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Justice in East Asian Thought

Preimperial Confucianism, Preimperial Daoism, Subsequent Developments, Law And Justice During The Ming And Quing Dynasties

East Asian thought should include a wide range of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese concerns covering more than twenty-five hundred years of history. This article is limited to the Chinese sphere, and its primary focus is on the preimperial period (before 221 B.C.E.).

How issues related to justice have appeared in the preimperial Confucian ("Ruist") and Daoist traditions involves both historical and philosophical investigation. While penal codes ("corrective justice") were enforced even by the ancient sage, Confucius (Master Kong; 551 B.C.E.–479 B.C.E.), the political emphasis of Confucian scholars in general was to support an elitist system where humane forms of fairness provided flexible standards for determining the appropriate distribution of opportunities and goods ("distributive justice") and so sought to lessen the need for corrective justice. Early Daoist philosophical texts advocated an alternative way, something like a benign form of anarchism. Their rulers would be compassionate, frugal, and unobtrusive, allowing every person within the kingdom to follow the Way (Dao) in a spontaneous and uncontrived manner.

In what follows, central themes and institutions related to justice that appeared within Confucian and Daoist teachings in preimperial China will be explained and evaluated, followed by brief comments about later developments.

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