Study the Past to Understand the Present

“Know yourself and know your enemy,” Sun Zi wrote in The Art of War, but although China has learned much about the world, the world still knows little about China, harboring such naïve misconceptions as “Chinese are not good at business” (Yoshinari, 1988), “Chinese can’t innovate” (Harvard Business Review, 2014) and “China is a threat to world peace”—a tenacious trope since Liberation in 1949.

In reality, Chinese have excelled at trade for over 3,000 years, been exceptionally innovative and inventive, and have such an aversion to war that even Sun Zi’s Art of War warns violence is only the last resort when all other measures fail, the supreme art being to “subdue enemies without fighting.”

China has survived and thrived on every front through the ages only because of a system of moral governance so unique and revolutionary that it helped shape the European Enlightenment.

Some 2,400 years ago, Plato advocated a meritocratic utopia led by intelligent, wise, reliable philosopher-kings, but Plato probably had no idea that 7,000 km away and 150 years earlier, Confucius had already set in motion a meritocracy—but he went one better than Plato. Rulers in Plato’s utopia held hereditary offices but Confucius called for leaders chosen solely for morality and merit, regardless of ancestry. Over 2,000 years later, European philosophers fed up with the “divine right of kings” were astonished at what they read in Jesuit missionaries’ translations of Chinese classics.

Voltaire (1694–1778), the greatest thinker of the Enlightenment, claimed that China was a nation ruled by philosophers, and displayed a portrait of Confucius on his library wall. He wrote, “They have perfected moral science, and that is the first of the sciences.” Voltaire wrote in 1764, “One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese to recognize at least that their empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen.”Footnote 1 Voltaire even suggested that Europe replace its ailing monarchies with a Chinese meritocracy. “What should our European princes do when they hear of such examples?” Voltaire asked. “Admire and blush, but above all imitate.”

The mathematician Leibniz wrote in his 1697 book, Novissima Sinica (Latest News from China): “I almost think it necessary that Chinese missionaries should be sent to us to teach the aims and practice of natural theology, as we send missionaries to them to instruct them in revealed religion.”

Francois Noel (1651–1729), poet and Jesuit missionary to China, wrote in the introduction of his translation of China’s six classics that he wanted the reader to not only “become acquainted with what the Chinese have written, but that you may put into act what they have rightly thought”.

But many Europeans felt threatened by this call to learn from China. The great German philosopher Christian Wolff (1679–1754) lost his position at the University of Halle after a 1721 lecture in which he praised Confucius’ moral precepts and China’s system of moral governance. He was given 48 h to leave Prussia or be hanged.

The Generational Curse in Governance

Europeans especially admired Confucius’ call for universal education (The Analects, 15.39) so that even commoners who proved themselves competent and virtuous could hold office. Confucius opposed hereditary offices because he had observed that hereditary aristocracies suffered the same “generational curse” as family businesses.

Chinese have long said that wealth does not extend beyond three generations because the first generation gains wealth through ability (merit), the second generation learns from the first but has an easier life and is less driven, and the third generation takes wealth for granted, has a sense of entitlement, and often squanders all that has been passed down to them. “I pity a rich man’s son,” said Conwell (1843–1925). “The statistics of Massachusetts show us that not one out of seventeen rich men’s sons ever die rich. They are raised in luxury, they die in poverty.”Footnote 2

But hereditary governments, Confucius knew, suffered the same generational curse. Powerful people seized the throne to create new dynasties but their descendants, competent or not, had a sense of entitlement, taxed the people to fund their lavish lifestyles and paid less attention to wise and just rule. Social unrest then led to overthrow of the unjust government and the cycle began anew.

The solution, according to Confucius, was an education-based meritocracy, although he made it clear his ideas were not new but simply a clarion call to return to the high ideals and morals of China’s “Ancient Ways” (The Analects, 7:1).

The “Ancient Ways” began with the Three Sovereigns, ancient God-kings whose rule was benevolent, pragmatic, and people-centered. They improved people’s lives by giving them basic skills and knowledge. Their benevolence, uprightness and competence, reflected in their pragmatic inventiveness to meet people’s needs, led Confucius to write that rulers should be “generous in caring for ordinary people and just in exacting service from the people” (The Analects, 5:16). Chinese socialism today shares this same pragmatism.

The Three Sovereigns were followed by Five Emperors (2852–2070 BC), who were kings that enjoyed long, prosperous reigns because of their uprightness and morality. Their example suggested that moral governance was a prerequisite for peace and prosperity, and that immorality or incompetence was followed by the “generational failure” that destroyed the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC).

The Shang Dynasty, ruled by 31 kings over 17 generations, initially enjoyed popular support because the people led peaceful, prosperous lives, but fortunes declined as rulers became complacent, corrupt and immoral.

Historian Sima Qian (145–? BC) said that the last Shang Dynasty king, King Di Xin (1075–1046 BC), had abilities far above average. Legends claimed he was so smart that he won all arguments and so strong that he hunted wild beasts with his bare hands. But later in life, Di Xin abandoned proper governance of the country and spent his time in drunken orgies and composed crude erotic songs with poor rhythm (a shocking affront to a nation which even 2,200 years ago had a governmental department of music and poetry). Di Xin’s heavy taxes to pay for his debauchery led to such social unrest that King Wu was able to overthrow him in 1046 BC.

To justify Di Xin’s overthrow, the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) introduced the notion of the Mandate of Heaven, which held that immoral or inept rulers lose the support of Heaven and are replaced by a new ruler who did not need to be of noble birth, only moral and competent.

Like the Shang Dynasty in its prime, the Zhou Dynasty initially prospered. Zhou had a powerful military, excelled in shipbuilding and celestial navigation, and was known for its literature and philosophy. With many government leaders chosen for their intellectual ability, it is not surprising that the dynasty produced great thinkers like Lao Zi, Mo Zi, Yang Zhu, Confucius and Mencius, and many of China’s great classics such as the Five Classics (Book of Changes, Book of Songs, Book of History, Book of Rites, and Spring and Autumn Annals) as well as the perennially popular The Art of War, which to this day is studied by everyone from the U.S. ArmyFootnote 3 to basketball coaches.

But by Confucius’ day, the Zhou Dynasty had obviously lost Heaven’s favor. The kings waged endless wars and lived in fear of assassination, the peasants paid heavy taxes to fund the wars, and ruthless bandits roamed the land. It was in this context that Confucius became prime minister of Lu.

Under Confucius’ guidance, the prince of Lu became so powerful that a neighboring prince, frightened by Lu’s success, sent him a gift of 80 beautiful girls trained in music and dance and some fine horses. This gift was the prince’s undoing. He took such pleasure in the girls that he ignored his responsibilities and Confucius’ counsel. Confucius eventually resigned and departed—though he left slowly, hoping in vain that the prince would call him back. Confucius wandered from state to state for 12 years hoping to find a ruler willing to learn sound governance, but none would listen. He finally returned to live quietly at Lu, where he refused government positions and spent his time teaching his followers, studying the classics and committing ancient traditions to writing. Just before his death at 73, he told a pupil, “No wise ruler arises, and no one in the empire wants me to be his teacher.”

Confucius’ failure at politics, however, proved to be a blessing for posterity because it gave him the time to pen the classics that would guide China even into the twenty-first century.

Confucius on Government

Confucius taught that a good government had three priorities—sufficient food, sufficient army and the will of the people. If any had to be given up, first to go should be the army, with food second, but confidence was last because no government is sustainable without the people’s confidence. Confucius also warned that no government could demand confidence, but must earn it by insuring the peoples’ needs are met. Thus the first priority is to prosper people and the second is to educate them—the fundamental priorities that China holds to this day.

Although Confucian society pivoted on right relationships and social harmony—each person knew their place and kept it—commoners who cultivated their virtue and knowledge through education could attain offices. “In teaching,” Confucius wrote, “there should be no distinction of classes” (The Analects, 15.39).

This notion of universal education eventually led to the meritocracy in which people competed through exams and were promoted based on merit—a system that lasted into the early twentieth century. Giles wrote in 1902 that China’s real rulers were the district magistrates, a position open to anyone passing the exams:

The district magistrates, so far as officials are concerned, are the real rulers of China … the first step on the ladder is open to all who can win their way by successful competition at certain literary examinations.… Want of means may be said to offer no obstacle in China to ambition and desire for advancement. The slightest aptitude in a boy for learning would be carefully noted, and if found to be the genuine article, would be still … more carefully fostered. Not only are there plenty of free schools in China, but there are plenty of persons ready to help in so good a cause. Many a high official has risen from the furrowed fields, his educational expenses as a student, and his travelling expenses as a candidate, being paid by subscription in his native place.

Even my own province of Fujian has many stories of rural youth rising from obscurity to high position—people like Li Guangdi (1642–1718), who was born in the remote village of Hutou but studied diligently as a child and became a highly honored prime minister under Emperor Kangxi.

Confucian Leadership by Example

Confucius stressed that officials not only be moral and competent but that they lead through ethics rather than coercion, through example rather than law. For Confucius, force was always the last resort. In The Analects 2:3, he said, “If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. If, however, you guide them with Virtue, and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves.”

Ethics and integrity was so important to Confucian scholars that some abandoned careers rather than betray principles. The brilliant polymath, Zhang Heng (78–139), gave up promotions rather than compromise his positions on history and calendar issues. In 1938, Lewis wrote of courageous twentieth century Chinese sages:

There is a bravery characteristic of the sage … boldly to carry into practice his views of the doctrines of the ancient kings; in a high situation not to follow the current of a bad people; to consider that there is no poverty where there is virtue, and no wealth or honor where virtue is not; when appreciated by the world, to desire to share in all men’s joys and sorrows; when unknown by the world, to stand up grandly alone between heaven and earth and have no fears – this is the bravery of the highest order.

Taoist Government

Taoism influences Confucian Chinese culture and government to this day. Legend has it that Confucius consulted Lao Zi, founder of Taoism. Lao Zi was also disillusioned with the leadership and gave concrete suggestions on ethical governance, with a strong emphasis on small and minimally intrusive government. Like Confucius, Lao Zi urged minimal control so people would be virtuous, and controlled from within rather than from without. “The earliest leaders,” Lao Zi said, “didn’t talk, they acted, and when they’d done their work, the people said, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!’”.

We see echoes of Taoism’s minimal control today in Chinese leader’s emphasis on empowerment and self-reliance, and Xi Jinping’s call to lift people from “poverty of spirit”.

Even former U.S. President Ronald Reagan quoted Lao Zi in his Jan. 25, 1988 State of the Union Address: “And as an ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Zi, said, ‘Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish; do not overdo it.’”.

The element of Taoism in today’s government that most impresses me stems from Lao Zi’s, “When work is done and one’s name is being known, to withdraw into obscurity is the Way of Heaven.” American politicians upon leaving office usually sign lucrative book contracts and go on speaking tours to tout their successes and criticize their successors. But we rarely hear from Li Peng, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and many other Chinese leaders who, upon leaving power, also left the spotlight. I’ve been honored to attend many meetings with many officials, from municipal to national level, and have never ceased to marvel at their humility and absence of self-aggrandizement—both of which are deeply rooted in both Taoism and Confucianism.

As Lao Zi said, “The skillful traveler leaves no traces of his footsteps.”

The Confucian School

Today, it is hard to imagine a world without the wisdom of Confucius and Lao Zi, but they almost vanished from history when Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who first unified China and completed the Great Wall, burned philosophers’ books. But thanks to the foresight of the 7th Han Emperor, Wudi (156–87 BC), Confucianism became the cornerstone of Chinese culture and governance for ages.

Wudi adopted Confucian ethics and philosophy and ensured that his vision was perpetuated by creating a Confucian school for administrators. He also promoted poetry and music by creating the Imperial Music Bureau. But Wudi’s greatest contribution to posterity was the imperial exam, which arose from his relentless battle against corruption and the nobility’s stranglehold upon the nation.

Wudi removed all non-government tolls, sent sycophantic noblemen back to their rural fiefdoms, punished criminal noblemen (who heretofore had been above the law), and infuriated the nobility when he ended their monopoly on power by recruiting talented commoners who had passed the imperial exam for government positions. His exam would also infuriate British noblemen some 2,000 years later.

The exam system was so patently logical and effective that the British government adopted it in 1832 for use in India, and in 1846 created a civil service exam in Britain. The British nobility were furious because it ended their monopoly on lucrative government jobs. On July 17, 1863, a nobleman complained during the Parliamentary Debates, “The English people did not know that it was necessary for them to take lessons from the Celestial Empire.”

The world has far more to learn from the “Celestial Empire” today than it did in 1863. New China has continued to evolve and modernize, and now leads the world in many areas. But thankfully, this ancient but irrepressibly youthful nation continues to cherish the ancient immutable ideals and ethics that enabled it to survive the ages. As Dr. Nevius wrote in 1892:

From time immemorial China has been the recognized teacher of all the nations around her and the pupil of none. She may well be excused for claiming a respect which for centuries all her neighbors have accorded to her. In this respect she stands in striking contrast to Japan. Japan is accustomed to take the place of learner, having largely derived her literary culture and even her language from China… It is not strange that China clings tenaciously to institutions which have stood the test of millenniums and given to her such a marvelous degree of national prosperity.

Dr. John L. Nevius, Chinese Recorder, Vol. 23, Nov. 1892

Confucian Societies Abroad?

China’s socialism has succeeded so well precisely because it fits hand in glove with the ancient Chinese ideal of a people-centered, benevolent, peace-seeking government by leaders selected solely for their morals and merit. No wonder Voltaire called for China’s governmental model to be adopted in Europe—but perhaps it’s not too late. As Prof. Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho of Yale-NUS college wrote, “Perhaps the twenty-first century will see the victory of Confucian societies, in which economic growth is guided for the public good by a meritocracy.”Footnote 4