This is the last extract from my book in progress on the history of moral thought. The book is now, in fact, no longer in progress, as I have completed it.  This might be the final extract, but it is not from the final chapter, but the penultimate one, Chapter 19 (I have already run an extract from chapter 20). Chapter 19 explores moral debate in modern China, particularly after the fall of the dynastic  system, and the creation, first of a republic in 1911, and subsequently, after four decades of conflict and chaos, of Mao Zedong’s communist regime in 1949. This extract is about the problems of moral thinking in post-1949 China, and the fraught relationship between communism and Confucianism.

chinese revolution

For more than two millennia, the identity of China, and the character of its social order, was defined primarily in ethical terms, and given philosophical shape largely by Confucianism. When that tradition, and the social order and dynastic structure it sustained, broke in the twentieth century, inevitably there was chaos, a chaos made more turbulent by the distinctive role of ethics in Chinese society.

In Western Europe, Christianity had provided, for more than a millennium, a shared identity for peoples otherwise divided by language, nation or tribe, and a crucible within which all philosophical, political and moral discussion took place. The Church was the continent’s common voice and its moral guardian. Religion, certainly as it was understood in Europe, barely developed in China. The state, in the form of imperial bureaucracy, performed many of the roles and duties historically taken by the European Church, providing moral instruction, constructing a collective identity, and creating a sense of shared values. Not only was the social role of the state different in China, so was its relationship to the ruling class. In Europe, different sections of the elite – nobles, clerics, merchants, the landed aristocracy, the urban bourgeoisie – had vied with each other for the reins of power, and had fought to control and constrain the authority of the state. Through these struggles the space was cleared for what we now know as civil society, a space that became central to the development of moral debate.

In China, the overpowering power of the bureaucratic state stifled the growth of autonomous elite groups. The bureaucracy faced little challenge from a landed aristocracy or an urban bourgeoisie, an established church or an entrenched judiciary, dissident intellectuals or a politicised military. Only two institutions enjoyed true authority: the state and the family. Both were seen as being possessed of an almost spiritual quality, each acknowledged as a wellspring and guardian of moral values and righteous behaviour. The meritocratic character of the bureaucracy – an elite created through examination rather than the accident of birth, an innovation not introduced in Europe until the Napoleonic era – combined with its social power held in check the ambitions of other sections of the elite. At the same time, it constrained the space for the development of civil society. There was little room for political and moral debate independently of the state.

In Europe, the erosion of the authority of the Church from the middle of the second millennium transformed the debate about ethics. The hauling up of the traditional moral anchor left many fearing that moral norms would simply float free, without compass or chart. Others saw it as a form of liberation. As the role of the Church in setting boundaries diminished, there opened up new secular public spaces for moral thinking and debate. In China ethical prescriptions had always been broadly secular. Confucianism had been little concerned with God or the soul, with sin or salvation, providing instead pragmatic rules for behaviour in this world, rules that stressed virtue, decorum, filial piety and social discipline. The collapse of the dynastic structure, and the disillusionment with the Confucian tradition that came with it, wrenched free the traditional moral anchor, just as the erosion of Church authority had in Europe. But whereas in Europe social and intellectual tools had already been fashioned, and new public spaces created, for thinking anew about morality, in China the collapse of the Qing left neither alternative systems of values nor the intellectual and cultural means through which to develop them. This was one reason for the scramble to embrace Western philosophies at the turn of the century. But because such ideas had not already been incubated within the Chinese intellectual tradition, so they inevitably carried little social weight.

The four decades of chaos and social fragmentation that followed the creation of the republic in 1911 was not unusual in Chinese history. There had often been much longer periods of social turbulence between dynasties. Previously, however, Confucianism had always provided a framework within which each new dynasty could subsequently establish its own identity and order. Even on those occasions on which foreign dynasties imposed themselves upon the Chinese people (as happened with the Yuan, who were Mongols, and the Manchu Qing), those dynasties came to absorb the Confucian vision and ruled in time according to those traditional norms. The tumult of the first half of the twentieth century was different. What had collapsed was not simply a particular dynasty, but the whole dynastic system. With it collapsed, too, the very basis on which had been built, for two millennia, China’s social and moral order.


Nothing seemed more to express the rupture in China’s history than the 1949 revolution and the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party. As economic historian Roy Bin Wong observed of Mao’s Communists, ‘the affirmation of their identity has rested as much on an opposition to their own “feudal” past and the “bourgeois” West as it has on any positive set of goals and values’. In Mao’s China, Confucius was condemned as the ‘faithful running-dog of the slave-owning aristocracy’ whose ‘reactionary ideology has been in continuous use by successive reactionary ruling classes’. Yet, for all the anti-Confucian propaganda, there were, Wong suggests, lines of continuity between the Qing dynasty and the communist period. What Mao created was a modern version of the bureaucratic state, ‘a new status hierarchy to replace the old Confucian hierarchy of literati and officials. Being a party member became the principal means to achieve status and power.’

The bureaucratic state had emerged early in Chinese imperial history as an efficient instrument of enforcing rule. But what had been an ideal mechanism for realizing order in a premodern world became increasingly an impediment with the development of modernity. In the premodern world, the structure of the community, the role of the individual in it and the rules of morality that defined right and wrong behaviours were all bound together either by divine law, as in Europe, or through tradition, as in China. Ethics and politics were inextricably linked because social structures were taken to be immovable. In modern societies they are inextricably linked for the opposite reason: because social structures are fiercely contested. Without such contestation – without, that is, autonomous groups struggling over different visions of society and of the good – it was difficult in nineteenth and twentieth century China either to create the mechanisms for social change or for the governing elite to establish political legitimacy. That which gave strength to the early Chinese empire proved corrosive of the late imperial dynasties.

This became even more true of the post-1949 Communist regime. For the Qing dynasty, its identity and authority had been rooted in its embrace of tradition. Mao’s China was built on the embrace of modernity and the rejection of tradition. It was built also on the suppression of civil society, the exclusion of the masses from the political process, and the containment of any notion of political debate or challenge. The only mechanism through which to effect political change or social transformation was top-down, often violent, mass mobilization, as in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward was the catastrophic attempt in the late 1950s to turn China instantly from an agricultural to an industrial nation through forced collectivization, vast investment in steel production, and the use of coercion and terror which some estimate to have killed up to 2 million people. The result was a huge drop in both agricultural and industrial production, and a mass famine during which any number from 18 million to 42 million are said to have died.

cultural revolution

The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966 after his return to power following the debacle of the Great Leap Forward, was supposedly to remove bourgeois and traditional elements from Chinese society, crush ‘the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes’, to prevent the return of capitalism and cleanse the Party of revisionist thought. It led to a mass purge of government officials, the formation of the Red Guards, a paramilitary youth movement eventually several million strong, widespread arrests and imprisonment, and the destruction of countless ancient buildings, artefacts, books and paintings. Foreign scholars put the death toll at between 300,000 and 3 million, though a working conference of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in 1978 suggested that 20 million had died and 100 million had been persecuted in the decade long Revolution.

What connects post-1949 China to pre-1911 China is not so much that Mao had reinvented the bureaucratic state. It is rather that in both imperial and Maoist China, the suppression of civil society, the exclusion of the masses from the political sphere, left a chasm where moral and political debate should have been. Ideas of good and bad, and of human flourishing, could only be defined from above and had to be imposed from above, often with extraordinary violence, and always with disastrous consequences.

* * * * *

The spectacular opening ceremony to the 2008 Beijing Olympics opened with 3000 performers in flowing Zhou-era robes, waving bamboo slips of texts and chanting quotations from the Analects: ‘Friends have come from afar, how happy we are’ and ‘All men are brothers within the four seas’. ‘Confucius’, the narrator told us, ‘provided wise advice on how to achieve order and harmony in society’.

beijing olympics

The choreography of the opening ceremony consummated before a global audience a courtship that had been more than three decades in the making. Even during the Mao era, Martin Jacques observes, Confucian values and ways of thinking ‘although officially disavowed’ nevertheless ‘continued to be very influential, albeit in a subterranean form, remaining in some measure the common sense of the people’. In fact, as Roy Bin Wong suggests, Confucianism was more than simply the ‘common sense of the people’. Whatever the state may have officially proclaimed, unofficially it relied upon Confucian notions of hierarchy and authority to hold together a social order, particularly one that was rent by Maoist mass mobilizations. What had been a surreptitious nod towards Confucian ideology in Maoist China, became after Mao an open embrace, as China opened itself up to competition and the market, and hence also potentially to greater social dislocation and disorder. The quicker has been the pace of economic reform over the past three decades, the greater has been the desire of the Chinese government to proclaim its commitment to Confucianism. Over the past decade, Beijing has established more than 400 ‘Confucian Institutes’ across the world to promote Chinese culture. In 2011, the government even erected a statue of Kongzi in Tiananmen Square, symbolically next to that of Mao. ‘In a moment of wishful thinking’, the political philosopher Daniel A Bell, who teaches at Beijing’s Tshinghua University, mused, ‘I once speculated that the Chinese Communist Party might rename itself the Chinese Confucian Party in the next decade or two… My prediction, it seems has been vindicated by events – sooner than anticipated.’

Alongside the government’s new-found admiration for Kongzi, there has emerged a new cadre of Confucian academics. Many work independently of the state, and many have found themselves at times in conflict with the state.  Nevertheless, the academic renovation of Confucianism and the state’s embrace of Kongzi have become closely intertwined.

Perhaps the most important of the new generation of Confucian philosophers is Jiang Qing. Born in 1953, Jiang was initially drawn to Marxism. As an undergraduate student, he wrote a thesis called Return to Marx criticizing the CCP for having abandoned the humanitarian essence of Marx’s early works. It became an underground sensation, and brought him to the notice of the authorities, who did not take too kindly to the criticism. Eventually Jiang found his way, via existentialism and Buddhism, to Confucianism. Both existentialism and Buddhism, he argued, provided moral guidance for the individual but had little to say about the morality of the collective or about national politics. Only Confucianism was able to address such wider issues. In 2001, Jiang quit his academic post and established a Confucian seminary in the remote mountains of Guizhou in southern China.


The starting point for Jiang’s renewal of Confucianism is a critique of New Confucianism, the ideological renovation upon which philosophers like Fung Yu Lan and Mou Zongsan had embarked in the early twentieth century. The New Confucianists, Jiang claims, had become bedazzled by ‘Mr Democracy and Ms Science’. Neither the scientific outlook, nor the beliefs of liberal democracy, he believes, are compatible with Confucianism or with Chinese culture. An addiction to democracy and science, has, in Jiang’s eyes, led New Confucianists to abandon Kong’s original principles, becoming instead, like Buddhists, obsessed with individual moral development.  The fixation on self-cultivation has undermined the family and the community, and led to the abandonment of ritual, and created a blindspot about history and tradition.

Democracy, for Jiang, is ‘flawed as an ideal’. Placing too much importance on the will of the people has, in the West, led to ‘extreme secularization, contractualism, utilitarianism, selfishness, commercialism, capitalization, vulgarization, hedonism, mediocritization, this-worldliness, lack of ecology, lack of history, and lack of morality’.  ‘The political problem of today’s world’, Jiang insists, is not a lack of democracy but that ‘democracy itself presents a serious problem’. The trouble with Western-style democracy is that it rests upon a single source of legitimacy – popular will. Since humans are by nature irrational and selfish, popular will often descends into immorality. Civil legitimacy alone is insufficient to build a moral social order. Nor can such an order be built on the Western concept of ‘equality’. Since people are by nature unequal, differing in virtue, intelligence, ability and knowledge, so the idea of equal rights, irrespective of an individual’s moral standing, makes little sense.

A Confucian system, Jiang insists, must be based on the traditional concept that ‘The sovereign rules through the heaven, the earth, and the people’. Popular will must always be balanced by sagely wisdom. Historically, governance in China rested on three sources: ‘the legitimacy of heaven (a sacred, transcendent sense of natural morality), the legitimacy of earth (wisdom from history and culture) and the legitimacy of the human (political obedience through popular will).’ This Jiang calls wangdao or the ‘Way of the Humane Authority’. To recreate such a Humane Authority in the modern world, Jiang suggests the establishment of a ‘tricameral legislature’. This would comprise ‘a House of Exemplary Persons, that represents sacred legitimacy; a House of the Nation that represents historical and cultural legitimacy; and a House of the People that represents popular legitimacy’. Members of the House of Exemplary Persons would be ‘nominated by scholars and examined on their knowledge of Confucian classics’. The House of the Nation would comprise ‘descendants of great sages and rulers, along with representatives of China’s major religions’; it would be led by a ‘direct descendant of Confucius’. Members of the House of the People would be ‘elected either by popular vote or as heads of occupational groups’.


There might seem something quite bizarre about Jiang’s proposals. Why, after all, should a ‘direct descendent of Confucius’ have a privileged political role? And why, in the twenty-first century, should ‘knowledge of Confucian classics’ be the sole criterion for being thought of as politically exemplary?  Jiang has, nevertheless, become perhaps the most influential contemporary philosopher in China and has gained considerable support from both within the Chinese Communist Party and from Western intellectuals who themselves have become tired of democracy. Jiang and Bell wrote a joint op-ed in the New York Times in 2012 setting out the case for such a political structure, showing how seriously these proposals are now taken in certain quarters.

At the heart of Jiang’s ethics is what the political philosopher Christopher Ford calls ‘meritoligarchic’ thinking, by which he means ‘the conviction by some members of a cultural and intellectual elite that they are ideally suited to rule benevolently over ignorant and uneducated masses who should not be trusted with the ability to choose and change their rulers’.  Such ideas tend ‘to pop up whenever a ruling elite faces pressure to give more political power to the masses’, as for instance in the debates in Britain and America in the nineteenth century over the extension of the franchise. In the ancient world there was something progressive about the ‘meritoligarchic’ idea, because it stood in opposition to rule by bloodline.  In the modern world, it is deeply regressive because it stands in opposition not to aristocracy but to democracy.


  1. Jason

    Kant made it fairly explicit that the State, if not based on “freedom”, would have to be based on a single prescription of the “good life”. Thus the political problem is who chooses this good life and (how) can the decision be changed?

    Modern democracy works not simply because the “who” is constantly changed, but because the state is *limited* by design. The state can/should never possess the means (especially time) to implement the good life.

    Jiang’s proposal is regressive not because it is bad political philosophy (it is), but because it implies that Jiang knows *who* should be choosing the good life for us.

    We should not be reading Jiang’s idea as political at all; it is ridiculous in that context. Rather, we should read it as dishonest philosophizing.

  2. Harland

    ‘the conviction by some members of a cultural and intellectual elite that they are ideally suited to rule benevolently over ignorant and uneducated masses who should not be trusted with the ability to choose and change their rulers’

    Sounds great, when can we get this in America? The sooner rednecks and other racists can’t vote, the better. Just imagine how much more we could get done if only the smart people were in charge.

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