A Different Type of Individualism in Zhuangzi

Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 10 (4):445-462 (2011)
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Although being widely considered as only a Western tradition, individualism is not absent in traditional Chinese philosophy and culture. In some of the classic Chinese philosophic works such as Zhuangzi, we can clearly identify some elements which can be appropriately attributed to “individualism”, such as the awareness of individual “self” as an independent and unique existence, advocating individual freedom and liberty, emphasizing on the value and dignity of individual life, favoring individuals’ autonomy and privacy, pursuing unconstrained development in personality and spirituality. However, due to its particular pre-Qin social cultural background and its unique Daoist philosophic origin, this kind of individualism in Zhuangzi has its own unique characteristics, which has made it distinguishable from the variety of other individualist thoughts emerged in different times and places in the West. Zhuangzi has a dynamic and open view on individual or “self”, he does not consider individuals as fixed and interchangeable “atoms” but as dynamic, changing and unique beings, he set the unlimited and indefinable Dao as the only and ultimate source for individuals to conform to, thus to release individual mind into an realm of infinite openness and freedom. Zhuangzian individualism is “inward” rather than “outward”, which means while concentrating on individuals’ freedom of spirit and innate nature, it cares less about individuals’ outside material interests and rights in social reality, and does not encourage competition and rivalry among individuals. The special type of individualism in Zhuangzi has a profound influence on Chinese culture, providing a spiritual space for the development of individuality and personality in ancient China. It also provides an alternative understanding of individual as an existence.

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