The Political Philosophy of Confucianism (III-IV)

In Part III, OKAWA Shumei takes out the big guns, attacking the founder of Legalism as impeding the cultivation of virtue, and by implication Western political theories which aim for the same legalistic goal. What the reader might not realize is that in denouncing Han Fei, who lived in the 3rd century B.C. and had an influence on all Far Eastern political thought thereafter, Okawa is arguing for a return to a very ancient ideal indeed. When a group of ultra-nationalists tried to overthrow the constitutional monarchy of Japan in the name of direct Imperial rule, Okawa was sent to prison for five years for providing the theoretical principles for such a political concept.


This concept, the greatest conceivable system to realize human ideals in an actual nation, comes into obvious opposition with the political philosophy of the West, which attempts to induce people to march automatically, so to speak, towards progress and perfection. Western political thought, in the words of Xunzi, has “rules, but no rulers”; that is to say, it values creating good “laws” over creating good “men”. Even in China, some sages like Shen Dao, Yin Wen, and Han Fei value law over men in their writings. Han Fei, especially, fiercely attacks the idea of “rulers without rules” in one of the chapters of his book, and devotes himself to organizational structure. What he claims is that waiting for a man of virtue to appear is like a hungry man refusing to eat for a fortnight while he waits for a prime rib to arrive; the poor soul will simply starve to death.

His argument goes like this: Even with a total disinterest in organizational structure, a nation can be ruled by the likes of an Emperor Yao. And even with the finest organizational structure, a nation ruled by a tyrant would quickly dissolve into chaos. But a great Emperor Yao or a tyrannical King Jie will appear only once in a thousand years. Most rulers are neither Yao nor Jie. To create a nation that can be ruled by ordinary rulers, we must create the appropriate institutions. Creating people rather than rules creates a nation that can only be ruled once in a millennia, while creating rules for people will make a nation that is only disrupted once in a millennia.

Han Fei declares this to be a truth that is difficult to deny, and indeed, if we place our faith completely in the personality of a ruler, the result will be as Han Fei describes. But in Confucianism, even if there have been some who put an undue emphasis on it, there has been no one who disputes the meaning and value of “laws”. Actually, in the Doctrine of the Mean, the three major functions of the ruler are piety, governance, and intellect. Piety implies both religious courtesies and moral customs, while governance means legal and political systems, and intellect refers to literacy. Without grasping the aforementioned three things, one cannot be a ruler in either name or reality. Even the most earnest abstract desire for a “domestic tranquility”, without institutions in place to ensure true domestic tranquility, we would not expect anyone to call someone a real politician. Mencius says, “Mere good intentions do not build a government, nor do mere laws.” The “mere” here means subjective, or abstract. Confucianism, therefore, does not at all ignore structure, but recognizes that spiritual development must be esteemed over mere structure.

The success of all systems is, without a doubt, the result of a success of the human spirit. Therefore the true meaning of a structure cannot be grasped by the people who join into that structure if they lack a spiritual foundation. It becomes accordingly difficult to maintain it effectively. A genius who knows all 3,000 rules of etiquette and 300 marks of majesty, if he fails to grasp the true meaning of piety, will simply fall into useless, machine-like imitations. And in order to grasp the true meaning of piety, we need true hearts and good faith. This is why Lu Jiuyuan said, “If we fail to overcome our own selfishness, it will be difficult for us to know virtue. And without a full knowledge of virtue, we will know not what rules and regulations are for.”

I continue directly into the conclusion, Part IV. Hopefully all the readers of this blog will be quite gratified to see this independent manifestation of the Traditional principles.


Now, in Confucianism, there is a strong emphasis on “love for relatives”, or “veneration for noble deeds” as a principle for social life. In the Doctrine of the Mean, Confucius teaches: “The humanity of virtuous behavior is made evident in the case of love for relatives. The ability of righteousness to set things straight is made evident when we honor noble men. The decreasing measures of the love due to relatives, and the steps in the honor due to the worthy, are produced by the principle of propriety.” The implication of this passage is, approximately, as follows. Virtuous love binds people together, and its most striking manifestation is in our natural affection for our parents and kin. In contrast, justice is a type of discrimination. Its most striking manifestation is when we naturally hold some sense of respect towards noble men, that is to say, those whose moral values tower above all of us.

Nevertheless, we do not love all of our relatives equally. Even if the original source of virtuous love is an indiscriminate, equal substance, it is utterly unforgivable for its manifestation to be uniform in nature. Our reverence towards ethical exemplars, too, is of the same nature. In the manifestation of virtuous love and reverence, the attempts to confer a correct order are the grounds that generate the various forms and systems of social life. It is an indispensable condition for a Confucian social order that social inequalities are generated from a correct moral foundation.

Both love for relatives and veneration for noble deeds are called much more simply “filial piety” or “respect for the elders”. One of the first statements in the Analects reads, “A youth should be filial at home, and, when abroad, respectful to his elders.” The model for household life necessitates recognizing the position of parents, and each sibling among the children disposes of his “self” and faithfully works for the sake of his family and clan, continuously realizing an order of being. Honoring virtue, similarly, underlies the model for national life, and Confucius teaches that the exercise of authority both large and small necessitates a shared concept of virtue, which people must entrust to the statesmen, abandoning their “self” interests and faithfully obeying the authority of the state.

Therefore, the duties of the men of noble birth in China were not rule of the country–personal oversight as administrators–in the usual sense, but were actually the promotion of able men to wield authority in roles both great and small. Therefore, it is said that “if we hasten to get the right men, the self is checked and the nation is put in order, the merits are great and one’s name is celebrated, and one is worthy of being called a sovereign. If we do not hasten to get the right men, but instead focus on getting the labor first, then people will work for their own purposes and divide the nation, merit is abandoned and one’s name is besmirched, and the very soil and grain of the nation will certainly be endangered. The worthy sovereign seeks out the men and, having found them, may rest.”

“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.” This is a famous saying of the Analects, and a summary of the essential spirit of Confucian political philosophy. […] And there is one point on which Confucianists and Legalists agree. Namely: what constitutes an upright citizen, in other words the attempt to forge a tempered and cultivated political individual, is a separate matter from the legal system, in other words the attempt to establish a systematized nation-state. Again, in other words, while Legalism insists on the strictly impartial nature of legislation, Confucianism remains the first principle at the root of litigation [because the goodness of a person is based in Confucian values].

In this way the political doctrine of Confucianism is generally not called one of constitutionalism, but is rather rite-ism, and the relation between laws and rites is perfectly encapsulated by Liang Qichao, who said that “laws treat the symptoms, but rites are preventative health.” According to Confucian political science, the sole foundation of good government is indeed cultivation of culture and learning: “right learning brings good customs, and good customs bring good government.”

The political thought of Confucianism, as clearly indicated by all the histories, was never implemented closely in China. The finest implementation of it up until now was in our own nation’s Tokugawa period. The shape of our nation in that era rivals and even exceeds that of China’s Spring and Autumn period, showing that the political ability of the Japanese far outstrips that of Han Chinese. The China of the Spring and Autumn Period was not much different from the old shogunate in population, area, or feudal development. Accordingly, the political ideals of Confucius and Mencius, although meant for a united China, became much more relevant in our own country, and our political ability was not just a realization of those ideals but a superior realization to that of China.

Thus in the Tokugawa period, the ideal that made the sovereign parent to the nation became ingrained in the hearts of the provincial lords, and when one province achieved a temporary state of good leadership, other provinces felt a need to compete [as in sibling rivalry] and strained to achieve the same standard, creating a splendid government. That China later descended into pandemonium and confusion despite its cultivation of Confucianism is not due to any insufficiency in Confucianism itself, but the fault lies in the political incompetence of the Han.

The pointedness of this last paragraph lies in the fact that Okawa has just made use of brilliant reformists like Liang Qichao (1873-1929), but unlike their Japanese counterparts, the Chinese reformists failed to rebuild and modernize China.

All credit for the production of this translation lies with the Okawa Shumei Study Group which made these materials available. All fault for the numerous translation errors and misrepresentations lies with me.

13 thoughts on “The Political Philosophy of Confucianism (III-IV)

  1. I would agree that Confucianism and Legalism are both Traditional and suited different ages, since this is grounded in historical fact as well. It’s also obvious that rabbinic halakah did not exist when Israel was a kingdom (the Torah and Talmud are not solely legal texts). But shariah just as clearly comes from the “seal of the Prophets” himself, befitting the 8th century AD.

    This exchange has made me wonder much more seriously whether a “return to Confucianism” would approximate a Protestant desire for the simplicity of the earliest sources without the awareness that we are living in a degenerate age. Evola, of course, would disagree, and there are plenty of medieval texts that assert that Confucius takes primacy over his commentators, but I would like to see what Schuon says on the matter.

  2. Avery, so in your view one can be a Confucian or a Legalist and still be Traditional ?

    Would you define the Torah or the Shariah as versions of Legalist thought ?

    I wonder if the purpose of Confucianism and Legalism are for different ages, the age of Yao and Shun compared to our time from a Hindu perspective is different points and the cycle and different styles of governance perhaps may be required ?

  3. One last note: if anyone would like to flesh out their knowledge of Xunzi I found a Ph.D. thesis which supports Okawa’s thesis that Xunzi defended real Confucianism from Legalism, actually closely imitating the conclusion that Confucianism supports the concept of laws but Legalism turns this into an obsession.

    Excerpt: “While Confucian constructivism can support a theory of universal human rights, if it is to remain Confucian, it would not emphasize this because Confucianism perceives reasons not to foster a strong rights culture. Rights are viewed as legalistic mechanisms which, if over-emphasized, can erode informal mechanisms such as Ii (ritual propriety), the maintenance of which is considered critical to maintaining a healthy society. Citing several passages from the Xunzi, along with other Confucian texts, Ch’ii T’ung-Tsu concludes: ‘Confucians firmly believed that … The order or disorder of a state … depends completely upon the maintenance or the decay of li’ (Ch’u, p. 241). To the degree rights seem to undermine rites, they will likely continue to be resisted.”

  4. Just as a particular example, I think Plato’s belief in the communal upbringing of children puts him squarely on the side of a Legalist legislating morality. That’s not to say this idea is horribly dangerous, since Israel’s kibbutzim implemented something like it and did not end in disaster. Nor is Legalism anti-Traditional; the early modern period was full of such attempts to preserve exoteric manifestations by putting them into law.

    But the Roman imperium was not characterized by a huge list of laws and a great bureaucracy maintaining them. People’s instincts for things like raising their own families were considered to be basically good, and only needed cultivation through education. I think Okawa and Evola are both right to claim that in the “world of Tradition”, Law is only expressed through obedience to the Principles, which are self-explanatory and within every human heart.

  5. @ Avery

    It would be good to read more of Okawa’s ideas, as the close relationship between geopolitics and tradition is something I feel Guenon and Evola did not see…………

    It’s very interesting, the subject of Legalism, I remember reading once someone tried to argue that Maoism is actually derivative of Han Fei Zi, it is true that to some degree Mao admired Qin Shi Huang, the persecutor of the Confucians……

    In a western context, do you think Plato is closer to Confucius or Han Fei ? The fact that he wrote a book of Laws seems to indicate P. thought he could legislate for a state beyond the capabilities of individual men ?

  6. What was actually implemented from 200 BC to the 1930s was Legalism, which was argued in this essay to be a distortion of the original tradition. (In the same way that the Christian medieval world was a distortion of the Roman imperium? Maybe? Hmm.)

    That’s a great question. I honestly don’t think Okawa had such a naively imperialist view, but his geopolitical analyses are yet on my to-read list, and if I translate anything else by him on Gornahoor I will mention what I learn.

  7. Fascinating piece, though I must too express my disappointment at his ease in asserting that there was some racial flaw in the Han which caused the decline in China, especially when he mentions periods in Chinese history when righteous rulers came to power.

    I’m also glad to see that he discussed Legalism, the philosophy predominant in influence in China today, especially on the political stage, and that he can do so without quickly dismissing it. Political ideas and movements are revealed for what they are without men and women of quality making up the numbers: utopian ideals at most, and farces leading to tyranny at worst (see the Conservative revolutionaries, who allowed their ideas to be hijacked by those for whom Aryans were a mere biological race). It is essential to make good laws in the State, but even more to realize that they are there to craft good human beings. This is the most radical assertion one can make in the political and social realm, and a dangerous one which can lead to tyranny if there is no direct and positive correlation between position in the hierarchy and standard of character and accountability.

    I heard two quotes in a performance of the Trial of Socrates which I think beautifully encapsulates the Confucian view in a democratic context: “In a democracy, you’re only asked to do two things: obey the law, and try to change it if you think it’s wrong.” and “You accepted the constraints of the law every time you accepted our protection and did not speak in the Assembly in order to craft the best laws possible.” Without good and just men, there is no good and just order.

  8. I hope I am discussing Okawa’s essay here when I raise issue with the fact that he claims China never properly implemented Confucianism, I would like to know that if he is correct, then how would he describe the ruling ideology of the Chinese empire from the Han dynasty (200 BC) to the end of the Qing (1912 not counting its revival in Manchukuo, 1930s)?

    The difference I am seeing between Okawa and Evola, correct me if I am in error, is that whereas Evola wanted the unification of Europe under a supranational Emperor that transcended nationalisms, Okawa believes Japanese nationalism can unify Asia under Japanese domination ?

  9. To try to drag the discussion back to the actual nature of this essay, I don’t think Evola’s political vision is that far from Okawa’s, except that the situation in Italy ensured that Evola could never dream of implementing a Traditional government, whereas Okawa had many adepts hoping to do just that.

  10. Modernisation……that’s the problem…….in order to fight the West, Japan became a western power.

    China and Korea failed, yes, though in the Korean case the failure is arguable as I can attest to the survival of Korean tradition through my own studies in that nation. But the failure is simply that of traditional falling to modern which is not a good thing in my book, as I’m a supporter of the old ways.

    Asian patriotism like any patriotism is a good thing but not when it becomes a tool for colonialism – if Japan had led Asia against the West he’d have been heroic but instead the Japs decided to just enslave fellow Asians in Manchuria, Korea, and China.

    PS – the US tried to open up Korea in 1866 the same way they did with Japan in 1853 but that time the Koreans won and the big noses came home dead…….

    I prefer Evola’s attitude of placing principles above false realities……he saw the true state of his Italy and did not fail to expose it…..

  11. You forget that China was not the only East Asian nation struggling with Western interference; Japan was also thrown into crisis by Western temporal power, and its response was quite different from China, while its blazing fast modernization and militarization was due in large part to the efforts of Emperor Meiji himself.

    Okawa witnessed the failure of both China and Korea to adapt in his own lifetime, and the near subjugation of both nations by the West; he has ample reason for his patriotic attitude. I would wager that he is actually a more appealing figure than Evola, who discarded sentimental ties to family and nation.

  12. The author shows his racism by blaming the problems of China on racial defects and not on failures of character, failures that afflict men in all nation, and have made Japan a cultural and political colony of America since 1945.

    In fact, China under the Qing dynasty was a quite stable and functional regime until the British imposed opium addiction on the Chinese people.

    I see a contradiction in that the author praises Edo period Japan, which was a peaceful, feudal, and autarchical era yet he supported ultra-nationalism which was more like Fascism in supporting an expansionist centralised state under the dictatorial rule of the Mikado who was no longer the spiritual figurehead he was under the shogunate but an actual Bonaparte-type sovereign under this sytem (I’m thinking also of Ikkai Kitta)

  13. “The success of all systems is, without a doubt, the result of a success of the human spirit. Therefore the true meaning of a structure cannot be grasped by the people who join into that structure if they lack a spiritual foundation. It becomes accordingly difficult to maintain it effectively. A genius who knows all 3,000 rules of etiquette and 300 marks of majesty, if he fails to grasp the true meaning of piety, will simply fall into useless, machine-like imitations”


    “That China later descended into pandemonium and confusion despite its cultivation of Confucianism is not due to any insufficiency in Confucianism itself, but the fault lies in the political incompetence of the Han.”

    Very accurate observation.

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