The Use of Force: A Confucian View

He who lives by force must use his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle, and in doing so he inevitably inflicts great injury upon the people of other states. If he inflicts great injury on the people of other states, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow more eager to fight against him. Moreover, he who uses his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle must inevitably inflict great injury on his own people as well. If he inflicts great injury upon his own people, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow less eager to fight his battles. With the people of other states growing daily more eager to fight against him, and his own people growing daily less eager to fight in his defense, the ruler who relies upon strength will on the contrary be reduced to weakness. He acquires territory but loses the support of his people; his worries increase while his accomplishments dwindle. He finds himself with more and more cities to guard and less and less of the means to guard them with; thus in time the great state will on the contrary be stripped down in this way to insignificance. The other feudal lords never cease to eye him with hatred and to dream of revenge; never do they forget their enmity. They spy out his weak points and take advantage of his defects, so that he lives in constant peril.  (Hsün Tzu, tr. Watson, pp.39-40)

Xunzi is no pacifist, but here he gives a beautiful and lucid analysis of the consequences of depending upon violence to gain one’s ends. In one paragraph he reveals the self-destruction intrinsic to the violent mindset. The power of this account lies in its long view of a causal chain, both for the aggressor and for the victim. Inevitably, situations never stay the same, and when they change it is according to a predictable pattern. In taking any significant action, an intelligent person will first think out the probable consequences, and these tend to follow typical patterns. Xunzi’s exposition is general enough to apply to military conquest in all times and places, but it extends to any kind of “use of force”: in politics, where the stronger of two parties simply imposes its will in the other; in economics, where one company eats up another or forces it out of business; in relationships, where one partner consistently forces the other to do her bidding. Any human action has its cost, but we see again and again how a habitual reliance on force will eventually backfire. The only exception to this is in the world of sports, where the stronger and more skilled players can simply win and leave the arena with a clear victory; in real life, on the other hand, there is no departure from the arena, and no definitive defeat or victory. Most people who live by the sword live by the delusion that there can be a definitive act of violence. One implication of Xunzi’s paragraph is that if we decide to use force, we should also have decided to accept the consequences. 

   Confucians are often criticized for their idealistic naïveté about people, and for being too soft and squeamish in the hard world of real politics; but Xunzi turns the criticism around by suggesting that the warmonger always bites off far more than he can chew, and will perish from his indigestion.

One who truly understands how to use force does not rely upon force. (40)


2 thoughts on “The Use of Force: A Confucian View”

  1. Krishnan,

    This is a fantastic topic but even one difficult for me to understand and which I think Westerners will never understand (they see China as a global threat!) and which is the reason why China ‘brainwashed’ by its ancient Taoist/Confucianism philosophers will never invade a country or people that it does not consider Chinese, as in the ‘Middle Kingdom’, whatever that entails or depicts, whether as a matter of physiognomy or affinity of tradition and culture.

    Confucius in terms of public administration, i.e.rather than warfare, was not against punishment for wrongdoing. Mencius, again in terms of public administration, is probably softer than Confucius, in his idea of punishment by moral persuasion, sort of ‘rehabilitation’ in the modern context. But I like Xunzi’s practical and pragmatic approach of meting out justice to meet the degree or quality of the crime – his sense of using force in ‘harmony’ with the occasion. It is in this sense that complying with rites and rituals and persuasion and a verbal reprimand or even a prison sentence be tried first that one must understand Xunzi’s “One who truly understands how to use force does not rely upon force. (40)”, i.e. apply physical coercion only as a last resort. Maybe torture even, as a last resort? I wonder.

    Of course, when it comes to warfare itself SunTzu himself was not into warfare as such, as in the invasion or conquest of a foreign people or country, i.e. outside the scope of ‘civil’ war within the Middle Kingdom, between or amongst the same stock of people, and essentially this came down to indigenous Chinese v Chinese tribal land warfare. Otherwise his book on ‘battle’ strategy (in my view, it was and can never be about geopolitical ‘war’ strategy) would be nonsense, particularly that part about not aiming for a total annihilative victory, and allowing the enemy a chance to escape to redeem himself, which can only make sense when you are Chinese fighting Chinese, fighting with your own kind, not ‘foreign devils’.



  2. Krishnan,

    I forgot to mention that the Chinese consider their Nation as a People Civilisation i.e. without the sense of geographical boundaries but rather as a cultural boundary or bond of people identifying themselves with their indigenous land like the Red Indians did in America – 中国 (Zhongguo) or Middle State – but not State as in Nation geographically but State as people of a common calling, identification and tradition and culture. This identity of People of the Zhong first arose during the Zhou Dynasty during the Spring and Autumn Annals period of our ancient Taoist/Confucian philosophers, and their philosophy of the Tao of Mother Nature, and of course epitomised in Confucius’s – The Doctrine of the Mean 中庸 (Zhongyong).

    So, 中国 (Zhongguo), the Middle Kingdom has nothing to do with Nationalistic pride or arrogance of being Chinese or of being superior or of wishing to dominate or control the world geopolitically. In fact we Chinese, like the Jews, could not care a stuff whether others like to eat with chopsticks or pray with joss-sticks or do exercise passively as in taiqichuan or write letters in hieroglyphics. We are are people founded on the Zhong of Mother Nature. That is why, despite all the Sinophobia generated by the U.S., China has no colonialist or imperialist interest in other people or their land, for they are not the people or land comprised in 中国 (Zhongguo), the Middle Kingdom.


    Liked by 1 person

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