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The Construction and Uses of the Confucian Tradition

According to his biography in the Book of the Early Han (Hanshu, 44.2145) Liu An, the king of Huainan (in modern Anhui province) and uncle of Han Emperor Wu, gathered a large number of scholars and practitioners of esoteric techniques to Huainan in the period 160-140 B.C.E., and supported them in the creation of written works synthesizing their views. The Masters of Huainan (Huainanzi) was a product of this interchange of ideas.

It is a work focused on educating a ruler on the tasks before him. In the text we find a theory of the fall of humanity from an original harmony in the state of nature to human government and politics with its attendant disorder and violence. Instead of government resulting from agreement between persons for whom there is no law, where the powerful can enforce their will over the weak, the text takes the reverse approach. The primal state is presented as a natural, spontaneous, and peaceful existence. Government is then the source of humanity’s problems, not a solution.

Chapter nine of the Masters of Huainan (HZ) is entitled “The Ruler’s Techniques,” and its focus is on the methods that a ruler should use to create a humane and orderly government. The first, and certainly the most important technique, for a ruler is to act in wuwei. This does not mean the ruler should do absolutely nothing. It means that when he acts, nothing comes from him personally (HZ 9.23); that is, his policies are neither biased by his private preferences (HZ 9.25), nor are they restricted by the limits of his own vision for the state (HZ 9.9-9.11). Instead, his actions implement the movement of the Way (Dao) of Heaven (HZ 9.2).

The best form of government, the text suggests, is one where the ruler devotes himself to wuwei. Ideal rulers of the distant past such as Fuxi, Nuwa, and the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) are described as being its adherents (HZ 6.7). By following their spontaneous natures and aligning themselves with profound wuwei, the world naturally became harmonious (HZ 8.5).

g. Zhu Xi on Law as the Enforcement of Morals

Zhu Xi shared Confucius’s distrust for the ability of law alone to bring order in society and to cultivate the people. He recognized that government and law were necessary, but considered them insufficient to bring about social order; virtue and ritual were still important. Virtue, law, rites, and punishments should complement each other. Zhu made an important contribution to Chinese political theory by insisting that governing by virtue and ritual was compatible with a system of laws and punishments, and he argued that Confucius’s protest against reliance on law was motivated by the context in which he lived, when some rulers made no use of virtue or the rites (li) at all.

In fact, Zhu Xi supported the use of law to assist in the moral education of the populace. The purpose of law was not merely to protect those in the society from harm or injury. It was also to shape the character of the society and its people. Accordingly, government not only had the right but also the obligation to engineer the morality of society and control what the people could do morally.

Nevertheless, Zhu Xi was aware of the long history of abuse of the power to make law, grant amnesties, and remit punishment practiced by Song dynastic rulers. He argued that laws must be clear and the enforcement of them must be just. He challenged directly the practice of amnesty (dashe) as frequently degenerating into a form of favoritism and injustice. By insisting on the enforcement of law and punishment of offenders, Zhu is often misunderstood as being akin to the worst abusers of law as found in the Legalist tradition. However, he was not advocating severity of punishment as a value in itself, but rather recommending the just administration of law as the active enforcement of morals, using politics as a means of moral cultivation.

h. Yan Fu (1854-1921): China Not Ready for Democracy

After the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, China entered into the period that one might call Modern Chinese Philosophy where there was an influx of texts and ideas from the Western world. Yan Fu became the most influential translator of Western works in China. In fact, Yan was not only the greatest authority on Western philosophy in China at the beginning of the 20th century, but also he was the first scholar to systematically introduce Western philosophy by translating a significant number of works: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (1893), published in Chinese in 1898; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), published in Chinese in 1902; Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology (1872) and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), both translations published in Chinese in 1904; Charles de la Secondat de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic (1843), translated in 1905, and William Stanley Jevon’s The Theory of Political Economy (1878), translated in 1909.