Understanding China – According to its own history and culture

Nov 26, 2023
Statue of Shang Yang

In order to understand what is happening in China now and predict what may happen over the following years we must draw on Chinese history and philosophy to guide us. Relying on the western experience to guide our thinking about China may be more comforting and accessible but it leaves us in a very poor position when considering the world’s newest and oldest superpower.

In 338 BCE the Chinese jurist, politician and philosopher Shangyang met a grisly end. He was executed by being dismembered. The method of dismemberment involved being tied to five different chariots and torn into several different pieces. His crime was that he had humiliated a powerful noble by causing him to be punished for an offence as though he were an ordinary citizen.

The notion that all people should be equal under the law belonged to a Chinese school of philosophy that Shangyang had played a crucial role in developing – Chinese Legalism (发家). That school of philosophy was one of the Hundred Schools of Thought that developed during the Warring States Period when rulers of these various states consulted philosophers in order better run their kingdoms and gain advantage over their rivals. The most famous of those rulers was Qin Shi Huang who adopted Legalism as his state philosophy and became the first Emperor of China. The phrase ‘Burn the Books and Bury the Scholars’ is attributed to the first emperor by subsequent (rival) dynasties as an indication of his harsh manner of dealing with the other schools of philosophy, particularly those vested in a relational culture.

In many ways this cycle of Chinese history has continued for thousands of years. Confucianism with its intricate system of reciprocal relationships and responsibilities tends to be the dominant philosophy but every so often a ruler pops up and decides that those relational cultures have strayed into excessive corruption and attempts to set the ship right with a solid dose of Legalism. Figuratively, and occasionally literally, burning the books and burying the scholars.

The benefits of Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms and opening of the Chinese economy have undeniably delivered tremendous benefits to almost all Chinese people. One of the drawbacks of the speed and range of those reforms though has been the not inconsiderable growth of corruption. Xi made special mention of corruption in his inaugural speech as General Secretary on November 15, 2012 saying that it represented a threat to the Party’s survival. He has also been very clear about his admiration for Chinese Legalism quoting the key ancient texts on legalism on a number of occasions.

Like Shang Yang he has also applied the law to the great and powerful making innumerable arrests of those in powerful positions be they figures like Zhou Yongkang the former Head of the Chinese Secret Service or corrupt heads of small villages. Undeniably there has been a clearing out of some of his rivals but the crackdowns on corruption are real and have made him a popular leader with the man and woman in the Chinese street. The expression that ran ‘If you have power you will have money but if you have money you won’t necessarily have power’ is no longer heard nowadays as officials dare not, quite so brazenly, take bribes and steal from the public purse.

If we see what is happening in China according to the perspective of Chinese history and philosophy we are better able to understand what is happening now. Given the fate of Shangyang for example it should be no surprise to us that Xi will look to stay in power for a loss of power may see those to whom he has applied the law turn on him.

Shangyang’s greatest contribution though to Chinese governance was his establishment of the bureaucracy that would help the emperor to rule China. The system was a meritocracy and this idea too has persisted. The Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci noted in the 16th century that, in theory at least, any Chinese citizen could partake in exams and attain a high position in government, something that was not true in Europe at the time. It is important to note that Xi Jinping has not attacked this bureaucracy as Mao did in the Cultural Revolution but rather he has strengthened it. This is also in accordance with the Legalist philosophy.

As to the future, Chinese history provides us with plenty of clues as to where we might be heading. The Chinese leader and the Chinese people will be aware of the fate of Shangyang but also that many of the great emperors developed a syncretic model of governance and philosophy. Emperor Wu Han Liu developed a model that combined Legalist and Confucian elements while the Tai Gong Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, arguably the greatest of all, asked his officials to be loyal to the laws and not to individuals but also drew on a wide range of beliefs and religions including Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Syriac Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism to understand the world.

Xi Jinping has also cited Confucius as a source of good governance. The truth is that no Chinese leader has ever managed to completely shut out the Confucianists and we should expect that they will claw their way back into positions of influence once again. When this happens we may see less strict enforcement of laws, a return to the use of moral example to shape leadership and relationships once again be of primary importance for getting business done in China. In the meantime, the ghost of Shangyang is still in ascendancy meting out harsh sentences to officials that transgress laws but at the same time strengthening the roles of the thousands of bureaucrats that run China today just as they did 2500 years ago.

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