China as a Legalist Society

What matters more? Confucian customs or the law of the land? Here is an interesting comparison of the two from THE GLOBAL POST.

“When we say that China is a “Confucian society” we will often point to closer family relationships as a key indicator. Family obligations just seem to demand more of an individual, in terms of time and attention, than is the case, say, in the US. And we will then invoke the Confucian ideals of caring for elders and parents to suggest a historical culture continuity in Chinese society: Confucian morals demanded care of social and family relationships, Chinese people dutifully followed those Confucian principles, and thus China has been a Confucian society historically and continues to be one today.

Now, there may be some truth in that outlook. But why do we insist on ignoring the historical fact of Legalist political and administrative power and its societal and cultural ramifications? For instance, why have Chinese sons obeyed Chinese fathers? Is it because they have internalized the moral message and goodness of Confucianism? Or is it because they lived, before the twentieth century, within a legal system that facilitated parental corporal punishment of disobedient children, even to the extent of treating leniently fathers who might kill wayward sons? That is to say, obedience was something that was imposed through external threats of violence and punishment, not something that was cultivated from within through ethical consideration. OK, I know, Legalist punishment and Confucian suasion cannot really be separated one from the other because they existed together historically. But that is just my point. Legalist coercion was the facilitator of Confucian morality. China may have produced obedient children without Confucianism, simply through the exigencies of Legalism. Han Fei Tzu argued that the opposite was not the case: obedience could not be secured through Confucian morality alone.

Long story short: obedience of children to parents cannot be explained by Confucianism alone, because Confucianism alone did not produce it historically. Legalism was at least as important as Confucianism in this regard. So, why do we generalize that China is a “Confucian society” and not a “Legalist society”?

Similarly, in the realm of politics, there is nothing inherent in Confucianism to make it anti-democratic. Yes, historically, it was used to justify authoritarianism. But that was determined by its fusion with, and political dependence on, Legalism, which puts forth a robust theory of political power and authoritarianism. Yet when we talk about the possibilities for Chinese democracy, we will hear some analysts invoke Confucianism as an obstacle. China was not a democracy, and, by implication, cannot now be a democracy, they will say, because of its Confucian political authority. But what about Legalism? That, to my mind, is at least as influential in limiting Chinese democratic possibilities. Legalism does not tolerate any separation of powers or power sharing. It is focused on the ruler maintaining his position. It is the most cynical political realism. And it is clearly anti-democratic. Why don’t we refer to that Chinese tradition when we discuss the historical experience of democracy in China?

I could go on, but you get the idea. There are a variety of ways that Legalism has fundamentally shaped Chinese society and politics. It is, I would contend, impossible to isolate the historical effects of Confucianism without reference to Legalism. And it could be the case the Legalism has actually had a greater impact and longer lasting presence in Chinese life (the authoritarianism of the CCP has certain resonances with the Legalist past, as Mao was willing to admit…) than Confucianism. Thus, it seems to me, that China is at least as much a “Legalist society” as it is a “Confucian society.”

But we don’t say that. Perhaps because we don’t want it to be true. Confucianism is nicer, more humane. It is a moral theory that strives toward a better world. And it is certainly an important part of Chinese tradition. But that does not change the fact that Legalism, too, has had a profound presence in Chinese history. It is largely responsible for the centralized, bureaucratic state, which plays such a central role in defining and reproducing Chinese society and culture over the centuries. And it lives on (unfortunately in my view) in the continuing experience of authoritarianism in Chinese politics. We might want to say, and believe, that China is a “Confucian society,” but I am afraid we must accept the dreary reality that China, too, is a “Legalist society.”

So, why am I saying all of this? It is inspired by my thinking about whether we can say that China is a “Confucian society” now. And, in realizing that it probably is not, I am looking to wrest Confucianism from Legalism. I see Confucianism as a great and good moral practice, something that if more of us practiced could create better outcomes in the world. But there are many things that get in the way of the contemporary practice of Confucianism. Modernity, in and of itself, is one. But the vestiges of the Legalist past, and the traces of the Legalist present, in China today are another. If we are ever to find a way forward to Humanity – ren – we have to disentangle Confucianism from Legalism.


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