For a short while, the Kansas legislative session is behind us and we can take a political breather. It has been another battle where every issue is polarized. We are locked into a Western way of looking at problems, from “far right” to “far left”—a system that grew from the 1789 French Revolution and the seating arrangement in their National Assembly.
But is there another perspective for solving problems?
Yes there is—the “Asian way.” And the recent book “Legal Transparency in Dynastic China” by University of Kansas professor John Head and Hong Kong scholar Xing Lijuan offers a window into that other way of thinking.
Problems in Asia are viewed from two opposing philosophies: Confucianism and Legalism.
About 2600 years ago, Confucius developed a moral basis for behavior based on relationships. If there is a correct relationship between citizen and ruler, father and son, husband and wife, and so on, then the world will be at peace. There were no absolute laws for specific situations. Guiding moral principles allow you to judge individual situations differently. He wrote the “Golden Rule” centuries before it was stated in the New Testament. Education, and especially education in morality and relationships, was an important requirement of Confucianism.
Strict laws and punishment were a last resort. The Confucian code “focuses on preventing crimes from happening; while law punishes crimes that have been committed.” Unity and harmony were the central themes. It was the code of the professional that judged each complex issue on its merits. It required education.
In direct opposition were the Legalists. They contended that you could not rely on an education to run a society. Instead, you must spell out exactly what is permitted and what is illegal in “the Law.” Today, we recognize this strict Legalist philosophy in our “zero tolerance” policies for guns or drugs on school grounds. Military law is another example that spells out every instance of what you can and cannot do.
By imposing clear and severe punishments, no one would dare do wrong. And a government could then “govern without governing.”
Over time, these two schools of have thought blended in different ways into “Imperial Confucianism.” The Legalist cookbook of uniform penalties for the same crime could be seen to be unfair in different situations. If you hide your father who commits a crime against the state, does not your loyalty to your father temper your penalty?
Confucianism could lead to an elitist society of the educated. So today most of China’s institutions are Legalist. Due to their huge population, there is a need for uniformity in laws. Fail to pass the college entrance test and you do not go to college, no matter how rich and powerful your parents are.
I find many cases where this political dichotomy explains our problems better than the left-to-right Western view. Until recently, American teachers were unique in having the professional responsibility for deciding what, when and how to teach. That is the school of the professional, where each child is considered unique. In contrast, state or national standardized testing is one-size-fits-all Legalism that destroys professional judgement.
The professional-to-legalist spectrum frames many more of our current problems better than our left-to-right politics. Our overcrowded jails are causing us to rethink mandatory or legalist sentencing; perhaps we should allow judges more professional discretion.
A Western mindset frames our education debate in such a way that we are moving from education as a public good to a private asset—job training. The Asian view values intellectuals and scholars.
We think of rights. They think of responsibilities.
Professor Head and Xing’s book provides the philosophical background for Chinese law. Reading this book could change the way you look at our world’s problems. It certainly can help you understand how a billion other people look at them.
John Schrock lives in Emporia.