The Adoption of Neo-Confucianism in Discussing Legitimacy Dispute

Puning Liu


Lipset (1960) denotes legitimacy as “the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society.” All political powers, including Chinese dynasties in history, needed legitimacy to ensure their governance. In general, Western thinkers who discuss political legitimacy could be identified into two groups (Habermas, 1979). The “empiricists”, likes Max Weber, studies legitimacy in an empirical method, focusing on the types, constitutions, functions, and evolutions of legitimacy. The second group consists of “normativists”, such as Plato and John Rawls, who tend to base legitimacy on various normative values such as justice or democracy. Pre-modern Chinese views on political legitimacy have the similar approaches like west. The first one pays attention to different empirical factors of legitimacy. For instance, the pre-Qin philosopher Zou Yan (305-240 BCE), and Western Han thinker Liu Xin (50 BCE-23 CE) view a dynasty’s legitimate by its adoption of rightful dynastic phase (Wang 2006). The Song Dynasty (960–1279) historian Ouyang Xiu  (1007-1072) argues that the just position and the unification of China make a legitimate dynasty (Rao 1996). The second approach bases legitimacy on normative values. For example, Confucius  (551-479 BCE) indicates that the rightfulness of a ruler relies on his properly practicing both “benevolence” (ren ), and “rites” (li ). Many present scholars give us their studies on the legitimacy in Chinese history. For instance, Rao Zong (1996) provides the general overviews of legitimacy in the Chinese tradition, with an extensive collection of relevant primary sources. Hou Deren (2009) introduces most relevant present-day Chinese studies on that issue. For English readers, general studies of traditional Chinese views on legitimacy can be found in the writings of Hok-lam Chan (1984) and Richard Davis (1983).
Nevertheless, it is notable that the question of legitimacy became pressing from the 13th century onwards in China, when China was ruled by non-Chinese ruling houses, such as the Yuan Dynasty 元 (1272-1368) and Qing Dynasty  (1889-1912). Scholars during that period showed a great interest in discussing the question of what makes a legitimate ruler of China. In general, these scholars approached that question in two ways; they introduced the prevailing Neo-Confucianism to define the virtuous rule as the principal value of legitimacy (Bol, 2009), or they defined a Chinese ruled dynasty as legitimate. To reveal these scholars’ distinct views on legitimacy, this paper investigates two of them, the Yuan literatus Yang Weizhen  (1296-1370) and the Ming (1368-1644) scholar-official Fang Xiaoru  (1357-1402). For English readers, only Richard Davis (1983) gives a brief introduction on Yang Weizhen’s views on legitimacy. Few studies focus on Fang Xiaoru’s relevant views. Following the text analysis way, this article proves that Yang Weizhen and Fang Xiaoru acted as two representatives of scholars in the late imperial China. Both of them adopted Neo-Confucianism to discuss legitimacy, viewing the discussion of legitimacy as a moral evaluation of the dynasty and monarch. They also shared the idea that Chinese ruled dynasty should be viewed as legitimate.

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