Politics and morality in northern Sung China: early Neo-Confucian views on obedience to authority
Throughout the history of Chinese political thought the need for obedience to authority has been a constant refrain. This respect for hierarchical authority was given further support by the philosophical system of Neo-Confucianism developed in the Sung dynasty, which emphasized the importance of exalting the ruler. For this reason many scholars have assumed that Neo-Confucianism contributed to the growth of autocratic power in later Chinese history. However, a review of the political ideas of many of the leading Neo-Confucians of the Northern Sung, expressed in the form of commentaries on the Ch'un-ch'iu, suggests that by phrasing their appeal to authority in terms of absolute moral principles to which even the ruler himself was clearly meant to be subject, they were attempting to limit, not justify, the arbitrary exercise of power by the ruler.Chapter One considers the background of Neo-Confucianism and stresses the close relationship between the various political, economic, and social forces which were integrating China to an unprecedented degree on the one hand, and the impulse to synthesize and bring into harmony the disparate realms of life and thought on the other. It demonstrates the way in which the Neo-Confucians in general and the Ch'un-ch'iu commentators in particular were responding to the fear of anarchy induced partly by the example of regionalism in the late T'ang and Five Dynasties period, and partly by the contemporary threat of invasion from barbarian peoples to the north.Chapter Two then considers the history of critical exegesis pertaining to the Ch'un-ch'iu itself, from Han times down to the Northern Sung, in order to provide the context in which the commentators discussed their ideas. Chapter Three deals with the first generation of Ch'un-ch'iu commentators (best represented by Sun Fu) and discusses the reasons for their emphasis on the concepts of "revering the emperor" (tsun-wang), "expelling the barbarians" (jang-yi), and "ritual" (li). It is argued that the association of these ideas allowed them to support the necessity of obedience to centralized authority while at the same time placing moral limits on the arbitrary power of the ruler. The next generation of commentators, of whom the most influential was Ch'eng I, is taken up in Chapter Four. Here it is shown how "principle" (le) became the medium by which political arguments in favor of obedience to the ruler were gathered into the broader framework of a rational metaphysics.In order to reveal fully the significance of the reservations of the Neo-Confucians on the question of obedience, recourse is had to the medieval European concept of natural law. Medieval natural law, by emphasizing the ultimate loyalty owed by the individual to absolute moral values, manifested a deliberate ambiguity over the issue of authority. It is then argued in the concluding chapter that the recognition of a fundamental tension between the demands imposed by an absolute system of moral values and the requirements to contribute to the political order of a given community is a vital protection against the seductive temptations of ideologies which can lead to the total surrender of freedom in totalitarianism. It is further posited that by abandoning the system of absolute moral values embodied in the "authoritarian" Neo-Confucian synthesis, in favor of the most current ideas of freedom adopted from the West, Chinese intellectuals in the 20th century actually deprived themselves of an important defense (in the absence of pluralistic political and social institutions) against the centralizing of all power and all authority in the hands of a determined "ruler."
- History