Featured article: “The Forgotten Ingredient in Classical Chinese Governance: The Art of Persuasion”

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By: Dr R. James Ferguson

james ferguson

Persuasion and ‘loyal criticism’ remain important aspects of Confucian governance, past and present. Dr R. James Ferguson, Director of the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies at Bond University, provides a short outline of these important ideas.

The general features of ideal Confucian patterns of governance are well known: the central role of sage-kings and cultivated persons (the junzi) in governing the state in a humane way, based on the principles of benevolence (ren) and proper ritual and social conduct (li). Thus governments would be aligned to heaven and provide for the well-being of the people, the touch stones of good government. This came to involve the rectification of social roles, responsibilities and titles, as well as the central idea of the harmonization of persons to ensure a balanced but diverse society. Mencius, the second most influential ‘Confucian’ writer, would argue that the three crucial factors for a state included natural resources and good climate, but most importantly the need for human harmony (ren-he).[1] These values, activated through the cultivated and committed person, could become the basis of a pragmatic and humanitarian system of government (renzheng).[2]

In this view of government, correction of erroneous conduct, exemplary action by officials, and progressive education were all linked. When asked about government, as stated in Analects 12.17, Confucius answered, “To govern (cheng) is to correct (cheng). If you set an example by being correct, who would dare to remain incorrect?”[1] Humane government (renzheng) therefore equates with good government. However, this would also require government to achieve harmony through balancing lenience and harshness when dealing with the people, thereby creating a system of both incentives and disincentives in a “co-operative human harmony”.[2] Generally, Confucianism placed the arts of government within the wider context of the way of humanity and benevolence (rendao).

The downside of this approach is well known; a corrupt ruler can lead to the downfall of an entire dynasty (losing the Mandate of Heaven), as occurred repeatedly in Chinese history, and venial officials can undermine an otherwise benevolent system. The choice of proper officials becomes crucial for all patterns of Chinese thought that emphasise the role of government, whether Confucian, Legalist or those following the thought of Mo Zi (who flourished in the late fifth century BCE, his followers being called Mohists).[3] In the end, however, such systems remained highly hierarchical with a tendency towards authoritarianism.

However, what is underestimated in these standard accounts is the role of persuasion (jian, offering opinions to rulers, or jianjie as persuasion), remonstrance and loyal criticism in the Chinese political tradition, though some good recent work has been done on ancient Chinese political ‘rhetoric’, showing its metaphorical and narrative methods.[4]

The historical and philosophical record pays considerable attention to persuasion, though usually positioned in debates on giving advice to rulers and the limits of loyalty. Mo Zi, for example, states quite directly that when ‘the superior is at fault there shall be good counsel’.[5] Officials felt that they had the right to criticize each other, as can be seen in the following… READ FULL ARTICLE HERE.

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