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Rural governance in ancient China provides reference for today

ZHAO XIULING | 2020-09-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

At an ancestral hall in Kangtou Village, Shanggao County, Jiangxi Province, a teacher tells the story of how Mother Meng relocated three times to provide an ideal location for Mencius to focus on his study. Photo: XINHUA

For a long time, the study of rural governance in ancient China has been overlooked. Critical misunderstandings in the development of urbanization, the overwhelming influence of Western governance concepts, and the one-sided interpretation of modernity have overpowered this ancestral knowledge. Once we break the shackles of established governance norms and examine them with historical vision and perspective, we will find that rural governance in ancient China is far from obsolete, rather it offers valuable reference for today. 
In ancient times, family education, family values, family instructions and family relations were of primary significance in rural governance. Elite governance was also prominent in ancient rural China, and it served as a solid guarantee for the stability and development of teams of local officials. In addition, dependence on an informal system was an intrinsic characteristic of rural governance in China, and it was also an important support and supplement for the formal village governance system. Finally, the mutual help of villagers, particularly in adversity, demonstrates the inner driving force of an acquaintance society in a rural setting.
It is worth noting that an emphasis on the importance of rural governance experience in ancient China is not equivalent to calling for a return to the past. The path ahead lies in carrying on modernization while inheriting the experience of ancient Chinese rural governance.
Morality, self-rule and law
A key part of rural governance is to establish a structural framework of rule by virtue, self-rule and rule of law. At present, rural governance in China puts greater emphasis on the rule of law, and it has made remarkable achievements. However, there is a tendency toward Westernization, which needs to be monitored with caution. 
Some scholars believe that China’s contemporary formal legal system is largely influenced by the West, both in theory and practice, though there are still many differences between Chinese law and Western law. With this in mind, China’s path to the rule of law must include local resources and respect the tradition and reality of China’s legal culture. In particular, we can draw lessons from the power of morality and self-rule in ancient Chinese rural governance to construct a modern version of rule by virtue, self-rule and rule of law, before critically incorporating Western legal influences, in order to avoid crafting a governance model that is too Westernized.
Specifically, we should first prioritize moral governance in rural areas. Also, when emphasizing self-rule in ancient China, we need to remain open-minded and be innovative when learning from Western concepts of self-governance. Historically, self-rule in China often meant letting things run their course as they were, with emotional judgements taking the lead, which has the advantage of avoiding limitations of Western formalism and achieving a kind of self-sufficiency and flexible governance.
However, the biggest downside of this kind of self-rule is isolation, rigidity and habitual thinking, which would be improved by absorbing principle-based Western governance and its spirit of openness. A balanced and interactive relationship should be established between natural and rational self-rule.
In addition, a scientific and healthy relationship between self-rule, rule by virtue and rule of law should be built, to achieve innovative and good governance. At present, there is a dilemma in rural governance: Some argue for rule of law, others call for rule by virtue, whereas the rest want self-rule. 
In fact, in the Chinese countryside, all of the three are indispensable, but none can dominate. A scientific approach should let rule by virtue take the lead—within the boundary of rule of law—but it has to be open, inclusive and innovative. The rule of law is a guarantee, especially when social networking is everywhere, it is firm as a rock.
In summary, good governance in rural areas should be based on the following principles: Everything is for the sake of the people, for the all-around development of humanity, and for the full realization of China’s core values of prosperity, democracy, civilization and socialism.
Individual, family and society
The future direction of rural governance lies in correctly comprehending the dialectical relationship between the individual, family, society, the nation and human beings. Confucian doctrine advocates “cultivating oneself,” “regulating one’s family well,” “governing the state properly” and “bringing peace to all under heaven.” This process is a fundamental theme in Confucian moral philosophy and political discourse. It depicts a gradually expanding process beginning with the individual and emanating outward into serving and benefiting an ever-larger whole. 
Under its influence, the Chinese strongly believed that “the fame and fate of a family and clan come before that of an individual.” Therefore, the identity of individuals was often cast aside, not to mention the pursuit of national consciousness and humanity.
Since modern times, the sense of individual, society and nation has been strengthened in China, whereas the honoring of family and kinship has gradually weakened, due to strong criticism and fundamental suppression of family ethics over time. 
However, family and kinship networks are of great value in China. In fact, families and clans had an educational function which emphasized rule by virtue and laid a strong foundation for villagers’ self-rule in ancient times.
It is also true that in today’s era, some families or clans who hold sway in villages are found to intervene with village elections, posing a detrimental impact on democratic grassroots elections and local governance. In this light, we need to proactively encourage these families and clans to play a positive role and act as moral models and models of self-rule in rural society. Only when they gain a sense of society and nation can they grow out of the long-standing tradition of “minding your own business and paying no heed to the rest of the world.” 
In the future, China’s rural governance should center around “family” with kinship networks, society, nationality and humanity as the radius, to constantly enhance the centripetal force, thus giving rise to the role of family, and avoiding the pitfall of using family and kinship networks as instruments to win personal gains.
Self-rule vs external factors
In ancient China, village self-rule was often in a state of non-action. It was the smart choice when bureaucracy could not reach rural areas, and it was beneficial to change institutional mechanisms that emphasized administrative intervention too heavily. 
Still, informal systems in ancient Chinese villages also played a crucial role. They were flexible, diverse, and more in line with the local reality. This should be inherited and carried forward in China’s approach to rural governance in the future. Some scholars believe that in China’s pursuit of legal development, perhaps the most important thing is not to copy the Western legal system but to highlight influential, proven-to-be-effective habits and practices common in Chinese society. Otherwise the formal legal system will be circumvented and ineffective. To put it simply, in addition to self-governance, the governing capacities of outside actors should be valued, especially in regard to informal systems in rural governance.
It is crucial to remember that self-governance doesn’t mean a closed, completely self-sufficient state, nor an environment of strong exclusivity. Self-governance cannot be divorced from China’s national conditions and circumvent the government, nor isolate from social participation and market forces. 
All in all, it should be noted that without self-governance, governance by external factors cannot be sustained, whereas an overemphasis on self-governance while ignoring the role of external factors also will not work. That said, when respecting the tradition of self-governance in ancient China, modern rural governance must adhere to and follow the path of multi-party participation and coordinated development.
In summary, rural governance in the contemporary era needs to emphasize the following aspects. First, Western rural governance and cultural traditions cannot become the pillar of Chinese rural governance. The value of Western governance models mainly lies in reference and inspiration. The idea that the Western definition of modernity sets the bar should be abandoned. In fact, only by avoiding a simplistic and rigid application of Western concepts, theories, values and paths can we find the right approach for rural governance in China. 
Second, rural governance in ancient China and its cultural traditions are intrinsically what we can rely on. This history is in our blood and our genes, and lays the foundation for all future changes, innovations and development. 
Finally, no matter how relevant the Chinese and Western traditions are, they cannot be today’s paradigm, nor can these traditions represent the present and the future. That is why integration, reinvention and innovation are of particular importance. To truly realize rural revitalization in the new era, we can build upon our heritage of ancient Chinese traditions and innovate, while critically learning from all foreign cultures including the West.
Zhao Xiuling is a research fellow at the Institute of Political Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Edited by YANG XUE