We found that the belief in human agency in ancient Chinese philosophical and religious thought co-occurred with progress. Yukun Zhao et al., “Agency in Ancient China”

The history of human agency in China – one might better say the tribulations of human agency in China – is, in its way, more interesting and instructive than the almost-straight-line increase in human agency we observed last week in the Western world.

Unlike in the West, human agency in China was from the very beginning forced to compete with the powerful communal instinct. At the very time that Ancient Greece was emerging from its Dark Ages (but in complete isolation from it), Chinese philosophers began to grapple with the role of individuals versus the role of the community, that is, with the importance of thinking and acting independently versus obligations to family, village, and external authorities and their vast power.

One possible explanation for this difference is that while the Greeks thought and acted in the context of small city-states that were relatively easy to manage, China was from the beginning a vast and rarely unified territory. The largest of the Ancient Greek cities, Athens, was contained within less than a square mile and never boasted a population of more than 200,000 citizens. China, meanwhile, had to contend with sixty million people scattered over almost two million square miles.

The meaning of human agency in China

Given the desperate need to maintain order over a vast and widely scattered population, Chinese thinking from its earliest days right up until the present moment has struggled to balance the importance of human agency with the need to maintain order and discipline across a vast society.

In the West, as we’ve seen, human agency is focused on the individual person, atomized and more or less unconnected to the broader community, with the capacity to think and act separately from others in the society. Indeed, it is that broader community that often interferes with a full expression of agency, and in the West it has been a major project to eliminate that interference.

But the Chinese understanding of agency views the individual as fully integrated into a broader community. As a result, expressions or even achievements of individual agency that appear to undermine the broad public good are discouraged. In fact, Classical Chinese had no word for “individual” in the Western sense.

All that said, most schools of thought in China do in fact emphasize the importance of “self-cultivation” of individual people. In Confucianism, for example, a premium is placed on the moral education of the individual, which is achieved through study, training, and the reading of appropriate texts. The purpose of this self-improvement, however, isn’t simply to improve the person in his or her own right, but to contribute to the moral quality of the overall society.

But some prominent schools of thought in China tend to undermine agency. Taoism, for example, founded by Lao Tzu, advocates following the natural order, dismisses the power of individual agency, and counsels passive acceptance of the world as it is. Thus, no matter how oppressive a government might be (for example), Taoists won’t oppose that government or attempt, by the exercise of individual agency, to overthrow it; they will simply accept it.

Indeed, Lao Tzu’s most prominent follower, Chuang Tzu, advocated literally doing nothing: “I cast aside my limbs, discard my intelligence, detach from both body and mind… This is called sitting down and forgetting everything.”

Legalism, pioneered by Shang Yang, is even more opposed to individual agency. It requires that citizens obey the authorities at all times and at all costs, preventing individuals from acting according to their own judgements, simply because to do otherwise would lead (according to the legalists) to chaos.

Properly handled, Legalism can empower collective accomplishments, leading to powerful central governments that can impose their will on vast lands and peoples. More often, though, Legalism leads to oppression and misery, notwithstanding the accomplishments of the government.

Given the tension between individuals and the importance of the broader community, a useful way to think about agency in China is to distinguish between “individual” agency on the one hand and “collective” agency on the other. This approach was proposed by Yukun Zhao et al. in their paper, cited above.

To Western ears, to be sure, “collective” agency sounds like Newspeak – doesn’t it simply mean a society dominated by an oppressive and authoritarian government? The answer seems to be yes and no. If, during any Chinese dynasty all that matters is collective agency, that is pretty much the definition of a despotic government oppressing its people.

But during most Chinese eras there has been a balance between the emphasis on individual and collective agency, with some dynasties leaning one way and some the other. Moreover, it is often the case that what a Western observer might see as unacceptable authoritarianism would be viewed by a Chinese observer as appropriate concern for the collective welfare.

In the discussion last week of human agency in the West I pointed out that societies that highly valued human agency and nourished it outperformed societies that didn’t. In China, various dynasties viewed agency quite differently, in effect giving us an opportunity to test my claim that high-individual-agency societies outperform low-individual-agency societies.

Let’s take a look (next week) at a few examples of how agency, collective or otherwise, has fared in China and what the implications have been for human progress and wellbeing among the Chinese.

[Shameless self-promotion: Blogs I’ve written about interesting people over the years – including André Heintz (a member of the French Resistance), Lady Jean Fforde, Baron Rothschild, Joe Biden and others – have been collected in my recent book, Ten Interesting People, illustrated by artist David Biber. It’s now available on Amazon.]

Next up: On Agency, Part 3

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