The Power of Interconnectivity: Tan Sitong's Invention of Historical Agency in Late Qing China

Hung-yok Ip

Abstract


To explore how Chinese Buddhists acted as trailblazers of Engaged Buddhism, I shall analyze a late nineteenth-century thinker, Tan Sitong 譚嗣同 (1865–1898). The focus of my analysis is his masterpiece, Renxue 仁學. From his position of Buddhist eclecticism, Tan discoursed at length on non-differentiation as the truth of the universe to reflect on the creative disposition of human agency. He described in Renxue how this disposition would contribute to the agendas defining Chinese modernity. In addition, discussing the meanings of non-differentiation, Tan also generalized about the nature of the human agency he attempted to advocate: while he perceived the human agency blessed with a non-differentiating mindset as an omnipotent history-making force, he also argued that it did not confer upon its owner the status of world savior. In fact, in his view, the efficacy of a non-differentiating mind was determined by the world it aimed to help. Tan's signature piece, I argue, provides a lens through which we can observe modern Chinese Buddhism's role as an important part of the global formation of Engaged Buddhism.

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