Home > Analysis, history, human rights, language, Opinion, politics > Human Rights in Ancient China

Human Rights in Ancient China

February 26th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

The biggest hindrance of the West and the rest of the world in understanding China is the perceived lack of human rights tradition in China. China is an old civilization and a civilization cannot continue to prosper and grow if this most fundamental issue is never addressed. The Zhou dynasty is probably the most formative in that it is during that period that the modern Chinese language, culture and core belief are formed.

It is during this period that the most influential philosophies of China is formed. The schools of thought from Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and the many less well known school such as Moism all prospered during this period. The modern Chinese written language was not only proliferated during these period but another important aspect of it, the Chinese idiom (cheng yu成语) made its grand appearance during the Zhou dynasty. The idiom is very important due to the fact that it reflect not only the history but also the cultural aspect of ancient Chinese. It is very interesting to note that the vast majority of the idiom formed are political in nature. [1]

The Zhou dynasty is the third Chinese dynasty after the Xia and Shang. The Zhou king is also considered as the son of heaven. He ruled not because of rank and privilege but rather he has the mandate of heaven. In essence the king’s role is because he provide stability and protection to people. The political structure of the Zhou dynasty consist of many feudal states run by dukes, lords, barons etc (Chinese titles being: 公候伯子男) The modern name for China, Zhong Guo (中国) known erroneously as middle kingdom actually first appeared during this period. The territory directly under the rule of the Zhou king is called Zhong Guo. The word Guo may represent a kingdom or country under modern usage but at that time, Guo means the state ruled by the various lords. In the state itself, the state is divided in jia (家), run by a minor noble called Da Fu(大夫). The social structure at that time consists of the Zhou King running his own territory, followed by feudal states run by the Dukes, Lords, Barons. The majority of the population consisted of commoners engaging in farming, trade or commerce. The lowest rank consists of serfs tied to their feudal lords and the various slaves owned by the nobles or rich.

The pivotal moment of the Zhou dynasty came during the reign of King Zhou You (周幽王). It is recorded that King You married a new consort named Pao Xi (褒姒). Although very beautiful, the new lady has rarely smiled while in the palace. The king eventually gave a reward for anyone who can make his new consort smiled. A minister suggested that the beacon tower might do the trick. At this time the Zhou kingdom was protected by a series of beacon tower that goes all the way from the border region to the other vassal states. If an invasion happened at the border, the beacon towers would be lit one by one until all the vassal states would see the flame and smoke signal.

King You took Pao Xi to the Li Shan station and lit the beacon tower. One by one the various dukes, lords, and barons would assembled their armies and rushed to the capital to protect their king. Unfortunately, what greeted them would be the king and his favourite consort laughing at the rescuers. The various lords were humiliated by being made to look like fools. On 771 BC, the Zhou state was invaded by nomadic tribes and as expected the various lords did not come to the rescue even after the beacon towers were lit. Thus what historian called western Zhou dynasty which lasted from 1046 BC to 771 BC ended. This event would give rise to a famous Chinese folklore “Fooling the Lords with Beacon Fire.” 烽火戏诸侯

After realizing there is a invasion, the lords eventually come to the capital and drove out the invaders. They put a son of King You on the throne and moved the capital from Hao Jing (modern day Shanxi Xian) to Shen (modern day Henan Yangshi). However, the prestige of the Zhou court has been lost, a large track of Zhou land was occupied by the invaders.

The new Zhou dynasty (called Eastern Zhou by historians) would set the stage for the beginning of the tumulus Spring Autumn and Warring States period. At the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period, more than 140 feudal states existed. The Zhou king was not only weakened politically, but militarily and economically as well. As a result, the Zhou court no longer exercised even loose control over its vassal states. The stronger state would annex the smaller state in a series of conflicts that would spread all over the kingdom. The first half of the Eastern Zhou (called Spring Autumn) would be characterized by constant warfare and further development of technology. Ultimately, the most important development would be that of the various schools of thoughts which seek to end the unending warfare between the states. Strategy development would also be another hall mark of the Zhou period. Books on warfare and strategy would also prospered.

The Spring Autumn period get its name from Confucius compiling of a book of the same name which record the history of the period. A Western Han dynasty historian named Liu Xiang wrote a book name “Warring States Strategy” and this is how the latter period got name. It is no coincidence that all the schools of thought focus on practical matter that try to bring forth a political solution to end the chaos. Various states would vied to become the most influential state know as “hegemon”(Ba霸). The reason would always be similar, an enlightened and ambitious ruler would come to the throne and through reform and hard work he would be able to strengthened his home state. However, none of them leave a long lasting impact because the reform did not alter the core of the social, political structure of the respective state. The various Zhou states practiced traditional feudal hereditary system. The most powerful position would be inherited by the sons of the nobles only.

Like Macedonia of the ancient Greek states, the state of Qin was a relatively backward state that was located near the periphery of the Zhou dynasty. Due to its distance from the more technologically, economically and cultural advanced central plain states, Qin which was located far west was underdeveloped but had the advantage of not getting attention of the various states fighting for hegemony there.

In 361 BC, a new duke ascended to the Qin throne. He is known historically as Qin Duke Xiao (秦孝公), he was twenty one years old. The biggest geopolitical threat to the Qin state was Wei(魏) and Han(韩) state which border it. The state of Wei was the most powerful hegemon of the time and has took over large area of  land from Qin. To the richer and more powerful states, Qin was considered a less developed state and was treated almost with contempt by them. It was under this back drop that Duke Xiao seek ways to strengthen his home state.

During the Spring Autumn period, a phenomenon that took the upper class by storm is the emphasis on learning. Young nobles or better off commoners from each states were free to travel and learn from whatever school that took their fancy. As all states still technically considered themselves vassal under the Zhou court, even when war is raging between the two states, population from either states are still free to travel, trade or study. It is only in exceptional situation that interaction is stopped.

A man from the tiny state of Wei(卫) in Henan (not to be confused with the more powerful central plain state Wei 魏) was a student of the legalist school. Hearing that Duke Xiao was looking for capable administrators, he decided to try his luck there. Through several audiences with Duke Xiao, he managed to convince the young duke to implement  his legalist idea of running the state. In 356 BC, the man known historically as Shang Yang started his reform in the state of Qin.

His radical reform to the existing Qin law is as follows:

1. A new guilty by association law. Any family not exposing the wrong doing of another family is liable to be punished for the said crime. The person exposing the crime would be rewarded.

2. Abolishing of hereditary military position. Twenty new military pay grades were introduced. Any soldier killing the enemy would be promoted. A slave/serf killing an enemy would become a free person. All nobles wanting a military commission would need to prove themselves in battle first.

3. Expansion of farm production. Each family can only have one adult male. Whenever a son reached adulthood, he is supposed to start a new plot of farmland himself.

4. Setting up of county system. Instead of being run by the hereditary Da Fu, an official would be send by the duke’s court to administer the new farmland developed. The official would usually have a humble origin getting the position mostly on merit.

The first proposal although cruel, greatly reduced crime in the state. By introducing a pure merit base military, the Qin army gradually become the most effective of the various states which were still run by hereditary generals and officers. Rule two and four would greatly weakened the influence and power of the nobles within the states. As expected, Shang Yang and the duke himself would face strong opposition from the nobles. However, the duke realizing it would strengthen his own power, did not pay heeds to the nobles protest. And with the military now commanded by new officers the opposition can only orally protest.

The reform has immediate effect on the economy and military of the state. A second stage of the reform was introduced in 350 BC. The size of the existing measurement for land was enlarged. A standardized measurement system was to be apply to the whole state. The state would recognized the ownership of the new farmland started by new farmer. In reality, each new adult male serf of the noble would end up becoming new free farmer instead of remaining a serf to the noble. The military reform of freeing slaves who had perform military service also made them into land owner during peace time. To seal the deal, the state would recognize the land ownership of all newly cultivated land. Another positive side effect of the land reform law encourage oppressed serfs or landless peasants from neighbouring states to settle in Qin and start new farmland.

The whole state of Qin was organized into counties ruled by magistrate/officials sent by the central government. Although hereditary land and title still existed, the minor nobles’ power would be effectively broken. To integrate the state closer to the more advanced central plain states, the capital was moved to Xianyang.

Nevertheless, the court was still staffed by the nobles who view the reform with great negativity. Both the Qin duke and Shangyang faced stiff opposition from them but reform was ultimately pushed trough. To create credibility, the law was to be apply equally on a nobleman, commoner or slave. Eventually, the son of the duke himself was caught on the wrong side of the law. The son was spared but his teachers were severely punished instead. The court showed that it was serious in enforcing the law regardless of who violate them, putting to an end the different legal standard that was apply to the different social classes. The event gave a common Chinese saying “When a prince commit a crime, his punishment is the same as a commoner.” (王子犯法,与庶民同罪)

The reform carried out by the state of Qin was the most thorough ever under taken by any Chinese state during the Spring Autumn and Warring States period(or since the founding of the first Chinese dynasty Xia in 2070 BC). It put in motion the end of feudalism in ancient China. Feudalistic China ruled by a king and his vassals are eventually to be put to an end by the Qin state. The reform encompassed the political, economical, military and social. Politically, the power of the central government was strengthened. The traditional farming economy controlled by local nobles would be supplanted by free land owning farmers with protected property rights and military service obligation. The upper ranks of the military that was once the monopoly of nobles are now opened to commoners and even freed serf or slaves with ability. Socially, the rigid structure of nobles, commoners and slaves was blurred. The number of slaves were reduced to a negligible percentage of the population since it was in the interest of the government to maximize production. The hereditary position in the civil and military services would be supplemented by people of humble beginning with ability.

After ten years of reform the state of Qin was so greatly strengthened that the Zhou king conferred a new title on the duke of Qin. Even the state of Wei has to move its capital after several defeats at the hand of Qin’s army. Instead of copying the reform of the Qin, the other states got into an on and off alliance. At its peak the six other major states facing off against Qin would have a single prime minister to facilitate the alliance. Qin on the other hand would continue gaining strength and try to undermine the alliance.

It would be no surprise to any casual observer that Qin would eventually unified China in 221 BC. After the unification, the same political, economical, military and social reform would be carried on to all the conquered states. The unified Qin dynasty would be known to the world as China. It would have a single emperor, single written Chinese script, currency, measurement and roads. Nevertheless, despite its effectiveness, the unforgiving nature of the law struck fear into the heart of the people. On top of that the Qin over-expanded its investment in infrastructure, the most famous of which is the Great Wall of China which the unified Qin would linked together to form a defence line against the nomadic tribes. The Qin also greatly expanded the canals and road system which facilitate trade and transportation but exhausted the people who has to supply the labour.

So fifteen years after the unification, affected by a single succession crisis, the Qin dynasty would fall. The crack of the system did not put an end to a unified China. After a series of warfare among many contenders, a commoner by the name of Liu Bang would become the new emperor of the Han dynasty in 202 BC. Taking the lesson from the fall of the Qin, he would introduce a more lenient legal code characterize by great leeway on the part of the magistrate. During the Qin, even minor offence such as late completion of project or late delivery of provision would incur strict punishment. The reformed Qin legal code which emphasis rule of law above all else was supplemented by the Han legal code which emphasis human decision人治.

The completely centralized government system of the Qin would be modified into a semi-feudal system where brothers/sons/cousins of the emperor were put into feudal states all over the country. Thus a single mistake or an attack on the central government would not leave the country leaderless. However, this semi-feudal system would provide another problem of its own. From the Han dynasty until the Qing dynasty (last dynasty of China), the country would sometimes be plagued by the rebellion of the feudal lords and dukes.

Emperor Han Wu would make Confucianism the most important school of learning. It is interesting to note that despite the hierarchy nature of Confucianism, the most important teaching was that the people being the most important, followed by the society, the king being the least important part of a nation. (民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻) Thus the most important role  of the emperor is to serve the empire which consists of the people rather than the other way round. An emperor losing the mandate of heaven should be replaced by a more qualified person, a very advanced concept for any society of the time. It might appear that the dynastic succession concept first appeared during this period. In fact the term revolution (革命) first appeared around 1600 BC when the Shang dynasty replaced the Xia, so by the time of the Zhou dynasty, it is natural that the concept of revolution has again been expanded.

However, what makes China unique other than to have many commoners ascending to the thrones is the merit base civil service and military system which is open to all level of the society. A standardized civil examination system was introduced during the Shui(隋)Dynasty and would remain in place until the fall of the Qing dynasty. The social structure that was introduced during the Qin would also stayed more or less the same until the last dynasty. And contrary to most belief the concept of  people being the most important, followed by the society, the king being the least important (民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻) was required reading by all potential civil examination candidate. Likewise all Chinese emperors were drilled from birth to follow this teaching or face dethronement. Of course the execution of the concept vary with each dynasties and specifically with different emperors. A unique feature of Chinese society since the Qin is the rise of the mandarin class as the dominant force which would shape the course of the country. The emperor’s power would always be limited by this gentry class which consist mainly of commoners.

Nevertheless, since there is no universal education system, only the better off portion of the society would get an education and be literate. From the Qin until the Qing less than one tenth of the population would be literate and can effectively enforced their rights. This is where China started to fall behind society that promotes universal education system by the 16th century. And in dept study of Chinese history would yield the conclusion that it is the freeing of oppressed class that lead to further progress of China as a civilization.  However, the idealized concept of people being more important than the king/emperor as a whole cannot be effectively practised until both groups by birth have the same opportunity and privilege from birth. This is where modern China still fell short but is on the way of correcting it.

[1]成语大都有一定的出处。如“狐假虎威”出于《战国策·楚策》,”拔苗助长”出于《孟子·公孙丑上》:“ “鹬蚌相争”出于《燕策》,“画蛇添足”出于《齐策》,“刻舟求剑”出于《吕氏春秋·察今》,“自相矛盾” “一鸣惊人”出于《韩非子》。如“完璧归赵”出于《史记·廉颇蔺相如列传》

  1. LOLZ
    February 27th, 2012 at 07:39 | #1

    Interesting article, although I am not sure if the term “human rights” in the title is correctly applied.

    That said, I think the concept of a national test where anyone could take and win the title of 状元 (supreme scholar) is important. 状元 is considered a nobility which typically helps to bring in stable income and of course supreme honor to the family. Until very recently, most cultures offered no system for peasants and the lower class to directly climb social ladders through raw talent/intellect. The national test thus represented both hope and a clear path for one to achieve success through hard work. In reality of course, most of the those who attempted at the national tests were from the upper class because peasants could not afford to send their kids to school. Nonetheless, the path to success through superior academics (in the form of test scores) is ingrained into the Chinese culture.

  2. February 27th, 2012 at 07:44 | #2

    That’s great portion about human rights in ancient China. I really appreciate this educative segment because by read out this I’ve just came to know about the human rights of ancient China. Thanks mate.

  3. February 27th, 2012 at 14:27 | #3

    I am learning a lot from this article, Ray.

    Another China scholar, Justin Crozier, hailed the same – that the Chinese Imperial Examination System was the mother of inventions – even ahead of gunpowder, paper, printing press, and compass. By no means he is claiming it “perfect,” but for two millenia it was indeed an awesome source of equality.


    But in providing a system that allows the children of illiterate peasants to study in the nation’s greatest universities and to then progress into civil service positions, China is continuing the experiment that Maugham’s philosopher described. China’s meritocratic examination system should be a source of pride to its people, and an inspiration to the rest of the world.

    The United Kingdom borrowed heavily from this Chinese invention:

    The Chinese Imperial examination system had important influences on the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and hence on the reform of the Civil Service in British India and later in the United Kingdom.

    Western societies may trumpet this idea of “human rights” louder than anyone else, but how you achieve it and sustain it is in fact another matter. In fact, as written previously melektaus and Oli, Western definition (in their mainstream press) of “human rights” are too narrow and incomplete.

  4. raventhorn
    February 27th, 2012 at 18:11 | #4

    I would add 1 more detail about the reform by Qin:

    When Qin Shi Huang Di nearly unified China, he almost lost his throne. Qin Shi Huang Di was rumored/well known in his time as a “fake heir”, because his real father was Lu Buwei, a wealthy merchant who gave his pregnant concubine to the royal Prince of Qin.

    When Qin Shi Huang Di took his throne as King of Qin, his younger brother and a general decided to rebel against his rule, in a civil war to reclaim the throne for the true blood heir of Qin.

    But the rebellion failed to muster support from the People of Qin, because the State of Qin was by then a true “bureaucracy”, a machine of politics that only needed a figure head, and it didn’t matter who was the “true blood heir”.

    The only thing that mattered was whether the man on the throne was capable of rule, and Qin Shi Huang Di proved himself more than capable, by issuing edicts that rewarded supporters and punished opponents.

    In a sense, Qin was the 1st “Bureaucratic Constitutional Monarchy”.

  5. February 27th, 2012 at 19:00 | #5

    I agree with you in some way but without security, food, shelter and opportunity how can human rights exist? That’s the massage I am trying to get across.

    Although I feel that the case of the 状元 (supreme scholar) is a bit extreme because there can be only one each year. Nevertheless, Chinese society by introducing meritocracy early on pretty much rendered the concept of nobility obsolete. And from Qin onward the gentry class which can be from any class become the driver of the society.

    However, I must point out that when civil examination was standardized in Shui/Tang there are certain lower class people like prostitute, actors, slaves etc that is not allowed to sit for examination. This exception was only abolished by mid Qing.

  6. February 27th, 2012 at 20:05 | #6

    Another important aspect of Qin since the reform is that it favoured anybody with ability including outsiders. Lu Buwei, like Shang Yang was also from Wei. Qin has repeatedly used “foreign talents” like them to become the dominant state.

    Leadership succession is a problem that plagued all civilization since the dawn of time. Qin system fell apart as soon as there’s succession problem. That’s why subsequent dynasties introduced modification, some successful and some disastrous like Shui which lasted a few decades. In many ways, universal suffrage system is supposed to be the perfect model, but only time will tell.

  7. Rhan
    February 28th, 2012 at 06:07 | #7

    Ray, a good read.

    Many argue that 民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻 is still from the angle of ruler, nothing much to do with human rights. The Chinese philosophy and thought rarely speak about the peoples rights, are the Chinese really much progressive in this context as compare to May Fourth Movement era?

  8. jxie
    February 28th, 2012 at 17:42 | #8

    Ray, a very good piece. A reason why “human rights” have been conceptualized and advocated from the West first is what I called the “reformed alcoholic symptom”. For a typical social drinker, she can control the quantity of and the time for her drinking. Yet for an alcoholic, he can’t. So a reformed alcoholic cannot live in a space called “a little bit of drinking” — a drop of alcohol will turn a reformed alcoholic back to a full-blown alcoholic again.

    An example of this symptom is in 2008, the Spanish basketball team posted for “slant eyes“. The interesting fact is most Chinese I know, including myself, found that quite light-hearted — yet it was considered offensive in the US (and the UK). Once upon a time, Asian immigration was rejected in the US but not in most of American Spanish/Portuguese-speaking nations. The societal rule of an octoroon being black and a quintroon being white, didn’t apply in Latin America either. In this case, the US was like the reformed alcoholic dressing down the social drinker (Spain).

    Another example is Germany as a whole toward China. Germany’s media, public, politicians and even scholars, shameful of their Third Reich history, tend to view any form of collectivism as sort of a prelude to another Third Reich. Its view and reporting on China generally are very negative, to the point of ridiculous dishonesty.

    From the Qin until the Qing less than one tenth of the population would be literate and can effectively enforced their rights.

    It’s impossible to have a reasonably accurate estimate of the past literacy rates. However, 10% is very low for many dynasties. For instance, in Song for a long period of time, the commercial taxes made up 70+% of the total governmental taxes. It’s very hard to imagine it could be achieved with a literacy rate being that low. You can find plenty of anecdotes of a society well educated. For example, once Su Shi (苏轼) took a boat ride to cross a river, and the boat operator tested him with 港口撑船,因船钱而讲口. Su retorted, 窑头买瓦,为瓦价以摇头. At just any time in the Chinese history, a river boat operator was pretty low in social status. I tend to think even among women in Song, 10% literacy rate would be a very low estimate. BTW, you will have to speak a dialect such as Cantonese to get it (港 sounds the same as 讲).

  9. February 28th, 2012 at 18:39 | #9

    I am curious how you come to the conclusion that it is from the angle of the ruler? This quote is attributed to Men Zi who was a commoner and never in a position of power in the government.

    This is a great ideal but like I have said its full potential has not even been realized in the richest and “most advanced” countries today.

    The May 4th movement to my knowledge affected only a small percentage of the population as most people are still caught in securing the next meal for themselves and their family. The CCP was successful because it gave the majority of the people what they wanted, a small plot of land to farm.

  10. February 28th, 2012 at 19:14 | #10

    Thanks for a well thought out respond. I cannot emphasis enough that human rights must deal with priorities on the ground to be valid. The Qin model introduced two fundamental rights to the people.

    1. Political rights. Opportunity for everyone with ability to get involved in the government. A very advanced concept when the rest of the world only allowed blue blooded succession.
    2.Property rights. Also a very advanced concept because only nobility is allowed to own vast track of land. The reformed paved the road for commoner to become land owner.

    I totally agree with your analysis of many German intellectual seeing the CCP as synonymous with the Nazi.

    Yes, I agree I can find no reliable source for literacy in ancient China. However, the trend is, the closer they are to a major city or economical centre the higher chance they are literate. In Afghanistan the literacy rate is only one tenth.

    Although I feel literacy is a key to social empowerment it does not guarantee great ability. For example, the 6th Buddhist “grand monk” Hui Nen 慧能 is iliterate. During the Taiping rebellion many rebel generals who are barely literate consistently beat their blue blooded Qiren counterparts. As recent as the last Chinese civil war, the vast majority of PLA company to corps grade officers have rudimentary education, again contrast greatly with most KMT officers who have advanced military training.

    Nevertheless, a 10% literacy give China an advantage against most part of the world which barely have 1% literacy rate until literacy through the church became increasingly widespread in western Europe starting around 15 century. I will take Europe as an example, from the time of Christ only the nobles can read or write, gradually the church become the major centre of learning, the rise of the 3rd estate did not happen until a few hundred years later. Although one can also argued that the merchant class of the Italian states is where the class first gained prominence.

    I agree the Southern Song would have a higher literacy rate but bear in mind it only consists of south eastern China! I remember when the Ming has their 1st civil examination, ALL those who “got on the board” are from south eastern China, sparking a riot. It is then that the first affirmative action system was introduced into the civil exam system.

  11. February 28th, 2012 at 19:34 | #11

    I am hoping to go into the negative aspect of the Qin and Han reformed too. For example, the guilty by association law evolved into诛九族 style law. However, as this law is rarely invokes unless there is a rebellion, the biggest negative I see about this law is it also evolved into guilty by recommendation and association in the civil service. Basically, if you recommend someone who made a mistake you would be sacked as well. And woes to those who are related or associated with the alleged guilty party. In fact, I see the CR in a broad sense continued the same line of thinking which is unacceptable in a modern legal system.

  12. Rhan
    February 28th, 2012 at 19:39 | #12

    Ray, first of all, i have to stress that i don’t have a stance, at least not yet. I just want to explore, so my point is for discussion, not a conclusion.

    Menzi idea is for the consumption of the King, not the ordinary people. The French philosopher get many of their idea from China, i believe 民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻 is one, thus the french revolution. China revolution in 1911 or 1949 is essentially base on idea from the West, not Menzi.

    The Chinese and the French see the statement “the people are the most important element in the state; the sovereign is the least.” not from the same angle. To the French, it is about human rights, to the Chinese, it is just a way to manage the people. I could be wrong.

  13. February 28th, 2012 at 20:27 | #13

    Ok, however, the French philosphers also need to present their ideas to the sovereign which is represented by the king. If the French really is into human rights, the terror of the French revolution would never had happened, right?

    Napoleon wouldn’t have been made emperor and reintroduced slavery into the French constitution then. Of course the French are still fighting to retain their colonies like Algeria and Indo-China in the 1950s seems to be lost on you as well. How many French intellectual protested in those colonial wars?

    All political system are a means to an end, secure the interest of the state. Please have no illusion with the French, Greek, Iranian etc. The Iranian also has human rights law more than 1000 yrs ago.

  14. February 28th, 2012 at 21:36 | #14

    @Rhan #12

    To the French, it is about human rights, to the Chinese, it is just a way to manage the people. I could be wrong.

    I assume what you meant to say is that the French revolution is bottom driven – a common man’s revolution meant to provide for the common men – while the Chinese idea of 民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻 is top driven – a noble’s guide to ruling … by providing for the common men.

    In the end, maybe this is a white cat black cat thing. What’s important is that the common men are provided for. If the French Revolution only results in rule by the mob – most people would say the goal of the revolution is not served. The people is not served – even if it is the people who is allegedly ruling. On the other hand, if the noble in ruling long and prosperous tend to the welfare of the common men (i.e. tend to justice) – the common man is provided for, even if the ruler may have provided for the common men only in pursuit of his selfish ends.

    In talking economics today, we often come across the notion of the “invisible hand” – where the pursuit of selfish profits results in the provision of social surplus. So a doctor may selfishly want to make money, but in his selfish greedy pursuit, he end up saving lots of lives. If the system works so be it. The paradoxical thing is that when people are into doing good per se (without profits), they may actually end up doing less good over all. Thus Adam Smith wrote (I copied it from wiki entry on “invisible hand”):

    By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

    So I say, whether the traditional Chinese system or French system is better for the common man over all is not to be determined by intent – or ideology – or bottom up vs. top down – but ultimately by empirical observation.

  15. Charles Liu
    February 29th, 2012 at 01:40 | #15

    Some of the examples DW gave actually have it’s contermporary human rights value, like equal rights under the law, and distributed political power base.

  16. 王侯將相寧有種乎
    February 29th, 2012 at 02:23 | #16

    The Daze Village Uprising (Chinese: 大澤鄉起義, July 209 BC – December 209 BC) was the first uprising against Qin rule following the death of Qin Shi Huang.

    Chen Sheng and Wu Guang were both army officers who were ordered to lead their bands of commoner soldiers north to participate in the defense of Yuyang (漁陽). However, they were stopped halfway in Anhui province by a severe rainstorm and flooding. The harsh Qin laws stated that anyone late to show up for government jobs will be executed, regardless of the nature of the delay. Chen and Wu realized that they could never make it on time and decided to organize a band that would rebel against the government, that they would die fighting for their freedom rather than by execution. They became the center of armed uprisings all over China, and in a few months their strength congregated to around ten thousand men, composed mostly of discontent peasants. But on the battlefield, they were no match for the highly professional Qin soldiers and the uprising was in trouble in less than a year. Wu was the victim of infighting among the rebel generals, while Chen was betrayed by one of his guards and assassinated. However, they set up the example that was to be followed by Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Their spirit is best summed up in Chen’s quote “王侯將相寧有種乎” (wáng hóu jiāng xiāng níng yǒu zhǒng hu), meaning that every man, regardless of birth, has the chance to become someone with great power if he exerts himself. The uprising was started in Daze Village which translates into “Big Swamp Village”. In the beginning of the uprising,Chen Sheng and Wu Guang recruited 900 villagers to be a patrol.


  17. 王侯將相寧有種乎
    February 29th, 2012 at 06:57 | #17

    王侯將相寧有種乎 = that every man, regardless of birth, has the chance to become someone with great power if he exerts himself.

  18. raventhorn
    February 29th, 2012 at 19:06 | #18


    “Top Driven” may not be worse than “grass root”.

    The issue with “meritocracy” is the key question of how “merit” can be recognized or measured.

    The issue with standardized testing, or human recognition, is that in the end, the person who sets the standard, or do the recognizing, “drives” the merit “top down”.

    The problem with “Democracy”, is hence, not a solution to the “top driven” problem, but potentially an even worse problem of having too many conflicting “top down” standards of merits.

    People naturally form groups that each set its own standards of merits, Churches, parties, clubs, etc. They all value different “merits” differently. What some Republicans constantly harp as “values”.

    In some sense, this is a form of “social engineering”, with each group trying to push its own merit standards onto the society.

    While a multi-standard “Democracy” may seem to be like a “market place of ideas”. It is in reality, a “market place of propagandas”.

    Like in the old days of China, when the 100 schools of thoughts competed against each other, competition of ideas is rarely peaceful.

  19. March 1st, 2012 at 12:34 | #19

    I would love to make friends with people in China and to learn about the country and its people. Recently the Chinese Vice-President Xi visited Ireland and was well received.

  20. QuentinF
    March 4th, 2012 at 02:41 | #20

    Last paragraph that says that China only had education for the upper class. In Britain in the Victorian period, it was exactly the same. Although children went to school there was high illiteracy and extreme poor (read Dickens). The upper class in the UK STILL rules the roost by association. The class system is still strong as long as there is a “royal family’ by birthright and privilege. Noting that China ended its dynasty system by forcing the resignation of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

  21. Murray biggs
    March 4th, 2012 at 04:09 | #21

    Sorry Michael, there are no people “in China” here. You should look elsewhere.

  22. tc
    March 4th, 2012 at 06:47 | #22

    @Murray biggs
    Some people “in China” do not necessarily know China better than Chinese overseas.
    The saying is … 不識廬山真面目,只緣身在此山中。

  23. Murray biggs
    March 4th, 2012 at 07:40 | #23

    And some overseas Chinese should stop speaking as if they do so on behalf of all Chinese. They need to stand in line behind those that actually live here.

  24. Vincent Chan
    March 4th, 2012 at 13:09 | #24

    Murray biggs :
    And some overseas Chinese should stop speaking as if they do so on behalf of all Chinese. They need to stand in line behind those that actually live here.

    I thought we are “standing in line behind those that actually live” in China, and “speaking on behalf of all Chinese”.

    I suppose guys like “Murray biggs” thinks he knows the intentions of all Chinese, inside and outside of China??

  25. jxie
    March 4th, 2012 at 13:24 | #25

    Murray biggs :
    And some overseas Chinese should stop speaking as if they do so on behalf of all Chinese. They need to stand in line behind those that actually live here.

    It is just such a retarded idea, in Chinese Internet shorthand NC, or in Chinese Internet new-age phrase 烧饼. It’s a blog with a lot of commenters. Implicitly each one only voices his/her own ideas — basically you can add “I think” to every sentence uttered here. The fact that you aren’t debating with others intelligently but rather harping on who can say what, reflects rather poorly on you. For heaven’s sake, this is a jet-traveling Internet age.

  26. Charles Liu
    March 5th, 2012 at 20:27 | #26

    wow murray, do you speak for all those that actually live here? not me, for one.

  27. March 9th, 2012 at 01:09 | #27

    Took me some time to get to this – but this was a real pleasure to read. Thanks Ray!

  28. Rhan
    March 9th, 2012 at 17:55 | #28

    Allen, i can accept your view, my point is that the common people in China rarely assert their rights because no belief or concept that would allow/motivate them to do so. Most idelogy and philosophy is from the pov of the emperor and ruler except the many poem (for example 杜甫) that try to depict the peoples life, i think it is farfetch to claim that Chinese too have understanding of human rights (Western concept) in the past.

  29. March 9th, 2012 at 21:47 | #29


    i think it is farfetch to claim that Chinese too have understanding of human rights (Western concept) in the past

    I completely agree with you. I don’t think this post is trying to assert that China had something tantamount to Western human rights – but lost it when the civilization collapsed in the last 200 or so years.

    I think this post tries to describe in some ways how the Chinese system dealt with the basic government mandate of providing for the people. I mean – why do we form societies? Purportedly because it’s better living together than living separately – even for the non-privileged people.

    Most idelogy and philosophy is from the pov of the emperor and ruler except the many poem (for example 杜甫) that try to depict the peoples life

    I also agree with you. The Chinese struggled to find a way that provides for a harmonious society (a harmonious society is providing for a just society for the common people, because it is the common people who need justice – emperors and those who have power don’t need special help) – with a meritocracy and a just emperor. Did they succeed? Can something like it succeed in the modern era?

    The West seems to think it has found a way that provides for maximal individual liberty. Have they succeeded? Does government by the mass work? How much and how should the will of the masses be constrained to provide for a just society? For a functioning government that reflects some will of the people? That actually serve the people?

  30. March 14th, 2012 at 00:49 | #30

    I believe that most philosophers started formulating ideas of human rights when seeing injustice and great human suffering. It is wrong to say that people in China rarely assert their rights. China came up with the concept of revolution(革命) more than 3000 years ago. The Qin was overthrown by a peasants uprising as stated by 王侯將相寧有種乎. However, no pure peasants based uprising has succeeded in forming a stable government. The Han dynasty started by Liu Bang was supported by very effective administrators like Zhang Liang, Xiao He and very effective military commanders like Han Xin. The successful formula has always been the peasants class led by a mandarin class with a charismatic leader.

    The Mohist school of thought came up with ideas of universal human rights around 470 BC.

    Nevertheless, to put theory in practice require fitting with reality on the ground. Daoism is also another teaching and philosophy that is totally detached from any government or ruler’s point of view. In fact, it frowns upon that and considered the government as root of all evil.

    However, what faced China at 400 BC was the Autumn Spring/Warring States periods which see warfare almost continuously. And after that it is the building up of a new an effective government. On top of that the early Han dynasty faced external and internal threat. The reality does not allow the preaching of universal human rights because the urgency is allowing each family the stability and security to put food on the bowl first.

    Nevertheless credit must be given to the Legalist/Confucian school of thoughts because they proved to be effective. China’s many technological innovations, arts and cultural achievement came from that backdrop. China’s population also reached 400 million during the Qing.

    So the fact is, practically won out against more abstract method. In many ways, this can be the description of today’s China too.

  31. March 14th, 2012 at 01:11 | #31

    There are a few reasons which prompted me to write the above articles. First of all I try to provide some facts on what happened on the ground. One of the first major revolution to happen in Chinese society was when Qin accepted Shang Yang’s school of thoughts. His school of thought was proven to be effective, so much so that China was unified as an imperial empire under Qin and the same model of government and society continued for over two thousand years (with many interruptions of course). I think by all account this has to be the most effective form of government to be device for close to two millennium. Again, by the time of the late Qing in the 18th century, other model of government that is superior to the Chinese model has appeared. That’s the other point I am trying to convey.

    Many people today like to talk of the universal human rights such as freedom etc but without the foundation of a stable, well fed society, no other rights can exist. Please bear in mind that western Europe only started achieving what they preached only from 1960s onward. I want to ask all those who believe in “universal human rights” whether it can be achieved under situation of poverty and adverse interference from an outside power? Case in point being the Cherokee nation which was totally decimated despite an almost wholesale implementation of western ideals of democracy. The Weimar Republic was also more democratic in form than UK and France (both holding colonial territories and locked up political prisoners), but it couldn’t survive. It is a historical fact that despite preaching of universal human rights, “enlightened” western powers such as the US, UK, France was creating havoc on societies colonized by them. I will not pretend that the US is a benign non-colonizing power. The US was created on colonized land by European. What the European did from 15th century onward on the Americas was not acceptable then or now.

    In old China itself, the closest where a group of people received “universal human rights” was under the Qing dynasty. The Qiren under the Qing received universal education, even for the women and bonded servants. They also have monthly stipend (look at it as welfare or income supplement). They are not restricted from any government post except those that that require royal bloodline. The government records were kept in three languages.

    Of course I am trying to be controversial when I raise this point. How does it differ from the US, UK, France when they speak of freedom and democracy when they practiced oppression on their colonized subjects. The men folk of those countries are credited as being given voting rights, freedom of speech etc but at the same time the land colonized by them live under abject poverty and repression. Why is it that 18th or 19th century US, UK, France are considered enlightened? Base on the rights given to 1% of the population there empires rule over? How are they better than the Qing (which was continually portrayed as oppressive and backward)? The Qing at least did not practice language or cultural imperialism on its minority subject. In the Qing, non Qiren can repeatedly rise to the highest rank in the military or civil service since its inception. From 18th to 19th century it is extremely rare for a common man without title or connection to rise beyond the rank of field grade officers in the British army or navy. Despite this, UK is still classified as a democracy.

    Basically, what I am saying is rights can only exist when the people are empowered. In Qin’s reform, first property right is given to the masses. Elevating the 庶民 (serf) to 男 (freeman). Second is the meritocracy system that was introduced in the military and civil service. These reform formed the core value of Chinese society for two thousand years. One may even say that it is still the core value upheld in today’s Chinese society.

    Here’s another major question that I want to ask. Can the west achieved the so-called universal human rights without the exploitation of another country land, mineral or human resources? Basically, can western Europe sustained its current standard of living without the importation of outside resources? Of course, we know the Americas can but like I’ve said, base on the standard of universal human rights, those are all colonized land. Like it or not western Europe cannot achieved their much exalted universal human rights value without the wealth trough colonization effort being done by their forebears a few hundred years ago.

    Today, they are preaching to their former oppressed subjects that it can be done without the building of a strong effective government first. Sad to say, a country that has no strong government and competitive enterprises simply cannot survive independently under current world environment. To achieve that require a strong government that will invest in education, protect and nurture its home grown industries and maintain a strong free market system. Any government that did not do that is destine to failure.

  32. November 6th, 2014 at 19:24 | #32

    China’s human rights tradition is as valid as other ancient traditions of human rights, from Ancient Greece to Ancient Persia.

    The point is though that all of these traditions just aren’t as advanced as the modern concept of human rights, which started with the French revolution and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is nothing in Chinese tradition which grants individuals this level of security and freedom to express themselves. I believe that the modern concept of human rights is appropriate for all modern and advanced societies. There are countries from all cultural areas, including Confucian ones like Japan and South Korea, which have granted their citizens these rights. If you want to argue that China is not yet ready to grant its people genuine free speech or rule of law, then do so. But you can’t argue that China has some native tradition of human rights which can substitute the modern one, because it doesn’t, and most Chinese don’t believe so themselves.

  33. November 29th, 2014 at 10:40 | #33

    If this person bothered to read the article and go through the comment section, he would save himself some dignity. The French revolution saw the senseless murdering of people that put the CR to shame, on top of it the republic was abolished, an emperor was installed and slavery reintroduce. Very advanced human right concept indeed.

    Nobody argued that traditional human right can substitute “modern human right”. Human right is always universal. However, the so-called western model includes a very ugly double standard that has always plagued its development. The core argument in my article is without the guarantee of social advancement, guarantee of equal property right, any human right is empty promise.

    The western powers spoke eloquently but always enforce double standard in this regard. The majority of Okinawan wants US bases out but is ignore. China is aggressive in claiming its traditional property which was recorded in history but it is ok for UK to hold Diego Garcia, Malvinas etc.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.