Ancient Chinese Egoism

When most people think of egoism, they think of Max Stirner, Anton LaVey, Ayn Rand, and other more modern philosophers. But what if I were to tell that there existed an egoistic philosophy in Ancient China? That philosophy is called Yangism.

Founded by the philosopher Yang Zhu during the Warring States Period, Yangism holds that all actions are or should be based on self-interest, and is considered an early form of psychological and ethical egoism. They focused mainly on human nature, or xing as it is referred to.

No documents authored by Yangists have been found yet, so all we know about them comes from comments by rival philosophers, including Meng Zi (better known as Mencius), who claimed that Yangism rivaled popular philosophies such as Mohism and Confucianism (the latter of which would later become the most popular philosophy and so-called religion in China). Mohism advocated universal love and impartial compassion for all things,

Yangists believed in preserving one’s own self and keeping it intact, protecting one’s own uniqueness, and not letting yourself be tied by other things. It encourages you to pursue individual pleasure, but not at the risk of your personal health. Yangists also believed that you should care for your own nature, or xing, and not have not uphold the nature of others, even in defiance of the emperor. In this sense Yangism was a direct attack on both Mohism and Confucianism by opposing the idea of universal love and the power of the emperor, calling the latter baseless and destructive, and state intervention morally flawed.

Yang Zhu also emphasized that self-impairment or self-sacrifice will not benefit the world or others in any way, and that while he would not toil for others, he would also not harm others just for his own advantage or personal gain and says it should be avoided as external to ones own nature.

The ideas laid out by Yangism are interesting, and I think it provides an interesting picture, but we don’t know enough about it to get a full picture, as Yangism fell into obscurity by the time Sima Qian compiled the Records of the Grand Historian (a.k.a. the Shiji, meaning “Historical Records”).

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3 responses to “Ancient Chinese Egoism

  1. I never knew about Yangism, which is similar to many of the values of the LHP or Satanism. I am unsurprised there are no written records of Yangism since it appeared to threaten the status quo of Emperors who preferred blind obedience from their citizens. Thanks for making me aware of Yangism.

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