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Government in China: Three Perspectives

Essay by review  •  October 17, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  2,429 Words (10 Pages)  •  1,071 Views

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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 one's 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 one's 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 Ð''1587', Huang notes the impact which Wan-Li's 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 Emperor's 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 Ð''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



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