The Ancient Roots of Chinese Liberalism: Response

At The Useless Tree, Sam Crane responds to Liu Junning’s exploration of “The Ancient Roots of Chinese Liberalism” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

I am sure that serious students of Chinese philosophy would take issue with the suggestion that something like a modern liberalism was in the minds, much less the actions, of ancient Chinese thinkers. Laozi and Mencius were not, in their own times, liberals, at least as we understand the term “liberal” now. At its most basic, liberalism asserts the significance of individual rights, and that conception individual rights was alien to ancient Chinese cultural and political contexts.

But that does not mean Liu is wrong. Although ancient thinkers were not themselves liberal in a modern sense, ancient thought can be made consistent with contemporary liberalism. Take Mencius. His emphasis on serving the people and his notion that “Heaven sees through the eyes of the people, and Heaven hears through the ears of the people” raise all sorts of questions. It could suggest that individual members of the group known as the “people” must have a certain autonomy, which then allows them to assess independently their quality of life and the efficacy of a ruler’s policies. Moreover, it could further suggest that the preferences and opinions of the “people” must somehow be expressed and measured – and how will that take place? Long story short, a system of legal protections of individual rights and electoral participation would be consistent with the more general Mencian understanding of the political role of the “people.” Thus, even if Mencius himself was not, strictly speaking, a liberal, his thought, when transposed into a modern context, can be compatible with – and actually may require – liberalism.

Liu’s article is a welcome reminder of these possibilities.


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