The past decade has ushered in a renaissance of sorts for Chinese traditional culture. From schools promising to teach wayward kids the Confucian classics and an uptick in official mentions of traditional values and gender norms, to headlines about China “turning back to Confucius,” there are signs that Confucianism, once left for dead, may be on the cusp of a comeback.
But after a century spent purging itself of any trace of Confucius’ legacy, can China really snap its fingers and bring the 2,000-year-old sage back to life? Or is it possible that, after more than two millennia in the saddle, the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) shattered Confucianism’s hold on China once and for all?
That’s one of the contentions in sociologist Zhao Dingxin’s thought-provoking book “The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History.” Published by Oxford University Press in 2015, “The Confucian Legalist State” was finally released in Chinese translation in May of this year. In its pages, Zhao, one of China’s best-known scholars, sketches the political system that sustained China for thousands of years, one characterized by the overlap of political and ideological power, the submission of military power to the state, and the marginalization of economic power.
As the title of the book suggests, Zhao does not see this system as purely Confucian, but as a hybrid of Confucianism and another ancient Chinese political philosophy: Legalism. Emphasizing the absolute power of the state and the legitimacy of state violence, Legalism never again rose to the status of dominant imperial ideology it enjoyed during the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), but it nevertheless suffused all aspects of the state’s thinking and practice for the next two millennia.
Neither repeated invasions by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, nor the influence of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions, nor even changes within Confucianism itself could ever quite fully destabilize this two-headed system. Rather, all challengers were absorbed, modified, weakened, or adapted until the 20th century brought the imperial system to an abrupt end. But if Confucianism was fatally weakened by the Chinese revolutions of the 20th century, Zhao argues that legalism has not only survived; it has thrived.
Zhao saw this decoupling firsthand growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. Born in 1953, he was among the first group of students to win a place in university after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the resumption of the gaokao college entrance exam in 1977. After studying biology at Fudan University in Shanghai, he received a master’s from the Shanghai Institute of Entomology, Academia Sinica, before going abroad to Canada, where he earned a Ph.D. in insect ecology from McGill University in 1990.
Instead of taking the next logical step and starting a career in entomology, Zhao returned to McGill and spent the next five years pursuing a second Ph.D., this time in sociology. In 1996, he took a job at the University of Chicago and gradually worked his way up to full professor, all while conducting the research that would form the basis of “The Confucian-Legalist State.”
In 2015, Zhao published his book and was named the Max Palevsky Chair Professor at the University of Chicago. Three years later, he joined Zhejiang University in East China as a professor in the Department of Social Sciences. Now, in addition to the recent Chinese release of “The Confucian-Legalist State,” he is preparing to publish a series of articles in an academic journal he founded, History and Change, focusing on macro-historical processes in the past and present.
Late last month, I sat down with Zhao in Shanghai to talk about his research, the viability of Confucianism in 21st century China, and his thoughts about China’s future. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
A photo of Zhao Dingxin. From The Paper
Wu Haiyun: At the end of “The Confucian-Legalist State,” you write that the 1911 Xinhai Revolution put an end to the Confucian-Legalist state as a political system after more than 2,000 years in power. So why does it sometimes feel that this tradition is stubbornly hanging on?
Zhao Dingxin: The two-in-one system known as the Confucian-Legalist state has indeed been broken; more precisely, the Confucian part is largely gone, but the Legalist part remains.
Wu: Let’s talk about the Confucian part first. Why are you convinced that the Confucian tradition no longer exists? After all, the Chinese government and some intellectuals have been promoting Confucian morality and culture in recent years.
Zhao: The situation you describe does exist, but the two main institutional foundations that sustained the Confucian tradition, the imperial examination system, known as the keju, and the lineage-based social organization, were destroyed during the transformation of modern China. What is more, the prolonged implementation of the one-child policy has destroyed the culture of large families, undermining a diffuse institution that once sustained Confucian values.
If you really want to restore the institutions that sustained the Confucian tradition, you would have to abolish the current education system and restore the keju, at a minimum. That’s unlikely, right?
More importantly, Confucianism and Marxism, which the Communist Party of China holds as its guiding principle, are inherently in conflict and difficult to merge.
Passers-by ride their bicycles under giant portraits of the philosophers and theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels hanging in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, April 29, 1986. AFP
Wu: Can you expand on this?
Zhao: The center of Marxism is class struggle; it’s what sociologists call a conflict theory. Confucianism, however, only wanted to make social stratification functional; it’s what we call a functional theory. Conflict theories and functional theories, one revolutionary and the other conservative, are hardly compatible. For example, Confucianism accepts male domination and Marxism calls for gender equality. How can they fit together?
Of course, there are no impossible things in this world. If you are determined to blend the two together to create some kind of functionalist Marxism, that is still possible. However, a good theory of this kind could only emerge in a highly competitive intellectual environment with professionally capable gatekeepers, which China currently does not have.
Wu: (Laughs) What makes you say that?
Zhao: In China’s academic environment, it is difficult for truly creative scholars to emerge. To be creative, an intellectual must first have an open mind and a free heart, but China’s primary schools, middle schools, and institutions of higher education are all highly disciplined.
In addition, research institutions in today’s China rely on overly rigid evaluation systems, focused on this indicator and that indicator, making it impossible for scholars to concentrate on their long-term interests. I could spend over 10 years writing a book at a university in the United States. My career would be ruined if I did that in China.
Finally, even if Chinese research institutions do away with their rigid evaluation systems, it still would not work, because the level of professionalism of Chinese academia is very low at present. It is entirely impossible for this group of people to act as gatekeepers and uphold serious professional standards.
Wu: So even if we had the will to restore the Confucian tradition, we lack the capacity, at least for the time being. How about Legalism? As you said, that tradition is still alive.
Zhao: Not only is it still alive, but it has been strengthened.
The continuation of Legalism in China is supported by the following institutions: A state with both the strong desire and capacity to adopt rigid control measures when dealing with social complexity, a population that readily accepts the penetration of the state into their private lives, and a culture of managerialism reinforced in child rearing and education.
In addition, this tradition is better supported on a technical level than in the past, benefitting from modern communications, information technology, transportation, big data, and so on. It has permeated the management style and education model from kindergarten to university, and in many ways, education and control have become one in China.
The English and Chinese editions of “The Confucian-Legalist State.”
Wu: You write in “The Confucian-Legalist State” that the Qin, which was the first political entity in Chinese history to rule on the basis of Legalist political theory, was very good at developing “extensive technologies.” From the sound of it, that tradition also still exists.
Zhao: The concept of “extensive technology” was based in the work of sociologist Michael Mann. He divided technology into “intensive technologies,” which obtain greater material and energy outputs with fewer inputs, and “extensive technologies,” which increase output with more widely collaborative and tightly organized labor resources. In my view, this theory of Mann’s also applies to Chinese history. Although the Chinese invented many important intensive technologies, China’s Legalist tradition made it more inclined to rely on extensive technologies, evidence of which can be found in things such as the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and the bureaucracy.
There are strengths and weaknesses in being good at developing extensive technologies. For example, the past three years suggest there are some things China does that Western countries simply could not do; but if we try to do something that requires originality, it would be very difficult.
Wu: What was your original motivation for writing this book? Did you want to use Western sociological methods to analyze Chinese history, or did you want to develop a new, relatively universal approach to sociological research through the study of Chinese history?
Zhao: There is nothing universal in this world. On the other hand, not everything in this world is special, either. I was exploring some of the more universal historical patterns in Chinese history, and at the same time stressing the universal aspects behind the patterns of Chinese history. What I tried to show was that, although history is purposeless and full of contingencies, it still has a direction and a pattern.
Wu: A pattern?
Zhao: In his theory, Michael Mann emphasizes that politics, economics, ideology, and the military are the four sources of social power. I think this is correct, but can be developed further.
If we understand the power of human society is generated by the competition along four ideal-typical dimensions — that is, politics, economics, ideology, and the military— then we can deductively parse the sociological mechanisms implied in each dimension, or deductively determine the multiple specific properties of each dimensional coordinate. That way, we can know what kind of social actors and social mechanisms will dominate in specific historical changes. This is the key logical basis of my theory.
Wu: Is there a more essential factor or dynamic behind these four basic elements?
Zhao: Yes, human nature. It is difficult to explain or predict history, but one thing is certain, history is made by humans. The four sources of power in human society mentioned earlier are all based on social competition and conflicts caused by human nature.
Wu: Human nature, or the nature of men?
Zhao: (Laughs) I understand what you mean. I believe that if the world was led by women, it wouldn’t be quite as bad as it is. Men tend to think in terms of short-term cost and benefits. They’re highly instrumental, like how am I going to get this girl? Whereas women think about things much longer term and in a more balanced manner, like, how am I going to spend 20 years raising my kids? This key difference impacts almost every aspect of human society.
When I was young, my grandmother said to me, “A mother gives birth to nine kids; plus the mother, they make 10 minds.” She meant that it is normal to have different demands and positions, even conflicts, within a family, and we have to know how to understand, tolerate, and compromise with each other. I didn’t fully understand the meaning of her words at the time. Only after I grew up did I realize the wisdom she had; that is, the wisdom of women.
Wu: Then it seems we should speed up the feminist movement to give the world some hope.
Zhao: I hope so, but at the same time I think it’s unlikely. Even if mankind went back to the Stone Age and did it all over again, I’m afraid civilization would still be male-dominated, unless mankind decides not to have civilization at all. As long as we move in the direction of civilization, people have to work together, the crowd has to be stratified, and there will be internal management and external competition. From there, everything — who is superior and who is inferior, who manages whom, who beats whom — will come again on men’s terms. It’s kind of inevitable.
Of course, women can be leaders in today’s world, but many of them have masculinized and fully embraced the rules men play by.
Wu: How sad. Returning to history, historians like to emphasize the contingent nature of history, but you seem to prefer to analyze the inevitable reasons behind those contingencies. Is that because of your sociological training?
Zhao: Probably. Historians focus on events that change the course of history, while sociologists focus more on regularities behind history. There are so many contingencies in the course of history, but if you look at it over a long period of time, most of them tend to produce only short- to medium-term historical jitters. If the actions of a historical figure or a sudden event become a turning point in history, there must be some structural reason behind it.
Wu: You don’t think the choices of major figures can change the course of history?
Zhao: If some individual action develops into a turning point, it is often because that person holds enormous structural power in his hands; the more power that person has, the greater the structural power that his character and value tendencies wield.
Without the uneven distribution of social power in the hands of social actors, there would be no historical time or social structure. In this sense, power is structure, and structure is time.
Wu: We tend to believe human history is evolving and progressing, but you don’t seem to see it that way.
Zhao: No. Overall, history is developmental, because economic and military competition favor those social actors who produce more at a lower cost. But cumulative development should not be regarded as “progressive.” As a rule, what you solve today is the bane of your existence tomorrow.
Let me tell you a story. Once, when I was staying at the home of Harvard professor Ezra F. Vogel, he asked me what I thought of his book, “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America.” I said that after I read it, I felt that what he had described was the cause of Japan’s eventual downfall. He was surprised and asked me why. I said that the Japanese model he analyzed in the book was a strategy adopted by Japan after World War II, when its male population was scarce. Thus, companies recruited people in, promised lifelong employment, gave good benefits, and worked to lock up the labor force.
But when male workers were no longer scarce, when the first generation all reached retirement age, and when business competition intensified, the methods adopted by Japanese companies would become a burden. In a nutshell, the reason you succeed today is the reason you fail tomorrow.
Details of the “Tao Te Ching,” written out by Zhao Mengfu, on display in Beijing, Sept. 29, 2022. VCG
Wu: This all sounds very Taoist: “Good fortune rests upon disaster; disaster lies hidden within good fortune.”*
Zhao: The “Tao Te Ching” has really influenced me a lot. What is the meaning of its first line: “Way-Making (Tao) that can be put into words is not really Way-making”?* It means that any theory of the particulars cannot be a theory with universal applicability.
Wu: In other words, no perfect system or law can last?
Zhao: No. In any good regulation or social system, as long as it is made by people, there will always be loopholes. And even if it is flawless, it will become flawed when time and social conditions change. Assuming that both of the points mentioned above do not happen, it still does not work, because people can always dig holes in it.
And there is more. When a country becomes successful, the people in that country will naturally feel confident. And confidence begets mistakes. When did the United States become confident? Not during the Cold War, but when the Cold War ended. The fall of the Soviet Union made United States feel that it had universal truth in its grasp, and it began to make big mistakes.
Wu: Well, let me rephrase my question. Assuming there is no perfect system or law in this world, is it possible for people to avoid these mistakes by learning and reflecting on history?
Zhao: In the short term, yes. The institutional advantages that Europe and the United States have gained today have been achieved through a process of continuous trial and error. This process — including various revolutions, violent social conflicts, and two tragic world wars — taught the West a few lessons.
But not in the long run. As you can see, today the West has pretty much forgotten the lessons of history. We always like to say that the Chinese are forgetful about history, but people in other countries are just as forgetful, they just abandon their memories in different ways and at a different pace. As long as a society prospers for more than two or three generations, its academics degrade and its people lose cohesion.
Wu: You seem quite pessimistic.
Zhao: What is history if not tragedy?
In fact, I am a very optimistic person and I live every day happily. In the concluding section of “The Confucian-Legalist State,” I wrote: “I would prefer to live in a society where military power is reduced to policing functions and market power is limited to a framework of environmental sustainability and social equality.” I believe it is completely impossible for humans to change their competitive nature, but an affluent society could allow human competitive impulses to be released in diffuse, non-coercive, harmless social activities such as sports, art, travel, and so on.
Yet, I am well aware that this idea of mine is essentially utopian. The beauty and ugliness of this world lies in the fact that each of us has a different understanding of history, of our present society, and of life. And for most people, immediate gain is the starting point of all action. Plus, as I said earlier, even if mankind could build an ideal society at some point, we couldn’t guarantee that it would last.
Wu: The past few years have been tough, and many people seem to feel depressed or desperate. Given that you’re still holding onto your optimism, maybe it would be good to conclude this interview with some advice from you for our readers. What can they do to get through this latest historical contingency?
Zhao: I can give one specific piece of advice: Huddle up. Remember you are not alone. Get together and communicate with your trusted friends more often, preferably face-to-face. This will make you feel much better.
*Translated by Philip Ivanhoe.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A statue of Confucius under construction in Qingdao, Shandong province, 2021. Zhao Jianpeng/VCG)