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The concepts of justice, harmony, and virtue have been investigated since the beginning of the human history. East Asian philosophers were especially famous for developing their own thoughts regarding the above-mentioned issues. However, it is through the teachings of Chinese scholars, namely the followers pre-imperial period with its Confucian and Daoist traditions, the ideas of mutual obligation, harmony and family and responsibility to oneself were most distinctly molded.
Early Confucian thinkers advocated justice, which derived from virtues among elite ruling the society. They also mentioned that the role of justice is to give harmony within classes inside the state. Confucianism is a perfectionist virtue ethic that focuses on interrelated subjects including character traits that equal virtues, the good and worthwhile life, as well as particularistic modes of ethical reasoning. The virtues typically do not rely on deducing specific action-guiding ideas about how to act according to general principles, but they focus rather on judging from the context at hand what needs to be done (Huang).
The key figures in pre-imperial Confucian investigations were Confucius, Mencius (Master Meng; c. 371 B.C.E.–c. 289 B.C.E.), Ssu-Ma Kuang, Wang An-shin, and Master Xun (Xunzi; active c. 298 B.C.E.–c. 230 B.C.E.) (Yao). In political thought, Confucius, Mencius and Master Xun preferred monarchy as the way of ruling the country. They perceived human nature as multifaceted phenomenon obtaining a harmony between emotive and rational parts, especially emphasizing on basic emotional aspects. The ideal society would be achieved through the ruling of cultivated authorities having the virtues that early Confucian scholars promoted. However, some of them were involved in the dispute concerning the origin and the role of virtues.
Under the influence of Confucius’s life and teachings, the pair of other philosophers Mencius and Xunzi produced more elaborated and systematic worldviews, including questions related to justice, which continue to have historical significance not only in China, but for people all around the world. It is necessary to regard the concepts of justice, harmony, and virtue by learning about each of the scholars and their teachings.
Confucius was a thinker and a political figure that focused on creating ethical models of family, public relationships, state order and setting educational standards. He founded the school of Chinese thought (Ru school). Confucius is also known as Master Kong whose teachings had further ideological development. His political opinions provided both moral and political justifications for setting monarchical form ruled by the group of intellectuals able to establish harmony and balance of interests.
Confucius in his political teachings laid stress on virtues, for example, humaneness (ren) as the necessary quality for the state authorities including the king, ministers, and other influential people. At the same time, Master Kong deemphasized punishments (xing), stating that fear of authority is a worse variant of the problem solution than a humane way. On the other hand, he provided moral justifications for violent ways of punishment like blood-revenge. Confucius in his works also mentioned rightness, analogical projection, faithful consistency, and ritual actions. The latter (abiding given roles and duties) rested upon a notion of rightness (yi). Analogical projection (shu) and faithful consistency (zhong) were aimed at appropriateness in relationships between people.
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The next scholar Mencius, better known as Master Meng, explored humane government through the prism of political science. Mencius was a Chinese thinker who created the theory of human nature asserting the innate goodness. Humaneness and rightness were the base for political life and social ties. These two virtues needed to be supported by wise elaborations, ritual articulateness, and harmonious music (Huang). Human nature has a positive account in his teachings, and the assertion of humaneness could even resist tyranny.
Mencius deemed that all persons are defined as humans because they possess four basic moral qualities, which help them successfully participate in human society: compassion, shame, respect or yielding, and discerning between right and wrong (Huang). These moral values later evolve into humane cultivation, rightness, propriety, and wisdom, and therefore, an individual is growing up in morality. Exceptional persons and leaders, as well as beneficent forms of government, exist due to possessing the above-mentioned moral principles. The prevalence of those would result in creating the society with justice and harmonious relationships both among individuals and between government and society.
The philosopher showed opportunities for fair treatment by providing public education and coordinating farming, so that appropriate personnel and material resources supported government institutions without being overburdened by taxes. Mencius elaborated the theory of the significance of the common citizens and justice in ruling the country. This scholar had a theory that human nature contains the germs or sprouts of goodness, and human’s unperturbed heart cultivates vital energies (qi) (Xingpei et al.).
Xunzi is one of the most famous Confucian scholars who lived during the Warring States period. He believed that human’s nature is innately evil, and goodness can be only acquired by learning. Due to the war period he lived in, his works were dedicated to the restoration of social stability.
Master Xun explained ritual and role virtues in terms of teaching rather than personal cultivation. According to this scholar, sociocultural values should be nurtured from in the person’s inner world. He was unlike previous Confucian philosophers, saying that humans were naturally bad. In master Xun’s teachings, ages, teachers, good friends are given the role of educators to willing humans who have different intellectual capabilities and extents of courage. Consequently, his account aligns well with the Platonic understandings of justice.
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In Xun’s ideal society (gun), under any conditions, must be present ming jun – an enlightened ruler and elite leadership class possessing some privileges according to the standards of distributive justice. Xunzi tells about particular levels of rulers – the ruler who relies on military power, the ruler who governs moderately, and the true king who wins the hearts of the people. The lowest is the first mentioned ruler who uses military forces to have more power, imposes taxes excessively, and keeps people in line with laws and punishments. A better ruler wants to become a hegemon. He does not tax the people as harshly and becomes an ally to the neighboring states. The highest level is the true king who governs due to ritual principles. Thus, the best ruler can unite the nation because the citizens of his state willingly submit to him. (Xingpei et al.).
According to Master Xun, society should be well-ordered, aligning with natural principles and avoiding what is considered bad. Xunzi’s ideas could be used in economic issues such as a distribution of limited resources, where the ruler and society are separate parts of the social whole, therefore, they can rather thrive or starve together.
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Master Xun paid attention to many varieties of human personalities, social stratification, and social order. Scholar’s use of criminal justice is influenced by the humanely cultivated ideal. He believes that that all humans can be transformed and become wise. Xunzi also insists on the need of the kind and careful attitude towards others, although the philosopher at the same time denies that humans have natural desire to be involved in such relationships (Huang).
It is worth concluding that the above-discussed two scholars Mencius and Xunzi were engaged in a vigorous debate about the human nature and their natural tendencies for becoming a good person. One of the topical issues highlighted in their works was whether ethical norms and values are discovered or invented. The scholars base their arguments on possible explanation of how human beings evolve to become better persons, as well as how they transform into bad individuals (De Bary et al.).
Wang An-shin, Ssu Ma-Kuang and Ouyang Xiu
There were also some scholars who were trying to explain concepts of virtue, harmony and justice in their own works, namely Wang An-shin, Ssu Ma-Kuang, and Ouyang Xiu. Wang An-shin created an idea of social justice and egalitarian tendencies. He opposed despotism but insisted on regulative function of the laws in political life. Wang An-shin elaborated the idea of a certain justice in the distribution of burdens where people cooperate more effectively to avoid onerous direct taxations and discrimination. He castigated the assassination of rulers (De Bary et al.).
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Ssu Ma-Kuang was afraid that people might become disobedient to authority because of their age, virtue and pride. Subordination is necessary because, according to his view, the rule-ruled relationship is the most important. Ssu Ma-Kuang emphasized that the selection of the officials should be based on their goodness and talent. The ruler should have certain qualities to rule the country effectively. Among values, self-preservation loses its value if conflicts with moral principles. The ruler’s power of appointment, reward, and punishment places him at the pivotal position in the government (Lee).
Ouyang Xiu described a phenomenon where the integrity of the state depends on the ruler’s loyalty. He mentioned that there were so-called “superior men” whose virtue overgrows their talent. Ouyang Xiu emphasized the importance of a family in societal dimension. The family serves as a core of education, humanization, self-cultivation, self-fulfillment, leadership, proper order, the economy, culture, ritual, etc. (De Bary et al.).
Daoist philosophy claims that virtues are inborn in humans. The Confucian scholars added the notion of ren and justice to it. The most prominent scholars were Laozi and Zhuangzi, who elaborated the main Daoist ideas: effortless action, naturalness, ability to become a sage person, and, finally, Dao itself. In Daoism, virtue comes from Dao (Way). Harmony should be achieved through Dao in wisdom and meditation. Comparing to Confucians, the followers of Daoism preferred the nature of reality, practicing rulership, and regulating consciousness that later would result in better societal life.
Besides, thinkers from the Qi state, who lived approximately at the same time as Masters Zhung and Xun, created a mediating approach to earlier Daoist teachings (Rossabi). The form of social justice found in the Daodejing by Old Master (Laozi) has been described as a benevolent anarchism. The major principles of communal life were spontaneity and noninterference, opposing such Confucian elitist qualities as wisdom, humaneness, and rightness. People have Dao-centered lives being self-transformed and having harmony through mutual responsiveness and satisfaction with what they possess. A Daoist ruler embodies compassion, frugality, and “not daring to take the lead” in the community. Interestingly, the roles of women as well as feminine values in general were augmented in Dao-centered outlook, but later they were adjusted to Confucian views. One of the Daoism scholars, Sima Qian also known as Zhuangzi, placed harmony above everything. He believed that thinking in the way of sharp distinction between good and bad adversely affect the probability of reaching the state of harmony.
Therefore, early Daoist philosophical texts stated that they allowed every human within the state to follow Dao in a natural unperturbed way. Confucians believed that human virtues, harmony, and justice can be acquired as a human is growing. Daoism and Confucianism were rival religions because the first one dealt with social matters, while the second searched for their meaning. They had common views on social matters, but the different understanding of the extent to which religion must penetrate into the political and social lives.
To sum up, the key concepts prevalent in ancient Chinese philosophical teachings were mutual obligation, justice, harmony, virtue, including personal and family responsibility. They were best described by Confucian scholars. East Asian goodness means not self-sacrifice, but a social obligation. Virtue serves as a balance between the others’ interests and self-interests. The family is the core of education, humanization, self-cultivation, self-fulfillment, leadership, proper order, the economy, culture, ritual, etc. Harmony in East Asian political thought is the essence of virtue and practical knowledge when everything aims at equilibrium. Mutual obligations are always bilateral. Justice is close to basic human emotions, as it can be measured by correct human feelings.