Thursday, May 17, 2007

Today's Quote: Taoist and Confucian Political Thought during the Han Dynasty

According to the political philosophy of Taoism, a good government is not one that does many things, but on the contrary that does as little as possible. Therefore if a sage-king rules, he should try to undo the bad effects caused by the over-government of his predecessor. This was precisely what the people of the early part of the Han dynasty needed, for one of the troubles with the Ch'in had been that it had had too much government. Hence when the founder of the Han dynasty, Emperor Kao-tsu, led his victorious revolutionary army toward Ch'ang-an, the Ch'in capital in present Shensi province, he announced to the people his "three-item contract": Persons committing homicide were to receive capital punishment; those injuring or stealing were to be punished accordingly; but aside from these simple provisions, all other laws and regulations of the Ch'in government were to be abolished...In this way the founder of the Han dynasty was practicing the "learning of Huang and Lao," even though, no doubt, he was quite unconscious of the fact.

Thus the Taoist philosophy accorded well with the needs of the rulers of the earlier part of the Han dynasty, whose policy it was to undo what the Ch'in government had done, and to give the country a chance to recuperate from its long and exhausting wars. When this end had been accomplished, however, the Taoist philosophy became no longer practical, and a more constructive program was called for. This the rulers found in Confucianism.

The social and political philosophy of Confucianism is both conservative yet at the same time revolutionary. It is conservative in that it is essentially a philosophy of aristocracy, yet it is revolutionary in that it gave a new interpretation of this aristocracy. It maintained the distinction between superior man and small man, which had been generally accepted in the feudal China of Confucius' time. But at the same time it insisted that this distinction should not be based, as originally, upon birth, but rather individual talent and virtue. Therefore, it considered it quite right that the virtuous and talented among the people should be the ones to occupy noble and high positions in society.
In Chinese history, there have been periods of political and social confusion and disorder, when people have had little time or interest in classical scholarship, and have been inclined to criticize the existing political and social system. At such times, therefore, Confucianism has naturally tended to weaken and Taoism to become strong. Taoism has then supplied sharp criticism against the existing political and social system, as well as an escapist system of thought for avoiding harm and danger. These are exactly what meet the desires of a people living in an age of disorder and confusion.

From A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Fung Yu-Lan.

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