Friday, July 8, 2011

"The Ancient Roots of Chinese Liberalism"

The Useless Tree's Sam Crane discusses a WSJ article of that title by Liu Junning, who "has worked hard since the 1980's to fashion a contemporary Chinese liberalism" and "argued against 'Asian Values' in the 1990s and for a more universal notion of human rights" — Chinese Liberalism. Mr. Liu:
    Indeed, what we now call Western-style liberalism has featured in China's own culture for millennia. We first see it with philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism, in the sixth century B.C. Laozi articulated a political philosophy that has come to be known as wuwei, or inaction. "Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish," he said. That is, don't stir too much. "The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become," he wrote in his magnum opus, the "Daodejing."

    For Mencius, a fourth-century B.C. philosopher and the most famous student of Confucius, a kingdom would be able to defend itself from outside attack if the king "runs a government benevolent to the people, sparing of punishments and fines, reducing taxes and levies. . . ." When asked by the King of Hui, "What virtue must there be to win the unification of the world?" Mencius replied, "It is the protection of the people."
Now that's putting the "classical" in "classical liberalism." And might not this ancient Chinese liberalism have planted a seed in the West? Posted a while back on this blog was András Szántó's article noting the "passionate interest in the Far East around the time of the Enlightenment" — China’s new Age of Enlightenment:
    Seminal continental thinkers were influenced by China. Leibniz, the German rationalist, corresponded with missionaries and advocated learning from Confucian traditions. Voltaire saw in Confucianism a weapon against religious intolerance and hung a picture of the Chinese moralist on his wall. Chinese approaches to agriculture and public administration were revered in Enlightenment-age Europe.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it would be fair to blame the Chinese for European liberalism, or for that greater evil, the Enlightenment, that spawned it.

By the way, Adam Webb gives an alternate ancient pedigree for Chinese liberalism in his important book, "Beyond the Global Culture War". He regards liberalism as an expression of the ethos of "atomism". One of the earliest expressions of atomism, in his telling, was Chinese Legalism. The Legalists were meritocratic and secular, and they scorned the higher spiritual and communal aspirations of the Confucians.

I think you might like Webb's book. The main point is that traditionalists from different traditions around the world should team up. I reviewed it here (, if you're interested.

12:47 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Reminds me of Alessandro Chaufen's work on the scholastic roots of free market economics. A lot of the values that we associate with the Anglo-American political tradition crop up elsewhere in the world -- in Spain, in China, etc. It's almost like there is some kind of "natural law" embedded in the human conscience or something...:-)

1:34 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Thanks, Bonald. Looks like a good book.

Mark, indeed. Speaking of Spain, I just read this -- A lost charter on human rights, c. 1517-1520.

10:40 AM  

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