Confucian political philosophy

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The key idea of the traditional Confucian political philosophy is that the sovereign should be responsive to the needs of the people. This idea was implicit in the core documents created at the beginning of the Zhou dynasty (old Wade-Giles spelling, Chou), so it is something of a misnomer to call it "Confucianism," but so it is known in the West.

According to this theory, Heaven has the interests of all of the people at heart, and mandates that an individual and his heirs shall rule China, but only so long as the ruler is an adequate steward of the people. Should any ruler fail to obey this mandate, then the responsibility and right to rule will be taken from him and given to another house.

The scholar class negotiated for themselves the de facto position of interpreters of the will of Heaven to the rulers. Individual members of this class came to be selected for government service by the original civil service examinations, and these examinations concentrated on the individual's command of the philosophical writings that expounded the theoretical grounds for caring for the people as Heaven required. The result was a feedback mechanism that powerfully influenced Chinese society toward stability and kept change to very moderate rates. To become a member of the officialdom, one had to pass examinations that were written and graded by the establishment. One had to thoroughly internalize the establishment ideology or philosophy to have any hope of becoming a member of that powerful and wealthy group. Many people tried and failed, but in trying they indoctrinated themselves and learned by rote the philosophical texts of the Confucians. They became the next generation of teachers and looked toward the successful candidates (especially the ones who published on the subjects of government, history, and philosophy) for guidance. They then educated later generations of scholar-candidates for official government positions.

This system has persisted for around 2,500 years. It has produced an imperfect system that has still been excellent in its results over time. Despite the appearance of complete rejection of this system of thought during the most intensely ideological periods of the reign of the Chinese Communist Party, it lived on because the attitudes toward government and toward the people had so thoroughly permeated the consciousness of each person who grew up in the Chinese society.

There are two striking indications of the depth and the breadth of this movement:

In her book on the debacle in Vietnam, Fitzgerald says that the true end of the Diem regime came when the Vietnamese people decided that Diem had lost the Mandate of Heaven, i.e., that Heaven had decided that he was not an adequate steward for the Vietnamese people and therefore forsook him. Fitzgerand's belief was that once the people had reached this consensus nothing could have been successful in shoring the Diem regime up.

In the Tiananmen Massacre, the people who led the movement of protest were the educated, the members of what used to be called the literati, and the members of that group that had the responsibility for interpreting the will of Heaven to the rulers. It was characteristic of them that they protested not only because they may have felt that their own interests were being harmed, but also because they believed that they had what we can only call a religious responsibility, a holy calling, to correct the practices and policies of the sovereign party officials that went against Heaven's demand that government serve the interests of the people.

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