*The Confucian-Legalist State*

by on February 6, 2016 at 12:35 am in Books, History, Law, Political Science, Religion, Science | Permalink

1. The subtitle is A New Theory of Chinese History, and volume one has just been translated and published from the Chinese.

2. The author, Dingxin Zhao, now is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

3. The book has a curious 19th century air to its intellectual influences.  The main argument uses Herbert Spencer to revise Michael Mann, a 20th century British sociologist who wrote on the sources of power.  Lamarckian ideas are deployed frequently.

4. The Western model has had four independent power sources: states, churches, aristocracy, and the urban bourgeoisie.

5. Neither merchants nor religion had much of a strong, independent role in early Chinese politics.  Only the state and the aristocracy were powerful actors.

6. In the model of this book, the dual forces of competition and institutionalization drive historical change.  More than anything else, individuals maximize power.

7. The empowerment of economic power by ideology is the most fundamental feature of modernity.

8. “Three pivotal institutions of Western Zhou origin exerted an enduring impact on the history of China: the Mandate of Heaven, the kinship-based “feudal” system, and lineage law.” (p.79)

This is not an easy work to parse, but it is a book of substance and it reflects a considerable amount of careful thought.

1 skeptic February 6, 2016 at 1:10 am

Sounds like rearranging the deck-chairs on the institutionalist Titanic, instead of recognizong biological factors.

2 Art Deco February 6, 2016 at 8:48 am

Or, it doesn’t ‘recognize biological factors’ because they’re not valid explanations for cross-sectional or longitudinal variation.

3 Re Kant February 6, 2016 at 9:53 am

While Re Cog and Ni Zong (et al.) have done some interesting work on biological factors, I’m not at all sure they’re relevant.

4 anon February 6, 2016 at 11:12 am

MR doesn’t seem focused on “biological factors,” and yet many readers are. What is the beginning to that story? How did it begin?

5 alexp February 7, 2016 at 3:01 pm

It seems to me these days that any blog with a somewhat out of the mainstream political slant quickly becomes infected by the alt-right.

6 HH February 6, 2016 at 2:04 am

recommended? definitely recommended? strongly recommended?

i was expecting the latter after the ten point introduction – but, what with the absence of any of them, how to proceed??

7 Nodnarb the Nasty February 6, 2016 at 6:19 am

Interesting, and thanks for the heads up.

Here’s a pretty dope sidenote, btw: “Taoism, Anarchism, and the Divergence of Han Feizi

8 rayward February 6, 2016 at 7:26 am

Zhao: “I am interested in political sociology broadly defined. I am also interested in comparative historical sociology, sociology of emotion, ecological sociology, sociological theory and methodology.” I suppose specialization has its place. Once there were lawyers, now there are environmental lawyers, IP lawyers, anti-trust lawyers, labor lawyers, health care lawyers, and on and on. One problem I see with specialization in law is that the specialist has a tendency to see everything through the lens of her specialty. I suspect that holds true in the social sciences, including economics. Piketty has been critical of certain economists for having a narrow view rather than a broad view that takes into account the other social sciences, especially history. A big part of specialization is peer pressure: to be accepted in the upper echelons of academia requires one to see the world through the narrow lens shared by one’s peers. I’ve commented before about the evolution of Christianity, how it went from a broad spectrum of beliefs in the first few hundred years, to a single set of beliefs during the dominance of the Catholic Church, to two sets of beliefs in the period following the reformation, to a handful of beliefs as Protestantism splintered into denominations, to an almost infinite set of beliefs as the denominations splintered into hundreds, thousands of independent churches. The evolution of the social sciences seems to be following a similar pattern. I have commented that the culmination of the evolution of Christianity will be the Church of I, one church with a unique set of beliefs for every Christian. Will that be the culmination of the evolution of the social sciences? I suppose not as long as there are monasteries for believers, I mean colleges and universities for academics.

9 nigel February 6, 2016 at 8:30 am

What basis will we have for calling the phenomenon Christianity at that point? It seems your theory is that eventually Christianity will fragment and disappear. There will have to be some core claims about Jesus Christ shared by all, or else the category ceases to exist. I think rather that doctrinal agreement and ecclesial unity are absolutely inseparable. Which has a lot to do with how we actually know things. I argue that community precedes knowledge in most cases, because knowledge is usually experiential and usually based on the experiences of someone else at that. Thus trust is essential for most knowledge, which presupposes community. See the work of Bl. John Henry Newman. On a side note, I think this is the fundamental reason for our current political rancor. The American political community has fractured into at least two main camps, progressive and conservative (generally), and can’t even agree on a basis for argument and discussion because neither side trusts the other. Each side literally believes the other is crazy.

Good point on legal specialization. It can be really annoying to work with other sub-specialties for the very reason you cite — they’re obsessive about their regulatory scheme being the only relevant one.

10 rayward February 6, 2016 at 10:02 am

On trust and Christianity, Robert Wright (in his book The Evolution of God) makes the case that the spread of Christianity and the spread of trade wasn’t coincidental, that the common belief created the trust necessary for disparate people to trade. The splintering of Christianity has been painful in my church, the Episcopal Church, which isn’t accustomed to it (unlike, for example, Baptists: hence, the joke “let’s make like the Baptists and split”). In my small community in the low country I have watched a tiny independent evangelical church, the “community church”, grow to dwarf all the others, now with a campus that is by far the largest of any other church and with so many members that it requires two traffic cops to direct the traffic on Sunday. The church definitely is a reflection of its name (“community”), not only because it is unaffiliated with a national organization but also because it is highly sectarian – one is either a member of the “community” or not, and I’m not. Of course, I am being ironic when I refer to the Church of I (“I”, not the number one), for there will always be like-minded in matters of religion (and ideology, etc.).

11 Ray Lopez February 6, 2016 at 10:05 am

I like TC’s numbered lists when discussing Chinese history (very Straussian). It reminds me of a list of Chinese classifications that were totally bizarre, as seen in a history book once.

12 dearieme February 6, 2016 at 10:49 am

Why do Americans say “parse” when they mean “construe”? Lack of Latin, endless attempts to be fashionable, ….?

13 anon February 6, 2016 at 11:14 am

Comp Sci uses parse to mean extract meaning from syntax. Perhaps it carries over in general conversation now.

14 Ethan Bernard February 6, 2016 at 11:45 am

I think we avoid the word “construe” unless we are try to mean “interpret with an agenda”, or “interpret with bias toward a set of favored concepts”. It doesn’t sound neutral toward the material being interpreted.

15 Careless February 6, 2016 at 5:12 pm


16 ladderff February 6, 2016 at 6:43 pm

Both explanations sound reasonable to me. Regarding Ethan’s, the same thing seems to have happened to “rhetoric.” Unfortunate though.

17 Art Deco February 6, 2016 at 7:47 pm

Why do Americans say “parse” when they mean “construe”?

Because we don’t give a rip about British usage.

18 Wugong February 6, 2016 at 11:22 am

The “list of Chinese classifications that were totally bizarre, as seen in a history book” was made up by Borges and then made famous by being cited by Foucault. It was allegedly from an encyclopedia-type book, but no list like it has ever been found outside of Borges’s imagination.

19 anon February 6, 2016 at 11:22 am

Is the answer for why Chinese regimes lasted so long, and missed great innovation, one in the same? That they are great at stability?

All I really know I learned from Judge Dee mysteries.

20 dux.ie February 6, 2016 at 8:38 pm

#5 Religions have significant effects in Chinese politics, the remnants of which are still felt in China, re the reaction to Falun Gong, etc. Early Han dynasty was strongly influenced by Daoism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Taoism#Tang_Dynasty_.28618.E2.80.93907.29 “The Celestial Masters’ activities did hasten the downfall of the Han Dynasty, largely because Zhang’s grandson set up a theocratic state into what is now Sichuan province. The same could be said of their contemporaries, the Taoist-leaning Yellow Turban sect.”

The Chinese version of Manichaeism the Ming cult was instrument in the rebellion against the Mongol Yuan dynasty.


The founding emperor of Ming dynasty was originally from such group. The name of Ming dynasty originally came from the Ming cult. However, when the Ming dynasty was established, the Ming cult was banned.

21 Barkley Rosser February 6, 2016 at 8:59 pm

I am not clear what is in this book, but the longstanding Chinese view of their own history emphasizes the role of dynasty cycles, which the book may talk about or not. Typical dynasty lasts about 300 years: Tang, Song, Ming, Qing, although Han lasted about 400 years. First century the Confucian civil service system is run honestly with capable people gaining the ruling positions, and the agrohydraulic infrastructure is managed well. The second century sees this weakening as in-power Mandarin bureaucrats use bribery to get their incompetent sons to succeed them, and management of the agrohydraulic system begins to weaken. The third century sees this deteriorating further, finally leading to the emperor losing the Mandate of Heaven and being replaced by a new dynasty.

22 M February 7, 2016 at 10:50 am

5. Neither merchants nor religion had much of a strong, independent role in early Chinese politics. Only the state and the aristocracy were powerful actors.

Sounds true, but what is the significance of it? Did merchants have a strong role to play in “early” Western European politics? What is the particular significance of the role merchants had in early Chinese politics compared to later dynasties and the early modern period?
In full form perhaps this idea has more of a sense to it.

23 Art Deco February 7, 2016 at 11:59 am

Sounds true, but what is the significance of it? Did merchants have a strong role to play in “early” Western European politics?

Where? The Venitian Republic was founded in the late 7th century, the issuance of charters to boroughs in England dates to the 10th century, the agitation to establish communes in French towns was manifest in the 12th century, and the Hanseatic League in Germany was founded in the 14th century.

24 M February 8, 2016 at 2:06 pm

That’s the 10th century AD though. I’m trying to grasp why it’s a reasonable or interesting comparison in particular to compare 10th century Europe to say 10th century BC China (“early Chinese politics”), rather than 10th century Europe to 10th century China.

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