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Government In China: Three Perspectives

In the Ming period of government in China, it is evident that the characteristics and learning of the emperor are essential to the essence of good government. Under the Confucian system, it was vital to conform to the strict hierarchical structure of the social and political codes which formed the foundation of the system: therefore, the basis of good government was something which permeated all levels of society but was ultimately inspired by, and dictated by, the higher levels of the power structure and ultimately the emperor.

Within the hierarchy, there were certain aspects of rights and responsibilities which could not be transcended and which ensured that each member of society retained their appropriate place within the overall structure. There would invariably be those above, to whom one owed deference and respect, and those below, to whom one owed protection. No-one was isolated, but rather seen as an integral part of a network which could only function successfully if everyone played exactly the role which was allotted to them, and did not attempt to transcend their designated status.

The concept of government, therefore, was something which was dictated from the top of the power structure but permeated to all its levels. Government of the country, of a province, of a household, were all aspects of the same strictly enforced social order and each level could be seen as reflecting the pattern of the one above. However, according to Confucian practices it was not sufficient to understand good practice and to put it into effect, it was also essential to demonstrate to others that the individual was aware of their particular place in the social and political hierarchy.

There was therefore a heavy reliance on custom and ritual, which affected every aspect of everyday life and acted as a constant reiteration of the dictates of the hierarchy. To carry out these rituals not only reinforced ones social standing, both to oneself and to others, but also showed that the lower orders of the social structure maintained their faith in, and obedience to, the higher orders. In this way not only could the government be maintained, its efficiency could be seen to be exemplified at all levels of the social and cultural hierarchy.

This strictly codified and rigidly enforced system, however, was at least to some extent dependent on the way in which knowledge and power were divided within the community as a whole. For all individuals to possess the same learning, and therefore have access to the same knowledge base, would have denied the hierarchical concept and destroyed the entire complexity of the stratification of the system as a whole.

In order for each stratum to be constantly aware that there were those above and those below, it was necessary to ensure that each level possessed only its allotted and appropriate level of knowledge, and hence social and political power. It was, in effect, this superior power which was acknowledged and respected in those who were in the strata above, and the inferior power which was seen as exemplifying the need for protection in those below.

Obviously, social stratification and the division of power can be seen to some extent in the vast majority of governmental systems, and also the way in which respect is allotted or denied to certain levels in the social order. However, the rigidity of the Confucian system did not allow for movements between different social strata or the acquisition of power inappropriate to ones class, nor did it permit the kind of communal government which would be found in a democracy.

Since the Emperor was at the apex of the social and political pyramid, so to speak, then not only was he the fount of all wisdom, authority and power, but the intricacy and weight of ritual and custom which surrounded him made him almost invisible as a human being under its accretions. Huang, for instance, points out that the emperor might be obliged to change his clothes several times a day in order to be correctly attired for particular rites and ceremonies, and that there were strictly maintained customs regarding the type of clothing for each ceremony, according to its symbolic significance.

The emperor was required to amass all the knowledge and wisdom required as the supreme head of government, and to publicly display and reiterate his embodiment of that wisdom through almost continuous ritual practices. Although he was the ultimate authority, he himself was almost totally constrained and restricted by the dictates of custom. In 1587, Huang notes the impact which Wan-Lis refusal to conform to his prescribed role has on the imperial status, and the governmental system as a whole.

The emperor is considered to be the embodiment of moral and social order, and this is delineated by his performance of the appropriate behaviours and rituals. When Wan-Li chooses to deviate from these strictly regimented patterns, it causes immense agitation throughout the court, since every individual within the system can only define themselves in relation to the emperor.

If he does not act in the expected manner, then they are left without a point of reference for their own actions. Since the pattern of life and governance within the Imperial Compound is what dictates the pattern of life and social stratification outside it, the Emperors conformity, or not, to the parameters of his role will ultimately affect the entire system. It is a paradoxical situation, in which the only way to restore order is to remove the ultimate source of order.

In a democratic environment, this would be acceptable practice: if a government is failing then it is voted out and a new one takes its place. However, in a strictly defined and regimented Imperial system, since the emperor is the source of all authority and power, it is not possible for someone in a subordinate position to criticise or remove him. Consequently, we see the importance which Huang attaches to Hai Rui, the censor who has the courage to impeach the emperor.

In Woman Wang, Spence looks at the way in which conflicts between people and government in the era succeeding the Ming empire demonstrate the instability resulting from a more flexible social order: under the Confucian system, the strict stratification ensured that there was no antagonism between, for instance, central government and local people. Spence looks at the way in which different elements of society came into conflict: rulers and rebels, religious dissent, husbands and wives and so on.

Rather than looking at the upper echelons of government and the imperial aristocracy, he focuses on the way that ordinary people were affected by the inadequacies of government and breakdown of the social order. The central character, Woman Wang, exemplifies the situation of women caught in abusive marriages, but the other characters also reflect a number of ways in which the breakdown of the social order affect all levels of society, and especially those at its lower levels.

By the time the reader learns of Woman Wangs ultimate tragic fate, Spence has built up a foundation from which we can understand the many social and cultural factors which have gone into making her demise inevitable. In Soulstealers, Kuhns reflects on the differences between public policy and private practices, noting that in the last dynasty, the Ching, there was a dichotomy between the public maintenance of Confucian ritual and custom and the private Buddhist practices of the Imperial family.

This exemplified the extent to which ritual and custom was no longer an integral part of imperial life: unlike the Ming era, when the emperor was obliged to live his role as well as playing it, by the later period government had become something which was a matter of public interaction rather than the totally integrated social and political system which had characterised the strict Confucianism of the Ming.

Kuhns points out that under Confucianism, the emphasis is on sagehood, wisdom, and enlightenment which are considered to be exemplary personal and social virtues for the emperor to portray and therefore the implication is that government will imbue these virtues on society as a whole. The Ching dynasty, however, confined the exemplification of these characteristics to public policy alone, and practised what Kuhns considered to be the darker aspects of Buddhism in their private lives.

Taken together, the three works demonstrate the way in which the original tenets of the rigid hierarchy of Confucianism are broken down, the effect of government on the social order as a whole undergoes change, and the way that the social and political order is affected by a dichotomy between public practices and private beliefs. In 1587, Huang gives an insight into the first point at which the imperial system begins to undergo change, and demonstrates the extent to which the emperor was the pivotal focus for the whole of society, since he provided the fixed point of reference for the courts behaviour and therefore of society as a whole.

When Wan-Lis eccentricity supersedes his conformity to ritual, the entire system shakes and begins to fragment: everyone, from the bureaucrats to the concubines, is affected by this radical change to their prescribed courses of behaviour. In Woman Wang, Spence is exploring the effect which a less hierarchical and stratified social order affects the lower echelons of society, who are no longer subject to the safety of custom and ritual but are cast adrift amongst a myriad of social conflicts, in some cases attempting to defy the old order and in others, attempting to preserve it.

In Soulstealers, Kuhn looks at the implications of preserving a superficial order so that strict governmental management can be maintained, whilst rejecting the enlightened values of the order itself. He makes the point that in order for Confucianism to remain true to its own principles and precepts, ritual and custom must reflect the level of ones inner knowledge and wisdom, rather than acting as a superficial faade which conceals what is, in effect, a lack of enlightenment.

During the Ming dynasty, the performance of ritual and the conformity to custom were seen as the outward expression of inner belief and enlightenment, and Kuhn is making the point that without this philosophical core, the ritual practices become meaningless and lose their significance. Good government is therefore reliant on the integrity of those who govern, and when the system is strictly hierarchical, the success of government is dependent on the integrity and enlightenment of those who are at the top of the hierarchy and disseminate their virtues to those below.

If this system breaks down, becomes corrupt or deteriorates into a faade, then only the outward trappings of order remain, in the practices of ritual: there is no inner core of wisdom and sagacity of which these practices should be the outward representation. Government may continue to function, but it is no longer motivated by the virtues and philosophies which originally motivated it, and the continuation of custom and ritual loses its meaning and significance.

We see this in Woman Wang, for example, in the way that marriage is perceived: the Confucian ideal in which the man is superior, but has a responsibility to respect and protect the woman, has gone and in its place is an abusive relationship where the power remains, but the impetus to protect is gone. Wang is still confined by custom to her marriage, but it is no longer the enlightened hierarchy of Confucianism but the darker control relationship of a patriarchy.

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