Synthesizing Traditional Chinese Values with Liberal Democracy

24 september 2011

Why Is Synthesis an Important Issue?

Lai Hairong is an Executive Director of the China Center for Overseas Social and Philosophical Theories.

Resume: With the rapid and continuous growth of the Chinese economy during the past three decades, China’s presence has increasingly been felt on the global stage.

This article expresses the author’s personal views only.

With the rapid and continuous growth of the Chinese economy during the past three decades, China’s presence has increasingly been felt on the global stage. The future of China, in particular its political future, will have a great influence throughout the world. If China maintains its “authoritarian” regime while continuing to develop its economic might, it will be a threat to the world of liberal democracy. This supposition is the source of the present thesis of a “China Threat.” But if China succeeds in navigating from “authoritarianism” to liberal democracy, China will be a great contributor to the course of liberty and democracy.

Liberal democracy, both as a value and an institution, is new to the entire world, not only to China. It emerged first in Western Europe less than 400 years ago (if we regard the 1640 revolution in England as the starting point for the emergence of modern liberal democracy), and then gradually spread to other parts of the world. The history of the past 400 years of the global spread of liberal democracy shows that the success or failure of internalizing imported values and institutions of liberal democracy largely depends on whether or not liberal democracy is compatible with local traditional values.

There have been many discussions both inside and outside China about the uniqueness of traditional Chinese culture. Many people believe that traditional Chinese culture and liberal democracy are like oil and water that cannot be synthesized.

Is this really so? On what grounds has such a thesis been argued? To what extent is this thesis credible? In this article, we will try to examine the issue of synthesis along two dimensions: the dimension of values (or culture), and the dimension of institutions, with a focus primarily on the former.


Confucianism is generally considered traditional Chinese culture (or values). By my understanding, this is completely misconceived. Chinese culture is composed of three significantly different schools of thought: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Confucianism is only one part of Chinese culture. It is important to note that Taoism and Buddhism guide the lives of Chinese just as much as does Confucianism. Taoism and Buddhism provide a different possibility for Chinese culture to synthesize with liberal democracy.

There are hundreds of schools and interpretations of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The Analects of Confucius and Mencius are Confucian classics; Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi are Taoist classics; and Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, and Platform Sutra are Chinese Buddhist classics. These texts were widely read by Chinese for thousands of years, with the only exception being during the short period from 1949 to 1978. In China today, these classics of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are again the major sources for the general public (if not specialists) to understand traditional Chinese culture.

Confucianism and Taoism came into being from 500 B.C. to 1000 B.C (the exact dates are still being researched by archeologists, but are beyond the scope of this paper). Buddhism was first imported into China from India during the Han dynasty. After hundreds of years of interpretations and debates (including periods of persecution), Buddhism was finally and formally internalized by Chinese during the Sui-Tang dynasty (between the 5th and 8th centuries). The Platform Sutra was written by the Chinese monk Hui Neng in the late 7th and early 8th century (the text is said to have been compiled by his followers in later years). The fact that it was written by a Chinese is indicative of a milestone in the development of Buddhism in China, revealing Buddhism’s complete internalization in China by that time.

There have been various attempts and waves of convergence among Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism during the long historical development of Chinese culture. Zen was created by Buddhists by absorbing elements of Confucianism and Taoism. Neo-Confucianism was developed during the Song dynasty by taking elements from Taoism and Buddhism. These attempts represent the three different sources of traditional Chinese culture.

What is the meaning of Confucianism? It is basically about how an individual should behave in order to lead an active life worthy of respect. For Confucians, such a life is both necessary and possible. But to achieve it, one must actively seek it. There is no discussion in Confucianism about the surrounding nature in which humans live. The entire thesis of Confucianism is about technical issues in human relationships. Morality, hierarchy, obedience, and contributions are essential to have good order in society and for an individual to lead a life worthy of respect.

What is the meaning of Taoism? Taoism basically focuses on the humility of the individual in the face of the unpredictability of the mighty social and natural forces. Taoism shares with Confucianism the goal of living a life worthy of respect, but it has strong reservations about the Confucian strategies to pursue this aim. According to Taoism, the strategy of actively moving ahead is often counter-productive.

What is the meaning of Buddhism? Buddhism maintains that everything we see and feel is an illusion. Respect and/or insults are illusions. Power, fame, money, and desires are illusions. People are overly anxious because they are obsessed by these illusions. One can only find peace when one realizes that these are illusions and can thus be relieved of such obsessions.

It is true that most of the imperial rules over officials and subjects and the rules that mediated people’s daily relationships were based on Confucianism. But Taoism and Buddhism are now playing a deeper and more important role in guiding the spiritual life. If ones understand Taoism and Buddhism, he can easily find them everywhere in Chinese literature, poetry, paintings, calligraphy, music, opera, and so forth. Most of these arts, if not all, express the wish and need to withdraw from the excitement and frustrations of daily life and to be relieved of obsessive desires. This paper will be too lengthy if we examine each type of art form, but below I present several examples from poetry.

Yuanming Tao in the Jin dynasty, Bai Li in the Tang dynasty, and Shi Su in the Song dynasty are among the three most respected poets in China (for a time Tao and Li served as middle-ranking officials in their respective dynasties. For almost his entire life Su served the dynasty, rising and falling with the ranks. Su was also one of China’s most respected calligraphers). Most of Yuanming Tao’s poems express a sense of Taoism and Buddhism (although he is neither a Taoist nor a Buddhist in a religious sense). For example, in one of his poems, he writes “after hundreds of years, who knows your glory and insult.” This echoes the Buddhist teachings. In general, Bai Li’s poems are less Taoist and Buddhist. But he also has a strong sense of Taoism and Buddhism. In one of his most widely recited poems, he writes “the flowers and precious grass of the court of the Wu dynasty are now buried under the wild and dark road, the official clothes and hats of the Jin dynasty are now turned into aged hills.” This resonates with Buddhist beliefs. Shi Su differs slightly from the above two poets. His famous “How I wish to take a small boat and vanish, so that I can lead my remaining life freely in the wide river and sea” features obvious elements of Taoism.

These notions and values are quite abstract. They appear to be very far from the liberal democracy in which we are interested. Let us now turn to their relations with liberal democracy.



It has been argued that the starting point for liberal democracy is the inevitable imperfections of man, and therefore the imperfections inherent in the exercise of power. From this insight into human nature follow institutions to limit and control power: the separation of powers, the rule of law, free and competitive elections to provide for a peaceful change of power, a free press, laws to protect human rights, and so on. These institutions and procedures have as their chief aim to prevent dictatorship and tyranny. A typical Western intellectual construct is the “social contract.” In Locke’s formulation, members of society forswear certain freedoms they enjoy in a state of nature for the sake of security. But they retain certain inalienable natural rights, which no ruler can abrogate. Any attempt to do so is regarded as a breach of the social contract and justifies resistance. But the fundamental assumption about human nature in traditional Chinese culture is that by nature humans are good, and in essence all individuals are similar, despite different behaviors and habits. Based on this assumption, there are no grounds for checks and balances or other associated values and institutions. This is only partially true. According to Confucianism, human beings are basically good. But Taoism maintains that this is not the case, in particular with respect to power-holders. Lao Zi says, “The holy person is not benevolent, he treats people like straw dogs.” Another Taoist thinker Zhuang Zi is even more sober about human nature, especially about the nature of power-holders. When the king of Song sent two officials to ask Zhuang Zi to be a court official, Zhuang Zi answered that he would rather be a turtle dragging his tail in the mud than be an official who is destined to die from being in power.

Even Confucianism, which maintains that humans by nature are good, is actually far from optimistic about human nature. In other parts of his teachings, Confucius notes a number of times that [one should] “try to be an official when politics is reasonable (or moral), and try to be a hermit when politics is unreasonable (or immoral)”. This shows that Confucius was fully aware of the negative side of human nature and the degeneration of politics.

Confucianism’s recognition of this side of human nature is not only displayed in his teachings. It is also embodied in Confucian practices. In each of the dynasties that were dominated by Confucian thought, a set of institutions sought to check the power of officials and even the power of the emperors. It was generally understood that the emperor was someone who could do whatever he wanted based on his will. But this was not always the case under Confucianism. An emperor could often be very frustrated by his officials. An extreme example is the case of Emperor Wan Li of the Ming dynasty in the late 16th century and early 17th century. Because of opposition from the officials he had appointed, he was unable to get the woman he loved to be the queen, nor was he able to make his beloved son his successor or implement his preferred policies. He was so frustrated that he refused to perform his duties as ruler for more than twenty years. For twenty-eight years he merely indulged in his own personal pleasure.

In other words, traditional Chinese culture is fully aware of the evil elements in human nature and supports the establishment of institutions to serve as a check on power. But the problem was that all the checks were within the faction-ridden court. There was no bottom-up check by the people, nor was there any separation of administrative, judicial, and legislative power. Part of the reason why there were no checks was because of the belief that dynastic legitimacy was granted by heaven (with the emperor as the son of the heaven) (similar to the belief in the pre-modern West that the legitimacy of the monarch was granted by God). Thus it was unthinkable that there should be any bottom-up checks or division of power among different people or institutions. But once this notion of “the emperor as the son of the heaven” was no longer accepted by the people (i.e., after 1911), there was no reason why values and institutions for bottom-up checks, separation of power, and other associated institutions could not be synthesized with traditional Chinese culture.

Moreover, Taoism conveys a clear sense of liberalism. Taoism believes that rationality is limited. Either as different individuals or as a whole, we know much less than what we do not know. The world is unpredictable and life is imperfect. A central tenet of Taoism is non-action. Taoism urges those in power not to be pro-active in imposing their programs. The best governance is governance that allows ordinary people to do what they want. No matter how intelligent a ruler is, his intelligence is still limited; by imposing his own program he is limiting the intelligence and activities of others to his own narrow intelligence, resulting in limited achievements. Only through non-action will the people be able to do whatever they want, allowing a multitude of intellects to produce great achievements. In particular, Taoism opposes force or coercion. To force others will not endure for long, as Taoism states “a sweeping shower will not last for one whole day, nor will a strong wind last for an entire day.” Thus the best way to behave is to do things “like water, which is beneficial to everything, but doesn’t compete.” In other words, it is best for the ruler to facilitate operations rather than to coerce others to follow his will. These approaches are very close to the Western economic concept of “laissez-faire” and the notion of spontaneity that has been elaborated on by Friedrich Hayek, one of the greatest philosophers on liberalism.

Non-action was accepted as deeply as the Confucianism teachings by Chinese rulers. During the course of Chinese history, the following two characters were carved on the roof beams above the seat of numerous emperors: “Non-Action.”

One of the main purposes of liberal democracy is to provide a check on those in power, to prevent them from oppressing the ordinary people in their insatiable lust for power and wealth. Buddhism regards power and wealth as an illusion. Nothing is more worthless than trying to possess power and wealth at the cost of morality, inner-peace, physical health, and so forth. Taoism maintains that power and wealth are harmful to those who possess it. The Dao De Jing says: “The five colors blind our seeing, the five tones deafen our hearing, and the five spices dull our taste. Hustle and bustle, chasing and hunting let the human heart become too passionate. And goods hard to be obtained make man perturb his inner growth.” Such teachings calm the quest for power and wealth and are in line with the purpose of liberal democracy.

However, there are also some elements in traditional Chinese culture that are incompatible with liberal democracy. Among them, the most prominent is paternalism. Confucianism regards ordinary people as being at a lower grade than the rulers. The ruler is the shepherd and the people are the sheep. In the Han dynasty, the provincial governor was called the shepherd. According to Confucianism, ordinary people are unable to take care of themselves. They need to be taken care of by the rulers who are superior. Mencius (the greatest Confucian writer after Confucius) stated: “Those working with their brains dominate others; while those working with their muscles are dominated by others.” This is not merely an empirical observation but a norm. The rulers should take care of the ruled, as parents take care of their children. Such a mentality is deeply embedded in the minds of both the governing and the governed. This mindset contradicts the spirit of liberal democracy.

The absence of individualism in traditional Chinese culture also poses another problem for a synthesis with liberal democracy. Traditionally, a person is a part of a larger entity (the family, community, ethnic group, and in modern times the nation). A telling example is that Chinese do not ask a stranger his name when he meets him. He asks: “What is your esteemed family name?” There was only egoism but not individualism in Chinese culture.

The lack of a sense of the value of life is also an element in traditional Chinese culture that works against liberal democracy. Very little is said, either in Confucianism or in Taoism or Buddhism, about the special value of human life, not to mention the supremacy or holiness of human life. Confucianism teaches how to behave in one’s daily life. But there is no discussion about the value of human life. In Buddhism there is no difference between life and death. There is no more value to life than there is to death. Both life and death are illusions. Taoism is very cold towards life. According to Zhuang Zi, human life is no different from the life of a plant or an animal. This attitude permeates Zhuang Zi’s text, in particular the chapter “Theories on All Things Being Equal.” To make no mistake, this is not the notion of “all men are created equal,” but a notion of human life being equal to any good, although it also implies that the ruler and the ruled are equal. In the Dao De Jing, Lao Zi mourns for death. He says: “To win without enjoying it: for enjoying victories would mean pleasure in killing people. […] If masses of people are killed, let us weep in grief and sorrow; let us celebrate victories like attending funerals.” This is a positive norm for human life. But it also reflects how frequently masses of people were killed during wars and conflicts in China during his time. In sum, from reading either Buddhism or Taoism, one easily gets the impression that human life is nothing special. Based on this, there is no reason to develop values and institutions to protect human rights. It is not accidental that capital punishment occurs most frequently in China today, even though as individuals and as a collective Chinese seem humble and peaceful. This is not only because of the dominance of the idea of revenge rather than justice for criminals, but also because in traditional culture, humans have no special value.

The sense of justice among Chinese is different from that among Westernizers. Horrific events such as massive deaths have been recorded throughout Chinese history. But the individual tends to forgive the ruler responsible for such disasters and to forget such events. He tends not to seek justice as vigorously and rigorously as a Westerner. The reason for this may be due to the historical impossibility of seeking pure justice. This impossibility is partially reflected in the Taoist and Buddhist teachings. All Chinese know the following proverb: “There is no fish if the water is absolutely pure; one has no friends if one seeks absolute purity in his relationships with others.” Accordingly, purity (including pure justice) is not only impossible but also undesirable. This different sense of justice has two contradictory effects in terms of accommodating liberal democracy. On the one hand, it prevents people from being passionate about liberal democracy, in particular in terms of seeking accountability through liberal democracy. On the other hand, once democratization unfolds, the risk of society being split by events in past history is lower, since society tends not to seek accountability for past historical events. The general public tends to forgive and forget. It also encourages the ruling elite, in cases when their predecessors engaged in evils acts, to make the necessary changes because of the people’s tendency to forgive and forget.

Hierarchism and obedience are elements in traditional Chinese culture that are incompatible with liberal democracy. In Confucianism, there is a basic norm whereby “the ruler guides the subject, the father guides the son, and the husband guides the wife.” This norm requires full subordination and complete obedience by one group to another. However, this norm basically disappeared in the first half of the 20th century in China.

By saying this, I imply that Chinese culture has undergone some changes. In the following section, I will discuss these changes in more detail.



China had scattered communications with the other parts of the world before the 19th century. After the English opened China’s door through warfare during the Opium War of 1840, China began to interact with the Western world on a massive scale. Synthesis between Chinese and Western culture (including but certainly not limited to liberal democracy) began to occur, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Briefly, there have been two stages of such a synthesis in modern Chinese history: complete rejection and confusion about Western norms and institutions during the first stage prior to 1898; and gradual conversion to liberal democracy during the second stage after 1898.

During the first stage, Chinese were completely alienated from and frightened of Western norms and institutions, in particular those of liberal democracy. It was unthinkable for a Chinese in the 19th century to believe that the ruler and the ruled were morally, intellectually, and politically equal. A world in which the ruler and the ruled are equal was incomprehensible and frightening. Institutions and values such as freedom of speech and freedom of association were unheard of. The fact that Chinese had some space for speech and association was due to instrumentalism. In other words, some space for speech and association was allowed because the ruler regarded it as positive. The space could be closed at the whim of the ruler, but often the ruler did allow it to exist.

Chinese didn’t learn the merits of the institutions and values of liberal democracy even after being defeated by the Western powers in a succession of wars. In 1840-42 China was defeated by the United Kingdom; in 1856-60, China was defeated by the United Kingdom and France; in 1884 China was defeated by France. From these defeats, Chinese learned that their weaponry was too backward. Thus, there were some efforts to learn about Western weaponry. But they still believed that politically and economically they were superior to the West. Only when China was humiliated by Japan, considered a junior partner prior to 1894, was there a realization that China had fundamental political and economic problems. Four years later, in 1898, the young emperor Guang Xu proclaimed a reform towards a constitutional monarchy. Although this reform effort was soon suppressed by the empress dowager Ci Xi, it was a turning point in the synthesis of traditional Chinese culture and liberal democracy. Since then, China has been embarked on the uneven and long road of adopting liberal democracy, despite numerous setbacks and failed attempts to use a secular version of the “mandate from heaven” to justify the right to rule.

Between the end of the 19th century and the early 1910s, there were several attempts to build a democratic republic and restore absolute monarchism. Institutions of liberal democracy encountered many difficulties during their internalization by Chinese. Chinese realized that the difficulties were rooted in the elements of traditional Chinese culture that are incompatible with the norms and institutions of liberal democracy. Efforts to criticize traditional Chinese culture developed into the New Culture Movement in the mid- and late 1910s. At that time, Confucianism was under siege.

The New Culture Movement was another landmark development in the synthesis of Chinese culture and liberal democracy. The New Culture Movement changed many Chinese values, including allowing the introduction of equality (thus the abandonment of hierarchism and blind obedience), the introduction of people’s sovereignty (thus the abandonment of the emperor being the son of the heaven), and the introduction of the separation of power (thus the abandonment of holistic power holding). These changes are relevant to the synthesis with liberal democracy. Since then, there have been several imperial-type power holders in China, but they held power by means of fear rather than by voluntary acceptance by the ruled. It is also important to note that imperial power could no longer be justified by any long-term spiritual norms, and had to be justified by limited short-term material aims. For example, dictatorship by Chiang Kai-Shek and Chiang Ching-Kuo (between the late 1940s and 1988, initially on the mainland and later on Taiwan) was justified by the need to fight communism (embodied in the “Temporary Provisions Effective during the Period of Communist Rebellion” that were passed in 1948, several months after the passage of the Constitution of the Republic of China). Another example is the nearly absolute power of Mao Zedong. It was justified by the need to continue the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Once these needs no longer existed, there was no support for Mao’s absolute power. Representative institutions and separation of powers are still weak today. But the values of equality, popular sovereignty, and the separation of power were internalized in Chinese culture during the first half of the 20th century. The trend of strengthening representative institutions and the separation of power will be unstoppable in the future, even though there may be setbacks at various points.

The value of human rights (apart from the right of political participation, which is embodied in the value of popular sovereignty), which is also essential to liberal democracy, did not gain ground in China before the 1990s. It was only after the 1990s that there was more discussion on the meaning of human rights. The special value of human life has also been increasingly recognized. The spread of human rights has been due to at least three factors: the extensive international dialogues between China and the outside world, not only at the governmental level, but also academically and journalistically and in the realm of civil society; as a by-product of the one-child policy that resulted in families taking human life more seriously; and the improving living standards that have allowed people to enjoy and value life beyond merely the level of survival. In 2004, the responsibility for the State to protect human rights was written into the constitution.

Individualism was also introduced during the New Culture Movement, but it was not fully internalized. After it was introduced, it was very often mistaken as egoism, and thus was often criticized. Mistaking individualism as egoism still prevails today in China. But individualism is increasingly understood and accepted by the younger generations. Some surveys show that the rise of post-modern values including individualism among people born after the 1970s in China resemble the rise of the same values among people born after the 1950s in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Now that hierarchism, “the ruler as the son of the heaven,” and the lack of supreme value to human life no longer dominate Chinese mentality, there are few elements in traditional Chinese culture that oppose liberal democracy, thus paving the way for a better synthesis of traditional Chinese culture and liberal democracy.

In sum, in traditional Chinese culture there are elements that are both compatible and incompatible with liberal democracy. Because the changes in the 20th century eliminated most of the incompatible elements, Chinese culture is now able to synthesize liberal democracy.

Thus far, we have been using the term traditional Chinese culture. Francis Fukuyama uses the concept of “Confucianism” to refer to the East Asian countries. Following his method and taking into consideration that it is inaccurate to use Confucianism to describe Chinese or East Asian cultures, we could examine the synthesis of Chinese culture and liberal democracy by reviewing the synthesis of liberal democracy in other East Asian regions and countries.

Taiwan and Hong Kong are strictly Chinese cultural regions. Taiwan became a liberal democracy in the 1990s. Liberty and the rule of law are deeply rooted in Hong Kong today. To what extent it will become a democracy depends on the direct elections that the Chinese central authorities have promised to introduce in 2017 for the chief executive and in 2020 for the legislature. Therefore, there is still some uncertainty. Singapore may also be considered part of the Chinese cultural world. It is neither a liberal democracy nor authoritarian. It is somewhere in between and there is likelihood for democratization after the nation is no longer dominated by its founding fathers. Japan and South Korea can loosely be regarded as within the sphere of Chinese culture (or East Asian culture). Japan became a liberal democracy after World War II. South Korea became a liberal democracy in the 1990s. In all these cases, liberal democracy, both as a set of values and a set of institutions, was imported from abroad. Initially, it was alienated from the local Chinese culture (in the broad sense). But after centuries, a synthesis of local Chinese culture and liberal democracy finally emerged, despite some still lingering uncertainties.

It is obvious that there are differences among the particular forms of liberal democracy in the above cases. Liberal democracy in Taiwan is very different from that in South Korea or Japan. In mainland China, the synthesis will definitely produce unique institutions due to the differences in terms of geography, population, ethnicity, religion, social and economic structures, historical legacies, and international relations. But in terms of values, the synthesis will be both forthcoming and basically identical to that in China’s East Asian neighbors.

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