Yesterday I noticed a survey from The Carter Center, on their website US-China Perception Monitor. It investigated how Chinese students studying in the US view Chinese and Western political systems. The results were complex, which is not surprising to anyone who has been following the evolution of Chinese students' experiences and perceptions over the past twenty five years or so. Studying in America does not automatically convert people into fervent liberal democrats. My own sense is that exposure to American academia cultivates a stronger critical sensibility in Chinese students, but that capacity for critrique can then be applied to US politics as well as PRC politics. And that's what we (American academics) do: produce critical thinkers.
But it was not the resutls of the survey that startled me. Rather, it was a particular quotation from The Analects:
72.3% of students in the survey believe the Confucian political concept “Let the ruler be the ruler, and the subject be a subject” still holds relevance.
The bracketed number in the midst of the sentence leads us to this note at the bottom of the page:
1. This quote comes from a reference to the Confucian Analects 12.11
Now, passage 12.11 is fairly famous among Analects readers. And as soon as I read the words "and the subject be a subject" I was taken aback. Here is the Chinese original with James Legge's translation:
The duke Jing, of Qi, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son." "Good!" said the duke; "if, indeed, the prince be not prince, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, although I have my revenue, can I enjoy it?"
For comparison's sake, here is how Ames and Rosemont handle this passage (and ignore for the moment that they use "son" as a verb):
Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governing effectively (zheng). Confucius replied, "The ruler must rule, the minister minister, the father father, and the son son."
"Excellent!" exclaimed the Duke. "Indeed, if the ruler does not rule, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, ever if there were grain, would I get to eat of it?"
Thus, I was dismayed by the use of "subject" in the survey instead of "minister," which, to my mind, changes the sense of the passage. I have been most familiar with translations, like Legge's and A&R's (and Hinton's) that render the key character - chen: 臣 - as "minister". So, I dug a litter deeper.
Turns out that "subject" could be suggested by chen, as we find here in the MDBG online dictionary, most notably as chenmin: 臣民. But, looking down the list of various usages, "official" or "Minister" seems more common. Thus, there is some basis for Watson's translation of 12.11, which runs:
Duke Jing of Qi questioned Confucius about government. Confucius replied, Let the ruler be a ruler; the subject, a subject; the father, a father; the son, a son.
The duke said, Splendid! For if indeed the ruler is not a ruler, the subject not a subject, the father not a father, the son not a son, then although there is grain, how will I be able to eat it?
So, should we read it as "subject" or "minister"? The larger question, and perhaps one that cannot be fully known, is: what were the intentions of the authors when they used this term in this text? Interestingly, there are other passages in the text that use chen and these push against a simple acceptance of "subject." Here's 3.19:
Ames and Rosemont have this as:
Duke Ding of Lu inquired: "How should rulers employ their ministers [chen - 臣], and how should ministers serve their lord?"
Confucius replied, "Rulers should employ their ministers by observing ritual propriety, and ministers should serve their lord by doing their utmost.
Notice that Watson, who in 12.11 translates chen as "subjects," renders it as "ministers" for 3.19:
Duke Ding asked how the ruler should treat his ministers and how the ministers should serve the ruler.
Confucius replied, The ruler should treat his ministers in accordance with ritual. The ministers should serve the ruler with loyalty.
And then there is 9.12:
Ames and Rosemont's translation is:
The Master was gravely ill,a nd so Zilu sent some of his disciples to serve as retainers [chen: 臣]. On improving slightly, Confucius said, "It has been a long time indeed that Zilu has been up to such pretenses. If I have no retainers and yet pretend to have them, who am I going to fool? Am I going to fool tian [heaven]? Further, wouldn't I rather die in the arms of my disciples than in the arms of some retainers? Even though I do not get a grand state funeral, I am hardly dying by the roadside.
In this case we have chen as "retainers," which is also Watson's choice.
There is, then, a range of semantic possibility here (note that by Han Feizi's time, chen seems to more reliably mean "minister," see Chinese text here). But how should we understand the first passage cited above, Analects 12.11. If we go with "subject" in that passage, it makes it seem more authoritarian, a stricter divide between "ruler" and "subject." That is how the Chinese students are reading it, I believe. Yer, if we use "minister," it could suggest a more reciprocal relationship, as implied in passage 3.19: rulers should treat ministers properly and ministers should serve a ruler loyally.
Personally, I think reciprocity is central to not only this text, but the broader stream of Confucian thought historically. It is certainly true, historically, that average Chinese people, farmers with no political status or standing, were subject to authoritarian power. They could not assert claims against a ruler. But ministers could, as Mencius reminds us (using a different character for "high minister" - qing: 卿) in passage 5B9 when he famously identifies "high ministers of the royal line" (貴戚之卿) of having a duty not only to remonstrate with the ruler but to remove a ruler from power, if need be.
Just as "ministers" (chen) should serve a ruler in a particular manner according to their rank, as in Analects 3.19, so, too, "high minsters" (qing) have certain obligations they must fulfill. And, further, "rulers" (which in all the passages above are identified as junzi: 君 , which is something closer to "sage." "noble-minded". Thus, we have the rather optimistic assumption in all of this that sages the noble-minded are actually rulers, and vice versa...) also have to fulfill certain duties and responsibilities. If rulers do not live up to the moral responsibilities that their titles suggest (yes, I agree that 12.11 is a rectification of names thing), then they should not keep those titles.
To get back to the original point, the view of Confucianism suggested by the survey of Chinese students seems overly influenced by age-old Legalist sensibilities as well as modern authoritarian practices. Analects 12.11 is not simply an assertion of unchanging political hierarchy. When chen is translated as "ministers" it is a reminder of the reciprocal obligations that exist between persons in different political positions. Rulers are not due unquestioned, sycophantic obedience. Indeed, ministers have a duty to hold rulers accountable to a higher standard of behavior and justice, ultimately ren: 仁, "humaneness". In a similar vein children should remonstrate to their parents if the latter are doing wrong. That's how a son is a son.
And if we understand 12.11 in that manner, it may not be as far removed from a democratic politics as the Chinese students might think.