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On the Compatibility between Confucian Principles and Democracy


After China has made great success in its economic system reform, the reform of political system has also been put on the agenda. It is nearly a consensus that the general direction of China’s political reform is democracy. However, there is still a question that if China should adopt exactly the same presuppositions, ideas and mode of western democracy, which is rooted in the profound and very complex tradition of western culture, or should China find from its own cultural resource some tradition that may support the modern democracy thus to make China’s political reform more natural and follow a rational line. The relevant question is that if there are any such resources in Chinese traditional culture, of which Confucianism is the mainstream, may compatible with or even support modern democracy. There are quite some disputes on this issue recently. Some neo-liberalists in China believe that Confucianism hold down individual freedom, so it is contradict to the spirit of democracy and must be totally threw away. Other scholars believe that attempts to justify democracy in Chinese societies must indeed acknowledge its moral traditions; appeals to Western concepts of individualism are less likely to be successful[1]; and “a more communitarian form of democratic practice might have appeal in societies with Confucian moral traditions”[2].

My argument in this article is that, although there are some contradictions between traditional Confucianism and modern democracy, yet there are some more compatible factors between the two. In my understanding, the compatibility between Confucianism and democracy is not just only shown in certain Confucian political allegations such as "take people as the principle" and "people are superior", but also embodied in some fundamental principles of traditional Confucianism, especially the original Confucianism of Pre-Qin time. In the following discourse I will show that there are some Confucian principles which are not only compatible with the idea of modern democracy, but can also support the construction of a democratic system with Chinese characteristics by providing presuppositions for it, and endue it with some more positive meanings.


Ⅰ.Confucianism takes “people’s will”, which directly represents “Heaven’s will”, as the ultimate evidence of the validity of political power. This is compatible with the democratic view of political power.  

The original meaning of democracy is “rule by people”. The basic ideas of democracy include: any political power is ultimately originated from people; only those who authorized by people may represent people to operate the political power; and all ordinary citizens have equal rights to participate political affaires.

Although not very distinctly stated and not be further elucidated fully by later Confucian scholars, the above meanings can be found in pre-Qin Confucian classics. For instance, the Wan Zhang chapter of Mencius recorded a discussion between Mencius and his student Wan Zhang concerning the transfer of political power before the Three Dynasties. Wan Zhang asked Mencius if the emperor Yao had given the emperor’s power to Shun by demise. Mencius answered: No! Emperor can not give the power to anyone by his own will, only heaven and people can give the political power to someone. Shun’s power was not given by Yao, but by Heaven, and by people. Mencius further explained the exact meaning of “given by Heaven”. He cited a sentence from the Shang Shu (Document Classic) saying that “Heaven’s vision is demonstrated in people’s vision; Heaven’s audition is demonstrated in people’s audition.”[3] So we can easily deduce a conclusion from this sentence that the so called “given by Heaven”, in a realistic sense, is actually “given by people”. Therefore, according to Mencius, people are the only source of valid political power. Shun got the emperor’s power not because Yao’s demise, but because his talent and morality were approbated by his people. This is also true in the cases of emperor’s power transferring from Shun to Yu and from Yu to his son Qi. Of course, there is a difference between self abdicated demise and descent heritage. However, neither of the two forms itself can justify the authority and validity of emperor’s power. Authority and validity of political power can only obtained from people. This thought is obviously compatible with the idea of democracy.

Further more, according to Mencius’ narration, Shun was originally a peasant, a fisherman, and even an eastern ethnic minority[4], without any noble kinship background. Let aside the question of if Mencius’ narration was truly reflecting the historical reality of Shun’s situation, at least in Mencius’ attitude, anyone, even an ordinary peasant or fisherman, can become the emperor if he has gotten enough support from the people. This attitude is compatible with the democratic idea that all citizens have equal rights to participate political affaires. 


Ⅱ.Confucian theory of “human nature is good”, which endorses equal potential good for every man, can be used in reasoning the system of democracy.

Equality and liberty are the basic values and principles which underlying the ideal of democracy. However, neither “all men are created equal” nor “human beings are born with liberty” is a true statement of real human existence in any society. The truth of these statements can neither be proved by experience, nor deduced from logic. These are only ontological commitments, or just beliefs, rather than scientific statements. Similarly, Confucian allegation of “human nature is good” is also such kind of belief or ontological commitment.  

However, both Confucian allegation of “human nature is good” and Western idea of equality and liberty promise that every individual is sharing something in common, no matter it is called “liberty” or “good nature”. Mencius once said: “Shun is a man, I am also a man”. “Man and man are the same.” “Everyman can become Yao and Shun”[5]. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to deduce from Mencius’ theory that everyman has been endue with an equal right and quality to participat social political affaires, so long as his good quality has been kept undepraved and well cultivated. Therefore, Confucian theory of “Human nature is good”, like the western idea of equality and liberty, can also serve as the presupposition of democracy.  

To those who believe “human nature is good”, it is in the nature of things to let everyman has the freedom of speech, to select their leaders by their own will, and to decide their way of life by themselves. Only those who don’t believe “human nature is good” may afraid of people’s free speech and free election. One such example is Han Feizi, who considered people’s intelligence was just like that of infants[6], and thus he advocated dictatorship and banning free speech.  

The theory of “human nature is good” not only compatible with the idea of democracy, but also provide more positive and constructive significance to democracy than the western equality theory based on the original sin. According to the theory of original sin, everyman shares a defective nature, and everyman is unbelievable. A democratic system, therefore, is only served to restrict the expansion of the original sin. While according to the theory of “Human nature is good”, however, since everyman shares certain goodness of human nature, a democratic system is to accumulate everyman’s goodness in order to create and construct an even better life for all human beings.


Ⅲ.In terms of decision-making, “The Doctrine of Mean” of Confucianism in some way accords with democratic system no matter in terms of process or in terms of result.

One principle of democracy is decision made by majority. The decision made through a democratic process by majority is usually an eclectic decision which makes compromise between   extremely different opinions. This is just what Confucian Doctrine of Mean means. Doctrine of Mean has very rich and multi-facet meanings. Here in terms of decision making, it means making eclectic middle course between two extremely opposite claims. The most suitable and solid decision made though democratic process by majority is usually not extreme but compromise and eclectic. Only under dictatorship can extremist become dominant. Therefore, there is no conflict between “Doctrine of Mean” and democracy. They are compatible with each other and support each other mutually.

Another principle embodied in “the Doctrine of Mean” is “harmony but not monotony”, which shows a considerable tolerance to the existence of dissidents and minority. “Harmony but not monotony” means even though the decision is made by majority in order to keep a general stability and harmony of the whole society, it is still necessary to pay enough attention and care to the minorities and dissidents. This is also an important connotation of a perfect democracy.


Ⅳ.The independent personality advocated by Confucianism actually encourages a responsible, obligatory and committed individualism, which is a required civic merit in a democratic society.  

Individuals’ freedom is another principle that underlying democracy. Individuals’ freedom includes two related aspects: 1. individuals’ free speech and action in society should be respected and protected; 2. every individual as a human being, hold his free will which can not be deprived by anyone else. It is generally accepted that Confucianism emphasizes collectivism while neglects individualism. But in my understanding this is a partly misunderstanding. In Confucianism, at least in Mencius, there is a kind of responsible individualism and recognition of free will, which I think is needed by an ideal democracy.

Pre-Qin Confucianism emphasizes that gentlemen or “Jun Zi” should have an independent personal integrity. No matter under what kind of situation, he should not lost his free will and succumb to others. In the court, a gentleman should only obey the “Tao” rather than obey the King. In society, a gentleman should not give up his own stand to cater for the common vulgarism. The independent thinking and free will of a gentleman can never be deprived, just as Confucius once said: “You can capture a general from the three armies, but you can not capture the free will of a single man.”[7] Mencius advocated a spirit he called “big husband”, which was contrast to that of a “concubine”. The free will of a “big husband” will never be changed by poverty, spoiled by rich and luxury, or yield to threat and power[8].

Confucianism also encourage gentlemen’s self-determined selection of their own action, such as whether take or reject an official position, stay in a position for a longer or shorter period, etc. A gentleman is supposed to make these decisions freely according to his own moral judgment. At the same time, Confucianism emphasize that the gentleman should take responsibility to the result of his own selection. We can say that Confucianism advocate a kind of individualism with a strong sense of moral responsibility: everyone has a free will and is able to make decisions freely by himself; consequently, everyone should be responsible to his own choice. This kind of individualism is also a presupposition of a health and perfect democratic society based on law.

My conclusion is that, these fundamental Confucian principles mentioned above may provide a philosophic presupposition for democracy and support the construction of a democratic system with a Chinese feature. It may also give democracy a more positive significance in general, thus to enrich the democratic theory of all human beings. There is no fundamental conflict between Confucianism and the value of democracy. The traditional cultural heritage, especially Confucianism, is not an excuse to reject democracy. What we need is a suitable modern democratic institutional arrangement. This institutional arrangement may different from the existed western one, but it must be helpful in realizing the Confucian values and principles mentioned above. Anyway, democracy itself is not the ultimate goal, we will not democratize only for the sake of democracy, but for the higher humanistic values, that are Confucian “Ren” (benevolence) and “Yi”(righteousness). To get democracy rooted in the spirit of traditional Chinese culture will surely benefit the healthy development of modern democracy in China today.

[1] Daniel Bell in Daniel A. Bell, D. Brown, K. Jayusuriya, and D. Jones, Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia .Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[2] O'Dwyer, Shaun.

 Democracy and Confucian Values. Philosophy East & West; Jan2003, Vol. 53 Issue 1, p39-54.

[3] Mencius, Chapter 9.

[4] Mencius, Chapter 8.

[5] Mencius, Chapter 12.

[6] Han Fei Zi, Chapter 50.

[7] The Analects, Chapter 9.

[8] Mencius, Chapter 6.



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