Chinese Political Thought. In many respects the political thought of the Chinese resembled that of the Hindus rather than that of the other Oriental peoples. China was isolated, fairly free from warfare, and never united under a monarch powerful enough to crush freedom of thought and local independence.
The worship of Heaven, the supreme deity, was a state function, performed by the magistrates. Ancestor worship was the popular cult cared for by the head of the family. Filial piety was the root of all virtue. From it was derived the duty of obedience and reverence toward all authority.
There was, therefore, no powerful national priesthood. Their place was taken by the learned class, who gave considerable attention to political principles, especially in their moral aspects. The golden age in Chinese thought appeared in the Chou dynasty, between the eleventh and third centuries B.C. Among the most important thinkers were Confucius, Mencius, Moh-Ti, Lao-Tze and numerous commentators on their ideas.
The Chinese philosophers taught the necessity of law in order to restrain the innate depravity of man. Man who is by nature wicked needs teaching and discipline in order to be right. The ancient rulers understood the native viciousness of man and therefore created morals and laws and institutions in order that human instincts and impulses might be disciplined and transformed.
Chinese theory also taught equality among men, democracy in government and the right to revolt against arbitrary authority. In the writings of Confucian were found political ideas that were not only democratic but even radical and revolutionary. Local institutions were always vigorous in China and maintained the ideals of self government.
The great religious teacher Moh Ti (c 500-420 B.c.) was the preacher of universal brotherhood. Mencius was the author of the dictum that the most important element in a state is the people; next come the altars of the national gods; least in importance is the king, and that by observing the nature of the people’s aspirations we learn the will of Heaven.
Vox populi vox dei was a truism to the Chinese. It was quite logical that the pre-revolutionary writers in France should view Chinese philosophy and institutions with great admiration, It was treated almost as a constitutional principle in China that, when the king misbehaved, it was the duty of the most virtuous and powerful of his princes to depose and succeed him; and ministers sometimes confined the sovereign temporarily until he gave proof of reformation.
The aim of the state was conceived, as by the Greeks, to be virtue, not wealth or power; and a high ideal of character and benevolence was set for rulers. The qualities of the warrior held a low place in Chinese esteem and the principles of militarism were bitterly opposed. In contrast to the general Chinese conception of the perfection of the past, and the emphasis which they placed upon conformity to ancient custom, the political philosophy of ancient China was often advanced and liberal.