Towards Confucian communalism: a match made in heaven?


This paper discusses the efforts of Chinese rulers to create sanitized forms of Confucianism in order to bolster ideological orthodoxy, and counter-reactions within the intelligentsia and civil society to these efforts. This paper looks at the thoughts of some Chinese scholars in both the imperial and contemporary era who have opposed the kind of spiritual centralism, or orthodoxy, with which the rulers have aimed to reinforce concrete centralism. It also seeks to draw a parallel between contemporary academic discussion on some recently unearthed texts and between-the-lines criticism in one classical prose anthology during the late imperial era as forms of grass-roots level dissidence which could escape the attention of the censorship machinery. Furthermore, this paper compares the calls for localism by Confucian scholars in the imperial era with the ideas of modern promoters of communalism (also known as libertarian municipalism), which, as a theory of government, refers to a federation of autonomous units of local rule. This discussion is related to the wider debate about the relationship between Confucianism and democracy.

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  1. 1.

    In Chinese, fazhi 法治. It is debatable if it can be translated as the rule of law. More accurate would be ‘rule by law’.

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    The meaning of gong 公 is best translated here as ‘communal’. It belongs to the same semantic field with tong 同, meaning, inter alia, ‘shared’ or ‘conjoined’.

  4. 4.

    For example, during the war against Japan the Chinese could say: “Manchuria belongs now to the Tianxia of the Japanese.”

  5. 5.

    Where not otherwise noted, references to classical quotations indicate their location in the Chinese Text Project database (

  6. 6.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Chinese are by the author.

  7. 7.

    Originally these maxims were indeed Confucian, as they had been drafted by Zhu Xi, albeit for different purpose (Ho 2011, p. 206).

  8. 8.

    A translation of the 16 maxims can be found in de Bary and Lufrano (2000, pp. 71–72).

  9. 9.

    Gu’s thinking was in part motivated also by his anti-Manchu feelings.

  10. 10.

    Jun can be translated as ‘prefectures’ and xian as ‘counties’. Since the Qin dynasty, both were instruments of centralized government in the local level.

  11. 11.

    Lufrano (1997, 17, 33) writes of merchant manuals, but the situation was likely to also have been the same for other types of textbooks.

  12. 12.

    Hong et al. 2001 include a non-conclusive but nevertheless impressive list of classical literature compilations from the different dynasties. These numbers based on that list are probably at least indicative: the number of compilations published during the Song dynasty was 62, with the Yuan, Ming and Qing having 5, 24 and 80 respectively.

  13. 13.

    Junxian zhi, tianxia an 郡縣治天下安. The origin of the saying is unclear. Some Chinese web-commentaries identify the source as the Shiji, but searches from the Chinese Text Project database do not reveal the saying, in whole or in part, there or anywhere else.

  14. 14.

    Some texts found in Guodian are widely believed to be parts of the now lost Zisizi, the collected writings of Zisi.

  15. 15.

    The translations of the virtues differ; for example ‘benevolence’ (ren) could be interpreted as ‘humanity’ or ‘fraternity’ or ‘honorability’, depending on the source and context.

  16. 16.

    Kingly Way (wang dao 王道) and hegemonic rule (ba dao 霸道) are opposites often referred to in Chinese literature on statecraft. The former refers to the rule of a benevolent and virtuous king, and the latter to immoral tyranny.

  17. 17.

    Wu Jiaxiang is known as an advocate of “neo-authoritarianism”, which is criticized of being just a euphemism for benevolent dictatorship and a catch-phrase for those who believe China is not yet ready for democracy. The democracy Wu is promoting in his book appears to be a form of local democracy, whereas he seems to think that democracy on a national scale would lead the country into chaos, and then back into autocracy.

  18. 18.

    Kim (2014, p. 8 fn. 18) refers in particular to Daniel Bell, Bai Tongdong, David L. Hall and Roger Ames.

  19. 19.

    Communalism may be seen as one way to alleviate the tension between governmental power and responsiveness (see Almond and Verba 1989, p. 343) troubling many democratic societies. Communalist thinkers follow along similar lines to Almond and Verba who suggested (1989) that the tension can be best dealt with by combining parochial, subject, and participant orientations of the citizens: “What is required is a process by which individuals can come to develop a sense of common political identity; and identity that implies common affective commitment to the political system, as well as a sense of identity with one’s fellow citizens” (p. 371). In a manner befitting Confucianism, Almond and Verba (1989, p. 370) also stress the importance of education in developing civic culture.

  20. 20.

    Bookchin (1982, p. 318) writes that in an ecological society, hierarchies would be replaced by interdependencies. Ideally, the five relations (father—son, ruler—minister etc.) in traditional Chinese thinking were bi-directional, and hence there was an element of interdependency. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny the underlying emphasis on hierarchical structures and the importance of knowing one’s place.

  21. 21.

    An exception to the rule is the “heretic” Li Zhi (Lee 2012, pp. 21, 74).

  22. 22.

    According to the Analects, Confucius regarded Heaven with awe, respected rites and rituals, and did not overrule the possibility of the existence of gods and spirits. However, the general ethos of his teachings calls for concentrating on here-and-now realities, and working for practical solutions.

  23. 23.

    Bookchin stresses that reason needs to be guided by Libertarian ethics (1982, p. 353).

  24. 24.

    There does not seem to be an established translation of communalism in Chinese. I find gongshe zhuyi best because it reflects the origin of communalist thinking in the Paris Commune, and also because of the meaning of gongshe in classical texts: ‘the altar for public offerings to the Earth’, symbolizing the union of the state. Admittedly, the word gongshe probably leads most Chinese to think about the People’s Communes.


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Kallio, J. Towards Confucian communalism: a match made in heaven?. Int. Commun. Chin. Cult 3, 427–442 (2016).

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  • Confucianism
  • Communalism
  • Communitarianism
  • Guwen guanzhi
  • Tianxia
  • Fengjian