In comment #14 in this thread, I suggested that “parts of the Zhuāngzǐ are committed to a form of political liberalism, on which all individuals should be allowed to live, without government interference, in a way that comes naturally to and pleases them, provided they allow others to do so as well.”
It occurred to me that explicating this claim might make for an interesting post.
The Chinese political tradition is generally regarded as authoritarian, in cases even totalitarian, in both theory and practice. This view is one basis for certain claims about differences between traditional Asian and contemporary Western political cultures, which have sometimes been cited as grounds for resisting liberal democratic reforms in Asian countries.
According to the “Asian Values” rhetoric of the 1990s, for instance, Chinese political culture is traditionally authoritarian and communitarian. It supposedly emphasizes respect for authority and prizes social harmony, cohesion, and stability. The self-identity of people who live in this political culture is understood to be constituted, at least partly, by their relations to kin, community, and state. Individuals are expected to subordinate their interests to those of the social groups to which they belong, for the good individual life largely just is life as a contributing, cooperative member of the family, clan, community, or state.
These features supposedly contrast with the emphasis on equal respect, individualism, and pluralism embodied by liberal democratic theory and institutions. Liberalism tolerates or even encourages pluralism and individual expression and accepts reasonable disagreement about comprehensive conceptions of the good as a normal feature of political society.
I think the above generalizations about authoritarian and communitarian tendencies in Chinese political thought are a roughly accurate description of certain strands in the Chinese tradition. They are largely true of Xúnzǐ’s 荀子 political philosophy, for instance.
But some of them, at least, are certainly not true of all strands of traditional Chinese political thought. In this regard, I think the example of the Zhuāngzǐ 莊子 is particularly instructive, as it presents a recognizable form of liberalism that dates all the way back to the formative period of Chinese philosophy. (I think related claims can be defended about the Dàodéjīng as well, but I won’t do so here.) Zhuangist liberalism seems to me especially significant for two reasons. First, it is a clear counterexample to any claim that traditional Chinese political ideology is uniformly authoritarian and places little emphasis on individual liberty. Second, it has a distinctive character that sets it apart from familiar Western versions of liberalism. Specifically, Zhuangist liberalism is not grounded in either descriptive or normative individualism — as, for instance, certain versions of liberalism rooted in Kant’s or Mill’s philosophy are. We might call it, instead, a form of communitarian liberalism.
My arguments for these claims are complex and can’t be presented in full here. (Some preliminary arguments are presented in this paper.) But let me point to a few Zhuāngzǐ passages that provide especially direct grounds for them.
Consider, for instance, the second through fourth sections in book 7 of the Zhuāngzǐ, each of which touches on the topic of “governing” (治) the world. (These passages can be found here. For a better English translation, try here.)
- Section 2 criticizes a Xúnzǐ-like approach to governing, on which the ruler sets models and standards to be emulated by all, thus guiding their ethical “transformation” (化) into obedient, harmonious members of society. The text dismisses this approach as “fake dé” (欺德) and indicates that it is as impractical or ineffective as trying to walk over the ocean. The implication is that, contrary to Confucian and Mohist political thought, actively imposing ethical guidance on people — whether through “moral charisma” or other means — cannot succeed as a strategy of political rule. (I’ll omit discussion of the passage’s positive recommendations, which are less relevant to my purpose here.)
- Section 3 characterizes the proper approach to governing as one in which the ruler “follows how things are in themselves, without allowing any personal attitudes [of his own]” (順物自然而無容私焉). The ruler is not to impose his personal values or view of the good on those ruled, but instead to follow along with their inherent tendencies or patterns of life.
- Section 4 characterizes the rule of an “enlightened king” as, among other things, contributing to society while minimizing interference, such that his accomplishments seem not to issue from him personally (most likely, because they fully align with the needs and values of those he assists). Such a ruler creates circumstances in which “things” (including people) are “joyful in themselves” (使物自喜). That is, individuals achieve a form of self-fulfillment.
Passages such as these provide sufficient grounds, I think, for attributing a form of liberalism to the Zhuāngzǐ. But what’s particularly interesting is the basis for this liberalism. The ruler is to “follow how things are in themselves” not out of respect for them as individuals, but out of an understanding of their place, and his own, in the various patterns that make up dào 道, along with an appreciation of the justification for their way of life, which may be as strong as that for his own. Interfering with the “self-so” (自然) way in which his political subjects live is bucking the flow of the holistic dào of which he, they, and other things are parts. For the same reason, the common people should refrain from interfering with each other. Ideally, dào connects (通) everything together into a “community” of dé 德, the “power” in us exercised in adapting to and flowing along with the changing patterns of dào. (In the metaphysics of book 25 of the Zhuāngzǐ, the analogy of a “community” 丘里 is used to characterize dào; in the deeply romantic political theory of book 9 — which I take to be distinct but related to that of book 7 — people are depicted as living in “shared dé” 同德.)
So I think it plausible to call this Zhuangist political vision an indigenous, Chinese form of “communitarian liberalism.” I’m curious to hear what other people think.