Political Obligation in Imperial Confucianism: the Gratitude Argument

Shu-Shan Lee

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Many scholars argue that since the Han Emperor of Wu (漢武帝, r. 141-87 B.C.E.) adopted Confucianism as the state ideology “the officially reconstructed version of Confucianism had…ensured the indoctrination of the populace, transforming the people into docile subjects during the imperial era.” While this understanding is commonplace, it is not convincingly supported. The goal of this paper is to readdress the question of imperial Confucian political obligation; namely, the question of why people should obey the political authority according to imperial Confucianism. Briefly, the discussion is in three parts. In Section 2, I critically review scholarship which suggests that the imperial Confucian political obligation of the people (hereafter referred to as “Imperial Confucian POP”) is a doctrine of absolute obedience. In Sections 3, 4 and 5, I define the imperial Confucianism as what the emperors said it was to commoners. Following this definition, I select three critical cases for the present study. The three cases are the Imperial Commentary on the Classic of Filial Piety (御注孝經), the Imperial Grand Pronouncements (御制大誥), and the Amplified Instructions of the Sacred Edict (聖諭廣訓). Contrary to the popular notion of absolute obedience, the evidence strongly suggests that imperial Confucian POP is a theory of gratitude.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication24th International Political Science Association Annual Meeting
Place of PublicationPoznań, Poland
Number of pages32
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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