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Confucian Ethics and Legalists Authority in Shaping of Chinese History Essay

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Updated: Nov 22nd, 2019


Politics and ethics are concepts that are identical according to the teachings of Confucianism. These aspects strongly contrast legalism. Confucianism demands politics to be considered on ethical convictions and not laws. It bases ethical convictions on goodness of human nature (Mou 112).

With Mencius, Confucianism believes in innate goodness of man. Thus, it considers man as an emotional being. This kind of emotion forms the basis of morality. Confucianism values education as an avenue of refining emotionality as it deteriorates into an ego-centric attitude. Chinese civilization was ethically formed by Confucianism (Zhang 67). For more than two millennia, this remained Chinese ethical foundation.

This paper discusses Confucian ethics and legalist’s authority in shaping Chinese history and explores: the analects of Confucius and how they would serve as primary moral and ethical code in shaping the intellectual period of the Zhou dynasty; how Mencius writings constituted an important development in the expansion of Confucian ethics and aiding moral argument of human goodness; and how Shang Yang’s writings would form the foundation for the Qin dynasty political program.

Analects of Confucius in Shaping the Zhou Dynasty

Analects Confucius contain conversations with disciples. In these conversations, Confucius adopts a detached view of Heaven. He once commended,

“You are unable to serve man,” ‘how then can you hope to serve the spirits? While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” (Hardy 5).

Here, Confucius interest in philosophy was clearly political and ethical. His construct of the universe was such that if human beings behave harmoniously in accordance with its purposes, their own affairs would prosper. Confucius was much concerned with human behaviour. Behaving in conformity with the Dao (cosmos) was the key to proper behaviour (Hardy 5). Confucius basic assumption was that all human beings had their own Dao, depending on their individual roles in life, and it was their duty to follow it.

Confucius strongly felt that people will naturally follow example of leaders who lived according to high ethical standards. In terms of shaping moral sensibilities, Confucius taught the significance of ritual and music. Additionally, he advocated benevolent hierarchical social order (Hardy 5). The ruler also had his own Dao. The ruler ignored his Dao at his own peril, for to do so could signify the loss of heaven mandate (Hubbard 22).

Confucius interpretation of the Dao contained two basic elements; one was the concept of duty. Human beings had the responsibility to subordinate their own interest and aspirations to the greater need of others. This assumes that each person works hard to accomplish his or her assigned destiny.

In turn, this accelerates prosperity in society. Therefore, the ruler in this respect has to set a good example. The beneficial effect would be felt throughout society if he conforms in his kingly ways (Perry 40). Secondly, the idea of humanity was another important element. This involved a sense of compassion and empathy for other people. Confucius supported rule by merit concept as stated in the rites of Zhou (Hardy 5).

Confucius philosophical thinking was revolutionary; many of his ideas were forward looking rather than backward. His most remarkable political thinking was that government should be open to all men of superior quality, not restricted to those of noble birth. Noting one of Confucius disciples in the analects:

“The master said, by nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide a part”, through the analects, Confucius ideas were passed to the next generation (Mou 108).

This had a strong effect on political thinkers of china of the late Zhou era. This period was characterized by an existing system that was in disarray and exposed to serious question.

The legal thought of the Chinese has always varied between legalism and Confucianism school of thoughts. Legalists believe that humans should be governed by law, that is, a set of external laws and penalties that are coercive. Confucians on the other hand, believe in the inherent good nature of humans and thus can learn to morally govern itself internally.

Confucianism took effect during the chaotic period in Chinese history; marked with the disintegration of the Zhou dynasty and Chinese Civil War and social crisis (Mou 115). The analects of Confucianism collected would later play primary moral and ethical role in informing the intellectual period of the Zhou dynasty. In these collected analects (Mou 108).

Confucius espouses conservative government that admired political and social environment of the Zhou dynasty. Infact, the early Chinese social norms were effectively institutionalized by traditional Confucianism. Confucius viewed society not just as an organization that promotes human survival, rather as a mode through which man becomes a human being.

Laws were believed to regulate the ego within each individual. In sum, Confucianism emphasized the practice of traditional forms over inborn human nature (Mou 116). The view of collected analects is that inherent imperfections in human beings did not pose problems for a tradition in good order. The Zhou dynasty was such a tradition.

Mencius and the Expansion of Confucian Ethics

Mencius writings formed a significant growth in expansion of Confucian ethics and made tremendous contribution to human goodness in moral argument (Buchanan 75). Mencius emphasized the human side of Confucian thoughts. He argued that human beings were good by nature and therefore could be shown their civil responsibilities by example. Mencius also emphasized the duty of compassionate leadership by rulers when he stated:

“It was because Chieh and Chou lost the people that they lost the empire, and it was because they lost the hearts of the people that they lost the people. Here is the way to win the empire, win the people and you win the empire. Here is the way to win the people, win their hearts and you win the people. Here is the way to win their hearts, give them and share with them what they like, and do not do to them what they don’t like. The people turn to a human ruler as water flows downward or beasts take to wilderness” (Mencius 36).

Significantly, Mencius made an impact on the shaping of the Zhou dynastic history and culture. The Zhou dynasty advocated the concept of heavenly mandate where people had the moral right to seek removal of leaders who do not perform as expected, even through violent means (Mencius 38).

This concept was duly promoted by Mencius. Mencius encouraged benevolence and righteousness in a leader. He encouraged leaders to share worries and aspirations of the people and determine policies appropriate for them to live and work in peace and contentment (Buchanan 76).

Mencius maintained the significance of personal virtues in the role of leadership. He postulated benevolence for instance to result honour and cruelty to cause disgrace to society (Mencius 36). Therefore, Mencius encouraged individuals in authority to have an ethical role to behave in people’s best interest (Buchanan 74).

Mencius had a strong notion of the kind of influence bestowed upon people. He explained why a king fails to be a kind leader, and why a transformation of the ruler’s attitude would be positive for all subjects. Mencius stated;

How virtuous must a man be before he can become a true king? He becomes a true king by bringing peace to the people. This is something no one can stop. Can someone like me bring peace to the people? Yes. How do you know that I can? All you have to do is take this very heart here and apply it to what is over there. Hence one who extends his bounty can bring peace to the Four Seas; one who does not cannot bring peace even to his own family” (Xu 2).

In summary, Mencius maintained that rulers had to practice virtue in order for them to sustain their positions in authority. He duly encouraged the heavenly mandate concept; experienced in the earlier period in the Zhou dynasty. This meant that people had moral obligations to remove leaders in authority who do not deliver to their expectations, even through force (Xu 3).

Shang Yang’s Foundation for Qin Dynasties Political Program

Shang Yang promoted the philosophy of legalism in ancient China. He took issue with the view of Mencius and other Confucian thinkers that human nature was essentially good. By nature, Shang Yang argued that human beings were evil and will do the correct things only by forced laws and harsh punishments. Shang Yang and other legalist thinkers discarded Confucian view that government by superior individuals could correct societal problems and instead argued for impersonal laws system.

Additionally, Shang Yang and other legalists differed with Confucian view that heaven has a moral core. He totally believed that only strict action by state could lead to social order. Common people could best be motivated to serve the leadership interest for fear of harsh penalty, more than material promise reward.

Since he believed on the corrupt human nature, he could not trust officials to carry out their duties in efficient and equitable manner. He believed that only a strong leader could organize a society that is orderly. Through his writings, Shang Yang gave the foundation for Qin dynasties political program. This involved providing full authority to state and ruler against its subjects (Hardy 6).

Shang Yang formulated the legalist foundation of the Qin dynasty. This foundation was a technique to control, more than a mere philosophy upon which to organize a government that is stable. Qin dynastic program was based on the urges to fear of retribution and desire for reward (Bedeski 80). Accordingly, by understanding these motivations and exercising rigorous laws, a leader is able to subordinate his subjects, ministers and even his own family to serving him and the state.

Shang Yang’s writings provided the state and the leader full authority over and against its subjects. Wealth, tranquillity and dynastic glory were the goal of state. However, this was at the expense of thought, innovation, freedom, and religion. Shang Yang viewed the world as a totalitarian state, and legalism acted as a technique for its maintenance. Legalism advocates for population management placing people as the major source of state power (Bedeski 81).

Shang Yang explores the scope of Qin political knowledge as a product of centuries of reflection of war. This involved alliances, negotiations, and strategies. Qin political knowledge was necessitated by an environment where war and preparation for war were necessary.

Understandably, this was derived from authority as command and administration as mobilization. Qin later resorted to the political knowledge of a garrison state at peace with all except those who break law and dissidents. The later were dealt with as state enemies.

As Qin’s political knowledge was used in the building of Chinese state, its enforcement was restricted to succeeding in consolidating the hegemony of the dynasty. It completely failed to confer legitimacy in the long term. The strict laws imposed obedience but not reciprocal obligation on the governed.


In sum, Chinese legal system continues to follow Confucianism in a fundamental manner. For instance, the country continues to adopt Confucian concern on morality, addressing the legal system where the law is only an item of executing state policies. Confucianism demands politics to be based on ethical values and laws only as advocated by legalists. Legalist thinkers such as Shang Yang believe that men should be governed by coercive laws and reprimands (penalties).

Confucians thinkers such as Mencius, in contrast believed that the nature of human beings is good and can learn to internally govern itself through moral suasion by traditional rites (Perry 38). As Confucian philosophers earned political patronage in china and adopted in Chinese political governance, legalists’ penal sanctions were reduced to items applied in enforcing Confucian morality (Mou 113).

Confucianism preserved the social order and its ideals were adopted in Chinese traditional civilization. This took root during the Zhou dynasty. Confucianism aided in shaping the moral habits of the Zhou leaders’ dynasty and, by the example of the leaders, their subjects (Hubbard 22).

Work Cited

Bedeski, Robert. Human Security and the Chinese State. London: Taylor and Francis, 2007.

Buchanan, Allen. States, Nations and Borders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hubbard, Hatfield J. An Education classroom Guide to Americas Religious Beliefs. New York: Greenwood Publishing, 2007.

Hardy, Kinney A. The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China. New York: Greenwood Publishing, 2005.

Mencius. Mencius. London; Penguin Books, 2004.

Mou, Bo. History of Chinese Philosophy. London: Taylor and Francis, 2008.

Perry. Chinese Conceptions of Rights. Perspectives on Politics, 2008, 6(1), 37-57.

Xu, Zhang B. Mencius: A Benevolent Saint for Years. Beijing: Intercontinental Press.

Zhang. Five Thousand Years of Chinese Nation. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2007.

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