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Limits to Autocracy

Limits to Autocracy: From Sung Neo-Confucianism to a Doctrine of Political Rights

Copyright Date: 1995
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  • Book Info
    Limits to Autocracy
    Book Description:

    Alan T. Wood examines the cultural identity of modern China in the context of authoritarianism in the Chinese political tradition. Taking on issues of key importance in the understanding of Chinese history, Wood leads readers to a reconsideration of neo-Confucian thinkers of the Northern Sung dynasty. Modern scholars have accused Sung neo-Confucians of advocating a doctrine of unconditional obedience to the ruler--of "revering the emperor and expelling the barbarian"--and thereby inhibiting the rise of democracy in China. Wood refutes this dominant view by arguing that Sung neo-Confucians intended to limit the power of the emperor, not enhance it. Sung political thinkers believed passionately in the existence of a moral cosmos governed by universal laws that transcended the ruler and could be invoked to set limits on his power. Wood makes a striking comparison of this view with a similar one of universal morality or natural law that developed in late Medieval Europe. By drawing attention to a much-neglected Confucian text, he contributes significantly to the wider dialog of human rights in China and brings forth fresh philosophical insights in his comparative view of Chinese and Western history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6336-4
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Political thought is the child of chaos and the father of order. It is no coincidence that most of the great pioneering works of political thought in the West have followed closely on times of political disorder. Plato’sRepublicwas written after the Athenian loss to the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, Augustine’sCity of Godafter the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Machiavelli’sPrinceafter the decline of the republican city-states in Italy, and Hobbes’Leviathanafter the Thirty Years’ War on the Continent and the Civil War in England. Our effort to understand the forces of order and...

  6. Part One The Historical Dimension

    • 2 The Background of Neo-Confucianism
      (pp. 25-54)

      Like the high mountains of China’s western regions where the rivers of Asia begin their long and circuitous descent, the Northern Sung was the origin of the major currents of Chinese thought from the eleventh to the twentieth centuries. Some of those currents were beneficial, providing a common language of discourse and a common foundation of moral understanding, and others were harmful, submerging alternative modes of thinking that might have added a welcome diversity to a sometimes excessively homogeneous intellectual landscape. Beneficial or harmful, they marked a major turning point in China’s intellectual history.

      In its role as a shaping...

    • 3 Background of the Ch’un-ch’iu Commentaries
      (pp. 55-78)

      TheCh’un-ch’iu(Spring and autumn annals) occupies a place in the history of Chinese political thought entirely out of proportion to the scale of the work itself. From the early Han to the late Ch’ing, a period of more than two thousand years, it has been the single most important reservoir of ideas about politics in all classical literature. For questions of self-cultivation Chinese have gone for inspiration to theI-chingor the corpus of Confucian dialogues (theLun-yü, theTa-hsüeh, or theChung-yung), but for questions of government they have usually gone to theCh’un-ch’iu. It was common for...

  7. Part Two The Ideological Dimension

    • 4 Sun Fu’s Views on Obedience to Authority: The Literal/Moral Levels
      (pp. 81-110)

      From very early times, the belief that Confucius wrote theCh’un-ch’iuin order to expound the kingly way(wang-tao)to future generations was commonly accepted. Since according to Confucius good government could be realized only when the ruler conformed to a prescribed set of moral principles, theCh’un-ch’iuwas understood to serve the dual purpose of defining those principles and demonstrating how they should be implemented in particular circumstances. In the Northern Sung, China had just passed through a period of disunion reminiscent of the period in which Confucius himself had lived, and Northern Sung scholars were not unaware of...

    • 5 The Views of Ch’eng I and Hu An-kuo: The Moral/Metaphysical Levels
      (pp. 111-131)

      We have now arrived at the major junction in this work, where the hitherto divergent paths of neo-Confucian metaphysical speculation and neo-Confucian political thought intersect and travel for a time along a common route. The immediate cause of their convergence was a mutual interest in the problem of authority. The result was to strengthen the obligation of the subject to obey his ruler while at the same time strengthening the obligation of the ruler to obey universal moral laws, of which the ruler himself was regarded as merely the instrument. The close correspondence held to exist by the neo-Confucian metaphysical...

    • 6 Statecraft and Natural Law in the West and China
      (pp. 132-147)

      Ch’eng I and Hu An-kuo, and of course Chu Hsi and all subsequent thinkers of the Ch’eng-Chu school, based their philosophical ideas on the assumption that there exist absolute laws of nature, which they referred to collectively as principle(li)or heavenly principle(t’ien-li). They assumed, furthermore, that those laws were universal in their scope and application. Having never encountered a non-Chinese civilization as developed as their own, they had no reason to doubt that Chinese standards were universal (all-under-heaven). When China did encounter such a civilization—the West—in the middle of the Ch’ing dynasty, the response ranged from...

    • 7 Implications for Modern China and Japan
      (pp. 148-178)

      Throughout the history of Chinese political thought the need for obedience to authority has been a constant refrain. There are both practical and ideological reasons for this appreciation of the value of a strong central authority. From a purely practical point of view, the presence on China’s northern borders of barbarians always willing to invade when China was weak was a powerful incentive to preserve a centralized state. But this practical incentive was also encouraged by the Confucian intellectual tradition, which pursued a stable social order not merely as an end in itself but as a necessary condition for the...

  8. Abbreviations
    (pp. 179-180)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 181-232)
  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 233-254)
  11. Index
    (pp. 255-264)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-265)