Confucianism Vs. Legalism in Ancient China

Confucianism Vs. Legalism in Ancient China

Confucius came into the world of thought at a time of social anarchy. The Chou Dynasty had recently collapsed and China was in a constant state of war and violence. During this era, destruction came from a lack of social harmony. In early China, custom and tradition provided a sense of unity within the community. With the deterioration of tradition and the emergence of individuals desiring to break away from the group mentality, chaos and conflict arose. From this destructuring of Chinese society emerged two schools of thought: legalist and Confucian.

1 Legalist Nature of Man

The legalists argued that what people understand best is force. They believed that man was incapable of governing himself and therefore should be governed by others. This is because man is naturally lustful, greedy, lazy and jealous and is almost always acting out of self-interest. They also thought that people were immediate in their thinking and could not sacrifice in the present to assume long-term gains.

2 Legalist Solution

The masses were thought by the legalists to want security yet despise having to work for it themselves; thus, they should entrust a higher power with the establishment of security. For these reasons, the legalists argued that there must be laws that govern the people, punishable by strict measurements if they are broken. This implied a system of rewards and punishments, good versus bad, right and wrong, with no space for anything in between.

3 Confucian Nature of Man

Confucius believed that a just society began in the heart of the individual. If the individual holds true values, that individual’s home will be true, and if a family is in good moral standing, the community, and therefore society, will be good. Confucius never stated whether men are born good or evil. He did, however, profess that humanity shared certain qualities, needs and facilities, namely the ability to be conditioned through study and practice.

4 Confusion Solution

Confucius saw the ideas of the legalists as entirely too extreme. He believed that force and structure without compassion would smother society. He sought refuge in tradition, thinking that the only way to stem the chaos was to reincorporate practices and behaviors from China’s “golden age” into the present. This glorious age that he so idolized was the height of the Chou Dynasty. Socialization would occur for the people of China by looking into the past and slowly working themselves back into the traditions they have known and loved. This transformation process alone would bring people together under a common, familiar cause and, once it was fully undertaken, would aid in both government and shared morality.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.