The Reification of Fate in Early China

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Early Chinese texts make us witnesses to debates about the power, or lack thereof, that humans had over the course of events, the outcomes of their actions, and their own lives. In the midst of these discourses on the limits of the efficacy of human agency, the notion of ming 命 took a central position.

In this article, I present a common pattern of thinking about the relationship between the person and the world in early China. I call it the reifying pattern because it consisted in thinking about ming as a hypostasized entity with object-like features. Although external and independent, ming was not endowed with human qualities such as the capacities for empathy, responsivity, and intersubjectivity. The reification of fate implied an understanding of ming as an external, amoral, and determining force that limited humans without accepting intercommunication with them, thereby causing feelings of alienation, powerlessness, and existential incompetence.

I first show that the different meanings of ming hold a sense of prevailing external reality, and hence can be connected to the overarching meaning of fate. Then, I offer an account of the process of reification of fate in early China and its consequences, theoretical and practical, through cases study of received (Mengzi 孟子) and found (Tang Yu zhi dao 唐虞之道) texts. I end with some reflections on the implications of ming as a nonpersonal and nonsubjective type of actor for both early Chinese and twenty-first-century accounts of agency.



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