My Photo
Follow UselessTree on Twitter



  • eXTReMe Tracker
Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 07/2005

« Another Taoist Easter | Main | The US is becoming a Confucian Society »

April 08, 2010


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

These are interesting ideas, nothing wrong with them at all. But they don't, for me, answer the question. While Confucianism is a distinctive set of ideas -- syncretic though it is, in the final analysis, the core is quite original -- Legalism is not a unique form of statecraft. Empires exist throughout human history, and the administrative principles are more or less the same (the structure itself may range from feudal to bureaucratic): Machiavelli outlined a version of statecraft; the Indian Arthashastra does the same; Egyptian princes wrote letters to their children. That Legalism was necessary to create a successful state is perfectly true; that it is unexceptional (though wittier than most administrative systems) is also true. So if we wish to, in some sense, capture or understand what is distinctive about China, Confucianism is a much better starting place.

Thanks for the comment. Let me push back a bit.
I would argue that the resilience and coherence of the centralized Chinese state is, indeed, historically distinctive. Let's just compare with India and Japan for a moment. While you are right that the Arthashastra is an early example of what me might call political realism, it does not give rise to a centralized structure as consistent as the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. It is never practiced as consistently as Legalism is in China. The Mauryan and Gupta empires are significant in terms of political centralization but neither bequeaths an administrative structure as durable as the Chinese bureaucracy. The Mughals are impressive in their political power, but the mansabdari system allows for decentralized military power, a structural feature that ultimately is its undoing when the British press in.
Similarly in Japan, the Tokugawa never achieve the kind of political centralization that we find even in the Tang.
Thus, in terms of what stands out as a historical feature that is uniquely China, it would seem that the practice and persistence of Legalist political principles, as expressed through the lasting quality of the centralized bureaucracy, is prominent.
Yes, Confucianism, too, has a distinctively Chinese quality to it. But we should not overstate its originality. Organizing society and morality along family lines is not particularly original or distinct. Just about every culture does this. "Honor your mother and your father" - the Hebrew Bible was on to that central Confucian principle. Particularistic and status-based morality are certainly to be found in many different parts of the world historically. So, Confucianism is a uniquely Chinese expression of ideas that are manifest in other cultures as well. It is also a philosophy/world view that spreads beyond China and is indigenized in other places; in that way it is something more than "Chinese."
I will not deny that Confucianism is an important element of Chinese society and history - to do so would be foolish. But I want to challenge our tendency to rely upon "Confucianism" as a summarizing symbol of "Chinese culture" or "Chinese society" or, even, "Chinese politics." Because "Confucianism" was fundamentally reshaped by the practices of Legalism, and that Legalism is at least as important as Confucianism, if not more important, in creating a historically recognizable and distinct "Chinese society."

I agree with your thesis that China is more Legalist than it is Confucian in practice. Perhaps the reason that so many people (both Chinese and non-Chinese) believe China is Confucian is that the CCP has done a good job of placing Confucius in the forefront of its philosophical influencers.

Chinese children are taught the Confucian canon from the time they are old enough to attend school, but the only thing they know about legalism is that it was the philosophy though which Han Feizi influenced Qin Shihuang.

Other prominent examples of Confucian influence are Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" and the numerous Confucius Institutes that China is building all over the world.

In my view, however, Confucius is useful to the CCP in the same way that Jesus Christ is useful to American politicians. As far as politicians are concerned, it doesn't matter whether one truly believes, or even whether one's actions demonstrate a belief; what matters is that leaders invoke the nation's philosophical tradition.

And, irony of ironies, if China truly were Confucian, it would rectify names and call itself what it truly is: Legalist.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Aidan's Way

  • :

    Understanding disability from a Taoist point of view