Reverence for tradition has always been a prominent Chinese characteristic in respect of both ethics and politics.
Continuing The Chinese Revolution of 1912,
with a selection from The Situation in the Far East by Robert Machray published in magazine article. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. This selection is presented in 4 installments for 5 minute reading.
Previously in The Chinese Revolution of 1912.
Like political upheavals in other ages and other lands, the Chinese revolution has been the outcome of the hopes and dreams of impetuous and indomitable youth. Herein lies one of its main sources of strength, but herein also lies a very grave danger. Young China to-day looks to Europe and to America for sympathy. Let her have it in full measure. Only let us remind her that the work she has so boldly, and perhaps light-heartedly, undertaken is not only the affair of China, not only the affair of Asia, but that the whole world stands to gain or lose according as the Chinese people prove themselves worthy or unworthy to carry out the stupendous task to which they have set their hands.
The grave peril lies, of course, in the tendency of the Chinese “Progressives” — as of all hot-headed reformers, whether in China or in England — to break with the traditions of past ages, and to despise what is old, not because it is bad, but because it is out of harmony with the latest political shibboleth. Those of us who believe in the fundamental soundness of the character of the Chinese people, and are aware of the high dignity and value of a large part of their inherited civilization and culture, are awaiting with deep anxiety an answer to this question: Is the New China about to cast herself adrift from the Old?
But surely, many a Western observer may exclaim, the matter is settled already! Surely the abolition of the monarchy is in itself a proof that the Chinese have definitely broken with tradition! Was not the Emperor a sacred being who represented an unbroken political continuity of thousands of years, and who ruled by divine right? Was not loyalty to the sovereign part of the Chinese religion?
These questions can not be answered with a simple yes or no. Reverence for tradition has always been a prominent Chinese characteristic in respect of both ethics and politics. We must beware of assuming too hastily that the exhortations of a few frock-coated revolutionaries have been sufficient to expel this reverence for tradition from Chinese hearts and minds; yet we are obliged to admit that the national aspirations are being directed toward a new set of ideals which in some respects are scarcely consistent with the ideals aimed at (if rarely attained) in the past.
The Chinese doctrine of loyalty can not be properly understood until we have formed a clear conception of the traditional Chinese theory concerning the nature of Political Sovereignty. The political edifice, no less than the social, is built on the Confucian and pre-Confucian foundation of filial piety. The Emperor is father of his people; the whole population of the empire forms one vast family, of which the Emperor is the head. As a son owes obedience and reverence to his parent, so does the subject owe reverence and obedience to his sovereign.
In the four thousand years and more that have elapsed since the days of Ya, over a score of dynasties have in their turn reigned over China. The Shu Ching — the Chinese historical classic — gives us full accounts of the events which led to the fall of the successive dynasties of Hsia (1766 B.C.) and Shang (1122 B.C.). In both cases we find that the leader of the successful rebellion lays stress on the fact that the T’ien-ming (Divine right) has been forfeited by the dynasty of the defeated Emperor, and that he, the successful rebel, has been but an instrument in the hands of God. Thus the rebel becomes Emperor by right of the Divine Decree, and it remains with his descendants until by their misdeeds they provoke heaven into bestowing it upon another house.
The teachings of the sages of China are in full accordance with the view that the sovereign must rule well or not at all. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) spent the greater part of his life in trying to instruct negligent princes in the art of government, and we know from a well-known anecdote that he regarded a bad government as “worse than a tiger.” We are told that when one of his disciples asked Confucius for a definition of good statecraft, he replied that a wise ruler is one who provides his subjects with the means of subsistence, protects the state against its enemies, and strives to deserve the confidence of all his people. And the most important of these three aims, said Confucius, is the last: for without the confidence of the people no government can be maintained. If the prince’s commands are just and good, let the people obey them, said Confucius, in reply to a question put by a reigning duke; but if subjects render slavish obedience to the unjust commands of a bad ruler, it is not the ruler only, but his sycophantic subjects themselves, who will be answerable for the consequent ruin of the state. So far from counseling perpetual docility on the part of the governed, Confucius clearly indicates that circumstances may arise which make opposition justifiable. The minister, he says, should not fawn upon the ruler of whose actions he disapproves: let him show his disapproval openly.
Mencius, the “Second Sage” of China (372-289 B.C.), is far more outspoken than Confucius in his denunciation of bad rulers. There was no sycophancy in the words which he uttered during an interview with King Hsuan of the State of Ch’i. “When the prince treats his ministers with respect, as though they were his own hands and feet, they in their turn look up to him as the source from which they derive nourishment; when he treats them like his dogs and horses, they regard him as no more worthy of reverence than one of their fellow subjects; when he treats them as though they were dirt to be trodden on, they retaliate by regarding him as a robber and a foe.” It is interesting to learn that this passage in Mencius so irritated the first sovereign of the Ming dynasty (1368-1398 A.D.) that he caused the “spirit-tablet” of the sage to be removed from the Confucian Temple, to which it had been elevated about three centuries earlier; but the remonstrances of the scholars of the empire soon compelled the Emperor to revoke his decree, and the tablet of Mencius was restored to its place of honor, from which it was never subsequently degraded. It is no matter for surprize that the people have reverenced the “Second Sage,” for he it was who has come nearest in China to the enunciation of the somewhat doubtful principle, Vox populi vox Dei.
It was unmistakably the view of Mencius that a bad ruler may be put to death by the subjects whom he has misgoverned. King Hsuan was once discussing with him the successful rebellions against the last sovereigns of the Hsia and Shang dynasties, and, with reference to the slaying of the infamous King Chou (1122 B.C.), asked whether it was allowable for a minister to put his sovereign to death. Mencius, in his reply, observed that the man who outrages every principle of virtue and good conduct is rightly treated as a mere robber and villain. “I have heard of the killing of a robber and a villain named Chou; I have not heard about the killing of a king.” That is to say, Chou by his rascality had already forfeited all the rights and privileges of kingship before he was actually put to death.
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