Equality of All Things

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Discussion of Zhang Taiyan aka Zhang Binglin in the context of an introduction and book review to Wang Hui.

Mackenzie Wark:

"Wang also draws on other sources in modern Chinese theory and practice. The book ends with a tantalizing glimpse at what could be made of the work of Zhang Taiyan (aka Zhang Binglin 1868-1936) on the equality of all things. Zhang drew upon the Zhuangzi (aka Chuang-tzu) one of the foundational texts of Daoism, and from Mahayana Buddhism. Starting from the premise that all things have the same nature, and the goal of the universal liberation from suffering of all beings.

For Zhang, the equality of all things was more an ethical doctrine: each thing in the universe is deserving of respect. This does not negate human action, but puts it in continuity with natural forces. Humans exist in both social and natural relations. Nor does it abolish the difference between humans and other things, or among non-human things, but rather considers differences a prerequisite to equality. Inequality between humans and other things is tied to inequality between humans and other humans. Here Wang hints at how this might connect to Marx’s theory of alienation. The exploitation of labor by capital forces a qualitative distinction between two kinds of human which ramifies throughout all the other relations and things in the world.

Each thing possesses its own special quality, and as such all things are equal. But things have to be freed from human conventions to be known as they really are. Zhang based this on a particular method. Things can be known outside of language but only via a process of negation. The uniqueness of things is obscured by convention and habit. The stripping away of habitual names and uses reveals differences as they are.

Wang: “If the equality of humankind is discussed only in terms of the distribution of things, even supposing that such a distribution were carried out in a variety of different ways, it becomes impossible to demonstrate that it is ultimately the form of things qua possessions that is the true source of domination and inequality.” (256) Heading in the direction of the equality of all things is something akin to a politics.

Identity politics stays at the level of names and appearances whereas the equality of all things is a politics of recognition that moves on to singular attributes, but where singularity itself is shared. Difference is a prerequisite to equality. Equality is everything being free from appearances. Zhang rejected that modern theory of knowledge in which the relation between person and thing or even person and person is that between self and other, human and alien. He defined differences actively, and does not take them as essential.

A consequence for Wang is that ecological and cultural diversity are related. He uses this as a basis for rethinking question of minorities and their territories in the context of China. A region is a zone of both natural and human difference, shaped by climate as much as by social forces. The autonomy of a region is not just cultural. But there has been a loss of autonomy in China’s autonomous regions, leading to a hardening of differences of ethnicity or religion. The new businesses, unlike the old socialist organizations, hire Chinese rather than minority workers. Discrimination is masked by meritocracy. Ethic divisions become class divisions. Economic reform disrupts the autonomous regions, leading to conflicts over land.

However, “[u]sing a one-sided viewpoint to combat another one-sided force contributes neither to the protection of ecological and cultural diversity, nor to the achievement of equality.” (273) The counter-policy then has to be to absorb differences into equality and recognize them, while negating differences that emerge in the order of appearances. He is opposed to both the market and to identity, in the name of recognizing the equality of all things." (https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3345-wang-hui-on-china-s-twentieth-century)

More Information

Two books by Wang Hui:

  • China's Twentieth Century:
  • The End of the Revolution