During the course of our studies here, we’re often still taught the main theories of Western political thought. This article strives to present a wider set of views on political theory by giving a brief overview of one of the strands of Chinese political thought: Confucianism.

Karl-Johan Petersen, Contributor, The Netherlands

Understanding Chinese Political Philosophy: Confucianism

Portrait of Confucius by Wu Daozi (Image source hyperlinked)

When examining the world, we tend to understand the actions of states, organizations, and other actors through the lens of how we already understand the world. This is because we develop different bias, of which we are both aware and unaware. These biases appear early, coming from our family, friends, society, and other surroundings. As such, when we start to really examine the world, we have already developed our own ideas of how it works and why people do what they do. In order to help diminish these biases, we attend higher education or educate ourselves through different ways, so that we can challenge these beliefs about the world. The goal is to learn to challenge those sets of beliefs, so that we can better understand our surroundings. This critical mindset is extremely important when undertaking a course of study such as International Studies, Area Studies, Political Science, etc.. However, the problem we are met with⁠—especially in International Studies and Area Studies⁠—is that we are taught different understandings of the world, understandings which mostly originate from and are influenced by people in our own corner of the world. 

The theories, that we are taught during our studies, are immensely important for understanding what happens around us, but they fail to reveal the political and moral thought systems that go beyond the actions of individuals. To understand these thought systems, it is important that we understand the underlying political philosophies behind these actions, so that we may uptain a clearer idea of why certain actors operate the way they do. In general, these are presented to us in Politics or Political Philosophy courses, but what is often taught are the main tenets of Western thought, such as Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, and so on. Those political philosophies are important to know⁠—especially considering the political dominance of the West on the global scene⁠—however the theories that are left out are the ones that might help us gain insight into the reasoning of rising powers, such as China and India. As such I will, in this article and several other ones, try to provide an introduction to Chinese Political Philosophies, so that one can get a rudimentary understanding of the four main branches of Chinese political philosophy (Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and Legalism) and where to start when examining these philosophies. 

It should be noted that these introductions are bareboned, they are not meant to be specific nor to outline all of the literature of the philosophies. They aim, instead, to provide a simple introduction, with the purpose of sparking an interest in different ways of approaching governing. It is furthermore important to note that these philosophies are old⁠—not Socialism, Liberalism, and Conservatism old, but old old. These philosophies cannot be translated word for word onto the actions of today. Just as one would not take Aristotle’s political philosophy and apply it directly today, no one is taking exactly what Confucius wrote and leading China that way. Instead, these ideas, just like those of the ancient Greeks, lay the foundation for a civilization today and provide insights into how one might approach and understand contemporary Chinese political philosophy.


Confucianism is probably the most well-known Chinese political philosophy. It originates from the Chinese thinker Confucius or Kongzi (551? – 479? BCE), whose impact on China and Chinese philosophy is, fair to say, comparable to that of Socrates in the Western world (Riegel 2013). Most of what we know about Confucius is what we know from The Analects, which is a text compiled by Confucius’ students that explains his thoughts. While Confucius was the father of Confucianism, he is not the only influential thinker on that subject. Other notable people, whose thoughts will also be examined here, were Mencius and Xunzi.

But what is Confucian thought then? How does it see the world? Who should run the country, why and how? Where does the legitimacy of the ruler come from? These are all important questions, which I will try to answer here. The main point, though, is that virtue and good people are important. According to Confucius, a ruler must be virtuous, as they lead by example. What the ruler does, it is argued by Confucians, the people will do too. As such, a virtuous ruler will lead the people to become good, while a non-virtuous ruler will lead the people to become bad (Riegel 2013). This was essentially argued by Confucius in the following quote:

If your desire is for good, the people will be good. The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.

(Riegel 2013)

This quote suggests that the moral character of the ruler is essentially what decides the moral character of a state. Ideally, the ruler is also a sage-king: a perfect and completely virtuous ruler. It was also argued by Xunzi that people need rulers, as they are unable to govern themselves (Chan 2015, 47). One of the reasons for this, according to Xunzi, is that people are self-interested and have a desire for profit, and will therefore, without the help of a virtuous ruler, end up in a life and death struggle. This however, leads to a problem: How can people, who are selfish by nature appreciate the goodness of a sage-king? It is argued by contemporary scholars that Xunzi believed that people are drawn to virtuous leaders and their rule because they prefer that other people act in a moral way towards them (Kim 2014, 433), and that the best way to ensure moral behaviour is to act in a moral way yourself and to have leaders which conduct themselves in a moral way. Xunzi further argues that virtuous rulers are ideal, as they are better able to follow the laws and methods of government that have been laid down by previous sage kings. Virtuous rulers are also important because it is believed by Confucians that institutions cannot contain a bad ruler, since in the end, laws are only words written down with no inherent power behind them (Chan and Chan 2016, 59). Confucians argue that this is because a bad ruler would simply be able to circumvent these institutions or have the political capital to simply ignore them. As such, according to Confucians, institutions and laws constraining the ruler have no place, since they would only limit a virtuous ruler, who would not need to be constrained anyway due to their superior morality.

So, the person who must run the state is the virtuous sage king, whose moral character is of such good quality that the people will follow what they do. But how do we know who this is? How do we decide the virtuousness of a person? This is essentially a subjective question, because what is virtuous and good to one person is not virtuous and good to another. So, how is this figured out? What happens, according to Confucianism, is that the virtuous ruler is bestowed with what is called the Heaven’s Mandate, or Tianming. Heaven’s Mandate is essentially the right to rule and it is on this that the ruler bases their legitimacy. There exists however, different interpretations of what the Mandate of Heaven entails. First is the ownership interpretation: this approach argues that the Heavens have granted the ruler ownership over the people and the lands. The second approach is the democratic rights interpretation, which grants the right to rule to the people themselves, meaning that they own the lands. These two interpretations however, both argue from the point of view of ownership, meaning that political authority comes from ownership⁠—the main difference between the two being who is considered the owner (Chan 2015, 28-29). A third interpretation also exists, called the service conception. This idea argues that there is no ownership for political authority in Confucianism. Instead, Heaven’s Mandate grants a ruler the legitimate right to govern within a limited jurisdiction. This means that the ruler does not own the area over which they rule. Instead they ‘merely’ have the right and power to make and implement laws and policies within that territory, and this power is conditional on the ruler having the ability to promote and protect the well-being of the people. The service conception, as such, follows the arguments of other Confucian philosophers, that the well-being people isthe most important issue and that a ruler must provide for the people (Chan 2015, 29-32). This can be seen in Xunzi’s quote:

Heaven did not create the people for the sake of the lord; Heaven established the lord for the sake of the people. Hence, in antiquity land was not granted in fiefs of ranked sizes just to give honored position to the feudal lords and for no other purpose. offices and ranks were not arranged in hierarchical order and provided with suitable titles and emoluments just to give honored status to the grand officers and for no other purpose

(Chan 2015, 30)

So, service conception is basically saying that political offices exist for the ruled, not the ruler, which comes from the idea that⁠—while the ruled are supposed to respect and obey⁠—the ruler still derives worth from the ruled. This basically means that the office of the ruler is only worth what the people think it is worth. In the end, this dynamic means that there is no natural right to rule, as exists in European monarchies, and that the most important thing in ruling is the well-being of the people (Chan 2015, 34). Due to this requirement, both Mencius and Xunzi justify the right of the people to commit tyrannicide (Kim 2014, 431). The ruler, as such, must be willingly accepted by the people as a ruler, must tend to the needs of the people, and must win over this acceptance with their virtue (Chan 2015, 36). In the end, this can be summed up in the following quote from Confucius:

Without the trust of the people, no government can stand.”

(Chan 2015, 40-41).

However, this leads us to an issue with Confucian thought, as it might now seem as if Confucius would support democracy⁠—or at the very least some kind of limited government (i.e. a ruler constrained by law). However, Confucians believe that only one person ought to lead a state, since a split of authority would lead to chaos. The argument is that a ruler ought to be virtuous, that they need to stand for decisions that are morally right, that the well-being of the people is the most important thing, and that the worth of the ruler is derived from how the people perceive them, and yet, there can only be one supreme ruler with full authority (i.e. not constrained by law) (Chan 2015, 47-48). This is exemplified in the two following quotes by Xunzi and Confucius:

The lord is the most exalted in the state. The father is the most exalted in the family. Where only one is exalted, there is order; where two are exalted, there is anarchy. From antiquity to the present day there has never been a case of two being exalted, contending for authority, and being able to endure for long.” – Xunzi

(Chan 2015, 60)

There are not two suns in the Heavens, nor two kings in a territory, nor two masters in a family, nor two superiors of equal honor; and the people are shown how the distinction between ruler and subject should be maintained.” – Confucius

(Chan 2015, 60)

The same point is also argued by Mencius, which reinforces that this is a Confucian point of view. Their argument is that you cannot have a territory where two rulers share the same amount of authority, as there will then inevitably be conflict over who has more authority (Chan 2015, 61).

To conclude, Confucian political thought believes that the best person to rule is a virtuous person, because people want to follow such a person. Furthermore, this person derives their worth from how the ruled perceive them and how good they are at providing for them. However, this person cannot be constrained by law, because a truly virtuous ruler, a sage king, would already know better,  and a bad ruler would not care about the laws anyway. It is also not possible to divide authority, since it leads to conflict and chaos. A ruler, however, has no right to govern, and if they do exceptionally badly it is justified to kill them. Nonetheless, this ruler must have supreme political authority and their successor must enjoy the same.

Further Reading

On Confucian views in general:

Confucian Perfectionism – A Political Philosophy for Modern Times by Joseph Chan

–          Chapter 1: What is Political Authority?

–          Chapter 2: Monism or Limited Government

Confucius – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/

Social and Political Thought in Chinese Philosophy – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

–          Analects (Lunyu) and Mencius – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-social-political/#AnalLunyMenc

On Confucianism and Civil Liberties:

Moral Autonomy, Civil Liberties, and Confucianism by Joseph Chan

On Mencius and Xunzi

Mencius, Xunzi, and the Legacy of Confucius by Eric L. Hutton

Mencius – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mencius/

Xunzi – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/xunzi/

On Confucian Political Leadership

The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership by R. A. W. Rhodes and Paul ‘T Hart

–          Chapter 4: Confucianism by Joseph Chan and Elton Chan


Riegel, Jeffrey. “Confucius.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 23, 2013. Accessed May 28, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/#ConPol.

Kim, Sungmoon. “Politics and Interest in Early Confucianism.” Philosophy East and West 64, no. 2 (2014): 425-48. doi:10.1353/pew.2014.0019.


Chan, Joseph Cho Wai. Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Chan, Joseph Cho Wai and Elton Chan, “Confucanism” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership, edited by R. A. W. Rhodes and Paul T. Hart, 57-71. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2016.