How Asian societies’ premodern traits explain region’s success stories
- Asian societies differ from the West in their commitment to academic excellence and social solidarity as well as synergy between state and society
- A meritocratic system informed by Confucianism and Legalism is highly effective at regulating political order, socioeconomic affairs and interstate relations
Interest in the re-emergence of Asia has grown strong of late. It is important to remember that many elements that are seen as strengths of Asian governments and Asian society have historical origins.
Some of these strengths of the Asian state and society have historical origins. The Zhou dynasty was one defining period in Asian history. According to a recent study by sociologist Zhao Dingxin of the University of Chicago and Zhejiang University, some of the most essential characteristics of the Asian state and society were formed during this period.
This puts strong moral demands on the state, which exists only for the purpose of bringing a better life to the people and caring for them. The “mandate of heaven” comes with the moral requirement to care for the people and will be taken away if the state fails to be upright.
Call it minben-ism – people as the base, or foundation, compared to the state and the ruler. Asian states therefore assume the heavy responsibility to be morally impeccable. It is a kind of Confucian perfectionism, as argued by Hong Kong-based scholar Joseph C.W. Chan.
Adopting the institutional building proposals of the Legalist school, the Qin dynasty was able to eliminate all other states on the East Asian mainland by 221BC.
In a perfect world, the two schools should work together. Confucianism requires a benevolent, people-serving state and the people to be good citizens, while Legalism gives practical ways – organisational and institutional – that made it possible to realise these ideals.
This meritocratic system, which Zhao calls the “Confucian-Legalist state” and Daniel Bell and Wang Pei call “just hierarchy”, proved highly effective at producing political order, managing socioeconomic affairs and regulating interstate relations.
A society of states formed in East Asia. It was rarely a system of military competition and dominance, but rather a kind of ordering according to the virtue of the member states in system, i.e. states competed in their ability to provide good and prosperous life to their people, and the less able units submitted their status to the more able ones.
As noted by University of Southern California academic David Kang, the Asian society of states enjoyed long periods of peace and interstate commercial and cultural exchanges. The five hundred years between the founding of the Ming dynasty in 1368 and the outbreak of the first opium war was such a period. It was a system of peace and trade until it was upset by Western colonial powers.
This tradition of a competent, benevolent state has played a significant role in modern times. The Japanese developmental state, typified by its Ministry of International Trade and Industry, is a famous example.
Comparing the last half-century in Asia with the Qin and Han periods, one can see a few shared characteristics. Asian states have taken these characteristics with them in their interactions with other countries around the world. In working with developing countries in other parts of the world, East Asian countries’ development aid or development collaboration model appears different from those of the West.
It is therefore essential we try to understand contemporary Asia by going back to its premodern traits. Exploring how Asian societies and states conceptualised and practised important ideas such as political power, good government, peace and harmony, among others, will be highly profitable for the modern world.
Dr Zhengxu Wang is distinguished professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA), Fudan University