On equal human ability

A Chinese farmer, circa 1900
A Chinese farmer, circa 1900

Interesting article from 1907 by Chinese anarchist Liu Shipei, arguing for human equality and spelling out some basic principles for a functioning, although largely agrarian, gender-equal anarchist society in the country. With an introduction by Robert Graham.

Submitted by Steven. on November 20, 2016


Liu Shipei (Shen Shu) was a Chinese classical scholar who, with his wife, He Zhen, established the Society for the Study of Socialism in Tokyo in 1907. The Society published a journal called Natural Justice which promoted an agrarian kind of anarchism. He Zhen, an anarchist feminist, was the more radical of the two, familiar with European debates regarding socialism and women’s suffrage. She argued, much as Emma Goldman did, that the vote would not bring women genuine freedom. Excerpts from He Zhen’s essay, “Problems of Women’s Liberation,” originally published in Natural Justice in September and October 1907, are included in Chapter 20, “Chinese Anarchism,” in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The following excerpts are taken from Liu Shipei’s contemporaneous essay, “On Equal Human Ability,” also published in Natural Justice. Unlike the Chinese anarchists who published the New Era journal in Paris, which adopted a modernist stance, and who sought to distance themselves from classical Chinese thought, Liu Shipei regarded the mythical Daoist sage, Lao Zi (or Lao Tzu, circa 400 BCE), as the father of Chinese anarchism, and drew inspiration from the third century BCE utopian, Xu Xing, in developing his ideas regarding an egalitarian, agrarian anarchist society. Liu was also influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s peasant focused pacifist anarchism, and was one of the first Chinese anarchists to emphasize the important role of the peasantry. Reading “On Equal Human Ability,” one can detect the influence of Charles Fourier as well (Volume One, Selection 7). As with Fourier’s similar plans for utopian colonies, Liu’s utopian vision is so detailed that it sets forth too narrow and restrictive a path to equality and freedom. The translation is by Guannan Li.

Excerpts of On equal human ability

Humankind is named after its upright stance on the earth. Round head, square toes, different races; these are features common to all. The Buddhist Sutra tells us that the human body possesses four “Bigs”. Modern scientists know that the human body is composed of raw materials, and since we are all human beings, our bodies contain the same material. Materialists can demonstrate that every human body is the same. According to psychologists, every human being has a heart. Although the heart does not interact directly with the material world, when the body senses something, the heart, too, perceives it. So feelings originate from sensation, and intentions come after perception. Therefore, everyone identified as a human being is the same. This is why idealists can demonstrate that humankind shares the same feeling. The Buddha says that the dharma has no location. Living beings are not alien to the dharma, and the dharma is not alien to living beings. The Buddha also says that all living things are alike in their regulation. The philosopher Mencius also points out: “Things belonging to the same species are all similar. Humankind is no exception. The saint and I belong to the same species.” Wang Shouren has the same idea. The modern western scholar Rousseau originated the theory of human rights to argue for the same idea. Thus, equality of humankind was widely advocated by previous philosophers.

Since the creation of the world, all kinds of differences have come into being because of intellectual and physical distinctions. The powerful coerce the weak; majorities humiliate minorities; the wise cheat the stupid; and the brave terrify the timid, so the noble always rule the humble; the wealthy control the poor, and native people overpower foreigners. There is distinction between the dominant and the dominated; there is difference between a noble person and an average person. Generally speaking, people belonging to the former category are idle; people belonging to the latter category labour hard. The idle are happy; the labourers in pain. Doubtless, it is class politics that determines this. When we reflect on our society, there are control systems, distribution systems, and supply and demand systems. In society, in terms of occupations, there are scholars, peasants, artisans, and merchants; in terms of class, there are kings, ministers, soldiers, and masses. This is not just the case in despotic countries or under the patriarchal clan system. Don’t so-called republican polities and military societies also follow this unequal system?

Alas! From past to present, humankind has never experienced the joy of equality. The reason people are unequal is because they are not independent. It is because of dependence that the enslavement of people is possible. Because of dependence, they lose their right to freedom. As they lose freedom, they also lose the right to equality. Humankind has been imprisoned for a long time, which is contrary to the principle of equality. People who enslave others must depend on the willingness of the ruled. If they are reluctant to be ruled, you will lose what you depend on. Then you lose your subsistence. People enslaved by others must depend on their willingness to rule. If they don’t need your service any more, you will definitely lose your job. Then you cannot afford your subsistence. Therefore, dependent people are the most dangerous ones among human beings.

Aiming to sweep away power and wipe out the government, so-called communists regard land and capital as collectively-owned property. In communist society, everybody can work. Although all are equal in having access to jobs, even the same job can vary in hardship. There must be someone who measures workers’ abilities and assigns the corresponding job. This is another kind of government, and another kind of intervention. If there are superintendents, smart people will make use of the pretext to decline heavy jobs, and cunning people will make use of the pretext to avoid hard work. Furthermore, if it is because of inequality of hardship that envy occurs, how can conflicts be stopped immediately? If you let people choose their job according to their temperament, won’t every person approach happiness and avoid hardship, or choose easiness and restrain oneself from difficulties? If everybody behaves like this, who is to assume hard and difficult jobs? Furthermore, how do people’s demands and lust get satisfied since materials are always short? Even though someone would reluctantly accept the hard job, it is always against his/her will. In this sense, this would not work for very long. Even though it may work for a while, people who share the morality of the same species would end up with this inequality of hardship. So the result would be that the right is equal, but not the commitment. Therefore, equal commitment is determined by everybody’s independence. What’s independence then? Independence means that no one relies on others, or is enslaved by them.

This is the so-called “equal men” discourse. Equal men are equipped with multifold skills concurrently. To realize the promise of this discourse, we must destroy existing society and eliminate national boundaries. The area where the population reaches over one thousand should be cantoned as a county. Every county then sets up a rest home for senior citizens and children. After children are born, no matter male or female, every baby is sent to the rest home. Those who are over fifty also go to the rest home. Their responsibility is to feed the children. Children who reach six should be educated by the seniors. Education will last for five years. From ten to twelve, children will receive practical training. During these ten years, children will study the sciences half the day, and for the other half learn to manufacture appliances which are the necessities of life. Both will be taught by the senior people. The necessities of life will meet people’s basic needs, namely clothing, food, and housing. The maximum of education time for one person is ten years. People over 20 will go to work for society. People are supposed to change their jobs at different ages. After reaching fifty, people will enter the rest home again. These are the basic ideas of the equal man discourse…

Maximum of farming time for one person is 16 years. Machines must be used in farming to save labour. Within these 16 years, the amount of rice produced by one person could feed approximately 4 to 5 persons.

Depending on the area, people could choose two or three jobs to do, including planting cotton, vegetables, and trees, and other minor works, such as feeding livestock, fishing, and hunting which are conducted during the time off from farming.

In the farming season, people should stop working on other jobs (like road construction) and just focus on farming. When farming is done, people just need to work for another two hours on other jobs. The remaining time is just for rest.

People must use machines in production. Every county should prepare all the machines. Every worker no matter which job he is doing should cooperate with each other efficiently.

Everybody should produce ironware and pottery, the necessities of people’s livelihood. Besides these, one can choose another one or two things to produce according to one’s temperament.

If goods are transported in the vicinity, the maximum working time is two hours per day. Only after five years can people get exemption from that. If transportation is to a distant place that cannot be reached within one day, or a whole day is spent traveling (with no time to rest), the service period should decrease. The maximum could be one or two years.

In the spare time after work, one should engage in study according to one’s temperament. After reaching 46, one devoting oneself to medicine should take charge of curing people. One devoting oneself to engineering should take a position as a mechanic or road construction engineer. One who has not received so much education could be an electric bus assistant or a barber. The maximum working time per day is two hours. If one always travels to a distant place, and there is little rest for the whole day, the maximum service time could be reduced from 5 to 2 years.

Cripples over 20 are exempted from all the work above. The blind will take charge of music. The dumb and the deaf will take charge of typesetting and publishing books. The lame take charge of editing and collating. The maximum of their working time is also two hours per day. They have the same rights as others.

Generally speaking, people do more difficult jobs at their younger ages, then easier ones during their old age.

All manufactured appliances are placed in the public market and are collectively owned by all people. Houses are built in the same dimensions. Everyone owns one. There should be certain places for reading and dining. These are the places where people gather together.

If we carry out this plan, hardship would be equal. And there is no need to worry about the lack of any material. Within society, everyone is equal; outside society, everyone is independent. Everyone is simultaneously a worker, peasant, and scholar. Everyone has the same right and bears equal commitment. Isn’t this the world where the great public way is manifested? Besides this, the plan has other advantages.

First, it accords with human nature. Humankind has one common nature: fondness of the new and boredom of the old. From morning to night just focusing on one job, people will definitely get tired of it. However, if they could switch to another job occasionally, they will not. Reading just one book, they will get tired of it. However, if they switch to another book, they will not. Why? People always get tired of the old and are fond of the new. It is for this reason that people always keep in motion. Now one person has multifold skills concurrently. His job correspondingly changes with age. This accords with human nature. This is the first advantage.

Secondly, it accords with humanity. Beneath heaven everybody is equal. People have the same ears and eyes, and thus share the same feelings. As Mencius remarks, “I have everything within myself”. Nowadays the necessities of life are produced by others. Others know but I don’t; others practice but I don’t. The sage once noted, “It is a shame of a scholar if he doesn’t know one thing.” In light of this saying, how can I stand this endless shame? Only by carrying out this plan, can I be equipped with multifold skills. Then I will be able to handle things as others do. Isn’t this the humanistic way? This is the second advantage.

Thirdly, this accords with evolutionary principles. The skills barbarians possess are very simple. With evolution, they gradually gain more complicated skills. Because of their simple skills, their enterprises are also simple. Only after they gradually gain more complicated skills, do their enterprises get complicated. It’s like ancient merchants who do not need to study classics; or ancient scholars who do not need to study martial arts. Modern merchants in the civilized countries certainly know sciences; scholars certainly provide military service to the government; peasants also need to receive education. Isn’t it proof of the evolutionary process from simple to complicated? This plan which makes people switch their jobs from the simple to the complicated accords with the evolutionary principle. Ancient knowledge is categorized into different disciplines. In contrast, modern people before their adulthood all study the common sciences. Since everybody is able to master the common sciences, everyone is also able to assume the common job. Since everybody is able to assume the common job, everyone can gradually be equipped with more knowledge and gain more abilities. This is the third advantage.

Fourthly, this plan can eliminate conflict in the world. The emergence of conflict is due to selfishness and envy. Pursuit of one’s own interests directly leads to their proliferation. This certainly induces others’ envy. Envy originates from unevenness; unevenness results from different jobs. This leads to world-wide conflict. In sum, the misfortune of conflict results from inequalities of hardship. When poor people envy your happiness, they have to seek their interests. When they hate your happiness, envy arises. The disaster of bloody revolution originates therein. If hardship is equal for everybody, there will be no difference, and nobody will mind it. The sense of inequality will not rise and conflict will not occur. Humankind can maintain peace forever. This is the fourth advantage.

I believe that these four advantages of “equal man” discourse are sufficient to govern all under heaven. However, skeptics may still raise three questions about this plan. First, that nobody is able to manage all the jobs. Second, that it will increase hardship. Third, that it will hinder study.

Let me dispute them one by one. Like the French Emperor Napoleon, who wanted to eliminate the word “inability” from the dictionary, there are several Chinese philosophers who criticized those who had abilities but did not work. Zai Shi in the Zhouli (Rituals of Zhou Dynasty) once said, “If you did not raise livestock, there would be no livestock for sacrifice. If you did not cultivate, there would be no rice for sacrifice. If you did not plant trees, there would be no wood for the coffin. If you did not raise silkworms, there would be no silk. If you did not weave, there would be no mourning garments of hemp.” Isn’t this proof that one should equip oneself with multifold skills? In this sense, “inability” is always the excuse. This excuse justifies the production of clothing, food and housing by others. You just sit there and enjoy the products. This directly results in your dependence on others. Moreover, if others do what you think you are “unable” to do, it is no longer a question of inability. If you think practical jobs could only get done by humble people, when you do it, is this because of your responsibility? Or is this because you are forced by the situation? From all the reasons above, it does make sense that nobody be able to manage all the jobs. However, the fact is that hierarchy has already been included in this argument. This is the argument only for a class society. It is not proper today.

Secondly, some may argue that the “equal man” plan will increase hardship. This argument is actually not true. Nowadays workers work everyday from 8 AM to 10 PM. They are very busy the whole year and have little rest. However, according to the “equal man” plan, the total farming period will be just 16 years, the farming season per year will be no more than several months, and the maximum work per day will be two hours. From this comparison, isn’t it clear which is harder and which is easier? Furthermore, the feeling of hardship always depends on that of happiness. One can feel so-called bitterness only in isolation. If bitterness is felt collectively, the boundary between bitterness and happiness is already obscure. How could you say you still feel pain? Moreover, since fondness of exercise and work is human nature, plenitude of work accords with it. How could you say you get more hardship since work is your human nature? Thus, this argument for more hardship is also wrong.

Thirdly, in terms of hindering study, scholars in ancient times not only studied but also cultivated. They mastered one classic each three years. Yi Yun also cultivated by himself; Fu Yue also constructed buildings. Both of them finally became assistant to the king. Isn’t this proof that physical work is not a hindrance for learning? Moreover, in our ideal society, common study comes before adulthood. After that, there are no more than several months of farming per year, and no more than two hours of work per day. Besides these, all the time left is reserved for study. Thus the argument for hindrance of learning is also wrong. Moreover, once this plan is carried out, the tendency of mutual dependence will be eliminated and the happiness of freedom and equality will be achieved. All the systems of inequality and injustice of former days will be abolished. There will be no more talk of unevenness and inequality. If the sage were reborn, he would not argue with me.

Look at the Warring States period. Xu Xing advocated that scholars should also farm. He said, “The sage will farm and eat side by side with the common people. If people eat well, the state is peaceful. However, King of Teng set up granaries and government to exploit people in accordance with his own interests.” His idea is incisive. Farming side by side with peasants means that everyone should work. He scolds King of Teng for exploiting the people for his own good. His idea is against class. However, Mencius attacks this point, arguing that Xu’s theory is wrong because if everybody engages in farming, other necessities of life will not be met. Chen Xiang, a former disciple, told Mencius that “artisans could not work and at the same time cultivate.” Farmers and workers could trade with each other. From this perspective, isn’t it true that China already has two classes of workers and peasants? Isn’t it difficult to have equal jobs? Mencius replies to Chen, “One needs all the necessities produced by hundreds of artisans to maintain oneself. If he insists that he only use the stuff produced by himself, he is leading people to ruin the Tao.” Xu Xing exchanges millet for necessities, but he never argues for the self-sufficient idea. Although the self-sufficient idea is very similar to the equal man theory, they are different. If Mencius were to be reborn, how could he use this pretext? If he argues that there is a difference between using the body (laoli) and using the mind (laoxin), between rulers and ruled, this would be totally contradictory to the equality of humankind. His theory is even worse than Xu Xing’s. Although Xu’s is not perfect, he was the first person in China to advocate that scholars should farm side by side with peasants. This is a capital idea…

Nowadays people who advocate that men are superior to women all think women’s obligation is inferior to men’s. If we carry out this plan, there would be no difference between men and women’s obligation. Men will not depend on women’s housework; women will not depend on men’s money for clothing and food. The dependency tendency will be totally eliminated. Moreover, since newborn children will be sent to nurseries, women will have no obligation to raise them. Thus their obligation will be the same as men’s. When their obligation is equal, the theory of men’s superiority over women will no longer be possible. Here the theory of equality of men and women and equal man theory are two sides of the same coin. It is also wrong to say that women cannot assume hardship. In several provinces, such as Hunan and Guangxi, all the hard corvee labour which men are unable to assume actually is taken on by women. The theory that women cannot assume a hard job is wrong. I hope that women will not use inability as an excuse. Equality will be good both for our society and for women.

Natural Justice, Volume 3, July 10, 1907
Taken from https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/liu-shipei-on-equal-human-ability/