Confusion Political Obligation: A Philosophical, Historical and Interview Study

Lee, Shu-Shan, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Klosko, George, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

My dissertation studies the philosophy, historical development and empirical relevance of Confucian conceptions of political obligation. While most scholars of Confucianism focus on the political duties of the elite, I examine the under-discussed passages concerning commoners’ political obedience to the ruler in classical and imperial Confucianism. Contrary to theorists who simply assume the profound impact of Confucianism on contemporary Chinese people’s ideas of political obligations, I conduct in-depth interviews to assess this assumption. My dissertation generates two important findings. First, I offer strong textual evidence to prove that it is an idea of paternalistic gratitude. To Confucians, the discharge of political obligation reflects commoners’ gratefulness to a benevolent state. Second, my in-depth interviews also challenge assumptions about the continuous and strong Confucian impact on contemporary China in terms of political obligations. Indeed, I discover its limited influence and find that the majority of my interviewees maintain that their political obligations arise from their voluntarily consenting to political authority. Since this pattern is consistent with evidence drawing from other empirical studies, I suggest that Chinese citizens’ belief in Confucian paternalistic gratitude and its associated perception of political helplessness will likely fade as time goes by. Findings from my dissertation are not only theoretically important but also politically relevant. To begin with, the dissertation offers one of the first systematic accounts of the Confucian political obligation, including its philosophy, historical development and contemporary relevance in China. In addition to this scholarly contribution, my dissertation is also political relevant. Recently, Confucianism has enjoyed a revival as an important aspect of the state ideology of China. Chinese political leaders frequently use Confucianism to construct a cultural shield against democratic pressure and argue that Chinese people value Confucian ethics instead of Western values. My empirical findings about Chinese people’s ideas of consent-based political obligation offer some critical evidence to counter the cultural rhetoric of Chinese leaders.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Confucian Political Obligation, Paternalistic Gratitude, Imperial Commentary on the Classic of Filial Piety, Imperial Grand Pronouncements, Amplified Instructions of the Sacred Edict, Interview Study in Qufu
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