The first substantial encounter between East Asian and Western political theory took place in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. Drawing upon the translations and reports of Jesuit missionaries in China, Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire expressed deep admiration for Confucian moral and political philosophy. Confucian-inspired China was depicted as the model of rationality and just rule and it was held up as the mirror image of religious and superstitious European societies. The problem, however, is that there were strong elements of projection and wishful thinking in Enlightenment accounts of Confucian philosophy and its social and political circumstances.

It would only be a slight exaggeration to argue that the situation reversed itself in the century following the French revolution. European political thinkers from across the political spectrum pointed to Chinese thought and its political manifestations as the opposite of ‘‘progress.’’ As John Stuart Mill put it, ‘‘The greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete. This is the case over the whole East. Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal; justice and right mean conformity to custom; the argument of custom no one, unless some tyrant intoxicated with power, thinks of resisting’’ (Mill 1975, 87). China was still used to examine the political and philosophical inadequacies of Europe, but instead of pointing the road to the future, it served as a ‘‘warning example’’ (1975, 88).

The twentieth century finally presented an opportunity for more nuanced understandings of East Asian political thought. There were more cross-cultural exchanges: John Dewey and Bertrand Russell made lengthy visits to China in the 1920s, and they both expressed admiration for Chinese culture and argued for a synthesis of ‘‘East’’ and ‘‘West.’’ Translations of Eastern philosophies became more reliable, as did histories of East Asian societies. Yet few Western political theorists made serious efforts to learn from the traditions and experiences of East Asian societies.1 IndiVerence to East Asian political thought—more generally, to non-Western political theory—has been the blind spot of contemporary Western, especially Anglo-American, political theory. Recently published introductory texts in political theory pay no attention at all to political theories from the Confucian, Islamic, or Hindu traditions.

Fortunately, there has been increased recognition of the need to engage with non-Western political traditions during the past decade or so, with the discipline of cross-cultural or comparative political theory beginning to establish itself in Anglo-American academia (Dallmayr 2004). Leading periodicals in the field have called for more contributions that deal with non-Western thinkers and topics, and there have been more openings of late for jobs in comparative political theory. Two book series have been trying to address the deficit in English-language works in comparative political theory: Fred Dallmayr’s Global Encounters series in comparative political theory, published by Lexington Press, and the Ethikon Series in Comparative Ethics, published by Princeton University Press and Cambridge University Press.

Just as ‘‘the’’ Western political tradition is complex and composed of plural, occasionally inconsistent strands, so ‘‘the’’ East Asian political tradition is rich and varied, and many aspects of East Asian political theory have enriched, or have the potential to enrich, contemporary debates in Anglo-American political theory. For example, the thoughts of ancient Legalist thinkers such as Han Fei Zianticipated Machiavellian realpolitik and the ‘‘originality’’ of Machiavelli might not be so apparent seen in this comparative light (Moody 1979). Daoist antipathy to authoritarian controls can be compared to anarchist proposals for social order without coercion (Hall 1978). The Buddhist practices designed to dissolve the self can provide inspiration for Western liberals concerned with the question of how to motivate impartial justice, and the Buddhist ideal of compassion for all forms of life can bring insights to the moral and political theories of animal rights advocates.

The most influential East Asian political tradition is Confucianism (just as liberalism is the main plank of Western political theorizing), and this tradition, in particular, has been subject to increased scrutiny in contemporary Anglo-Ameri- can debates. Several recent books have compared Confucian political ideas with Western ideas of human rights, democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and just war (e.g. de Bary and Tu 1998; Hall and Ames 1999; Bell 2000; Chan and Liang 2002; Angle 2002; Peerenboom 2002; Bell and Hahm 2003; Ni 2003). In this chapter, I will try to show that two recent developments in contemporary Anglo- American political theory have allowed for substantial engagement with Confucian political theory and may set the stage for further interest in East Asian political theory more generally. One is the communitarian critique of liberal universalism and the other is the feminist emphasis on the politics of the family.


In the 1980s, communitarian critics of liberalism sought to deflate the universal pretensions of liberal theory (e.g. Walzer 1983), but they were less than successful at putting forward attractive visions of non-liberal societies appropriate for the modern world. They could score some theoretical points by urging liberal thinkers to be cautious about developing ‘‘universal’’ arguments founded exclusively on the moral argumentation and political experience of Western liberal societies, but few thinkers would really contemplate the possibility of non-liberal practices appropriate for the modern world so long as the alternatives to liberalism consisted of ancient Greek city-states, caste societies, fascism, or ‘‘actually-existing’’ communism. For the communitarian critique of liberal universalism to have any lasting credibility, thinkers needed to provide compelling counter-examples to modern-day liberal-democratic regimes—and 1980s communitarians came up short.

Awareness of a ‘‘communitarian’’ alternative to Western-style liberalism emerged from the East Asian region in the late 1980s. The economic success of East Asian countries became so conspicuous as to require explanation. The need for a new theoretical framework became all the more acute primarily because social scientists, both liberal and Marxist, failed to predict or explain the success of these family and community-oriented East Asian states with Confucian heritages while the Weberian thesis regarding the alleged incompatibility between Confucianism and capitalism rapidly lost credibility. 

Initially, those who found ‘‘communitarian Confucianism’’ to hold the secret to the region’s economic success and social stability were mostly Western scholars (e.g. Vogel 1991). Several Asian politicians, however, soon began to espouse the idea that ‘‘Asian values’’ underpinned the rapid industrialization of the region, with the apparent aim of celebrating Asian non-individualistic traditions and justifying constraints on the democratic process. Asians, they claim, place special emphasis upon family and social harmony, with the implication that those in the ‘‘chaotic and crumbling societies’’ of the West should think twice about intervening in Asia for the sake of promoting human rights and democracy. 

As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew put it, Asians have ‘‘little doubt that a society with communitarian values where the interests of society take precedence over that of the individual suits them better than the individualism of America’’ (Lee 1991). Such claims attracted international attention primarily because East Asian leaders seemed to be presiding over what a United Nations (UN) human development report called ‘‘the most sustained and widespread development miracle of the twentieth century, perhaps all history’’ (Crossette 1996). In 1997–8, however, the East Asian miracle seemed to have collapsed. And it looks like ‘‘Asian values’’ was one casualty of the crisis.

The political factors that focused attention on the ‘‘East Asian challenge’’ remain in place, however. East Asian economies have been recovering and relative to the rest of the world this region does not look badly on. China in particular looks set to become an economic and political heavyweight with the power seriously to challenge the hegemony of Western liberal democratic values in international forums. Thus, one hears frequent calls for cross-cultural dialogue between ‘‘the West’’ and ‘‘the East’’ designed to understand the other ‘‘side,’’ if only to avert misunderstandings and conflicts that might otherwise have been prevented.

From a theoretical point of view, however, it must be conceded that the social debate on Asian values has not provided much of a challenge to dominant Western political outlooks. The main problem is that the debate has been led by Asian leaders who seem to be motivated primarily by political considerations, rather than by a sincere desire to make a constructive contribution to the debate on feasible and desirable alternatives to Western-style politics and philosophy. Thus, it was easy to dismiss—rightly so, in most cases—the Asian challenge as nothing but a self-serving ploy by government leaders to justify their authoritarian rule in the face of increasing demands for democracy at home and abroad.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that nothing of theoretical significance has emerged from East Asia. The debate on Asian values has also prompted critical intellectuals in the region to reflect on how they can locate themselves in a debate on human rights and democracy in which they had not previously played a substantial part. Neither wholly rejecting nor wholly endorsing the values and practices ordinarily realized through a liberal democratic political regime, these intellectuals are drawing on their own cultural traditions and exploring areas of commonality and difference with the West. Although often less provocative than the views of their governments—in the sense that few argue for the wholesale rejection of Western-style liberal democracy with an East Asian alternative—these unofficial East Asian viewpoints may oVer more lasting contributions to the debate on ‘‘universalism’’ vs. ‘‘particularism’’ in contemporary political theory. 

Let me (briefly) note three relatively persuasive East Asian arguments2 for cultural particularism that contrasts with traditional Western arguments for liberal universalism:

1. Cultural factors can affect the prioritizing of rights, and this matters when rights conflict and it must be decided which one to sacrifice. In other words, diVerent societies may rank rights differently, and even if they face a similar set of disagreeable circumstances they may come to diVerent conclusions about the right that needs to be curtailed. For example, US citizens may be more willing to sacrifice a social or economic right in cases of conflict with a civil or political right: If neither the constitution nor a majority of democratically elected representatives supports universal access to health care, then the right to health care regardless of income can be curtailed.

In contrast, the Chinese may be more willing to sacrifice civil or political liberty in cases of conflict with a social or economic right: There may be wide support for restrictions on the right to form free labor associations if these are necessary to provide the conditions for economic development. different priorities assigned to rights can also matter when it must be decided how to spend scarce resources. For example, East Asian societies that take Confucian values seriously such as Korea and Taiwan place great emphasis on the value of education, and that may help to explain a large amount of spending on education compared to other societies with similar levels of economic development.

2. Cultural factors can affect the justification of rights. In line with the arguments of ‘‘1980s communitarians’’ such as Michael Walzer, it is argued that justifications for particular practices valued by Western-style liberal democrats should not be made by relying on the abstract and unhistorical universalism that often disables Western liberal democrats. Rather, they should be made from the inside, from specific examples and argumentative strategies that East Asians themselves use in everyday moral and political debate. For example, the moral language (shared even by some local critics of authoritarianism) tends to appeal to the value of community in East Asia (Wong 2004a, 34–9), which matters for social critics concerned with practical effect. One such ‘‘communitarian’’ argument is that democratic rights in East Asia can be justified on the grounds that they contribute to strengthening ties to such communities as the family and the nation (see Bell 2000, ch. 4).

3. Cultural factors can provide moral foundations for distinctive political practices and institutions (or at least different from those found in Western-style liberal democracies). In East Asian societies influenced by Confucianism, for example, it is widely held that children have a profound duty to care for elderly parents, a duty to be forsaken only in the most exceptional circumstances.3 In political practice, it means that East Asian governments have an obligation to provide the social and economic conditions that facilitate the realization of this duty.

Political debate tends to center on the question of whether the right to filial piety is best realized by means of a law that makes it mandatory for children to provide financial support for elderly parents—as in mainland China, Japan, and Singapore—or whether the state should rely more on indirect methods such as tax breaks and housing benefits that make at-home care for the elderly easier, as in Korea and Hong Kong. But the argument that there is a pressing need to secure this duty in East Asia is not a matter of political controversy.

Thinkers influenced by East Asian cultural traditions such as Confucianism have also argued for distinctive, as yet unrealized political practices and institutions that draw on widely-held cultural values for inspiration. For example, Korean scholars Hahm Chaihark and Mo Jongryn argue for the need to revive and adapt for the contemporary era such as Choson dynasty institutions as policy lectures and the Censorate, traditional institutions that played the role of educating and disciplining rulers of the day (Hahm 2003; Mo 2003).

In contrast to 1980s communitarian thinkers, East Asian critics of liberal universalism have succeeded in pointing to particular non-liberal values and practices that may be appropriate for the contemporary world. Some of these may be appropriate only for societies with a Confucian heritage, others may also oVer insights for mitigating the excesses of liberal individualism in the West.

Even defenders of universalism, however, have an interest in paying greater attention to East Asian political theory. By the late 1990s, fairly abstract methodological disputes over ‘‘universalism vs. particularism’’ faded from academic prominence, and the debate now centers on the theory and practice of human rights. Few theorists are opposed to the idea of universal human rights, but the dispute turns over how to improve the philosophical coherence and political appeal of human rights. For many East Asian intellectuals and social critics, it is important to engage with East Asian traditions and empirical realities to make human rights truly universal. Consider Joseph Chan’s proposal:

There are at least two main intellectual approaches to justifying universal human rights. The first, and more traditional approach is to show that there are universal values and moral principles which can justify human rights to all reasonable persons. The second approach tries to seek consensus on human rights from cultural perspectives. It encourages diVerent cultures to justify human rights in their own terms and perspectives, in the hope that an ‘‘overlapping consensus’’ on the norms of human rights may emerge from self-searching exercises as well as common dialogue. I shall call the first approach the ‘‘fundamentalist’’ approach and the second ‘‘ecumenical.’’

Chan then goes on to test the ‘‘ecumenical’’ approach by examining the case of Confucianism, arguing that key elements of Confucianism are compatible with the idea of human rights, although Confucians might have their own understandings about the justification, scope, and prioritization of human rights.

Charles Taylor, following an extended period of study in Thailand with Buddhist practitioners and thinkers, has put forward a similar proposal for establishing an unforced, cross-cultural consensus on human rights (Taylor 1999). He imagines a cross-cultural dialogue between representatives of diVer- ent traditions. Rather than argue for the universal validity of their views, however, he suggests that participants should allow for the possibility that their own beliefs may be mistaken. This way, participants can learn from each other’s ‘‘moral universe’’. There will come a point, however, when diVerences cannot be reconciled.

Taylor explicitly recognizes that diVerent groups, countries, religious communities, and civilizations hold incompatible fundamental views on theology, metaphysics, and human nature. In response, Taylor argues that a ‘‘genuine, unforced consensus’’ on human rights norms is possible only if we allow for disagreement on the ultimate justifications of those norms. Instead of defending contested foundational values when we encounter points of resistance (and thus condemning the values we do not like in other societies), we should try to abstract from those beliefs for the purpose of working out an ‘‘overlapping consensus’’ of human rights norms. As Taylor puts it, ‘‘we would agree on the norms while disagreeing on why they were the right norms, and we would be content to live in this consensus, undisturbed by the diVerences of profound underlying belief ’’ (Taylor 1999, 124).

While such proposals for cross-cultural dialogue move the debate on universal human rights forward, they still face certain difficulties. For one thing, it may not be realistic to expect that people will be willing to abstract from the values they care deeply about during the course of a global dialogue on human rights. Even if people agree to abstract from culturally specific ways of justifying and implementing norms, the likely outcome is a withdrawal to a highly general, abstract realm of agreement that fails to resolve actual disputes over contested rights. For example, participants in a cross-cultural dialogue can agree on the right to democracy, while radically dis- agreeing upon what this means in practice—a Singaporean social may argue that competitive elections are sufficient, whereas a Western liberal will want to argue that ‘‘meaningful elections’’ must be accompanied by the freedoms of speech and association.

To summarize, the distinctive East Asian contribution has been to cast doubt on ‘‘universal’’ theories grounded exclusively in the liberal moralities of the Western world, on the grounds that cultural particularity should make one sensitive both to the possibility of justifiable areas of difference between ‘‘the West’’ and ‘‘the rest’’ and to the need for more cross-cultural dialogue for the purpose of achieving genuine, unforced consensus on human rights. The next step, in my view, would be to take up this ‘‘East Asian challenge’’ to liberal ‘‘universalism,’’ with the aim of developing feasible and desirable political theories appropriate for the East Asian region as well as embarking on sustained cross-cultural dialogue to develop theories of more universal scope with substantive content.


The history of Western ethics, until recently, is the history of valuing duties, obligations, and activities outside of the family. Socrates neglected his children to concentrate on philosophizing and public service, and it was a short step from there to Plato’s proposal that the family should be abolished so that rulers could devote themselves wholly to the service of the community, unmoved by the distracting loyalties and affections of the family system.

Aristotle objected to Plato’s argument on the grounds that abolishing the family, rather than ensuring impartial and equal concern for all citizens, will ensure that nobody cares strongly about anything—but he still held that the good lies outside the family structure, in the political sphere. Christian thinkers typically endorsed the Aristotelian view that the family is a necessary condition for social production and reproduction, but the good life lies in the ‘‘City of God,’’ where just rewards are handed to all those deserving to be in paradise and the focus of attention is the soul’s relationship with God, not relationships between particular family members. 

Traditional liberal thinkers further enshrined the devaluation of the ‘‘private.’’ In fact, it is diYcult to find any arguments in the Western canon that obligations to the family matter as much as public or spiritual duties. Those who addressed the issue tended to explicitly argue in favor of the opposite: The English thinker William Godwin (1756–1836), who believed that only social utility could be justly employed to adjudicate between the competing claims of individuals, provided the notorious example of someone being morally compelled to save Archbishop Fenelon from a burning room instead of a common chambermaid (a being of less social worth than the Archbishop), even supposing that the chambermaid had been the rescuer’s mother.

One great contribution of feminist theory has been its focus on the family as an actual or potential source of virtue. Far from being a secondary ‘‘private’’ sphere, what happens within the structure of the family has a great impact on human well-being. It also impacts on what happens in other spheres, and largely explains the subordination of women in economic and political life. So long as women are treated as subordinate within the family, and denied the equal opportunity to develop their talents, they will be subordinate outside the family as well. Hence the feminist slogan, ‘‘the personal is the political.’’

The impact of feminist theory on Western ethics and practice is perhaps the most dramatic development in contemporary Western political theory. Few political thinkers in Western societies question the need to treat women as equals within the family and to structure society so as to allow for women’s equality in diVerent realms. Still, there remain many disputes and questions regarding the role of the family in promoting human well-being, the implications of the various family practices for women’s interests outside the family, and the kinds of public policies that best encourage healthy family life and the overall well-being of women and children. As a result, some Western political theorists, including feminist theorists, have looked to East Asian political theories, Confucianism in particular, for inspiration.

On the face of it, the relevance of Confucianism for contemporary Western theorizing about the family that largely takes for granted the equality of men and women might seem questionable. A basic assumption of Confucian ethics is that the moral life is only possible in the context of particularistic moral ties, and the most important relationship by far in Confucian ethics is the family. Here the contrast with traditional Western ethics is most stark. The problem, however, is that the domination of men over women seems to be one of the defining characteristics of Confucian theory and practice—one might even say that patriarchy is the ‘‘Achilles heel’’ of Confucianism.

In response, several theorists have argued that one can and should detach Confucian values from patriarchal values and practices. Unlike, say, Aristotle, early Confucian thinkers such as Confucius and Mencius did not argue for the biological inferiority of women. Their views regarding the subordinate roles of women can be ascribed to the prejudices of the time and the central values of Confucianism, properly interpreted, can and do meet the challenge of including women as fully human subjects (Chan, S. 2000, 2003). Others argue the Analects of Confucius and other Warring States and Han narratives did represent women as having the same virtues as men (Raphals 1998; Raphals 2000) and that Confucianism became oppressive to women at a later stage. 

In practice, there was a role, particularly among the elite class in Early Imperial China, for women’s moral and personal growth in societies shaped by Confucian values (Li 2000; Nylan 2000). In contemporary societies, the traditional family duties defended by Confucian thinkers as key to the good life can be carried out by men as well as women, as in the increased tendency of fathers to care for children and elderly parents in urban Chinese cities. Hence, political theorists can seek inspiration from Confucianism for theorizing about the family and justice, without necessarily having to justify patriarchal values and ways of life.

Let me note (briefly) some of the actual and potential Confucian contributions to the debate on the family and justice:

I. The family as an educative institution. Few Western theorists paid much attention to the family as an actual or potential source of virtue until Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill critically discussed the subordination of women within the family context and speculated about the function of a radically restructured egalitarian family (Wollestonecraft 1975; Mill 1975b). Such liberal feminists, however, diVer from Confucians in two respects. 

First, they argue that there is an immense gap between the actually-existing family, the ‘‘school of despotism,’’ and the family as it ought to be, the ‘‘school of the virtues of freedom and equality.’’ Susan Moller Okin argues that reform of the family requires nothing less than a situation where ‘‘one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes’’ (Okin 1989, 181); that is, members of the family would have no sense of being either male or female. 

As noted above, several contemporary Confucians have sought to meet the challenge of regarding women as men’s equals, but they still find more value in actually-existing families than feminists of the Okin mode, similar to feminist ‘‘care theorists’’ who place special value upon particular relationships and obligations within the family while criticizing the devaluation of family duties by a male-dominated culture (Li 1994).

Secondly, whereas feminists tend to think of the family as an educative institution for children (Okin 1989, 17–23), Confucians focus on the family as an educative institution for adults (Schwartz 1985, 101). That is, human beings learn such virtues as responsibility and self-sacrificing love not just qua children learn from adults, but also—especially—qua adults caring for elderly parents. It is the focus on filial piety, ‘‘the essential way of learning to be human’’ (Tu 1989, 13), that explains in large part the Confucian stress on the family as an educative institution, an emphasis that can enrich feminist debates on the family’s (potential) role in transmitting (desirable) morality.

II. The family as a political institution. Confucians share the feminist view that attitudes and behaviors within the family context have implications not just for personal ethics and everyday social life, but also for politics. Once again, however, there is a difference in emphasis that may allow for mutual learning. According to Confucius, ‘‘Those who have a sense of filial and fraternal responsibility rarely have a taste for defying authority’’ (Confucius 1998, bk. 1.2). This might seem to be an endorsement of the family as the ‘‘school of despotism’’ model, but it is primarily an argument about motivation: the practice of other-regarding behavior within the family provides the main psychological basis for other-regarding behavior outside the family. Confucianism may oVer resources, both ethical and practical, for guiding the expansion of concern from the family to citizens and strangers (Chong, Tan, and Ten 2003; Lee 2000).

Political rulers also learn their morality within the family. In a dialogue with King Xuan of Qi, Mencius oVers the following advice to the ruler: ‘‘Treat your elders in a way befitting their venerable age and extend this treatment to the aged of other families; treat your young in a way befitting their tender age and extend this treatment to the young of other families. The whole world can then be rolled in your palm’’ (Mencius 1984, 1A.7).4 The point here is not that rulers should treat strangers as they treat family members, but rather that they learn the dispositions and habits that underpin the benign exercise of power within the family (Schwartz 1985, 70; de Bary 1989, 17) and that the exercise of such power is the key to long-term political success.

III. Obligations to the family cannot be overridden by public obligations. In traditional liberal theory, as noted above, obligations to the family should be subordinate to public obligations. Contemporary liberals, perhaps due to the influence of feminist theory, typically recognize the importance of special ties to loved ones and seek to develop theories that allow for both particularistic ties and impartial justice, ideally providing some guidance in cases of conflict. Brian Barry’s book Justice as Impartiality is an influential recent attempt to spell out a moral theory that provides support for both particularistic ties and impartial justice. His argument is that ‘‘justice as impartiality’’ comes first, in the sense that where it applies, it should have priority. Where it does not, then individuals can fulfill their particularistic duties (Barry 1995, 250).

Confucians would reject any sort of a priori commitment to public obligations, even of the sort Barry endorses. In cases of conflict, the traditional Confucian view is that family duties should outweigh all other obligations. In fact, Confucius went so far as to argue that the care owed to elderly parents might even justify breaking the law:

The Governor of She told Confucius, ‘‘In my country, there is a man called Upright Kung. When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities.’’ Confucius said, ‘‘In my country, the upright men are diVerent from this. A father covers for his son, and a son covers for his father. Uprightness lies in this.’’ 

On the face of it, this sort of idea seems far removed from contemporary moral outlooks. However, it is diYcult otherwise to make ethical sense of such practices as immunity that protects spouses from testifying against each other in court. At some level, it is recognized that public obligations cannot always override particularist obligations to loved ones.

Even political leaders, who have the explicit mandate of caring for the people (strangers), cannot forsake obligations to family members, particularly those owed to elderly parents:

Tao Ying asked, ‘‘When Shun was Emperor [Sage-King] and Kao Yao was the judge, and if the Blind Man [Emperor Shun’s father] killed a man, what was to be done?’’ Mencius said, ‘‘The only thing to do was to apprehend him.’’

‘‘Wouldn’t Shun try to prevent this?’’

‘‘How could Shun prevent this? Kao Yao had the authority for what he did.’’ ‘‘Then what would Shun have done?’’

‘‘Shun looked upon casting aside the Empire as no more than discarding a worn shoe. He would have secretly carried the old man on his back and fled to the edge of the Sea and lived there happily, completely forgetting about the Empire.’’ (Mencius 1984, 7A.35)

This sort of view underpinned the law in Imperial China that punished bureaucrats if they failed to retire from public service for at least two years to mourn the death of a parent (Baker 1979, 102). Mencius, however, does not simply mean to arm the supreme importance of filial piety for rulers. In fact, it may be somewhat misleading to use the language of some obligations ‘‘trumping’’ others. Mencius invokes stories of this sort to illustrate the need for context-sensitive ways of dealing with plural values in conflict (Wong 2004b), similar to the feminist care-ethics emphasis on contextual thinking. More concretely, the point of Shun’s story may be that public officials should resign from their posts if family members committed serious crimes (for one thing, they would have lost much of their moral authority, and governing would be more difficult). The ruler need not, and should not, completely forsake family obligations or grant some sort of ‘‘lexical priority’’ to public ones.

IV. Politics for the family. One of the features of contemporary East Asian societies such as Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong is that they have modernized while maintaining stable family structures relative to most Western societies. Partly, this may be due to a shared Confucian heritage that places more emphasis upon nourishing relationships within the family and less on the individual pursuit of happiness and the assertion of interests that conflict with those of loved ones. Pro-family public policies, however, may also have played a role.

Historically, these policies have served to buttress patriarchal rule but more recent policies need not be antithetical to women’s interests. Recent reforms of marriage law in China, for example, negotiate between conflicting commitments to gender equality and respect for plural ways of life as well as showing Confucian concern for families and a willingness to use the state to support them (Wong 2004b). Lusina Ho has argued that laws of succession in China were influenced by Confucian family values, and she develops a model of a law of succession with a Confucian foundation that can be accommodated with an egalitarian Western legal framework (Ho 2003).

To summarize: The history of Western ethics has largely devalued the family, with the exception of feminist theories that have highlighted the importance of restructured families for promoting women’s equality in and out of the family. The history of East Asian ethics, to (over-)simplify, is almost the opposite. It has armed the human capacity for relationship, with the family at the center, but the great blind spot of Confucianism has been its lack of theorizing regarding the impact of family structures on the well-being of women. Recent formulations of Confucianism have attempted to remedy this blind spot, and have therefore allowed for an engagement between feminist theory and Confucian ethics.


This chapter has not been an attempt to provide a balanced or comprehensive survey of Confucian thought, much less East Asian political theory. Rather, I have focused on selected aspects of Confucianism that have enriched, or have the potential to enrich, contemporary debates in Anglo-American political theory. I have argued that recent debates in Anglo-American political theory have allowed for substantial engagement with Confucianism. Such engagement also points to some of the more general benefits of cross-cultural political theorizing.

The debates on universalism and human rights point to the possibility of moving toward a more genuine universalism, one founded on an understanding of and engagement between diVerent ethical and political traditions, as opposed to the spurious ‘‘universality’’ traditionally claimed by the Western canon that ignores contributions by non-Western thinkers. In areas where universality is not possible, these debates point to the possibility of genuine respect for ways of life that give priority to diVerent goods, teaching us about the diversity and richness of human cultures and the harm done when seeking to implement one single moral and political ideal in all times and places. 

The debates on the family and justice point to the possibility of learning about one’s own unexamined assumptions and hidden social problems from contrasting theories and ways of life, thus allowing for moral and political progress. Most of my discussion has centered on aspects of Confucianism, but other aspects of Confucianism such as the emphasis placed on the moral and intellectual quality of rulers and the importance of material well-being (Bell 2006), as well as (occasionally competing) East Asian ethical systems and political theories such as Legalism, Buddhism, and Taoism, may also contain ethical and intellectual resources with the potential similarly to enrich contemporary debates in Western political theory (Kupperman 1999).

Whatever the benefits of comparative political theory, it is worth noting the potential pitfalls of the enterprise. The most obvious sin is assimilating another tradition to one’s own by unreflectively importing assumptions and agendas into one’s reading of that other tradition. Alternatively, that dis- sending from the main trends of their own tradition can look to an alternative tradition that ‘‘got it right,’’ leading to idealizing of that tradition and ignoring its drawbacks. These dangers can be recognized but are not easily avoided, because productive engagement requires detailed knowledge of the other tradition (Wong 2001). In the case of East Asian traditions, it requires knowledge of difficult languages and societies far removed from one’s own.

Still, the fact that political theorists in East Asia have not been paralyzed by such challenges oVers reason for hope. Since the late nineteenth century, the dominant trend has been to recognize (and act upon) the importance of learning from Western political theories and practices. The early days of engagement tended to swing widely between the uncritical embrace of Western political thought and totalizing hostility, but more nuanced understandings of Western theories have emerged in the post-Second World War era. 

The works of Western theorists have been widely translated, discussed, taught, and compared by East Asian theorists. Today, most political theorists in China, Japan, and Korea can and do read at least one foreign language (usually English) and draw on Western works for teaching and research purposes. It is almost inconceivable for an East Asian political theorist today to write as though his or her tradition has developed in isolation from other traditions or to engage in crude idealizations or condemnations of the Western ‘‘other.’’ As Anglo-American political theorists come to appreciate further the benefits of comparative political study, they will also be willing to engage in the hard work that is necessary to overcome its pitfalls.

Previous Post Next Post