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.