In engaging with Chinese perceptions of human rights, we must first consider how the human is understood in Chinese. The Confucian idea of the human as synonymous with benevolence is a morally exacting one. Across the centuries, it has found articulation in the enduring demand for educated persons to conduct themselves as moral exemplars. In this essay, the divergent ramifications of this Confucian dictum are explored via several Chinese thinkers including Huang Zongxi, Liang Qichao, Lu Xun, and Mao Zedong. Their intellectual legacies are considered in relation to present-day uses of exemplarity in the People's Republic that reflect the continued importance of Confucian benevolence as a guiding concept. The essay highlights rhetorical similarities between official discourse and the discourse of dissidents to draw attention to a common historical presumption in both to speak on behalf of the Chinese people. The argument I present is that, no matter how diverse their political goals, state representatives and dissidents share a common intellectual ancestry in the Confucian language of moral exemplarity. A large part of the discussion revolves around the Confucian notion of “cleaving to the true path” as having an affective force that tends toward the magisterial and the prescriptive. The essay explores, in this context, the dangers associated with anticipating “the true path” discursively structured around the figure of the selfless, exemplary human.

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