Qing Censorship & Han “Confucianism”

An essay published by Caixin magazine describes the cases of two persecuted scholars, with thinly veiled allusion to contemporary China. Both men were imprisoned, accused of insanity and finally executed.

Emperor Yongzheng’s suppression of Lü Liuliang’s writings under an invidious system of censorship only spurred more critical reflection on authority devoid of moral suasion

Lü Liuliang, a well-known anti-Manchurian intellectual once said the silence of scholars and officials not only enabled but enacted the abuse of power, and that such scholars also fail in their responsibility to society by not seeking a superior truth ….

[Governor] Mai was worried that beating Tang to death would attract unnecessary public attention. He claimed Tang died of illness in prison, and implied that even God could not tolerate his unfaithfulness. But the truth of Tang’s death soon spread. He had died of suffocation in jail, his body crushed by the placement of sandbags on his chest.

But a year later, Qi Zhouhua, a scholar from Tiantai, Zhejiang Province, wrote to the emperor to voice grievances over Lü’s case …. Similar to Tang, he wanted to rectify the Lü family’s story. And in like turn, the local government also accused Qi of insanity, jailing him for years. In 1767, Qi was executed under the reign of Emperor Qianlong. Among Qi’s personal belongings was Tang’s essay on Zhuge, and along with it, the public exoneration of Tang.

See also posts on punitive hospitalisation for supposed mental illness (“According to one Chinese human-rights NGO, petitioners are ‘today’s most frequent victims of psychiatric abuse.’”) and the recent “illnesses” of Li Tiantian and Yang Hengjun (fortunately less terminal than Tang Sungao’s), via CDT.

At The Useless Tree, meanwhile, Sam Crane looks at the less-than-Confucian reality of Han Dynasty rule and its modern parallels, with reference to Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson’s “Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages”:

Looks like The Master was a useful puppet for powerholders, with little real political impact on statecraft. Rulers used “Confucian” priciples when it served their interests, and ignored them when convenient.

And that brings us to the contemporary revival of Confucianism. The past tells us that powerful centralized states in China have been able to present themselves as “Confucian,” without living up to Confucian ideals. They have been “Confucian” only in their words, not their deeds. Of course, this does not mean that there were no individuals who conscientiously enacted Confucian teachings – there were plenty of them. But “Confucianism” (whatever basket of principles and ideas that term might connote) was not the “supreme doctirne of state.” I suspect Legalism had more influence on day to day political decision-making…

And that could be a model for the Chinese Communist Party. It can encourage the revival of Confucianism, wrap itself, when useful, in a shroud of Confucian legitimacy (perhaps the robes are available at your local Confucius Institute), but not really adhere to a consistent or coherent Confucian ideology in terms of actual policy and politics. It worked for the Han, maybe it can work for the CCP.