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Confucian Thoughts Term Paper

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Updated: May 18th, 2020


Confucianism traces its origin to the ideas of an ancient Chinese philosopher by the name Confucius. The scholar is credited for establishing the guidelines upon which the Confucianism school of thought is founded. Confucius created a set of principles that defined moral behaviors both at an individual level as well as at the societal level. Confucianism dominated China’s political and education systems during the Han Dynasty. Even though Confucianism is slowly losing its popularity in the contemporary world, its key ideas are still relevant even in the modern China. In the modern era, the ethical lessons that form the framework of Confucianism continue to influence the mindsets and conducts of billions of people in the world.

Legalism and Confucianism differ in numerous ways. Firstly, legalism places absolute power to the king and the preeminence thereof of the authority. In addition, legalists advocate tough punishments on lawbreakers. On the other hand, Confucianism places weight not on the supremacy of a leader, but on his/her conduct. If a leader acts in the best interest of his/her followers, they will view him/her as a role model and support his/her leadership, hence eliminating the need for strict laws and punishments as in the case of legalism (Hansen 106). In light of the above insights, scholars of the both schools of thought offer varying advices to a leader seeking to understand the best leadership strategies to adopt in his/her administration. This paper will explore the Confucianism and paint a picture on the advice a Confucian scholar living in the Qin Dynasty would offer to the First Emperor. The paper will also compare both Confucianism and the legalism views, and thus deduce the differences in their advices to the First Emperor.

The First Emperor’s philosophy: legalism

Towards the end of the Warring States period (476 BC to 221 BC), seven states were wrestling for power, viz. Chu, Han, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Yan, and Qin. The state of Qin had been considered as a weaker state as compared to the others until Lord Shang made legalistic reforms in the 4th century BC. These reforms signified the rise of the Qin state and the unification of the remaining states into the Qin Dynasty (Potter 57). Legalism had its pros and cons in ruling, as evident in the Qin Dynasty.

One of the most important accomplishments of legalism was the standardization of the writing system during the Qin Dynasty. Prior to this period, each state has its own system of writing and characters. The unification simplified and modified the language and imposed it throughout the land. For the first time, a mutual written system could be understood by people from different regions of the country (Hansen 72).

The objective that the Qin Dynasty was trying to achieve was very clear, viz. it wanted to exercise control on the written material. The view that rules are understood by all would have the Qin’s objective of putting everything in place to obtain order and unity. The control that the First Emperor wanted was obtained at a price. In order to control the flow of information and reduce the threat of negative responses to the way the government was being run, there was act of burning books and burying scholars alive. This aspect shows that in order to make sure that legalism was effective, extreme measure had to be taken to keep things operational. Legalists defend this position by noting, “…there are no sermons on the former kings…scholars praise the ways of the former kings…thus casting doubt upon the laws of the time and causing the ruler to be of two minds” (Ebrey 103).

This assertion implies that legalism in the Qin Dynasty was similar to today’s censorship to control the dissemination of information. There was a lack of freedom for citizens and their rights to express their ideas. Legalists were afraid of criticism and mistakes, and thus they tried to keep their citizen docile by denying them information that could be used to question how the government was being run.

Confucius scholar’s response to the objections raised by the legalists

Given that both Confucianism and legalism differ ideologically, there would be objections to the Confucianism advice to the First Emperor, who was a legalist. One of the major controversies lies in the Confucianism approach to leadership. According to Confucianism, leaders must not impose strict laws if they are to succeed their mandate as kings (Hansen 199). Legalists would probably raise the question on how the king could govern the people devoid of laws. Legalists advocated absolute power for the king. Their advocacy was attractive to leaders of the time since they would make decisions without being questioned. Ruling of the time was twofold, viz. of reward and punishment aimed at maintaining loyalty of the citizens. This philosophy was highly attractive to newly established states that experienced deficit in the area of control and leadership. Legalists held that if states adopted the legalistic philosophy, rulers could exercise their control over the entire territory to preserve order. Therefore, the legalist would argue on the persuasion to adopt legalism ideology given that it aligns leadership and kings’ objectives. Confucianism scholars would address this issue from the point of view that every person has a sense of humanity and no one is evil as alleged by legalists. The leader greatly influences the conduct of his/her subjects. A leader who has a strong sense of humanity and who treats his/her subordinate with high level of reverence, the subjects will reciprocate by being loyal to the leadership, hence minimizing incidences of criminal activities in society.

Confucianism was deemed by many as too idealistic and criticized as an obstacle for adopting new ideas apart from the ones from the Zhou period. One of the main Confucianism focus was on filial piety, which fostered loyalty to authority, and thus it had negative impacts on individuals’ freedom. It contributed to a long tradition of corruption among Chinese officials and undermined attempts at economic modernization (Ebrey 26). The fact that Confucianism was always looking back into history for guidance was hindering advancement of ancient China.

The Confucian educational goals and methods were also affected in their variability. Confucians lacked the inclination to discover the natural order and rules that shaped and operated the world and it had little interest in terms of metaphorical ideas and thinking (Hansen 123). On these aspects, it has lost out to the Daoism’s way of perceiving as opposed to what is present and this concept gave rise to brilliant Daoist paintings and literature. Confucianism emphasized family value and moral persuasions. In addition, personal relations rather than institutions were emphasized. The Confucianism approach had a merit of encouraging the rulers to take the welfare of citizens into consideration in their ruling. However, the idealistic approach and principles of Confucianism were unable to fit into reality.

Confucianism standards had resulted in corruption within government officials. The selection of government officials through the recommended set of values favored by Confucianism were monopolized internally. High positions in the government were controlled by individuals with strong family backgrounds, which barred capable individuals with weak family backgrounds from rising to power.

A Confucianism scholar would advise the king to shelf the rule of law in favor laissez-faire leadership with meritocracy defining those that seek to lead others. The king would be advised to put the interests of his/her citizens first and abandon practices likely to suggest preference of his/her interest over that of the subjects. Given that the Qin state was initially governed by harsh laws that spelt abrasive penalties including penal servitude, the king would be advised to look for means to promote harmony in his/her jurisdiction and act ethically for the subordinates to view him/her as a role model and act ethically too.

Confucius was against the use of strict laws in governance. According to Confucianism, laws and penalties only served the purpose of intimidation, which led to scaring people from doing wrongs in order to avoid punishments, but they did not instill a sense of shame among such individuals. Shame, according to this school of thought, is the most essential in shaping peoples’ behavior. Leadership was based on virtues and it viewed rules and laws as harmful. The Confucius scholar would warn the First Emperor that people led by “laws and punishments will try to avoid punishment, but lose the sense of shame, but if they are led by virtue and directed by propriety, it ensures that society retains the sense of shame, thus leading to desirable citizenship” (Ebrey 57). In view of this, the king would be advised to exercise virtue-based leadership in order to instill a sense of shame among his subjects, and thus lead to a peaceful coexistence amongst individuals and groups within his jurisdiction. The First Emperor would be advised to view his subjects as his own family members, and thus act as a father to everyone within his jurisdiction.


Apparently, Confucianism and legalism held different leadership perspectives. However, a blend of the two ideologies would work towards building a conventional society. Legalism’s good points would be taken into ideas like meritocracy and capitalism, while Confucianism would be the best social standard upheld by any society rather than a political tool. Just like how people thought that Communism was a viable when it was introduced, theories and ideologies do not present their loopholes and shortcomings until practical testing. Likewise, the failures and lessons learnt from legalism and Confucianism are similarly a step in setting the foundations for today’s effective policies. A Confucianism scholar would advise the First Emperor, who was a legalist, to abandon self-serving rules and uphold virtue in leadership. The scholar would quote Confucius and warn the king, “Virtue is more to man than either water or fire. I have seen men die from treading on water and fire, but I have never seen a man die from treading the course of virtue” (Adair 84).

Works Cited

Adair, John. Confucius on Leadership, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese civilization: A sourcebook, Camp Hill: Simon and Schuster, 2009. Print.

Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China Through 1600, New York: WW Norton, 2000. Print.

Potter, Pittman. From Leninist Discipline to Socialist Legalism: Peng Zhen on Law and Political Authority in the PRC2, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. Print.

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