Mao Zedong, Legalism and Confucianism – Similarities And Differences


Red guards during the Cultural Revolution – Image by Belinsky (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons

When Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stood before the tremendous task of rebuilding the state on the basis of Soviet-style Communist principles. Yet despite their desire to create a new China, Communist leaders drew on old political and social traditions which brought about a hybrid of ancient imperial policies and Communist doctrines. Other Chinese states, such as the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan as well as Singapore, have also incorporated traditional values and ideas into their state-building process. It is the purpose of the present and the following articles to show how the two most important ancient schools of thought – Legalism and Confucianism– have influenced the legal systems of contemporary states in the Chinese cultural sphere. First, we shall analyze the relationship between Maoism and Legalism; in the subsequent posts, we shall examine the rediscovery of Confucianism and the blending of Confucianism and Legalism in post-Mao China; and in the last post, we will see how the ROC and Singapore have assimilated and adapted Confucian tenets.

Mao Zedong And Legalism

According to Fu Zhengyuan, the” transplantation of Marxism-Leninism into the Chinese political tradition was a smooth and seamless process”. Numerous Western scholars, too, have noted how the political traditions of imperial China created a fertile ground for Communist ideology. In particular, the ancient philosophy of Legalism, with its emphasis on state power, wealth and strength, appears to have facilitated the creation of a totalitarian, centralised and oppressive government. Fu goes as far as to argue that the PRC is the realisation of a Legalist “utopia” (Zhengyuan Fu: China’s Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling, 1996, p. 128).

As we have explained in a previous post, the Legalist school was a philosophy that aimed at creating a strong, rich and powerful state under the leadership of an absolute monarch. Legalism emphasized the establishment of a comprehensive legal system in order to rule the state effectively and to prevent uprisings. The laws should be harsh so as to instill fear in the people and make them ready to fight and die for their king, as only by such means would the state maintain an army capable of crushing its rivals. Internally, the Legalists were concerned with the threat of rebellion and treason. They believed that the legal system should reward the capable and punish the guilty so as to stamp out every attempt to subvert the state.

Read: Law In Imperial China – Confucianism And Legalism

Legalist scholars helped Qin Shihuang (秦始皇, 260 – 210 BC), the first emperor of China, create a centralised, autocratic state. However, after unifying China in 221 BC, Qin was unable to establish a long-lasting dynasty, mainly because his despotic style of governance alienated a large part of the elite of the empire. The famous Confucian scholar Jia Yi (賈誼, c. 200 – 169 BCE) bitterly criticised Qin’s tyranny in his essay The Faults of Qin (過秦論). He wrote:

[Qin Shihuang] discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the writings of the hundred schools in order to make the people ignorant. He destroyed the major fortifications of the states, assassinated their powerful leaders, collected all the arms of the empire, and had them brought to his capital at Hsien-yang [=Xianyang] where the spears and arrowheads were melted down to make twelve human statues, all in order to weaken the people of the empire (quoted from: Wm. Theodore De Bary, Wing-Tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, comps.: Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1, 1960, pp. 151-152).

Qin Shihuang made Legalism the official state ideology, while he was suspicious of other philosophies, especially Confucianism and Daoism. In 213 BC, Qin Shihuang ordered the burning of the books of all major philosophies with the exception of the Legalist texts. A year later, he allegedly had 400 Confucian scholars burnt alive (see David Curtis Wright: The History of China, 2001, p. 46). Not surprisingly, Confucians of the following generations bitterly resented this persecution. In their eyes, the despotism of Qin was the ultimate cause of the dynasty’s swift decline and collapse. Jia Yi believed that Qin “failed to rule with humanity and righteousness and to realize that the power to attack and the power to retain what one has thereby won are not the same“. As a result, the once powerful Qin state “became the laughing stock of the world” (De Bary et al. 1960, p. 152).

2,170 years after the founding of Qin Shihuang’s empire, the Communists led by Mao Zedong established the PRC. It is well-known that Mao created a totalitarian state. But proving that there is a continuity between these two autocratic regimes might be impossible if Mao himself had not publicly expressed his admiration for the Qin emperor and his contempt for Confucian teachings. In a speech to Communist cadres given in 1958, Mao publicly praised Qin Shihuang’s methods. He said:

What’s so unusual about Emperor Shih Huang of the Chin Dynasty [= Qin Shihuang]? He had buried alive 460 scholars only, but we have buried alive 46,000 scholars. In the course of our repression of counter-revolutionary elements, haven’t we put to death a number of the counter-revolutionary scholars? I had an argument with the democratic personages. They say we are behaving worse than emperor Shih Huang of the Chin Dynasty. That’s definitely not correct. We are 100 times ahead of Emperor Shih of the Chin Dynasty in repression of counter-revolutionary scholars (quoted in: R. J. Rummel: Death by Government, 2011, p. 97).

Another powerful reference to Mao’s anti-Confucian sentiments can be found in a speech he gave during the famous controversy between himself and Liang Shuming (梁漱溟, 1894-1977). Liang Shuming was a philosopher and educator active during the  Republican era and the early years of the Communist era. From 1927 to 1937 he was a leader of the rural reconstruction movement. Liang was a traditionalist who believed that Confucianism would regenerate China. In the 1920s and 1930s, he carried out social and educational projects in Henan and Shandong, creating rural village schools where the teaching of Confucian values was supposed to lead to rural cooperation and the revitalization of the traditional Confucian gentry (see Mao Zedong: The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976, ed. Michael Y. M. Kau and John K. Leung, vol. 1, 1986, p. 404).

Liang belonged to the so-called “Third Force” in Chinese politics, which opposed Guomindang one-party rule but was also critical of the Communist Party. He joined the China Democratic League, as whose general secretary he served from 1945 to 1946. In 1950 he was nominated as a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, he continued to oppose those policies of the government which he considered wrong, and especially Mao’s industrialisation and agricultural programmes. In an article published in 1951 (“In What Ways Have I Changed Over the Last Two Years?”) he directly criticised Mao Zedong. This led to a confrontation that escalated at the 27th session of the Central People’s Government Council, when Mao gave a speech criticising “the reactionary thought of Liang Shuming”. In it Mao targeted Liang’s Confucianism:

Confucius’ failings, I believe, were that he was not democratic and that he lacked a spirit of self-criticism; he was a bit like Mr. Liang [Shuming] … There is a good bit of the work-style of the bully in Confucius, and there is something of a fascistic flavor. I wish that my friends, especially Mr. Liang, would not follow the ways of Confucius. I’ll be most gratified if you don’t (quoted in: Yau et al. 1986, p. 401).

The revival of Legalist thought in the PRC became most evident during the Cultural Revolution. In May 1973, Mao Zedong launched a campaign to “criticise Confucius.” This move was part of the ongoing power struggle between Mao and his former trusted follower Lin Biao (林彪). A booklet entitled “Lin Biao and the Way of Confucius and Menciu’s” was issued on orders of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. On January 18, Mao endorsed the booklet and authorized its circulation (see Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao: Turbulent Decade: A History of the Cultural Revolution, ed. D. W. Y. Kwok, trans. D. W. Y. Kwok, 1996, p. 430).

If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for your support!


On January 1, 1974, a nation-wide campaign was launched on Communist newspapers. The People’s Daily, Red Flag, and Liberation Army Daily jointly published an article which argued that

the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in political ideology is a long, complicated and sometimes acute struggle…. We should continue to criticize the worship of Confucianism and opposition to Legalism…. the reactionaries both in and out of China and the leaders of various opportunist lines in China’s history all worship Confucius. In this respect, to criticize Confucius is a component of the criticism of Lin Biao (quoted in: ibid.).

The connection between Lin Biao and Confucius was again expressed in an editorial of the People’s Daily called “Carry the Struggle to Criticize Lin Piao and Confucius Through to the End” (Feb. 2, 1974):

Both at home and abroad, the reactionaries and the ringleaders of various opportunist lines have been worshippers of Confucius. Chairman Mao has repeatedly criticized Confucianism and the reactionary ideas of exalting Confucianism and opposing the Legalist school in the course of half a century in leading the Chinese revolution and struggling against reactionaries at home and abroad and against opportunist lines. The bourgeois careerist, conspirator, double-dealer, renegade and traitor Lin Piao was an out-and-out disciple of Confucius. Like all reactionaries in history on the verge of extinction, he worshipped Confucius and opposed the Legalist school, attacked Chin Shih Huang, the first emperor of the Chin Dynasty, and used the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius as his reactionary ideological weapon in plotting to usurp Party leadership and seize state power and restore capitalism … The worker-peasant-soldier masses are the main force in criticizing Lin Piao and Confucius. Armed with Mao Tse-tung Thought, they are most resolute in breaking with old, traditional ideas and best know how to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius. “Confucius wanted to restore the rites and Lin Piao wanted to restore capitalism; they were one of a kind”.

Communist texts of the time repeatedly praised Qin Shihuang as a progressive force in Chinese history, mainly because he succeeded in establishing a dictatorship and eliminating Confucian “reactionaries”. Another example of such historical interpretation is the following excerpt from a book published by the Foreign Language Press:

The first emperor of Chin [ Qin], an outstanding statesman of the newly rising feudal landlord class, following the doctrine of historical development . . . applied laws advocated by the Legalists, unified China through war, abrogated the vassalage left over from the slave system, and established a centralized dictatorship. . . . He used this dictatorship to resolutely suppress with violence the reactionary Confucians who were vainly trying to restore the slave system. All these were in fact revolutionary actions in defense of the dictatorship of the newly rising feudal landlord class. [Furthermore,] the first emperor of Chin [ Qin] decreed the “burning of books and burying alive of Confucian scholars.” This was a revolutionary move to suppress the followers of Confucius and Mencius (quoted in: Fu 1996, p. 130).

It appears therefore that Legalist traditions suited Marxist-Leninist emphasis on dictatorial power, a strong centralised state, suppression of intellectual opposition and rule by law (instead of rule of law). It appears that Mao Zedong saw Qin Shihuang as a “revolutionary” feudal lord. This may seem surprising, but in reality it does not contradict the Marxist concept of progress, according to which both feudalism and capitalism are necessary evolutionary stages that have paved the way to Communism.

Another similarity between Legalism and Maoism is their emphasis on hard work, agricultural labour and a frugal lifestyle, as well as their distrust of profit. In “The Book of Lord Shang” (3rd century BC), a classic of Legalism, we read:

Do not allow merchants to buy grain nor farmers to sell grain. If farmers may not sell their grain, then the lazy and inactive ones will exert themselves and be energetic; and if merchants may not buy grain, then they have no particular joy over abundant years. Having no particular joy over abundant years, they do not make copious profit in years of famine, and making no copious profit, merchants are fearful, and being fearful, they desire to turn farmers. If lazy and inactive farmers exert themselves and become energetic, and if merchants desire to turn farmers, then it is certain waste lands will be brought under cultivation. If music and fine clothing do not penetrate to all the districts, the people, when they are at work, will pay no attention to the latter, and, when they are at rest, will not listen to the former. If, at rest, they do not listen to the one, their spirits will not become licentious, and if, at work, they pay no attention to the other, their minds are concentrated. If their minds are concentrated and their spirits not licentious, then it is certain waste lands will be brought under cultivation.

If it is impossible to hire servants, great prefects and heads of families are not supported and beloved sons cannot eat in laziness. If lazy people cannot be inactive, and hirelings do not find a livelihood, there will certainly be agriculture; when great prefects and heads of families are not supported, agricultural affairs will not suffer; and when beloved sons cannot eat in laziness and lazy people cannot be inactive, then the fields will not lie fallow (Yang Shang: The Book of Lord Shang: A Classic of the Chinese School of Law, trans. J. J. L. Duyvendak, 1963, pp. 177-178).  

Yet despite all similarities, it would be wrong to think that Maoist China was simply a “Legalist utopia” disguised as a Communist state. While the dictatorial, military and legal structures of Mao’s PRC may resemble Legalist tenets, there were also considerable differences between Mao’s socio-political vision and that of the Legalists.

The first major difference is the ultimate goal both ideologies aspired to. The purpose of the Legalists was to create a strong, powerful state ruled by an absolute monarch. Therefore, Legalism can be described as a “method of ruling” in a society dominated by kings. Han Feizi (韓非, c. 280 – 233 BC), a prominent Legalist scholar, wrote:

This is the way of the enlightened ruler: he causes the wise to bring forth all their schemes, and he decides his affairs accordingly; hence his own wisdom is never exhausted. He causes the worthy to display their talents, and he employs them accordingly; hence his own worth never comes to an end. Where there are accomplishments, the ruler takes credit for their worth; where there are errors, the ministers are held responsible for the blame; hence the ruler’s name never suffers. Thus, though the ruler is not worthy himself, he is the leader of the worthy; though he is not wise himself, he is the corrector of the wise. The ministers have the labor; the ruler enjoys the success. This is called the maxim of the worthy ruler (Han Feizi: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson, Translations from the Asian Classics, 2003, p. 16).

In this excerpt Han Feizi candidly reflects about the possibility of a ruler not being worthy or wise. Yet the Legalists never questioned the right of rulers to govern, even though they might not be capable individuals; they simply tried to find ways to help the rulers govern effectively, that is, to avert dynastic decline, usurpation and military defeat at the hands of foreign kingdoms.

Mao Zedong’s worldview, on the contrary, was based on Marxism-Leninism and, as a result, according to him the final purpose of a Communist state was to eliminate class distinctions through violent class struggle and, when this struggle had been won and all “reactionary” forces had been extirpated, to abolish the Communist Party and the state. In a speech entitled “On the people’s democratic dictatorship” (June 30, 1949), Mao Zedong explained:

When classes disappear, all instruments of class struggle — parties and the state machinery — will lose their function, cease to be necessary, therefore gradually wither away and end their historical mission; and human society will move to a higher stage. We are the opposite of the political parties of the bourgeoisie. They are afraid to speak of the extinction of classes, state power and parties. We, on the contrary, declare openly that we are striving hard to create the very conditions which will bring about their extinction. The leadership of the Communist Party and the state power of the people’s dictatorship are such conditions. Anyone who does not recognize this truth is no communist.

While the Legalists regarded the perpetuation of monarchical power as their ultimate goal, Mao Zedong wanted to achieve what he called “Great Harmony”:

[F]or the working class, the labouring people and the Communist Party the question is not one of being overthrown, but of working hard to create the conditions in which classes, state power and political parties will die out very naturally and mankind will enter the realm of Great Harmony.

“Great Harmony” (大同) is a term Mao borrowed from Kang Youwei (康有為, 1858 – 1927), a scholar, thinker and reformer of the late-Qing era and the early Republican era (for an analysis of Kang’s concept of Great Harmony see: William A. Callahan: China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future, 2013, Chapter 4). Mao believed that Kang had understood China’s need for reform, but that he had been unable to provide practical solutions for achieving this goal. According to Mao, only after the Chinese people had found Marxism-Leninism, which he called “the universally applicable truth”, had China entered the path of salvation.

Mao’s views are based on the assumption that Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism are correct, and that human history can only be explained from the perspective of dialectical materialism, class struggle and the inevitable implosion of capitalism. One may argue that the product of Mao’s governance was nothing more than a totalitarian state which solely served his own lust for power. However, we always have to bear in mind that before 1949 the victory of Communism in China was by no means certain. Many times, for instance during the Long March (October 1934 – October 1935), the Communists were on the brink of collapse. During the Nanjing decade (1927-1937) the Guomindang dictatorship appeared unshakable, and there did not seem to be the preconditions for a triumph of Communism. The fact that Mao relentlessly fought for the realisation of Communism, even when his cause seemed hopeless, is a sufficient reason to believe that he did not act out of mere opportunism.

The reason why Mao was so blunt in supporting a dictatorship and in invoking the use of force, was exactly because he firmly believed that society was in the middle of a class struggle, and that the “progressive” social classes (chiefly the workers and peasants) should overthrow the previous “reactionary”, “bourgeois” regime. Mao argued that the “vanguard” of society was the Communist Party, which should lead the workers and peasants to final victory.  Only from this perspective can one understand why Mao so adamantly defended the concept of the “people’s democratic dictatorship”. To the accusation that the Communist government was dictatorial, Mao simply responded:

My dear sirs, you are right, that is just what we are. All the experience the Chinese people have accumulated through several decades teaches us to enforce the people’s democratic dictatorship, that is, to deprive the reactionaries of the right to speak and let the people alone have that right (“On the people’s democratic dictatorship”).

Mao assumed that there were clearly identifiable social classes which pursued different interests and were engaged in a struggle for power. The term “people’s democratic dictatorship”, which may appear contradictory, simply refers to the fact that the Communist Party did not include those it considered “reactionary”, “feudal” and “bureaucrat-bourgeois” in the category of the “people”. As Mao himself said,

Who are the people? At the present stage in China, they are the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. These classes, led by the working class and the Communist Party, unite to form their own state and elect their own government; they enforce their dictatorship over the running dogs of imperialism — the landlord class and bureaucrat-bourgeoisie, as well as the representatives of those classes, the Kuomintang reactionaries and their accomplices — [and] suppress them …

The previous quotations clearly show that Mao Zedong was not simply a supporter of a modernised version of Legalist doctrines, but that his entire system of thought was based on Marxism-Leninism. On the other hand, if we understand Legalism as a “method” of ruling, it is plausible to argue that Mao Zedong incorporated the Legalist tradition of autocratic and oppressive governance into his leadership style. Moreover, Legalist and imperial traditions may explain why so many Chinese people were willing to accept the Communist Party’s dictatorial methods, its totalitarian control of the citizens and its brainwashing techniques. From this viewpoint, Mao Zedong transformed the PRC into a Communist “feudal” society, with himself as a new emperor and the CCP as a “red” dynasty.

Another major difference between Maoism and Legalism is to be found in what we may call Mao’s “idealism”. In spite of the fact that supporters of Marxism-Leninism considered themselves objective and scientific, it is easy to prove that their doctrines were in fact “utopian”, as they were not based on an objective analysis of facts (for a criticism of Marxian economics see for e.g. Donald F. Busky: Communism in History and Theory: From Utopian Socialism to the Fall of the Soviet Union, 2002, Chapter 6). The utopian character of Communist doctrines derived from their lacking analysis of economic realities as well as their dogmatism. One example of this erroneous theoretical and practical approach can be observed after the Chinese Communists seized power in 1949 and proceeded to organise class struggle. For instance, in the Manchurian city of Yuanbao the Communists did not find the class distinctions they were expecting, so they were forced to create them. As Frank Dikötter has explained:

One of the first tasks of the work team was to divide the villagers into five classes, closely mirroring what had been done in the Soviet Union: ‘landlords’, ‘rich peasants’, ‘middle peasants’, ‘poor peasants’ and ‘labourers’ … The challenge was that none of these artificial class distinctions actually corresponded to the social landscape of the village, where most farmers often lived in roughly similar conditions. In Yuanbao there were no landlords …The next task was to get those identified as ‘poor peasants’ and ‘labourers’ to turn hardship into hatred. This, too, took weeks of persistence and persuasion … (Frank Dikötter: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, 2013, pp. 65-66).

Maoism was therefore “idealistic” in that it did not analyze reality, but sought to change reality according to abstract theories. On the contrary, Legalism is often called the school of “realism”, because social and political realities were the basis of their theories. The Legalists justified the existing monarchical system and sought to strengthen it, they never thought about reshaping society according to new principles.

The third major difference between Legalism and Maoism is the relationship between the government and the people. The Legalists represented a typically feudal world order in which the king was the centre of power and the power lay inside the ruler’s court or palace. Influenced by Daoist doctrines, the Legalists believed in the existence of the “Way” (道), that is, a heavenly principle that ordered all things. They argued that the ruler must be “inactive”, observe and understand, punish and reward, but that he must not try to change the nature of things arbitrarily. The ruler had to remain a faraway figure who must govern by issuing laws and bestowing ranks. Han Feizi wrote:

The ruler does not try to work side by side with his people, and they accordingly respect the dignity of his position. He does not try to tell others what to do, but leaves them to do things by themselves. Tightly he bars his inner door, and from his room looks out into the courtyard; he has provided the rules and yardsticks, so that all things know their place. Those who merit reward are rewarded; those who deserve punishment are punished. Reward and punishment follow the deed; each man brings them upon himself. Therefore, whether the result is pleasant or hateful, who dares to question it? (Han Feizi: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson, Translations from the Asian Classics, 2003, p. 38).

We may call this system a “feudal meritocracy”. Every subject was free to act as he pleased, yet the the king was the final judge, and those who did wrong would be punished or demoted. Mao Zedong, by contrast, believed that all the “progressive” classes of society must be politicised under the leadership of the Communist Party. This is what he called the “mass line”. In 1951 he thus instructed the Party:

The movement to suppress counter-revolutionaries now going on throughout the country is a great, intense and complex struggle. The line for this work that has proved effective everywhere is the Party’s mass line. This means leadership by Party committees, mobilization of the entire Party membership, mobilization of the masses, participation by the democratic parties and by personages from all circles, unified planning, unified action, strict examination of the lists of persons to be arrested or executed, attention to tactics in different phases of the struggle, widespread propaganda and education … a break with the practice of working behind closed doors and being secretive, and determined opposition to the deviation of rashness …

The number of counter-revolutionaries to be killed must be kept within certain proportions. The principle to follow here is that those who owe blood debts or are guilty of other extremely serious crimes and have to be executed to assuage the people’s anger and those who have caused extremely serious harm to the national interest must be unhesitatingly sentenced to death and executed without delay. As for those whose crimes deserve capital punishment but who owe no blood debts and are not bitterly hated by the people or who have done serious but not extremely serious harm to the national interest, the policy to follow is to hand down the death sentence, grant a two-year reprieve and subject them to forced labour to see how they behave.

It is clear from the above quoted excerpts that Mao’s insistence on propaganda and political participation, as well as the pervasiveness of the central government’s brainwashing, were completely different from the Daoist-inspired, palace politics that the Legalists theorized.

Let us now briefly sum up the similarities and differences between Legalism and Maoism:


  • Establishment of a centralised autocratic state
  • Suppression of political opponents
  • Use of force to preserve power
  • Government intervention in the economy
  • Rule by law


  • Legalism sought to preserve monarchical power, Maoism sought to abolish state power through violent class struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party
  • Legalism was realist, Maoism was utopian
  • Legalism endorsed closed door politics, Maoism supported “mass line” politics.

If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for your support!



Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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