Confucianism and the Concept of Individual Identity
2017-11-08 publish

Many people tend to look for a similar Western concept or principle in Chinese tradition. When one cannot find it, he would probably claim that it is a failure on the part of Chinese for not having developed this concept. There are still some other people, when they think they have found something similar, would be excited about their discovery, stating that Chinese tradition has similar thinking, which is a case to proof that the Chinese tradition is not inferior to the Western. However, the problems is, why one uses Western conception, and why not Chinese views, as a criteria in assessing cultural or philosophical values? We should realize that some sophisticated development in philosophical thought and cultural tradition, which have less developed or even not developed at all in the West.


Different peoples have created varying ways of living and types of community organizations in dealing with local geographical environment and the issues over history; cultural diversity is natural. Any people have its own value system, which cannot stand on itself otherwise if rooted up from the land where it has grown ethnically, socially, and historically. I would take Confucianism and the concept of individual identity as an example to show any analysis based on Western conception attempting to assess social practice, cultural and philosophical systems in China would be misleading by itself.


A position that needs to be made plain here is that the questions in terms of which is superior or inferior, backward and advanced are not valid as to cultural and philosophical issues. Although a certain concept or approach of a tradition may seem weird in the eye of other traditions, every culture makes a part of world civilization, should be respected and treated equally by other cultures. Any cultural assessment in terms of “backwardness” and “advanced ness” as well as any claim, which has been made to protect a certain cultural value system by overriding cultural values of other people, can be inevitably contaminated biased elements of racist thinking. The civilization using more technological means than those less cannot legitimately claim to be superior and more advanced to others spiritually, or culturally. 


It is not necessary to justify Chinese thought by verify that it has a similar concept of individual identity, which has so strong in the Western cultures with the broad background of globalization, for the following study of the peculiarity ofgeti rentong(the“individual identity”) in Confucian thought may trigger a deep concern about the self-conflicting nature of the conception of individual identity and its practice in our society.


1.     What Is Meant by Individualism?


 The conception of individual identity and individualism has become so popular in the passed twenty years and many mainstream scholars in China have connected them with the future modernizations in China What is exactly the conception about, however, has not been well explained to the people in China.

We are familiar with the ideology in the West for which media and educational institutions try to foster individuals and even children in kind gardens and elementary schools the consciousness of individual identity by asking “who am I.” It would probably sound weird, however, from the Chinese views, since Chinese thought has never well developed a similar abstract category of individuality as separated from reality in which there is immeasurable correlativity of any individual with any individual else and diversified groups, communities, and society as a whole.


From the Chinese perspective, encouraging an awareness of individual identity by asking oneself “who am I” in order to help develop the sense of autonomy, independent thinking, and self-realization in individuals, particularly without taking into consideration that any individual could not exist by separating himself from community or society is invalid, and may only stay as an unrealistic concept. Such conception can only present itself as a belief rather than a function of rational thinking.


In fact, as in Western society, the question of if individual identity does exist by separating an individual from any other individual entity or any social relationship is not important and interested, what matters is making its existence as a belief. The most significant sense of the conception lies in Adam Smith’s articulation of achieving individual liberty by the protection of private property. In Smith’s view, all individuals are born with a natural driving force for wealth and, thus, of the economic species. Both individual liberty and social health ought to be strengthened to the extent that an individual is allowed to against all social others and pursue their own interest in unrestricted market.


Besides the concept of political and economic individualism in Smith, individualism is also articulated in the common sense of culture. Individualism is defined byWebster's Dictionaryas a noun the leading of one's life in one's own way. Here are some popular sayings including Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one”; E.e. Cummings’ “To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting”; Madonna’s “Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another”; Margaret Young’s “You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want”; Robert Louis Stevenson’s “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life” and “Others are others, I am I.” An understanding from Smith’s sense of individual liberty and rights, all these sayings are belief in individual identity but make reasoning for “Seek wealth.”


Individualism is regarded highly as a faith. It is claimed to have been the primary force of American civilization for three centuries; The primary safeguard of American individualism is an understanding of it; of faith that it is the most precious possession of American civilization, and a willingness courageously to test every process of national life upon the touchstone of this basic social premise.* It is our sort of individualism that has supplied the motivation of America’s political, economic, and spiritual institutions in all these years. It has proved its ability to develop its institutions with the changing scene. Our very form of government is the product of the individualism of our people, the demand for an equal opportunity, for a fair chance.*


2.     Individualism as Cultural Reality


In the West, people tend to believe that each man has two identity aspects; one is individual, i.e., a person with his mind, body, feelings, or the total of himself whereas the other, social, and person to be considered as he makes himself known, felt taken in by others. Social means must be collective, but its ultimate end is to serve individuals.* But a violation of the conceptual ideas is that individual identity in reality is not separable from society and that its mere existence, not mentioning its realization, depends upon society. Individual identity such as an individual’s mind, feelings, or the total of himself cannot stand by themselves if separated from society.


When a boy asks “who am I,” as the quest for identity, his answer is given in terms of being part of a male peer group. When the further process of awakening identity comes in the teens, however, his answer often gives signs of his individual identity. He is breaking away from the ways of a child. He emerges to have obvious purposes of his own. He goes to parties and dances, works and saves money because he needs spending it. He now wants his own job, his own car, his own girl. As both sexes come to discover their identity, the teenagers want their own sense of rightness, group for their own codes, sometimes finding ways of evading many of the cultural pressures, on the way to learning how to become themselves.* However, what they have not realized is that the selfness they are seeking is always at least partially from other individuals and society; what they claim their own is indeed social. The comfortable part of the issue is, however, that they believe them their own.


This is particularly true as the young American finds himself and develops his sense of identity mostly by identifying with aspects of his culture—with the heroes of its competitive elements, with its figures of glamour in the Big Media, or with all the images of swift success in the rise to the top of one’s field.* Whoever makes a dream of the young American, an identification is none the business of pure individuality but of social identity. In addition, while the young American individual absorbs and identifies with the phases of his culture, taking, or imitating roles of a large variety of cultural groups, his growing-up process, as well as the process of the discovery of identity, largely runs in terms of experimental probing of those roles.* Indeed, the teenagers mold their personality through imitation and first have them in their parents, older brothers and sisters, teachers, age peers.* They increasingly abandon the standards of his immediate family and begin to take over the attitudes of the peer groups they graduate into after they proceed through his college education.*Upper classmen in college provide the standards for the lower classmen; they become reference groups for them. A reference group is a group to which a nonmember would like to belong. He/or she orients his/her behavior to the standards he/or she imagines that group to possess.*


Out of these and out of the personality images presented to him/or her he/or she forms an ideal image of self is indeed in the culture as a whole. He/or she probes experimentally toward an ideal image as he/or she plays one role after another, fitting each of them on for size and looks in the mirror of others as well as of him/herself.* And so in the copying and playing of roles there come the two aspects of identity; the culture identity and the self-identity. The culture identity is the one borrowed an imposed from without, the self-identity is the one that emerges from the quest for a distinctive self-hood.* The fact is obvious in that individual identity is not only separable but dependent on social culture and that the process of self-identifying from the beginning to end one of self-overcoming, individual identity, a mere belief; a true process of socialization is believed one of individualization independent of social nature.

Roger T· Ames (Roger T.Ames)

Roger T. Ames was born in 1947 in Toronto, Canada. As a professor at the University of Hawaii, an advisor to Nishan Shengyuan Academy, Chairman of the World Association of Confucian Culture Studies and Vice Chairman of the International Confucian Association, he is an internationally famous expert in Sinology. He is a leading figure in Chinese & Western philosophy and is famous in China and abroad for his translation of books such as theAnalects of Confucius,Sun Tzu’s Art of War,Huainan Tzu andTao Te Ching He was the Chief Editor toPhilosophy of the Occident and Orientas well as theInternational Chinese Book Reviewand the author ofConfucian Philosophical Thinking,Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture,Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture,the Art of Rulership: A Study into Chinese Political ThoughtandDemocracy if the Dead: Dewey, Confucius and the Hope for Democracy in China. Roger T. Ames once received the guidance of Liu Dianjue and became proficient in classical Chinese, then to one of the most outstanding modern scholars of Classical Studies. In 2013, he was awarded the "Confucius Culture Award" by the 6th World Confucian Congress. Then he won the second "Huilin Prize Award" in 2016.…
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