Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

What is the basic Confucian concept of appropriate moral leadership?

Confucius believed that order was essential for bringing out the best in human beings. He and his disciples rejected the early Daoist notions that all things work for the best if only people learn the ways of nature and that there is no need for government or military force or oppressive laws. In Confucius’ view government was essential, and that almost always required bureaucratic structures. But he believed the external trappings had to be supported by a foundation of example rather than coercion. No one can bring about the good society by force of will. One can only foster appropriate government by creating an environment of propriety, reciprocity, and good music—yes, good music. Law, he believed, can erode moral values because people often prefer to act a certain way merely to escape punishment. The example of a great leader is preferable, for it instills a sense of healthy shame that leads people to seek improvement.

Confucius was a realist, however, and conceded that law was often a practical necessity. What he wanted for the people most of all was the sense of confidence that can grow when people feel prosperous and educated. A good leader knows how to bring out the best in his people and how to wield authority deftly. But as a concession to the vast differences among human beings, government needs levels of power— some can lead, some can support a leader, some can follow but may not understand why they ought to do so. A leader knows how to cultivate conditions conducive to the betterment of society by tapping the roots of human resources rather than waiting until the plant is fully grown and incapable of nurturance.


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