Problematizing the “Confucian State”: the Religious Dimension of the Ming Bureaucratic Culture

Ying Zhang, The Ohio State University

This paper engages with two social scientific approaches to the Confucian-educated bureaucrats that describe the similarities between late-imperial and contemporary Chinese government. Some scholars examine Chinese bureaucrats as social actors whose behaviors are determined by their kinship roles, like their late-imperial predecessors. Others focus on the Confucian values in late-imperial bureaucrats’ belief and practices to show their legacies in contemporary China. Both approaches treat Confucianism as a secular system separated from the other belief systems that played equally important roles in shaping the world of the bureaucrats. Drawing on the historiography of Chinese religion, this paper examines a few cases from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to explore the religious dimension of its bureaucratic culture beyond the familiar concepts of the Mandate of Heaven and ethics. These cases show how popular religious beliefs and practices helped perpetuate bureaucratic rules and expectations as officials resorted to them to understand justice and fairness in administrative processes. To what extent these behaviors could be considered “Confucian” is debatable. Methodologically, this paper argues for making a vigorous effort to separate political culture from bureaucratic culture in historical analysis in order to compare late-imperial and contemporary patterns of governance more accurately.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 230. The Ideology and Governance of the Late Chinese Empire