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Legalism and Confucianism in the Han Dyansty

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The idea of ruling a powerful government based on the principle of using two conflicting ideologies at the same time appeared foreign to most dynasties of early China. In early Chinese times, after the Period of the Warring States, two ideologies emerged: Legalism and Confucianism. Legalism stressed a strong central government that expressed harsh laws while Confucianism had a decentralized government, placing trust in conscientious and learned individuals to work together to solve political issues.

These two schools of thought were in stark contrast to each other and, up until the Han dynasty, had never been combined with each other through government policy. The Qin dynasty, for example implemented a strict Legalist government while the Zhou dynasty applied a decentralized Confucianist government, which, as with the Qin dynasty, did not last long.

As opposed to the Qin and Zhou dynasties, the combination of Legalist and Confucianist values led to a successful government in the Han dynasty because it gave way to a strong central government along with a rise in cultural and intellectual thinking while also checking each of the ideologies to prevent one from becoming too dominant. Dynasties such as the Qin and Zhou dynasty showed how the practice of just one ideology in their government was the main catalyst leading to demise.

Qin Shihuangdi of the Qin dynasty for example, ruled on the basis of Legalism. While Legalism created a strong centralized government with political organization, its harshness of laws and intolerance of criticism is what gave the Qin dynasty its weakness. In an effort to suppress the growth of intellectual criticism towards the Qin government, “Qin Shihuangdi ordered execution for those who criticized his regime, and he demanded the burning of all books of philosophy, ethics, history, and literature” (Bentley, 157).

This utter disregard for any academic influence on the government and society left little room for improvement while also causing a disturbance among scholars, many of which were buried alive by the emperor the following year. On the other hand, the Zhou dynasty utilized a decentralized government, entrusting, “power, authority, and responsibility to subordinates who in return owed allegiance, tribute, and military support to the central government” (Bentley, 93). This idea of trust among the decentralized Zhou government reflects aspects of Confucianism such as ren, Confucius teaching that emphasizes benevolence and the virtue of human nature (Herbst, 7 November 2012). The decentralized political system of the Zhou dynasty, however, was ephemeral. The kings of the Zhou dynasty found out that they had lost control over the decentralized government, as the subordinates ruled their land independent of central authority, and, “occasionally, they refused to provide military support or even turned their forces against the dynasty in an effort to build up their regional states” (Bentley, 93-4). Like the Qin dynasty, the lack of mediation between two ideologies proved destructive in the end.

Upon the emergence of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang noticed that, “Zhou decentralization encouraged political chaos… because regional governors were powerful enough to resist the emperor and pursue their own ambitions … [while] Qin centralization created a new set of problems… because it provided little incentive for imperial family members to support the dynasty” (Bentley, 159) and acknowledged that a middle ground was necessary in order to lead a successful government. Like the Qin dynasty, “the Han dynasty consolidated the tradition of centralized imperial rule that the Qin dynasty had pioneered” (Bentley, 159).

Liu Bang, first emperor of the Han dynasty, realized the importance of a strong centralized government after seeing some of its success within the Qin dynasty; however, he also understood the harm it could cause in excess. Liu Bang’s successor, Han Wu Di, continued with the Legalist policy of centralization on the government. Like Liu Bang, Han Wu Di strengthened the authority of the government and built infrastructure such as roads and canals which, in turn, expedited communication and trade. Emperor Wu also issued taxes on industries and agriculture while monopolizing the production of goods such as salt and iron.

The salt and iron monopoly angered many Confucians and other progressive thinkers as they argued that the government should stay out of the market and have a laissez faire approach. This conflict of beliefs led to the “Debate on Salt and Iron”, a debate between Confucian scholars and a minister for the Han government. This debate showed much improvement from the policies of the Qin government because, as opposed to Qin Shihuangdi who burned most Confucian literature, the Han government was able to hear what the learned men had to say. The minister defended the government’s Legalist actions by insisting, “I again assert that to do away ith the salt and iron monopolies and equitable marketing system would bring havoc to our frontier military policies and would be heartless toward those on the frontier” (“The Debate on Salt and Iron”, 176). The minister argued that without the revenue coming in from the salt and iron monopolies, there would be no money to fund an army and defend the state. While the minister was correct in stressing the importance of the monopolies for government revenue, the government recognized the need for Confucius ideas and scholars within their government.

Although the Han dynasty held up under a Legalist-based government, it was due to Confucian influence that they were successful. Han Wu Di’s successful centralization of government led to a great expansion of the empire. With this expansion of the Han dynasty it led to an increase of demand for candidates to hold government positions. The emperor turned to the educated and intelligent students who studied Confucianism. While still maintaining the Legalist government policies, “Han Wu Di ensured the long term survival of Confucian tradition by establishing it as the official imperial ideology” (Bentley, 160).

This was a big step at the time as the two conflicting ideologies had never before been combined in such a way. Furthermore, recognizing the need for even more scholars in government, Han Wu Di, in spite of the Martial Emperor, established, “the imperial university [that] took Confucianism-the only Chinese tradition developed enough to provide rigorous intellectual discipline-as the basis for its curriculum” (Bentley, 160). The emperor’s decision to create this academy proved to be a great success for the Han government.

The university, which lasted up until the 20th century, transformed the capitol into a city full of commerce, culture, and intellectuals (Herbst, Fall Quarter 2012). Through the combination of a centralized government implementing Legalist policies and the intellect of the Confucian scholars, the Han dynasty managed to be the most successful and influential dynasty in the history of China, lasting for over four hundred years. Despite the fact that the Han Dynasty reigned for the longest period and gave way to great intellectual improvements, some may argue that the combination of the ideologies of Confucianism and Legalism within the overnment harmed, rather than helped, the dynasty. For example, in “The Debate on Salt and Iron”, the learned Confucian scholars argued that too much government control is destructive and puts a great pressure on the people. The Confucians insisted that Legalism is flawed by declaring, “if a country possesses rich natural resources in its mountains and seas yet its people are poor, the reason it that the people’s necessities have not been attended to while luxuries have multiplied” (“The Debate on Salt and Iron”, 177-178).

Basically, they were arguing that Legalism caused greed and too much government control put small farmers and merchants out of business. While the learned men were right to an extent, they failed to see that an unregulated market led to speculation, while a government controlled market could distribute goods at a fair price even in times of low harvest (Chang, 19 February 2013). The minister responded to this claim by stating, “The balancing standard safeguards the people from unemployment; the equable marketing system distributes their work fairly.

Both these measures are intended to even out goods and be a convenience for the people” (“The Debate on Salt and Iron”, 178). This response shows the necessity for their Legalist policies of government because without the safeguard of the monopoly, the people have no options in times of drought or poverty. It can also be said that the Han dynasty would have been better off without the influence of Confucianism. This statement is also false when one looks at the impact that the Confucian learning schools not only had on the capitol but on the government as well.

In fact, by the end of the Han Dynasty, “the student population had risen to more than thirty thousand” (Bentley, 160). Without the Confucius scholars in government, there would have been no balance or anyone to check the extent of Legalist power. In the end it is evident that both ideologies, when used together, led to the most ideal structured government. Even though the combination of two conflicting ideologies in a government sounds not only destructive, but ridiculous, that idea still exists today.

Take our government for example, where two parties, opposite and conflicting anywhere they can be, are put in a position where they must work together. Even though one party may be more powerful or have more influence at the moment, it isn’t without the input of the other that our government has success. Like “The Debate on Salt and Iron” checking the extent of power that Legalism executes, our two parties check each other’s power in similar ways.

Another lasting impression of the Han dynasty is evident through some Chinese people today, as they still identify themselves as Han people (Chang, 19 February 2013). It is interesting to see the lasting impact that the Han dynasty left and how they pioneered a governmental system which proves to be successful even in modern times. Without the successes that the Han Dynasty demonstrated, it makes one wonder if such a two party system would exist today.

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