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The Concept of Righteous War in Ancient China Essay

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Updated: May 28th, 2021

In early Chinese thought, much attention was dedicated to the issue of was and righteous approaches to it. The philosophers of the late Spring and Autumn, as well as those of Warring States eras, realized the need to put an end to the constantly growing anarchic atmosphere through some wise methods. The 100 Schools thinkers considered it significant to discuss the impact of violence on people’s relationships. As a result, the major political and social philosophies that appeared during this period pay much attention to war. History experts identify two principal views of that time. The first one supported a realist stance and considered war as a practical policy instrument. The second approach viewed war as an immoral and unwise way of settling conflicts and found it acceptable only under some particular conditions.

The first view, which saw war as an instrument of policy, was favored by the Shang kings who were eventually defeated by Zhou people. The last Shang king was known for his cruelty and greed. Therefore, he employed war methods not with righteous objectives but with the aim of gaining more land and power.1 A “monstrous caricature” of vice and lust, the last Shang king was the creator of nefarious tortures who enjoyed orgies and would not refuse from using monstrous methods in regulating conflicts.2 Once, the king cut open his adviser’s body in order to see whether his heart had seven apertures.3 Thus, the story of the Shang kings is one of the many examples of considering war as an effective instrument of policy. It is obvious that it was not effective since people were not satisfied with such leaders, and no benefits for the state could be gained in such a way.

The opposite view was associated with tolerating war only under certain circumstances. An example of such an attitude is the fight between the Shang people and Zhou people. The latter became involved in war because they were trying to defend their own land.4 The justification of such wars was in the “moral differential” between the rivals.5 Most of all, there was a great difference between the leaders’ moral nature. The supporters of the second approach were not apt to act cruelly. They only wanted to defend the weaker or not let the enemies take what did not belong to them. Basically, the two approaches to war were the opposition between virtue and vice. Those who initiated wars expressed cruelty and lust. Those who considered war as something immoral engaged in it only when it came to defending justice.

In ancient China, there was a distinction between the understanding of just or righteous war (jus ad bellum) and just or righteous conduct in war (jus in bello).6 Jus ad bellum presupposed the use of force is necessary in cases when it is not possible to resolve a conflict in a virtuous way. In ancient China, righteousness was employed to control the justice. However, when it was impossible to reach the expected political and moral goals through virtue, authority came into action. Since authority could not appear from harmony, it necessitated the initiation of war. Thus, in ancient China, it killing people was considered acceptable if it was an unavoidable constituent of reaching peace. It was allowed to attack other states if one’s own state or people were under threat. Finally, if war was the only available option of ending another war, it was also permissible. However, even if war was approved, there were certain rules – jus in bello – that outlined the righteous conduct during the armed conflict.

There were certain things that soldiers could not do if they wanted their war to be regarded as an endeavor for reaching peace and justice. Upon entering the territory of their enemy, they could not violate its gods or destroy buildings. It was also forbidden to take domestic animals or hunt wild ones and cut down trees. Warriors also could not demolish barricades or set fire to any buildings in the offender’s state. When a soldier met children or old people, he should not cause them any harm. When warriors encountered adults who were not soldiers, they should not consider them as enemies. If one noticed an injured representative of the enemy’s army, he was supposed to give him medical aid and let him go or take him to his army.7 According to Sima Fa, it was crucial for the leaders to analyze the situation thoroughly before initiating or getting engaged in war. Whenever possible, it had to be avoided because it was bound to bring devastation and depression. At the same time, however, Sima Fa declared that no one should forget about was altogether, and it was necessary to remain cautious at all times.

Therefore, the concept of righteous war in ancient China presupposed adherence to certain principles and regulations. War was justified only in certain cases and under specific circumstances. At the same time, it was considered as necessary not to lose one’s alertness and remain cautious of one’s possible enemies all the time.

Bibliography

Graff, David. “The Chinese Concept of Righteous War.” In The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Legitimate Use of Military Force, edited by Howard M. Hensel, 195-216. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Footnotes

  1. David Graff, “The Chinese Concept of Righteous War,” in The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Legitimate Use of Military Force, edited by Howard M. Hensel (New York: Routledge, 2016), 195.
  2. Graff, “The Chinese Concept,” 195.
  3. Ibid., 195.
  4. Ibid., 195.
  5. Ibid., 196.
  6. Ibid., 206.
  7. Ibid., 207.
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IvyPanda. 2021. "The Concept of Righteous War in Ancient China." May 28, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-concept-of-righteous-war-in-ancient-china/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'The Concept of Righteous War in Ancient China'. 28 May.

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