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

Jessica Xiaomin Zu


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.


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

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4727558


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