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Machiavellism - Ancient China

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Ancient China

In Chinese tradition, Machiavellian thought and practice is associated with Legalism. Insisting on laws that apply impartially to persons of every status, Legalism provides techniques for a ruler to keep control over both officials and subjects. The first famous Legalist, Lord Shang (d. 338 B.C.E.), preached the doctrine that society could be controlled by means of penalties. When he succeeded in becoming the chief administrator of the state of Qin, he divided the population into units of five or ten persons, each responsible for the actions of all the others. Anyone failing to report an offender was to be cut in two at the waist, while someone who did report offenders was to be rewarded as if he had decapitated an enemy. Those who devoted themselves successfully to the fundamental occupations, tilling or weaving, would have their taxes remitted, but those who made socially unhelpful profits, in trade and the crafts, or were poor out of laziness would be confiscated as slaves.

A country that is strong, Shang said, can remain so only by continuing to wage war, while a country administered, as Confucians preferred, with the help of history, music, filial piety, and brotherly love, sinks into poverty or falls to its enemies. Above all, he said, a government must promote order by means of rare but consistent rewards and frequent, consistent, severe punishments. Governed by the fear of punishment, people will obey the laws, be virtuous, and be kept happy by what they are allowed to enjoy.

The great Confucian Xunzi (c. 310–c. 215 B.C.E.) influenced the thought of the Legalists by insisting that a nation's power depends on its wealth and therefore on its inhabitants' frugality and devotion to the wealth-producing occupations, especially agriculture. He also insisted, like the Legalists, on the need for law with fixed standards of punishment and on the view, contrary to that of his Confucian predecessor Mencius, that people are by nature evil. Their nature, he says, needs to be forced into shape, so that only correct education can make them good.

Xunzi's student Han Feizi (c. 280–233 B.C.E.) argued that the ruler, out of love, should work against the natural disorderliness and self-indulgence of the people. Penalties bring order and rewards bring chaos, so penalties are the beginning of love. A state can function properly, he held, only if it has in-grained lines of command and obedience. The ruler must take many precautions to retain his rule because it is dangerous for him to trust anyone. The ruler's son, if trusted by the ruler to an incautious extreme, will be used by evil ministers to carry out their private schemes. To detect the more subtle kinds of subversion, the ruler must get the people to watch one another and be implicated in one another's crimes. To gain his own ends, the emperor should remain enigmatic and not reveal his intentions to his subordinates. Government can no longer be based on the Confucian virtues or on the model of familial relations. "The most enlightened method of governing a state is to trust measures and not men."

Li Si (c. 280–208 B.C.E.), like Han Feizi, was a student of Xunzi. Li Si was the paradigmatic Legalist because it was he who taught the king of Qin how "to swallow up the world and to rule with the title of Emperor." Appalled by his attacks on Confucian tradition, Chinese historians describe the First Emperor as a cruel, suspicious megalomaniac who by the intelligent use of force, slavery, and the conscripted labor of citizens created the great empire of China out of the motley of its many small states. In collaboration with the indefatigable First Emperor, Li Si created a unified culture, including a standardized Chinese, and a political hierarchy fully subordinate to the emperor. But Li Si is one of the greatly hated figures of Chinese history because, in order to escape criticism based on traditional standards, he tried to destroy very nearly the whole of Chinese literature and so, in effect, to destroy the tradition's moral basis and cultural continuity. To this end, in 213 B.C.E. he ordered that all books, except those on practical subjects such as medicine, divination, and agriculture, be gathered and burned. A year later, there occurred the episode—not the direct doing of Li Si—that to traditional Chinese has been the most extreme example of malignant politics: the execution of 460 scholars, who, according to Chinese tradition, were buried alive in a common grave. In the course of the later history of China, legalistic doctrines and practices were often incorporated into the ruling Confucianism.

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