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Reviewed by:
  • China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom by Bai Tongdong
  • David Elstein
China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom. By Bai Tongdong. London and New York: Zed Books, 2012. Pp. vii–viii + 206. isbn 978-1-78032-075-5.

If there is any justice in the world, Bai Tongdong’s recent book China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom will find a ready audience among students and nonspecialists interested in classical Chinese political thought and what it has to say about China now and good government in general. Although it is a fine introduction to early Chinese political philosophy, it is more than just that. Bai’s overarching theme is that China in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period (referred to as SAWS, roughly 771–221 b.c.e.) was facing a social and political situation very similar to that in modern Europe, and the Chinese philosophy of this period is best understood as a kind of modern philosophy. He argues that the nature of the philosophical problems in China was significantly different from what it was in ancient Greece, despite the close proximity in time (although he still makes occasional comparisons with Plato’s Republic). In his view, China displays an alternative form of modernization that is instructive both for understanding the phenomenon of modernity and for reflecting on the limitations and problems of current political structures and philosophies that developed out of European modernity, particularly liberal democracy.

This is a controversial and challenging point of view, and I will come back to it later. First, I want to describe the content of the book. The theoretical framework [End Page 513] outlined above is the subject of the first chapter, followed by four chapters on the main philosophies Bai discusses: two on Confucianism, one on Daoism (particularly the Laozi), and one on Legalism. Much of the material is based on previously published articles and Bai’s Chinese book,1 and he occasionally refers the reader to these sources for more detailed arguments. The accounts of these philosophies are excellent. Bai’s exposition is clear and he deftly balances explanations of the philosophical ideas in their historical context with notes about their impact in Chinese history, illustrative comparisons with Western philosophies, and thoughtful speculations about their relevance for contemporary China and the rest of the world.

Bai is clear that his sympathies lie with Confucianism. He frames his philosophical history around Confucian thought, focusing on Daoism and Legalism as reactions to and critiques of Confucianism. He presents Daoist and Legalist objections to Confucianism, but he certainly believes that Confucianism offers a better and more attractive political vision. In addition to his description of classical Confucian thought, Bai also gives significant attention to the question of Confucian politics today, and here gives a brief defense of his own preferred theory of a Confucian hybrid regime that blends democratic and meritocratic elements (pp. 77–81). I have no quarrel with his discussion of equality in Confucianism, and I certainly agree that classical Confucianism advocated meritocracy. I cannot address the substance of Bai’s theory in this brief review, but I wish he had been a little more careful about acknowledging that this is his theory and that the role of merit in politics is highly contested among contemporary Confucians, many of whom are much more egalitarian than he is. He tends toward locutions such as “Confucians would argue . . .,” which offer the impression that these beliefs are shared by all Confucians, and nonspecialists (I assume the target audience) will probably not be aware that much of what Bai says is rejected by many contemporary Confucians.

The chapters on Daoism and Legalism are likewise very good and my concerns are few. Bai does a fine job pointing out the connections between Laozi and Han Feizi while naturally showing how the social and political structures they have in mind could hardly be more different. I appreciate that Bai points out that Han Feizi never rejected the possibility of compassion entirely (p. 124). I would disagree, however, with Bai’s assessment that Han Feizi denied that “we can ever reliably improve our moral character” (p. 133); he allowed that...