American political scientist Joseph Nye is credited with introducing the concept of “soft power” in a 1990 essay. However, perhaps another scholar deserves a share of the credit: Confucius.
With the Chinese prominently incorporating soft power into their grand strategies, Western commentators have assumed that China is taking a play out of Nye’s soft power playbook. But what if China is following its own form of soft power—and its own theorist of soft power—both rooted in China’s tradition and past?
Enter Confucius, the forefather of China's political tradition, who notably called attention to the power of “moral influence”—that is, the power of morally legitimate governance. “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn toward it,” proclaimed the ancient sage. Virtue emanates from governing by example and cultivating cultural sophistication. And from that virtue, Confucius taught, arose a basis for ruling far more enduring than that secured by coercion. As the sage further suggested, “If remoter people are not submissive, all the influence of civil culture and virtue are to be cultivated to attract them to be so.”
Though Confucius may not have actually said, “one ought cultivate their soft power,” he did underscore something very similar; “moral influence,” serves as a functional, if antiquated equivalent to “soft power.” Even today, CCP leaders are inclined to talk about their soft power intentions in similar language, deploying language like “force in morality” or “cultural soft power.” So while Joseph Nye may have introduced a Western audience to the complexities of power, the idea that power can be “soft” is as old as China itself.
The Confucian soft power ideal itself represents a paradigmatic form of Chinese governance. As a geographical expression, China has always been historically vast, existing in a liminal space, gradually creeping outward from the Han core, and achieving a form roughly contiguous with its current borders during the Qing dynasty. Ruling over this amorphous expanse was a feat of imperial statecraft, one accomplished not solely through coercive force, but also through the power of appeal. As historian John K. Fairbanks wrote, “The rule of the son of Heaven could be maintained over so broad and diverse a terrain and so vast a population precisely because it was so superficial." The appeal of Chinese civilization, and the prospect of being a member of it, often had the power to turn actors into self-regulating Chinese subjects. So while "the sky is high and the emperor is far away," as the ancient Chinese proverb goes, the emperor's presence as the leading exemplar of moral rectitude and high culture was formidable.
We see the principal of Confucian soft power even more vividly on display where the reach of the administrative state ended and the realm of external relations and the so-called tributary system began. Historians have traditionally dismissed the tributary system—a system through which ancient dynasties exacted overtures of fealty from neighbors—as a fictionalized discourse with no bearing on actual relations, since neighbors were not in fact subservient, but free-willing agents. Recent scholarship, however, puts this conclusion into question. As David C. Kang demonstrates in East Asia Before the West, neighboring Vietnam, Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan did in fact see Chinese civilization as superior to their own. In an era before nationalist loyalties, scholars from neighboring states referred to China as the “central efflorescence” or “domain of manifest civility.” It is no surprise that China today sees the appeal of its culture as central to its soft power, as exemplified by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes abroad. The appeal of culture had the potential to create common values. Neighboring elites imbibed Chinese culture, and as a consequence looked towards Confucian governing practices to solve local problems, modeling their government after what they saw as a more sophisticated Chinese model.
With the exception of two wars, China's privileged position as the admired and dominant power in Asia led to nearly 500 years of regional peace and stability between the founding of the Ming Dynasty and the Opium Wars. “Moral influence” thus had real currency in international politics. And maintaining China's “superior virtue” in whatever way possible was no small matter. Dynastic officials orchestrated elaborate rituals to dazzle foreign missions, not unlike the choreographed extravagance that greeted foreigners at the 2008 Olympics or the 2010 Shanghai Expo, both of which shattered records in terms of cost.
Central to both internal cohesion and external relations, maintaining China’s “moral influence” was important not only to the Confucian mandarins hidden away in the Forbidden City, but everyone concerned with governing China.
Take Sun Tzu, the military strategist famous for his fortune cookie-like proverbs on subterfuge and artifice. What is often forgotten about the great machinator is that Sun Tzu saw “moral influence,” not force, as the foundation of social cohesion and arbiter of victory and defeat. Hence his famous dictum: “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
In 2009, Jia Qinglin, then the fourth-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, heralded Sun Tzu as a guide to “tackl[ing] global challenges and promote world peace and development.” More than just a reflection of the CCP’s atavistic turn in recent years as its communist ideology loses its luster, CCP officials may very well be channeling this ancient wisdom.
Lorand C. Laskai is a freelance writer, and recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Swarthmore College. He has written in International Policy Digest and contributed to The Atlantic. He is currently based in Tainan, Taiwan.