33. Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean & Legalism

China Page

In our discussion of Confucius, a.k.a. Master Kung, we attempted to differentiate between the beliefs of Confucius and the ju class, commonly called Confucianism. We will now explore what events transpired after his death that have transformed his ideas into one of the most powerful forces in world history.

The Great Learning & the Doctrine of the Mean

 “After his [Confucius’] death two divergent tendencies developed in his school, one social and political, represented by the Great Learning, and the other religious and metaphysical, represented by the Doctrine of the Mean.”1

The Great Learning emphasized ‘manifesting one’s clear character, renovating the people and arriving at the highest good.’ The Path, i.e. Tao, of the Great Learning consisted of eight steps: 1) investigation of things, 2) extension of knowledge, 3) sincerity of the will, 4) setting the heart right, 5) self cultivation, 6) family harmony, 7) national order and 8) world peace.2 In simpler words, the individual was to work towards world peace by focusing first on the more immediate areas of self, the family and then the nation. In striving towards self-perfection, the individual was to manifest on the social level.

According to tradition, Confucius’ grandson developed the Doctrine of the Mean. The Mean is ‘central harmony’, i.e., inside the self. The individual’s purpose in this schema is to become real by cultivating this internal harmony. “Only those whose selves are real can fulfill their own nature, the nature of others, the nature of things and finally partake of the creative work of Heaven and Earth.”

Confucius in the Journey

These two Confucian doctrines, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, are incredibly powerful in Chinese thought and both manifest in the literary work, Journey to the West. As the pilgrims pursue their goal, they work towards world peace by rectifying weak and evil governments. Further, Tripitaka is continually trying to maintain his central harmony by attempting to avoid being trapped by his physical desires. The world is rectified only if he maintains his quietude and balance. There are many instances when he is tempted, but remains incredibly still, not even saying anything, for fear of imbalance.

Congruence: Taoists & the Followers of Confucius

The ideas behind the Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Teaching of Confucianism are so intimately related to Taoist principles that we can begin to understand how the followers of Confucius and the Taoists are intertwined during this time period. These teachings provide a clear-cut example of how close the schools were before the Common Era. Texts from both traditions speak about the importance of self-cultivation and working towards the common good. In fact, it could easily be argued that the 2 schools were virtually indistinguishable at this time.

“Most Confucians and most Taoists would generally agree that a good person should engage in ‘self-cultivation’.”3

Members of the literati, the ju class, openly discussed the self-cultivation techniques associated with Taoism and the social activism associated with Confucianism. Further they didn’t identify themselves as members of one school or the other. There were no self-identified Taoists before the Modern Era and the ju were simply members of the ruling aristocracy, only later to be identified as Confucians. Indeed it might be harder to separate Taoists from the followers of Confucius than it would be to separate the followers of Confucius from the Confucians, i.e. the ju.

If differentiations were to be made, it would be more instructive to break the ju class into 2 parts. The first group would consist of those who followed Confucian ideals, such as social activism and merit-based leadership. The second would be those members of the ruling military class who believed in aristocratic privilege, i.e. the importance of bloodline, independent of merit. Further, power and the accumulation of wealth would be more important than good leadership or self-cultivation. For these individuals, military prowess would rate far above inner peace.

Another group would be those who were separate from the ju class, i.e. the ruling military aristocracy. The members would include those who participated in shamanistic practices designed to achieve higher states of consciousness, frequently through drugs. Another sector of society that were separated from the power structure were those that belonged to folk religions. Both of these traditions were eventually included under the broad Taoist umbrella. However, none of the members of these diverse groups identified themselves as Taoists until centuries into the Modern Era.

Followers of Confucius are followers of the Tao

We see the congruence of Taoist and Confucian thought especially in the Ta Chuan, The Great Treatise, writings concerning the philosophy of the I Ching that are attributed to the followers of Confucius. Book 1, Chapter IV is titled “The Deeper Implications of the Book of Changes” Paragraph 1 of this chapter states: “The Book of Changes contains the measure of heaven and earth; therefore it enables us to comprehend the tao of heaven and earth and its order.” Chapter V is titled “Tao in Its relation to the Yang and Yin.” Chapter VI is titled “Tao as Applied to the Book of Changes”. The followers of Confucius employ the Tao as a central concept for understanding the I Ching. They spend these chapters speaking about the Tao in relation to the I Ching and life in general. The Confucians, i.e. the ju class, could easily have called these early followers of Confucius ‘those Taoists’.


Man: Good or Evil?

Later on the followers of Confucius split again into two schools based upon the innate nature of humans. Mencius and his followers considered humans to be inherently good, while Hsün Tzu and his followers considered humans to be inherently evil.

“Mencius’ program of self-cultivation assumed a need for the good man to embrace and extend ‘what is natural’ within himself and that Hsun-tze (Xunzi), a century later argued adamantly to the contrary.”4

Hsün Tzu had two influential students, Han Fei Tzu and Li Ssu. These men originated and propagated the philosophy of legalism in the state of Ch’in.

Han Fei Tzu

“The legalists … wished autocratic rule through the enforcement of law rather than the Confucian influence of moral example.”5

Elevating the state above the individual, Han Fei Tzu rightly perceived that the family clan was a threat to the state. He pointed out that man’s first loyalty was to his family, while his second was to the state. As such, the Confucian virtue of filial piety was a threat to the state and not a blessing. Han Fei Tzu correctly pointed out that each family had their own agenda which might be at odds with the state’s well being. Furthermore the state needed to be powerful to stem the rise of lawlessness. Because the family tended to act in its own self-interest, the members would only support the state when it supported the clan’s agenda. As such, the ruler need not try and make the clans happy. Furthermore because Han Fei Tzu considered humans to be basically evil, it was necessary to create a multitude of strict laws to control their evil ways.

Confucianism had been turned inside out. Instead of the ruler governing by moral example, he governed by strict laws. However, as in Nazi Germany, the turn to law and order worked for the Ch’in. Legalism enabled the state to become increasingly powerful.

A Context for legalism

To establish the context for the rise of legalism, China of the late Eastern Chou Dynasty was fragmenting. Confucius and the other philosophers were attempting to stop the disintegration with their theories. At the end of the Chou, with lawlessness on the rise, extreme measures were needed to restore the disintegrating social order. It was in this context that legalism developed.

A successful response to rising social chaos

Legalism, an extreme example of a hierarchical political philosophy, was a successful temporary solution to China’s turbulence during the end of the Chou dynasty. It strengthened the Ch’in to the extent that they were able to supplant the Chou dynasty, as well as unite and transform China.

Legalism aligned with Confucius

Remember that the legalists were a branch of Confucianism. They, like Confucius, were trying to solve the problem of social turbulence. They could see that the solution of moral example proposed by Confucius was not working. They could see that the rulers sought wealth and power first and foremost. Their conclusion was that humans were basically evil and needed to be reigned in by strict laws. Despite the fact that legalism was based upon the assumption that humans are inherently evil, the legalists were still socially responsible. They did not believe in family privilege or self-indulgence. They just felt that humans learned social responsibility as they grew up and that laws were the way to control the tendency of humans to take advantage of the situation and revert to their feral ways. 6

Legalism opposed to the Confucians, the ju class

While the legalists looked to social reform to solve the social ills, the ju class, i.e. the Confucians, attempted to maintain hereditary privilege at all costs. Rising above his class, Confucius' solution to the crumbling Chinese social structure of the later Chou dynasty was to choose leaders based upon ability rather than bloodline. While Confucius stressed filial responsibility to the parents as a symbol of social responsibility, the ju class linked filial responsibility to ancestor worship, and hereditary succession.

The ruling princes of the Chou, members of the ju class, were inclined to ignore the merit and social responsibility that Confucius advocated and instead attempted to hold onto aristocratic privilege and hereditary succession. Their solution to the rising chaos was to hold onto the old ways, which had worked in the past. Under the influence of the self-absorbed ju class, China continued splintering into petty princedoms, each aggressively pursuing their own agenda. In opposition to the privileged aristocratic families, the legalists focused upon reason and progress to solve the social ills. In this sense, the legalists were more followers of Confucius and less the followers of the cultured aristocracy, the ju class, with their hereditary privileges.

Let’s see how the militaristic state of Ch’in employed the philosophy of Legalism to establish the first Chinese Empire.


1 Encyclopedia Brittanica, Confucianism 6-237d

2 EB, Confucianism 6-238

3 Taoism, the enduring tradition, Russell Kirkland, Routledge, 2004, p.xviii

4 Kirkland, p.xviii

5 EB 5, 520

6 In the Western democracies we have harmonized the two philosophies. While we expect that our leaders will provide a relatively good moral example, we rely on laws to regulate society. The primary moral example that we expect from our leaders is that of following and enforcign the laws of society. While the public will tolerate almost any scandal, they don’t seem to tolerate law breaking. The public doesn’t like corrupt laws, but they tolerate them until they are changed. However public officials who break the law intentionally are usually punished relatively quickly.


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments