Being towards death

Heed not to the tree-rustling and leaf-lashing rain, Why not stroll along, whistle and sing under its rein. Lighter and better suited than horses are straw sandals and a bamboo staff, Who's afraid? A palm-leaf plaited cape provides enough to misty weather in life sustain. A thorny spring breeze sobers up the spirit, I feel a slight chill, The setting sun over the mountain offers greetings still. Looking back over the bleak passage survived, The return in time Shall not be affected by windswept rain or shine.

How was the spark of "freethinking" extinguished in China?

Some people say that China has never had a soil for "liberalism" and no enlightenment movement.

Perhaps not. Among the various schools of thought, there was a person named Yang Zhu who advocated "valuing oneself," "for me," and "rebirth." He emphasized the protection of individual rights and respect for the rights of others. This is similar to Socrates' "rationality and morality" and "individual freedom," while the Western Enlightenment movement followed Epicurus' "social contract theory" about "private and public rights" more than 50 years later than Yang Zhu. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that Yang Zhu was the first person to advocate "the sanctity of individual rights that cannot be violated" in the world.

Historians believe that Yang Zhu's thinking was the awakening of individual self. Yang Zhu wanted to clarify the boundaries between individuals, collectives, society, and the state. In ancient China, it was precisely because of this blurred boundary that there was ignorance and tragedy of "sacrificing oneself for husband, ruler, and state."

Yang Zhu's "valuing oneself" thought is similar to the ancient Greek "freedom of reason" and the ancient Roman "independent personality" thought, both emphasizing individual rights, free will, and independent thinking. In the following two thousand years, "individual liberalism" became the mainstream thought driving the development of Western society. Thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau followed the ideas of Epicurus, perfected and practiced the "social contract theory," and promoted the occurrence of the Renaissance, Enlightenment movement, and democratic revolution.

However, the idea of "individual liberalism" was short-lived in China and did not revive for more than two thousand years in that era of "hundred schools of thought" and free thinking.

Why did the "freedom" thoughts of the East and the West have such different fates?

The only explanation is that the Confucianism and Legalism, which tend to conform to power, dominated China's later historical process, and the criticism and suppression of Yang Zhu by the various schools of thought, especially Confucianism, was the direct reason.

The Confucianist "collectivism" is the opponent of "individualism," and the Legalist "authoritarianism" is the enemy of "liberalism." The fusion of Confucianism and Legalism, the "centralized authoritarian rule," naturally cannot accommodate the thought of "individual liberalism."

So, while Western society experienced the flourishing of "private property is sacred and inviolable" from the ancient Roman code to the Renaissance, from religious reform to the Enlightenment movement, from the Dutch independence revolution to the glorious revolution in England, and then to the astonishing American independence, China has been spinning in the "authoritarian centralized rule" of "imperial power and emperor system."

Authoritarian rule will never regard a person as an "independent personality." In the eyes of authoritarian rulers, people are just objects, animals, servants, or slaves at best, merely tools of the collective. Therefore, the idea of "individual liberalism" has not had a fertile soil since the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period.

Ironically, Yang Zhu, the originator of such "freethinking," can only be understood through the criticism of him by the various schools of thought. From Mencius onwards, almost all references to Yang Zhu were made for the purpose of criticism. Yang Zhu was just a negative example of orthodox Chinese thought.

Whether Yang Zhu had any writings or they were lost is still a mystery. Perhaps we are more inclined to believe that it was the result of the "burning of books" and "prohibition of speech" by authoritarian rule. After all, we can infer from Mencius' words, "The words of Yang Zhu and Mo Di filled the world. If the words of the world do not return to Yang, they will return to Mo," that Yang Zhu had many followers and fans during that era of "hundred schools of thought." How could such "words of the world" not have any writings?

Nevertheless, we can still trace the ideological context of Yang Zhu through the words of Mencius and those who criticized him.

Yang Zhu advocated "valuing oneself" and "rebirth," which means that the "right to survival" is the most important. He emphasized individual human nature and dignity, namely "freedom" and "rights." Yang Zhu believed that people are born with desires, and if they have desires, they should be moderately satisfied. So, "people live for themselves." However, Confucianism criticized Yang Zhu's "valuing oneself" and "rebirth" as "selfish, decadent, and corrupt" because it contradicted Confucius' emphasis on "valuing benevolence" and "valuing the public."

In fact, during the late Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, the princes fought each other, causing harm for personal gain, and the kings' excessive generosity led to the disregard for the lives of their subjects. The talk of "valuing the public" and "valuing benevolence" had become hypocritical.

Yang Zhu, who was disillusioned with the world, advocated the saying, "I will not sacrifice a hair for the benefit of the world." Even if I only use a single hair of mine to exchange for the benefits of the world, I won't do it. The various schools of thought criticized this as "extreme selfishness" and "not giving up anything." Yang Zhu's disciple Meng Sunyang argued, "If sacrificing a hair means harming the skin, or sacrificing a limb, is it worth it? If someone today plucks a hair from you in the name of benefiting the world, tomorrow they will cut off one of your legs, and the day after tomorrow, they will demand your head. This seems to align with the modern Western individualistic thought, which is to be highly vigilant against the hands of government power and to protect individual rights at all costs.

Yang Zhu also said, "Give me all the benefits of the world, and I won't accept them." From this perspective, Yang Zhu opposed the idea of "under heaven, there is no land that is not the king's, and on the shores of the land, there are no subjects who are not the king's." He supported "valuing oneself" and "rebirth," but at the same time, he also opposed "infringing upon others" and "indulging in desires." He believed that wisdom should be valued for serving oneself, and violence for violating others' property is shameful. While defending individual rights, one should also respect the rights of others and oppose the infringement of "rights" by "power."

Yang Zhu's reflection on the ideal society is, "If everyone does not harm the world by a hair, and does not benefit the world, then the world will be governed." He said, "If one governs externally but not internally, things may not be governed; if one governs internally but not externally, things may not be chaotic. If I govern internally like this, it can be extended to the world." If everyone governs themselves and does not harm or violate others, if everyone respects and loves themselves, then everyone will find their place, and the world will be governed, right?

It is this moral position and ideological doctrine that advocates the inviolability of the right to life, freedom, and property, emphasizing the intrinsic value of individuals, that was isolated and hunted down by the various schools of thought.

Mencius criticized Yang and Mo together, saying, "If the Yang school is for me, then there is no ruler; if the Mo school loves all, then there is no father. Without a father and ruler, they are beasts." Mencius accused Yang and Mo of spreading false teachings and obstructing benevolence and righteousness.

"Yang school is for me" is Mencius' core argument against Yang Zhu, and "not giving up a hair" is a brilliant description of his ethical attitude. When Mencius criticized Yang and Mo, he also revealed the true nature of standing with Confucianism in support of authoritarian rule, saying, "Without a father and ruler, they are beasts." Isn't this following the so-called "respecting the ruler and the father, and the son and the subject" principle?

Wu Yu, known as the "cleaner of the Chinese intellectual world" and the "hero who single-handedly brought down the Kong family store in Sichuan," wrote "Distinguishing the Non-Yang and Mo in Mencius." He believed that Mencius was a "dictator of the teaching." He said, "The Yang school allows me to do whatever I want, which is not conducive to interference. The Mo school loves all and advocates equality, which is not conducive to authoritarianism. Both are deeply feared by future tyrants. The Confucianists strictly adhere to hierarchy and value order, advocating the blind talk of "ruling the heavens and benefiting the people," and the absurdity of suppressing the sun and promoting the shade. They bind and rush, which is most suitable for the art of tyrants controlling the people. Therefore, all tyrants use it to dominate the world and deceive the people."

Wu Yu believed that Mencius provided the rulers with the "art of controlling the people" to rule the world.

With Dong Zhongshu, the intention to flatter the authoritarian monarch became even more direct. Dong Zhongshu criticized Yang Zhu, saying, "If one does not enter a dangerous city for righteousness, does not serve in the military, and does not change one's shin for the benefit of the world, the ruler will surely honor and respect him, value his wisdom, and praise his actions, considering him a person who values light things and values rebirth. The ruler presents fertile fields and mansions, establishes titles and rewards, in order to exchange the lives and deaths of the people. Now, the ruler honors and respects those who value light things and value rebirth, and demands that the people sacrifice their lives and deaths for the ruler's affairs, which cannot be obtained."

In order to protect the interests of the "ruler," Dong Zhongshu believed that Yang Zhu's "individual liberalism" would lead to no one willing to sacrifice themselves for the "ruler." In Dong Zhongshu's view, the emperor's power is divine, and all subjects are born to serve the emperor. The country and the state are the emperor's private property, and even your life is bestowed by the emperor. Where is there room for "individual freedom"?

Of course, Dong Zhongshu's criticism of Yang Zhu also had another purpose, which was to "dismiss the hundred schools and exclusively respect Confucianism." Dong's Confucianism and Legalism were in harmony with authoritarian rule. All so-called "heretical teachings" were mercilessly suppressed and imprisoned. The era of the "hundred schools of thought" came to an end, and Chinese civilization entered a long and tedious period of "Yang Confucianism and Yin Legalism" authoritarian empire. Yang Zhu's "valuing oneself" thought also sank into the pile of criticism and was not dared to be revisited.

During that period, the seed of "freedom" was spreading like wildfire in another part of the world.

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