Translator Caterina Weber
In the pre-Qin era, the xianneng 賢能 [those of virtue and talent] were a commonly discussed topic, on which every school of thought had its own views. Daoist discussions on the xianneng sometimes reflected strong aversion and rejection, yet at other times gave them abundant praise and approval. Because of uncertainty on the universality of moral principles, on the limitations of one’s individual ability, and on the effectiveness of political actions, views in the Laozi 老子 and the Zhuangzi 莊子 on the xianneng saving society were skeptical in nature, sometimes even taking a mocking tone. Scholars of the Huang-Lao tradition had realized the limitations of individual ability and hoped that the greatest level of political benefit could be attained. Consequently, under the premise of safeguarding monarchical authority, fully displaying the skills and talents of all kinds of sages (imperial teachers and virtuous officials) through the practice of wuwei 無為 [inaction], and the highest leaders’ respect for virtue became the main direction in the Huang-Lao understanding of the xianneng. This tendency has much in common with the Legalist school of thought.
Translator Stefano Gandolfo
Lucian W. Pye, the renowned American Sinologist, argues that power/authority in Chinese culture follows a paternalistic structure, that the distinction in Chinese society between public and private has historically been in a state of tension, and therefore that Chinese governance has always emphasized central power over local self-governance, suppressed cultural pluralism, and rebuffed multipolar structures of power. Even though the inherent tension identified by Pye certainly exists, the thesis that Chinese culture has a deeply ingrained authoritarian orientation is simply incorrect. In order to resolve the tension between the public and private realms, Chinese thinkers—from the various strands of legalist thought to the Confucian notion of “kingly governance”—have premised the division of power on the priority of preserving centralized power. In other words, diffusion of power has been premised on the idea of an already collectivized authority. Therefore, the power structure that defines Chinese culture has certainly not been the polycentric one that Pye implicitly values, but neither has it been the centralist, authoritarian structure that he abhors. Rather, it has been the Confucian model premised on the values of governance through ritual and moral virtue. Insights from cultural psychology help explain ethical governance—that is, rule by an ethical meritocracy—in Chinese society and culture.