Confucian Piety and Individualism in Han China

Article excerpt

Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men's conduct. Yet very frequently ... "ideas" have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.

Max Weber, The Social Psychology of World Religions

When historians discuss the collapse of Eastern Han rule, they typically analyze it in negative terms that closely mirror the arguments found in the Chinese dynastic histories for the period. They speak of a "failure of Confucian ethics," arguing that the decline of Han occurred when too many political elites (specifically, the wai-ch'i, the eunuchs, and the military) came to have little or no interest in maintaining the Confucian form of government promoted by the scholar-officials. But when the historians (often the same historians) turn to the following Wei-Chin period (A.D. 220-420), a time of political disunion, they tend to characterize it in positive terms that imply a comparison with the early modern European and American experience. Writing of the "growth of individualism," they seem to envision a dramatic liberation from the most restrictive aspects of Confucian hierarchy and ritual prevailing in the Han.

Both historical assessments may well be flawed. First, the collapse of Eastern Han government may just as plausibly be ascribed to the overwhelming success of the Confucian ethic, rather than to its failure. Specifically, a steady expansion in the parameters of meaning for the two key virtue-words pertaining to political life (hsiao, 'filial piety' and jang 'abdication' or 'renunciation') had, by the middle of the Eastern Han period, so confused definitions of social duty as to threaten both social conventions and the bureaucratic machinery of state. While this confusion in social duties inevitably opened a greater variety of choices to individual members of the shih elite, the language of "individualism" is inappropriate to describe the situation, for community membership, political participation, and the experience of personal identity were mutually defining terms in early China.(1) Available evidence suggests that certain aspects of Wei-Chin behavior that seem to "ape" individualistic expression served, in fact, as extremely conventionalized class markers for an elite steeped in Confucian values. Furthermore, most of the behavioral "styles" associated with Wei-Chin "individualism" began long before the end of Eastern Han and continued through the succeeding period of disunion. An examination of patron-client relations for the period supports the foregoing observations.

The discussion of Han Confucianism, which occupies the bulk of this paper, addresses four principal topics: (1) the government promotion of the two Confucian political virtues of hsiao and jang; (2) the expanded definition of the term hsiao, by which the father-son relation became paradigm for a wide variety of superior-inferior relations, especially (but not exclusively) in bureaucratic circles; (3) the expanded definition of the term jang, which opened the door to all manner of excessive behavior (kuo-li), often of an exhibitionistic or eccentric type; and (4) the resultant confusion among members of the political elite. Proof of the negative consequences attending the remarkable success of the Confucian ethic, however, necessarily entails a brief sketch of pre-Han philosophy designed to establish the direct association of hsiao and jang with the legendary sage-kings Shun and Yao, who figured as the chief paragons for the "political way" of the Ju.(2)

Evidence for the Han and the pre-Han sections of this paper comes from many sources, but the best source for late Han elite values is the Feng-su t'ung-yi (FSTY) of Ying Shao (ca. A.D. 203). The received text of the FSTY, with ten chapters remaining out of an original thirty-one, devotes no fewer than four of the ten chapters (nos. 3, 4, 5, and 7) to a consideration of conflicting Confucian priorities as they pertain to the question of patronage. …