The model of the grand worship for the emperor by the ministers on the first day of the first lunar month in the Tang dynasty (唐代) exhibited in the museum of the Daming Palace National Heritage Park (大明宮遺址公園) in Xi’an (西安). (Photo credit: Fotoe)

The Chinese nation has formed a profound political tradition in its thousands of years of history. The political development of ancient China experienced several stages, including the origin of Confucian political thought, the concept of Tiandao (天道, the way of heaven), the concept of Jian Tianxia (家天下, the family ruling the state), monarchical centralisation, the formation of bureaucratic system, and the governing philosophy of Huang-Lao Thought (黄老思想). They all have a far-reaching impact on later generations.

The Duke of Zhou Ji Dan (姬旦) in the Zhou dynasty (周代) can be regarded as the first thinker in Chinese history to systematically put forward his political views and establish the initial appearance of Chinese traditional politics and law. He advocated respecting morality, protecting the people, and carefully using punishment. He argued that rulers should attach importance to their own moral cultivation, follow the standards set by heaven, and govern the country with great caution. The way to protect the people was to be diligent in government affairs and care for the people, to achieve excellent governance, to be keenly observant, and to administer rewards and punishments fairly. His governing philosophy was inherited by Confucius, who then developed it into the Confucian political thought of “governing the country by virtue”.

The two highly respected ancient political orientations were “governing the country by virtue” advocated by Confucianism and “governing the country by law” by the Legalism. The idea of “governing the country by virtue” means that the ruler should respect his ministers, care for the people, oppose wars, and pursue to convince the ruled with virtue. This is a belief in the inherent goodness of human nature with an idealistic vision. Meanwhile, the idea of “governing the country by law” believed that humans are born evil, and the ruler must use laws and wars to control them and restrain their behaviour. The virtue-based political idea of Confucianism is advantageous in winning people’s support and creating a harmonious social atmosphere, while the law-based political idea of legalism is conducive for enhancing national strength and achieving remarkable governance.


Ancient people held a reverent attitude towards heaven for their limited knowledge about astronomical phenomena. They anthropomorphised it, believing that it could judge merits and demerits and administer rewards and punishments. This concept was known as Tiandao, an important part of ancient Chinese political thought. It emerged as early as the Shang dynasty (商代), where the monarch was responsible for divination and interpret its connotation, thus gaining political domination. The rulers often took advantage of the will and power of heaven to maintain their authority.


All dynasties were ruled by the concept of Tianxia (天下, all under heaven) since ancient China lacked a clear concept of “the state”. The concept of Tianxia originated in the pre-Qin period (先秦) when “Tianxia” was defined as “the land of the ruler”. The concept of Jia Tianxia was formed under the moral concept of Confucianism. It empowered the monarch with supreme authority, and the state and all under heaven were equivalent to the monarch’s family and his private property. The monarch centralised all power and governed the state according to his personal preference, which determined the rise and fall of a country and led to various disadvantages.

Huang-Lao Thought and the non-interference governance were derived from the Taoism of Laozi (老子). Absorbing the Taoism of Laozi, Huang-Lao Thought originated in the mid-Warring States period (around the fourth century BCE) in the name of the Yellow Emperor. This doctrine believed that the ruler himself must achieve the state of “emptiness” and “stillness” to judge the nature of things objectively and tell right from wrong. It advocated for legislation and governance based on the principles of Taoism and affirmed the social role of moral norms. However, non-interference governance often arose in the early period of a new regime when the people’s livelihoods was in a state of decay to allow a gradual recovery of the social order and economy.

The ancient monarch-minister relationship differed from dynasty to dynasty, but generally speaking, it was one of monarchical authority and ministerial obedience. Monarchical centralisation was favoured by many rulers since the Qin dynasty. In the Han dynasty (漢代), an ethical norm regarding the ruler guiding the ministers was established to define the subordinate position of the latter. In the Tang dynasty (唐代), ministers could sit when discussing government affairs with the monarch; while in the Song dynasty (宋代), the monarch’s granting a seat to a minister became a special favour. In the Ming dynasty (明代), ministers had to kneel in front of the monarch. In the Qing dynasty (清代), officials were required to perform the ritual of three kneels and nine kowtows, and refer themselves as servants.

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