War in Confucianism
Confucianism as political ethics has its roots in warfare. In 1046 BC, or thereabouts, one Jī Fā led a tribal coalition which defeated and overthrew the Shāng dynasty whose territory in northern China was about the same size as the modern states of France, Germany and Poland combined. The victor, better known to history as King Wŭ of Zhōu, became an archetype of the virtuous ruler, and was evoked as such by the early Confucian philosophers. The defeated Shāng king by contrast represents the evil tyrant who persecutes the people and deserves his fate. Addressing his followers before battle, Jī Fā makes what the texts describe as a ‘Great Vow’. Heaven, he says, loves the people and, having seen their sufferings, commands Jī Fā to remove the evil Shāng king:
“Heaven gave the ordinary people rulers and advisors in order to protect them. When they are united, they can follow the Ruler on High, in order that every part of the land is at peace. Now whether we are responsible or not, who are we to go against the Will of Heaven?” (The Book of Documents 27.4 tr Palmer et al)
From the Great Vow of the crusading Jī Fā, particularly in the works of Confucius, Mencius and Xúnzĭ, emerges the principle known as the Mandate of Heaven: rulers are legitimate only insofar as they govern with humaneness; carrying out their duties to the people by non-coercive means. If they fail to so rule they may be overthrown; in particular, the legitimate king, who possess the Mandate of Heaven, may conduct ‘punitive expeditions’ in order to punish inhumane subordinate rulers. The Book of Documents tells us that King Wŭ, following the defeat of Shāng, found it necessary to put down rebellions in the east in order to bring peace to the people.
The legitimate king, who possess the Mandate of Heaven, may conduct ‘punitive expeditions’ in order to punish inhumane subordinate rulers.
From these historical exemplars, the Confucian philosophers developed a distinctive view of what constitutes a just war. At the core of the Confucian view is a greater concern for the welfare of all people ‘under Heaven’, than for the rights of rulers to act as they please within their own territory.
1. States are justified by their humane rule
Following his victory, Zhōu King Wŭ sought advice from the worthy viscount of Qí who disclosed details of Heaven’s Great Plan for rulers:
“Perfect princely rule occurs when the prince seeks perfection in his bestowing the Five Good Fortunes [long life, prosperity, peace and well-being, love of virtue, and a good end to life], sharing these with all the people. In return the people will become defenders of this and will trust the prince. The people will therefore never plot or the statesman be so self-centred as would otherwise be the case and the ruler will achieve his highest ambitions and status.” (Book of Documents 32.7 tr Palmer et. al)
The function of government is to maximise not state prosperity or power but the people’s well-being. The national resources should be shared equitably with all the people. Governments should pursue their policies, so far as is possible, by non-coercive means. Humane rule includes the maintenance of a ‘well-equipped’ military for the national defence, while avoiding foreign entanglements. Humane rule secures the trust and loyalty of the people ensuring their support should a threat arise from an aggressor.
The function of government is to maximise not state prosperity or power but the people’s well-being.
2. States are accountable both to those above and those below
Mencius describes a system of appointment and accountability using as a model two mythological sage rulers, Yáo and Shùn:
“When [Yáo] put Shun in charge of the sacrifices, the spirits welcomed them. This is how Heaven accepted him. When he put Shun in charge of the nation’s affairs, they were well ordered and the people were at peace. This is how the people accepted him.” (Mencius-5A:5.10 tr Bloom)
Kings are appointed by Heaven and the people. In this and adjacent passages, Mencius describes a hierarchy whereby all with political power are accountable, generally upwards, but in which the people are considered of greater importance than rulers or even the state itself. Citing the Book of Documents, Mencius reminds his readers that ‘Heaven sees as the people see’ and will thus act, or mandate actions, to relieve their sufferings. In our own more impious times Heaven is not seen as a major political actor, of course; but there is delineated here a dual system of accountability combining popular consent with supreme oversight. Where rulers fail in their duties to the people they may be punished and, if necessary, removed.
3. Wars of aggression for personal or state gain are forbidden
“A true king carries out punitive expeditions but he does not make war.” (Xúnzĭ 15.338 tr Watson)
Since governments are charged with pursuing the popular well-being and not state power or prosperity, wars of aggression are illegitimate and those who initiate them are to be subject to punishment (see below). Confucianism’s alternative development strategy upholds a form of moral competition between states. Virtuous rulers employ non-coercive ‘moral force’ to attract the good will, trade and even loyalty of those in other states, especially badly run ones.
Virtuous rulers employ non-coercive ‘moral force’ to attract the good will of those in other states.
4. Police actions against inhumane states are justified
“The benevolent man … because he loves others, he hates to see men do them harm. The righteous man acts in accordance with what is right, and for that reason he hates to see men do wrong. He takes up arms in order to put an end to violence and to do away with harm, not in order to contend with others for spoil.” (Xúnzĭ 15.355 tr Watson)
The ultimate sanction against inhumane states including those who indulge in wars of aggression is a form of police action known in Confucian circles as the ‘punitive expedition’. The purpose of such expeditions is to restore good government to the people and rectify, that is, punish or remove, rulers. There is, however, a difference between Confucius in the 6th
century BC and Xúnzĭ some three centuries later, as to who may carry out punitive expeditions. For Confucius, only the Zhōu king, whose authority comes from the Mandate of Heaven, may authorise such actions. For subordinate state rulers to do so is not in accordance with the Confucian moral way.
Even in Confucius’ day, the authority of the Zhōu king was in serious decline and by Xúnzĭ’s time it had entirely disappeared. Xúnzĭ, therefore takes a different tack: kings of his own day who followed the Confucian moral way could carry out punitive expeditions. It is not clear that any such ‘true kings’ existed in Xúnzĭ’s time, however; the Warring States period (c. 475-221 BC) is so called for good reason.
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David Cockayne comes from the formerly industrial West Midlands of England. He left school at 16 and became a gas fitter, subsequently declining into technical writing and then English teaching. Somewhere along the line he acquired qualifications in Computer Science and Linguistics.
His interest in Chinese philosophy derives from a youthful dalliance with Maoism during the Cultural Revolution and, in more recent times, two years’ confusion while teaching in Beijing. He is presently attempting to write an introduction to what Confucianism is and is not, focusing especially on what the ancient texts themselves actually say.