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The universality of human rights: a Chinese perspective

One of the most influential people of the twentieth century, but who is almost unknown by name, is a man named P.C. Chang (1892-1957). He (along with Charles Malik) were the two principle drafters of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most influential documents of the twentieth century.

Chang was a Chinese philosopher. He studied at Columbia University and taught in both China and the US. He was also a musician and play-write. According to his wiki:


He was an enthusiastic promoter of Chinese culture.

Chang has been described as a renaissance man. He was a playwright, musician, diplomat; a lover of traditional Chinese literature and music and someone who knew both Western and Islamic culture. His philosophy is known to be strongly based on the teachings of Confucius.

At the first meeting of ECOSOC he quoted Mencius stating that ECOSOC’s highest aim should be to “subdue people with goodness.”[3] He also argued that many influential western thinkers on rights were guided by Chinese ideas. “In the 18th century, when progressive ideas with respect to human rights had been first put forward in Europe, translations of Chinese philosophers had been known to, and had inspired, such thinkers as Voltaire, Quesnay and Diderot in their humanistic revolt against feudalism,” he told the UN General Assembly in 1948.[4]

On the UDHR drafting committee, he served both as an effective Asian delegate and also as a mediator when the negotiations reached a stalemate. He served as Vice-Chairman of the original UN Commission on Human Rights and Republic of China delegate to committee and played a pivotal role in its drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948.[4]

He was one of the early champions of human rights (no doubt motivated by his experience of the Japanese occupation as well as his firm Confucian convictions). He also sought to excise all notions of god or other supernatural or ethno-cultural specific references from a rights based framework. So not only is the modern concept of human rights not antithetical to Chinese values but it was largely inspired by someone, an expert in ancient Chinese thought no less, who consciously and deftly incorporated ancient Chinese values into it. The modern world’s evolution away from barbarity is heavily indebted to Dr. Chang and to the wisdom of Chinese thought of which he was an heir.

  1. September 10th, 2012 at 18:09 | #1

    Had never heard of P.C. Chang. Glad you posted this, melektaus. I hope the UN’s declaration on human rights live up to its true spirit one day as oppose to the present day where it is bastardized by the powerful as a tool to justify imperialism. And, yes, despite the progress it has helped made.

  2. September 10th, 2012 at 19:19 | #2

    Actually I don’t think the Declaration mean anything at all. Problem is “rights” mean different things in different circumstances. Does the right of “universal suffrage” mean we must always direct election? Does the right to “freedom of expression” mean censorship is never justified? What happens when rights conflict? Why frame rights at all? Rights really mean something in context of history (e.g., freedom … but from what???, rights … against what???) Because humanity experienced histories that are drastically different from each other, the rights mean different things for each.

    Also – I think Chang’s influence is exaggerated here. From the wikipedia entry on the document:

    Canadian John Peters Humphrey was called upon by the United Nations Secretary-General to work on the project and became the Declaration’s principal drafter.[6] At the time Humphrey was newly appointed as Director of the Division of Human Rights within the United Nations Secretariat.[7] The Commission on Human Rights, a standing body of the United Nations, was constituted to undertake the work of preparing what was initially conceived as an International Bill of Rights.[8] The membership of the Commission was designed to be broadly representative of the global community with representatives of the following countries serving: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Chile, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Philippines, United Kingdom, United States, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Uruguay and Yugoslavia.[8] Well known members of the Commission included Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, who was the Chairperson, Jacques Maritain, René Cassin and Stéphane Hessel of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, and P. C. Chang of the Republic of China, among others. Humphrey provided the initial draft which became the working text of the Commission.

    According to Globalizing Family Values, the Declaration’s pro-family phrases were the result of the Christian Democratic movement’s influence on Cassin and Malik.[9]

    This seems to me the more accurate version of the history of the doc.

    Chang is there – at most as a figurehead – to lend some legitimacy. Wordings may have changed because of him. But let’s not kid ourselves. This doc was framed in Western terms, toned down somewhat by Westerners, but still a Western doc nevertheles.

    Don’t get me wrong. I can definitely read Chinese Confucian values into the doc (it’d read like a weird doc, but can nevertheless be “harmonized”). But I don’t see any evidence the doc was inspired by Chinese Confucian values.

  3. September 10th, 2012 at 20:50 | #3


    To add to Allen’s point about rights: The Universal Declaration actually lists a lot of rights, including the right to education (article 26), the right to work (article 23), the right to healthcare (article 25), and obviously the right to life (article 3) – which by extension automatically means the right to food & water, along with a host of other supposed rights copied straight out of western political orthodoxy.

    Its not hard to imagine that certain rights inevitably come at the cost of others, so who is to say one set of rights (i.e. individual political freedoms) must always supersede another (i.e. right to work & pursuit of economic gain)? Americans often take the attitude of “everyone wants freedom”. Well, “everyone” wants a lot of things – economic prosperity, national pride, good health, etc – why must political freedom (as the West envisions the concept) supersede all of these other wants & needs?

    Here is how I see the concept of “liberty/rights”: liberty does not exist on a “have or have not” dichotomy, but rather on a continuous scale, with both extremes of the spectrum being purely theoretical and unachievable in our present state of being. On one end of the spectrum, you have absolute control & zero freedom – beyond what was imaginable by George Orwell; on the other end, there is complete and total freedom beyond the vision of anarchists.

    In every sphere of life – be it something as profound as life values, or as trivial as taking a shit – all societies exist somewhere in the middle between these two imaginary extremes. I find it ludicrous that any society can impose a universal set of rules dictating where every other society should sit on that continuous scale in every sphere of life, be it economic development to political participation. Yet this is what the US & the West seeks to do (at least ostensibly seeks to do, until pragmatic self-interests dictate otherwise).

  4. September 10th, 2012 at 21:41 | #4


    Humphrey was only the principle drafter of the first draft. That draft has been revised by many people including Chang. And it seems odd it say that it is a western document when those who worked to turn it into what it is today include many non westerners and the fact that it was then adopted unanimously by non western nations.

    We also disagree about his influence. I think he was one of the principle drafters as his UN page explains, not merely a “figurehead”.


    He was able to explain Chinese concept of human rights to the other delegates and creatively resolved many stalemates in the negotiation process by employing aspects of Confucian doctrine to reach compromises between conflicting ideological factions. He insisted, in the name of universalism, on the removal of all allusions to nature and God from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  5. William
    September 10th, 2012 at 23:33 | #5

    PC Chang makes a generally-accepted point about 18th century Europe. The philosopher Christian Wolff was heavily influenced by an early (François Noël SJ) translation of the Confucian 四书, and frequently quoted from them.

    Enlightenment thinking in turn was influenced by him; in particular to “excise all notions of god” from ethics, reason, etc, was a direct borrowing from (what the Europeans read from) Confucius and Mencius.

  6. September 11th, 2012 at 08:57 | #6

    The removal of the word “god” is not necessarily a Chinese thing. As you have pointed to me many, many times, the Enlightenment philosophers centuries ago insisted on that at least for the face of enlightenment philosophies – though you and have vehemently disagreed on the relevance and influence of religion on their lives and ultimately their philosophies. So for the, the removal of God from the document per se is as much a Western as Chinese thing, at the time of the drafting of the UN Declaration. Most Western political philosophers would want to remove it anyways. UN may want to give the credit to a Chinese guy – to show the Chinese had influence on the doc – to lend the doc legitimacy. Again the whole formulation of “rights” – the specific rights formulated – of the focus on individuals – is a Western product – at least at the time of drafting (we can go back and argue how much of enlightenment was influenced by earlier Chinese thoughts, but that’s another topic).

  7. Charles Liu
    September 11th, 2012 at 10:08 | #7


    US pledge of allegiance also did not contain reference to God originally, but was added in the 50’s.

  8. September 11th, 2012 at 10:35 | #8


    Even if it wasn’t a “Chinese thing” it wouldn’t mean that Chang didn’t have influence in drafting it and was merely a “figurehead”.

    I happen to see no reason to doubt the UN description that that was the motivation for removing references to not only god but other eurocentric references and content.

    His overall contribution seems to be influenced heavily by his Confucian values if the description is accurate which I see no reason to doubt.

  9. September 12th, 2012 at 09:49 | #9


    I am very perplexed by this post and your responses thus far.

    You seem to want to make a contrarian assertion that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a Chinese product, or at least a Chinese inspired product. You mention 2 things, the participation of this Chang guy – a guy that few know about, who has practically zero influence on 20th century thought – and the fact that the declaration does not reference “God.”

    I don’t think the missing reference to “God” means Chinese were at it. Many other forces were against the inclusion of “God” in the doc.

    This post teeters on revisionism. I can just see our critics smugly say: so the Chinese invented everything ehh?

    … paper, seed drill, compass, row planting … and now the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

    Now we have a Chinese guy, and maybe a Lebanese guy – the two “principal drafter” – to thank for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

  10. Charles Liu
    September 12th, 2012 at 14:50 | #10

    Thanks, I never really read this document until now. Here’s how the declaration ends:

    “Article 30
    Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

    Seems the authors fully recognized the reality that the declaration will be exploited by individual states, and usurped for pretext to justify violence. So how does Article 30 justify “Responsibility To Protect” invasion of Libya, and political interference disguised as “promoting democracy” in the Middle East that has resulted in far greater numbers suffering from statelessness?

    And to be relevant, would universal human rights suggest its ideals are better realized, and China better off, by forsaking stable functioning society over revolution?

  11. September 12th, 2012 at 15:31 | #11

    @Charles Liu

    Before 1993, the official Chinese position has been to ignore the UN Declaration – to treat it mostly as a white man’s instrument of imperialism. It wasn’t until 1993 with the Bangkok reaffirmation of the declaration, with the important caveat that the document must be read in light of cultural diversity in the implementation and interpretation and that it must not be applied in a prejudicial manner for political gains that China became increasingly a willing participant in the conversation on human rights as defined in the Declaration.

    Even if the UN Declaration were to read in that light, I still have two issues:

    1. the focus on individual rights and the nature of the rights pronounced still form an alien framework of looking at human conditions for me; as I said before, we can harmonize the document to be more Confucian, but it needs work, lots of work, and even then, we are speaking a foreign vocabulary, and unless we are careful, we can always be lead astray. A square peg may fit into a round hole, that doesn’t mean the peg and the hole were made for each other – or that over time, as things change, a small mismatch may turn out to cause a big problem.

    2. the necessity for the Bangkok declaration speaks volumes about the original state of the UN Declaration. Most Asian nations felt the doc did not properly take into account “Asian values.” Sure the consensus today is that the document is not so flawed as to be completely hopeless, but then to go from that to say the document is authored principally by a Chinese who imbued it with Chinese values, that I think is just too much.

  12. September 13th, 2012 at 01:48 | #12


    I’m only basing my views on the wiki page and what his UN bio says.

    From his wiki it says

    He served as Vice-Chairman of the original UN Commission on Human Rights and Republic of China delegate to committee and played a pivotal role in its drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948.[4]

    [empahsis mine]

    On his UN bio page it says he was vice chair of the commission and

    He was able to explain Chinese concept of human rights to the other delegates and creatively resolved many stalemates in the negotiation process by employing aspects of Confucian doctrine to reach compromises between conflicting ideological factions. He insisted, in the name of universalism, on the removal of all allusions to nature and God from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Therefore I see nothing inaccurate in what I said. He certainly wasn’t the only influence and thus Chinese values weren’t the only aspects of the UDHR as we know the document today but it certainly was an inspiration for its existence through Chang’s influence.

    And even if there is bias in today’s UDHR in favor of the western countries that doesn’t mean that Chang wasn’t pivotle in its creation process and that Chinese influence on him didn’t also have an effect through him as conduit as his UN bio suggests it was.

    It’s a living document. If there is bias that just means there ought to be more Chinese and non western influence, not less.

  13. September 13th, 2012 at 11:06 | #13

    To be honest, this declaration of human rights wasn’t a priority for big 5 at the UN in the 1940s. So it is entirely plausible that the task of drafting it is delegated to these guys. Colonial powers like France, UK, even Netherland were fighting hard to keep their colonies. The US and USSR are beginning to fight a cold war with their allies.

    Frankly, if the declaration was to be followed. The colonies would all be given equal rights or be set free but this is not the case. The Dutch who was occupied by Nazi Germany used the same terror and interrogation tactics when fighting in Indonesia. Both the Dutch and French were supplied militarily by the US.

    Even in the US, it has to go through the civil rights movement of the 1960s to even adhere remotely to this declaration. Most people only remember the cold war, but in the 1940s until 1970s, many bloody anti-colonial wars were fought in Asia and Africa. Sadly when the countries gained independence, they were usually caught in another round of civil wars back by major powers.

    South America was plague with fight against socialist/Marxist guerrilla groups. As we now know the military regimes supported by the west did very unsavoury things. The use of “human rights and democracy” partly gained credence during the cold war. Both sides want to take the moral high ground. After the collapsed of the USSR, the west was convinced that they are the representative of “human rights and democracy”.

  14. September 14th, 2012 at 01:12 | #14


    I am definitely for giving credits where credit is due. Perhaps P.C. Chang has influenced the doc more than I think. Perhaps even the doc is more Eastern than it is currently interpreted.

    Or perhaps this is just revisionist history.

    I won’t make a firm conclusion for now…

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