Voting with Their Feet: How Early Ruism (Confucianism) Conceived of the Relationship Between the State and its Citizens


Among the five cardinal human relationships taught by Mencius (372-289 BCE), that of friendship is very special. Unlike the other human relationships, friendship is generally with people who are outside of the family, and it is also egalitarian. Considering that Ruist ethics is usually thought of as centering upon family and socio-political hierarchy, it may be a surprise to learn that Ruism actually places a human relationship which is neither familial nor hierarchical among the five most important ones!

What may seem even more surprising is that for Mencius and his Ru school, friendship is not only one of the five most important human relationships, but it is also the model for the relationship between the state and its citizens: "Friendship is the Way (Dao) between the ruler and his subjects" ("友, 君臣之道." - the Chu Bamboo Stripes in Guodian). In other words, just as people can freely choose their friends based upon their virtues and merits, the ruler of a state can also be chosen! Though the ruler could not, of course, have been chosen by ballot, something which was not available in the social context of Mencius' time, even so, Mencius highly recommended that people should vote with their feet! We can see this is the case from the following conversation between Mencius and King Xuan of Qi, which concerns the difference between two kinds of ministers:

The King Xuan of Qi asked about the ministers who are noble and relatives of a ruler. Mencius answered, "If the ruler has great faults, they ought to remonstrate against him, and if he does not listen to them after they have done so again and again, they ought to dethrone him." The king was stunned and changed his countenance. Mencius said, "Let not your Majesty be offended. You asked me, and I dare not answer but according to truth."

The king's countenance became composed, and he then asked about ministers who were of a different surname from the ruler. Mencius said, "When the ruler has faults, they ought to remonstrate against him; and if he does not listen to them after they have done this again and again, they ought to leave the state." (Mencius 5B)

Relying on this conversation and other related texts, we can summarize Mencius' view as follows: within an aristocratic monarchy, which was the prevalent form of government in the period of the Warring States (475-221 B.C.E), ministers should assist their ruler in being virtuous just as though they were exhorting a friend. Even so, if a ruler behaves really badly and refuses to be corrected, the senior members of his or her royal family should dethrone him or her, and ordinary ministers should leave the state. Ordinary people should also leave the state in order to look for a virtuous ruler. Such a virtuous ruler can then rally the support of a now larger population and thereby become capable of conquering the surrounding states, not with military arms but by applying moral charisma (德, de). This form of conquest and governance by virtue is extolled by Mencius as the Dao of a Sagely-King (王道, wang-dao), in contrast with the Dao of Hegemony (霸道, ba-dao), a lesser way of governance using deceit and violence, which most rulers of Mencius' time pursued. Quite obviously, the Dao of a Sagely-King is premised upon the co-government of a virtuous ruler and his meritorious ministers, and ultimately, can only be realized through the people's voluntary and warm endorsement of the ruler and his or her policies. Therefore, I believe that if Mencius were to be living in the 21st century, he would be delighted to find that since contemporary democracy guarantees the right of universal suffrage, people not only have the freedom to vote with their feet, but they can also vote with their ballots! Ballots are, I think, much closer to Mencius' ideal of living under the rule of the Dao of a Sagely-King than any of the polities of his own time.

Actually, in order to fully appreciate Mencius's idea about the interconnection between friendship and good government, we must put this idea in an historical context and understand that this view did not belong to Mencius alone. Instead, it speaks to the nature of the thought of Confucius (551-479 BCE), and to the nature of Ruism as a school of government.

Pre-Confucian China was a feudal empire. Its territory was enfeoffed by the sovereign king, the Son of Heaven, to various aristocratic families mainly in accordance with their pedigree connection to the king. In this feudal system, each rank in the government had its own back-up team for policy consultation and administrative support, which mainly consisted of the concerned dignitary's intimate family members. For example, the Son of Heaven had his team of dukes (公, gong), a prince had his team of high officers (卿, qing), and high officers had their 'side house' (侧室, ce-shi), etc. The lowest rank was called shi (士, scholarly-gentleman), and its back-up team was called you (友, friends). In this way, in the pre-Confucian feudal society, the term, 'friends,' mainly referred to members of an extended family or clan, and they were treated as the back-up team for this lowest governmental position of shi.

By Confucius's time, this arrangement was no longer the case. In the late Zhou period, a series of social crises had caused the sovereign king to gradually lose his authority, and princes became warlords (霸, ba), continually competing with one another for territory and power. The social consequence of this process was the diffusion of the class of shi (scholarly-gentlemen), and the corresponding change of reference for you (friend). Shi were no longer to be appointed from above depending upon their relationship to the emperor, and accordingly, the reference for you was no longer confined to one's own family clan. Instead, a shi could virtually be anybody as long as he or she was thought of by the state as being useful for its governance, and friends could virtually refer to any ordinary person as long as he or she was considered by anyone to be somewhat like-minded. Since virtually anyone could become the friend of a shi who, as they were in the lowest rank of government, might be promoted to high office, the original highly hierarchical relationship between ruler and subjects gathered momentum to become more equalized. In other words, a flattening trend of social egalitarianism became the historical context in which Ruism arose as a school.

Understood in this way, the earliest Ru community under the inspiration of Confucius was a community of friends. People of various backgrounds and social statuses came together because of a shared vision. They read foundational books, they practiced skills such as music, archery, charioteering and calligraphy, and they also performed various rituals. In other words, they tried to learn all the necessary expertise required for becoming a civilized human being who would be able to embody social norms and behave as a moral model for others. During this process, Confucius' group of Ru scholars maintained a relationship of friendship through mutual trust (信, xin) and common commitment. The cardinal responsibility for Ru friends was thus to urge one another to become better people(责善, ze-shan), and hence, 'to help one another to cultivate the virtue of humaneness' (辅仁, fu-ren, Analects 12:24). Ultimately, they would be trained as shi, serving in governments or local communities in order to help recover the earlier social order and bring about social harmony in a time of intense political turmoil and moral crisis. From the perspective of the five cardinal human relationships taught by Mencius, the role of Ru friends was to be seen as a back-up whose task was to urge one another to behave well in all the other human relationships.

After arriving at this point, we will feel no surprise when we read the teachings of Confucius, which were the basis for the ideas of Mencius. Confucius taught his students, and also his Ru friends, to serve in government, but only if the government was orderly enough to be serviceable, and to remain concealed if it was not (Analects, 8.13). Just as friends were to urge one another to do good, a minister should also remonstrate with his ruler if the ruler's intentions and actions were not good. However, if frequent remonstration failed to work, the minister ought to resign lest further engagement bring humiliation, just as friends ought to break off the friendship if frequent moral exhortations fail to take effect (Analects, 4.26). By Mencius' time, because the social collapse had gone deeper and further, these aspects of Confucius' earlier teachings had to be more explicitly expressed. As a result, the nature of the Ru school as a scholarly community aiming for a non-violent transformation of individuals, families, communities and states, became more explicit.

In a word, Ruism has its own distinctive vision of good governance. The Dao of a Sagely-King (王道, wang-dao) is based upon and leads to the formation of everyone's moral character. It is the result of trustworthy cooperation among all involved people, who are friends, and who use their virtues and merits to achieve a non-violent transformation of society. Once we have understood this, we can appreciate that Ruism has great value for contemporary democracy. A revisited Ru community will be more than helpful for improving the quality of democracy and bringing about social harmony, something still badly needed by our human societies.

Bin Song is active in the Facebook Group: "Ruism Discussion Group: Confucianism in America".