by Tongdong Bai. (New York: Zed Books, 2012, viii+206 pages)
Reviewed by Kurtis Hagen
Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 12.4 (December 2013): 545-549.
In this admirably clear overview of Chinese political philosophy, Bai manages to provide a succinct yet sweeping treatment of Chinese political philosophy that is nonetheless convincingly grounded in primary texts. He focuses mostly on Confucianism and Legalism (especially that of HAN Fei Zi 韓非子), as well as, but to a somewhat lesser extent, the Daoist philosophy expressed in the Lao Zi 老子. Along the way, Bai makes brief but revealing comparisons to Western philosophy as well as historical developments, both Western and Chinese, which serve as reality checks. By tethering his analysis to primary texts, comparable Western theories, and actual historical developments, Bai is able to provide a treatment of Chinese political philosophy that is both theoretically compelling and practically applicable. Indeed, he takes pains to show that early Chinese philosophers were engaged in theorizing that is relevant to contemporary circumstances. He does this, in part, by making the rather surprising claim that early Chinese philosophers were engaged in modern philosophy.
At first, that claim might seem implausible, and a book based on an implausible premise would be of limited value. Fortunately, this is not a problem in the present case. The only implication of the attribute “modern” that is critical here is that the political problems facing Chinese philosophers of the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods bear sufficient similarities to modern and contemporary problems to reasonably expect these Chinese philosophers to have something of significant value to contribute to contemporary political philosophy and to have real-world applicability. In Chapter One, Bai argues that there is a sufficient degree of such relevant similarity to justify the characterization of early Chinese philosophy as “modern.” His argument is short and somewhat sketchy, but not without nuance and insight. In my view, it is adequate for its purpose. To fully explore this issue would take volumes of a different kind. All Bai really needs to do here is to raise the plausibility of his thesis sufficiently to keep the reader interested. In a brief chapter, he has done that—while at the same time providing a clear and succinct description of the most salient details of the historical background, I might add. In the end, however, it will be the rest of the book that will vindicate his position.
After all, we are not really interested in the semantic question of what it takes to count as “modern,” or the details of the historical analogy between early China and early modern Europe (interesting though those may be), but rather the question of contemporary relevance and applicability. It is in his later chapters that this relevance and applicability is overwhelmingly demonstrated.
Rejecting the notion that contemporary liberal democracy represents a kind of “end of history,” Bai observes: “There might be better models for human beings living in modern times than today’s liberal democratic form of polity. But we will only be able to discover them if we adopt a perspective beyond the experience of Western modernity and its paradigms” (7). Indeed, he suggests that a Confucian perspective that absorbs some elements of Legalism may be both theoretically and practically superior to Western liberalism.
Bai argues that, during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, due to the collapse of the feudal structure, there was a pressing need for “a new social glue.” Confucians offered “humanity” (ren 仁) to fill this need. To become ren involves expanding one’s sphere of concern for others, while accepting that the care extended to more remote persons will always be less intense than the natural love and concern one has for close relatives, for example. It is after all, on the Confucian account, these natural emotional ties to one’s immediate family members that provide the very basis for any kind of concern for others. Through self-cultivation, people can develop their moral concern sufficiently to enable the maintenance of an adequate degree of cohesiveness in large, “modern,” societies. In Bai’s words, “[A] Confucian can argue that our kindness towards others is strong within the family. If we develop this familial care and apply it to strangers, it will be strong enough to serve as the glue to bind a big society together” (127). Looking at it this way, it is apparent that Confucianism takes self-cultivation, extending our humane concern for others and thereby becoming in some sense fully human—or, in other words, fully realizing our humanity (ren)—as the foundation not only of moral conduct, but of sound politics as well. The examples set by morally developed persons inspire others, and draw people into the increasing spheres of influence of these exemplary persons. And this is key to effective governance and to competing with rival states. Confucians argue that the “best”—in the sense of morally superior—persons will “win,” both domestically and in international relations. But since such persons must be truly ren, striving to benefit the people, this will be a boon for everyone.
As an example of its applicability, Confucianism has implications for just war theory, considered broadly. While not strictly pacifists, early Confucians were wary of warfare. Bai fleshes out the Confucian case for the view that “war of liberation is the only kind of justifiable non-defensive war” (47), though he does acknowledge the possibility that the Confucian justification, akin to what is nowadays called “humanitarian intervention,” could be used cynically as a mere pretext for unjust military invasion (86). Early Confucians were likewise aware of this possibility, and were thus cautious about condoning war, and articulated objective criteria by which one could determine (if only after the fact) whether a military intervention was truly justified. In the end, Bai describes the Confucian position as: “ war should be our last resort:  the best way to disarm a threat and prevail in the world is to become a moral exemplar” (48). The first part, that war should be a last resort, is a nearly universally accepted principle, and an explicit component of Western just war theory—the fact that this principle is routinely violated notwithstanding. But a corollary to any claim of last resort is that there is no viable alternative. This corollary makes the second part of the Confucian position particularly important, because it offers a concrete alternative—though a strategic alternative rather than a narrow tactical one. The notion that the way to prevail is to become morally superior, though not unheard of in Western discourse, is an idea that seems not to have much currency in the present day. To the degree that Confucianism provides more structure and argument underlying this notion, the study of Confucian just war theory can add significant value. Indeed, here Bai delivers on his promise to “argue that some of their [early Confucians] insights, reconstructed and applied to today’s world, may well have the capacity to address contemporary issues more productively than the regime of liberal democracy” (60, cf. 11, 176).
Surely this analysis is worth careful consideration, for “the Confucian solution” has clear and plausible applicability to significant contemporary dilemmas. For example, can it really be that the best way to address terrorism is by launching drone strikes that kill innocent bystanders? Is it true that there is no other viable way? Or, have other ways just not been tried, partly for lack of clear articulation? After all, before one can try something, it first needs to be specified, and the claim that it holds genuine promise must be supported. This involves providing a detailed analysis of its practical applicability and comparative historical record, and so forth. Only then can one convincingly say that a genuine and specific alternative exists. A book such as this cannot do all of that exhaustively, of course. However, Bai does provide enough of such analysis (though not addressing drones specifically) to motivate significant optimism regarding the potential for Confucianism to contribute positively to contemporary issues involving international relations.
Bai also addresses the issue of political legitimacy and elitism. He writes, “The legitimacy of the sovereign does depend on people’s satisfaction. But people may not be the best judges of how and why they are satisfied or dissatisfied…. [S]mall men, who do not enjoy freedom from daily chores, cannot think productively about political matters” (75). He suggests a “Confucian hybrid” model of government that has both “popular (democratic) and … elite (meritocratic)” components, such as a bicameral congress that has an elected chamber as well as one “whose members are selected through examination or recommendation” (77). These issues are certainly worth considering. Perhaps it is a mistake to assume that the more democratic a system is the better it is. However, there is one area that could have received more attention in this context: human rights. While I appreciate (and have in the past defended) the so-called East Asian challenge to human rights, I nevertheless worry that there is something important missing without some constitutional element specifying hard-to-override principles, such as a Bill of Freedoms and Assurances—if one wants to avoid the philosophical baggage that comes with the word “rights.” It is not that Bai has stated anything in opposition to this; it is just that it is not a topic that is emphasized or elaborated in this book. Perhaps that is because it has already received so much treatment elsewhere.
Bai argues that the Lao Zi presents a pessimistic view of the human potential to solve problems and improve conditions. When we try to make things better, it suggests, we end up making things worse in the end. So, we should just give up. Thus, the solution to the problem of modernity is to stop being modern, to “return to small and isolated states with few people” (102). Despite the hopelessness of this suggestion in our time, the Lao Zi can serve as a kind of “cautionary tale.” For example, while Bai does not discuss genetically modified organisms, geo-engineering, nuclear technology, or the over-reliance on medication, his analysis of the Lao Zi brought these issues to my mind. By trying to make things better do we inevitably end up making things worse, or even courting disaster? I am not so pessimistic to think that that is inevitable. I do think that, however, in each case we should consider how our impulse to ingenuity could backfire. One value of the Lao Zi is that it reminds us to do this. However, as Bai suggests, abandoning the project of improving the world is not a very viable path. Unless or until we are mostly wiped out by the kind of disaster that the analysis in the Lao Zi predicts, returning to a premodern simple life is just not in the cards. Nevertheless, in addition to providing a cautionary lesson regarding the mix of inventiveness and human hubris, the Lao Zi also influenced the important Legalist philosopher, HAN Fei Zi, and so some of its ideas continue to have some indirect relevance.
On the one hand, the Legalist philosophy of HAN Fei Zi seems the near opposite of that of the Lao Zi, which opposes war, government control, and modernism generally, while HAN Fei Zi embraces these (121–122). However, Bai argues, HAN Fei Zi shares with the Lao Zi the view that “we human beings are powerless against the Dao. Therefore, instead of acting humanly, we should follow the Way, and play no active (unnatural or un-Way-like) role in politics” (122). Here, “the Way” means “the natural laws of politics” (122). According to Bai, HAN Fei Zi believed he had found a way to do what the Lao Zi suggests is impossible, namely, to regulate a large state. Rejecting the Confucian emphasis on care based on natural familial love, which he regarded as unreliable, HAN Fei Zi found his new social glue in “our natural love of fame and fortune” which can be reliably harnessed, he thought, with rewards and punishments to provide effective social control (123). HAN Fei Zi’s ideal state becomes like a machine, following the laws of politics (150). But there is a problem: no one is made happy in this arrangement, not even the ideal ruler (150). However, if this system can bring an end to war, provide order, and prevent chaos, it cannot be said to be entirely without merit (150). (Even Xun Zi acknowledged that Legalist policies had some degree of efficacy, although he regarded Legalism as nonetheless far inferior to Confucianism.)
While some see the quick fall of the Legalist Qin 秦 dynasty, and the subsequent relative success of the “Confucian” Han 漢 dynasty, as proof of the victory of Confucianism over Legalism, the truth is more complex. As Bai describes, Legalist strategies were never fully abandoned. Rather, post-Qin Chinese political history involves various blends of Confucianism and Legalism. Such blends, Bai maintains, can be good or bad. If we are to draw productively on classical Chinese philosophy as we reason about the best course for us in our current circumstances, we need to sort this out carefully. It is precisely the kind of scholarship found in this brief but incisive book that can help assure that, to the degree that such blends remain a feature of Chinese (and perhaps broader) politics, the better blends are implemented. We will need to be careful, for it is easy to make mistakes that lead to the opposite of what is intended—just as the Lao Zi warns. For example, Bai reminds us, “The sad irony was that, in their bid to get rid of authoritarian elements in Chinese politics, [Chinese radicals during the May Fourth Movement] helped to dissolve the Confucian elements that served historically as the main counterbalance [to authoritarianism]” (174).
In conclusion, China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom covers a variety of issues of contemporary relevance, such as just war theory, elitism, and soft power in international relations. To a lesser degree it also addresses other issues, such as animal rights and feminism. It is a timely complement to YAN Xuetong’s Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), and to the scholarship collected in Daniel Bell’s Confucian Political Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). These resources may well serve as a foundation for a robust subdiscipline in applied Chinese philosophy as the relevance and applicability of Chinese political philosophy to pressing issue of our time becomes increasingly apparent.