A Spiritual Evolutionism: Lü Cheng, Aesthetic Revolution, and the Rise of a Buddhism-Inflected Social Ontology in Modern China


  • Jessica Xiaomin Zu USC Dornsife




evolutionism, Buddhist soteriology, aesthetics, May Fourth New Culture Movement, anti-realism, social philosophy, Yogācāra


This study examines the early career of the renowned Buddhologist Lü Cheng as an aspiring revolutionary. My findings reveal that Lü’s rhetoric of “aesthetic revolution” both catapulted him into the center of the New Culture Movement and popularized a Buddhist idealism—Yogācāra (consciousness-only school)—among thinkers who sought alternatives social theories.

Lü aimed to refute social Darwinism and scientific materialism, which portray humans as mechanized individuals bereft of moral agency. He theorized an anti-realist social ontology, i.e., a social oneness grounded in intersubjective resonances, from which subjective interiority and objective exteriority arise.

Lü turned to Buddhism to further his revolution. Buddhist soteriology supplied powerful tools for theorizing the social: The doctrine of no-self refuted philosophical solipsism and curtailed individualism; dependent-origination refashioned social evolution as collective spiritual progress. Lü’s spiritual-evolutionism-cum-social-ontology broadens the field of Buddhist philosophy that has a long-standing blind spot on social philosophies developed in the Global South.

Author Biography

Jessica Xiaomin Zu, USC Dornsife

Jessica Zu is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Southern California Dornsife. Her research focuses on interconnections between Buddhism and Chinese modernity. She is currently working on her book project, Revolutionizing Consciousness: A History of Yogācāra Social Theory in Modern China, which examines the intersection of Buddhist renewal, the Chinese revolution (1911–1976), and the global impact of social Darwinism. It uncovers a forgotten social imaginary moored onto Yogācāra idealism. This social imaginary rejected realism and science as a solution to China’s modern crisis. It positioned itself as the antidote to scientific materialism and social Darwinism, which were viewed by many intellectuals as portraying human beings passively trapped in the iron cage of natural laws. Yogācāra idealism enabled many Buddhist intellectuals to forge a new social vision, which not only refashioned social evolution as collective spiritual progress but also promised to build a deliberative democracy.

Her earlier publication appears in the Journal of Chinese Religions.


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How to Cite

Zu, Jessica Xiaomin. 2021. “A Spiritual Evolutionism: Lü Cheng, Aesthetic Revolution, and the Rise of a Buddhism-Inflected Social Ontology in Modern China”. Journal of Global Buddhism 22 (1):49-75. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4727558.