Huang Zongxi argued for a constitutional model of government designed to benefit all people, not just the ruling class, and which stressed the importance of respecting private property rights.

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Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Assistant Editor of Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. He is interested in libertarian themes in political thought throughout ancient, medieval and early modern history.

Many libertarians admire the Enlightenment as the time when early liberals laid down the intellectual foundations on which were built our flourishing modern world. At times, this can lead some libertarians to believe that a system which emphasizes free enterprise, constitutional government, and personal liberty can only be achieved through what is often dubbed ‘western values.’ However, the truth is more complex. The concepts of personal and political freedom were not unique to Enlightenment Europe. People from different parts of the globe, a variety of religions, and across many eras have theorized about the value of freedom and how to best preserve its benefits.

One thinker belonging to this long list of non‐​western practitioners is the Chinese philosopher Huang Zongxi. He argued for a constitutional model of government designed to benefit all people, not just the ruling class, and which stressed the importance of respecting private property rights.

Huang’s Life

Huang was born in 1610 in Zhejing province in China. His father Huang Zunsu was a high ranking official of the Ming Dynasty. Thanks to his father’s high ranking position, Huang was able to study history and philosophy extensively. He was introduced to the scholar Liu Tsung‐​chou, under whom he studied for a number of years. Zunsu’s works show that he was well versed in philosophical matters and did not wholly subscribe to any particular school dogmatically. Instead, he drew from different traditions as he saw fit.

Huang’s father, Zunsu, had opposed the unchecked authority of eunuchs at the Chinese royal court. Indeed, Zunsu died after being imprisoned by his political opponents in 1626. Huang boldly protested the death of his father, at the capital city of the Ming Dynasty, he then returned home to dedicate himself to his studies.

By 1644 the ascendant Manchu Qing dynasty had taken control of the former Ming territories. Huang spent many years as part of a guerilla resistance against the Manchu Qing dynasty which he regarded as foreign invaders. Eventually, Huang abandoned the fight against the Qing dynasty, although he refused to cooperate or take any government positions that he was later offered. Instead, Huang dedicated the rest of his life to studying history, politics, and philosophy. During his retirement from public life, Huang produced arguably his finest work in 1663, Waiting for the Dawn: A Plan for the Prince, an extensive criticism of the Ming regime and a comprehensive set of proposed reforms.

The First Rulers

Huang believed that before there was any government, people tended to their affairs with no acknowledgement of the common good. This was not an idealized state of nature, but nor was it complete anarchy. According to Huang, looking after one’s own interests is entirely natural, and he deemed selflessness to be a rare and fickle virtue.

For Huang, the primary issue which plagued the Ming regime was the excessive greed of those in power. To rule is to take into account the interests of others and to selflessly pursue what other people wish for; that, however, is difficult given that “to love ease and dislike strenuous labour has always been the natural inclination of man.” The first people who ruled did so with extreme reluctance knowing how difficult it would be to rule in the common interest of all. Some even tried to quit but were forced to continue. The first rulers understood that to rule correctly was an immense effort that was, for the most part, a thankless job.

However, as time passed, new rulers decided that since they did so much for their people, it was perfectly justifiable to rule for their own benefit. They began to use the state to benefit themselves, and because of their selfishness, these rulers made their subjects miserable and downtrodden. Therefore, according to Huang, “He who does the greatest harm in the world is none other than the prince.” The solution to this miserable state of affairs is for princes to rule justly with true laws.

What is Law?

Huang states that there has not been true law since the end of the Three Dynasties over a thousand years previously. Since then, all rulers had cared about was preserving their dynasty, they had refused to look to the common good of the people. Huang referred to the laws established after the three dynasties as “dynastic law.” But he did not believe that dynastic law could be called true law as it was narrowly based upon the interests of the rulers, that “what they called ‘Law’ represented laws for the sake of one family.” For any law to be true law it must conform to the dictates of “all under heaven” (or what can be broadly termed the will of the people). Huang writes that “in ancient times all under heaven were considered the master and the prince was the tenant.” The state existed to serve the people, not vice versa. True laws, for Huang, must not favour any particular group over another. Instead, laws must conform to a higher standard of justice which had been originally embodied by the sage kings of the past. Laws are not just, simply because a ruler has established them. If law does not conform to a higher standard of justice, it can hardly be called true law.

Governance by Laws

Huang believes that first and foremost we need laws before we need leaders. By contrast, earlier philosophers such as Xunzi in the third century BC had written: “There is only governance by men, not governance by law.” To which Huang replied, “Only if there is governance by law can there be governance by men.” However, law alone is not enough; Huang had seen how knowledgeable men like his father were ousted from government positions due to entrenched and unchecked power. We cannot count on virtuous rulers alone to guide us and to preserve true law. Thus Huang believes that we need institutions to put checks on power and to stop any individual dominating all others.

Huang had no time for the idea of divine rule, and he questioned those whom he called “petty scholars” who insisted that the duty of the subject to his prince is utterly inescapable.”The sage kings of the past deserve praise and respect but the princes of today deserve little if any praise,” Huang argues, further asking, “Could it be that Heaven and Earth, in their all‐​encompassing care, favor one man and one family among the millions of men and myriads of families?” While Huang did not wish to abolish the emperorship entirely, he strove to desacralize the state. The state is neither quasi‐​divine nor should it command the total obedience of its people. As we have already seen, the relationship for Huang between sovereign and citizen is actually inverted; the people are the masters, and the state is the tenant.

Reinstating the Prime Minister

In theory, the Ming dynasty was ruled by an emperor and supported by a court which was composed of ministers and civil service members. The reality was a departure from this ideal. Emperors resented and resisted any check upon their power. To cement their position, emperors tended to promote only those civil servants who were wholly servile, especially eunuchs, who had long been a crucial part of the Chinese government. They tended to the emperors household and his personal needs, which gave them immense influence as they were naturally intimate with the emperor and increasingly infringed upon the administration of civil affairs.

To this end, Huang argues that the previously abolished office of prime minister should be reinstated. While one man should act as prime minister, he would have multiple vice premiers, all of whom are scholars with whom he would consult. Huang had three critical reasons for arguing for the reinstatement of the premiership:

Firstly, no matter how wise or hardworking, no one man can rule alone. While Princes may have been created initially to rule, “All under Heaven could not be governed by one man alone.” To remedy this, the prime minister aids the prince. Secondly, the emperor is decided by hereditary succession. Huang states that in ancient times “succession passed, not from father to son, but from one worthy man to another.” A person being handed a position based upon their lineage is no guarantee that they will rule justly. While Huang does not specify precisely how the prime minister will be chosen, he believes that the role will act as a buffer in case the emperor is not a competent ruler given that the Prime Minister’s power will be equal to that of the emperor. Thirdly, by reviving the position of the prime minister, the government affirms the principle that no man should hold supreme power and that instead, power should be divided and shared in order to serve the people best.

Huang’s reforms aim not only to make government more effective but, by putting qualified people in power, it also serves to check the power of the emperor who, without constraints, would have little stopping him from becoming tyrannical. Thus Huang’s approach can be described as constitutional in its fundamental nature. Constitutionalism, as a broad idea, is a set of rules, principles, and norms which define the limits of government authority to avoid arbitrary despotism.

Huang and Private Property

For Huang, it was essential that the government did not encroach upon property rights. According to Huang, during ancient times there was no private property. The sage kings distributed land through what was known as the well‐​field system. Huang explains that during this time “land was granted by the king to the people. Therefore, such land can be called the king’s land.”

However, after the sage kings subsequent rulers no longer distributed land to the people. Instead, people acquired land through sale and purchase. By the second century, private property had been established. Because the land was purchased by the people and not granted by a king, Huang concluded that “the land is the people’s land and not the king’s land.” For Huang “all land is either official or private.” The difference between the two is that official land is owned by the state and cannot be bought or sold, while private land can be traded and belongs to individuals.

Huang argues that that private property ought to be protected since people have a moral right to keep what they own. However, Huang does not stop there. He also argues that property rights set limits on government power. By protecting property, it underpinned the principle that emperors should not view “the world as an enormous estate to be handed on down to his descendants, for their perpetual pleasure and well‐​being.” Instead, emperors should respect the rights of their subjects and refrain from appropriating property.

Against Redistribution

Not all rulers in history were selfishly trying to expropriate property. Many genuinely wished to redistribute wealth in order to help the poor. To achieve this, some believed in limiting or equalizing the distribution of property. Huang replied to this proposition saying that “doing even one act that is not right” should not be allowed. People have a right to their property and this should not be violated even in the event that the motivation is to help those in need. Huang wonders why “should one needlessly make a big thing out of causing the well‐​to‐​do to suffer?” He proposes instead that the state should redistribute official property, which had been established for the emperor’s family and allies, and should be given to the poor. For Huang, it was perfectly natural to pursue one’s own self‐​interest and to accumulate property. He supported individuals autonomously pursuing their own interests.

Similarities Between Huang & John Locke

Huang’s political thought bears a striking resemblance to the influential English philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke has been referred to as the Father of Liberalism, his political thought centred on his arguments for natural rights, government by consent of the people and his theory of private property has been massively influential on classical liberalism.

As we have already seen, Huang was sceptical of the claims of divinity that emperors had made throughout history. Much later, Locke would argue against divine monarchy by saying that even if God had given the right to rule to someone, such as Adam from the bible, there would be no way of determining who are his rightful descendants. Thus Locke concluded, “that in the races of mankind and families of the world, there remains not to one above another the least pretence to be the eldest house, and to have the right of inheritance.”

Huang believed true law serves the common good and does not favor any particular group. Similarly, Locke argued that the principle of “let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law” is such a fundamental rule that “he, who sincerely follows it, cannot dangerously err.” Both Huang and Locke based the legitimacy of the law upon how it served the interests of the governed not the rulers.

Huang wished to see the position of the prime minister reinstated to check the power of the emperor. Locke proposed that government ought to be composed of legislative, executive, and federative powers. This separation of powers allowed not only for a more effective government but also one which would not quickly descend into tyranny.

Finally, Huang and Locke both argued that the government ought to protect the institution of private property. Locke, like Huang, believed that property was once commonly owned but that when people mixed their labour with the land they appropriated what belonged to nature and made it their own. While Huang’s theory of how land becomes privately owned is not exceptionally robust, it is clear that, akin to Locke, he believed that people have a moral right to hold onto what is rightfully theirs.

Despite living on opposite ends of the world, Huang and Locke came to very similar conclusions on the proper ends of the state. Possibly it is because both had fathers who fought against incumbent regimes and both men lived through civil conflicts which resulted in regime changes. Huang Xongxi is an excellent example of how quite different philosophical traditions have arrived at broadly classical liberal ideas without being part of the same so‐​called ‘western tradition’ or ‘western values.’

There is much to admire in the Western tradition of philosophy, but this does not mean we cannot praise and synthesize other traditions. Thinkers like Huang remind us that all cultures, religions, and peoples have traditions which advocate for the freedom of the individual.