Explaining the curious Chinese paradigm

Using ancient Eastern philosophy

Cher Yi Tan
Jun 22, 2018 · 30 min read

This article begins with an important question: How is there not pandemonium in China today?

The question rings at the back of my mind every time another dismayed Western reporter examines another new ‘totalitarian’ measure that President Xi’s CCP (Communist Party of China) took, bringing China one step closer toward Orwell’s 1984 dystopia.

I quote Elizabeth Economy, writing for Foreign Affairs (Is Democracy Dying?: A Global Report 2018) “But Xi quickly moved to centralise political authority in his own hands…And he has used an anti-corruption campaign to root out not just self-serving officials but also his political enemies…Then came the change that left open the possibility that Xi could serve as president indefinitely…”

Foreign Affairs

“Xi has matched the dramatic growth of his personal power with an equally dramatic intensification of the CCP’s power in society and the economy…No element of political and econmic life has remained untouched…taken advantage of new technology…restrict access to forbidden content…diminishing the vibrancy of China’s virtual public square…Even privately shared humor can trigger police action…developing a massive biometric databse…used to identify and retaliate against party critics…”

Centralised authority, sniffing out dissidents, indefinite terms for the dictator, dictator, encroachment of the increasingly non-existent (and supposedly ‘sacrosanct’) private sphere…

The pejorative lexicon that characterises governance in modern China paints a bleak picture too: “Modern authoritarianism” “iliberalism” “authoritarian” “non-democratic”…It sounds disconcertingly similar to the vocabulary used to describe the Soviets. The same Soviet Union who let her people starve to death, freeze to death, and in extreme cases, fight for death.


How is there not pandemonium in China today? Why aren’t the people up in arms, bearing torches and pitchforks and marching down the streets of Beijing? Could it really be that the majority of the population, for the longest time, have been content with the way things are, and in fact, have been thriving?

Better put, can an autocratic state produce Alibaba?

The question is rhetorical for it has already been answered. I call it the Chinese conundrum. Surely the works of activists and brave dissidents must be respected and recognised, but by and large, China’s sociopolitical stability and strength (compared to other so called “democracies”) is evident.

In fact, the very same journalists who (perhaps unconsciously) condemn China’s “illiberalism” are perplexed by its stability so much that Xi’s Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is increasingly being portrayed to be a legitimate contender to Western norms.

They who criticise China politics also praise China economics with soundbites like “The rise of China is inevitable”… “China’s GDP growth per year is staggering”… “China will take over the world”…Is that not ironic?

Thankfully, this writer is not well versed in the political side of the argument; that is, the merits of a democracy vs an autocracy. The reader will be glad to know that no (overt) preaching will follow.

Instead, this article focuses on the why. On explaining the curious Chinese paradigm, that is, how an (unquestionably) illiberal non-democracy can be (unquestionably) stable and successful.

And to explain this deeply complex and abnormal socio/political/cultural phenomenon, it is contended that the reader will have to grasp fundamental ancient Chinese philosophies like Taoism, Confucianism and Legalism.

Thus, this article will be structured as follows: first, it will examine the context of our context — the Warring States Period and the Mandate of Heaven. Then, I move on to elucidate on each of the three philosophy/religions in totality. Finally, I conclude by connecting the dots; building a framework using Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism, that we can use to bring us just a little closer to solving the Chinese conundrum. The significance of ancient Chinese Philosophy today will be made clear at the end.

For “context is the key — from that comes the understanding of everything.” (Kenneth Noland). So it is now that we turn to 1046 BCE, the beginning of an end.

Over a period of five thousand years, China has been conquered by itself countless times. Rebellions and dynasty renewal is no stranger to Chinese history. There were the mythical Xia, the Shang, the Zhou, the Qin, the Han, the Sui, the Tang, the Song, the Yuan, the Ming and the Qing. Each of these different names represented different dynasties — a different lineage of rulers who succeeded the previous era through rebellion (most of the time).

Of concern to us now is the Zhou’s campaign against the Shang dynasty, which culminated in a successful ousting in the Battle of Muye (1046 BCE). The Zhou are specially selected by me because they were the first to justify their rebellion based on the idea of the “Mandate of Heaven”. They harnessed legitimacy from the divine.

The Mandate — Chaz

The “Mandate of Heaven” is a quasi-religious political doctrine — simply, it is that he who possesses the Mandate has authority from the heavens to rule over Tian Xia (天下, ‘everything under the Heavens’). No doubt, there wasn’t a real Mandate. No scrolls, no contract, no DVD recording of Heaven’s will. In that sense, anyone could claim that they received the Mandate, and they did. That was the point.

The Mandate does not necessarily pass down through the family lineage. It does not require the ruler to be of noble birth, but simply an able and competent politician. Thus, intrinsic to this concept is the sad corollary that it can be lost — and so the right to rebel against the current ruler was guaranteed.

Almost all the subsequent rebellions were justified based on the assertion that the incumbent leader was becoming corrupt, inefficient and tyrannical, and that the heavens had deemed that the Mandate should be passed on. Some have termed this the “Dynastic Cycle”.


The people are of supreme importance; the altars of the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. That is why he who gains the confidence of the multitudinous people will be Emperor… When a feudal lord endangers the altars of the gods of earth and grain, he should be replaced. When the sacrificial animals are sleek, the offerings are clean and the sacrifices are observed at due times, and yet floods and droughts come [by the agency of heaven], then the altars should be replaced. — Mencius

Of course, the rebels would have been extremely sensitive and keen to infer (preferable) heavenly intentions for change from anything. Here, an adaptation of the chicken-and-egg paradox would be apt: Which came first, heaven’s intentions or people’s intentions? Ok, not as crisp, I apologise. Kind of the same these days, where we observe terrorists pervert religion to fit their political goals.

Nonetheless, he who ruled China was assumed to possess authority from this vague concept known as the “Mandate of Heaven”. As with the Egyptian Pharaohs, Chinese rulers therefore enjoyed an extremely extensive scope of power because their legitimacy was derived from the divine. Even in name, simply invoking ‘the Heavens’ made the ruler a quasi-deity; for if he was selected by the gods, then he himself must be some type of demigod. Hence the religious aspect of the Mandate.

Also, since by definition he who has Mandate has absolute power, dissidents who dared question Heaven’s Will would see their heads swiftly felled to the ground (maybe not ‘see’). Unless they were formidable opponents, like the Zhou.

All this could help explain the legitimacy of autocracy in China but the full picture hasn’t yet presented itself. Another piece of the puzzle is this societies’ obsession with family metaphors and paternalism which will be explored later.

Thus, the first step to understanding (let’s call a spade a spade) Chinese autocracy today is through the lens of the Mandate — a quasi-cosmic concept that dates back to the earliest of days. It is deeply rooted in the Chinese consciousness that their leader should and does possess ultimate power.

After conquering the Shang, the Zhou claimed the Mandate of the Heaven and ruled over China for the next 500 or so years.

Contrary to the authority conferred upon Zhou rulers however, centralised authority in China was slowly eroded by feudalism during the latter part of their rule.

Despite pioneering the concept that would grant legitimacy to the ruthless Shi Huang Di in unifying China, the succession of Zhou kings were surprisingly weak in administration. The Zhou developed the Fengjian system — a political ideology of a decentralised government, enfeoffing relatives and other warriors land in exchange for their loyalty to the King’s court.

This feudal system, however, was a spectacular failure that would spell a violent end to the Zhou. These statesmen eventually garnered so much power at the expense of the central King that they began defying the King’s express wishes. In the Spring and Autumn Period (771 BCE — 476 BCE) (the latter half of the Zhou’s rule), dukes and marquesses were waging wars on each other and convening conferences amongst themselves to discuss important matters.

This culminated in the individual states declaring ba (霸), which is roughly translated to hegemon. The feudal states were declaring independence and forming new “empires”: Qi, Qin, Chu, Han, Wei, Zhao and Yan.

Absolute China Tours

Unsurprisingly, in 475 BCE, each state aimed to unify China and establish their own dynasties. This marked the beginning of the Warring States Period which lasted for about 200 years till 221 BCE and concluded with the establishment of the Qin dynasty and the installment of the infamous Shi Huang Di.

If you thought the American Civil War was a terrible battle, think again. The Warring States period, which isn’t even the deadliest Civil War in China, incurred approximately 10 million casualties. This is widely considered to be the “9th Deadliest (Series of) War in History”.

In all my research, this was probably the one fact that shook me the most. And I’m sure it must have shook ancient and modern Chinese people at an even deeper, more intimate level too. Another deadly civil war, the Taiping Rebellion also saw 20 to 30 million people perish.

Statistics may desensitise us from the suffering, for numbers past a certain value are just…well, numbers. They don’t mean anything anymore, because we weren’t built (by evolution!) to deal with large quantities and exponentials. So to put it into context, the Warring States period basically wiped my country off the face of the planet (population=5.6 million ++)…twice.

Just like war veterans and traumatised victims, countries never escape from their past, especially the ones that are so brutal. Blood will forever stain the fabric of society and permanent wounds scar the consciousness of the people.

The Warring States period was a series of war waged on all fronts. Predictably, constant conflict made people despondent. Being conscripted to fight meant leaving your farms, your family and your life behind, but for what? At the behest of some far-removed ruler sipping tea, ensconced in his palace far far away, bickering over “unification”.

The Soldier — Diplomat

Let it be known that “unification” didn’t mean anything to the soldier, who ironically, was the one that paid for unification’s price.

I see many parallels between the Warring States period and the mythical Trojan War as dictated in Homer’s masterpiece The Illiad, especially concerning the dispirited psyches of the soldiers.

In The Illiad, the two sides Greek and Trojan are plainly fighting a war they did not wish to wage. Both sides are suffering and describe the war as “sorrowful”. They also consider the reason why they went to war — Paris’ ‘abduction’ of Helen, to be a petty cause to fight over. In fact, even the Trojans (Paris’ homeboys) blame Paris for starting this.

The Illiad and the pointlessness of War — theshieldofachilles.net

His own brother Hector, commander of the Trojans, describes Paris “For the Olympian has raised him to be a great affliction to the Trojans and to great hearted Priam and to his children. If I could see him on his way down into the house of Hades, I would declare my heart had forgotten sorrow.” On the Greek side too, Achilles, their greatest, ponders the futility of war. The tale is one of epic despondency, despair and melancholy.

Homer might have been on to something here. For likewise in the Warring States period, ordinary citizens were uprooted from an erstwhile peaceful lifestyle and drafted into a war they did not see the point of.

Disheartened and vulnerable folks began to turn towards philosophy to find the one thing that they could not be stripped of — meaning. Amidst the untold misery and bloodshed, philosophy actually flourished in the Warring States period, especially those that focused on spiritual questions such as “What does it mean to live a good life?”.

Another facet of philosophy that came to prominence during this period was sociopolitical philosophy. States already possessed an individual identity in name. But to augment their claim towards unification, they also tried to weave distinct cultures, which meant selecting and adopting a philosophy for governance. The internal chaos that inevitably followed external warfare also helped propel reform minded ministers to the limelight (such as Shang Yang, in the Qin state) to reorganise the state.

Thus, an amalgamation of all these factors (despondency, shaping identity and internal chaos) led to the prominence of many, many varied philosophies. Collectively, they are known as the Hundred Schools of Thought and they represented a golden age in Chinese philosophy.

Thinking men — ChineseTimeSchool

A broad range of diverse ideas were advocated by these schools. Some had a greater emphasis on The Good Life, others spent more time examining proper governance. But the thread that linked them all together was war.

The first, most prominent of the ancient Chinese philosophies we examine is Confucianism. This eponymous, humanistic school of thought (or religion, whatever floats your boat) was pioneered by the man who lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE.

Actually, Confucius himself didn’t consider himself to a pioneer of anything. Rather, he claimed that Confucianism was simply a rejuvenation of old traditions and cultures. His childhood hero was the Duke of Zhou, and he admired the ailing Zhou’s traditions and values.

Confucius — Biography.com

The Zhou system heavily relied on cultural values, social norms and ritual observances to achieve solidarity, rather than legal constraint. Thus Confucius respected inheritance; he thought the best way to order society was by modelling the old but successful ways.

But he didn’t just think about governance — Confucianism also offered a way of life. It is this dual-aspect of the school that enhanced its appeal to both officials and the common man and underwrites much of its enduring success.

Two sets of texts define this school of thought. First is the Analects (Lun Yu, 論語). The Analects is series of quotes attributed to Confucius. Historians speculate that it was compiled by Confucius’ disciples, much like how Socratic thought is encapsulated in his student Plato’s works.

The Analects — Wikipedia

The Analects record Confucius’ conversation with his community of followers, known as Jun Zi (君子, gentleman). They were a scholarly group who, like Confucius, wanted to restore order to the chaotic world they lived in. And it was emphasised that they were the moral vanguard of society for they

“must be broad-minded and resolute, for their burden is heavy and their road is long. They take humanity as their burden. Is that not heavy? Only with death does their road come to an end. Is that not long?” ((8:7) of the Analects).

But Confucius did not ask for any radical revolution to be carried out by his disciples. Rather, their only mission was to redefine and rejuvenate existing institutions that were being slowly eroded in the background of war — the individual, the family, the municipality and the state. We will come to that later.

The second set of texts is the Five Classics 五经. These weren’t written by Confucius, rather, they are an ancient piece of Chinese literature that Confucius used (and possibly compiled himself) to elucidate his teachings.

More books — Aliexpress.com

The first book, the Book of Change, is on the metaphysical — the interaction between the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’, two opposing forces that shape our universe. He teaches that the good life is simply a microcosm of the cosmos and that we too should mirror that harmony.

The second book, the Book of Songs, is a compilation of ancient poems and songs used to convey common human feelings and emotions. It is the poetic aspect of his teachings.

The third book, the Book of History, is political — compiled speeches of historical figures, exemplifying the ethical basis for a just government.

The fourth book, the Book of Rites, concerns itself with the socialistic aspect of his teachings. It laid out four principal occupations, the farmer, scholar, artisan and merchant, and espoused a community of cooperation and trust.

Lastly was the Spring and Autumn Annals, a historical document that chronicles the latter half of the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius regarded communal self-identification as key to a functioning society, and the best way to achieve that, he thought, was through developing an honest collective memory of history. Shame that this wasn’t passed down through the generations of Chinese.

In both these documents, as well as the writings of later Confucians like Mencius, several obvious themes were laid out. They are connected in this manner: the self, the family and the government. Confucius believed that these three aspects were crucial to a harmonised community.

Firstly, the self. This was the ‘Good Life’ aspect to Confucian philosophy, and is what appeals to the common man. Confucius thought that human beings are inherently good-natured — we are teachable and perfectible so long as we focus heavily on self virtue and improvement: “ “When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate upon becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself.”

When asked why, as a concerned citizen, he did not want to join government, Confucius replied “Just by being a good son and friendly to ones brothers and sisters you can have an effect on government.’ Since this is also ‘doing government,’ why do I need to do ‘doing government? (2:21)”

A harmonious society hinges on the virtuosity of the individual. The cultivation of the self is the first step to the revitalisation of a moral society. One should focus on freeing oneself from “opinionatedness, dogmatism, obstinacy, and egoism” (9:4) and cultivate the four cardinal virtues: benevolence (ren, 仁) (impartial care, compassion etc.), righteousness (yi, 义) (the compulsion toward moral acts), wisdom (zhi, 智) and respect (li, 礼) (observing social norms and customs).

Thus, Confucius believed that it is crucial that we take self improvement seriously, especially to nurture the four cardinal virtues. That was his conception of the Good Life. But he deferred from other philosophers like Laozi in that he argued Good Lives (of the People) formed the crux of a well-ordered society. We will come to that later.

Moving one tier higher in the hierarchy of social institutions we meet the family. Family is where the line between the ‘Good Life’ version of Confucianism and the ‘Good Governance’ version starts to blur.

We start with living the ‘Good Life’. Confucius preached that xiao (孝, filial piety) was the first step to attaining individual moral excellence, because if the self was able to put his family’s welfare above his, then the transformation of ‘the closed ego to the open self’ would be complete.

In line with his obsession with the old, Confucian xiao (孝) meant more than just providing for one’s family. The word is traditionally coupled with jing (经), and together they mean respecting the elders. Xiao jing (经) is also the name of a Confucian classic treatise traditionally attributed to Confucius. He preached that we should admire and respect our parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles etc.

This is where it starts to get more colourful. The importance of family, like the self, wasn’t simply a private good. Confucius believed it was a public necessity. The family should be the immediate providers of care and support in times of need, not the government. A culture that tolerates weak families cannot produce a strong society.

Tian Zi, aka the Son of Heaven— AlphaHistory

This fetish with families led to the development of family-centred nomenclatures. Confucius applied the family metaphor to the emperor, and labelled him the tian zi (天子), which literally meant ‘Son of Heaven’. The Son of Heaven was also accorded the metaphorical status as ‘Father of People’. In an ultra-paternalistic society, the ruler was seen to be the breadwinner, the strongman, the head of the family.

So perhaps, this too could be used to explain the unusual phenomenon of a generally intelligent and modern people being (relatively) content under autocracy. The Ruler of China not only possessed the Mandate of Heaven, he was also Father of the People. He was charged with divine authority from the Heavens to take care of his people, his family. And his family should respect the Head’s authority — filial piety.

Above all else, including Western-sacrosanct values of human rights, liberty etc., the stability and harmony of the Family was to prevail. Looks like the Godfather plagiarised China.

Al Pacino was secretly a Chinese emperor — People Magazine

The last piece of the Confucian puzzle was already alluded to in the previous point — government. To be Father of the People was not easy. Confucius believed that officials, above all else, needed to be virtuous in individual conduct because they were in the limelight and should lead by example.

Further, as a collective, government should not oppress or create inhumane laws to control by punishment. Rather, to control them by ‘virtue’ and citizens will naturally gain their own sense of shame to correct themselves. In one sense, one could interpret Confucius as saying that government should be more focused on the administrative side of the job (eg. infrastructure, foreign policy) than the executive side. So long as citizens were self-aware and followed social norms (li, 礼), society would naturally come in order.

Confucianism is a crucial part of the Chinese consciousness and underlies much of the ‘curious’ phenomenon (curious=inexplicable in Western societies) that we observe today. It is thus important that I try to sum up the juicy bits of the philosophy here. Forgive me if I am being a little crude.

There are two parts to this philosophy: one focused on living the Good Life, the other focused on having Good Governance. In this sage’s mind, a Good Life meant self-improvement and the cultivation of the four virtues, including respecting one’s elders and family.

Good Governance meant applying a family-centric nomenclature to the state — that the ruler was the Father of all People and responsible for the Family. As ‘juniors’ in the Family, we should respect our Father. Lastly, Good Governance required cultivation of the three basic institutions of the state — a moral self, a strong family and a just government.

It all sort of makes sense, when seen in the big picture. Sort of.

Moving on…

The founder of Taoism, Laozi, is considered by many historians to have lived in the 4th Century BCE (the Warring States era). He was a philosopher, writer, teacher and a deity in religious Taoism. However, compared with Confucius, Laozi’s origins are shrouded in mystery.

Laozi — Ancient World History

Some claim that Laozi’s real name was Li Er and worked in the Imperial archives as an official. This granted him access to historically significant documents, and was allegedly what he based his philosophy on. Others assert that Laozi’s real name was Lao Lai Zi and was in fact, a contemporary of Confucius.

Whoever this man was, one thing is (relatively) clear — his philosophy. But unlike Confucianism, Taoism falls on the side of private philosophy; it expounds on the Good Life instead of methods of Governance. In this sense, Taoism appealed to the masses rather than the government.

The ‘holy scripture’ for Taoists is the Dao De Jing (道德經), literally translated to mean Moral Scripture. The earliest copies of the Dao De Jing was written on bamboo scripts and dates back to the 4th Century BCE. It is a compilation of wisdom from the Master; perhaps recorded by his students as with Confucius’ Analects.

Even more books — Catawiki

In it, Laozi describes several key doctrines of Taoism — Wu wei (无为, non-action), Zi ran (自然, naturalness) and the San bao (三宝, Laozi’s Three Treasures). These principles are all interconnected by adherence to the fundamental force of nature — the Tao.

The Tao is a semi-metaphysical concept as it describes an invisible, natural order about the Universe. It is a nameless force that not only represents the flow of the Cosmos, but which is found in each and every one of us. Laozi’s main advice for living the Good Life is simply to live in accordance with the Tao — and that the active expression of the Tao is virtuous.

The Tao — Wisdom

This is probably one of the harder concepts to grasp intuitively. Hopefully by explaining some of the associated concepts with the Tao some light will be shed on this mystical force.

First is Wu wei, or non-action, non deliberate action, action without intention. Wu wei was Laozi’s prime example of acting in accordance with the Tao and was his main ethical teaching. It requires adherents to rid themselves of desires and positive action. Simply be at peace, do not strive, and naturally things will fall into place because one would be acting in accordance with the Tao.

In 2018 speak, don’t be a tryhard.

Here are several quotes from the Dao De Jing that might make things slightly clearer.

“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.” and

“When there is no desire, all things are at peace.”

Laozi frequently brought up the example of water. Water is the greatest natural, non-living follower of Taoist philosophy. He believed that much wisdom could be drawn from observing water’s ways because water’s nature was smooth and yielding.

For example, when water meets a hard, stubborn rock head on, it does not get angry or emotionally disturbed. It simply flows past the rock, and regains its previous state naturally. Water and rock remain in harmony.

When someone forcefully imposes their goals on the world that is out of rhythm with the natural order of things, counterintuitively, Laozi believed that the willed outcome would not be achieved. Rather, ‘unnatural’ actions will lead to ‘unnatural’ consequences.

Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman philosopher king, also had similar insights. In his diaries, the Meditations, Aurelius believed that man should have adequate respect for the Whole, which is sort of his equivalent of the Tao (at least I think).

Marcus Aurelius — Dailystoic

Here is a quote from Book Two:

Always remember these things: what the nature of the Whole is, what my own nature is, the relation of this nature to that, what kind of part it is of what kind of Whole; and that there is no one who can prevent you keeping all that you say and do in accordance with that nature, of which you are a part.

Sounds eerily similar to a scripture straight out from the Dao De Jing. Apparently East/West, North/South, Left/Right, we humans aren’t so different after all.

In line with both their conceptions of the Whole/Tao, Laozi also advocated a state of Zi ran (naturalness), which is in a way, a logical corollary. Zi ran describes the primordial state of affairs — it is simple and without intention. To attain naturalness, one has to………identify with the Tao and free oneself from intention and desire (ding ding, you guessed it!).

The final hallmark of Taoism are the Three Treasures which are basic virtues that the Tao encourages. They are ci (慈, compassion), jian (俭, moderation, “The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.”), and humility (bu gan wei tian xia xian 不敢为天下先, not daring to act unless the Heavens acted first).

This was the practical side of philosophy which was very similar to the cardinal virtues of Confucianism (benevolence, righteousness, social norms and fairness). However, Confucianism and Taoism diverge insofar as the former requiring positive actions to adhere to certain rituals (not in the religious sense). The latter, however, advocates the exact opposite: that non-action will lead to the desired outcome. Confucianism also examined the question of governance which Taoism left out.

Thus, while Confucianism can be seen to be the more complete philosophy, it was evident that Laozi did not share Confucius’ interest in state level affairs. His philosophy was individualistic and unscalable (can you imagine an economy where everyone non-acted and non-worked?), but perhaps, therein lay its appeal.

The last piece of philosophy this article will introduce is legalism, or Fa jia (法家, or House of Fa). Fa (法) in this context has a double entendre: on its own, it means administration standards/protocols. But it is normally coupled with lü (律) to form 法律, which means law. Hence, legalism.

In fact, professor Paul R. Goldin defined legalism as “the role of the ruler and the means by which he may control a bureaucracy.” Thus, the legal aspect of legalism is but a method (albeit the primary one) to achieve stability in the country. So maybe legalism isn’t such an appropriate name after all.

Legalism is a school of thought that focuses entirely on methods of governance, and in that sense, is diametrically opposed to Taoism (that prescribes the Good Life). It is classified as a school of political realism, ‘Realpoltik’, pragmatism, because unlike Confucianism, it does not depend on the virtuosity of citizens or the strength of family units. It guards against anarchy through techniques of government, so called ‘shu’.

It was founded by the statesman Shang Yang (390 BCE — 338 BCE) who was a leading reformer in the state of Qin. The reader would do good to remember that disorder and chaos plagued China during the Warring States period. Men like Shang Yang — reform-minded men, were highly valued because successful methods of government were desperately needed.

But amongst all the reformers, Shang Yang must have done something right — for the state of Qin would go on to win it all and unify China under the rule of Shi Huang Di, who was born 169 years after Shang Yang.

Shi Huang Di — Wikimedia Commons

Another preacher of legalism was Shen Bu Hai, Shang Yang’s contemporary. Both scholars agreed largely on the principles of governance, but Shang Yang was a tad bit more extreme.

Here are the basic tenets of Legalism: Firstly, the hereditary aristocracy was to be eliminated. Similar to the Mandate of Heaven, instead of noble birth being the prerequisite for accession, legalist scholars advocated giving office only to qualified men.

This might seem no different from our modern conception of meritocracies that we take for granted, but at the time, it was but one of the three competing philosophies on managing the appointment of officials. The first was by inheritance, the second was by competence, and the third was by virtue. Recall, that in Confucianism, the crux of governance was virtuous officials, not ruthless capability.

“Favoring one’s relatives is tantamount to using self-interest as one’s way, whereas that which is equal and just prevents selfishness from proceeding.”

Shang Yang

Legalism was also characterised by a strongman government, large intruding public sphere, tightly controlled economy, loyalty to the state and censorship. Sounds familiar?

The absolutism of law was also paramount for a well-ordered state, Shang Yang argued. He thought that the law should apply to everyone, including officials. It should be impartial, objective and just, for that would discourage arbitrary tyranny.

This system of standards called the Fa (covering law and ethics) should also be transparent and apply equally throughout the province — it is said that he even insisted that copies of the document be pasted on pillars throughout Qin’s capital.

Shang Yang’s contemporary, Shen Bu Hai (from the Han), largely agreed on these methods of governance.

Additionally, he thought that the ruler should never get bogged down in the details, and only concern himself with the ‘supreme power’ (presumably, the appointment of high ranking officials). Specifics should be left to the officials, and the ruler should engage in wu wei (inaction) instead. Wu wei, used here, is devoid of the metaphysical undertones it carries in Taoism.

His reasoning was that there were too many subjects and capable ministers, each specialising in their own field. It cannot be possible for the ruler to know everything. Yet, these officials would be eager to find out the weaknesses of the ruler and exploit them. Thus, the ruler, though vigilant, must never interfere with the ministers’ duties. Instead, he should always try to avoid taking the initiative as that would make him vulnerable.

A pessimistic, but realistic philosophy. Some quotes:

“The ruler is like a mirror, reflecting light, doing nothing, and yet, beauty and ugliness present themselves; (or like) a scale establishing equilibrium, doing nothing, and yet causing lightness and heaviness to discover themselves. (Administrative) method (Fa) is complete acquiescence. (Merging his) personal (concerns) with the public (weal), he does not act. He does not act, and yet as a result of his non-action (wuwei) the world brings itself to a state of complete order.” Shen Bu Hai


“If the ruler’s intelligence is display, men will prepare against it; If his lack of intelligence is displayed, they will delude him. If his wisdom is displayed, men will gloss over (their faults); if his lack of wisdom is displayed, they will hide from him. If his lack of desires is displayed, men will spy out his true desires; if his desires are displayed, they will tempt him. Therefore (the intelligent ruler) says ‘I cannot know them; it is only by means of non-action that I control them.’” Shen Bu Hai

It is evident this Realpolitikal philosophy is entirely at odds with Confucianism, so much so that Shang Yang listed Confucianism as one of his ‘five vermin’, called it “muddle headed chatter” and “stupid teaching”.

He thought that it would be a disaster if the ruler were allowed to act on arbitrary whims, which would’ve been the case had “virtuous men” been appointed to power. Morality was simply too vague and fallible for the Legalists. Simply put, Confucianism wasn’t scalable. An overarching, impartial system like the Fa would be more suitable for state administration.

After ascension of the infamous Shi Huang Di and the Qin dynasty, the Chinese sociopolitical scene became largely defined by Legalism. Shi Huang Di was the ultimate strongman ruler and under his rule, Legalism took its extreme form. Petty crimes were met with heavy punishments to promote strict law and order. The stability and success of the State was also seen to be more important than any other value, thus justifying far-reaching censorship campaigns.

Legalism would thus seem to be a primitive form of modern Chinese politics, and indeed it is. Out of the three golden Chinese philosophies — Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism, I contend that the doctrines of Legalism are most prominent in Chinese politics today. We will bring this discussion back full circle to the twenty first century in the next section.

So, Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism. The preceding paragraphs have hopefully given an adequate understanding of their historical contexts. This conclusion will attempt to place these philosophies back into modern day China and produce some insight in understanding this great civilisation.

Taoism today is not nearly as popular as the other two philosophies introduced. It has sort of morphed into a quasi-religion with some adherents in China. But the religious scene there is dominated by Buddhists, a creed imported from India. One can also still see traces of Lao Zi in so-called ‘Chinese Buddhism’, however.

Confucius would be glad to know that his philosophy is experiencing a revival in Chinese society today. The previous President Hu Jin Tao was a big fan, advocating a “Harmonious Socialist Society”. China now also funds a network of Confucius Institutes around the world, putting their culture back on the world stage. The core value of filial piety permeates not just Chinese culture, but East Asian cultures in general. Including mine. Children are expected by society to take care of their ailing parents, and personally I think that is a good thing.

Here is a wild (and possibly unfair) conjecture: Chinese officials are advocates of Confucianism because it is an inherently docile philosophy/religion. It is somewhat secular, and does not have a fundamentalist caricature that subverts traditional authority. Perhaps, the secular nature of Confucianism and Communism were made for one another.

True, this view objectifies people as means to an ends to achieve economic growth but who need some sort of philosophy/religion to anchor their lives on, and this writer does not advocate such a school of thought. I am simply rationialising empirical facts, and I don’t think its too far from the truth.

Moreover, Confucianism also promotes cultivation of the individual. It shifts the responsibility of leading a Good Life back to the individual — the idea of self-determination. One can see how this aspect also makes the creed useful as a culture to promote economic growth.

A family-centric viewpoint also shifts the ‘burden’ of responsibility of the aged back to the individual (the children). The government does not have to spend inordinate amounts of resources building elderly care facilities etc. because children are indoctrinated with Confucian values. Caring for one’s family is not only a moral good, but also a useful culture.

Seen in this light, Confucianism and China were made for each other. A civilisation as big as China cannot possibly be responsible for each individual’s welfare, development, growth, actualisation, studies and ultimately, success. Neither does the CCP want to divert resources toward building elderly homes etc. Finally, Confucianism has fewer radical sects and dangerous fundamentalist cults (compared to traditional religions) that are subversive. All these could help explain a modern Confucian revival.

This idea of a harmonious society, as emphasised by Confucius, also pervades the Chinese conciousness. But it cannot be solely accredited to our wise philosopher for History plays a big part too.

Harmony, stability and unity are antithetical to chaos, anarchy and disunity — evils that have plagued the Chinese. A secular reading of Chinese history would reveal that like the Romans, civil conflict was the virus they never could get rid of. One can only imagine how immensely more advanced the Chinese would’ve been compared to the rest of the world had they been able to see past their differences (my guess is that it would be measured in decades).

Civil war didn’t just impede growth. It resulted in real suffering, real bloodshed, real tears, real heartbreak, real death, real loss. A real loss of lives — 10 million of them in one chapter alone. Remember there was still the Taiping Rebellion (20–30 million) and most recently, Mao’s Class Wars (5 million). These numbers might not mean a thing to you, but they are the grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunties, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters…the children — snatched away prematurely by the Grim Reaper because of instability in a disunited China.

Liberty isn’t the core of the ‘Chinese Constitution’. Neither is privacy, human rights, habeas corpus, fair trial, rule of law.

Stability is.

For the large part of history, the Chinese weren’t searching for philosophical goldmines in the “I think therefore I am” category — Western-style theorising. They were realists because they had real problems to deal with.

An unrelenting quest for stability and the resulting culture of realism brings us to the last piece of the Chinese puzzle — legalism. In its most extreme form under Shi Huang Di, the emperor could implement the harshest measures and laws culling scholars, banning thought and burning libraries and get away with it. In China, he is a controversial, not Satanical, leader.

Compare him with the “evil” caricature of Stalin propagated in the West these days and one would find that Shi Huang Di enjoys respect and fellowship from even modern non-radicals. Stalin? ‘Only someone in need of a brain examination would believe in Stalin’. Ironical, isn’t it?

Likewise with Confucianism, today, we are witnessing a pivot back to the old ways of legalism as a means of preserving a hard-fought stability in Chinese society. President Xi’s campaign to stamp out corruption (ie. arbitrary decision making) and enacting strict censorship laws are all evidences of it.

Though one might criticise China as not observing the rule of law, they are in fact trying to establish their version of it, because Chinese leaders recognise that the guarantees of an objective law promotes commerce and economic growth. But make no mistake, it will look sorely different from the ‘Western rule of law’, which contains assurances of human rights etc — a substantive rule of law. The Chinese version will be merely procedural — an adherence to a common set of standards — legalism.

Legalism is thus widely accepted to be the most effective way to achieve stability in China. Though strict adherence to standards could mean individual grievances and injustice, it is useful insofar as it helps curb a larger problem of social instability. And the Chinese appreciate stability because they know what life is like without it.

Obviously, this isn’t a pissing contest to crown the most miserable People. But if one wished to understood the question “How is there not pandemonium in China today?”, one needs to be familiar with the Chinese story. The tragic narrative of war.

Maybe this is why the Chinese, albeit amassing immense power and leading the world for a large part of history, have never attempted their version of the Iraq War and establish a Pax China. They were simply too preoccupied with issues that plagued them at home.

Maybe this is why the Chinese are content with seceding the ‘private sphere’ to the government. Maybe this is why Xi is permitted to rule with a heavy hand. Maybe this is why he can “centralise political authority in his own hands…used an anticorruption campaign to root out not just self-serving officials but also his political enemies…serve as president indefinitely…and retaliate against party critics…”

This all part of the social contract that He who rules the People, he who is the head of the Family possesses the Mandate of Heaven — charged with divine authority to bring stability to the people. Stability trumps all.

The rise of activists like Ai Wei Wei, Liu Xiao Bo and an internet savvy youth — people who are no longer content with prosperity without freedom and who are brave enough to call for change, a revolution, democracy, and human right, will make things very interesting for China’s future.

Stay tuned, and thank you for reading my article.

P.S. Is this entire twenty something minute article, that took really long for me to write, simply another manifestation of Taleb’s (a favourite of mine) famed narrative fallacy? (the idea that humans need narratives to cope with reality, when in fact narratives are too Platonic to encapsulate the truth)

Perhaps..but I don’t think what I’ve written is too far from the truth. Plus I’m only twenty, so what do I know anyway.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Cher Yi Tan

Written by

I like learning about the past, thinking about the present, and dreaming about the future. 21, law student at Cambridge.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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