Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

State Building in the Government of Tang Taizong

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

State Building in the Government of Tang Taizong

Article excerpt

"When one uses a bronze mirror, one can adjust the clothes and cap; when one uses the ancients as a mirror, one comprehends the rise and fall [of a state], and when one uses a person as a mirror [i.e. a remonstrator], one sees one's success and missteps. I always keep these three mirrors to prevent making mistakes...."

Tang Taizong (1)

"The ruler is the boat and the people the water. Water can carry the boat and also capsize the boat'

Xun Zi (2) (A Confucian master of third century BCE)


In this age of advanced technology and globalization, it is natural for people to undermine development in the past. It is also natural for people to dismiss traditions different from their own. But modern people are still heavily influenced by religions and ideologies developed thousands or hundreds of years ago, such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Many modern thinkers also often have roots of their thought in the distant past. Understanding the past is relevant and important in this modern age.

Premodern Chinese states have not been fully explored or understood in contemporary scholarship. Chinese Marxist historians used to call traditional China "a feudal society." Many Western scholars also regard Chinese emperors as "autocrats"--unchecked by the people. Many studies of traditional Chinese government were cast in the light of the power struggle between the emperor and officials, or imperial prerogative. (3) Moreover studies of premodern Chinese government also often focused on: institutions, bureaucracy, rulers of non-Chinese origins and their non-Chinese heritage, rulers with artistic or Daoist insights, or on individual scholar-officials who left abundant personal writings.

However, no other premodern states or empires could rival the longevity of the premodern Chinese imperial system (or more adequately called a centralized government of an emperor and Confucian bureaucrats). The Chinese imperial government lasted more than two millennia from 221 BCE, when the first emperor established the Qin dynasty, until 1912, with occasional disorder and foreign rule. This was accomplished under constant foreign menace from strong and hostile tribes and kingdoms along its long border while governing a large population most of the time. While there were certainly variations in administrative success and failure in this long period of time, the art of governance definitely was a major strength of traditional Chinese civilization. Autocracy and a court motivated by power struggle could not preserve this system for over 2000 years. The premodern Chinese dynasties were not just states with an emperor and officials. They adopted the ideology of Confucius and his followers. With the exception of the Mongol dynasty (Yuan dynasty) and the Qin dynasty of the first emperor, premodern imperial Chinese states were Confucian states, administered by Confucian officials and an emperor under the tenet of Confucian ideas. However, the nature of the Confucian government and the application of its ideas in actual governance remain to be unexplored.

There are ample studies on Chinese thought, especially on Confucianism and Daoism. However, the focus was mostly on ethics, metaphysics, rituals, religion, social relations, and in recent years, on gender relations. Confucius and his brilliant followers, Mencius and Xunzi, while they discoursed on many different aspects of human life, were nevertheless predominantly interested in governance: trying to bring about a good government and society. The Confucian ideas were later brought into the premodern Chinese state starting from the Han dynasty, when all officials were recruited based on their learning of Confucian classics and possession of Confucian virtue. However, the way in which Confucian or other Chinese ideas were implemented into Chinese governance was perhaps accepted in the most general terms by scholars, and with great reservation by Western intellectuals. …

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