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With the rapid development of China’s military forces throughout the 1990s and 2010s, academia has paid increasing attention to Chinese military ethics and international politics (Di Cosmo, 2009; Stalnaker, 2012; Zhang, 2012; Lo & Twiss, 2015). From a Confucian perspective, the emphasis on humanity and ethical behaviour has often meant that war has been viewed as an abnormal social phenomenon that is caused by blinded human nature: “war disappears with the guidance of humanness, love, and good deeds” (Yu, 2016, p. 265). Thus, despite the focus on just war theory in classical Chinese war strategy, many scholars have argued that Confucianism does not have much to say about war other than that war should be abolished, and the Great Unity of the world developed (Pecorino, 2001).
However, according to Yi-Ming Yu from the National Defence University in Taiwan, rereading classic Confucian texts reveals that Confucianism does discuss ethics in warfare, and has played a significant role in wars that impacted China’s development. Indeed, as Fuchuan Yao states in his article War and Confucianism, while humanism may be true in theory there were more wars and chaos when Confucianism became the recognised political thought in China. It should therefore “bear some, if not prime, responsibility for the vicious circles of war and chaos” (p. 214). On the other hand, Yao’s comments- that Chinese people suffered from the Confucian political context where a history of war, famine, and revolution killed millions of people- may not be enough to conclude that there is a direct correlation between war and Confucianism. For example, Liu (2001) states that it was corruption and despotism that led to the stagnation of Chinese society and the vicious circles of order and disorder, while Ruiping Fan (1997) highlights that Confucianism was misinterpreted and propagated to serve totalitarian rulers.
Despite this, rereading classic Confucian texts does show that Confucianism can be used as a way of understanding Chinese military strategy and ethics in warfare. As Rigel (2014) notes, examining selected Chinese resources that discuss war and ethics has a very long tradition (see, for example, Master Sun’s The Art of War).
From a top-down point of view, the Confucian text The Great Learning states that the ultimate goal of all individuals is to accomplish world order and peace. Based on different translations, this may mean that individuals should either achieve world peace or pacify the world (Cheng, 1991; Jiang & Jiang, 2012). In that case, for the ruler to be a ruler (“The Analects”, 12:11), the Son of Heaven would have a moral duty to pacify the world for the sake of world peace even if war became an imperative means to obtain or maintain that goal (Chen, 2007). So, even though violence and war would not be considered as the primary means of establishing peace, in cases where force is required to maintain stability or pacify a threat, warfare would be permissible.
Furthermore, the Confucian scholar Mencius is recorded to have said:
“Chieh and Chou lost their empires because they lost the people and they lost the people because they lost the hearts of the people. There is a way to win the empire … It is to collect for them what they like and do not do to them what they do not like, that is all” (Mencius 4A: 9).
For “if the king makes a grave mistake, an advice should be given. If the king does not listen repeatedly, he should be removed.” (Mencius 5B: 9).
Both of these passages reveal that to maintain long-term harmony, citizens should overthrow rulers who do not govern with Heaven’s Mandate. That is, rulers who do not express virtue through the humane care of their people. In that case, because “there is no ethical warrant prohibiting the overthrow of such a ruler” (Ivanhoe, 2004, p. 272), if necessary the non-ren ruler (that is, one who lacks humaneness or benevolence) should be ousted by means of force. According to Kung and Ma (2013), it is this Confucian doctrine that has always been used to justify the removal of cruel despots throughout China’s history, leading to a tradition of peasant rebellions in the last 260 years of China’s dynastic rule.
This line of thought is considered to deviate from traditional Confucianism where war only results in further violence and social turmoil (see The Analects 12:19), as even if the state wins land by war it loses the support of the people considering that people face the most harm from war when ongoing death and destruction results in trauma, hopelessness, and the loss of livelihoods (Murthy & Lakshminarayana, 2006).
However, for Xunzi, when war becomes a necessary means to restore social order, standards for military actions should be followed to ensure that war ultimately achieves good ends. These include putting people as the primary concern, monitoring the enemy secretly and in depth so that doubtful military plans are never implemented, and promoting military leaders who displays moral qualities and various skills, such as correct rewarding, punishment, and combat (Xunzi, “Man’s Nature is Evil”, p. 219-234).
In that case, war loses legitimacy if certain rules are not followed so that military action endangers social order or people’s lives. For example, Yu (2016) states that as well as avoiding seizing cities to preclude unnecessary causalities, “when executing military missions…the safety of soldiers should be the first priority” (p. 269). The idea is that by seeking support from the people of the state, war should only ever be used to punish enemies that violate justice and humaneness. Common people, property, and crops even if belonging to the enemy state, should always be protected.
While in theory, Confucian military ethics follows traditional just war ideas where battles should be fought effectively and rightly so as to maintain the trust of the people (Snider et al., 2009), the practice of following these rules in live combat may not be so clear. For example, even though warfare that is necessary to establish peace and stability may be justified under certain conditions in Confucian thought, does the ruler have the right to wage war against rebels who use force to overthrow non-ren rulers?
Further, what does the army do if the ‘enemy’ uses cover and hides amongst the population so that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the enemy and the common people?
Even though early Confucian teachings allow for various reasons for entering wars, it should be noted that these reasons must be specific and people-centered. Soldiers and generals alike are expected to cultivate virtues, and avoid practicing immoral tricks, such as deception (gui, 詭) and deceit (zha, 詐). As Confucius said, ideally people should be lead through moral force (de, 德) where order is kept through rites (li, 礼) – it is only under these conditions that “they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves” (2:3).