Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Modern Chinese Government – Confucian or Legalist?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2010-02-05

The cloak of Confucian authority has been used previously by Lee’s Singapore, and increasingly China, as justification for authoritarianism, promoting misconceptions in Western cultures, and possibly a subtext in the forthcoming movie about Confucius.

Many parts of "The Analects of Confucius" are quietly subversive, as I’ll show by quotes that confound the common charges against Confucius of being an authoritarian superstitious pedant.  Legalism is the true fist in the thin Confucian glove worn by Chinese leaders.  Both schools stress strong government for order in society, but have opposite approaches.

Legalism demands consistent application of harsh criminal sanctions to promote a cohesive society through fear, while Confucius demanded firm yet gentle leadership of a cultivated population, bringing harmony through education in virtue, as shown by the following:

If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. 
If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.

Critics of Confucius, and modern Asian authoritarians wrapping themselves in his cloak, highlight the respect and obedience for authority Confucius praised, forgetting his rejection of subservience:

The Master said, "Fine words, an insinuating appearance, and excessive respect; – Tso Ch’iu-ming was ashamed of them.  I also am ashamed of them.  To conceal resentment against a person, and appear friendly with him; – Tso Ch’iu-ming was ashamed of such conduct.  I also am ashamed of it."

On authoritarism and obedience, critics of Confucius make the same interpretive mistakes that the Legalist School exploited.  Compare and contrast the following archetypal statements:

  • Let rulers be rulers, subjects be subjects, fathers be fathers, sons be sons.
  • Let subjects serve rulers, sons serve fathers. (The Legalist view).
  • Let rulers be proper rulers, subjects proper subjects, fathers good fathers, sons good sons. (The reading consistent with "Rectification of Names")

The reading to choose depends very much on the understanding of the "Rectification of Names", which many interpret as merely as the demands of a prescriptivist grammar and vocabulary pedant.  Rectification of names is much deeper.

Tsze-lu said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government.  What will you consider the first thing to be done?
The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names….  If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.  If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.

Confucius would hate weasel-words and spin.  Phrases like "collateral damage" are improper when the truth of things is "dead civilians, ruined infrastructure".  Imagine his grimace if reading Dickinson’s "Tell the truth but tell it slant. / Success in circuit lies"!

Translating Confucius in the light of "right naming", there are significant choices of words to use.  Do we translate "law" as a concrete code with sanctions, or the abstract idea of justice.  Do we translate "superior man" as a man in a higher position, or a more cultivated and enlightened person?  Legalist texts will use the work in a concrete sense, indicating things that are easy to define.  Confucius uses terms in the more abstract sense.

Confucius certainly advocated loyalty to a proper government where the ruler had the "Mandate of Heaven", but it was a conditional mandate that was withdrawn from poor rulers.  If those at the top are negligent, those underneath them will lose motivation to be diligent, a failure cascading all the way to the peasantry, ruining the country.

A regime needed to deserve power if it wanted to survive.

Duke Ai asked "What should be done in order to secure the submission of the people?"  Confucius replied, "Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit.  Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit."

Chi K’ang asked how to cause the people to reverence their ruler, to be faithful to him, and to go on to nerve themselves to virtue.  The Master said, "Let him preside over them with gravity; then they will reverence him.  Let him be final and kind to all; then they will be faithful to him.  Let him advance the good and teach the incompetent; then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous."

Another criticism of Confucius is because of his advocacy of adhering to "the rites" of religious festivals and courts, ignoring the qualifiers that belief is unnecessary, and cohesion comes from people entering into the spirit of things together.

To be sure, Confucius would support the giving of chocolate eggs in the proper season, or the end-of-year appearance of jolly red-suited white-bearded men distributing gifts to children.  However, belief in easter bunnies or Santa Claus is superfluous.  Generosity should be effective, not showy.  As to imaginary friends, he observed that there was little point in conjectures about the noumenal before having a firm grasp of the real world.

In festive ceremonies, it is better to be sparing than extravagant.  In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than minute attention to observances.

If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with the rites of propriety? If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with music?

Just as Jesus was twisted by absolute monarchs, and Marx by Stalin, for selfish ends, or as Plato by neo-Platonists for less selfish reasons, so too has Confucius been warped by time.

Neoconfucians a millenium ago attempted a synthesis of other schools.  Legalist attitudes to authority, fixed structures, and fixed practices, gained prominence, along with the more religious and less philosophical aspects of Taoism.

"New Confucianism", despite a similar name, is a twentieth century invention, that attempts to assimilate Western science and systems, particularly legal systems, in a way respectful of Chinese tradition, giving rise to such phrases as "Capitalism with a Chinese face".  While giving some comfort to the Enlightenment view of "The Rights of Man", the New Confucianism of the Chinese government again ends up in practice with a mainly Legalist position, a strong central authority exercising power through tough and unyielding laws, cohesion by fearful compliance and submission.  This is a far cry from the gentle and thoughtful dissent, the civil disobedience, that Confucius regarded as sometimes both necessary and inevitable.

Illegtimate government, ending in the ruin of a country, followed from oppression, hunger for power, corruption and incompetence, all considered by Confucius as Bad Things.

Mao, criminal architect of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, denounced Confucius (strangely conforming, for once, to the ideal of words reflecting the truth of things), yet perhaps more than anyone, proved Confucius correct.

The Chinese government of today is less Confucian, but more Legalist, taking the line of South Park’s Cartman: "Respect My Authoritah!".

It is a pity that the Chinese leaders of today don’t make reality more closely aligned with their Confucian words.

I’ll finish with something to ponder along with the quotes of the Analects above.  Confucius compiled and edited larger works, with "The Odes" prescribing rituals, a book used by critics to accuse Confucius of pedantry and a focus on the trivial.  Those critics miss the point, are concentrating on the superficialities rather than inspiration and purpose, forgetting the actual words of Confucius.

There are three hundred verses in "The Odes", but the design of them all is held in three words: "Think no evil".

– Analects II


  • There is a good matrix, comparing Confucius and Legalists, designed for mid-secondary students, and asking which is more evident in today’s China, at Confucianism vs. Legalism: a Clash of Philosophies.  It is a bit simplistic, merges both philosophy and practice under Qin Legalism, and I disagree with some of it, but is still useful.
    Aspect of Chinese society Confucianism Legalism
    The role of the government Government was extremely important. A ruler had to be good in order for his subjects to be good and obey him. Government existed for the benefit of the people, not the other way around. The people are there to serve the government. The government comes before everything in a Legalist society.
    Relationships between individuals in society People should love and respect each other (treat each other by the golden rule). The people should not focus on being loving and caring. Instead, they should spy on everyone around them to report any law breaking.
    Importance of traditional Chinese history and poetry History and poetry are educational resources and people can study them to further educate themselves. History and poetry didn’t help make the government more powerful, therefore they were useless and a waste of people’s time.
    Responsibility towards family Family always came first before anything. A son/daughter should do his/her best to protect and respect his/her family. Family came second to obeying the laws. One’s duty was to turn his or her family members into the government if one of their family members broke a law.
    Social mobility As long as you study hard and are a learned person, then you can move up in social class. A man should not be born into power and nobility, he should prove himself worthy through how educated he is. You could change your social status all depending on how many heads you kill during wars. The more, the higher status you are. 
    Religion Religion wasn’t practiced in Confucianism. Confucius believed that people should focus less on the supernatural and spend more time working towards a peaceful and caring society. Religion is allowed to be practiced if it does not involve any behaviors that do not benifit the state and support the same behaiviors the government wants to encourage. 
    Education He believed that of all things someone could have, education was the most important. An emperor with no education is no better than a peasant with education. Scholars and books that disagreed with Legalists beliefs were destroyed. Legalists wanted people to think the same way and not gain too much knowledge.


  • The 2010 film is being criticized as pretty but betraying the backing of the current Chinese government.

  • The original cut of a 1940 movie has been restored, and seems well-regarded, although the director disowned the very-different 1948 cut.

11 Responses to “Modern Chinese Government – Confucian or Legalist?”

  1. Nick said

    Reinterpreting past classics is an essential part of Chinese and indeed Asian philosophy. The rise of confucianism and our understanding cannot be separated from the commentary with which Chinese classics are and have been read and interpreted. Such differences include He-Yan’s and Zhu Xi’s commentary on Confucius’s analects (c.f. Gardner, Daniel K. ‘Learning’ “Zhu Xi’s Reading of the Analects: Canon, Commentary and the Classical Tradition”. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). Even between these early scholars there was a great deal of disagreement in the meanings of Confucius’s words, and the use of a different commentator could very well change one’s perception of Confucius.

    It therefore does not do to say that something is or isn’t Confucian. What matters is whether Confucius, as we interpret him, is worth believing or following, and in what matters we should or shouldn’t follow him.

    From an Asian Philosophy (B.Arts) student.

  2. Dave Bath said

    Thanks Nick,

    Re-interpretation is useful for /all/ classics, regardless of civilization.

    When the reader’s language is different from the original, there are the problems of the rendering:

    • The changes in word use in source and target language: consider the term "Epicurean", which now means the opposite of what it used to.
    • The radically different environment – a progressive thinker THEN, arguing for a particular change that could be realized, might seem regressive NOW, especially when that thinker’s ideas have been incorporated. I like to think of what the ancient thinker’s mindset would have produced if exposed to the modern world.

    Relatively early Confucians /can/ be seen as antagonists, at least on some matters.  Mencius and (H’sün Tze|Xun Zi) differed greatly on some things.  Mencius (given a latin name because his stance was more palatable to Jesuit travellers/translators) argued that humans were essentially good, while Xun Zi argued that were basically beasts.  However, they were both very consistent in what they recommended as appropriate action: an environment free of oppression and full of moral education: Mencius, to prevent a fall from grace through a bad environment; Xun Zi to civilize and inspire through an uplifting environment.  The outcome and method are the same, but I reckon Confucius might look at the disagreement about human nature and say "Who cares how many angels can dance on the end of a pin?  It’s more important to do what needs doing, and you agree on that! Get on with it!"

    Mind you, I’m more partial to Xun Zi|H’sün Tze (the Columbia translations of his essays was, when I got it, about all you could get in English, and I can’t wade through German to get the only other essays translated into a european language) generally over Menius (only read the Penguin).

    I’m also, in the context of my post, having quibbles with your "It therefore does not do to say that something is or isn’t Confucian" comment.  For anything over 500 years old, I like to think "to what extent does the spirit of A overlap with B".  In the pragmatic elements, Mencius and Xun Zi are fairly consistent.  The practical elements of Legalism and Confucius only seem to overlap to the extent that rules apply to everyone regardless of station, and all other practices seem diametrically opposed.  Looking at the practices of the Chinese government, and pondering that spirit, they seem VERY much closer to the Legalists on social matters, while the cultivation of citizens and education doesn’t seem to have the enough emphasis on moral development that Confucius would like… by analogy to the West, concentrating on practical Archimedes and sidelining the Socratic and Stoic emphasis on personal development.

    Hmmmm.  More posts on what the world, sadly, is ignoring from the thinkers of classical times, both Oriental and Occidental, are starting to brew.

    • Nick said


      I don’t disagree that reinterpretation is important for all classics in any civilisation, but I’d argue it’s especially important and complex in the case of Chinese (and other commentarial) traditions. As Zhu Xi said on reading: “When reading the text, one must not forget the commentary, and when reading the commentary one must not forget the text”. This sums up the approach of Chinese philosophy to philosophical works.

      You may be right that the Chinese Government is Legalist, but I know neither enough about the Chinese government nor Legalism to make a judgement on this.

      I just wanted to make a general point about the complexity of Confucianism and to point to the huge commentarial tradition from which the Chinese understanding of Confucius cannot be separated, and that it may be hasty to judge something as more or less Confucian, considering what this means depends on the commentary one reads and how one interprets the both the text its commentary.

  3. Dave Bath said

    Must admit, the Crikey editors did a great summary of this on their homepage… and gave it a better headline:

    China: Confucian or Cartman?
    The Chinese government likes to use Confucianism as a justification for its authoritarianism, but in reality, it subscribes far more to the ideology of Cartman’s “Respect mah authorithay!” than anything ever written by Confucius, says Dave Bath.

  4. Dave Bath said


    Agreed on a number of points about reading commentary, but even commentary is bound by it’s time. I’d say “never read a text without remembering the times”, for I think the great philosophers are most useful when we try and figure out how they thought and felt, their attitudes to what went on about them, and what they might be concerned with if looking at the modern world. I’ll note that I’ve found translations of Cicero a mere century old (such as the Loeb De Finibus) have colored the text with the world-view more limited than how I see the literal translation. This is one reason I wished I’d been taught enough to read the ancient Chinese sources.

    Not very academic, I know. But I’m not an academic. I’m just trying to be a well-rounded citizen drawing on the wisdom of our inheritance, and find that the spirit of older texts, uncluttered by many of the complications of our world, is under-appreciated.

    In general, I regard statements about particulars to get rusty more quickly than the spirit of what was said. Imagine an ancient source, in a time where slavery was ubiquitous and harsh, saying “Don’t mistreat your slaves, you may whip them, but never maim or starve them”. The spirit is one advocating greater benevolence, and I believe the same source, today, would not advocate slavery or whipping, but would apply the same principles, decent treatment of the most exploited, good workplace safety regulations, perhaps even a livable minimum wage. Then again, workplace safety might not now be what the sage would see as the most pressing problem, where improvements would make the greatest difference.

    Just because a sage might say “If we want to reach Harmony, we must cross that hill” doesn’t mean we should stop when we reach the other side, but keep going in the direction the sage pointed. Just because after that hill we come upon a river and we must divert to find a ford, doesn’t mean the sage pointed in the wrong direction. Just because we reach the level of Harmony the sage could imagine we could reach, doesn’t mean we cannot go further, adjusting direction to our vision of what next might be achieved.

    But this is getting off topic.

    I’d also note that I think the Chinese government /is/ closer to Confucius than Mao was. I’m hoping those little steps become longer and faster. I suspect that with a little luck, China might get close enough to make Confucius proud within a century… and that Confucius would be increasingly displeased with the direction being taken by politicians here in Australia.

  5. addendela said

    Hello folks
    I just registered an account here… I’d like to be a part of this site
    I just love the atmosphere here. .
    How can I become a mod on this forum?
    take a look at my write up

  6. gold news said

    gold news…

    […]Modern Chinese Government – Confucian or Legalist? « Balneus[…]…

  7. Dung cu bong ban hang dau viet nam…

    […]Modern Chinese Government – Confucian or Legalist? « Balneus[…]…

  8. Incredible! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a totally different topic
    but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Superb choice of colors!

  9. Excellent goods from you, man. I’ve take note your stuff prior
    to and you arre simply extremely great. I really like what you’ve obtaindd right
    here, certainly like what you’re saying and the way by which you say it.
    You’re making it entertaining and you still care for to keep
    it wise. I can’t wait to read far more from you. That iss actualloy a terrific website.

  10. Thanks for constantly posting. I enjoy your posts and think that they contribute a lot of real value. I came across this Spotify playlist recently and thought it suits what you have that you’ve published. I hope all of us like it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: