, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 486-505
Date: 01 Dec 2010

The source of the idea of equality in Confucian thought

Abstract

Although the traditional society in China was not necessarily a society of equality, and the classical Confucianism did not speak much about the principle of universal equality, in modern times, in the midst of a transformation of value systems, people still find correlating sources within the Confucian tradition that is connected to the modern idea of equality. This essay makes a detailed study on this correlation and points out that ancient Chinese society and the western feudal society are different in terms of social systems and education systems. For example, China has the imperial examination but no patrimonial aristocracy. Confucianism opposed the huge gap between the poor and the rich, and this idea has become a modern tradition in the ideal of “great harmony under the sky,” especially in Kang Youwei’s 康有为 Datong Shu 大同书 (Book of Great Harmony). There were also some elements of agricultural socialism and equalitarianism in traditional Confucianism. The potential idea of equality (or reciprocity) in “friendship,” embodied in the principle of Confucian ethics of the Three Bonds and the Five Relations, is explored and explained in a modern way. The theory that the sages are equal with the masses, which originated from the theory of human being’s intrinsic goodness, may be directly connected with modern principle of equality. The modern transformation of equality is both political and ethical. The former is to struggle for individual rights; the latter is to establish moral subjectivity. Therefore, equality between sages and the masses manifests modernity. Like the epistemic subjectivity, which could not be discussed without referring to group-individual relationship, the moral subjectivity also contains a consciousness of equality.

Translated by YAN Xin from Shehui Kexue 社会科学 (Social Sciences), 2009, (4): 120–127