Confucianism and legalism
The following text is an extract from the book The New Legalist Vol. 1 (2010) compiled by independent scholars and chief editor of the New Legalist website Sherwin Lu, and contract research fellow of the Centre for Chinese and Global Affairs, Peking University Yuzhong Zhai.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin. The extract is from the chapter Eastern Wisdom Can Help Solve Today’s Global Problems: A study of the “dynamically-balanced multi-dimensional whole” worldview (p. 262), raising interesting points about the relationship between Legalism and Confucianism, and the relevance of China’s philosophies to today’s world problems.
“The Chin dynasty ended with a conspiracy at the top on the death of the First Emperor, whose successor, one of his sons, betrayed his father’s Legalist policy by distorting the rule of law and triggered rebellion by the people. But Chin’s Legalist policy was largely revived and continued during the next dynasty of Han. In the later years of the Han dynasty, Confucianist ideology gradually got the upper hand and was finally authorized as the sole guiding system of thought for running the country. Confucianist doctrine had ever since remained the orthodox ideology in China till the 1911 Revolution, though some Legalist practices had been carried on and other Legalist ideas were adopted sometimes by reformist statesman and sometimes at the beginning of a new dynasty on replacing an old, corrupted one.
Why was Legalism defeated by Confucianism in Chinese history? The answer is in the inconsistency in Legalist practice due to the limit of historical conditions. The major inconsistencies are: The social merit system failed to cover the selection of the top ruler (king/emperor)- the throne was still inherited by royals on, and the all-society mutual supervision system failed to reach the one or two most powerful men under the king/emperor on the topmost level of the hierarchical ladder. Therefore, when a Legalist emperor died, the state power could easily be shifted, either through conspiracy or through the work of time, into the hands of weak or morally depraved succeeding emperors and/or power-hungry top-ranking officials, who placed their own interests above those of the people and would not bother to take the pains, as required by Legalist principles, to do the regulating of social life against the strong oppositions from some special interest groups, especially when there were no more threats of rivalry from outside. This inconsistency can only be corrected by a democratic system based on the modern principle of people’s sovereignty, corrected in a way in which the institutional power of the state exercised from the top down and people’s power exercised from the bottom up remain in a constant dynamic balance.
However, except from that loophole, the legalist theories and practices in ancient China were quite successful. The most important lesson from these theories and practices is that, especially at a time of “warring states”, the only way for a people to survive and prosper is to have a strong state under the constant watch of the people and with the institutional power to implement a comprehensive series of social, economic, political and other policies which aim at regulating all different kinds of social relationships towards a dynamic balance between all different interest groups and different aspects of social life, including a constant dynamic balance between the institutional power of the state and people’s sovereignty. And to do this, the atomistic world view, both in its ancient Chinese version, i.e., the Confucianist orthodoxy (except for some of its teachings on the cultivation of personal and socio-political virtue), and in its modern vision, i.e., the Liberalist laissez faire ideology, must be repudiated.
The atomistic pattern of thought looks at society as a mechanical aggregation of millions or hundreds of millions of individual human beings each pursuing his/her own interests. According to this view, the will and interests of a state equal the sum total of all its individual members’ wills and interests. It disregards the fact that the state, as a special kind of social group of human beings, can also have its relatively independent will and interests which can in turn affect the will and interests of each individual member and all other social groups, large or small, within and outside of it. The historical argument between the Legalists and the Confucianists regarding the management of state affairs is a typical case.
The Legalists emphasize the importance of the rule of Law, insisting that, so long as the social law originates in and in line with Tao, i.e., the law of Nature, it will cultivate and fortify virtue in all people and thus ensure a good order for the society, while Confucianists preach that personal cultivation of family virtue based on kinship principles will guarantee social justice, because, according to them, if all people behave virtuously towards others in the “extended family” of the big society. The Confucianists failed to see the family virtue cannot be naturally extended beyond the scope of the family and readily applied to all social relationships because the cultivation of family virtues is based partially on natural kinship feelings and partially on a kind of intuitive perception of people being mutually interdependent, a direct perception by all five senses which is possible only within such a limited circle of “face-to-face” relationships as a family. Beyond this limit, people need extra impetus and motivation, i.e., the rule of law, or the reward and punishment system on the social scale, for the nurturing of social values.
Confucianists also opposed the state’s owning some economic enterprises which were critical to national economy and people’s livelihoods and setting by a large enough quantity of commodity wealth as a necessary financial leverage for regulating the market and other aspects of social life to defend people’s peaceful life from external and internal dangers.
As social atomists deny the necessity of a dynamic balance between the collective entity and the individuals, they inevitably advocate a policy that indulges the advantaged, permitting them to get the upper hand over the disadvantaged. And this policy inevitably results in the split of a society into “two nations”: the privileged versus the underprivileged, and this is the root cause of all social upheavals, mass violence and war. It is the case with the old China under the ideological domination of Confucianism, as well as with today’s world divided into the super rich handful and the poor majority all over the world. In Chinese history, whenever advocates of Confucianist ideas of “virtue” were loudest, it must be a time when social conflicts were approaching a crisis, as was pointed out by Lao Tzu in his Tao Te Ching. Can’t we draw a lesson from history and apply it to a truthful understanding of the world situation today?”
To read more about the Legalist perspective, see the New Legalist website here.