Chairman Mao and the Legalists

Confucianism was quickly restored once the Han dynasty came to replace the Qin in 206 BCE. The Qin, the Han rulers decided, had simply been too draconian in their measures and the Legalist precepts were often counterproductive. in fact, Emperor Gaozu, the first leader of the new dynasty, could provide a personal example. Born as Liu Bang, a humble peasant, he had once been in charge of transporting a group of convicts to the First Emperor’s mausoleum where they were assigned work. Some of them managed to escape, however, and letting convicts escape was a capital offense according to the Qin rule-book. In this situation Liu Bang turned the remaining convicts free and together they set up a band of robbers who, many battles and years later, managed to replace the Qin. Looking for a more humane, and more efficient, way to govern the country, Emperor Gaozu turned Confucianism into the official philosophy of the Chinese state. In 136 BCE, his successor, Emperor Wu, decreed that five texts – the “Five Classics,” which Confucius himself was said to have compiled – was to provide the foundation for the education of all state officials. Confucianism has since that time provided the moral compass by which the Chinese state has been governed. Yet, as many Chinese people are quick to point out, the ruthless power politics of the Legalists did not disappear. In fact, Confucianism has often been seen as the pretense and Legalism as the reality.

To reformist Chinese intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth-century, Confucianism came to symbolize everything that was wrong with China. Emphasizing social obligations rather than individual freedom, Confucianism was said to have stifled creativity and entrepreneurship; emphasizing literary studies at the expense of science and technology, it had blocked economic growth. To this the Chinese Communist Party added that Confucianism was a feudal ideology which gave ideological support to the exploitative landowning class. During the so called “Cultural Revolution,” 1966-1976, Mao Zedong, the leader of China, relied on gangs of so called “Red Guards,” a militant militia, to intimidate his enemies. During the last stage of these campaigns, 1973-1976, Confucius became an official enemy of the state. In gigantic posters and in constantly repeated speeches, Chinese people were encouraged to “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” – “Lin” referring to Lin Biao, one of Mao’s enemies. In contrast to all previous Chinese leaders, however, Mao was not afraid to declare his admiration for the methods employed by the Legalists. In fact, he was quite explicitly in modeling himself on the First Emperor, who now was reinterpreted as the kind of strong leader which China needed in order to create a strong, unified, state which was secure from its enemies both at home and abroad. Mao only criticized him for not being ruthless enough. The First Emperor, said Mao, buried 460 scholars alive, but “we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive … We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold.”

External links:

Video clips:

In Our Time, “Legalism”