The Eastern Roots of Western Democracy

A few weeks ago, I briefly looked into 16thCentury Chinese history for a future project. I quickly learned that in order to understand Chinese society of that era, I had to understand the government bureaucracy that appears to have been a mainstay of that civilization since time immemorial.

Though China, as a whole and as separate states, was frequently subject to imperial rule, the civil bureaucracy remained an essential part of Chinese society. Perhaps this should not come as such a surprise: the British Empire, on which the sun never set, required an extensive bureaucracy to administer itself. China, ancient in modern, deserves many adjectives, but “small” is not one of them. Given the land’s size and sophistication, Chinese rulers inevitably required bureaucrats to manage the details of their regime.
An interesting feature of Chinese bureaucracy was the potential for anyone to acquire a position on the basis of merit. An individual, even one with no special connections, could undergo a set of examinations. Passing these exams would earn them a place in the civil service, and their families a great measure of honor and prestige.
This is not the kind of class mobility one might expect from a society subject to primarily despotic rule. While the Ming dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1684 (Wikipedia, 2013), the divine right of kings prevailed in most of Europe. In feudal Europe, heritage and the graces of the nobility determined one’s status, and that left little room for someone of low birth to rise above common standing. The republics of northern Italy stand out as notable exceptions to this rule.
What, then, distinguished the society of the Ming emperors from that of Europe’s Holy Romans? Part of the answer lies in the prominence of Confucianism in Chinese society. Though sometimes mistaken for a religion, Confucianism is more accurately considered a moral and social philosophy. It is derived partially, though not entirely, from the writings of the ancient philosopher K’ung-fu-tzu, whose name we translate as Confucius. (Wikipedia, 2013) Given the contributions of other scholars to the philosophy as we know it today, it is closer to a school of thought than a single man’s philosophy. In some regards, it is like the Eastern counterpart of the Western tradition attributed to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Confucianism’s thoughts on matters of personal and social conduct are extensive, but meritocracy is an important component of Confucian politics. Wikipedia asserts that scholars recognize Confucius as having espoused “the revolutionary idea of replacing nobility of blood with nobility of virtue.” (Wikipedia, 2013) The notion that “In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes,” is attributed to Confucian writings. Furthermore, despite its reputation of forming the strict, authoritarian relationships and roles within families that children of Asian-American immigrants begrudgingly endure, Confucianism allows for the questioning of authority in particular circumstances. There exists a notion of reciprocity within Confucian philosophy; those in a role of authority are duty-bound to look after those under their care, and it is not considered disobedience for someone to legitimately question authority. (Wikipedia, 2013)
For some time Confucianism co-existed with an earlier Chinese legal philosophy known as Legalism. Legalism, according to Wikipedia, demands that a society cleave to the rule of law. As a whole, Legalism amounts to an authoritarian philosophy that leaves no room for liberty. However, Legalist philosophers paint a more sophisticated picture of the notion than one may expect. Legalist thinker Han Fei Zi emphasized the need for the laws to be clear, consistent, and publicly known; for all individuals ruled by a society, apart from the ruler, to be considered equal under the law; for a ruler to disguise any paths to succession so that the law will dive society instead of lust for power; and that the authority of a ruler is a consequence of his position, and not his person. (Wikipedia, 2013)
Between Legalism and Confucianism, we now see a fascinating spectrum of ideas. We have the notion of society being driven by the rule of law. Authority arises from its role in establishing the rule of law, and not from some inherent right on the part of those in positions of authority. Authority is reciprocal: those with authority have an obligation to use it for the good of those under their care. People are entitled to question authority and to loyally dissent. Individuals of merit may earn status and authority, while society’s rulers must confuse politics enough so that the law, and not ambition, rules the land. It seems the ideal Chinese ruler would be an enlightened despot who governs with an even hand, accommodating challenges to his decisions and holding all his subjects as equal under the law.
Sound familiar?
These ideas—or variants thereupon—are some of the notions core to the political philosophy of the European Enlightenment. The notion of an “enlightened despot” was the holy grail of the earlier Enlightenment philosophers, who considered democratic forms of government as useful and just as a lynch mob. While the Enlightenment-born governments which endured, such as that of the United States, ended up being democratic republics, the original ideal was that of absolute rulers who presided with wisdom and compassion in the name of the rule of law. They could have stolen the idea straight out of Confucian texts. Point of fact: they did. (Wikipedia, 2013) These philosophers, however, also maintained Western notions of liberty as they adapted these Eastern ideas.
Despite numerous differences, the kind of government established in America and other republics has much in common with the kind Confucian and Legalist philosophies sought to create. Both uphold that the laws, and not people, ought to rule society. They emphasize the equality of citizens (or subjects) under the law, and that government has an obligation to serve the people it governs.

The major difference is that, in the west, we try to accomplish this by making the government a matter of res publica. Res publica, the Latin root of our word ‘Republic,’ translates roughly to “a public thing.” In government, this makes the managing of society and the law a public concern. To use the United States as an example, a balance of power is established between elected representatives, an elected executive, and appointed judges. This balance is designed to ensure that the law is just, represents the needs of the people, is properly executed, and obeys the social contract from which the government derives its authority. On the other hand, the Eastern tradition, especially the Legalist tradition, involves an individual ruler using mystery and subversion to defuse ambition and ensure that the rule of law prevails. While in the West, government is a matter of res publica, in the East, government has traditionally been a matter of res privata, as it remains in China today.

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