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Zhang Taiyan: Daoist Individualism and Political Reality

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

Zhang Taiyan is one of the most powerful thinkers in modern times. From the 1890s he began reading European works of philosophy, history, and thought as they became available in Japanese translation. He also began to assess this knowledge in the framework of his Chinese training and scholarship. Specializing in the study of the Confucian classics, by his early twenties he had distinguished himself through his philological research on ancient texts. Aware of his intellectual prowess, he had an uncompromising belief in the judgments of his subjective self. His notion of the self and its relationship with society was based on the Daoist philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi: An individual’s actions are dictated by the self, not by any other person, or by the society, the nation, ideology, or religion; he saw himself as an individual, but also as being at one with society. Escalating foreign encroachments on Chinese territorial sovereignty and the extreme suffering of the people from the 1890s was for him a viscerally perceived experience. He therefore had no option but to engage in politics. However, his Daoist individualism made him unsuited to politics, and his liaisons with various agents of change inevitably failed. Nonetheless, his cogently argued essays calling for the expulsion of the Manchu rulers significantly contributed to the successful outcome of the revolutionary cause. In the post-Manchu era, his opposition to a Western-style parliamentary system in favor of the appointment of the meritorious and worthy either created enemies or fell on deaf ears. His entry into politics had resulted in ignoble failure, and this has consigned him to historical obscurity until very recent times. This study focuses on Zhang Taiyan as a rational human being acting in the context of extraordinary historical circumstances and seeks to demonstrate how his thinking remains relevant for understanding the nature of meaningful human existence not just in China in his times, but also in the globalized world of today.


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