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Book Chapter

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Department 1

Religious Studies


In much recent scholarship on notions of self in Chinese studies, the term "self" is usually used in a general sense. In this essay, however, Sommer focuses specifically on unraveling the fields of meaning of one Chinese character: ji 己, which may often be rendered as "self." She compares this ji self with other terms for body and person current in classical times. This ji self is strongly individuated, but it exists primarily in relation to other human beings (ren 人 ). These "others" are almost never one's own kind and are usually people who fall outside one's ascribed familial and social relationships. Negotiations between self and other often reflect apprehension regarding degrees of distance, intimacy, worth, recognition, or understanding (zhi 知) between people. Conceptually, the ji self is a site, storehouse, or depot of individuated allotment associated with the possession of things and of qualities: wholesome and unwholesome desires (yu 欲) and aversions; emotions such as anxiety; and positive values such as humaneness and reverence. Each person's allotment is unique, and its "contents" might be collected, measured, reflected on, and then distributed to others over time. Texts such as the Analects, Mencius, Xunzi, Daodejing, and Zhuangzieach have their own understandings of how to best negotiate the space between self and other. Many texts suggest optimizing rather than maximizing the ji self through sharing, emptying, or clearing. Works as seemingly dissimilar as the Analects and Daodejing are both in agreement that whatever positive qualities are located within the self should be shared with others.


This article was originally presented at the June 2009 biennial conference of the Academie du Midi in Alet-les-Bains, France.

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