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Compare and Contrast the Views of Confucianism, Taoism (Daoism), and Legalism on the “the role of the Emperor” and “good government”

The role of a leader and the government is very important in every society. Society is dependant on the leader and the government. Every act of the leader and the government has an effect on its people. These three Chinese ideologies have put a lot of stress on the role of the emperor and the structure and the way of dealing with people by a good government. During this course of this essay, we will see that in some ways, the views of Confucianist and Daosit views are similar to each other. In contrast, legalism is often seen to be opposite when it comes to the ” the role of the emperor” and good government.

It’s believed that the Confucius emperor should be of high moral standard. This will make the people follow his example. The role of the emperor, according to Confucius, is to rule by virtue and to practice a humane government. “Rule by virtue” is about the moral qualities of the ruler and what he uses to govern the state, while “human government” refers to the treatment of the people.1 The Emperor had to have all this moral importance because all the Confucian relationship system is made on the role of ruler and the importance of roles in the society as we can see in this passage from the analects. “Let a ruler be a ruler, a subject be a subject, a father a father, a son a son…” So Confucius tells us that names should represent realities and that human relationships are only real when the person involved struggles to live up to the ideal.

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The emperor was not only supposed to have a good character, but he was supposed to have certain other qualities. The requirement that a ruler must-have is not only to be a gentleman (Qun Zi), so an educated man, a knowledgeable person, humane, compassionate, kind, loyal, educated, respectful of the rites, but he had to be a model for the populace in all these fields because people have to respect him for him to be accepted as a ruler. A confines emperor was expected not to use the means of punishments a lot. If he had the qualities, people would follow him. “Guide them with government and orders, regulate them with penalties, and the common people will try to avoid punishments but will not have a sense of shame. Guide them with virtue, regulate them with rites, and the common people will have a sense of the shame and abide by what is required of them.”(2.3)5.

A good Tao emperor, according to Lao-Tzu, is an emperor who governs as little as possible, keeping the natural way, “laissez-faire” the people. The ruler should take care to satisfy the populace because when the people are satisfied, they don’t want to rebel or make wars anymore.6 If we look at the Daoist nature of the emperor, we can notice that the emperor was expected to be close to nature. He would expect the same nature from his people as they would spend their lives following their own nature. This was because it was believed that the natural balance should not be put into disorder. It would best interest of the people and the state if this balance was maintained by the emperor not interrupting people’s life. If we observe the teachings of Daoism, a typical Daoist emperor will look like a “practical” person. Execs would not be seen in him. He would be modest at the same time, very peaceful.

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It can be noticed that there are a lot of similarities between the teachings of Daoism and Confucianism. Their concern towards the people and the way they were expected to deal with them goes quite parallel. Both emperors would mind their own business. They will do their part and let the people lead their lives and follow the lives according to the teachings. According to the legalist, the role of the emperor is to be straight, rigid, strong, powerful and severe with his people but without making any difference in their station in life8. The legalist ideas formed the ideological basis of china’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin, and dealt exclusively with political power, having no faith in any power higher than that of the state or the Emperor. According to Shang Yang, one of the aspects that the Good Emperor should concern about is the punishments: if these are too light, in point of fact, crime cannot be eradicated, but when punishments are heavy, people will not dare to do wrong.

But, while considering punishments, the Emperor shall not reward the virtuous because, he argues, “it is like giving rewards for not stealing”.11. The legalist thesis is the human nature is evil and that men are selfish, anarchist and anti-social when left to themself. So the rulers have to take some strong measures to prevent the people from doing evil things12. If the ruler is intelligent, he has to give a heavy penalty as corporal punishment for a small offence, because contrarily to the animal, the human is intelligent, so if you punished them hardly for something small, they would be smart enough to do not even try to comment a bigger offence. Moreover, a good legalist leader has to be an autocrat; he should not believe in teamwork.

Han Fei-Tzu suggested seven tactics to the sovereign, four of them clear and straightforward (compare and inspect all available and different theories; punishments must be definite and authority clear: rewards are to be bestowed faithfully; the ruler should listen to all sides of every story) but the last three use deception and manipulation to enhance the power of the ruler, to help him to find out the truth by using indirect methods (issue spurious edicts and pretend to make certain appointments; one may inquire into cases by manipulating different information: words may be inverted and tasks reversed). The legalist emperor would be hard-heated. Whatever he says would be taken seriously. He is very competitive, a strict ruler with high morals and ethics. After observing the teachings of legalism, it can be seen that these teaching are far more different from the teachings of Confucianism and Daoism.

Punishments are taken seriously in legalism but not in Confucianism and Daoism, where there is no concept of punishments. In both Confucianism and Daoism, there is no sign of the emperor being very strict. There is no concern for the personal quality of the emperor in legalism, whereas it is of the high regard in Confucianism. A legalist emperor would be good as long he has his people in control. According to Confucius, a good government exists “when those who are near are made happy, and those who are far off are attracted.” Moreover, it shouldn’t be led by fear but by virtue, so a good government is a humane government16; a socialist government providing necessary things like food, health, and education. The more important is probably education for the people, for example by using the rites and music in other words, moral education. By using the side to side, the ruler could transform and complete the nature of his people17; they are moral code, principles regulating human relations and norms of conduct. He opposed the tyrannical rule.

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He encouraged the government to take care of his people and the government for the people, and in consultation with the people was a basic Confucius ideal. But on the other hand, he emphasized that the government has to be the function of a specialist ruling group. Confucius’s ideas about administration are often shifted between the aspiration of a democratic government in function and in consultation with the people and the need to leave its control to a specialist ruling group. In the Confucius government, two regular duties were imposed for the common people: taxes and corves are reduced as much as possible. And the economy is based on “the economy in expenditure,” free trade, consideration of natural resources and development.  The Confucius government fulfils the needs of the people. Its rule for taxation supports the equal distribution of money. This supports their belief in equal treatment for all human beings. This further supports the value of fairness, for example, that disabled people deserve much better.

For a government to be called good of Taoist principles is necessary to stop from interfering in the lives of people, it has to come back to a state of innocence, simplicity and harmony with the Tao, a state that existed in the most ancient times before the civilization appears to produce the material desires of the people and drive them to conflict and warfare, and before morality was invented to confuse their minds and charm them with vain distinctions. Lao Tzu said, “Tao invariable takes no action and yet there is nothing left undone.” They call it “laissez-faire”. So by “laissez-faire,” the government will take a natural and spontaneous way, and so no need anymore for hash laws, punishments, conscription and wars.

The Daoist government is similar to Confucius when it comes to the role of government in terms of education. The only difference is that it laid more stress on learning from nature as a way of education. Similar to Confucianism, they believed in a self-sufficient economy. Therefore, daoist rules were not very strict in order to not disturb the natural living of people. According to Guan-Zi, a good legalist government should employ those with skill and use stern punishments and consistent rewards. The main measure that he suggests for the prosperity of a government is the introduction of collective responsibility for crimes, extending it from the member to the head of the family, from them to group leaders, then to clan elders, the village commandant, sub-district prefects, the district governor, the chief justice.

Shang Yang wanted the government to be stronger than the people so that the army will be strong and the state can attain supremacy; however, states are in disorder because the law is not applied. A strong government will not allow any serious crimes, deterring people even for small crimes by serious penalties so that they will not commit major crimes at all. It was believed that there is no point in educating people because this will make it difficult to control them. The economical policy is to control everything. According to the government, all the people should have occupation benefited for the population like farming or weaving and shouldn’t try to make money with other occupations.


We can see that the legalist government was quite different from the other governments mentioned above. They believed in punishing people, while Confucianism believed that human beings were born well and there was no need to punish them. A legalist government would control the economy in order to gain power. Power seemed to be their main aim rather than a good living for their people. This was not the case in Confucianism and Daoism, as they believed in the well-being of their people. Therefore education is for the good of the people was not liked by the legalist government. There was no concern whatsoever for the environment by the legalist government. To conclude, it would be very fair to say that it is very hard to decide which type of political system is the best of all the three, but there are differences and similarities in all forms of government and the role of the emperor.


  • Willard G.Oxtoby, Willard. World Religions, Eastern Religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996
  • Wei -Ming, Tu. Confucian Thought. State of New York: State University of New York Press, 1993
  • Confucius. The Analects. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993
  • Beck, Sanderson. HISTORY OF ETHICS, Vol.1: To 30 BC: Ancient Wisdom and Folly. World Peace Communications: USA, 1997
  •, Unknown Author. (16/04/04)
  • John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, fourth edition, new jersey 2002
  • Ding Weng, Understanding Confucius, Beijing: Pando Books, 1997
  • De Bary, Theodore. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 196
  • Unknown Author (16/04/04)
  • Ding Weng, Understanding Confucius, ( Beijing: Pando Books, 1997). p 121
  • Confucius, The Analects, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). an.num.12/11 p.46
  • Willard G.Oxtoby, World Religions, Eastern Religions, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). p.405
  • Ibid
  • Ding p 112
  • John M Koller, Asian Philosophies ( New Jersey Fourth Edition, 2002) pg.292
  • Teacher’s Teaching Notes
  • Unknown Author (16/04/04)
  • Theodore de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960). pg 445
  • Sanderson Beck, HISTORY OF ETHICS, Vol.1: To 30 BC: (Ancient Wisdom and Folly. World Peace Communications: USA, 1997). CHP.2, p.2
  • Un Known Author (16/04/04)
  • Ding pg. 121
  • Teachers Teaching Notes p 36
  • Ding p. 12
  • Ding p. 122
  • Teachers Teaching Notes p 64
  • Teachers Teaching note p 66
  • Teachers Teaching notes
  • Teachers Teaching notes p 69
  • Teachers Teaching Notes
  • Tu Wei -Ming, Confucian Thought, (State of New York: State University of New York Press, 1993) p.9
  • John p 291
  • Ibid p 292
  • Sanderson p.6
  • Ibid p.7
  • Ibid p.8
  • Unknown Author ( 15/04/04)

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Compare and Contrast the Views of Confucianism, Taoism (Daoism), and Legalism on the "the role of the Emperor" and "good government". (2021, Aug 04). Retrieved September 30, 2022, from