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‘Enjoy what you can, endure what you must.’ — Goethe

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There are a variety of ways that Legalism has fundamentally shaped Chinese society and politics. It is, I would contend, impossible to isolate the historical effects of Confucianism without reference to Legalism. And it could be the case the Legalism has actually had a greater impact and longer lasting presence in Chinese life (the authoritarianism of the CCP has certain resonances with the Legalist past, as Mao was willing to admit…) than Confucianism. Thus, it seems to me, that China is at least as much a “Legalist society” as it is a “Confucian society.”

But we don’t say that. Perhaps because we don’t want it to be true. Confucianism is nicer, more humane. It is a moral theory that strives toward a better world. And it is certainly an important part of Chinese tradition. But that does not change the fact that Legalism, too, has had a profound presence in Chinese history. It is largely responsible for the centralized, bureaucratic state, which plays such a central role in defining and reproducing Chinese society and culture over the centuries. And it lives on (unfortunately in my view) in the continuing experience of authoritarianism in Chinese politics. We might want to say, and believe, that China is a “Confucian society,” but I am afraid we must accept the dreary reality that China, too, is a “Legalist society.”

Why Don’t We Call China a “Legalist Society”? | The Useless Tree