Dr Esther Klein
Sincere individual self-expression is often in tension with social harmony. A famous Ming dynasty exchange between Li Zhi (1527-1602) and his former friend Geng Dingxiang brings this tension into sharp relief. Li Zhi’s perspective in these letters, elaborated in his deliberately provocative A Book To Burn(1590) feels surprisingly modern; it is rare to find a premodern Chinese thinker who argues for gender equality and political liberalism. Geng’s side of the argument is harder to recover, partly because he left much of it implicit. I will argue that Geng endorses a species of perfectionism, albeit one that is more sensitive to individualist than the standard Confucian story. Geng's perfectionism, while less fashionable these days, has underappreciated resources with which to answer and critique Li Zhi. I will conclude by arguing that some of these resources can fruitfully be brought to bear on troubling contemporary versions of this debate, such as attacks on ‘political correctness’.