In the Analects , Confucius is always saying, “I follow the Zhou.” This may be confusing for first-time readers, but for those in the know, it was a rallying cry. The Zhou stood for the golden age from which Confucius drew his lessons on rites, manners, morality and statecraft. And that has been, for millennia, an exhortation for all those who believed they truly followed the sage’s teachings, against those who merely pretended to. For the latter, according to their critics, they instead “follow the Qin”. To keep a long story short, many Confucians throughout the ages have been accused by their critics, who may be other Confucians or anti-Confucians, of being closet Legalists, that is, the name of those who advocated the harsh totalitarian ideology that underpinned the Qin, China’s first dynasty. In an essay published in June on caixin.com, retired mainland academic historian and public intellectual Qin Hui offers an intriguing take on this long-standing ideological debate. He did so in an angry and agitated tone. Why so, when it’s clearly a well-covered academic subject? Because he is obviously talking about the present, by referring to the past. Chinese intellectuals, or literati, have traditionally criticised the present by citing the past. It’s all part of a traditional esotericism that makes for indirect criticism by means of historical analogies, metaphors and references. The most pointed criticism, then as now, is that many Confucians, including those self-styled ones today, had been closet Legalists William Faulkner might as well be describing the Chinese when he famously said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The title of Qin’s June essay is: “‘Jing Ke stabs Confucius’ and ‘Zilu Sings praises Qinshihuang’.” Confused? This is how he elaborates on his title: “In China, for Jing Ke to stab Qinshihuang [first Chinese emperor] was much more dangerous than for Jing Ke to stab Confucius. The practical benefits of Zilu to praise Confucius were nowhere nearly as good as for Zilu to praise Qinshihuang. “Therefore, fake radicalism and fake conservatism proliferated and became interchangeable, while true radicalism and true conservatism were very rare.” More confusion? It should make more sense if you realise Qin Hui is playing with his essay’s title by reversing the old tradition according to which Jing Ke tried to assassinate Qinshihuang, while Zilu praised Confucius and the Zhou. How Christianity and Confucianism can explain US-China rivalry In the West, contemporary Chinese state authoritarianism is often described as a legacy of the dictatorship of Marxist-Leninism against liberal democracy. This is understandable, as each culture has to interpret the world by their own historical lenses. But this is not necessarily how Chinese understand or debate among themselves, especially after Mao’s death. As contemporary Chinese state leaders increasingly turn to Confucianism, however shallow in their attempts, as the de facto legitimising ideology for the state, it’s inevitable that critics would resurrect the many different schools and conflicting tendencies of Confucianism and anti-Confucianism. The most pointed criticism, then as now, is that many Confucians, including those self-styled ones today, had been closet Legalists, or worse, plain opportunists who flattered whoever was in power with their flowery language of “humanity, justice and morality”. That makes them worse than the Legalists. The latter might have been brutal and ruthless, but at least they were honest about it. Who were the Legalists? “The Confucians, Mohists and Taoists all held political theories, which, though widely differing, agreed in discussing government primarily from the point of view of the people,” wrote Fung Yu-lan in A History of Chinese Philosophy . “There was another group of thinkers who discussed government wholly from the viewpoint of the ruler or the state.” Intellectuals who defend the Chinese state today may call themselves Confucians, but not one of them would identify themselves as Legalist Just imagine they were Machiavelli and Torquemada combined. As the most influential Legalist Han Fei wrote, the wise ruler governed by the “two handles” of reward and punishment, the latter being the power over people’s life and death: “Power is the means of maintaining supremacy over the masses.” The ruler makes laws to rule, and the harsher, the better. Throughout Chinese history, there has always been a bad stench associated with Legalism, just as many good Christians used to associate Machiavelli with the devil himself. But this didn’t stop popes and rulers in Europe from practising Machiavellianism any more than Chinese leaders from going full-on Legalist. Many Western scholars have observed that the contemporary Chinese state looks more Legalist than Confucian. What Qin Hui wants to point out in his new essay is that that’s not quite right. Intellectuals who defend the Chinese state today may call themselves Confucians, but not one of them would identify themselves as Legalist. That, actually, has traditionally been the way of many Confucians up to the early republic and those, though he didn’t name them, who are active today. “Confucianism” has often been Legalism with a human face, or just plain political opportunism. Its proponents didn’t “follow the Zhou”, they “follow[ed] the Qin”. They still don’t, according to Qin Hui.