Despotism is one of the most enduring characteristics of China’s political system. From the founding of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC to the personal dictatorship of Xi Jinping, autocracy has been the country’s governing principle for thousands of years.
However, the nature of China’s imperial despotism is often misunderstood, and a clear distinction between traditional Chinese autocracy, Western absolute monarchism, and modern totalitarianism, is generally overlooked.
In the present article, we shall analyse the peculiar features of China’s imperial system, specifically the synthesis of autocracy and laissez-faire. In a future article we shall examine the similarities and differences between imperial China’s autocracy and Communist totalitarianism.
The Qin Dynasty and the beginning of China’s imperial despotism
During the so-called Warring States Period (戰國時代, pinyin: Zhànguó Shídài), which lasted from 403 BC to 221 BC, ancient China consisted of seven kingdoms that fought against one another for supremacy. The seven states were:
- the State of Wei (魏), which comprised the northern part of present-day Henan Province and the southern part of present-day Shanxi Province;
- the State of Zhao (趙), which comprised the southern part of present-day Hebei Province and the northern part of present-day Shanxi Province;
- the State of Han (韓), which comprised the northwestern part of present-day Henan Province and the southern part of present-day Shanxi Province;
- the State of Qi (齊), which comprised the most part of present-day Shandong Province;
- the State of Yan (燕), which comprised the northern part of present-day Hebei Province and the western part of present-day Liaoning Province;
- the State of Chu (楚), which comprised the areas of present-day Jiangsu Province, Anhui Province, Hubei Province and Hunan Province;
- the State of Qin (秦), which comprised the areas of present-day Shaanxi Province, Sichuan Province and the eastern part of Gansu Province (Ming, 2011, p. 5).
One of the most characteristic features of ancient China was the general consensus that developed around the ideology of monarchism. Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, the Chinese-speaking world never experimented with political systems that allowed for popular participation.
Monarchism was an all-encompassing ideology promoted by Chinese intellectuals of various schools of thought. The two most influential philosophies of China, Confucianism and Legalism, may have disagreed on the methods and moral principles of rulership, yet both of them concurred that the State could only be governed by a single individual. (Pines, 2012, p. 48)
Confucians emphasized the ruler’s virtue and role as a moral leader. Confucius’ Analects state:
We can see that Confucius did not believe in a tyrannical government that punished and terrorized its subjects. Rather, he espoused a view of “enlightened despotism” in which the ruler was to be imbued with high moral principles. Although this notion may sound idealistic, we shall see that Confucian thought became one of the cornerstones of Chinese imperial governance following the tyranny of the first emperor.
Confucius’ philosophy revolved around the principle of filial piety and family ideology. Consequently, he regarded government as a patriarchal institution:
While Confucian thinkers believed that the ruler needed to lead the people by virtuous behaviour, the Legalists held the view that human beings were inherently evil and would corrupt the state if the ruler did not control them through strict laws and punishments.
As Fu (1996) explained:
The Book of Lord Shang, one of the foundational texts of Legalism, states:
Prior to 403 BC Chinese kings already enjoyed a wide range of powers and prerogatives, such as commanding troops, performing religious rituals, constructing public works, and diplomacy. But it was during the Warring States Period that the kingdoms began to centralize power in earnest in order to strengthen dynastic rule. (Pines, 2012, p. 46)
In 453 BC, the powerful State of Jin had been partitioned into three states by the three “scheming ministers,” the heads of the lineages of Wei, Zhao and Han. These new states were determined to avoid the same political disintegration that they had caused to the State of Jin. They therefore established a “ruler-centred” government in order to eliminate all possible political adversaries. (Pines, 2012, p. 47-48)
The centralization of power in the hands of the monarch was aided by Confucianism, Legalism and other schools which provided an ideological justification for the consolidation of autocratic rule.
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The strongest state during the Warring States Period was the Qin Kingdom, which began to establish its military and administrative superiority from around 351 BC. Incidentally, it was Lord Shang, the author of the aforementioned Legalist classic, who helped Qin attain its status as a great power.
Lord Shang was a young nobleman who defected from the state of Wei and moved to Qin. After gaining the trust of the Qin ruler, Lord Shang initiated a series of reforms to strengthen the absolute power of the king and increase the efficiency of the government. He abolished all hereditary feudal ranks, replacing them with a system based on personal merit. He promoted the adoption of strict laws that were carved in stone and sent out to every part of the kingdom. He instituted severe punishments to deter people from violating the laws, such as cutting off the nose or feet of convicts or boiling them in a cauldron. Peasants were allowed to buy and sell land in order that low taxation could raise production. (Ropp, 2010, p. 20)
The ascent of Qin to a position of pre-eminence continued under the reign of Ying Zheng, who in 246 BC became King of Qin at the age of thirteen. King Zheng’s chief minister, Li Si (李斯), was a Legalist, like his predecessor Lord Shang.
King Zheng, aided by the reforms of Li Si, succeeded in building up an authoritarian state, and in defeating his neighbours one after another until, in 221, he unified ancient China and created the first imperial dynasty. Zheng assumed the title Qin Shi Huangdi (秦始皇帝; literally, First Sovereign Lord of Qin). Until the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, all rulers of the empire used the title Huangdi.
After the founding of the unified empire, the Legalist tenets were implemented throughout the Qin domain. The currencies of the former states were replaced by Qin currency. Weights and measures were standardized. The Qin style of writing was adopted as the official imperial system. The Qin state built over 4,000 miles of roads to connect all parts of the empire. Hundreds of thousands of labourers were conscripted to build palaces and infrastructure like the ambitious Grand Canal. The Great Wall was erected on the northern and western border.
Li Si initiated the division of the empire into thirty-six administrative commanderies (郡; jun), which were themselves broken up into counties (xian; 縣). Each commandery and county was administered by a civil official, a military official and an inspector, all of whom were under the direct authority of the central government.
Another important reform was the strategy of self-policing aimed at turning the people into law-enforcers. The Qin state divided the population into groups of five and ten families, and each group was made responsible for the behaviour of everyone of its members. If anyone in the group committed a crime, the entire group was punished, unless they reported the crime themselves. (Ropp, 2010, pp. 21-22; Fu, 1996, p. 19)
Despite its unprecedented level of power, the Qin Dynasty had a weakness. Its Legalist policies were so cruel and tyrannical that they ultimately alienated vast sections of the population, including many intellectuals, especially Confucians, who had been repressed and marginalized by the emperor.
Indeed, though it unified China and established a system that constituted the foundation of an empire that ended only in 1911, the Qin Dynasty itself lasted only from 221 BC to 207 BC, and it only had two emperors.
The Legalists believed that harsh government and absolute rule would ensure a strong state. But in fact, the lack of humanity of the Qin caused it to lose popular support. It was, indeed, one of its strict rules which precipitated its downfall.
According to the Qin draft system all male peasants were required to register at the age of 21. Many of them were then recruited to serve in the military for two years between 23 and 56 years old. Reporting late for military duty was a capital offence.
In 209 BC, about 900 peasants were conscripted to serve in the frontier troops stationed in Yuyang (near present-day Beijing). But because of a storm, their march was delayed. Two of the peasants, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, convinced their fellow recruits to rise up against the Qin Dynasty in order to escape the capital punishment. This was the so-called Dazexiang Uprising, which set in motion a series of rebellions that would culminate in the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty and the founding of the Han Dynasty, which ruled for over 400 years (from 206 BC to 220 AD).
In the work The Faults of Qin, Jia Yi (賈誼), a Confucian scholar and author from the early Han Dynasty, described what he regarded as the mistakes of the first imperial rulers. Jia Yi, like many other Confucian literati, denounced the Qin state’s cruelty and tyranny as the reason for its swift downfall.
The Qin Dynasty had risen with the help of Legalist thought, but the tyranny it established proved to be unbearable to the people, leading to revolts. Legalism was discredited by the terror of the first two emperors, and the collapse of the dynasty served as a reminder to future Chinese rulers that law and punishment were not a solid basis upon which imperial power could rest.
Qin Shihuang had declared Legalism to be state ideology. In 213 BC, he allegedly ordered the burning of the books of all major philosophies with the exception of the Legalist texts. A year later, he had 400 Confucian scholars burnt alive.
Paradoxically, the cruelty of Legalism helped Confucianism prevail in the long term.
Autocracy and Laissez-faire: How the Han Dynasty synthesized Legalism and Confucianism
The Qin and the Han Dynasties can be credited for laying the foundations of the imperial system that lasted until 1911.
The Qin state unified the empire and created a bureaucracy as well as centralized rulership. However, its harsh laws and lack of humanity alienated the people, causing its demise.
After leading a successful uprising against the Qin, in 202 BC Liu Bang (劉邦), a peasant who had risen up in the ranks of the Qin army, became the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, assuming the imperial name Gaozu of Han (漢高祖). (Wright, 2001, p. 50)
The Han Dynasty was confronted with the dilemma of how to maintain the unity of the empire brought about by its predecessor, while at the same time strengthening its institutional and moral foundations so as to avoid a renewed disintegration of the state.
The major accomplishment of Gaozu and his successors was to build up by peaceful means what the Qin had attempted to achieve through terror. They did so by turning to Confucianism as a philosophy that would provide an ethical, humane ideology to the empire, and a moral, lofty justification for autocratic governance.
The Han did not entirely discard Legalism, which, while too cynical and brutal to be the only philosophical underlying principle of the state, provided important practical strategies and methods for implementing authoritarianism. Furthermore, Daoism and ying-yang theory were also partly incorporated into the new state ideology. Thus the Han created a synthesis of Chinese thought that preserved monarchism while mitigating its most violent and oppressive aspects. (see De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, pp. 146-156)
During the reign of the first emperor, the state had issued a plethora of regulations affecting almost every aspect of society. After the fall of Qin, the size of government was reduced and the absolute power of the emperor was limited by “checks and balances.” This objective was accomplished through the new doctrine of “nonaction” (無爲), or “effortlessness,” and through delegation of power by the ruler to his ministers and the bureaucracy.
According to Confucian thought, the emperor should not personally deal with administrative matters in the government, but rather delegate those to ministers who, at least in theory, were supposed to be chosen on merit. The emperor ought to be the highest moral authority in the state, leading the people by virtue. (Guo, 2002, p. 75 ; De Bary, Chan, & Watson, 1960, p. 156)
The following excerpts from the Huainanzi (淮南子) and the Chunqiu Fanlu (春秋繁露), two of the most important philosophical texts of the early Han period, shed light on how Chinese intellectuals of that era viewed the role of the emperor:
The Chinese imperial system as a hybrid form of government
We have explained how the Qin Dynasty built up a despotic regime, and how the Han Dynasty resorted to Confucianism and other Chinese ideologies to create a more humane version of autocratic rule.
But what kind of government resulted from the synthesis of various intellectual movements? Was the Chinese empire an authoritarian state where the emperor had unlimited power? Or was it a benevolent government where the ruler provided a moral example to his subjects without resorting to brutal methods?
The answer is that the Chinese empire was both. The Qin and the Han developed a hybrid system in which there was an inherent and constant tension between absolute rule and checks and balances that were put in place to prevent the rise of another Qin Shihuang.
We can understand this best by looking at the last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor, venerated as the Son of Heaven, was in theory the absolute ruler. However, there were a number of checks on his power.
First of all, one of the most interesting aspects of Chinese rulership was the notion that the state did not belong to the emperor, but to the people, and that the emperor was only entrusted with a mandate to govern for the common good. (Hsieh, 1925, p. 24)
For this reason, when Empress Dowager Longyu issued the Abdication Edict on behalf of the infant Qing emperor Puyi on 12 February 1912, she stated that “according [to the teachings of the sages] the country is the possession of the People (天下爲公).”
One of the corollaries of the popular sovereignty doctrine was that the people had an inherent right to rebel against a tyrannical ruler. The right to rebel was not formalized in law, but it was implicitly accepted. It was used as a justification by insurgents who attempted to overthrow a dynasty. (Hsiao, 1960, p. 709)
Second, emperors were supposed to conform to ritual propriety and were partly bound by precedents set by their predecessors. (Rowe 2012, p. 36)
Third, the Chinese empire developed a professional and highly sophisticated bureaucracy, which diluted the direct power of the emperor. There was the “inner” administration, located in the capital, and the “outer” administration, which refers to the local bureaucracy in the provinces.
The highest office in the imperial administration was that of the Grand Secretariat, the most coveted of all government posts. (Rowe 2012, p. 33)
Below the Grand Secretariat were the so-called Six Boards: the Board of Revenue, of Civil Office, of War, of Criminal Justice, of Public Works, and of Rites.
The Board of Civil Office was tasked with assigning posts in the bureaucracy. The Board of Rites, a distinctly Confucian feature of imperial administration, was in charge of imperial rituals, protocol, and etiquette, as well as of overseeing the civil service examinations and, in general, of supervising the moral conduct of the bureaucracy. The Board of Rites also managed the tribute system, which was synonymous with imperial foreign policy until the clash with European powers forced Beijing to adapt to Western diplomatic standards. (Rowe, 2012, p. 34)
Another important institution of the administration was the Censorate. The censors (御史 Yushi, literally: imperial historians) were initially tasked with recording the emperor’s speeches and censoring his actions in order to hold him to high standards. (Hsieh, 1925, p. 87)
Gradually, however, as the centralization of the state progressed, the focus of the Censorate shifted from the emperor to the bureaucracy. The main duties of the Censorate were the supervision of government officials of all ranks, the evaluation of their performance and personal conduct. Censors had the power to impeach officials, to audit the accounts of the Board of Revenue and the provinces, they oversaw the proper implementation of rituals and etiquette as well as imperial examinations.
The censors also transmitted all documents from the Grand Secretariat or the Council of State, made a copy of each document except for those classified as “secret”, examined and archived them, and reported mistakes to the emperor. The censors came to be regarded as imperial spies in the administration, as the “eyes and ears” of the emperor. (Hsieh, 1925, pp. 88-91)
Nevertheless, the censors partly retained the power to criticize the ruler, as shown by an edict issued by Emperor Taizong in 1627:
Fourth, imperial examinations and the pre-eminence of Confucian thought created a bureaucratic and ideological machinery which a single ruler could not easily alter or replace. The class of scholar-officials imbued with Confucian tenets was indeed one of the most enduring factors in the stability of the empire throughout the centuries.
Fifth, the vast empire was governed by a relatively small bureaucracy. In 1800 there were only around 20,000 official posts in the empire for a population of about 400 million. (Rowe 2012, pp. 150, 152)
Given its limited resources, the Qing state was not interested in regulating every aspect of society, but it rather had a “laissez-faire” approach when it came to its relationship with local communities.
Sixth, the imperial government allowed for a high degree of local autonomy as long as the people paid their taxes, caused no trouble, and did not question the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty. The empire established a system of local self-policing in order that the people may act as law-enforcers. Emperors usually mustered the oppressive tools of the state only when they were confronted with rebellions and open defiance of imperial authority.
On a day-to-day basis rural communities were supposed to police themselves through the so-called baojia system. The following document issued in 1708 explains how the baojia system worked:
During the Qing Dynasty, the baojia system was placed under the authority of the Board of Revenue for purposes of taxation and surveillance. As mentioned above, one of the most important functions of the baojia was law-enforcement. Each member of a baojia was required to report to the baojia head any person guilty of a crime, and the baojia head would then report the crime to local authorities. Failure to do so would bring punishment on the entire 10-household unit, thus increasing the pressure on individuals to comply with the law. (Hsiao, 1960, p. 45)
Self-policing was reinforced by Confucian ideology, whose pervasiveness in imperial China cannot be overstated. In the Confucian society of the empire, the individual existed as a member of his or her family, so that from childhood individuality was subjected to a strictly hierarchical order based on age, gender and social position. The cornerstone of Confucianism was the concept of filial piety. Family ideology was used by the state to consolidate imperial authority, as the emperor was portrayed as the “father” whom the subjects-children had to defer to and obey. That was a notion which the common people could easily understand, since it reflected on a large scale the hierarchical family structure that they personally experienced and to which they conformed.
Local communities were eager to avoid trouble with the authorities and tried to resolve disputes among themselves. As Freedman (1958) stated:
According to Steve Tsang (2004), the “best possible government in the Chinese political tradition” had to meet five requirements: “efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people.” (Tsang, 2004, p. 197)
Whether successive imperial dynasties succeeded in fulfilling the highest standards of Chinese governance is a matter of debate. Tsang indeed argues that, paradoxically, it was the British who created the best example of such political model in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the imperial authorities allowed for a high degree of local autonomy, to the extent that the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, whom we quoted at the beginning of this article, claimed that the Chinese had never known Western-style despotism and had enjoyed too much freedom throughout their history.
There were, however, times when emperors asserted their power with the utmost brutality. Violent measures were usually carried out during rebellions and military campaigns.
The imperial legal code listed 10 crimes, the so-called “ten abominations,” which were considered the most heineous of all felonies. It was not a coincidence that the first of the ten abominations was the crime of “plotting a rebellion.” The imperial state indeed suppressed even organizations, such as religions and secret societies, whenever it deemed them too powerful. (Ownby, 1993, p. 37) For instance, in 1753 Qing officials in Fujian Province arrested members of a secret society called Tiechihui on charges of plotting an uprising. (Antony et al., 1993, p. 48)
When in 1787 the commoner Lin Shuangwen, a member of another secret society, the Tiandihui, initiated an anti-dynastic rebellion in Taiwan, the Qing state committed considerable resources to put it down.
In order to suppress the uprising, the regular Taiwan garrison of 12,000 men was not sufficient, so that the imperial government was compelled to send 40,000 additional troops from southern China and to mobilize 50,000 local militia. According to Qing calculations, during the conflict the authorities provided aid to around 650,000 refugees. The total population of Taiwan, according to Qing estimates dating back to 1777, was around 839,000 people. When the rebellion was crushed, Lin Shuangwen was taken prisoner and sent to Beijing, where he was executed. (Ownby, 1996, p. 56)
The Qing state also did not hesitate to use force when it launched military campaigns to conquer new territories and subdue peoples in border regions.
In 1755, emperor Qianlong launched a military campaign against the Zunghar (also spelled Dzungar) people, a group of Mongol Buddhist tribes. The emperor ordered the massacre of all Zunghar captives. In an edict he declared: “Show no mercy at all to these rebels. Only the old and weak should be saved. Our previous military campaigns were too lenient. If we act as before, our troops will withdraw, and further trouble will occur.”
In another edict he stated: “If a rebel is captured and his followers wish to surrender, he must personally come to the garrison, prostrate himself before the commander, and request surrender. If he only sends someone to request submission, it is undoubtedly a trick. Tell Tsengünjav to massacre these crafty Zunghars. Do not believe what they say.”
Generals who exterminated Zunghars were rewarded, while those who merely occupied their land while letting the people escape were punished. When General Chebudengzhabu captured a group of Zunghars, he was ordered to “take the young and strong and massacre them” and award the women as booty. Even young men who surrendered were executed or enslaved on grounds that “their ancestors had been chieftains.” Old, women and children were sent as bondservants to loyal Mongol tribes or to the ruling Manchu. The Zunghars disappeared as a state and a people, and their land was depopulated. It is estimated that around 90 percent of the Zunghars were exterminated. (Perdue, 2005, pp. 283-285)
The Chinese imperial system rested on an inherent contradiction between autocratic rule and laissez-faire. The Qin Dynasty had created a despotic centralized state. That system was maintained by following dynasties, yet mitigated by Confucian morality, local autonomy, and a professional bureaucracy. On the one hand, the emperor was the supreme ruler of the state and could muster considerable resources to suppress rebellions, as well as real or supposed threats to the ruling dynasty. On the other hand, the size of the government was small, and it left the vast majority of the population alone as long as they did not challenge the authority of the state and paid their taxes.
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