Law In Post-Mao China: Confucianism, Legalism, Imperial Traditions


The Great Hall of the People, Beijing (photo by Thomas.fanghaenel, licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons)

In the previous post we have described the similarities and differences between Maoism and Legalism, and in particular we have shown the parallels between Maoist and Legalist doctrines regarding the establishment of an autocratic, centralised state. Moreover, we have demonstrated that Mao Zedong rejected Confucian values, which he viewed as “reactionary”. In this post we will show how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the post-Maoist era has preserved elements of Legalism, Leninism and of the imperial legal system; at the same time, however, it has also rediscovered Confucianism as a more humane and family-oriented ideology which helped the Communist state overcome the brutality and the excesses of Maoist class struggle. Beijing’s attempt at combining Legalism, Leninism, Maoism and ancient imperial traditions has created a state with ideologically inconsistent and weak foundations. Yet at the same time the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has succeeded in preserving power and consensus exactly because it draws upon such broad and various traditions.

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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.

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