The Doctrine of The Mean – Ancient Chinese Philosophy

The Doctrine of the Mean is the fundamental method and principle for achieving “good governance” in ancient China. According to The Doctrine of the Mean, “this equilibrium (zhong) is the great root from which grow all human actings in the world, and this harmony is the universal path which they all should pursue. Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout Heaven and Earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.” In a fundamental sense, the Doctrine of the Mean embodies dialectical thinking, which pursues impartiality and appropriateness, as Chu Hsi said in his interpretation of the theme of the Doctrine of the Mean.

In ancient Chinese civilization, there were Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, who were generally revered as sages and wise rulers. Emperor Shun was one of them. In The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucius said that “Emperor Shun was greatly wise! He loved to question others and to study their words, though they might be shallow. He concealed what was bad in them and displayed what was good. He took hold of their two extremes, determined the Mean, and employed it in his government of the people. It was by this that he was Shun!”

According to Confucius, there was a major reason why Emperor Shun had great wisdom and became a model for subsequent generations of rulers. When ruling the country, Emperor Shun “took hold of their two extremes, determined the Mean.” He listened to and grasped the opinions of his subordinates in many aspects, eliminated the dross and the false and retained the essential and the true, and finally adopted the appropriate methods to govern the people. Therefore, to govern a country like him, the rulers are required to accept advice and listen to the various opinions to review and grasp the situation as a whole and make the most optimal governance decisions.

The period from the first half of the 7th century to the middle of the 8th century is arguably the most prosperous period in long Chinese history, known as the Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty. During this period, the Tang Dynasty enjoyed political integrity and solid national strength and was a world leader in economy, culture, and other aspects. No wonder that even to this day, overseas Chinese are still referred to as “Tang people.” In the book A Brief History of the World, British scholar H. G. Wells remarked, “Throughout the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, China was the most civilized and settled country in the world.” The Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizong of Tang, who was as famous as the First Emperor of Qin and Emperor Wu of Han in ancient Chinese history. During his 23-year reign, the country experienced rapid economic growth, cultural prosperity, and national stability, laying a solid foundation for the creation of the Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty.

Emperor Taizong of Tang was known for his ability to select the best and accept advice with an open mind, but he looked so imposing and serious that many officials would be too nervous to meet him and behave erratically. So he always made a pleasant face whenever someone made a presentation to listen to the advice and criticism and to know the gains and losses of the governance.

In the first year of Zhenguan (627), Emperor Taizong told his ministers, “A righteous ruler can’t rule the country well by appointing treacherous ministers, or for loyal ministers to manage the country well by serving a fatuous ruler. The country will be safe and sound only if a righteous ruler and his loyal ministers work together for the same goal. Although I am not a wise emperor, I am fortunate that you have corrected and remedied my faults from time to time, and I hope that I can make the country stable and peaceful with your straightforward advice and criticism.”

Wang Gui (571-639), Grand Master of Remonstrance, replied, “I have heard that wood can be sawed straight by using ink lines, and an emperor can become wise by taking advice. Therefore, in ancient times, the wise emperors were required to appoint seven remonstrance officials, and if the advice given by the officials were not accepted, they would risk their lives to advise the emperor successively. Your Majesty is open-minded and accepted the advice of your ministers. We are all willing to speak out our opinions in this imperial court.”

Emperor Taizong praised him for his good remarks. He issued an edict stipulating that in the future, “When the Prime Minister enters the palace to discuss and deal with state affairs, remonstrance officials should be allowed to follow him and speak openly.”

Wei Zheng was the most famous remonstrance official during the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang, who was known for his straightforward character, brilliant intellect, and courage to advise. He admonished more than 200 cases in his life, stating the faults and mistakes made by the emperor, and Emperor Taizong accepted the criticism and took good advice. After Wei Zheng’s death, Emperor Taizong said sadly, “A copper mirrors the tidiness; histories mirror the ebb and flow of societies; other people mirror one’s win and loss. I lost a mirror after the death of Wei Zheng.” The relationship between the wise emperor and the loyal minister has become a legend for thousands of years and a much-told tale until today.

The Doctrine of the Mean in state governance also requires having a big picture in mind. It is important to take into account and coordinate the immediate and long-term interests as well as the overall and local situation. As it is said in the Proposal to Move the Capital and Build Vassal States, “Without full-scale consideration, simple action is impracticable. Without a long-term strategy, short-term achievement is impossible.” As a systematic undertaking, national governance must make overall arrangements and coordinate the development of various fields.

During the Spring and Autumn Periods, after Kuan Chung became the Grand Chancellor of Qi, he made use of its proximity to the seashore to distribute goods and accumulate wealth, thus making the state rich and strong and ensuring peace and security for the people. In his governance, Kuan Chung focused on the integration of all fields of development and emphasized that the implementation of policies and the governance of the state must be in accordance with public opinion.

Firstly, he kept a balance between economic growth and moral education. According to Kuan Chung, state governance must focus on moral education to guide people to pursue virtues, as a state would fall without promoting propriety, justice, integrity, and honor. However, the prerequisite for moral education is economic prosperity. “Only when there are substantial stores, people will know the right way to behave themselves, when people have enough clothing and food, they will know the difference between right and wrong, and when the emperor acts by the law, people will maintain a close relationship among the family members.”(Kuan Tzu)

Secondly, Kuan Chung believed that the formulation and implementation of decrees must be in line with public opinion. In his view, the decrees can only be successfully implemented when they conform to public opinion and preferences.

Thirdly, unlike the traditional governance philosophy of “emphasizing agriculture and restraining commerce,” Kuan Chung proposed that agriculture and commerce should be developed together and that the development of handicrafts and commerce should be emphasized on the basis of stable agricultural development. He introduced the state monopoly of salt and iron operation and advocated a policy of state-owned and private-run enterprises in areas involving important resources such as salt and iron. It ensured national stability, improved fiscal revenue, promoted the development of the private economy, and made the people wealthy.

Fourthly, Kuan Chung argued that the gap between the rich and the poor had to be narrowed to maintain social harmony and stability. Therefore, it is necessary to prohibit a few wealthy people from making huge profits by hoarding and focusing on regulating the price of goods and dispersing the profits from annexation. Otherwise, there will be endless annexation in society, which widens the gap between the rich and the poor, resulting in the survival crisis of the widowed, the elder, and the childless.

Finally, in response to the trend of “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” in Qi at that time, Kuan Chung proposed a development strategy, stipulating that the people should cut down trees and hunt in the mountains in the right seasons, so as to protect the normal growth of trees and fish and make the natural resources sustainable.

The concept of harmony in diversity is the essence of the Doctrine of the Mean, which is to seek balance, harmony, and unity among things on the basis of respecting their diversity, richness, and differences. According to Discourses of the States, Duke Huan of Zheng (854?-771 BC)asked, “Will the Zhou Dynasty fall?” Shi Bo replied, “It is almost certain to collapse because the king rejected the right proposition that disagreed with his own opinion and adopted the false claims that were the same as his own. In fact, harmony is the only way to generate all things, and uniformity will lead to the fall of the dynasty.” Shi Bo believed that a state would be hard to develop and even die out when emphasizing uniformity and denying the differences. The only way to achieve sustainable development was to promote the harmony and coexistence of different things and achieve harmony without uniformity. Since ancient times, harmony in diversity has been regarded as a golden rule for the proper management of the relationship among people, people and nature, people and nations, and nations in national governance, reflecting the inclusiveness and harmony philosophy of the Chinese people.

Harmony in diversity is a win-win and sharing mentality. The ancient Silk Road is dotted with historical landmarks left behind in the history of Asia and Europe, demonstrating the prosperous economy of the heyday. During the Han Dynasty in 140 BC, a mission from Chang’an opened an overland route linking the East and the West, which is known as Zhang Qian’s Journey to the Western Regions. Zhang Qian’s Journey to the Western Regions was initially aimed to fulfill the task of the Han government to unite the Western states to fight against the Xiongnu, but its significance was far beyond that. The route from Dunhuang in the Western Han Dynasty to Xinjiang through the Jade Gate Pass and on to Central and West Asia was the so-called Silk Road. It linked the Western Han Dynasty with the Western states and greatly promoted economic and cultural exchanges among them. In the second year of Shenjue (60 BC), Emperor Xuan of Han (91-49 BC) established the Western Regions Frontier Command (xi yu du hu fu) to perform direct jurisdiction over the Western Regions. Since then, the Silk Road has led to an era of prosperous development. By the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties, the Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road developed simultaneously, with Chinese, Italian, and Moroccan travelers Du Huan, Marco Polo, and Ibn Battuta (1304-1377) all leaving their historical mark on the two Silk Roads. As a result, generations of Silk Road travelers have built a bridge of cooperation and joint development between the East and the West.

Harmony in diversity is harmonious thinking and a peaceful mentality. In the Maritime Experiential Museum on Sentosa Island in Singapore today, there is a replica of Zheng He’s treasure ship in its original size. The treasure ship is majestic and three-story high. The ship’s bow is also the open theater of the museum, where visitors can watch short animated films on a large screen, reliving the historical story of Ming treasure voyages. More than 600 years ago, Zheng He, a eunuch of the Ming court, led the world’s largest fleet (including more than 200 ships and 27,000 people)from Nanjing to visit more than 30 countries and regions in Asia and Africa for seven times, lasting over 28 years and voyaging more than 20,000 miles. These magnificent voyages were earlier than those of European countries for over half a century and can be called the precursor of the “Age of Exploration.”

Despite having the largest fleet of ships in the world at that time, Zheng He did not invade other states and plunder other nations, nor did he act as a maritime overlord. On the contrary, he always served as a peace envoy for exchanges between the East and the West. He did only three things in each country he visited, including delivering the emperor’s edict to express the expectation of sharing the blessings of peace, presenting gifts to local kings and officials to convey the desire to establish and develop friendly relations, and negotiating trade. During the seven voyages to the western oceans, Zheng He did not occupy an inch of land or plunder a bit of property from other countries, treated all countries and nations with courtesy and equality, and brought a lot of silk, porcelain, and other fine works to all the countries he visited. Therefore, in many countries and regions, Zheng He’s treasure ship is still regarded as the symbol of “peace,” “friendship,” and “exchange.”

It is said in The Book of Changes that “The Qian trigram is consistent with the changes of Heaven, and all things should comply with the laws of nature. By keeping everything in harmony, we can prosper and be auspicious.” Peace and development, as the deepest intrinsic gene and spiritual pursuit of the Chinese nation, demonstrate the sentiment of this nation in seeking to share the blessings of peace.

The Italian missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) pointed out in his book China in the 16th Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583-1610, that China was a pacifist country, completely different from the historical and cultural traditions of the West. “China is a country with a large population and a vast territory, extremely rich in all kinds of products. Although it all had a well-equipped army and navy that could easily conquer neighboring countries, its emperor and people never thought of waging wars of aggression. They were quite content with what they already had with no ambition to conquer. … I have carefully studied the 4,000-year-long history of China, and I have to admit that I have never seen accounts of such conquests, nor have I heard of them expanding their borders.”

When the Doctrine of the Mean is applied to state governance, it gives rise to the method of “combining severity with mildness.” Generally speaking, excessively severe governance will lead to brutality and public discontent, while overly mild governance will make it difficult to implement governmental orders. Only by combining severity with mildness, good governance can be achieved.

The governance method of “combining severity with mildness” was first proposed by Zichan, a politician of the state of Zheng during the Spring and Autumn Period, and later became an effective method of ancient state governance after being reformed by Confucius. During his governance for more than ten years, Zichan advocated this governance method and promoted governance based on virtue and the combination of virtue and law. He praised “loyalty and frugality,” opposed “extravagance,” and reformed the land system and the military and taxation system. Moreover, he also “cast the criminal law in the tripods and established it as the common law of the state.” It was the first time in Chinese history that a written law was officially published to limit the noble’s privileges and strictly enforce law and discipline in the imperial court. Under his rule, the society was harmonious and stable, the people lived and worked in peace and contentment, and the state of Zheng was respected by the surrounding vassal states despite being a small state in the Central Plains.

During his governance, Zichan often admonished his successor Zi Taishu that “You should couple hardness with softness in governing the state and tread a very fine line between the two, so that the state can be strong.”Later, when Zichan was seriously ill, he said to Zi Taishu, “When I die, the government is sure to come into your hands. It is only perfectly virtuous who can keep the people in submission by clemency. For the next class of rulers, the best thing is severity. When a fire is blazing, the people look at it with awe, and few of them die from it. Water again is weak, and the people despise and make sport with it so that many die from it. It is difficult therefore to carry out mild government.” However, after Zi Taishu received the administration of the government, he could not bear to use severity and tried to be mild. The consequence was that there were many robbers of the state, who plundered people by the riverside. The social disorder made him regret not following Zichan’s advice, so he changed his previous mild governance strategy and raised his troops to attack the robbers and wipe them out. Thus the rampant robbery was curbed.

Confucius spoke highly of Zichan’s method of coupling severity with mildness in governance. “When the government is mild, the people despise it. When they despise it, severity must take its place. When the government is severe, the people are slaughtered. When this takes place, they must deal with it mildly. Mildness serves to temper severity, and severity to regulate mildness; – it is in this way that administration of government is brought to harmony.” (The Tso Chuan).

The Book of Songs says, “The people indeed are heavily burdened, but perhaps a little ease may be got for them. Deal kindly in this center of the kingdom, and so give rest to the four quarters of it. Give no indulgence of deceit and obsequiousness, in order to make the unconscientious careful, and repress robbers and oppressors, who have no fear of the clear will of Heaven that has reference to the substitution for it of severity. So may you encourage the distant and help the near, and establish the throne of our king.” It asks the ruler to be merciful to the people, requests the ruler to supplement his governance with severity, and emphasizes that the ruler should use a mild policy to make the people safe and peaceful. Only by doing so, can the ruler achieve harmony in state governance.

The Wuhou Shrine is one of the largest museums of Three Kingdoms relics in the Wuhou District of Chengdu City, Sichuan Province. It is a shrine commemorating Zhuge Liang, the Prime Minister of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period, and got its name based on the fact that Zhuge Liang was honored as the Wuxiang Marquis during his lifetime. There is a couplet in the Wuhou Shrine,

Those who move people’s hearts shall perish heresy and rebel without striking a blow; War is not won with the art of war, ‘tis all what we know.

Those who ignore time and tide shall fail at governance with carrots or clubs; The Land of Sichuan is best ruled with a thoughtful mind.

The couplet means that the strategy of employing the armed forces should use psychological tactics to eliminate the rebellion easily. Since ancient times, those who really made good use of the armed forces are not warlike. Those who fail to size up the situation will make mistakes whether they adopt mild or severe policies, and those who govern Shu in the future should understand this truth. This couplet can be regarded as the core governance concept of Zhuge Liang during his governance of Shu. Its essence is to tread a very fine line between severity and mildness in governing the state.

At the beginning of Zhuge Liang’s governance of Shu, he proposed that Shu should be ruled by strict laws and regulations to restore normal social order in response to the chaotic situation of lax laws and regulations, lack of virtuous governance, and arbitrary power of local magnates there. These harsh measures aroused the disagreement of some people. Fa Zheng (176-220), the Director of the Department of State Affairs, suggested, “When Liu Bang, Emperor Gaozu of Han, ruled the Central Shaanxi Plain, he made clear rules and regulations, and the people of the former Qin Dynasty thus understood the benevolent rule. I hope you can gradually soften the harsh laws to soothe the people of Shu.” However, Zhuge Liang believed that the situation of Shu was greatly different from that of the late Qin and early Han. He pointed out, “The Qin Dynasty exercised harsh and tyrannical governance, and the people were so discontented that they raised rebellions and tended to overthrow the country. In view of this, Emperor Gaozu of Han implemented favorable policies. In contrast, during the reign of Liu Zhang ((?-220) in Shu, he was incompetent and did not enforce the benevolent rule and strict criminal law, thus causing social disorder and chaos. Now the legal system is strict and clear so that people know what benevolence and virtue are. Then, they are provided with official positions, and they will know what honor is. The most important approach to governance is to provide both honor and benevolence and to make a clear relationship between the ruler and his ministers.” (A Letter in Reply to Fa Zheng) By enforcing the rule of law, the law and discipline had a real deterrent effect. The officials were rectified, and the bullying of the people by the magnates was basically eliminated, thus restoring the social order in Shu.

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