Why the Chinese Tradition Had No Concept of “Barbarian”

The Mercurial Nature of the Human and Non-Human in Chinese Metaphysics


  • XIANG Shuchen Xidian University, Xi'an, China




barbarian, culture, cultural anthropology, Confucianism, evolutionary biology, Chinese metaphysics


This article argues that the concept of the “barbarian” is inapplicable to the Chinese tradition. By contrasting the Greek and later European view on what it means to be human with the image of the authentic human in Chinese philosophy, this paper argues that the Chinese tradition did not have a conception of what the Greeks understood as “barbarian”. In the former, the ideal of the human is understood through an investigation of the concept of ousia, which is characterized by a dualistic hierarchy between “form” and “matter”. The same dualism and hierarchy that distinguishes ousia, can be mapped onto the Greek distinction between the human and barbarian. Chinese metaphysics is not consistent with the Greek idea that reality is constituted by unchanging forms that are self-identical and keep within their own boundaries. Relatedly, the idea that there is a static hierarchy among the myriad things of the world is also foreign to Chinese metaphysics. Instead, the Chinese metaphysical tradition assumes that nothing will stay the same forever as all “things” are a function of how they relate to an ever-changing environment. One important consequence of this view is that the human and non-human distinction is much more dynamic. Related to this dynamic view of self is the (Confucian) view that the human being only becomes authentically human through their acculturation. This acculturation is the process of a person’s growth through public symbolic media such as li (礼), yue (乐) and wen (文). This process of growth shapes the person into an other-regarding social being (ren 仁). Importantly, no one is born a fully-realized human; human-ness is not an essence that is possessed but is always a result of the process of acculturation.


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How to Cite

Xiang, S. (2023). Why the Chinese Tradition Had No Concept of “Barbarian”: The Mercurial Nature of the Human and Non-Human in Chinese Metaphysics. Asian Studies, 11(3), 149–173. https://doi.org/10.4312/as.2023.11.3.149-173