Three Ancient Chinese Philosophies: Good Governance During the Warring States Period


-October 4, 2010

The Warring States Period was not only a military competition for total regional dominance, but an intellectual arms race that allowed The Hundred Schools of Thought to develop and guide the ultimate victor towards political unification through efficient and pragmatic governing practices.  There were three major philosophies that kings followed in hopes of unifying the several warring states under their own dominion: Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism.  Confucianism dealt with governance through the king’s virtue, Daoism sought balance through a lack of governing, and Legalism required the state to strictly enforce laws in order to establish firm order throughout the kingdom.  There were nine major warring states that were influenced by traveling political advisers pontificating their philosophies on good governance (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 21).  All nine states sought control of the others, but ultimately, the Qin state was victorious in militarily unifying the Middle Kingdom through fierce enforcement of strict Legalism (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 40).  However, the Qin state did not last long, and it took a versatile combination of the three political philosophies to mold and govern the nine warring states into the cohesive and long-lasting political unit that was the Han Empire.

The Han Dynasty was influenced by Confucianism and Daoism in order to fill a void left by the harsh laws the Qin dynasty enacted under the banner of Legalism (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 41).  Confucianism was the most influential philosophy because it proposed a hierarchal aristocratic structure well established and widely accepted during the Warring States Period.  Confucius directly negated strict Legalist philosophies centuries before Legalism was widespread:  “[Legalists] Lead them by means of government policies and regulate them through punishments, and the people will be evasive and have no sense of shame” (The Analects pg 21).  Confucius teachings, in contrast, were more about governance through a virtuous king and a hierarchical social structure- “Lead them by means of virtue and regulate them through rituals and they will have a sense of shame and moreover have standards” (The Analects pg 21).

Confucianism relied heavily on ritual to ensure loyalty to the king (The Analects pg 21).  Rituals correlated with Confucian views on human nature because through rituals, subjects would have the loyalty human nature alone could not provide.  “Make food supplies sufficient, provide an adequate army, and give the people reason to have faith” (The Analects pg 21) Thus, Confucian governance was judged not through arbitrary laws that human nature would ignore, but through the king and his virtuous actions that a society in harmony would witness and reflect.

Daoism was more difficult to put into practice for a king because it forced him to restrain himself and let society work itself out.  The Warring States Period became a volatile time that impelled kings to do whatever they could to gain an upper hand on each other, and Daoist views on good governance ran contrary to thriving competitive natures.  Daoism rejected social rules, shunned community life, and neglected education, all of which were necessary for governments to survive during the Warring States Period (Class Lectures 9/27/10).  A king wishing to consolidate power during a time like the Warring States Period would not find Lao-Tzu’s words compatible with being successful in military preparation and conflict-
“Make the state small and its people few.  Let the people give up use of their tools.  Let them take death seriously and desist from distant campaigns.  Then even if they have boats and wagons, they will not travel in them.  Even though they have weapons and armor, they will not form ranks with them” (The Laozi, pg 29).
And yet Lao-Tzu taught good governance that was more suitable for a king of a small country wishing to stay in power, “A sage governs this way: He empties people’s minds and fills their bellies.  He weakens their wills and strengthens their bones.  Keep the people always without knowledge and without desires, For then the clever will not dare act.  Engage in no action and order will prevail” (The Laozi, pg 28). However, Daoist ideas of good governance were not compatible with effective control during the Warring States Period, even though many kings were attracted to Daoist principles that allowed a ruler to be himself without making effort to institute government policies (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 30).
Legalism was the antithesis of Daoist and Confucian government passivity because it encouraged active government intervention in the state through codified laws.  Legalism was formed because of the competitiveness of the Warring States Period, hence, Legalist good governance was efficient governance.  Legalism was thus adapted by the Qin state in the fourth century B.C.E. (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 31).  Legalist governing policies influenced the Qin king to annul aristocratic ties and replaced them with meritorious military ranks (Ebrey, Walthall, Palais, pg 31).  Efficiency was vital for good governance, and loyalty was expected to sustain not through meaningless rituals but through the harsh punishments that were consequential of breaking the law.  Legalism thus, saw human nature as selfish,
“Think of parents’ relations to their children.  They congratulate each other when a son is born, but complain to each other when a daughter is born. Why do parents have these divergent responses when both are equally their offspring?  It is because they calculate their long-term advantage” (Han Feizi, pg 35).

Human nature in relation to good governance was an important subject of argument throughout the Warring States Period because competing kings wished to understand each other and the subjects they ruled.  Their ultimate goal was unifying the Middle Kingdom by out-governing and conquering every other state.  Each philosophy sought to understand human nature because philosophers wanted to know why they lived in such a chaotic and violent time, so each philosophy taught good governance as a way to end the division and chaos.  Thus, good governance was something that could not be agreed upon during the volatile centuries between 475 B.C.E. and 221 B.C.E., yet efficient governance allowed for the warring states to unify under Qin’s Legalist policies.  However, as history has revealed again and again, a state such as Qin could not easily survive through harsh rule of law alone, but it needed to win the hearts and minds of the people: something that Legalism inherently failed to do.  A Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist combination was the only way to achieve good governance once unification was complete, because Daoist and Confucian principles upheld social harmony where Legalism could not.
Class Lecture 9/27/10
Confucius. The Analects.  Ebrey. Confucian teachings, selections from the analects and selections from the Mencius, 17-24, 4 Oct. 2010.
Han Feizi.  Legalist Teachings.  Ebrey.  Legalist teachings, selections from Han Feizi, 33-37, 4 Oct. 2010.
Lao-Tzu.  The Laozi.  Ebrey.  Daoist teachings, passages from the Laozi, and selections from the Zhuangzi, 27-30, 4 Oct. 2010.
Patricia Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James Palais. Pre-modern East Asia: to 1800: a Cultural, Social, and Political History. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

About Sean William Lynch
Sean William Lynch is a poet from New Jersey who was born in 1992. Lynch's first book of poems "the city of your mind" was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, called Lynch's debut poetry book "visionary." CA Conrad claimed that the book was "marvelous!" S.W. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including Milkfist, Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

6 Responses to Three Ancient Chinese Philosophies: Good Governance During the Warring States Period

  1. Subhan Zein says:

    Hello Sean!

    Thank you for following my blog. I hope you have a joyful ride in each of your visits there! :-)

    Have a lovely day, my friend! :-)

    Subhan Zein

  2. Niko Holmen says:

    Very well written post. It will be valuable to anybody who utilizes it, as well as myself. Keep doing what you are doing – for sure i will check out more posts.

  3. Sean, thank you for the follow. I offer this: Years ago the BBC sponsored a prison experiment. Like the Stanford Prison Experiment, It had to be stopped for the safety of the participants. In any case, the sociologists who conducted the experiment concluded that people will forgo democracy in a situation where their personal safety is at stake, and where the leadership which provides an alternative to democracy provides necessary security (A real-world example would be the gang system in Haiti). If this conclusion holds true, then creating the illusion of a government which protects the public from a direct threat would seem to be a powerful tactic in consolidating the public view in support of almost anything.

    I lived in New Brunswick 200-2004. It’s cool to hear a voice from Jersey. All the best!

    • Sean Lynch says:

      Yes that’s why it is so frustrating that Americans think they live in a democracy when they don’t, it’s more like an oligarchical republic. Thanks for the comment, I wonder if you went to Rutgers or if you just lived in New Brunswick. I’m currently at Rutgers Camden. Cheers.

      • The trick seems to be extricating democracy (if the American project is in fact a democracy) from the grip of commerce… Anyway, I was in New Brunswick because of work. I danced three seasons with American Repertory Ballet (which is based in Princeton, and at the time rehearsed occasionally in NB), but didn’t like the idea of living too far from the city, so New Brunswick it was. Spent some working time in Philly during those, years, too. Always liked it there.

        • Sean Lynch says:

          Interesting, I’ve been living in Philly for a year now, but I grew up in the area. It’s been good conversing with you friend, I’m looking forward to more of the same in the future.

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: