Xi Linping“Leon Panetta and Xi Jinping in Beijing, Sept. 19, 2012″
by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo / Flickr via Wikimedia Commons


They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it.

These are the words of Kongzi, China’s great philosopher-sage known to the West as Confucius.  But more important than the words themselves is the fact that such expressions of China’s philosophical heritage are being uttered by none less than the President of China, Xi Jinping.

With some fascination, China-watchers have been observing a gradual shift in Chinese politics and culture to the point where the man once derided in Cultural Revolution-era propaganda as “just a parasite of the most ignorant kind” whose “delusions of restoration were pulverized under the rolling wheels of history”, is now seen as the foundation of a uniquely Chinese approach to political economy.

For at least the last decade the idea of a resurgent state-backed Confucianism has been promoted by many as the obvious answer to a society riven by materialism, envy, and corruption.  Indeed, as far back as 2005, then President Hu Jintao made explicit reference to Confucius, promoting social harmony as the solution to China’s domestic problems.

These domestic problems are usually interpreted as a symptom of economic growth unfettered by any consistent moral or social doctrine since the collapse of Communist ideology.  While Western observers promote democratic reform as the main remedy to the problem of corruption, the growth of persecuted Christian churches is likewise suggested by some to be “the nation’s best hope to establish morality.”

Yet neither Christianity nor Western democracy will sit comfortably with China’s ruling elite, or the popular nationalism the Party has encouraged in recent years both for foreign policy purposes, and to reinforce the message domestically that China is a significant global force.  Xi himself has relied extensively on a nationalist rhetoric of ‘rejuvenation’ which, coupled with his penchant for quoting the ancients, suggests a Chinese future in Confucian dress, if not Confucian spirit.

Westerners encountering Chinese philosophy for the first time are struck by the consistent preoccupation with questions of rule, particularly the question of the ideal ruler and his moral or spiritual state.  Where Plato had the philosopher-king, Chinese philosophers idealised the sage ruler, an individual who in his own perfection of virtue could embody the way of heaven and thus bring order to the entire realm.  One might be forgiven for thinking that the predominant concern of Chinese philosophy was with the pragmatic question of bringing order to the state.

Yet Chinese philosophy is rich and diverse, enough so that a sufficiently motivated ruler may find material to justify his personal agenda through ancient sayings.  And so long as the President doesn’t subscribe to any particular Chinese sect or thinker, he can’t be pinned down or criticised for his philosophical consistency.  Like a Western leader quoting selectively from Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine or the Bible, President Xi is free to pick and choose whichever influences suit his purposes without being beholden to any particular course of action or philosophical imperative.

Does Xi truly believe with Confucius that “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star. It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage”? Or is he just looking for a pragmatic new facade for the much more recent ‘tradition’ of unchallenged Communist Party rule? As the New York Times reported:

‘The Chinese nation possesses a traditional culture that reaches far back in time and can certainly create new glories for Chinese culture,’ Mr. Xi said at the meeting with Confucius scholars. But he told them that Confucius should be interpreted through the party’s prism, ‘using the past to serve the present’ so that the sage’s thoughts ‘can be made to play a positive role in the conditions of the new era.’

Something may have been lost in translation, but “using the past to serve the present” is not especially reminiscent of Confucius, a man who said “I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.”  Confucius was more preoccupied with virtue than utility, and desired not so much to make the past serve the present as to make the rulers of his day realise their desperate need to reinstate the rites and virtues of the Duke of Zhou, an 11th Century BC ruler who exemplified the mandate of heaven.

In reality Confucius’ ideals were never adopted, but his teachings and authority were, ironically, taken up and utilised by a more pragmatic group of thinkers who came to be known as the Legalists.  Confucius knew that virtue and the rites were more powerful than law:

“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord”

But the Legalists viewed the rites (li) as the relic of a different era. What worked for the Duke of Zhou would not work in the disorder of Confucius’ time. As Professor Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote:

They ridiculed the Confucians with an anecdote that told of a farmer who, while ploughing one day, saw a rabbit run into a tree stump and knock itself dead. Delighted, the farmer put aside his plough and determined to live at ease by the stump waiting for rabbits to pile up beside the stump, ready for sale at the market. Rituals may have worked well in the eras for which they were designed, Legalists said, but to wait for the same rituals to work again when the old times were forever vanished was to be as deluded as this farmer.

Instead, Legalist thinkers such as Han Feizi (whom Xi has also quoted) were far more practical in their advice to rulers:

The enlightened ruler guides and controls his ministers by means of two handles alone. The two handles are punishment and reward. What do I mean by punishment and reward? To inflict mutilation and death on men is called punishment; to bestow honour and wealth is called reward. Those who act as ministers fear penalties and hope to profit from rewards. Thus if the ruler himself wields his punishments and rewards, the ministers will fear his awesomeness and flock to receive his benefits.

In a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable, an acquaintance of Xi recounted that Xi is “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveau riche, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect.” His reputation for “clean government” has seen a decline in imports and sales of expensive luxury items such as alcohol and Swiss watches – favoured tools of official corruption – as the new President condemns “formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism, and extravagance.”  Is this a man on a mission of Confucian virtue? Or is he expressing the pragmatism of a ruthless Legalist intent on regaining control of the handles of punishment and reward? 

Ultimately, either scenario may bring about some beneficial changes within China, since the status quo of greed, corruption and decadence cannot continue.  But with China asserting itself more forcefully in the region, and maintaining a hard line on internal discontent in areas such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the more nuanced differences between virtue and legalism may have serious repercussions in the future. Xi’s apparent reverence for Confucius is promising, and we can only hope his deeds will bear this out. As the great man himself said:

The virtuous will be sure to speak correctly, but those whose speech is good may not always be virtuous. Men of principle are sure to be bold, but those who are bold may not always be men of principle.

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com 

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...