A book review in Asia Times caught my eye. It considers what appears to be a new edition (2011?) of Arthur Waley's classic text: Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. Professor Dmitry Shlapentokh, a historian from the Indiana University-South Bend, does the honors. He seems to be a Russian historian with a grounding in European and classical "Western" (i.e. Greece/Rome) studies. I assume, then, that this review is an early foray by Prof. Shlapentokh into the world of Chinese philosophy. Welcome!
What I find interesting in this review is the central observation that he makes. When presented with Confucianism and Daoism and Legalism (which Waley idiosyncratically refers to as "realism"), Shlapentokh immediately, and correctly to my mind, realizes that it is the latter that has had the greatest impact on what we might call "actually existing Chinese statecraft."
This is notable because, as he rightly points out, Daoism has a certain attractiveness for Westerners, offering a kind of escape from the depredations of modernity, and Confucianism has historically had the best press, continuously asserted as the core of "Chinese culture." Perhaps his background in Russian history, where a certain "realism" can no doubt be found, has attuned him to the power realities of the historical Chinese state:
It was not Confucianism but "realism" that was the driving force of the Chinese authoritarian/totalitarian states. It had been really a functional philosophy, at least from the author's point of view. The "realists" were unquestionably the ideologists of the totalitarian regime, at least from Waley's perspective. Indeed, the author notes that many of the ideas of the "realists" look like quotations from current newspapers. One should remember that the first edition of Waley's book emerged in 1939, the year of the beginning of World War II, a time when most of Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was controlled by totalitarian regimes.
I would disagree with various of Prof. Shlapentokh's other observations: I am uncomfortable with labeling Daoism as "asocial;" I wouldn't invoke the term "Oriental Despotism" (too much Wittfogel-ian baggage); and I would take issue with how much of a public purpose, beyond the ruler's interest in power, Legalism possesses. But Shlapentokh has, at the outset, grasped something important: in the real world of Chinese politics, stretching back to pre-Qin times, it is Legalism that has had the greatest practical effect, more so than Daoism or Confucianism. That's not a bad starting point for thinking about ancient Chinese political thought.