Mohist nonviolence requires 'letting of of self'

Hung-yok Ip

Mahatma Gandhi “embraced the enemy” by moving beyond his own national and cultural identities in order to transform Indian anti-imperialism into a force that would help the colonized and colonizers alike.

His great-granddaughter, Leela Gandhi, writes of marginalized groups in the West achieving cross-cultural collaboration by forsaking their imperialist identities.

Such letting go of the egocentric self, says Research Fellow and OSU historian Hung-yok Ip, “is a malleable mode of self-formation which I would like to call unbound identity.” The question of how to construct such a non-egocentric self lies at the heart of her research into nonviolence and the formation of moral philosophies, specifically, the contributions of Mohism, a school of philosophy founded in China by Mozi during the period 475-221 B.C.

During this era, known as the Warring States Period, opposing regions fought ferociously for control of China. In response, Mozi and his followers “made their mark on ancient Chinese history for their commitment to nonviolence in general and their endeavors to stop aggressive wars in particular.”

An important principle of Mohism is the injunction that regard for the welfare of others ought to spring from a spirit of “impartial concern” that does not make distinctions between self and other—associates and strangers—a doctrine often described simplistically as “universal love.”

Despite the Mohists’ contemp-orary significance, said Ip, the group has been little studied, and much of what has been written about them fails to do the movement justice. Until the 1990s, Mozi was presented as “a crude utilitarian ascetic who sold the concept of impartial love that must benefit.”

Though this image has been debunked by some, “scholars basically accept the view that to implement the ideal of impartial love, the Mohists paid more attention to the control of external behavior than to the inner world from which outward performance derived.”

Though it’s true, Ip agrees, that the Mohists’ discussion of the internal realm is limited, and the nonviolent practitioners were determined to stay committed to their social-political identity, she argues that “they were, when necessary, able to liberate themselves from their position and its intellectual-emotional constraints.”

The most important text of Mohism, the Mozi, represents mainly Mozi’s conversations and lectures, though some scholars speculate that Confucian and Daoist writings are included. In aiming to achieve “unbound identity,” the Mohists emphasized several key themes: commitment to the strictly disciplined cause itself; under-standing of and cooperation with societal segments that did not conform to Mohist rules; active communication with and even service to “the Establishment,” which often could not be won over by ideological argument alone.

“And, most importantly, by requiring the Mohists to understand and work with others, including the enemy, they were pressed to develop a great capacity for being other-oriented, which made them walk a fine line between their culture and its opposite.”

It is because of their immense capacity for “other-orientedness” that “Mohism is a welcome addition to the contemporary repertories of nonviolent action, opening a world of imagination regarding how nonviolent agents can relate to outsiders carrying values and living lives different from their own.”

Hung-yok Ip is the author of Intellectuals in Revolutionary China: Leaders, Heroes and Sophisticates (RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).