The Problem of Power in Confucian Political Thought

In: Comparative Political Theory
Sam Crane Department of Political Science, Williams College, Massachusetts, United States,

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In this brief reflection on Shaun O’Dwyer’s book, Confucianism’s Prospects, I accept his central arguments regarding the implausibility of “Confucian democracy,” and I suggest a further reason for the inapplicability of Confucianism as a perfectionist doctrine for modern pluralistic East Asian societies. Beyond the elitist paternalism that is the focus of O’Dwyer’s analysis, I suggest that Confucianism’s theory of power, as illustrated by reference to the Mencius and the Analects, is insufficient to the task of constituting and reproducing modern democratic practice. Thus, for democracy to develop in East Asia, it must be grounded in liberalism.

In his book, Confucianism’s Prospects: A Reassessment, Shaun O’Dwyer argues that polities in contemporary East Asia are characterized by pluralism – of identities, of interests, and of ideologies. He advances this assertion to undermine the normative argument that Confucianism might serve as a culturally appropriate comprehensive perfectionist doctrine consistent with democracy. Along the way, he references Japanese feminists, Chinese animal rights activists, Korean Protestants, and a host of scholars working to refine Anglo-American theories of liberalism and its relationship with Confucianism. There is much here and much that is persuasive.

I will, therefore, not so much critique O’Dwyer’s central contention as extend it. His conclusion – that Confucianism’s political prospects can be “modest” only insofar as it cannot have a meaningful role in a genuinely democratic regime beyond serving as a source of inspiration for civil society groups in a plural polity – is credible. The reasons why Confucianism might be so politically limited, however, require further consideration. Beyond the elitist paternalism that O’Dwyer adduces as the central obstacle to “Confucian democracy,” I will suggest another problem: the limited attention, in classical Confucian texts, given to the question of power, its nature and the ways in which it shapes political behavior.

O’Dwyer brings forth a variety of evidence to illustrate the pluralism of contemporary East Asian societies, but this is not a work of empirical social science. His primary concern is theoretical: to demonstrate that key principles of Confucianism cannot be adapted to the governing demands of modern pluralism. On his view, certain strands of liberalism, specifically the capabilities approach to ethical individualism, provide the best means for achieving just outcomes in dynamically plural societies. Thus, what East Asians should strive for is not some sort of Confucian democracy but the development of a liberal democracy in which Confucian organizations, and perhaps even political parties, share the same rights of association and participation as all others.

Thus, O’Dwyer is not denying the presence of Confucian cultural values. He simply questions the extent to which those values are strongly held and acted upon by contemporary East Asians. A notable contribution here is the list of criteria for further empirical investigation into the strength of Confucian values in the region (O’Dwyer, 2019, pp. 21–28). Although O’Dwyer proffers only a limited assessment, a reader can reasonably draw the conclusion that East Asia is not composed of “Confucian societies.” Although far from the last word on the subject, O’Dwyer’s analysis will certainly prove useful to scholars seeking greater clarity on these sorts of empirical questions.

Turning to the question of democracy, there is, for O’Dwyer, no escaping the essentially meritocratic elements of Confucian thought. Emphasizing its elitist paternalism, he shows how efforts to synthesize Confucianism with some forms of liberalism, especially John Dewey’s participatory democracy, yield theoretical constructs that are not really “Confucian.” Attempts to combine Confucianism with illiberal conceptions of democracy also ultimately fail on O’Dwyer’s account. In this case, it is social and cultural pluralism, again, that holds the key. Perhaps most important in this regard is the inevitable epistemic failure of elite governance under conditions of modern socio-cultural and political complexity. The elite alone cannot know how best to govern. Public participation is necessary to provide sufficient information and understanding to manage multifaceted public policy problems. Thus is created a dilemma of elite governance: the public participation indispensable to counteract the limitations of epistemic elitism also opens channels for dissent against paternalism but restrictions of participation to preserve paternalism create legitimacy problems. Illiberal democrats can neither live with nor live without more public participation than their elitism would allow.

The tendency for illiberalism, democratic or otherwise, to descend into full-blown authoritarianism is well known in East Asia, and O’Dwyer effectively demonstrates how Confucianism was implicated in the “horror story” of militarist Japanese nationalism and imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (chapter 5). That cruel era, along with periods of authoritarian repression in other East Asian countries, provides people there with clear historical examples and memories of what can happen when unlimited and undivided state power imposes a comprehensive conception of the “good.” Indeed, it is precisely that historical experience that provides a good reason for East Asians to seek liberal, as opposed to Confucian, political institutions. O’Dwyer invokes Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear” to demonstrate the possibility for a wider embrace of liberal democracy in the region.

It is here, however, that O’Dwyer’s analysis could be extended to demonstrate a further impediment to “Confucian democracy.”

In his relatively brief reference to Shklar, O’Dwyer mentions large-scale violent political traumas (O’Dwyer, 2019, p. 204) as the kinds of events that might instill a desire for popular political rights and limited government. The liberalism of fear:

…proceeds not toward a summum bonum, a greatest good to which all citizens must be directed to strive for, but from shared knowledge of a summum malum – the greatest of evils, which arises when sectarianism and absolutism take hold in governance. (O’Dwyer, 2019, pp. 203–4)

This is reasonable, as far as it goes. Shklar, however, has a somewhat more expansive notion of the liberalism of fear. It derives not just from major traumas but also from routine abuses. Shklar tells us we must be on guard “most of the time” for even “small,” perhaps banal, malfeasances that arise from the concentration of power (Shklar, 1989, p. 28).

The problem here is power, the centralized power of the state, and the ways in which that power can shape the behavior of the people within its ambit. Power holders have an abiding interest in maintaining their hold on power. Those out of power contrive to gain it. These kinds of incentives can overwhelm the best-laid perfectionist doctrines. This is not simply a matter of personal character or education. It is a structural problem. The more power is concentrated, the greater the possibility that it creates incentives for those who possess it to wield it in ways that ensure they continue to possess it and benefit from it. Indeed, the problem is not just a summum malum but also the prior accumulation of power that facilitates it. This is, of course, a central concern of liberalism more generally, as Shklar recognizes (Shklar, 1989, p. 30).

Indeed, liberalism contains a fairly robust theory of power. Stephen Holmes reminds us that while liberalism certainly foregrounds the limitation and division of potentially despotic power, it also recognizes the necessity of institutionalized structures of authority (1995, pp. 18–23). State power must be both established and contained, it is both a problem and a solution for liberal politics (Holmes, 1995, pp. 269–71). State power is constitutive of civil society yet also the greatest threat to civil society. These are background assumptions of even the most ideal theory forms of liberalism.

Citizens of Japan and Taiwan and South Korea can certainly appreciate both aspects of liberalism’s theory of power: the necessity of limiting power and of institutionalizing it. After decades of living in consolidated liberal democracies with high-capacity state bureaucracies, well-tested processes for popular participation, and robust civil societies, what might Confucianism offer them by way of political theory? For Confucianism to be relevant to East Asian democrats, its theory of power must address their actually existing suspicion of tyranny, their accomplishment of rule of law and administrative competence, and their enjoyment of dynamically plural social life.

What, then, is the Confucian theory of power?

In this short essay we will only be able to consider two foundational Confucian texts: The Analects and Mencius, and since the latter has somewhat more to say about power, we will start there.

Mencius is renowned for speaking truth to power. He is regularly in dialogue with kings and dukes, challenging them on their abuses of authority. Famously, he holds that virtuous individuals should rule because they will make the most just public policy decisions and their exemplary behavior will contribute to social order (4A1).1 If power holders use their authority for personal benefit, however, and their behavior persists after it has been exposed, Mencius accepts the removal of such bad rulers (5B9). Indeed, if the perfidy of an immoral leader causes political upheaval that results in that ruler’s death, that killing would, from the Mencian perspective, be justifiable (1B8).

In all of this, however, Mencius never interrogates the existing structure of power. For him, centralized, institutionally undivided monarchal power is a tool for realizing the good. If there is a failure in using power for the good, that failure rests with the individual rulers, not the constitution of power. Thus, there is no general “right to rebel” (Tiwald, 2008). Only “ministers from the royal line” can legitimately remove a bad ruler, while other ministers can merely remonstrate (5B9). Although the “great families” should not be offended (4A5), Mencian governance is essentially monarchal, thus potentially despotic, more than it is aristocratic. The king’s power is constrained less by the rule of law than by traditional norms and ritual, which can in practice prove quite pliable.

Mencius’s view of orderly succession, from one putatively good ruler to another, avoids any serious consideration of how power might determine political outcomes. The rather vague “Mandate of Heaven” is his ultimate legitimating device for kingly rule (5A5). If a new leader, upon assuming power, is able to appropriately manage the rituals of office and to effectively implement public policy, as demonstrated in general civil order, then his possession and exercise of power is legitimate. Although in the most prominent example provided – that of Shun, a mythical sage-king – there is a period of apprenticeship, during which time the candidate’s competency for rule can be evaluated, for the most part determining whether a ruler possesses the Mandate is an exercise in post hoc rationalization. If a contender seizes power, by whatever means, and is able to maintain social stability for some period, there is very little in Mencius that would deny him the Mandate of Heaven, save the general exhortation that the virtuous should rule.

It is not terribly surprising then that, throughout the course of Chinese history, violent struggles for power have characterized many changes of leadership. To take just one era, when the Mongol practice of blood tanistry – the sometimes-violent competition among brothers to succeed a father – came to challenge the older Chinese norm of primogeniture (which, in itself is not consistent with the Confucian notion that the most virtuous should rule), the Mencian-Confucian understanding of succession was no obstacle (Brook, 2013, pp. 80–82). Nor did Confucianism have much to contribute to the establishment of a new dynasty. The first Ming despot, Zhu Yuanzhang, ruthlessly seized and wielded power in a manner that “hollowed out the Confucian moral tradition and left it with only punishments to maintain the health of the administration.” (Brook, 2013, p. 88). Confucian idealism, it would seem, falls to near irrelevance in the face of power politics.

The best Confucian defense against the abuse of power is the moral education of ministers and advisers. If people with proper moral training and experience can get themselves into positions of power near the king (since the politics of actually becoming king or emperor is beyond the ken of Confucian theory) they might be able to guide the use of state power toward the good. Yet even here, a problem arises. We can call it the Ran Qiu problem, after a follower of Confucius.

Ran Qiu (also known as Ran You) was a prominent student and wayward protégé of Confucius, frequently mentioned in the Analects. Confucius attended carefully to Ran’s moral instruction, encouraging the younger man when he hesitated in acting politically (11.22) and including him in intimate discussions about life goals (11.26).2 It seems that the education was fruitful: on several occasions Confucius recommended Ran for administrative positions (5.8; 6.8; 11.3), which suggests that he had achieved sufficient virtue to assist a monarch. On one such occasion (11.24), however, Confucius mentions that Ran, while certainly capable to serve, would not be a “great minister” because he might not be able to stand up to a ruler. Indeed, this limitation would lead to a serious falling out between student and teacher.

Eventually, Ran assumed a high ministerial position for the Ji clan, who had usurped power in the state of Lu. The Ji family patriarch had gained the authority to impose a land tax, which was generally seen by Confucians as exploitative and wrong (Chin, 2007, pp. 124–26). Ran implemented the tax, making the ruler wealthier than the iconic Duke of Zhou while enriching himself as well. Confucius was incensed, saying to his followers: “This man is no follower of mine! You young men, sound the drum and attack him – you have my permission.” (11.17). “Sound the drum” could suggest something more than mere verbal condemnation. An alternative translation suggests: “Young men, you have my permission to sound the drums and drive him away” (Eno, trans., 2015). In any event, Ran Qiu had failed. He had abetted the use of power for immoral purposes.

How can we account for Ran Qiu’s failure? In the Analects, Ran himself states that he simply does not have the personal fortitude to live up to the demands of Confucian morality, to which Confucius replies that he is limiting himself by simply not trying hard enough (6.12). David Nivison suggests that Ran thus manifests a kind of “paradox of virtue”: being both capable and incapable of acting for the good, which ultimately amounts to a kind of Aristotelean acedia, moral sloth or a lack of care (Nivison, 1996, p. 36).

We can, however, press further to ask whether this is simply a personal failing. In this case, Ran’s proximity to, and benefit from, power must be taken into account. He had worked himself into a position of advantage and he made the most of it: access to power shaped his actions. The issue here is not where he stands (in terms of his moral outlook) but where he sits (in a structure of power). This would also explain why, on another occasion, when Ran looks to help a wealthy friend’s mother, he takes so much grain for her that Confucius remarks: “The way I’ve heard it, the gentleman helps out the needy but does not contribute to the upkeep of the rich” (6.4). Ran was, again, knowingly doing the opposite of what Confucian morality would require: serving the interests of power and personal gain.

The Ran Qiu problem, then, illustrates the underdevelopment of a theory of power in classical Confucianism. To modern-day East Asians, it would likely be obvious that power can corrupt and therefore must, to the extent possible, be limited and diffused and regulated. South Koreans who protested and demanded the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye knew this well. Elitist paternalism, when ensconced in an illiberal political regime, can descend into venality and exploitation even when morally well-educated individuals are in leadership positions. Yet Confucianism elides the structural aspects of this problem and it does so because of what we might call the Guan Zhong temptation.

Guan Zhong was a renowned statesman of the Spring and Autumn era. He rose, as the result of a series of bloody succession struggles, to eventually become prime minister for the formidable Duke Huan of Qi. Although he is often characterized as a Legalist, the later book that bears his name, the Guanzi, is fairly eclectic in its philosophical commitments. Confucians, however, are conflicted in their evaluations of him (El Amine, 2015, pp. 53–59).

In the Analects, two passages, 14.17 and 14.18, stand out in regard to Guan Zhong.3 In each, a follower of Confucius, first Zilu and then Zigong, remarks that Guan lacks humaneness because he is willing to work for a ruler who had killed his brother to gain power, in violation of Confucian virtues of fraternal respect and aversion to killing. Guan, to them, rather obviously fails to meet the standard for Confucian virtue and, thus, should not be in a position of power. Confucius, in both passages, strongly rejects this interpretation, and asserts that Guan is exemplary in his humaneness because the policies he implemented had historically significant success: he was able to guide the morally suspect ruler to negotiate peace among rival states, achieving social stability and cultural preservation.

For the purposes of our analysis, what stands out here, again, are the implications for the Confucian theory of power. Guan is to be commended, according to Confucius, because he was able to make good out of a bad ruler. That bad ruler had undivided ducal power (effectively monarchal power, save for the symbolic recognition of the materially powerless Zhou king) to effect peace and social stability. Even though Guan was not “Confucian” (he predated Confucius himself), he had sufficient moral character to be an agent of the good, and he was shrewd enough, and even sufficiently immoral at times, to succeed politically in shaping the use of power. The lesson drawn by Confucius is not to question power in and of itself, not to suspect that power can systematically cause Ran Qiu-type venality, but, rather, to yearn for power, for concentrated, undivided power, that might be used to realize the good.

These foundational texts of Confucianism, then, cannot supply East Asians with a theory of power that can support modern democratic practices. The Guan Zhong temptation, we might say, distracts Confucians from critically analyzing the structural aspects of the Ran Qiu problem.

Perhaps we should not expect ancient philosophy to have anticipated a theoretical turn taken by some Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, and we should recognize that Confucianism was an essential ideological element of some materially very successful political regimes. Yet if the question is what role Confucianism might play in contemporary political life in East Asia, the answer would seem to be that it must depend, ultimately, on the more robust theory of power provided by liberalism to make democracy possible.


  • Brook, T. (2013). The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.

  • Chin, A. (2007)The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. New York: Scribner.

  • El Amine, L. (2015). Classical Confucian Political Thought: A New Interpretation. Princeton. Princeton University Press.

  • Holmes, S. (1995). Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

  • Mencius (2003). I. Bloom, trans. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Nivison, D.S. (1996). The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy. Chicago. Open Court.

  • O’Dwyer, S. (2019). Confucianism’s Prospects: A Reassessment. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • Shklar, J.N. (1989). The Liberalism of Fear. In: N.L. Bloom, ed., Liberalism and the Moral Life. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, pp. 2138.

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  • The Analects of Confucius(2007). B. Watson, trans. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • The Analects of Confucius: An Online Teaching Translation (2015). R. Eno, trans. Accessed November 18, 2020.

  • Tiwald, J. (2008). A Right to Rebel in the Mengzi? Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 7, pp. 26982.


All references to Mencius are passage numbers in (Bloom, trans., 2003).


All reference to the Analects, unless otherwise noted, are passage numbers from (Watson, trans., 2007).


In some translations, these passages are numbered 14.6 and 14.7.

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