The literate and the power in pre-imperial China

Videoconference by Frédéric Wang, Professor at INALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations).

The Chinese ideogram to write "literate, gentleman", shi Samurai is associated with another sign to write shi "To serve (the prince)" and another ideogram shi thing can be translated as "to serve the prince, the parents". We thus see that the scholar is associated with the notion of serving the prince, it is an obligation and a duty.

A statement attributed to Confucius (551-479 BC) says “Sometimes the scholar accepts neither the dignity at the court of the Son of Heaven nor any charge in the service of a feudatory prince”. This contradiction between what Confucius says and the very notion of the scholar who must serve the prince is explained by the fact that his conduct must be exemplary to deserve this service. The scholar must only enter the service of the prince if he deserves it, otherwise he must preserve himself. In The Talks of Confucius we can read that the condition for entering the service of a prince depends on the virtue of the latter.

Mencius (Mengzi 372-289 BC), the spiritual heir of Confucius and one of the great thinkers of the Warring States period (475-221 BC), says that Man is fundamentally good, but you have to work and make efforts to acquire knowledge and learn to be a better man, driven by a sense of justice and a sense of humanity. Mencius considered the relationship between scholar and prince generally and the relationship between prince and people more specifically. He keeps saying that the people are the most important, the most precious. King Xuan of Qi (around 350 BC - 301 BC) had made the Jixia Academy prosperous, which brought together many scholars of the time to advise him without directly intervening in affairs of state. In one of his dialogues with this king, Mencius says that the relationship between the prince and his people is not one-sided but that there must be reciprocal benevolence. A leader must justify his position by acting with benevolence before he can expect reciprocity from the people. In one of his interviews, he is summoned by the king when he was about to go to court; he then finds the excuse of being sick for not going there. The next day, the king sends an emissary accompanied by a doctor, but Mencius has gone to offer his condolences to the Dongguo family. Warned by a disciple, he takes refuge with his friend Jingzi. His host told him: “The relationship uniting father and son on the inside and that which binds sovereign and subject on the outside are the two main types of human relationship. If favor dominates the first, respect governs the second. I see that the king showed you respect but I did not see him back at your home”. Mencius answered him "that he alone exposed to the prince the way of Yao and Shun (exemplary mythical rulers of the third millennium BC) while no one speaks of the sense of humanity and fairness before the ruler and that is why Qi's men are less respectful towards him than me”. “In the universe, three things are unanimously respected: rank, age and virtue. Nothing beats rank at court, age in the village and virtue to help the prince govern the people. Can a man endowed with one of these qualities despise one who is endowed with the other two? This is why a prince of great stature necessarily has subjects that he does not summon. If he wants to consult them, he goes to them. He who does not have this way of honoring virtue and loving the Way is not worthy of being helped in his achievements”.





For Mencius, to rule is to subjugate people's hearts, while to be hegemony is to submit by resorting to force. His refusal to go to the king's summons as he was about to go to court is caused by his feeling of hierarchy. Going to see the sovereign on one's own initiative was one thing, whereas being summoned by the king meant entering into a subject-master relationship. To receive the teaching, one moves and one comes to the master. The king has the rank but Mencius considers that he has the age and the virtue. As he was not from Qi but only passing through, he left the country shortly after this event.

Zhuangzi (389-286 BC) is a great Chinese thinker who is credited with an essential text of Taoism, the Zhuangzi. His political message is more subtle and in his relationship with the prince he is quite categorical. In the biography of Zhuangzi written by Sima Qian (145-86 BC), we see that King Wei of Chu sent a messenger and a large gift of money to invite him, promising him the post of Prime Minister. But the master's answer was clear "I do not want to be hindered by those who have power and, to satisfy my ideal, I will never accept an official position".

In another passage, Zhuangzi was fishing on the banks of the P'ou river, when two emissaries sent by the king of Chu came to find him to inform him of their master's desire to see him take charge of the affairs of the state. Continuing to hold his line, the Master declared to them without even turning his head: "Isn't there in Chu a sacred turtle, dead more than three thousand years ago, whose shell the king preciously preserves, wrapped in a piece of cloth and squeezed in a wicker basket, in the ancestral temple of her palace? Do you think the tortoise is happier now that it is revered as a relic than when it was alive dragging its tail through the mud? “She was happiest alive dragging her tail through the mud!” the two envoys said in chorus. Zhuangsi replied, “Well! leave. I too prefer to drag my tail through the mud!”

For Zhuangzi, animals are as important as human beings. According to him, and even if he puts life and death into perspective on many occasions, serving a prince amounts to losing vital energy, to risking one's life unnecessarily. He rejects in fact any social relation of constraint which deprives man of his freedom.

For Mencius, it is conceivable to serve the prince if he is virtuous, while for Zhuangzi it is unimaginable to serve an institutionalized government because of the resulting opposition between man and nature.

Han Fei (died 223 BC) was a legal philosopher and political thinker who lived in the late Warring States state of Han. According to him, order and prosperity can only be brought by a strong state, which is based on very strict laws and not on morality and understanding, unlike Confucianism. His thought inspired the authoritarian policy of Qin Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor of China”. In one of his texts, he writes: “A monarch's beloved favorites threaten his days; revered ministers seize his throne. The disorder in the hierarchy of the wives is a danger for the crown prince; the insubordination of the brothers puts the country in danger». "No one should, on his own initiative, revere philosophers or put himself at the service of men of talent". The scholar has no place in the organization of power as it is conceived by legalism.

The evolution of the relationship between scholars and imperial power will continue over the centuries. The objective of the imperial examinations, that of restricting the power of the aristocracy which dominated Chinese political life between the 3rd s. and the 6rd s. of our era, was only reached under the Song (960-1276) when the recruitment of civil servants by means of imperial competitions was regularized to become the model of the following dynasties. The sovereign is looking for talented men, the legitimacy of his power represented by the class of scholars. The pact they establish is therefore the exchange of power for knowledge. The scholar, holder of book knowledge, therefore moral, and in search of recognition of power, will be fulfilled once he has passed the competitions.


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