Mohism, Just War, Sovereignty, and Identity

I have a longish paper on Mohism and just war theory forthcoming in Journal of Chinese Military History (5.2, 2016) that explores details of Mohist just war theory and how it relates to the other most well-developed early Chinese view of just war, the doctrine of “righteous arms” in The Annals of Lu Buwei.

The abstract and a link to the full draft are posted below. The paper is a vastly expanded treatment of a topic also discussed in The Philosophy of the Mozi.

To me, one of the most intriguing points in the discussion is what early Chinese discourse on the ethics of war reveals about pre-Han conceptions of state sovereignty and national identity. This paragraph of the paper presents the issues:

“Intriguingly, the Annals, the Mengzi, and the Xunzi all assume that residents of a conquered, misgoverned state have no loyalty to their state, as opposed to its venal leadership, and no concern for the sovereignty of its territory. The writers of these texts never imagine that the subjects of a state might resist invasion because they identify with the state, wish to defend its sovereignty, or resent occupation by foreigners. Indeed, the writers assume that, provided the ruler is indeed corrupt, the attacking army announces its aim to remove him, and residents of the state are unharmed, the residents can have no legitimate objection to the invasion. These attitudes reflect two crucial, interrelated conceptual issues in early Chinese political thought that emerge from discussions of just war. The first is to what extent there is any operative conception of people’s membership in and loyalty to a sovereign polity, rather than merely subjugation to a local lord. The other is whether individual states are to be considered independent, sovereign entities or merely subordinate, constituent jurisdictions within a unified regime, be it the notional but ruined Zhou empire—which by the Warring States era lacked the power to enforce interstate norms of conduct—or the normative ideal of the community of “all under heaven” (tian xia 天下). As the idealized descriptions of punitive invasions in the Annals, the Mengzi, and the Xunzi illustrate, in early Chinese political thought, the concepts of state sovereignty and of membership in a polity or nation are at best vague and inchoate, as is the distinction between loyalty to a state and to the particular individual who happens to govern it.”

The most prominent conception of just war in early Chinese just war discourse is that of a justified “punitive expedition” (zhu 誅), which aims to punish the vicious ruler of a state targeted for attack. An especially pressing question is how to establish that the attacking state has the proper authority to punish the target state.

…[G]iven the ambiguity in Warring States thought as to whether individual states constitute independent sovereign entities or constituent jurisdictions within a universal regime, perhaps the notion of righteous punitive war is best interpreted as implicitly denying the existence of state sovereignty or the significance of interstate boundaries. Individual states are parts of a greater entity, tian xia 天下 (“all under heaven,” or the entire human, social world), subject to the authority of an actual or potential emperor, who is himself accountable to the authority of Heaven. Conceptually, perhaps early Chinese thinkers do not really recognize war between sovereign states as such. To them, interstate violence falls within the purview of criminal justice. Illegitimate aggression, whether against other states or one’s own subjects, amounts to a crime to be punished. Legitimate war for offensive ends is a punitive activity premised on treating the rulers of offending states as if they were domestic criminals. A righteous punitive invasion thus purports to be an exercise of legitimate authority, rather than—as we might understand it—a means of establishing authority over a conquered territory. In principle, to undertake a righteous punitive mission, the aggressor must already hold the appropriate authority—presumably through Heaven’s mandate…

This is a subtle aspect of early Chinese political thought that deserves more attention. It would be interesting to see a study of how attitudes toward these issues evolved throughout the history of Chinese political philosophy.

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The Mozi and Just War Theory in Pre-Han Thought

Chris Fraser
University of Hong Kong


The Mozi presents one of history’s earliest discussions of the justification for war. Mozi and his followers held that although unprovoked aggression is always unjustified, defensive war and punitive aggression may sometimes be warranted. However, their criteria of just war are so stringent as to permit only defensive war, rendering offensive, punitive war nearly impossible to justify. The article reviews discussions of just war in the Mozi and other pre-Han texts and discusses how The Annals of Lü Buwei presents a conception of “righteous arms” as an alternative to the Mohist privileging of defensive over offensive war.

I argue that, with minor refinements, the Mohist view answers the Annals’ criticisms while underscoring problems concerning the justification of aggression that the Annals overlooks. The article highlights how features of early Chinese justifications for war—most importantly, the analogy between just war and criminal punishment—raise deep problems for the justification of aggression.

Download full paper: The Mozi and Just War Theory in Pre-Han Thought

Keywords: Chinese philosophy, just war theory, China, Mohism, Mozi, righteous arms, criteria of just war, sovereignty, national identity, punitive war, defense, Chinese just war ethics