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Chinese ThoughtPolitical Consciousness

Since the Daoist and the Mohist philosophies did not become the guiding principles for the development of political governance in Chinese history after the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.), one may ask why Confucianism became the dominating and received political ideology in the early Han period, and hence the mainstream moral and political axiology in post-Qin Chinese history. In order to answer this question, we have to understand how Legalism (fajia) and legalist politics failed during the Qin period, which preceded the Han. Legalism refers to a trend of thought focused on administrative power and punitive laws and regulations that culminated in Han Fei Zi (c. 280–233 B.C.E.). In this system the notion of law (fa) as a tool of punishment is too narrow a representation of the actual use of law, which was generally to the exclusion and at the expense of social morality. Legalism was based on an understanding and manipulation of human desire for reward and fear of punishment, with total disregard for human needs for freedom and trust. Because of this narrow instrumentation of the law, Legalism is identified with strict authoritarianism, which is couched in laws and regulations set by the ruler's own desire for power and wealth. Its failure to address equally fundamental and important needs in human nature doomed the Qin power to a short span despite its great work in unifying China. It also laid the foundation for a need and desire to return to Confucianism as a tradition of human nature in the trust of moral virtues.

Return to Confucianism.

The return to Confucianism and especially to the political consciousness of Confucianism in the early Han period thus is not surprising, especially as there were no better alternatives as far as political governance is concerned. Confucianism more than any system presented an axiology of well-related and integrated values that were rooted in history and that could be defined or redefined as norms of a political ideology to be used to regulate the behavior of the people. Dong Zhongshu (179–104 B.C.E.) developed the Confucian justification and promotion of political ideology for political rule. Dong speaks of the harmonization and preservation of humanity and community as the primary concern of a ruler, who should extend his ren from the moral to the political domain. Thus Dong transforms the values of five virtuous relationships into three basic norms of organization and leadership: the people obey the ruler, the son obeys the father, and the wife obeys the husband.

This set of norms, based on Confucian virtues and a vision of a grand unity and harmony among different groups of people, worked in Chinese society for the next 2,000 years but collapsed confronting the demands for openness, equality, and individual freedom in the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, the rejection of the three norms did not lead to the rejection of the five virtuous relationships among people. Instead there arose the opportunity to examine the political significance of the primordial Confucian proposition on the unity of inner sageliness (neisheng) and outer kingliness (waiwang) as a core of political consciousness in Confucianism and hence as the everlasting feature in Chinese philosophy.

Righteousness and the ability to rule.

To rule or to govern (zhi) is to have power to cause others to follow or obey an order. To be aware of and practice ren is the first and foremost requirement for a self-cultivating person to be able to rule or to govern. A good ruler must know both what the people want and what is really good for them, and he must be worthy of their trust. The second requirement is that a ruler be led by zhi (wisdom) to make enlightened decisions and policies and avoid mistakes of ignorance and short-sightedness. A man of ren of course further requires ritual (li) to make his action sustainable, but this must be made on the basis of the presence of ren. To have ren and to conduct oneself right in terms of wisdom and the moral form of appropriateness, one can be said to set a good example for people to follow and emulate so that people can be satisfied with their leaders.

Rectification of names.

Another essential requirement of successful governance is the Confucian doctrine of rectification of names. In the Zilu chapter of the Analects Confucius says:

If names are not rectified, then language will not be smooth, if language is not smooth, things will not be done. If things are not done, then rituals and music will not flourish. If rituals and music will not flourish, then punishments will not meet their target. If punishments will not meet their targets, then people do not know what to do.

Thus, names and language reflect reality but they also determine what reality is, particularly with regard to social and political matters. One may interpret this observation of Confucius as requiring a system of correct names and language that would order social and political relationships as the basis for political administration.

Once basic moral and social relationships among people are set in order, a political order should ensue. In order to reach such a state, the ruler has to set things right beginning with himself as a moral example. This does not preclude the institution of laws of punishment to ensure the moral order. However, the Confucian vision is that once basic order is established, then political order will be easily implemented without necessarily appealing to laws of punishment.

This point needs to be made clear: Confucius is not opposed to laws for any state. Rather, he holds that we should aim at going above the requirement of law and reach for the Dao. The political consciousness of a moral ruler is to hold oneself to the standard of the Dao so that one would not deviate from the Dao. Of course, one could still find that what one does with the intention to do good may still be wrong-doing. Rather than an intentional wrong, that would be a factual mistake, which one must conscientiously be willing to correct.

Compatibility with democracy.

It has often been asked whether Confucianism is compatible with the modern Western concept of democracy, or rule by the people. The answer can be ambiguous depending on what is perceived as the goal of political rule. If the goal is social and moral order, in so far as modern democracy will lead to such a desirable state of society, democracy is compatible with the Confucian moral patriarchy. On the other hand, if democracy is geared toward achievement of basic freedom of the people to decide how to rule themselves, then the moral patriarchy of Confucian political consciousness is indeed a problem. The basic assumption of Confucianism is often that people are incapable of making such decisions and therefore require a wise and benevolent leader to take care of them and to put their lives in order. Hence the ruler is given the whole and sole responsibility to take care of the people for the benefit of the people. On the other hand, it is believed that people can tell a good ruler from a bad ruler and that people could complain about their rule and even rise up to remove a ruler, as Mencius makes clear.

This implies that the people can also rise to choose a new ruler. The morally superior person (junzi) can be said to be a potential candidate for becoming a ruler. It may be argued that if he continues to develop himself in moral superiority by acquiring all the moral powers of relating to all people, he could be elected to the position of ruler. Since Confucius urges and educates all people to be morally superior persons, it logically follows that everyone can become a candidate for political rulership and could be considered engaged in a competition for successful development of oneself as a moral person in order to be eventually selected or elected to be the ruler. We must note that for the implicit mandate of the people to develop into the democratic consciousness of a modern nation-state, the major step of entrusting people to make a popular election must be made.

We may also note that the Confucian idea of the moral cultivation of a junzi suggests the presence of a potential democracy, because the junzi must win the people's trust as a good ruler. The moral requirement for political rectitude suggests that a rational understanding is needed to transform the implicit moral democracy into an explicit political practice. This transformation would represent a new development of the moral-political philosophy of Confucianism. This would amount to a revolution in the Confucian political consciousness by way of a deep rational reflection.

Two further observations of the Confucian political consciousness can be made. First, in comparison with the Greek city-state, where people were more actively concerned with the political affairs of the community, the Chinese society was primarily based on agriculture, and the people, having little time for self-governance, relied on their leaders to impose order. Once China became industrialized and people became better educated, the demand for democratic government was greater, and democracy will eventually prevail. Historically, China as a political entity has been involved in a process of consolidation of political power and integration of large groups of people for purposes of defense, so that the demand for democracy did not even arise. There is also a lack of rational reflection and understanding on the process of succession of political power to the extent that the inevitability of dynastic cycling by way of intrigue or force has become a historically conditioned belief among the large mass of people.

Second, when Confucius wrote his historical Annals of Lu (Lu Chunjiu) in which he praises moral and condemns immoral actions of dukes and ministers, he established a tradition of moral critique of political figures in light of their individual actions instead of their institutional practice. This suggests that the political consciousness of Confucianism subjected a rational consideration of institutions to a moral consideration of personal action. But we do, however, see in Confucius a critical awareness of a need for adaptiveness of a ritual system and hence a critical awareness of the question of appropriateness and timeliness of a given ritual system or institution in the governance and personal action of a ruler.

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