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  • Early Chinese Political Thought as Conversation
  • Eirik Lang Harris (bio)
Tongdong Bai. China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom. World Political Theories. London: Zed Books, 2012. viii, 206 pp. Hardcover $116.95, isbn 978-1-78032-076-2. Paperback $29.95, isbn 978-1-78032-075-5.

Tongdong Bai’s volume is a welcome addition to the variety of introductory texts on Chinese philosophy that have recently or are about to hit the market.1 In addition to the volume’s brevity, several other aspects to Bai’s approach distinguish his contribution. These include a focus solely on early Chinese political thought, treating it as a conversation among the Confucians (mainly Confucius and Mencius), the Daoists (almost exclusively Laozi), and the legalists (Shang Yang and Han Feizi); an emphasis on the ways in which early Chinese philosophy addressed many of the issues that subsequently arose in Western modernity; and numerous asides and some direct arguments. These assertions are meant to lead readers to sympathize with claims Bai ardently defends in his other works about the value of Confucianism in the modern world and how Confucianism’s “ideal regime, adjusted to today’s reality, may serve to address political issues more effectively than liberal democracy” (p. 11). This approach, as we shall see, has its disadvantages as well as its advantages, but it should be noted that I personally am happy to see its publication and believe it would serve well as a text for a variety of courses in political philosophy/theory, particularly those focusing on comparative issues.

Chapter 1 is devoted to Bai’s description of the historical context within which Chinese political thought began. In particular, he uses this description to argue that what happened during the Spring and Autumn (770–476 b.c.e.) and the Warring States (476–222 b.c.e.) periods2 was a transition that bore “uncanny similarities to the European transition from the Middle Ages to (Western) modernity” (p. 19). He argues that this modernization raised a range of critical problems that the thinkers he addresses try in various ways to solve. Important among these problems is the need to create a “social glue,” both to connect the people to the rulers and to connect the people to each other in large and populous states.3 Tied to this idea, Bai sees the fall of feudalism as leading to a situation where relationships can no longer be relied upon to organize and control society.4 Finally, Bai sees the fall of the Zhou dynasty and the subsequent rise of numerous states fighting for survival and dominance as generating a need to deal with issues related to international relations. [End Page 1]

Chapter 2, the first of two chapters on Confucianism, maintains that this group of thinkers developed a social glue from their understanding of moral sentiments, latching on to “humanity” (Bai’s preferred translation for ren 仁) to serve this purpose.5 Humanity, in Bai’s account, includes compassion, which “serves to bind together a large and populous society of strangers” (p. 39).6 A similar use is what makes Confucian familialism so important, thinks Bai, arguing that loving relations among members of society are necessary to keep the demands of the laws from becoming oppressive, a situation that would result in the destruction of society. This chapter ends with an interesting discussion on the implications of Confucian ideas for environmentalism, animal rights, and feminism. And, while I suspect that not a few people will have substantial bones to pick with Bai’s analysis and how Confucianism can contribute, he raises these issues to highlight the possibility of his vision as an alternative to liberal democracy. He provides substantial fodder for those yearning for ways of demonstrating to students that Confucius was not just a stuffy old guy obsessed with straightening his mat. I can imagine many fruitful class debates and discussions arising from this and the following chapter.

Chapter 3 focuses more directly on Confucian ideas for developing the ruling class and providing a justification for its rule, laying out at times the ideas of Confucius and Mencius, at times a broader Confucian view (and, as we will see later, not...


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