Chinese Political Thought
Chinese Political Thought
The following article covers the period of preimperial history (Hsia, Shang, Chou) and the early (221b.c.–a.d. 589), middle (589–960), and late imperial periods up to the time of the Ch’ing dynasty (1644–1911). For modern political thought, see Chinese societyand Communism, article onnational communism. Also relevant is Historiography, article onchinese historiography.
From its historical beginnings, Chinese civilization has had a more wholly secular orientation than has any other traditional civilization. The religious element in Chinese life has remained largely unsupported by organization and religious institutions. Although religion’s private and peripheral character was altered by China’s mass acceptance of Buddhism, even Buddhism adapted itself quite thoroughly to China’s secular values, and Neo-Confucianism strongly reasserted the primacy of traditional social values. Political thought thus has had a larger importance in the total intellectual life of the Chinese civilization than it has had in civilizations in which the state has had to compete with a church in institutional and ideological spheres. The ordering and bettering of human society by human means, or the cumulative human wisdom expressed in individual behavior and in social forms—in short, government—has been the great achievement of the Chinese civilization, both in its subjective view of itself and in the opinion of most modern historians of China.
In many ages of Chinese intellectual history, political thought has been virtually coterminous with philosophy. Chinese philosophy has not been compartmentalized into the classic divisions of logic, ethics, politics, ontology, and the like. Instead, ethics has been regarded as the individual’s application of principles which on extension to society at large become politics; these principles have justified further speculation and learning within a framework of the “good society.”
Politics and political thought were both the most useful and the most intellectually compelling of all activities. If the emphasis on history and on classical studies tended to impart a scholastic quality, the unity of the intellectual and the political worlds helped to preserve a pragmatic character as well. The same men who were the authorities on the Confucian canon also had to be experts on taxation, relief, and border defense; their political thought seldom became abstract, no matter how much they cited ancient classics for authority. A distinctive feature of China’s political thought, and a perhaps serious limitation on it, however, is its intramural and self-contained character. It was all derived from the experience of one cultural tradition. Although it contains a wide range of political thought, including radical anarchism and extreme statism, it did not receive significant stimulus from outside cultures until the nineteenth century. China’s thinkers knew only one civilization united under a single evolving tradition of government; unlike scholars in the classical Mediterranean or modern European world, they could not compare different cultures and institutions, and thus be stimulated to devise and create in their political theory. Perhaps for this reason, continuous vitality and originality could not be guaranteed throughout the 2,500 years of formal political philosophizing. But during the high points and the low, the role accorded government and speculation about government has given the study of political thought special importance. It is a kind of mirror, reflecting many intimately related aspects of social, economic, artistic, and intellectual development. And throughout, the continuing national absorption in the problems of society and government has at least brought about recurrent critical re-examination of basic issues, so that from time to time political theory has been enabled to close the gap between earlier formulations and later institutional developments. Change generally came about without revolution, until extramural elements were injected in the nineteenth century and produced the revolutions of the twentieth.
If the pace of change in traditional China seems slow to modern man, and if both political forms and their ideological underpinnings seemed to be badly in need of modernization by the end of the imperial era, that should not mislead us to believe that the old China was unchanging. It was not. We have referred above to growth and to periodic institutional accommodations to growth; each period of history acquired its distinctive character, whether observed with the focus on political thought, institutions, economic life, or the fine arts. But impatient modernizers at the end of the imperial era, observing the deepening gulf between the modern industrial West and apparently somnolent agrarian China, tended toward radical rejection of the past as static and moribund. Throughout the revolutionary contemporary period, one can observe that the intensity of the traditional emphasis on the problems of man in society undoubtedly has carried over, lending the same intensity to presentday China’s search for a viable new political character.
In summary, the history of China’s traditional political thought displays a basically humanistic orientation, reflecting the central role accorded politics in that secular-minded civilization; it gives evidence of the cumulative growth and periodic intellectual vitality of the whole civilization, and in particular it is marked by China’s obsessive consciousness of continuity, making its past remarkably pertinent to its present in all periods of history, up to and including the present. This can be traced from its earliest beginnings in Chou times to the emergence of modern traditions during the Ch’ing dynasty.
The centuries preceding Ch’in unification in 221 b.c. were years of social and political upheaval. Early Chou rulers extended their hegemony over large areas of north and central China through a system of enfeoffing (feng-chien). This system lacked the kinds of legal contractual relationships which characterized European feudalism and is thus not strictly comparable. The Chou realm comprised some seventy principal vassals, of whom some fifty were members of the Chou kings’ own clan. The number of smaller and less important states may have numbered two hundred or more. Over this loose federation of semiautonomous units, some from the beginning larger and more powerful than the royal Chou domain itself, the Chou kings maintained their hegemony less through exercise of the military power of the king and his “family states” than through the workings of a consciously cultivated mystique of legitimacy. This principle of legitimacy, probably originally required to validate the liquidation of Shang power, was deeply rooted in the social system and also was reinforced by the royal cult of ancestor worship. Chou sovereignty was acknowledged for centuries after Chou power had vanished, no holder of great power being willing to risk defying the legitimacy principle by displacing the Chou kings.
The Chou family system was the basis for many political institutions as the definitions of interfamily relations were extended to relations within the state. Clan law (tsung-fa) originally meant the systematization of the regulations and principles governing the members of the extended patriarchal clans of the ruling class, primarily the royal clan and allied clans, and the chief clans of retainers enfeoffed in each of the vassal states. The word fa translated as “law” should be taken in the sense of “pattern” or “way,” since the system was in fact quite anti-Legalistic in spirit. In early Chou times the possession of a clan surname and the responsibilities toward a clan progenitor and successive ancestors distinguished the elite from the masses. Clan-law society was an upperclass society of inherited privilege, its family-centered mores expressed in elaborate ritual and its members exempt from the penal regulations, taxation, and labor service to which the masses were subject. Politically its greatest significance lay in the stress on mutual obligation and the sharing of authority in ritualized forms, hence definite limitations on the power of the kings and heads of states. Also important for government was the implicit repudiation of impersonal law in favor of ceremonial regulation of society according to the rites (li—originally the family ritual of ancestor worship, extended to include all behavior of the larger family of civilized man).
The Doctrine of the Heavenly Mandate . The Chou had been a militarily powerful border dependency of the Shang state. To justify their conquest, they invoked an elaborately worked out Doctrine of the Heavenly Mandate (t’ien-ming), which may have been their invention but which was more likely based on Shang precedents. According to the doctrine, the ruler is the mediator between Heaven (or Nature) and man, a role he (or his clan) has earned by displaying virtue and the capacity to execute a benign Heaven’s will. This role was to be retained within a dynastic line until Heaven found that store of virtue exhausted, as evidenced by disharmony in men’s affairs and the natural world. The mandate then would theoretically be transferred to a new clan, Heaven would become its imperial ancestors, and the reigning bearer of the mandate would be known as a new “Son of Heaven.” Heaven’s will was made known somewhat vaguely and suggestively through portents and could be verified through divination, through which daily guidance also could be sought. Incumbent upon the ruler were the duties of performing in ritual propriety the ancestral sacrifices to Heaven on behalf of all men and of heeding Heaven’s benevolent will in guiding the affairs of men. With the growth of philosophy in later Chou times, this doctrine was wholly secularized and philosophically developed; it remained the primary rationale of rulership and the only justification invoked for any dynastic change until 1911. The word ko-ming, which means “changing the mandate” and derived from this concept, has become the modern word for “revolution.”
The Chinese world view . The Chinese probably are unique among all peoples, regardless of cultural level, in having had (within the 3,500 years of their cultural history that can be verified) no cosmogonical myth of a creator external to creation. Theirs was a naturalistic conception of the universe as an organismic, self-contained, and spontaneously self-generating entity. Such a cosmogony had important meaning for politics. There was no supreme being whose command or will or divine intelligence could be identified with natural law, or revealed as divine law which could, by extension, give authority and importance to human law; law never assumed the importance in Chinese civilization that it has had in most others. The dynamism of the cosmos was manifested in the harmony and complementariness of all its parts. In this cosmogony there was no contest between light and dark, good and evil, but, rather, a balance. Likewise, there could be no concept of sin as an offense against the divine will. In its place, there existed the much less serious error of human wrong-doing, a deflection of harmony, a source of shame but not of danger to the soul. While spiritual and religious values were provided for within this cosmos, there was no division of the “sacred” and the “profane” to be served in tandem by parallel organs of spiritual and temporal authority. Society needed only secular institutions, and the state did not have to share authority with a church.
Though this cosmogony provided for no beginning point in time, since the generative process was internal to the cosmos and cyclically continuous, with all its stages simultaneously present, there was a distinct concept of the emergence and gradual growth of human culture. Although the history of this human culture was somewhat mythologized, it remained a rational myth. The great achievement of the sages was entirely knowable and comprehensible through the study of historical records. It formed the chief guide to wise human action. Thus it was incumbent upon wise men to know the past and to apply its lessons to the present. Gradually the view appeared that the present must remain at best an imperfect emulation of a golden age in antiquity. Antiquity was regarded as historical; though we regard much of it as capsuled historical myth or as later idealization of the past, the great influence that it exerted on all subsequent Chinese history remained throughout a rational and humanistic one.
Out of such protophilosophical beginnings there developed in the late Chou era one of the great golden ages of philosophy of all human history. Confucius, its first great figure, anticipated that golden age in his overriding concern with political and ethical problems.
Confucius and early Confucianism . The serious troubles which beset government at the time of Confucius (551–479 b.c.) reflected the deep changes in economy and society that were underway. A dozen great vassal states were warring with each other and absorbing their smaller neighbors. The old aristocracy faced the challenge of rising commoners, who pitted ambition and native ability against weakening aristocratic prerogative. It was a period of rapid cultural growth, of a great flowering of learning, accompanied by the dismaying dissolution of the old way of life. Confucius’ profound study of tradition was motivated by the belief that tradition alone could provide rational man with the intellectual tools with which to re-construct a sound social and political order. He said of himself that he was a transmitter, not a creator, perhaps purposely denying the imputation of creativity to himself because it would have decreased acceptance of his views, or perhaps because he really thought of himself in that way. If his attitude toward the past was genuinely nostalgic, however, it also was creatively selective and innovative, with implications for the future that Confucius himself may not have understood or fully intended. Living in the state of Sung, where the remnants of Shang aristocracy were given asylum, Confucius was heir to both Shang and Chou traditions. He was conscious of the contrasts between them and devoted his life to this study.
Confucianism, as perpetuated by its disciples, particularly by Mencius and Hsün Tzu, became a comprehensive humanistic philosophy. It was rational and skeptical, primarily concerned with ethics and with the realization of individual ethics in the spheres of society and government, Confucianism apparently was unsystematic, particularly in comparison with classic Greek or early Indian thought, but we can reconstruct the chief elements of Confucius’ political thought.
The ideal of the superior man. The Chinese term chün-tzu means literally “a son of a prince,” hence, by extension, a gentleman. Confucius succeeded in imparting new meaning to this conception of the aristocrat by declaring that the term should be defined by individual worth, not by birth alone. Attempting to preserve something of the ancient ideal of the superior man (both nobly born and noble in characteristics) in the rough-and-tumble open society that was emerging. Confucius acknowledged social mobility. Although himself of the aristocracy, Confucius accepted students from all social backgrounds, and of his known disciples all but two were commoners. The success of his teachings made education in subsequent ages virtually synonymous with Confucian education; this monopoly helped establish his ideals in practice. Confucianism became the uniform intellectual outlook of the educated; it molded the new elite in society and government. Chün-tzu, “superior man,” was the self-identification of that elite of merit in traditional Chinese society. Though it suffered the fate of all institutionalized ideals in being often honored in the breach, the Confucian ideal was never lost. It provided a source of stability in the rather violent transformation of the feng-chien social order in the centuries immediately following Confucius’ lifetime, and it helped to assure the enduring existence of the open society that came into being in that process.
The proper model of government. Confucius said: “The Chou had the advantage of viewing the past two dynasties. How complete and elegant are its regulations! I follow Chou.” That is, he accepted the normal viewpoint of his history-minded civilization in looking to the past, but he made that more specific, examining comparatively the political modes of the Shang and the Chou. In announcing his allegiance to the Chou, Confucius expressed his loyalty to the legitimate rulers, and perhaps a wish to harmonize Shang and Chou differences, to strengthen the symbols of cultural unity. But almost certainly the quotation expresses his genuine admiration for the duke of Chou and for his part in creating the Institutes of Chou (Chou li), the great compendium of documents on the structure and the ritualization of society dating from the first reigns of the dynasty.
The rectification of terms (cheng-ming). Despite the actual revolutionary import of much of his teaching, Confucius was conservative in outlook and cautious in method. His disciples were taught to serve worthy rulers when they could, and to withdraw and cultivate their own qualities when there were no worthy rulers to serve. Serving meant acting vigorously in the ruler’s proper interests, making government benevolent, and influencing it by exercising moral suasion on the holders of power. The faults of human government were best analyzed by noting discrepancies between names and realities. For example, a “superior man,” a member of the ruling class, was such when he acted according to the import of the name; when the reality of his conduct differed from the import of that name, he was no longer a “superior man” and should be regarded as an ordinary fellow—deprived of office, etc. Thus the famous saying: “Let the prince be a prince, the minister a minister, the father a father, and the son a son …” and then government would be accomplished. There are many anecdotes about Confucius and his later followers using this method to lecture rulers and kings on their faults, applying moral suasion and effective, if somewhat idealistic, argument.
Benevolence (jen). The Confucian ethic is related to government primarily and most fundamentally in terms of jen, translated as “benevolence,” “human-heartedness,” “goodness,” etc. It is a term that Confucius tried variously to define, and nowhere in the extant sayings is there a comprehensive statement of its meaning, yet there are repeated indications that he held it to be the most important concept of his thought system. Jen assumes the harmonious relations among all the members of the family of man, expressed in gradations of mutual affection and respect from those nearer and dearer to those farther away and less directly recipient of benevolent action. In early Chou times the identity of the state with the extended family of the Chou kings made proper family relations a necessity to government; as in other cases, a concept originally to be applied literally and narrowly was enlarged by Confucius to a metaphorical and idealized meaning. In his conceptualization of jen, perhaps consciously drawing on the lenient spirit of Shang tradition to correct a Chou tendency toward rigidity of form, Confucius made one of his most significant additions to the store of Chinese ethical and political concepts.
Moral suasion and ritual propriety versus regulating and punishing. Confucius believed in a government of superior men whose cultivated minds would lead their behavior to be both benevolently concerned for other men and ritually correct. The rites harmonized men’s spirits and led to harmonious relations among all men, thus contributing to the stabilizing harmony of the cosmos. A government of superior men would accomplish these things almost instinctively; superior laws and institutions had only a secondary place in Confucius’ ideal. He ranked the techniques of government, giving foremost place to the suasive virtue of the ruler and lowest place to intimidation through punishments. Ideally, the good ruler should be able to govern without exerting himself and without the governed’s being aware of government. Therefore, teaching the people to understand virtue was the essential act of government, providing for their material well-being was next in importance, and organizing them for defense against internal and external enemies was undertaken only as an acknowledgment of failure. Confucius was not so vague about human realities that he would eliminate laws, punishments, and weapons before human well-being could be assured by other means, but he retained a negative attitude toward these aspects of the state’s activities. Moreover, he denied to the state an absolute command of the loyalties of its citizens; the “superior man” retained his own responsibility to judge the state and to judge for himself when it merited his services. One of the earliest Confucian texts says: “The administration of government lies in getting the right men, and such men are to be attracted through the power of the ruler’s own character.” A government of benevolence, functioning through the suasive power of virtue, embodying the cosmic harmony in the ritualization of relations, and relying on the judgment of cultivated men, ideally needed no law codes to be vindicated and no other defenses than the attachment to it that its people naturally would feel toward it, as members of a family toward the family head. Confucius never gained the opportunity to practice these lofty ideals as a chief minister of state or trusted adviser to a ruler, but he fixed this ideal so firmly in the minds of all men who received education through the canonical works and their Confucian school commentaries that all subsequent political theorizing had to take cognizance of it, and most, indeed, proceeded from it; at the very least, it became the established view against which other views must argue.
Mencius. In many ways Mencius (c. 372–c. 289 b.c.) resembled Confucius. A native of the small state of Tsou, which was adjacent to Confucius’ native Lu, pre-eminent in his command of the traditional learning, teacher of a large following of students, Mencius too traveled throughout China but had more success than Confucius in gaining recognition. He expounded his arguments, counseled kings and ministers, and debated with other philosophers. In the century following Confucius, philosophy had burgeoned, schools had appeared, and debate had become an important activity. But political and social dissolution also had progressed. Mencius lived in a world of still greater instability, more widespread warfare, and more intense social suffering. He appears to us as a great-spirited man of compassion in observing the people, a self-confident intellectual in dealing with the powerful, and a philosophical idealist in his political and social views.
In his political thought, Mencius especially developed the Confucian doctrine of benevolence (jen) and applied it to politics in ways that went significantly beyond Confucius’ thought. This led him to state explicitly that human nature is fundamentally good (Confucius had not made the point explicit), that environment leads men to become bad but that benevolent government can encourage the innate goodness of man to assert itself. Therefore, government must first provide for man’s material well-being and, second, teach man to observe family and social ethics. In this, Mencius reversed the order in which Confucius listed the chief responsibilities of government. Mencius also developed at great length the view that the state exists only for the well-being of the people, that they are, in fact, the “root of the state,” in comparison with which the ruler is only the relatively unimportant “branch.” No interest of the ruler or of the state could take precedence over the need to provide for the people’s basic welfare. When the ruler of one state asked the learned Mencius what he could tell him that would profit his state, it brought forth an indignant lecture on the evils of the profit notion. So utilitarian a concept as “profit” was condemned because it destroys the benevolent sense of compassion for all men; ignoble goals could only produce political disorder. “Profit” to Mencius meant expediency in place of altruism and signified the end of benevolence. Mencius’ view of the basic importance of the people also led him to the extreme view that “tyrannicide is not regicide.”
Mencius’ political thought was “liberal” and individualistic in some ways, but not in all. There was nothing in it of the democratic notion of “by the people.” It was, rather, a radically idealistic and benevolent kind of paternalism.
The main faults in Mencius’ political thought stemmed from carrying the idealistic view of human nature to logical extremes and from lack of realism about human institutions. He often gave vague or impractical political advice to the rulers of his time on specific details of administration. In isolation from his very realistic statements about the impossibility of the people’s practicing virtue when they are hungry, such political advice would seem to mark Mencius as a man who knew nothing of social reality. Such was not the case. We must assume that some of his arguments were over-drawn for reasons deriving from particular circumstances. But in general his thought shows an impracticality about political institutions. The most important example of this is his espousal of the antique institution of the “well-field system” apportioning land to groups of eight families who would, in addition to their individual plots, work a common field. The produce of the shared plot would become full payment of all obligations owed to the state. The model for this ideal system may never have existed, and Mencius may have known that. In any event, it was wholly unrealistic by Mencius’ time, when private ownership had become general and when other forms of production than agriculture, demanding other kinds of organization, had grown to significant stature. Yet the idea, as outlined by Mencius, assumed considerable importance. It formed the basis for much later Utopian thinking and in imperial times frequently became the springboard for liberal political theorists indirectly protesting the power of the state. In this, and in his denunciation of government by force, Mencius left a heritage of ideas built on Confucian foundations. They remained important elements of political theorizing, though they were not immediately as influential as the rather opposite views of Hsün Tzu.
Hsün Tzu. The third and last of the great figures in the preimperial development of Confucian thought, Hsiin Tzu (c. 300–c. 237 b.c.) lived on the eve of the political unification culminating in the imperial era after two centuries of the Warring States period. Like Confucius and Mencius, he was a man of immense learning, but unlike them, he also had long experience as an administrator, having served for many years as governor of a province.
Within the heritage of ideas developed by Confucius, several traditions emerged. Whereas Mencius stressed jen Hsün Tzu emphasized the rites (li), the other principal area of Confucian political conceptualization. Confucius used the term li to include all the institutions and regulations by which the state is maintained and society is governed. Hsün Tzu’s extensive and tightly reasoned philosophical writings are devoted largely to the exposition and defense of this vast conception of human culture. He is both the most systematic and the most profound thinker of the early Confucian school and is sometimes called its Aristotle. He was a man of great intellectual breadth—poet, musician, thinker, and scholar–bureaucrat, anticipating in these many roles the Confucian ideal elite type of imperial China.
Hsün Tzu disapproved of Mencius and disagreed with him on many basic issues. A tough-minded realist, he declared human nature to be basically animal, predisposed to antisocial, selfish pursuits of gratification and advantage. Like Mencius, however, he was optimistic about the capacity of all men to be perfected and molded by human culture, the highest expression of which was the rites. But whereas Mencius would leave human nature to realize its noble potential in self-expression and to recognize the value of ritual propriety through a cultivated but innate wisdom, Hsün Tzu believed in imposing normative controls and standards to curb innate tendencies and in enforcing their imposition through the power of the state. Though he started from the position that human nature is evil, Hsün Tzu was no less Confucian than Mencius in his stress on education and on the necessity of the state to nurture the people. His goal also was the greater happiness and prosperity of mankind in society. He did not propose the enhancement of the powers of the state for the sake of the state per se. However, his observation of and deep involvement in the disorders of the final stages of the Warring States period probably heightened his appreciation of the need for stability; he was willing to grant a more exalted position and authority to the ruler than had been typical of earlier Confucian thought, and he advocated a strong, centralizing governmental power exercised by or in the name of the legitimate ruler. Although two of his prominent disciples (Li Ssu and Han Fei) did abandon Confucian humanism to become leading figures in Legalism, the charge that Hsün Tzu was a Legalist is unfounded. Hsün Tzu established a view polarized from that of Mencius but one that fully shares in the basic Confucian values and attitudes.
Mo Tzu. Mo Tzu (c. 479–c. 381 b.c.) is interesting as a proponent of radical religious utilitarianism and as the organizer of a distinct social movement in late Chou society. His school is also of interest in the history of Chinese thought for its development of logical method in reasoning and for its epistemology. But in all of these things the Mohists are eccentric and atypical of Chinese civilization. Moreover, the school disappeared as an active element in Chinese political and intellectual life in the third century b.c. and had very little influence on subsequent political thinking. Interest in Mohism has re-emerged in the last two centuries, partly because of points of comparison with non-Chinese philosophies, particularly the interest Christian missionaries have shown in Mohist “universal love.”
Mo Tzu probably was educated in the Confucian school tradition, but he revolted against that “elite” point of view and established his own. He attempted to create a rigidly organized company of followers among whom to perpetuate his views and to form the nucleus of the ideal society. He believed quite literally in gods and spirits, increasingly personalizing Heaven as a Supreme Being. He claimed that Confucian rational skepticism angered the gods, with disastrous results for mankind. He repudiated the rites, music, and learning of Confucianism on utilitarian grounds, claiming that they both interfered with productive activity and wasted the fruits of production, to the general impoverishment of mankind. His ideal society was to be one of austerity, permitting no wasted effort. He denied family ethics and family values, arguing that universal love (chien-ai) of all men for all men without the inequities of kinship ties would be of material benefit. His views were subject to three kinds of verification: they were the will of the gods and spirits; there were logical proofs of their correctness; they could be demonstrated to have utility in material terms. Mo Tzu cited naive evidence for the first and developed the logical arguments with considerable intellectual clarity, but he relied most heavily in all cases on the utilitarian argument.
Having religious and moral sanctions for his views, Mo Tzu further established a reasoned political form for his ideal society. It was to be organized into an all-embracing hierarchy under a leader exercising absolute authority. The leader would accede to that position naturally, because everyone in the society acknowledged authority for the sake of gaining order and peace; they would “conform to the Superior” both in principle and in the person of the one exemplifying superior qualities. This provided the political sanction for organizing a militaristic society of discipline, mutual surveillance, and total conformity. But it was to be organized for peace, since war is wasteful. Aggressive war was totally outlawed, but Mohists became experts in defensive warfare.
It is probable that some communities of Mohist organization came into being, and they may have persisted for decades. The ideas of Mohism became very important in the fourth and third centuries, during which period the later Mohists added to the book known as the Mo Tzu, in particular extending the logical tools needed for debating with Sophists and with the other philosophical schools. Mencius denounced Mohism for its utilitarian, hence amoral, character and also, no doubt, for its materialistic views, which were distasteful to his idealistic turn of mind. The Taoists found Mohism arid and lacking in aesthetic sense, but most of all they found its total organization and conformity to be the worst possible enemy of their ideal of natural freedom. In fact, Mohism could scarcely have been expected to have strong appeal for any significant segment of Chinese life; its appearance, not its disappearance, is the curiosity. However, it shared with other early Chinese schools of thought the overriding Chinese concern for the problem of how to achieve social order and safety in an age of turmoil and, like Confucianism, its orientation was toward the welfare of the people, not the interests of state or ruler.
Taoism. Tao means “roadway,” hence, “the Way,” and it came to mean to Taoists the great Way of Nature, as opposed to the artifices and devices of human civilization. As a protophilosophical movement it apparently had its origins in early Chou eremitism. Traditionally, the man known as Lao Tzu was regarded as its earliest articulate philosopher. Efforts to discount his historicity and to date his book, the Tao te ching (The Book of Tao), as a late (i.e., fourth–third century b.c.) work have been strongly countered in recent scholarship. There now seem to be good reasons for considering him an older contemporary of Confucius and for dating the book roughly from that time. The second great figure in Taoism, Chuang Tzu, who lived from about 369 to about 286 b.c., is fully historical, though the known details of his life are rather scanty. Throughout all of Chinese imperial history and into our own time, the Tao te ching and the Chuang Tzu have been powerfully influential works, intimately known to all educated Chinese and the source of as many common speech images as the Confucian Analects. Taoism has functioned as a fascinating and particularly satisfying counterbalance to Confucianism, forming the traditional minor mode of Chinese thought, complementing if seldom seriously challenging the Confucian mainstream. Taoism is a naturalism, taking nature as its standard, whereas humanistic Confucianism takes man, especially the wise sages of antiquity. It is as antisocial, individualistic, and opposed to culture as Confucianism is the opposite. It advances a thoroughly amoral relativism in contrast with Confucianism’s moral absolutism. And it includes views ranging from laissez-faire government of inaction to radical anarchism.
The political message of the Tao te ching is one of simple naturalism. A small work composed of 81 brief poems, mostly ambiguous lyrics, it has sometimes been described as a handbook for rulers, telling them that the way to govern is the great Way of not governing at all. The Way of Nature can be observed in the action of water, the book’s favorite metaphor; water seeks low places, resists nothing, but fills and overcomes everything. “Reversal is the movement of Tao,” the book says repeatedly, meaning that all movement is circular, from zenith to nadir and back, each point succeeded by the other. And from this it follows that all striving is vain, since it brings in time the opposite consequences of those directly sought. Hence, leave man alone rather than strive to regulate and guide him. The ruler who does nothing can accomplish everything; he who tries too much can only end up empty-handed. How literally should a metaphor be understood? Most Chinese have tended to regard this as a profoundly wise observation, cautioning simplicity and limitation of government.
Taoism, in keeping with the Chinese world view, is neither ascetic nor unworldly. It accepts life in this world, here and now, as man’s real life. But the Taoist sage was one who reasonably limited his pursuit of material gain and pleasure and concentrated on the freedom of the mind. For all men, sage and clod, Taoism sought the greatest possible human happiness, which it equated with freedom. Chuang Tzu’s anarchism would never lead to political movements, assassination of tyrants, or any other organized political or social action; it was the anarchism of extreme individualism, seeking the total liberation of the spirit from the fetters of civilization, not by destroying civilization but by ignoring it. It is clearly the antecedent of the typically Chinese movement within later Buddhism called Ch’an, best known in the West by the Japanese name of zen.
Taoist ideas, because of their great aesthetic and intellectual appeal, had influence on politics even while denying its validity. One curious example is seen in the fact that these ideas provided the image of the ruler who “does nothing and accomplishes everything,” an image of the supreme ruler which was used by Legalism in a wholly perverted sense and which in slightly truer sense also helped to form the imperial concept of the emperor who is “above government.” Taoist ideas emphasized the futility of government, thereby giving a kind of perspective with which to judge Confucianist activism. At its truest, Taoism could provide a non-disruptive pattern for political protest, for intellectual Taoists would withdraw rather than contest. But on the popular level Taoism—and unlike Confucianism, Taoism was susceptible to gross vulgarization—could spawn magical and superstitious religious and political movements that were frequently very destructive.
Legalism. Legalism is not a comprehensive philosophy; rather, it is primarily a set of methods and principles for the operation of the state which has the barest of ideological foundations. Legalists were content to justify their system by a single comment: “It works.” And, unlike all the other thinkers of early China, the Legalists were concerned only with the ruler and his state apparatus; the happiness of the individual and the good of society were considered indirectly if at all. What philosophical foundations Legalism had were drawn largely from sociopsychological observations about human behavior, i.e., how to make people serve the state. It had no speculative interests like cosmology or metaphysics, could abandon logic since it need not worry about convincing people through argument, and abolished ethics as irrelevant. Yet Legalism drew to it some of the most brilliant minds of ancient China and produced a corpus of political writing without parallel for breadth and analytic perceptiveness. It failed ultimately when practiced on a large scale, perhaps because of its philosophical aridity; its understanding of human nature was overly cynical, unnecessarily limited. Even the most perceptive observations on how to manipulate humans through enticement and intimidation failed as a total system of controlled human behavior.
Legalists, too, faced the common problem of early Chinese philosophy: how to achieve stability in an age of turmoil. “Method men,” experts on administrative law, economic organization, diplomacy, and other aspects of statecraft began to emerge as advisers to vassal rulers early in Eastern Chou. Shang Yang, who died in 338 b.c., wrote the earliest extant example of the important theoretical discussions of this statecraft.
The great synthesizer of Legalism was Han Fei (who died in 233 b.c.), a scion of the ducal house of Han, an ex-student of Hsiin Tzu who repudiated even his authoritarian Confucianism, and an adviser at the court of the king of Ch’in. The state of Ch’in had officially adopted Legalist practice a century earlier, when Lord Shang had been chief minister. Finally, in 230–220 b.c., the decade of unification, the king of Ch’in took the title designed for him by his Legalist advisers, huang-ti, or “August Emperor,” and inaugurated the imperial era as the first emperor of the Ch’in dynasty. Throughout, Legalist advisers played their important role, and Ch’in success was regarded as the success of a rigidly and ruthlessly applied Legalism. Han Fei became the synthesizer and theoretician of that culminating stage of development, and Li Ssu, his fellow rebel from the school of Hsün Tzu, as prime minister to the first emperor was its ultimate practitioner. Both were put to death under harsh Ch’in laws (misused, it must be admitted, in a non-Legalist manner), along with vast numbers of the suffering population, in one of the world’s first experiments with totalitarianism. When popular revolts brought a quick end to the Ch’in dynasty, its Legalist doctrine was openly repudiated and “Legalist” became for all time a term of condemnation to be applied to a political enemy.
But Legalism had provided the actual means of organizing the vast machinery of Chinese government and of uniting the nation into a coherent, governable whole. Though officially and popularly repudiated, many of its features could not be abandoned. Officially, the successor dynasty (the Han, which held power from 206 b.c. to a.d. 220) launched an ideology called by modern scholars “imperial Confucianism,” but government throughout the imperial millennia was in fact an enduring and very effective amalgam of Legalist methods and Confucian principles.
Legalist political thought is best seen in the extensive writings preserved in the book of Han Fei, Han Fei Tzu. Its inexorably logical analysis and exposition make it one of the universal classics of political theory. The essential elements are the definition of power; the analysis of the sources and the functions of power; the definition of the proper uses of power, namely, to enhance the ruler’s position by making his state larger and stronger in economic and military spheres so as to permit him unrestricted attainment of his will; the analysis of the role of the people, who were to be made totally compliant and as productive and efficient as possible in agriculture and in warfare; the role of fa (laws, penal regulations, and administrative procedures), designed so perfectly that the state’s machinery would run like clockwork, achieving the distorted version of the Taoist ideal of the ruler personally “doing nothing and accomplishing everything.” In this state, the fa were to be above everything else, even above the ruler, who would not interfere arbitrarily with their design and operation. Moreover, the whole power of the state was to be used to enforce them. For example, it was decreed that refuse was not to be dumped on the streets, on pain of amputation of hands or feet, and the streets of Ch’in became spotless thoroughfares for cripples. Legalist planners well knew how to make such a system function at low administrative cost by involving the whole population in mutual responsibility, much like modern totalitarianism’s mutual surveillance techniques.
Legalism is thus both a repellent view of human values and an effective political science. Fortunately, the Chinese empire was able to temper the former with Confucianism without losing too much of the latter.
It has been suggested in the preceding section that the actual organization of the Chinese empire drew as much on Legalist practice as it did on Confucian principle. Most of the emperors of the imperial era whose achievements mark them as outstanding were themselves well aware of this and untroubled by it, realizing that the Legalist component strengthened their own position. Usually they recognized that the institutions of the imperial state were scarcely Confucian. Nonetheless, the conscious political theorizing and the formal imperial expressions alike were done in Confucian terms. And the political thought was produced in the overwhelming majority of cases by self-identified Confucians. The Confucian monopoly on education was virtually complete for the whole 2,000-year period. Everyone learned to read from the Analects, and then from the other Confucian classics. Service in government was somewhat irregularly controlled by civil service procedures and examinations in Confucian learning even before the seventh century a.d., and with increasing effectiveness after that time. Even during the centuries of Buddhist domination of Chinese intellectual life (especially the fourth to tenth centuries a.d.), Confucian formalism prevailed in the court and throughout the administration. The entire vocabulary of government and of political theory was drawn from Confucian contexts, and even those rare thinkers who consciously espoused non-Confucian ideas did so in Confucian terms. Even though it produced much sterile convention, this continuing presence of Confucianism also formed attitudes and influenced behavior. And occasionally it could come to life and arouse renewed Confucian intellectual vigor.
The political philosophers of the early Han dynasty had to make the initial Confucian adaptation to the needs of imperial China. They were confronted with the difficulty of rationalizing in Confucian terms a state that was a monstrosity in Confucian eyes. Moreover, their own “Confucianism” was strongly colored by contemporary intellectual currents of non-Confucian origin. Scholars throughout the centuries have repeatedly made the discovery that the elements of culture grow and change; only naive fundamentalists are troubled by the discovery. Tung Chung-shu’s correlative thinking, with its tortuously devised relationships between man and the cosmos, could not have been anticipated by any Confucian thinker of the preimperial era, but it nonetheless constitutes the “Confucianism” of its time.
Tung Chung-shu (c. 179–c. 104 b.c.) stands out among many writers and statesmen of the Han dynasty as the great theorizer of the imperial world. Chief minister of state in the early Han, he established institutional adaptations which aided the Confucian ascendancy over the other schools of thought and helped to fix the acceptance of Confucian norms within the state’s apparatus. His political theories were expressed in the form of commentaries on the Confucian canonical work, the Ch’un ch’iu (”Spring and Autumn Annals”). He is to be credited with the adoption in Han times of the principle of recruitment for public office that led ultimately, in later dynasties, to the highly rationalized and objective system of written examinations, of merit grading in office, and the other features of the famous Chinese civil service. Tung also helped to Confucianize the Legalist-derived institution of the emperor. On the one hand he drew on the yin–yang and Five Elements schools (minor philosophies of the fourth and third centuries b.c.), and on the other, on Confucian ethical concepts, to formulate a cosmology in which the emperor’s supreme position, unjustifiable by any earlier political theory except for the repudiated Legalism, could be shown to be a necessary part of the moral Confucian cosmos. In Tung’s system, the emperor played an indispensable role as the supreme mediator between mankind and t’ien, perhaps best translated in this context as “Nature.” The Confucian social ethics, expressed in the three basic relationships (ruler–servitor, fatherson, and husband–wife) and five constant ethical responsibilities (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and good faith), were both rigidified in conception and linked mechanistically to the cosmic function while being institutionalized in customary law. Perhaps the reversion to supermoral sanctions marks a degeneration of philosophical Confucianism, but in an age that seemed to call for religious attitudes, Tung Chung-shu’s solutions to such problems were at least faithful to the Confucian concept of an ethical cosmos, and this makes it possible for us to speak of “imperial Confucianism” rather than of “imperial Legalism” as the ideological foundation of the Chinese empire. Tung’s metaphysical justifications for the political and social order turned out to be of brief historical importance; far more important for imperial history was the firm establishment of at least partially effective Confucian norms for that political and social order.
The extremes of anti-intellectualism and credulity to which Tung’s metaphysics could degenerate were attacked by many later Han thinkers, mostly in the name of a purer Confucianism. Most important are the skeptical critiques of Wang Ch’ung (a.d. 27–c. 100), who said of his great book of essays, the Lun heng (“Critical Essays”) that its message could be summed up in the single phrase, “Hatred of fiction and falsehoods.” Wang Ch’ung’s Confucianism reflected a new tendency to draw heavily on Taoist naturalism as an antidote against the mechanistically teleological cosmology of Tung’s school of Han Confucianism. Confucian thought was capable of extravagant departures from basic Confucian attitudes, but it was always capable of producing its own self-criticism and corrective.
In the long period from the end of the Han dynasty to the beginning of the Sung, Chinese intellectual life was marked by the presence of a largely devitalized Confucian formalism, linked with the routine operation of the state and nominally conveying the norms of society. At the same time, intellectual vitality was manifested almost exclusively, first in Neo-Taoism (especially in the third century) and later in Buddhism. This long and philosophically rich period did not, however, contribute much to political thought, except indirectly, by enlarging the realm of the mind. Metaphysical speculation became an important part of the Chinese intellectual preoccupation, requiring even political thought thereafter to relate to metaphysical concepts.
Neo-Confucianism is the term by which one designates the ground of intellectual activity in the last thousand years of traditional Chinese history. It was a philosophical movement of the greatest possible breadth; at the same time it provided an entirely new direction and tone to many aspects of daily life beyond the reach of formal philosophy. The movement began in the ninth century as a segment of the scholar-officialdom’s protest against Buddhist excesses in areas of social and political relevance. Chinese statesmen were concerned about conflicts of interest between the Buddhist church institution and the institutions of traditional Chinese state and society. Out of the opposition to the Indian (but by now long Sinicized) religion there appeared a general revival of Confucian values and of interest in classical Confucian ideas, hence the name Neo-Confucianism for the movement. We can regard Neo-Confucianism as a new synthesis of Chinese values and Chinese thought, consciously aiming at the recovery of pristine Confucian elements but in fact having become a much broader and somewhat differently oriented philosophy than early Confucianism had been.
Philosophically, Neo-Confucianism began by elevating the Mencius to a position second only to the Analects, while the Hsün Tzu was regarded simply as another Confucian school work, admirable though faulty. No doubt the Mencian idealism, with its overtones of mysticism, was more congenial, in pure philosophical terms, to the post-Buddhist mind of China. Yet the political theories of Neo-Confucian thinkers often seem much closer to the authoritarian spirit of Hsün Tzu, whose concept of the state more closely fit the realities of the long-established authoritarian empire.
Han Yü (768–824) is usually looked upon as the first great figure in the Neo-Confucian movement. He and his contemporaries began to reawaken interest in political theorizing, although their most important influence on subsequent history probably was simply to arouse the sense of rediscovery of pre-Buddhist ideas and values in philosophy and in literature (seeing the latter as the vehicle for the former), with which to launch a Chinese reaction against Buddhism. The formal Neo-Confucian philosophy saw its great flowering more than a century later, in the eleventh century, during which cosmological and metaphysical speculation was the major activity, and in the twelfth century, with the synthesizing work of Chu Hsi (1130–1200).
Neo-Confucianist rationalism. Ultimately most of the Neo-Confucianists resolved their understanding of the cosmos in terms of the dualism of reason and matter. Matter was thought of as being in a constant cycle of dispersion and concentration, dispersed in the formless ether and concentrated in the myriad forms of concrete reality. Matter assumed specific forms by the interaction of the polar modes (yin and yang) under the dynamism of cosmic harmony—a force that at the same time sustains human ethical conceptions. The Supreme Ultimate was a kind of comprehensive principle subsuming all of the specific principles of the myriad forms. Man did not invent objects or institutions but discovered their principles, which eternally exist whether or not material reality participates in their existence. Thus, there was a principle for government, for the ruler, for the state, and for all of the institutions of society and government. These made government possible but did not guarantee its quality. Man could improve the actual institutions of his time by perfecting his understanding of the ideal forms and causing their material counterparts to adhere more closely to the forms. Thus Chu Hsi discussed Mencius’ distinction between the kingly government (wang-tao) and government by force (patao), showing that the former embodied harmony and accorded with universal principle, whereas the latter deflected harmony and was divergent.
All of the Neo-Confucianist philosophers, widely split on many philosophic issues, more or less agreed in their basic political concepts. Given the foregoing rationalization of the state, they could readily subscribe to the Mencian doctrine of benevolent government, and indeed all of them positively advocated government by men deeply concerned about the moral rightness of their actions and about the welfare of the people. Yet in their moral zeal, and with their new metaphysical concepts of eternal principles serving as standards of human behavior, their thought could easily become more rigidly normative than was the case in early Confucianism, especially than was the case with Mencius. For example, the metaphor of the Supreme Ultimate in its hierarchy of cosmic forces, sustaining and ordering the myriad forms of life, was readily extended in literal fashion to the Supreme Emperor, Son of Heaven, exalted capstone of a hierarchy of political forces and social realities. Nothing so direct was consciously set forth by any of the Neo-Confucian cosmologists, but the detached character of their political discourses perhaps prevented this popular and even official misuse of the analogy from being repudiated by them. For another example, the old Confucian virtue of reciprocal loyalty between servitor and ruler, revived with moral zeal, came to be a one-way loyalty binding only the servitor and diminishing the play of his own judgment in deciding when the worthy ruler merited loyal service. For many reasons, of which conscious philosophizing may indeed be only one, the Neo-Confucian era was one of continuous enhancement of authoritarianism.
Reform and counterreform. During the Sung period, a distinctive feature of traditional Chinese society was the lack of specialization and differentiation of function of its elite; a vital Neo-Confucianism tended to impart an even greater uniformity of outlook. But commencing with the Sung dynasty (sometimes argued by cultural historians to be the beginning of modern China), one finds that the greatest figures in philosophy are not entirely identical with the great figures in active politics or with those in the more pragmatic political analysis and theory. And, if the political thought of the great metaphysicians and system builders is generally lacking in originality, that of their contemporaries who led the political factions of the day is of much greater interest. And there is the third group who were neither leading philosophers of the Neo-Confucian movement nor eminent statesmen but who produced a realistic and analytically perceptive brand of utilitarian political theory. These latter two groups stimulated repeated political reform movements throughout the Sung period.
The most famous reform movement is that led by Wang An-shih (1021–1086). Wang used his position as chief minister in the years 1069–1076, when he enjoyed a rare degree of support from the throne, to promote sweeping reforms of government administration, of the fiscal and economic systems, and of military organization. He stirred up a mass of protest from within the scholar-officialdom, which led to a strong counterreform under the opposition leaders, with alternation in power of bickering factions for some decades thereafter. The political history of the period is itself quite revealing of the growth and change in Sung society. Wang An-shih’s reform program was the second such major movement in Sung history, and still others followed. It is difficult to know the actual motivation of the reformers, and still more difficult to ascertain those of the counterreformers. Their own statements on the subject are always admirably Confucian. Traditionally, and still in our own time, attempts to explain them have focused on regional factors, social backgrounds, economic interests, religion, and differing philosophic points of view. Whatever the factors causing political factionalism, reform thought tended to take a strongly utilitarian line. These reformers, masters of traditional scholarship themselves who insisted that their Confucian learning was both consistent and pure, felt that the Confucian society could survive only if the state were stronger, richer, militarily more efficient and powerful, and administratively more effective. Wang An-shih claimed to be reviving principles inherent in the Institutes of Chou (Chou li), revered by Confucius. His enemies, however, called his ideas “Legalist.”
The counterreform was at first led by the statesman-historian Ssu-ma Kuang (1019–1086), whose Confucian thought is very much of Hsün Tzu’s authoritarian stamp; in fact, he took a position (remarkable among Neo-Confucians) seriously doubting the validity of the text of the Mencius where it is most outspoken in denying supreme power and dignity to the ruler and his state apparatus. He is the most extreme of Neo-Confucian spokesmen in upholding the exalted position of the supreme monarch and demanding of the loyal servitor an unquestioning subservience to him. Yet his concept of government is Confucian in its emphasis on benevolence and righteousness and, like much Neo-Confucian thought, is tinged with Taoism, especially noticeable in its laissez-faire economic views. He appears to have opposed Wang An-shih primarily on the grounds that radical innovation in institutions was reckless and ill-founded, though there undoubtedly were other, perhaps more personal, reasons as well.
Southern Sung utilitarian thinkers continued in the tradition established in the northern Sung and manifested most strikingly in Wang An-shih but did not succeed in gaining similar opportunities for experimentation at the highest level of government. Ch’en Liang (1143–1194) and Yeh Shih (1150–1223) are the most important.
Ch’en Liang found the political thought of contemporary Neo-Confucian philosophers like Chu Hsi too theoretical and too vague; he advocated more direct and realistic means of benefiting the people, thereby enriching and strengthening the state. He was particularly critical of administrative overcentralization, with resultant lack of initiative and efficiency in local government, and he was a harsh opponent of the compromise peace which left the Sung dynasty in insecure control of only its southern provinces, with the Jürched Chin conquerors in possession of the north. His political thought and criticisms of government were uncongenial to the Neo-Confucian philosophical trends, as well as to the intrenched interested of the scholar-gentry.
Yeh Shih had a distinguished early career as an administrator, but he ran afoul of factional politics and devoted much of his life thereafter to debating the meaning of classical political concepts with the Neo-Confucian philosophers. Although basically committed to the people’s welfare, in the Mencian spirit, he dared to reject the Mencian distaste for the word “profit” or “benefit,” attempting to demonstrate that good government in fact ensues from the realistic pursuit of material benefit. He was also critical of vague parallels with antiquity as drawn by more theoretical-minded Neo-Confucians. He was more clear-minded than most of his contemporaries about growth and change, and about the differences between the environment in which ancient models for institutions may have existed and the present. His focus on institutional development and analysis of institutional weaknesses marks him as a new kind of political scientist in the long history of Chinese political thought.
Neo-Confucian idealism. In the Ming period, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, authoritarian government achieved a degree of despotic realization previously unknown. The Chu Hsi orthodoxy became one of the instruments of state control. Although nothing so comprehensive as modern totalitarian thought control could be realized in that society, the official orthodoxy became rigid and narrowly restrictive. Wang Shou-jen (1472–1528, also known as Wang Yang-ming), after a long period of intellectual search and in a moment of personal crisis, experienced a sudden enlightenment with the discovery of the truth that Mind is the single reality. This unorthodox idealist position was interpreted by Wang’s followers as the discovery of individual freedom. Wang himself was an eminent literatus, governor, general, and pillar of the official world; his career and his personal behavior are unmarked by any departure from proper norms. But his thought implies radical rejection of all externally imposed norms and a reaffirmation of the Mencian freedom of the spirit to discover truth within the self. This had explosive results, especially among Wang’s followers in the generation or two after his death. His idealism became a broad movement with a popular following and with a profound effect on society at large. It enhanced the conception of the dignity of the individual, and it led to greater opportunity for education of the common people. Eventually it produced extremes of libertarianism and eccentricity that demanded forceful suppression. The movement was somewhat discredited among thinkers and was recognized as a danger to the state. With the change of dynasty in 1644 it was effectively discouraged.
Wang’s political thought as such is neither extensive nor explicit. It stressed the Mencian ideal of moral suasion and advocated broader education of the masses in order to help them realize their human potential for perfection. In maintaining that the awareness of truth and the sense of ethical correctness were minimally latent within all individuals, it was antiauthoritarian without intending to be revolutionary. He implied a degree of equality and of freedom in society quite in agreement with the Confucian concept of the “superior man,” but it was socially dangerous when taken crudely and out of the context of Wang’s ideas. It is significant that modern Chinese communist historians regard Wang as the voice of a newly emergent urban bourgeoisie, a kind of Chinese Rousseau. Among later followers of his school in the century after his death were many freethinking radicals and some of the most interesting minds in Chinese intellectual history.
Continuity of traditional thought. In the succeeding Manchu Ch’ing dynasty (1644–1912) the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, defined in the synthesis wrought by Chu Hsi and functioning most directly in the bureaucratic civil service system, was rigidly and narrowly maintained. But particularly in the early years of the dynasty, some scholars remained independent of the elite career and, as private members of society more or less defying the government, reflected on Ming errors and wrote critically of the faults of authoritarianism.
The best-known figure in this connection is Huang Tsung-hsi (1610–1695) whose book Ming-i tai-fang lu (sometimes translated “A Plan for the Prince”) is a thoroughgoing analysis of the faults of the imperial system as known in the Ming period. Although this book had no influence on politics at the time, its influence on thought was very great; moreover, it became a basic source book for the late nineteenth-century revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the Ch’ing and the creation of a new moden society. Huang’s basic political tenets are two: first, the Mencian doctrine of the primary importance of the people in any conceptualization of government, and second, the idea drawn from the Book of Rites (one of the ancient Confucian classics) that the empire is a great commonality, i.e., it is not the private property of the emperor, to do with as he wishes. Both of these clearly are aimed at the excesses of despotic emperors.
Huang Tsung-hsi saw the great fault in the gradual concentration of all powers in the hands of the emperor himself and the disappearance of supporting agencies and offices, through which administrative initiative and decision had been spread through a high level of responsible civil officials. This process culminated in the Ming period, with the abolition of the prime ministership in 1380. The Confucian ideal of wise ministers counseling and admonishing the ruler could never be realized in a court dominated by an arbitrary despot who shared none of his authority with his Confucian advisers, who intimidated them with force, and who regarded the operation of government as his private business. It is interesting that Huang’s thought stemmed essentially from Wang Yang-ming’s Neo-Confucian idealism; that of his great contemporary Ku Yen-wu (1613–1682) agreed with him in all essentials as far as the condemnation of authoritarianism is concerned but was in the tradition of Chu Hsi’s rationalism. A third great figure of the time, Wang Fu-chih (who lived from 1619 to 1692) was perhaps the most original and independent-minded of all, with a more objective appreciation of the facts of historical development; he repudiated the excesses of despotism without being driven to seek ideal forms in an antique past. The three great figures show the scope of Confucian thought at the time and the resources it possessed for self-generated criticism and renovation. But none of these men launched a political reform movement that could seize power and bring his critical thought to bear on government. Throughout the century after their deaths, other thinkers continued to give evidence of the potential vitality of the Confucian heritage, but none could break through the crystallized forms of the Legalist–Confucian imperial institution. It might have happened, but in fact it did not, until the impact of the West and events external to the Chinese cultural world undermined its eternal verities and pointed the way to a radical transformation of Chinese civilization.
Frederick W. Mote
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