09 February 2018

The Gongyang Commentary, just war and realism

Warfare during Spring and Autumn period

After having read the English translation of the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, I came across a very interesting article by Yu Kam-por of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, discussing the treatment of warfare in the Spring and Autumn Annals and the circumstances under which Confucius and his followers believed political violence could be approved (or disapproved to varying degrees).

Dr Yu notes that the Gongyang tradition of hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn is entirely based on degrees. Small injustices are to be preferred to great injustices, and injustices that arise from a proper concern for humanity are to be preferred to injustices that arise from a desire for gain. What this gradated differentiation of justice in war means also, is that even though some uses of force are preferable to states of greater injustice, no use of force can ever be perfectly just. Ironically, this places the Ruist understanding of just war much closer to the Orthodox ethical understanding of warfare than to classical Augustinian just war theory.

Even so, there are some clear dimensions along which the Gongyang Commentary differentiates more ‘just’ military actions from less ‘just’ ones. Here is how Dr Yu sorts the Gongyang Commentary’s jus ad bellum concerns:
  1. Proper aims. The Gongyang Commentary condemns wars undertaken offensively for enrichment of the state, even if they are justified externally as punishment of evildoers.

  2. Proper agency. The war must be declared by a legitimate authority. In descending order, the proper agents for carrying out a military action are: the Son of Heaven; a league of feudal states; an individual feudal state with a good reputation. Expeditions undertaken by individual states with bad track records are condemned.

  3. Proper evidence of wrongdoing. Mere surmises or even intentions (as opposed to wrong actions) are insufficient basis for declaring war on a particular target.

  4. Proper procedure. How this is differentiated from ‘proper agency’ is not entirely clear to me from Dr Yu’s paper. The Spring and Autumn Annals prefers punitive actions be taken by a league of allied states (batao 霸討) than unilaterally (zhuantao 專討).

  5. Proper declaration of hostilities. Sudden or surprise attacks (zhaji 詐擊) are condemned as ‘barbaric’.

  6. Proper timing. It’s considered good form to forbear from attacking a state in mourning, or one which is suffering from a natural disaster.
Pre-emptive strikes are roundly condemned among states which hold – to a greater degree – to the rituals of Zhou. However, there is limited allowance in the Spring and Autumn Annals for pre-emptive attack by a ‘civilised’ Central State against a ‘barbarian’ state that does not observe the ritual proprieties of Zhou, though again it is regarded as a less-than-ideal course of action.

It deserves stressing, again, that the degree to which a state is ‘civilised’ has nothing to do, in classical Chinese thinking, with race or geography, but with the extent to which the state follows the rites of Zhou. Even non-Han states could be considered ‘Chinese’ in this way, and Han states could lose their ‘Chinese’ status through cruel, deceitful or improper conduct. This is related to the reputation of a state related above.

With regard to jus in bello concerns, there are several concerns that are highlighted by the Spring and Autumn Annals:
  1. Proper placement. Wars that take place far from established population centres (pianzhan 偏戰) are preferable to wars that take place among civilians (zhazhan 詐戰), though of course non-violent solutions are normally preferable to both.

  2. Proper weapons. Fire attacks – and by extension, Dr Yu argues, any kind of weapon that kills indiscriminately or en masse – are condemned as cruel and inhumane because they kill innocents as well as enemies.

  3. Proper extent. This is what, in Augustinian just war theory, would be called proportionality: only the minimum amount of force required to achieve victory is sanctioned.

  4. Proper concern. The Spring and Autumn Annals praises generals and statesmen who disobey their superiors, even in a just expedition, in order to spare the lives of a defeated enemy, or one afflicted by hunger or disease.
Dr Yu stresses that these standards are not absolute and that they are meant to serve as gradated guidelines in a world ruled by the demands of realpolitik. ‘We can say that the principles expressed in the Spring and Autumn Annals are a reasonable integration of idealism and realism.’ After all, the conception of history in the Spring and Autumn Annals is one of a ‘long defeat’ in which the idyllic ways of the ancients are no longer observed or even respected, and in which libido dominandi among feudal lords, grand officials and servants of states becomes a stronger motivating force for action than ritual propriety. The Spring and Autumn standards, again, are meant to strike a balance between the absolute geopolitical realism of the legalists, and the absolute idealism of the Mohists. What is left in this classical school of thought is a kind of moderate realism, based on historical precedent rather than abstract principles, which understands the tension between the demands of morality and propriety on the one hand, and the preconditions for success on the other.

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