CORN March 2015 Edition.
Political philosopher Jiang Qing’s Confucian Constitutionalism may be shocking to some, but by seriously taking Chinese history and culture into consideration, his originality deserves respect—but raises some concerns, too.
Among all of China’s current stable of Confucian scholars, Jiang Qing (蒋庆) may be the most distinctive—if not influential—because of his political theory of Confucian Constitutionalism. Jiang Qing’s work represents the most serious attempt to revive political Confucianism since the beginning of China’s Republican period in the early twentieth century. In 2012, Jiang presented his idea in a New York Times article, which exposed his work to Western audiences. At the same time, Jiang’s theory has given rise to sharp debates. While his supporters regard Jiang as a “revolutionary Confucian”, his critics deride his notion of Confucian Constitutionalism as a dangerous political fantasy with the potential to slow China’s reform process and undermine Confucianism as a political philosophy. Yet Jiang is not simply a pedantic defender of ancient doctrines. Rather, his Confucian Constitutionalism, though radical, should be seen as a serious attempt to modernize Confucianism.
The Scholar’s Turn to Confucianism
Following his admission to the Southwest University of Politics and Law (西南政法大学) in 1978, Jiang Qing, like many of his contemporaries, soon became a fervent supporter of Marxist philosophy. After graduation, his interests shifted towards Daoism, Buddhism and ultimately Christianity. But these philosophical flirtations did not last long; Jiang disagreed with sunyata (emptiness) as the ultimate truth in Buddhism and the lack of Chinese cultural elements in Christianity. Instead, he saw potential in Chinese history and culture to help solve various problems of mankind. So, after getting in touch with the works of neo-Confucians in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 1984, Jiang committed himself to Confucianism. From there, he gradually developed his own “political Confucianism” (政治儒学), which differs from the mainstream “heart-minded Confucianism” (心性儒学) of neo-Confucianists.
In 2001, Jiang established a privately funded Confucian academy (阳明精舍). Located among remote mountains in the inland province of Guizhou and with relatively few bothers from the real world, he got down to the work of reviving Confucianism as a political tradition and legitimate political philosophy. This especially meant finding a way to bring a Confucian constitutional order into contemporary China.
Confucian Constitutionalism as Political Philosophy
At the core of Jiang Qing’s theory is his discussion of multiple legitimacies. In practice, this takes the form of a tri-cameral legislature. Jiang argues that in Western democracies, the only source of legitimacy is popular sovereignty or “sovereignty by the people”. For Jiang, that is problematic because the will of the people may not only be immoral at times, but also tied to collective short-term interests. Hence, China should avoid merely copying Western democracies and establish its own theory of legitimacy.
According to the Gongyang Commentary (春秋公羊传)—the Confucian classic text that Jiang uses as proof of his theory—in Confucian constitutionalism, there are three sources of legitimacy; political power must fulfill the demands of the heaven, earth and human (天、地、人) to be considered legitimate.
- The legitimacy of heaven represents a transcendent ruling will and a sacred sense of natural morality.
- The legitimacy of earth represents respect towards history and culture;
- The legitimacy of the human represents the will of the people.
The three forms of legitimacy must be in equilibrium, though the legitimacy of heaven supersedes the other two in importance. If a political community suits the requirements of all three forms of legitimacy, it then represents the Way of the Humane Authority, which should always be regarded as the ideal of Chinese politics. As a result, the institutional design must be a tri-cameral legislature which corresponds to the three forms of legitimacy: a House of Ru (通儒院), which represents the legitimacy of heaven; a House of the Nation (国体院), which represents the legitimacy of earth; and a House of the People (庶民院), which represents the legitimacy of the human.
Breaking Down Jiang’s Tri-Cameral Legislature
To go into more institutional detail, the leader of the House of Ru should be a great scholar proposed by other Confucian scholars, and members of this house should be nominated by the scholars and then evaluated on both knowledge of classics and administrative experience at lower levels of government. Selecting political leaders via examination is among the core characteristics of traditional Confucianism, and Jiang believes it is worthy to revive this practice.
The leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendant of Confucius, and its members should be selected from the descendants of great sages of the past, descendants of famous people, university professors of Chinese history, retired top officials, worthy people from society and the representatives of Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity. This selection criterion relates to the ancient monarchy in China, but at the same time represents the spirit of meritocracy, which is also regarded as the core of traditional Chinese politics.
By contrast, the members of the House of the People are selected through a popular democratic process. It not only represents the basic spirit of modern democracy, but also represents the significance of people’s will in Chinese tradition.
In the legislative process, each house works independently and any bill must pass at least two of the houses to become law. Because of the priority of the legitimacy of heaven, the House of Ru carries veto power (积极延宕否决权), though the other two houses could still cooperate to restrain the power of the House of Ru. Overall, the tri-cameral legislature is not only a modernized version of Confucianism in politics, but also a unique design combining other Chinese and western values.
The Critics Sound Off
Jiang Qing’s radical recasting of Confucianism as a political ideology and his bravely original design of legislature has shocked almost everyone—including Confucian scholars. It’s no surprise then the many criticisms Jiang Qing has provoked in response.
Those who embrace Western democracy as a universal model (the “rightist” perspective) simply treat Confucianism as an outdated doctrine and cynically see Jiang Qing as trying to revive ancient autocratic China..Those who speak highly of socialism (especially “new Leftists”) such as Wang Shaoguang (王绍光), doubt Jiang’s interpretation of legitimacy from moral philosophy and argue that socialism (including some spirit of democracy) should still be the goal of legitimacy in modern China, while Chinese history and culture (including Confucianism) should also be emphasized as the foundation. Meanwhile, other Confucian scholars, such as Joseph Chan, Bai Tongdong (白彤东) and Li Chenyang (李晨阳) doubt whether Jiang Qing actually grasps the essence of political Confucianism and whether Jiang’s interpretation is too dogmatic to leave enough space for pluralism in modern society.
Even if we do not follow such theoretical approaches, it is easy to find practical loopholes in Jiang Qing’s institutional design of a tri-cameral legislature: the problems of designing examinations and selecting from the many descendants of Confucius, the potential conflict and discrimination in the House of the Nation, the potential conflict between the common people and the elite, and the potential for corruption in all three houses. So, it’s tough not to see Jiang Qing’s theory as a fantasy, if not a crazy chimera.
A More Sober Assessment
However, if we admit in advance that on the one hand, Jiang Qing’s theory is radical, idealistic and perhaps immature, and on the other hand that Confucianism as a theory has not been fully modernized thus as modern people we must be unfamiliar with some doctrines, our attitude towards Confucian Constitutionalism may not be so critical. We then may also realize the meaningful part of Jiang Qing’s theory.
Whether Jiang Qing’s understanding of legitimacy could be put into practice, whether Jiang Qing’s interpretation actually grasps the essence of Confucianism, and whether Confucianism itself is in fact able to represent Chinese history and culture—there is no doubt that Jiang Qing is the first person to try to seriously embrace the whole of Chinese history and culture in discussing the political design of contemporary China.
Compared to the 1980s, fewer and fewer Chinese see Western democracy as a realistic or desirable model that could be directly embedded in the Chinese context. Even under the influence of globalization, more and more Chinese realize the uniqueness of their culture and history. If we admit that any political design should seriously concern itself with specific social and cultural background, there is no reason for China to ignore its long history and the influence of its culture—and Confucianism is definitely the philosophical and political core of Chinese culture before 1900s and has never been totally destroyed in daily life in China.
As a result, a more meaningful and constructive attitude—and not merely laughing at Jiang Qing’s theory—could be a way to follow his trailblazing steps and think deeper about how to design a unique Chinese political tradition, which could embrace Chinese history and culture from the very ancient time to the 21st century. In that sense, most of critics and those who indiscreetly treat Jiang Qing as crazy have fallen behind him a great distance.
He can be reached at binfan.wang [at] mail.utoronto.ca
 However, Jiang’s understanding of Marxism is more liberal than the official interpretation at that time, which hindered his job prospects after graduation. For a more detailed biography, see the introduction written by Daniel A. Bell in A Confucian Constitutional Order (Princeton University Press, 2013).by