18 October 2017

Jane Kate Leonard on the self-institution dialectic

Late Ming jingshi thinker Chen Zilong 陈子龙

Jane Kate Leonard, China historian and scholarly biographer of Qing statesman (Gongyang-school political Confucian and close friend of Gong Zizhen 龚自珍 and Lin Zexu 林则徐) Wei Yuan 魏源, on the complexities of the Confucian self-institution dialectic:
Statecraft themes were perpetuated in the early Ch’ing period by Ming loyalists who saw statecraft as the ultimate goal of study and self-cultivation. The concept of statesmanship contained two main elements which provided its philosophical foundations. The first was the moral element which affirmed that the primary aim of statesmanship was the creation of a moral order at both the societal and cosmic levels. The moral leader or statesman played a key rôle in this process because his influence and charisma transformed lesser men into morally perfect beings which, in turn, resulted in the creation of a moral society and universal moral order. This idealistic approach took little account of the rôle of man’s institutional and legal environment in shaping character and human values.

The second element in statecraft thought was the practical or pragmatic one which expressed a greater concern for the realities of the here and now, especially the smooth functioning of the dynastic order. This approach, while affirming the central rôle of moral leadership, sought to achive the establishment of a stable, prosperous state and society which was viewed as the first step in realising the ultimate goal of universal moral order. The affirmation of moral ends, however, served to justify actions that were essentially utilitarian and directed toward the solution of immediate political, social and œconomic problems. Implicit in this approach was the Mencian view that the purpose of government is to rule on behalf of the people and that the conditions of life, to a great extent, shape human character. Because of a willingness to concede the important effect of man’s institutional environment on behaviour, advocates of the practical approach to statesmanship emphasised the importance of laws and institutions. They saw both in relative terms and were inclined to regard change in a positive light.

Moral statesmanship and practical statesmanship were closely tied; each represented different points on a continuum of Confucian values ranging from the idealistic and abstract to the more practical and concrete. In the rhetoric of Confucian political thought, the idealistic, moral approach was the more dominant. In reality, the two were inextricably entwined, with idealistic ends justifying a broad spectrum of practical means. In the early Ch’ing period, the lines between the two were blurred, and, although it was called the age of ‘practical statesmanship’, there was, nonetheless, an overriding concern with moral leadership and its achievement through rigorous scholarship and self-cultivation.
Leonard argues, convincingly, that early Qing dynasty jingshi 经世 (or ‘statecraft’) thought, the milieu to which Wei Yuan belonged, came largely out of the loyalist reform-minded cliques of the late Ming, as they grappled both with big existential questions and with the more immediate and nitty-gritty ones of how to run a just and well-ordered state. Their entire world, after all, had been completely overthrown: it’s only natural that much of their reform-driven energy would be redirected into questions normally reserved for Daoist reflection. It’s particularly interesting that Leonard mentions Mencius as a forerunner of the ‘practical’, political strand of Confucianism – that goes slightly against the received wisdom which sees Mencius as a forerunner of the ‘heart-mind’ school and Xunzi as that of the ‘political’ school, but it jives nicely with Song Dynasty reformer Wang Anshi’s preferences.

I’m only just beginning this text, and it’s already proven to be a fascinating one. Leonard is much more knowledgeable than I am, that’s clear to me already. But it’s interesting that she used her monograph on Wei Yuan to touch on a philosophical dialectic I’ve been thinking about and grappling with on my own for a long time, and that she expressed it in such clear terms.

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