The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 18
Confucian Ethical Action and
the Boundaries of Peace and War

Don J. Wyatt

We can begin our deliberations with the stark articulation of what has heretofore long persisted as a pair of widely assumed premises. The first is that the Chinese have historically been disinclined toward war. (Scobell 2003: 2, 4, 5, 8; Hu 2006: 256). The second is that the root cause behind this disinclination is Confucianism, which eventually achieved ascendancy as China’s preeminent creed (van Creveld 2008: 27, 253; Hui 2005: 220). Therefore, the logically resultant but flawed conventional wisdom that has emerged is that Confucianism itself, since the time it originated, must have been an innately pacifistic body of belief. (Harle 1998: 175)

Although increasingly challenged if not wholly discredited, this notion of Confucian pacifism has generated as well as sustained the image of the war-averse, Confucianminded Chinese, a stereotype that has continued to enjoy considerable currency. Perhaps more than any other factor, a perceived dissimilarity between China and the West in how the affairs of war have customarily been recorded as history has further reinforced this impression. As the contemporary authority Nicola Di Cosmo observes, Western military historians have long regarded what we have of recorded Chinese military history as wanting “because of the influential perception that Chinese culture was inherently indifferent to the gritty matter of battles and wars and consequently paid little or no heed to military topics” (2009: 1).

Moreover, until recently, the dominant opinion expressed in the most widely recognized Western and Chinese secondary sources is also that of a traditional Chinese social order that was at all times – especially since the establishment of Confucianism as state orthodoxy in 136 BCE during the Han dynasty (202 BCE– 220 CE) – militarily averse. Without due reflection on and often without even specific knowledge of China’s bellicose pre-imperial past, these sources proffer the consensus that premodern Chinese society in general was innately evasive about matters of war. Furthermore, the authors

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