Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics
240pp. June 2010
Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics
Author: Brindley, Erica Fox;
Conventional wisdom has it that the concept of individualism was absent in early China. In this uncommon study of the self and human agency in ancient China, Erica Fox Brindley provides an important corrective to this view and persuasively argues that an idea of individualism can be applied to the study of early Chinese thought and politics with intriguing results. She introduces the development of ideological and religious beliefs that link universal, cosmic authority to the individual in ways that may be referred to as individualistic and illustrates how these evolved alongside and potentially helped contribute to larger sociopolitical changes of the time, such as the centralization of political authority and the growth in the social mobility of the educated elite class.

Starting with the writings of the early Mohists (fourth century BCE), Brindley analyzes many of the major works through the early second century BCE by Laozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and Han Feizi, as well as anonymous authors of both received and excavated texts. Changing notions of human agency affected prevailing attitudes toward the self as individual—in particular, the onset of ideals that stressed the power and authority of the individual, either as a conformist agent in relation to a larger whole or as an individualistic agent endowed with inalienable cosmic powers and authorities. She goes on to show how distinctly internal (individualistic), external (institutionalized), or mixed (syncretic) approaches to self-cultivation and state control emerged in response to such ideals. In her exploration of the nature of early Chinese individualism and the various theories for and against it, she reveals the ways in which authors innovatively adapted new theories on individual power to the needs of the burgeoning imperial state.

With clarity and force, Individualism in Early China illuminates the importance of the individual in Chinese culture. By focusing on what is unique about early Chinese thinking on this topic, it gives readers a means of understanding particular "Chinese" discussions of and respect for the self.

“An excellent book on the anthropological foundations of agency and self-cultivation in China. . . . Religion is an eminently imaginative enterprise, and this monograph provides insight into how early Chinese authors imagined themselves in moral relation to their bodies, their politico-religious sovereigns, and the logos of the cosmos.” —Journal of Religion (2012)

“Contrary to common claims about the absence of individualism in early China and its supposed reification in ‘the West,’ both the Western and Chinese traditions have historically been characterized by diverse and constantly evolving attitudes toward the individual. This book serves as an important corrective to monolithic or essentializing accounts of early Chinese thought, and the narrative concerning the evolution of the concept of the individual in early China is an interesting and novel one. It will appeal widely to people working on early Chinese thought and comparative religion more broadly.” —Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia

“There is a great deal of resistance to the very applicability of the concept of individualism in early China. In this impressively ambitious project, Erica Brindley succeeds in deploying the concept to the understanding of early Chinese thought. In exploring the emergence of and response to distinctively Chinese forms of individuals, she puts some familiar and major texts in a surprising light as part of an overall dynamic. One of the significant lessons of this book is that there is a variety of ways to conceive of and value the individual.” —David Wong, Duke University

Author: Brindley, Erica Fox;
Erica Fox Brindley is assistant professor of history and religious studies at The Pennsylvania State University.
Read the introduction (PDF).

1. Individual Agency and Universal, Centralized Authority in Early Mohist Writings
2. Centralizing Control: The Politics of Bodily Conformism
3. Decentralizing Control and Naturalizing Cosmic Agency: Bodily Conformism and Individualism
4. Two Prongs of the Debate: Bodily Agencies vs. Claims for Institutional Controls
5. Servants of the Self and Empire: Institutionally Controlled Individualism at the Dawn of a New Era
6. Conclusion
Postscript: A Note on Chinese Individualism, Human Rights, and the Asian Values Debate

Works Cited