2017-08-10 18:43:11 UTC
I've been reading Sima Qian recently, about the transition from the Qin
to the Han dynasty in China. The Qin was a surprisingly short-lived
dynasty, which started well by unifying China after the Warring States
Period, and then went rapidly downhill after the first emperor died,
succumbing to Han two emperors and eight years later.
Sima Qian, as a good Confucian, attributes Qin's failure to the lack of
virtue of the emperors, though it's clear from his own account that Shi
Huangdi (the first emperor - the last two seem to have been quite
incompetent) was very serious about looking after his people, and wasn't
in any obvious way depraved in his personal life. There seems to be no
good reason why Qin shouldn't have lasted for several generations - the
Han lasted 400 years, so why not the Qin? Lets say that the Qin rulers
defeat the rebellions and last until 200 CE or so, bypassing the Han
The Qin obviously had a major effect on their neighbours, because
everyone except the Chinese themselves refers to the country by their
name; presumably if they'd lasted as long as the Han, the Chinese would
call themselves the Qin instead of the Han (the _country_ would still be
the 'Middle Kingdom', I suppose), but that's a minor matter.
What really interests me about this is that the Qin adopted the
philosophy of Legalism, as opposed to the Confucian philosophy adopted by
the Han. What would have been the effect of China having 400 of its
formative years following Legalism, rather than Confucianism? I suppose
Legalism would have become as entrenched as Confucianism did OTL, rather
than being vilified by the Confucians.
What I know about Legalism isn't much, but according to https://
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legalism_(Chinese_philosophy), it depended on a
view of human nature somewhat like Hobbes, combined with a Utilitarian
ethic, and a quest for objectivity in measuring the results of policies
and in not favouring some groups over others (anathema to Confucians,
that). OTL, the Confucians also vilified the Legalists for relying on
punishment to deter, rather than having the rulers set a good moral
example to the peasants (though even a slight acquaintance with Outlaws
of the Marsh (otherwise called The Water Margin) or Journey to the West
(Monkey) shows that OTL punishments under Confucianism were pretty harsh
as well, and not obviously just, in that they fell more on the poor than
In other words, Legalism looks to have similarities with British
philosophy of the early modern period, just before the IR. So one
possibility is that a Legalist China could make scientific and
technological advances on the same scale (they made a lot as it is),
relinquishing its advantage over other civilisations only on the
infrequent occasions when there's the upheaval of a change of dynasty.
On the other hand, Legalism definitely had a totalitarian and
centralising trend, and enhancing that (which was strong in China
anyway), might give us a China even more centralised and unable to adapt
to changing circumstances than OTL.
Any thoughts or comments?