Philosophy and Politics: Origins of Chinese Traditions
The Warring States period was Chinas Axial Age, in which philosophy flourished. (See Bellah 2011 for a fascinating and extremely perceptive comparison of Axial Age philosophic developments across Eurasia.) The great philosophies, or statecraft doctrines, that emerged from the period were Confucianism and Daoism, but there were many others—traditionally "a hundred schools," though this figure is probably an exaggeration.
These "schools" were only somewhat coherent and differentiated in the Warring States period; they were codified, given lineages, and otherwise systematized in the Han Dynasty. Han scholars were incorrigable synthesizers and systematizers and made these traditions into sharply defined jia, literally "households." In fact they mixed and merged happily in both Warring States and Han, defying the systematists. Similarly, the canonical books of these jia, assembled during Han, might not only be by many different authors, but also might include wildly different philosophies. This is notably true of the greatest Daoist work, the Zhuangzi, which includes a number of essays by primitivist, hyper-individualist, and other authors that were apparently included because Zhuang Zhou (the author of the core of the work) debated, refuted, or discussed them (Graham 1981, 1989). Master-disciple teaching situations are stressed in such works as Confuciuss Analects. In fact, the Confucians may have invented the whole master-disciple idea (A. Meyer 2011: 58), though I doubt it, considering how universal it was in the ancient world. Most of the books of the time were assembled over a considerable period and intended for a wide readership. This readership even included the dead; texts were routinely buried with them.
The role of Confucianism in conservation has been briefly noted above (and much more elaborately in Tucker and Berthrong 1998). Daoism (see Girardot et al. 2001) is best known in the West from the uncompromising mysticism of Zhuang Zi and the anarchic sayings of Laozi, but in fact most Daoists (including Laozi—in modern, more accurate readings) were far more accommodating of government, rationality, economics, and materialism.
Zhuang Zi, the greatest and most ecologically conscious Daoist thinker, was said to be an orchard keeper at one point, and he admitted being an occasional poacher. A recent study provides a fascinating insight into Zhuang Zis knowledge of agricultural technology. In one of his passages, he refers to "goblet words," zhiyan. These words are described in his usual mystical, paradoxical style. Even more paradoxical is the zhi itself. It is described as a vessel that tilted when empty, stood upright when half full, and tipped over when full. In a tour-de-force essay, Daniel Fried (2007) identified this vessel: it was an ancient form of irrigation pot that had handles suspended on ropes somewhat below the center of gravity of the vessel (which has a conical, pointed foot). So when filled it tipped over to irrigate the fields. Zhuang Zis "goblet words" poured out naturally. Like the irrigation water, they grew the seeds of the ten thousand things. Ordinary words were sequential, coherent, logical, and therefore unproductive—they did not have the mystery and dark naturalness that grows creativity. Goblet words need not be spoken at all. Nonspeaking was, for Zhuang Zi, not only a way of speaking, but a particularly useful one. Early authors also referred to jade zhi being used by kings, and I would bet that these were drinking vessels made to tip over when set down, so that he who takes one up is forced to drain it dry (like the Greek rhyton).
Legalism was long viewed as a harsh, cruel, totalitarian school of thought. After the rise of Hitler, it seemed suspiciously similar to fascism. Arthur Waley saw it that way in his brilliant and influential Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (1939), a book that introduced many of my generation to Chinese thought. Waley based his views on the work of the cynical and ruthless Han Feizi, the most extreme of the Legalist thinkers. Many others echoed him, and even more eclectic Confucian works could be guilty of cynical and brutal lines (e.g., Lü Buwei 2000:176).
However, there were other, much less harsh Legalist thinkers. Shen Buhai, for instance, was more interested in "rectification of names," originally a Confucian point but elaborated by Shen (Creel 1974; see also Chang Chunshu 2007a: 110). It involved creating a proper bureaucracy with each position defined and with every function and duty spelled out. Rewards and punishments were also codified and made consistent and regular. Shen and others advocated comprehensive codes of laws, applying to sovereign, yeoman, and slave alike, and enforced uniformly by bureaucrats who knew exactly what they could and could not do. Shen can thus stand as the inventor—to the best of modern knowledge—of organizational systems and thus of organizational research and systems theory. His work is one of the ancestors of modern business management and organizational theory (Creel 1974) and less directly so of computers and information technology.
Even more important was the major implication of the Legalist core value of consistent law. Little did Shang Yang or Shen Buhai foresee what they had created for the first and perhaps the only time in history: the idea that a state should be under the rule of law rather than the rule of individuals. This doctrine, which is basic to all modern democracies and even most totalitarian states, comes directly from Legalism. It was introduced to the West by Jesuit missionaries who returned from China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they saw it as fitting in with many new ideas about the relative role of the king, the church, and law in the early modern state (on this, see Creel 1974). The full history remains to be written, and one must go back to the original Jesuit writings, such those of as Caspar da Cruz, to get a sense of how the idea was transmitted. The concept was not completely unknown in the West, but the Jesuits stated it in an uncompromising, totalizing way that made it highly salient in the West—but that also exaggerated its effectiveness in the East.
"Legalism," after all, translates the Chinese term fa jia, "rule household." It was not really a school (or household), and fa means any set of rules, not just legal ones. The rules for producing good calligraphy or architecture are fa. So we are dealing with a set of thinkers who advocated, one way or another, the importance or supremacy of rules, methods, laws, or systems over individuals and individual mentality, and also over personalistic matters. The patrimonial state was giving way to the rationalized, bureaucratic one (in Max Weber's terms), and the Legalist philosophers worked out the implications of this change for rule of law, system-building, rational management, and environmental use. Their inventions in statecraft and systems management have vastly affected the modern world. The relative roles of China, Greece, Rome, Persia, and other ancient empires in developing state and environmental management systems have not been unpacked; it would be a fascinating history. China would clearly figure as a major contributor.
The Confucians, in contrast, idealized the rule of the good man—the sage-king—and, failing that, were willing to tolerate the rule of a bad man, hoping that he could change. (They were, however, never able to deal with rule by a woman; China's few reigning empresses have been execrated in Confucian scholarship.) This Confucian idea weakened the power of the Legalist principle of rule by law. However, the latter remained on the books, to influence the world in later centuries. Confucianism also advocated personalism and social ties above abstract bureaucratic principles; a son should defend his father even if criminal, a subject should be loyal to a bad lord, a wife should obey an irresponsible husband. This concept was generally modified by common sense and by other philosophic traditions in early times, but it became a serious problem for China, especially with the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi in the Song Dynasty; Zhu presented not only the merciful and humanistic side of
Confucianism but also the hierarchic and personalist side, leading to conflicts and to very mixed assessments of Confucian tradition in recent decades.
The softer side of Legalism fused with the harder one of Daoism, producing a synthesis that remained influential although its texts and thinkers were forgotten (Pines 2009). The resultant formula for government requires some discussion, since it was really the dominant mode through most of Chinese history, in spite of lip-service to Confucianism, Buddhism, and harder path Legalism.
Recent archaeological research has uncovered many texts that show this fusion. (Robert Henricks, 1989, provides not only a vitally important translation of the De-Dao Jing but a particularly clear and available discussion). It survived as the more liberal tradition of empire: rule by law, with the sovereign as basically a head administrator, achieving Daoist "inaction" by being above petty concerns and sticking to high-level policy. Related was an emergent concept of loyalty to the state, its ritual structure, and its bureaucratic identity; this appears, for instance, in the earlier parts of the Guanzi (on which see below and A. Meyer 2011).
The Daoist ideal of the "uncarved block"—sitting like a block of wood— was interpreted not as a call for mindlessness, but rather as a call for the emperor to keep constant watch, be vigilant, and avoid picking favorites or trusting factions. He should stay strictly in the realm of high policy. The sovereign was supposed to rule with a light hand—punishing the guilty in no uncertain terms, but otherwise meddling as little as possible. There was a very conscious ideal of empowering the people rather than ordering them around. The emperor was to practice wu wei, literally "lacking action," but it was actually a policy of setting high policy and leaving details to bureaucrats (Pines 2009). Qin Shi Huang Dis disastrous attempt at one-man totalitarian rule resulted in future emperors following the more Daoist ideal, though to highly variable degrees. Many, such as Han Wu Di and the founder of Ming, went back to Qin Shi Huang Dis approach. Others were genuinely inactive. Most were somewhere in between. Not a few emperors across history managed to be both inactive and rapacious, and some of them claimed to be Daoist in the bargain.
Chinas imperial government could never raise enough revenue to be a micromanaging state. The government was also aware that high taxes discouraged enterprise, and thus it often lowered taxes to rates undreamed of even by American Republicans. Many emperors made a virtue of necessity doing rather little beyond ordering the bureaucracy, listening to advice, instituting major public works, and trying to maintain order. Thus the Warring States period began the tradition of a highly centralized autocratic empire, but one tempered by a strong sense that the emperor should not meddle; he should be above ordinary matters, leaving them to the intellectuals who staffed the administration (Pines 2009). All these aspects were to be developed much further under the Han.
As elsewhere, the philosophers came from what passed for a middle class. (By this time, something like a true middle class existed; we are no longer talking only about lower nobility.) They were advisors to kings and lords. They were thus minor functionaries with minor noble or official titles, wandering knights, successful craftspersons, religious officiants, wandering teachers, and simply clever people who got employed by lords to advise them. They often roved from court to court, seeking enlightened employers. Literacy was surprisingly widespread, and many ordinary craftspeople and specialists got into the ranks of thinkers and writers. Copious evidence shows that many crafts-persons, serving people, women, and even soldiers could write (Yates 2011). Particularly astonishing are some soldiers' letters home that (almost miraculously) survived in a tomb; they indicate that even ordinary soldiers could have an appreciable degree of literacy (Yates 2011: 362; the letters sound a good deal like those from the front in World War II). This level of literacy—relatively high for a premodern society—is attested throughout Chinese history, and I found it among uneducated sailors and watermen in the 1960s. Many were self-taught; they had simply picked up the skill over time.
From these philosophical dialogues emerged a fairly integrated—if multifaceted—worldview that was holistic, cosmologically grounded, and dedicated to finding harmony with the Dao, and, later, with li, "principle." Obviously—from what has gone before—it was anything but homogeneous, but it has a certain unity if one contrasts it with the worldviews of, say, Greece, Rome, and India at the same time (see, e.g., Bellah 2011).
In comparison with Greece, for instance, this Chinese worldview involved a strong sense of nature, inner and outer; of flux and dynamism as opposed to stasis and frozen ideals; of harmony and resonance as opposed to conflict and sharp differences among things; of basic common principles and of flows of qi uniting the world rather than of detached essentialized entities; and many more fairly clear distinctions. Some Greeks, like Heraclitus, sound much more Chinese than Greek by this standard; one wonders if they were influenced by Eastern thought.
The Chinese worldview of pragmatic harmony and interpenetrating qi accompanied—and clearly was related to—the strong kinship and family orientation of Chinese society, so evident in Shang ancestor cults and in every aspect of Chinese life since. Modern writers have repeatedly commented on the holistic, socialized, harmony-seeking side of Chinese (and Japanese) culture, often contrasting it with American rational individualism. Indeed, enormous differences show up on every psychological test that has been provided (cf. Bond 1986; Kitayama and Cohen 2007; Nisbett 2003; Nisbett et al. 2001; X. Zhou et al. 2012), even though there are also many differences in degree within each group (Kitayama and Cohen 2007). It is notable that uncompromising individualism was found in early Chinese thought (Zhuangzi, notably), and rational analytic thought was common too (e.g., Mozi and Wang Chong), but from Han onward, the holistic, harmonic stream triumphed. One need think only of how many Chinese business names today contain the word he, "harmony."
However, a need to assert control over ones situation rather dramatically changes things. In modern psychological studies, the Chinese, when forced to assert control of a serious situation, act as analytically and independently as Americans (X. Zhou et al. 2012). Conversely, persistent failure to control a situation leads Americans to act more passively, approximating the Chinese (X. Zhou et al. 2012). It is clear from history that the same was true in ancient dynasties. The need to accommodate to family, village, and empire does seem to have made the Chinese holistic, and their philosophy encourages this; but it has been by no means an inescapable trap. It is, in fact, escaped when needed, as is proved by the countless rugged individualists in Chinese history—from Zhuangzi to the contemporary artist and political figure Ai Weiwei.
In the Warring States period, this need to accommodatealso led in the opposite direction: toward authoritarian policies of total control. This side of Legalism was developed in the highly pragmatic realpolitik of Xunzi (1999) and his followers, who held views strikingly similar to those later espoused by Thomas Hobbes. It became incorporated into Chinese thought from then on, as a hard-headed counterpoint to fuzzy Huang-Lao and cosmological thinking (Pines 2009).