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Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China

Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China

Thomas Jansen17 Sep 2016Leave a comment

John A. Rapp, Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China. Contemporary Anarchist Studies series; New York and London: Continuum Books, 2012; 303pp; ISBN 978-1-4411-7880-0.

Daoism and Anarchism is both timely and topical. The book came out just at a time when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), simultaneously engaging Maoist and Confucian themes, began to step up its efforts to re-invigorate and justify its right to  rule as the sole representative of the Chinese people whilst dealing harshly with any dissenting claims. Public expression of even the minimal anarchist view, that the socialist state is bound to rule for its own benefit rather than for the benefit of those it is supposed to represent (however they may be defined), constitutes a major political taboo in present day China.

Rapp’s study succeeds in showing that China is home to a long tradition of critiquing state autonomy that can be traced back to the Warring States period (475-221 BCE). Anarchism, known in Chinese as wu jun lun, ‘doctrine of the absence of a prince’, remained alive as a corrective against autocratic state power and resurfaced periodically at crucial historical junctures. Rapp’s study is valuable in that it adds to our understanding of the complex texture of twentieth-century Chinese political discourse beneath its Marxist-Leninist-Maoist veneer.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One analyses key anarchist texts from the third century BCE to the ninth century CE, including, amongst others, the ‘Daoist’ classics Laozi (both in its received version and the Guodian manuscripts) and Zhuangzi, and a short treatise entitled ‘Bao Jingyan’ (ca. 300 CE), authored by the aristocratic scholar-official and alchemist Ge Hong (283-343), which is probably the most powerful proclamation of anarchism in traditional China, recording an alleged controversy between Ge Hong and his anarchist interlocutor by the name of Bao Jingyan. Finally, situated at the end of the temporal spectrum covered in Part One, is the ninth century text Wunengzi (‘Master of No Abilities’) which, according to Rapp, marks the decline of radical anarchist ideas into merely passive escapism. English translations of the key texts that form the basis of Part One are added as an appendix.

Part Two comprises chapters 6-9 which analyse Mao Zedong’s response to the anarchist critique of Marxism (chapter 6), the denunciation of anarchism in the PRC (chapter 7), as well as two particularly fascinating chapters on neo-anarchist critiques of the Leninist Party-state voiced from within and without the Communist Party (chapters 8-9). The two parts are separated by a short interlude (pp. 107-121) which discusses the early twentieth century anarchist movement and debates between anarchists and Marxists in the 1920s.

Some historians of ancient and medieval Chinese thought will balk at Rapp’s anachronistic use of the label ‘Daoism’ for the texts analysed in the first part of his study, a criticism the author anticipates and tries to refute. What I consider more problematic is the fact that the label ‘Daoist’ assumes exclusive links between anarchist ideas and Daoism. A number of scholars have challenged the segmentation of the ancient Chinese intellectual world into rigidly defined ideological camps or schools. ‘Daoist anarchism’ may thus obfuscate the wider appeal anarchist ideas may have had as part of a common political discourse. The second part of the book hardly ever mentions Daoism in connection with those holding anarchist views, which seems to suggest that the link between anarchism and Daoism is tenuous at best. How can we account for the large gaps that exist between Wei-Jin (3rd-4th century) anarchism and the Wunengzi (9th century), on the one hand, and the Wunengzi and twentieth century anarchism on the other hand? Why is there no chapter discussing Ming dynasty (1368-1644) anarchism given the parallels between the autocratic reigns of the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, and Mao Zedong?

The problem of labelling notwithstanding, Rapp’s analysis of key anarchist texts contains many astute observations that challenge established views on the nature of Chinese anarchism. Against Hsiao Kung-chuan’s dictum that ‘Western anarchism is …a doctrine of hope, whereas Chinese anarchism seems to be a doctrine of despair’ (p29), Rapp argues convincingly in favour of a positive and hopeful vision in Chinese anarchist thinking according to which, living in harmony with the Dao is synonymous with the natural state of anarchy. A further active and optimistic aspect to anarchism is provided by its incorporation of the idea of ziran – literally meaning ‘being so by itself’, hence the translation as ‘naturalness’- thus recognising the necessary link between the natural and the spiritual in descriptions of the ideal anarchic state. I also concur with the author’s interpretation that Wei-Jin anarchist thought was far from being purely individualistic but rather contained a strong communitarian spirit which emphasised the self’s relationship with others and, again, with nature.

Compared to the radical anarchist-utopian visions discussed in Part One, anarchist positions in the twentieth century seem to have become more accommodationist overall. Instead of pursuing radical anti-statist utopias based on the conviction that society can work without government because humans are able to form communities on the basis of mutual aid, neo-anarchist critiques more frequently enter into compromises with the state in order to negotiate other goals deemed central at a time, for instance the reduction of economic equality or increased political participations for certain groups. During the Mao period, the anarchist label was used as an ideological weapon to denunciate political opponents. Mao’s own brief flirtation with anarchistic ideas took place purely on tactical grounds and to satisfy his self-image of being a rebel-hero, at least partially inspired by novels such as the Shuihu zhuan (The Water Margin). It ended as soon as he perceived a threat from genuine anti-statist movements. Rapp notes that neo-anarchist critique has been strongest when it focuses on the key question of state autonomy and whether or not (and how) those in control can be controlled themselves in order to avoid the formation of a new autonomous political elite. Obviously, such anarchism always attracted the harshest punishments as well. However, and this is one of the key messages of this book, radical anarchist voices, despite all political pressures, could be heard at various times: from Ba Jin’s extremely pungent critique of the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the 1920s, to the bold statement by the deputy-editor of the national newspaper Renmin Ribao, Wang Ruoshui, that the government and the people were politically alienated in China’s socialist state of the early 1980s, to the very recent (2010) call to overcome the current autocratic system by dissident Liu Xianbin.

Two outstanding qualities of the book are: first, the clarity with which the author introduces and discusses key concepts and theoretical positions pertinent to the study of anarchism as a political philosophy and movement, indicative of many years of research and teaching in this area; and second, the fact that Chinese anarchism is not treated in isolation from, but with constant reference to, similar ideas expressed by major anarchist thinkers in other parts of the world.

John Rapp’s balanced, engaging and lucidly written account of anarchist critiques in traditional and modern China should be read by everyone interested in China’s political history and philosophy.

Reviewed by Thomas Jansen, Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Lampeter  ( The review was originally published in Anarchist Studies 23.1 (2015), pp.118-120.

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