Introduction to Confucian Thought

Government and society in China were grounded in the Confucian philosophy, which held that there was a basic order in the universe and a natural harmony linking man, nature, and the cosmos (heaven); it also held that man was by nature a social being, and that the natural order of the universe should be reflected in human relations. The family unit was seen as the primary social unit; relationships within the family were fundamental to all others and comprised three of the "five relationships" that were the models for all others: sovereign-subject; husband-wife; parent-child; elder brother-younger brother; friend-friend. In this hierarchy of social relations, each role had clearly defined duties; reciprocity or mutual responsibility between subordinate and superior was fundamental to the Confucian concept of human relations. The virtue of filial piety, or devotion of the child to his parents, was the foundation for all others. When extended to all human beings, it nurtured the highest virtue, humaneness ("ren" or "jen"), or the sense of relatedness to other persons.

In traditional China it was assumed by adherents of all schools of thought that government would be monarchical and that the state had its model in the family. The ruler was understood to be at once the Son of Heaven, and the father of the people, ruling under the Mandate of Heaven. Traditional thinkers, reflecting on the problem of government, were concerned primarily not with changing institutions and laws but with ensuring the moral uprightness of the ruler and encouraging his appropriate conduct as a father-figure. The magistrate, the chief official of the lowest level of government and the official closest to the people, was known as the "father-mother" official. Even today, under a radically different form of government, the Chinese term for state is "guo-jia" or "nation-family", suggesting the survival of the idea of this paternal and consensual relationship. The first and third of the "five relationships" — i.e., emperor and minister, father and son — indicate the parallels between family and state.

The notion of the role of the state as guarantor of the people's welfare developed very early, along with the monarchy and the bureaucratic state. It was also assumed that good government could bring about order, peace, and the good society. Tests of the good ruler were social stability, population growth (a reflection of ancient statecraft where the good ruler was one who could attract people from other states), and ability to create conditions that fostered the people's welfare. The Mandate of Heaven was understood as justifying the right to rule, with the corollary right to rebel against a ruler who did not fulfill his duties to the people. The state played a major role in determining water rights, famine control and relief, and insuring social stability. The state encouraged people to grow rice and other grains rather than commercial crops in order to insure and adequate food supply; it held reserves in state granaries, in part to lessen the effects of drought and floods, particularly common in northern China. For fear of losing the Mandate of Heaven governments levied very low taxes which often meant that the government could not provide all the services expected of it, and that officials ended up extorting money from the people.

The Perfectibility of Man and the Moral Role of Government

The dominant strain of Confucian thought stressed the perfectibility of man. Confucius (a political philosopher who lived c. 551-479 B.C.) expressed a belief in the fundamental similarity of all persons and in the perfectibility and educability of each individual. Mencius and Hsun Tzu, two of his prominent successors, held different views on human nature, Mencius arguing that it contained the seeds of goodness, and Hsun Tzu that, in its uncultivated state, human nature tended to evil. Both, however, believed that human beings were perfectible through self-cultivation and the practice of ritual. From the 11th century onward, Neo-Confucian philosophers, engaged in the renewal and elaboration of Confucian thought, subscribed to the Mencian line, stressing the potential goodness of human nature and the importance of developing that goodness through education.

Belief in the innate goodness and perfectibility of man has had strong implications for the development of the Chinese political system. The ruler's main function in the Confucian state was to educate and transform the people. This was ideally accomplished not by legal regulation and coercion, but by personal rule, moral example, and mediation in disputes by the emperor and his officials. Confucian political theory emphasized conflict resolution through mediation, rather than through the application of abstract rules to establish right and wrong in order to achieve social harmony.

The belief that the state was the moral guardian of the people was reflected in a number of institutions. Most important among these was the merit bureaucracy, or civil service, in which all officials were to be selected for their moral qualities, qualities that would enable them not only to govern, but to set a moral example that would transform the people. Because Confucianism was a moral system, the Confucian classics had to be mastered by prospective officials. Official position and examination degree, not wealth or business acumen, were universally recognized marks of status.

Legalism and a Strong State

A complementary philosophical strain in Chinese thought was Legalism, first applied in the short-lived dynasty of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (Ch'in Shih Huang-ti, 221-207 B.C.). Proponents of Legalism stressed an administrative approach to efficient and pragmatic government; universal and codified law rather than morality (in contrast to the Confucian emphasis); and state power as an end in itself. As first applied, Legalism proved too harsh and disruptive, but for two millennia thereafter the Chinese state combined aspects of the Legalist structure with the Confucian spirit, recognizing the effectiveness of a centralized, bureaucratic rule which could oversee massive public works, state monopolies, standardized weights, measures, and even script, attempt intellectual control, and enforce social order by suppressing revolt.

Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Irene Bloom, a specialist in Chinese intellectual history.

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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |