucius to Zhuangzi, engaged with the three ideas of humaneness, justice, and personal freedom in one way or another to construct their visions of the world. By charting the trajectory of core philosophical values in early China and beyond, Jiang makes the case in the book that the philosophical dialectics between the partialist humaneness and the impartialist justice formed the fundamental dynamics underlying the mainstream moral-political project of early China, with the musing on personal freedom as the outlier.

Historically, the flourishing of these “various masters and hundred schools” (zhuzi baijia) was situated within the period between the collapse of the Zhou order, which had represented the ideal of peace and prosperity, and the rise of the Qin state, which eventually consolidated a centralized government. Jiang points out that “Almost all classical thinkers of this period were trying to reconstitute a lost order by appealing to ritual (or tradition), (human)nature, objective standards that included moral and penal codes, or some combination of these, in order to imagine, conceptualize, and construct a new world that was morally compelling and/or politically alluring.”

Specifically, Jiang lays out three key points in retelling the story about classical Chinese philosophy. First, due to the collapse of an older order, early Chinese philosophers were tasked with the challenge to imagine a new moral-socio-political order. Thus, Jiang argues, the central intellectual challenge for philosophers like Confucius, Mozi, Laozi, and the fajia (Legalists) thinkers was to negotiate the relationship between the personal, the familial, and the political domains. As Jiang highlights in the book, how each philosopher envisioned this relationship between the private and the public realms also depended on how they envisioned the cosmos, or Heaven.

Second, Jiang identifies two main competing visions emerging from the early Chinese philosophical debates: partialist humaneness and impartialist justice. Philosophers such as the Confucians, the Mohists, the Laoists, and the fajia (Legalists) thinkers all claimed positions on a spectrum situated between these two visions. Jiang reminds us here that it is very important to see the fajia thinkers as central players instead of an anomaly, as they have been often portrayed in standard narratives of Chinese philosophy.

Third, Jiang contends that Zhuangzi and the Zhuangists were in fact the (lone) outliers of this mainstream philosophical debate between partialist humaneness and impartialist justice. Embracing instead a vision for personal freedom under a naturalized Heaven, the Zhuangist project was about thriving on the margins of the state as well as in people’s heartminds (xin). Jiang shows in the book that for the Zhuangists, the mainstream debate about humaneness and justice was considered to be “intellectually banal, morally misguided, and politically dangerous.” However, as Jiang also shows in the book, the Zhuangists political vision of personal freedom was “tragically futile” against the mainstream intellectual preoccupations with humaneness and justice.

One insightful intervention of the book is Jiang’s critical reflections of what he calls the “regimes of self-cultivation” that almost all early Chinese philosophers were embedded in. Jiang points out sharply that in the “regimes of self-cultivation,” the “ordinary” selves that were cultivated were not ordinary at all. In fact, they were often exemplars of unique virtues of paragons of special skills, even though their social status varied widely. Jiang believes that these “regimes of self-cultivation,” which has had a “tenacious grip” on the mainstream Chinese intellectual discourses and did not take ordinary individuals seriously, might have contributed to the limited influence of the Zhuangist personal freedom in pre-modern Chinese philosophical imaginaire.

In the Conclusion of the book, Jiang invites the readers to contemplate on “a path not taken in Chinese history,” a path that combined the Zhuangist ideal of personal freedom and the impartialist, public, and transparent fajia political system. He proposes, “If the Zhuangist personal freedom can be integrated into the fajia political framework to create a new ideal of political order, this can initiate a brand new political and intellectual imagination from underexplored traditional sources in the early Chinese philosophical discourse. It can provide a powerful alternative to the contemporary discussion on the possibility of liberal democracy in China that has been, understandably, dominated by various Confucian-based speculations.”

More importantly, this “path not taken” requires rethinking the “regimes of self-cultivation.” Jiang concludes, “To develop a Zhuangist imaginaire of political freedom that safeguards an individual against the encroachment of others and the state, thinkers in the Chinese tradition need to think through the implications of such a world from the vantage point of an ordinary, average person. This requires a paradigm shift, away from the axiomatic premise of self-cultivation and epistemic superiority of a cultivated sage, an assumption that is shared by almost all traditional Chinese thinkers, including Zhuangzi.”

Professor Tao Jiang is a scholar of classical Chinese philosophy and Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. He is the author of this new book, Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China (Oxford University Press 2021), and Contexts and Dialogue: Yogācāra Buddhism and Modern Psychology on the Subliminal Mind (University of Hawai'i Press 2006), as well as the co-editor of The Reception and Rendition of Freud in China (Routledge 2017). He chairs the Department of Religion and directs the Center for Chinese Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. He is a co-chair of the Neo-Confucian Studies Seminar at Columbia University.

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation is a digital humanities project mapping the history of transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting early twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.

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Daigengna Duoer

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation is a digital humanities project mapping the history of transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting early twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.

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