Asian Political Thought Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Theoretical Approach

III. Classical Asia

IV. Colonial Asia

V. Modern Asia

VI. Conclusion: Cultural Grounding of Concepts

I. Introduction

Scholars of Western political thought have not disputed the fact that there is a rich body of political thought in Asia. They have just not bothered to incorporate it into their corpus. This research paper seeks to provide long-overdue recognition to this body of thought by calling attention to the fact that despite its heavy religious content (until modern times), the encounter with political ideas in Asia is just as profound as it is in the West. In fact, since these ideas in Asia are heavily fertilized by their Western colonial legacy, the West has much to learn about itself from these Asian borders to the West’s material and intellectual reach.

In this presentation of Asian political thought, what will emerge is that such central ideas as democracy, freedom, and equality were formed in a historical context different from the West. In the West, these ideas were expressed and then refined through a prism of small city-states in Greece, the universal empire of Rome, the subsequent collapse of this imperium politically but its persistence intellectually in the Thomist medieval synthesis, the smashing ferment (both intellectually and institutionally) of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the birth of the modern nation-state in the twin crucibles of the Thirty Years’War (1618–1648) and the French Revolution (1789–1795).

In Asia, these same ideas have been definitionally filtered through a different historical stage in a play of three acts. The first act is the traditional or classical era before the Western contact. We will see what from this period endures as a mark today of “Asianness.” The second act is a scrutiny of the trauma of the colonial experience. The vast majority of Asian societies, either directly or indirectly, came under Western colonial control or under spheres of Western influence. How to react to this intrusion precipitated a major crisis but also resulted in a rich intellectual ferment that produced the first articulations of Asia’s nationalisms. The third act is the modern period from the end of World War II to the present, when Asia was set free on its own independent course. This has raised the question, Whither modern Asia? Is Asia no different from a common globalizing world, or does something distinctively Asian remain about its political thought?

In these three acts, we will examine Asian concepts of the state and of statecraft, as well as of military grand strategies and views on social equity and gender as they relate to these three concepts. The focus will be on India and China because these two ancient polities form the foundational pillars of Asia. Japan will also be given considerable attention, along with some references to Korea. Southeast Asia will be considered not so much as individual countries but as a region that has always been a tempestuous battleground between Indian and Chinese ideas and institutions.

II. Theoretical Approach

Insofar as the political thought of Asia came to the attention of Western political theorists, it tended to be painted in the broad brushes of overgeneralization. Karl Marx, in outlining the global stages to his class struggle, wrote of an “Asiatic mode of production” (quoted in Tucker, 1972, p. 5), which he characterized as a labor-intensive agricultural society. Writing in this tradition, Karl Wittfogel (1957) spelled this out as a form of “Oriental despotism” arising from the need to secure the necessary corvée labor to support the rice culture of what he termed “hydraulic society.” Taking a more cultural perspective, F. S. C. Northrop (1946) distinguished Asia as having a more aesthetic weltanschauung than the scientific West. Rather than the clear subject–object divide in the West, Asia, Northrop contended, charted reality along a more fused aesthetic continuum, thereby creating different logics and perceptions about the world.

More recently, such political scientists as Lucian Pye (1985) and Daniel Bell (2000) have remarked on the different conceptions Asians bring to politics. To both, these differences require democracy, in particular, to undergo considerable modification for any successful transplantation to Asia. For Pye, the changes will have to allow for a more dependent and paternal understanding (and acceptance) of power. And for Bell, for Asia to be comfortable with democracy, democracy will have to give a special place to knowledge over and above mere democratic egalitarianism.

This is because ideas of democracy, freedom, and equality have developed out of a historical context different from the West’s. This context has led to conclusions on the grounding of these ideas that are also different from the conclusions of the West. Put simply, Western political thought is grounded in the individual as the basic unit of politics, and in equality, in some form, as the accepted basis for human relations and political rule. In the Asian context, political thought came to be grounded in the group, not the individual, and in hierarchy, not equality. As shall be clear from the description of the context of three historical acts, the contact of the ideas of democracy, freedom, and equality with Asia calls for some reformulation. In fine, this research paper explains that in passing these three ideas through an Asian historical encounter, one can arrive at richer, multicultural definitions of such seemingly universal political ideas.

III. Classical Asia

Asia has provided an arena for all the world’s value systems. Hinduism is the oldest. Its earliest forms were similar to the religion and ideas of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps the Indo-Aryan invaders of the Indian subcontinent effaced the same Triple Goddess overrun by Jason and his Greek Argonauts in the Black Sea city of Colchis. In any case, Hinduism emerged in the first millennium BCE as a religion and political culture of conquest. Buddhism arose later as a sort of Lutheran reformation to Hinduism. It held distinctly gentler political ideas. This gentler faith, however, was literally obliterated by Muslim invasions into the subcontinent that began in the 8th century CE. (Buddhism went on to thrive in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.) These new invaders oscillated between two approaches in their new dominions. One was to exterminate opposition and force Islam by the sword. The other was to cooperate with local power groups and rule by accommodation. As it spread to Southeast Asia, Islam became more moderate and diffuse in its ideas and practices.

In China around the 6th century BCE, Confucianism developed its own order among society, nature, and the cosmos. This ordering principle, of the dual forces of yin and yang, was an early portrait of a historical dialectic similar to that in the writings of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marx. While Confucianism propounded a rigidly hierarchical sociopolitical order, the “turning of the wheel” from Buddhism and the “reversion of the Dao” from Daoism introduced the idea of reciprocity. Mencius politicized the role of the emperor by entrusting him with the Mandate of Heaven, but in tying this mandate to reciprocity, Mencius also gave the people the right of revolution. Daoism added the mystical and the magical to this mix. For all its order, this ancient Chinese system gave birth to a romance of protest, with sage-knights acting as Robin Hoods. These folk heroes later inspired modern revolutionaries such as Mao Zedong (Schwartz, 1985).

In this Asian drama, as in Europe, there has been a gradual growth of secularism. But modern secularism has never been completely successful in India, and religion has never died in China. In India, religion represents a complete value system. This heavily religious value system, however, did not preclude lengthy and systematic treatment of political questions. The epic Mahabharata contains long political essays on statecraft, kingship, and military strategy. One ancient text, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, introduces all Machiavelli’s ideas about political survival more than a thousand years earlier than The Prince (Basham, 1959). China demonstrated a more robust tradition of secularism, partly because Confucianism never really addressed the question of God. Buddhism filled this gap. The Legalists attempted to place law as a higher principle of social ordering than cosmic rhythms of yin and yang. But dynastic rulers preferred the ambiguities of the cosmos to the concrete constraints of the law. In China, too, as in all Asia, religion stayed on top, fusing society and politics to the sanctity, sanctions, and political protection of the gods (Schwartz, 1985).

More than on top, the Yamato clan in Japan proclaimed themselves to be gods. In their success, they have provided Japan with the longest single line of kings in world history and a sense of nationalism and ethnic identity that runs very deep. Although “divinely” ruled, the Japanese never saw themselves as holding the gateway to heaven. They were, then, not averse to borrowing, and they looked to Confucianism and Buddhism to order their state and meaning system. Ironically, integrating this borrowing into indigenous Shinto beliefs became men’s work. The further development of Japanese culture—its novels, ceremonies, and haiku poetry—was left to the creative talents of women. Although gods reigned, warriors ruled and warred in Japan. Astrong knightly code of Bushido steeled the ruling samurai class in the political culture of the warrior-ruler-knights (Yuzan, 1941).

Meanwhile, great kingdoms arose in Southeast Asia, mostly on borrowed Hindu ideas transmitted by Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka (Ceylon). There was the Kingdom of Ten Thousand Elephants in Laos, Borobuddur and Bali in Indonesia, and the Khmer empire in Cambodia. The latter’s capitol, Angkor Wat, is still the largest religious building complex ever built. Political ideas and institutions in this porous, vulnerable region were mostly Indian (the Chinese influences in Vietnam were the notable exception), but the societies of much of Southeast Asia were ethnically Malay and were held together mainly by their customary adat, or customs. These customs set up three social classes (a ruling aristocracy, free land holders, and slaves) bound together in a network of mutual obligations and responsibilities. In this adat, property and authority could be held and inherited just as easily by women as by men. When the Muslims came to Southeast Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries, they had about run out their political tether and lacked the vehemence that they displayed in India. They superimposed the veneer of their sultanates on Malaya and Indonesia but were content to have the sultanates upheld by Hindu and Buddhist political principles and by the Malay social adat (Tambiah, 1976).

In classical Asia, then, politics were decidedly authoritarian, and more specifically regal, rather than democratic. In India, nevertheless, besides just guaranteeing order, or danda, kings were obliged to promote the welfare of the people. In China, this promotion extended to the principle of reciprocity and even to the right of the people to rebel. Nevertheless, freedom in classical Asia was more of a religious goal than a political right: freedom from the cycle of rebirths in India and in the cultivation of an inner peace of the soul in China. Thus, in both societies, freedom was a private preserve separate from the crush of public (communal, religious, and political) responsibilities and duties. In these feudal systems of Asia, these responsibilities were mainly to hierarchically ordered groups. Equality, then, was a relative value and was tied to the status and position of one’s group compared with others. Any equivalence to modern Western ideas of equality could be procured only within one’s group (and primarily for one’s family), not outside it.

IV. Colonial Asia

The conquests of Western imperialism shattered this order. Most of Asia was directly colonized. Even those who escaped direct rule—like the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Thai—were still pulled into an international political and economic system dominated by Western imperial powers. Because Asian polities had unbroken institutional histories for two millennia (in some cases), punctuated by their own moments of glory, the question of how to both accommodate and account for this Western imposition and superiority provoked deep soul-searching among Asians.

Nowhere was this more deeply felt than in India, which became the crown jewel of the British Empire of 50 colonies worldwide. Some Indians embraced Western civilization. The British Viceroy, Lord Thomas Macaulay, was partially successful in creating “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intellect” (Spear, 1961, p. 257). Later, these scions were called “Brown Sahibs.” In furtherance of this strategy, the British invested in a modern university system for India. A proud accomplishment of this system was the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 won by the Bengali intellectual Rabindranath Tagore, writing in the King’s English (Metcalf, 2001).

Following in the wake of the British raj were legions of Christian missionaries who preached their “good news” and practiced their social gospel with institutions of social reform. Beyond a nationwide network of schools, they set up hospitals, orphanages, homes for widows, leprosariums, demonstration farms for peasant laborers, and social services for outcasts. Many Hindus, although leery of the “good news,” eagerly took up this cause of social reform and, in the Brahmo Samaj of the 19th century, launched their own social gospel of reform of some of the ills and neglects of Hinduism. Muslims displayed a split reaction to the Empire. Since they were India’s previous rulers, some resisted, and they went down to defeat in the Mutiny of 1857. Others, such as Sir Sayeed Ahmad Khan, articulated a path of accommodation with the British, insisting that Islam had no objections to at least the political culture of the West. Indeed, as a monotheistic “religion of the Book,” Islam was the more natural ally of this culture than was polytheistic Hinduism. Still others were not so sure of either the Hindus or the British (Pye, 1985). It was Mohammed Iqbal—poet, theologian, and political theorist— who gave eloquent voice to a separate destiny for Muslims in the subcontinent (Malik, 1971).

Although never a directly ruled colony, the reaction in China was equally intense. Tiananmen Square in Beijing was an architectural declaration that it was the gateway to Heaven. British gunboats brought a string of military humiliations that shattered this gateway. A man who dreamed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ proclaimed a new portal and led the bizarre Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and 1860s. The movement also preached equality for women and, at first, democracy. In its suppression, it might have been dismissed as one of those oddities of history, were it not for the subsequent influence the rebellion had on Mao Zedong and other revolutionary modernizers (Ogden, 2002).

Meanwhile, the Qing Dynasty, China’s last, made earnest attempts at reform. Western education replaced classical texts for imperial civil service examinations. Principles of constitutional democracy and parliamentary elections were introduced, as were modern railroads, military academies, and financial institutions. In 1911, the mixture of protest and reform exploded into a nationalist revolution and a nearly 40-year interregnum of chaos. Intellectually, the boiling cauldron of this ferment was known as the May Fourth Movement. In the humiliation of the demands of the upstart Japanese for the Shandong Peninsula at the Peace Conference at Versailles in May 1919, Chinese intellectuals desperately cast about for a prescription for modern power: in the pragmatism and liberalism of John Dewey and the United States, in the militarism from Germany and Japan, in language reform and mass education, in physical culture and the emancipation of women, in the assassinations and communes of anarchism, and even in the communism of Karl Marx and the Bolshevism of Russia (Zhou, 1960).

There was ferment in Southeast Asia as well. Peasants, in a series of protests after World War I, decried the collapse of a traditional social and political order guaranteed by a royalty and feudal retainers that used to safeguard their livelihoods and provide a sense of place and security by the Mandate of Heaven (in Vietnam), the will of Allah (in Malaya and Indonesia), the mandala pattern of politics and international relations (in Thailand and Cambodia), and a transferal of merit from Buddha (in Burma and Laos). After an initial, if reluctant, accommodation with Western power and political institutions, these peasants and emerging intellectuals searched for their own terms of modern survival. The Cao Dai sect in Vietnam, which worshipped an all-seeing cosmic eye as interpreted by Victor Hugo, Jesus Christ, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Joan of Arc, illustrated this perplexity. The mood of resignation to these confusing, but powerful, outside forces was captured by the popular 19th-century epic poem in Vietnam, Kim van Kieu. This poem was a creative remake of an old Chinese story of a filial daughter who stays true to her undeserving father in a life of untold suffering but steadfast devotion. These peasant protests, then, grew out of frustrations over their devotion to a traditional structure that could no longer secure this order (Kershaw, 2001).

In Japan in 1853, the commercial visit of the U.S. naval commander Commodore Matthew Perry found the Japanese at a moment in their history when they were ready for an opening from the outside. Their mature feudal order had reached a point of stagnation. A knightly class of samurai undergirded an aristocracy that held the emperor hostage, even as this monarchy as an institution provided continuity, identity, and a sense of cosmic place for all Japanese. In the name of restoring the emperor to real power (sonno joi), aristocratic modernizers overthrew this samurai-dominated regime in what was called the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji Constitution established a liberal parliamentary system in the name of the emperor. But for all this constitutionalism, the Japanese actually modernized through a military path of war with China first (1895) and then Russia (1905; Gluck, 1985). Along with these impressive manifestations of modern power, the continued hold of samurai values, for all this Meiji “liberalism,” was nurtured by the education of all Japanese school children in The Story of the 47 Ronin, in which final loyalty was still given to extreme professions of honor, in the name of the emperor. It was a path that tumbled Japan into World War II, its greatest national disaster (Benedict, 1946).

The ferment touched off by European imperialism in Asia was not exclusively one way. Europeans who had prolonged contact with Asian societies were often surprised at what they saw. Despite their political weaknesses, these societies revealed sophisticated and well-articulated cultures. A host of scholars called “Orientalists,” many of whom had served as colonial administrators, began to translate back for European audiences the “pearls of the Orient”: the philosophic Upanishads and the twin epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, from India, and the Analects of Confucius and the Dao de Jing of Lao Dze (Lao Tzu) from China. The most ambitious of these projects was the 19th-century “Golden Bough” series of translations into English, sponsored by Harvard University, of most of Asia’s finest traditional works. This impact, however, was more than just informative. Ideas from these translations worked their way into the transcendentalism of the New England literati (particularly on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “oversoul”), as well as into the philosophic systems of Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche and even into the novels of Herman Hesse, among others (Clarke, 1997).

Unfortunately, some of this romantic “orientalism” turned perverse. In this discovery of the deep cultural roots of Asia, some Western scholars, particularly German, began to see themselves as descendants of an elite Indo- Aryan brotherhood that extended from the Indus River to the Rhine (Muller, 1919). German national socialism subsequently appropriated the ancient Hindu symbol for universal brotherhood as the centerpiece to its flag, the swastika.

At first flattered by this attention, modern Asian intellectuals for their part began to resist this characterization of a separate orientalism as tantamount to a civilizational dismissal similar to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine in the United States that served to perpetuate racial discrimination. Whether intellectual traditions produce culturally distinct ideas or whether universal ideas form and recombine themselves around different intellectual traditions is a pervasive issue of epistemology. For the study of political thought in Asia, however, the unfortunate effect of orientalism has been to dismiss political thought in Asia as being too closely tied to religious constructions to be worthy of secular analytical scrutiny.

V. Modern Asia

World War II (1939–1945) brought disaster to Europe. Even in victory, the power of Britain and France collapsed, and, with that collapse, their empires unraveled and their hold over Asia ended. In independence, not always easily gained, Asia was now free to find itself and define politics in ways authentic to a free Asia and to the particular set of traditional legacies and aspirations of each of its societies. In this mix of the traditional and the colonial, what set of political ideas and institutions would serve independent Asian nations still having to fend for themselves in an international system of Western creation and continued dominance? In Asia’s postwar trajectory of growing economic prosperity and rising global political influence, answers to this question have produced rich and innovative contributions to the ongoing development of political thought per se.

After World War II, all of Asia wanted to regain what Asian countries saw as their lost importance in the world. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, expressed these hopes for all Asians when, in his exultant Independence Day speech on August 15, 1947, he declared, “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge” (cited in Hardgrave & Kochanek, 2000, p. 53). Colonialism, he argued, had drained the wealth and energies of Asia, and now it would just flow back (Nehru, 1959). Although it certainly did not flow back right away, in the opening years of the 21st century, this tryst with a recaptured Asian global importance seems well within reach.

The Indian subcontinent, however, has been plagued by serious differences both as to how to attain an independent India and as to what it would look like. The towering figures in this agony were Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was the moral father of modern India. After traveling around India for 4 years after his return from South Africa at the age of 41 in 1915, Gandhi discovered his three themes of poverty, unity, and independence. As he made the continuation of British rule untenable, he worried about an India “in pursuit of Lakshmi” (wealth), freed from the moderating restraints of religion. Thus, even as he determined to entrust the future course of India to Nehru, he was troubled by the younger man’s Hamlet-like agnosticism (Gandhi, 1957).

Nehru epitomized Macaulay’s “Brown Sahib,” and Nehru’s highly cerebral autobiography, The Discovery of India (1946/1959), was really an articulation of his own divided soul. His professed admiration for the ancient Hindu scriptures and epics was profoundly philosophical and somewhat idealized. He preferred to highlight the moments of unity and power and gloss over the divisions and wars of India’s past. He could not bring himself to take this philosophical appreciation to a spiritual awakening. For Nehru, the influences of a secular English liberalism were too strong for this. To him, the best of India lay in its moments of unity around a chakravartin, or universal emperor, such as Ashoka, Harsha, or Akbar. Because of India’s deep religious and social divides, Nehru felt that this unity could come, in modern times, only under a secular India united by Western principles of liberal democracy. The Congress Party was founded with this as its core credo. Unfortunately, Nehru dulled his economics by embracing the socialism of the British Fabians and the Russian Bolsheviks (he expressed a continual admiration for the accomplishments of the 5-year plans of the Soviet Union). Under Nehru’s leadership as prime minister (1947–1964), Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, remained aloof (Nehru, 1946/1959).

Although Gandhi and Nehru were the giants, other voices arose in the subcontinent. Ironically enough, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father of modern Pakistan, shared Nehru’s secularism even as he insisted on a separate Muslim state. Others in Pakistan called for this state to be subservient to the Islamic Shari‘a. This division has brought the country to the brink of implosion over the never-healing sore of Kashmir and the recent reverberations of Islamic radicalism from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. There have been dark voices in Hinduism as well. The terrorism espoused by B. K. Tilak before World War I and the fascism of Subhas Chandra Bose in World War II found expression in the Hindu communalism of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Nehru’s co–prime minister in the first 2 years of independence. Patel died of a heart attack, but these several divisive strands collected into the Hindu nationalism of Mr. L. V. Advani and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is now a coequal national rival to the secular Congress Party. India and Pakistan now confront each other as nuclear powers, and another chakravartin, in this tense subcontinent, is nowhere in sight (Mehta, 1996).

In China, the first coherent voice to articulate a path to modernization out of the swirling strands of the May Fourth Movement was Sun Yat-sen, who advocated san min chuyi (three people’s principles) of people’s livelihood, people’s rule, and people’s nationalism. The last was to uphold China’s traditional Mandate of Heaven. The first was translated into rural life as “land to the tiller” (a theme that the communists later tried to call their own). For the second principle, democracy, Sun called for a transition to constitutional democracy in China through three stages of tutelage. In practice, Sun’s political party, the Guomindang, could not pull it off. It lurched instead between the Christian social gospel of the New Life Movement and an Italian-like fascism of Blue Shirt discipline, all the while continuing in a reluctance to share power. Even as Sun’s ideology failed in China, it became the basis for the subsequent economic miracle on Taiwan. It also describes the long path taken by South Korea to economic prosperity and a lagged following of this prosperity to full democracy (Wells, 2001).

Another failure was the Hu Shih liberals, who embraced linguistic reform and U.S.-style democracy. This faction was discredited by President Woodrow Wilson’s treachery at the Treaty of Versailles (in acquiescing to granting the Concession of the Shandong Peninsula to Japan, rather than his public promise that it would be returned to China), even as it went on to discredit itself domestically by joining with the left-wing branch of the Guomindang in the strategic historical error of siding with the Japanese in their puppet state of Manchukuo.

The communists were the ultimate victors in both the civil war with the Guomindang and in the articulation of modern China. Although the form of government came straight from Lenin, Mao Zedong formulated a novel strategy of revolution—people’s war—and introduced several innovative political projects and organizations, most of them disastrous. It was Deng Xiao Ping, the architect of China’s unprecedented current economic growth, who reintroduced to China a pragmatism worthy of both Machiavelli and Adam Smith. This was reflected in his legendary question about the importance of the color of the cat as long as it could catch mice. The credit for this pragmatism, however, lay in the Four Modernizations of Deng’s earlier protector, Zhou Enlai, who quietly made a career of fixing many of the excesses of Mao’s zeal. It was an uneasy Gandhi–Nehru-like relationship, and China suffered for it—but might have suffered more without it (Goldman, 1994).

The truly novel definition of modernity in Asia came from Japan. Utterly defeated in World War II and under foreign occupation afterwards (1945–1952) for the first time in its history, Japan, in Article IX of its new constitution, outlawed war as an instrument of foreign policy and forbade the country to have anything but a minimal “Self- Defense Force” as a military institution. As a sovereign state, in what was called the Yoshida Doctrine, Japan placed its security in the hands of the United States and dedicated its own energies exclusively toward economic prosperity. Since then, in the era after the cold war, several intellectual and political voices have grown restive under this arrangement. One popular political writer, a former mayor of Tokyo, titled his recent book, Just Say No—to the United States. Others question the concept of nationality as an unwelcome Western transplant even as they articulate a distinctive identity and place for Japan (Sakai, de Bary, & Toshio, 2005).

Southeast Asia has continued to lament its strategic weakness. For nearly all Southeast Asian nations, modernization has been accompanied by outbursts of indigenous violence. It was convulsive in Indonesia in 1965 and again in 1998–1999. Burma, Thailand, Philippines, Malaya, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos all were wracked by insurgencies. Except for Malaya, the United States intervened in all of them, massively so in Vietnam. In these struggles, each country sought to define its own modern national identity in attempts to fashion integrative polities that could overcome the separatist groups and ideologies fueling the insurgencies. With most of these convulsions over by the start of the new millennium (2000), these countries have now endeavored to integrate regionally. Their organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, represents an interesting institutional counterpoise in international relations to the more developed European Union.

VI. Conclusion: Cultural Grounding of Concepts

This consideration of the political thought of Asia as it has responded to the three contextual challenges of the classical, colonial, and modern periods brings us to the question of an Asian distinctiveness regarding modern Asian conceptions of democracy and its companion ideas of freedom and equality. Although the constitutions of many Asian states, those of India and Japan in particular, bear the imprint of Western ideas and institutions, the sources of these ideas emerge from different cultures and historical experiences, Asian ones. At root, although there is nothing in Asian experience or culture to preclude democracy itself, what may require different institutional expression of this principle is the fundamental difference between Asia and the West over the balance between the individual and the family. In all Asian countries, family and its ties to the state and its loyalties come before the freedom to chart individual destinies. In the West, on the other hand, individuals are encouraged to cut loose from family ties to freely chart their individual fortunes with no inequalities in status either within the family or in the larger society (at least in theory). This different balance calls for a different definitional relationship of freedom and equality to democracy. No one has made this distinction more clear than Lee Kwan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, who has insisted that democracy in Asia must still be subordinate to family discipline—and therefore made no apologies for authorizing the public caning of Western adolescents for vandalism in the streets of his city (Bell, 2000).

Hence, to discuss democracy in Asia, we need to bring other words and concepts into play. Really, democracy in Asia should be set in a discussion of statecraft and political authority. These issues, in Asia, were focused on creating order and preserving social hierarchy, although all Asian political systems recognized that statecraft and political authority were best served by reciprocity and the legitimating of their actions in ways that earned public support and approval. There are contextual grounds, then, for democracy in Asia, but not on the same egalitarian foundations as in the West. Pye (1985), for example, talks of democracy in Asia as best arising out of a historical context of paternal authority and what he calls a politics of dependence. Bell (2000) has proposed an Asian bicameral legislature, with one house based on popular egalitarian representation and the other on knowledge, a “House of Scholars.” Parenthetically, this notion brings us around the intellectual circle to Plato’s insistence on ultimate rule by philosopher-kings (Lomperis, 1984).

Similarly, the Western centerpiece, freedom, needs to be recast in Asia as well. Rather than all the human rights guaranteed to individuals in the West through a constitutional Bill of Rights and the like, freedom in Asia has been differently defined in at least three ways. First, in Asia, freedom is more of a group concept than an individual one. Indians could pursue swaraj (self-rule) against the British, but to its greatest champion, Gandhi, for individuals swaraj meant more communal responsibilities to autonomous little communities (ashrams), not more individual human rights.

Thus, second, freedom for the individual boils down to relative degrees of autonomy from the multilayered obligations of these all-encompassing social structures. The overarching value here is responsibility. Freedom is the leftover. Daoist knights-errant and Hindu kshatriya warriors had the freedom of battle and of strategy, but only within the parameters of their larger duties to the Heavenly Mandate in China and the cosmic dharma (duties) of their souls in India. In the Indian epic Mahabharata, the hero Arjuna was not allowed the freedom to be a pacifist and opt out of the cosmic battle at Kurekshetra because the duty of his kshatriya caste compelled his martial service to uphold order. For women, duties were equally stark. In China, the virtues of high-class women were secured by foot binding. High-caste widows in ancient India had the “freedom” of avoiding the dejected status of widowhood or humiliating pollution of remarriage by committing suttee (self-immolation on a funeral pyre).

Third, the fullest expression of freedom in Asia is religious. In China, Buddhism offered release, or nirvana, from the world and its politics. Daoism cultivated a freedom of the soul within the external responsibilities and rituals of Confucianism. And in India, the householder (the responsible citizen, in Western parlance) could honorably flee to the forests, after discharging his many social and political duties, and seek moksha, the release that comes from enlightenment. Until the insertion of Western politics and ideas, freedom, in Asia, did not lie in politics.

Finally, the overarching Western ethos of equality has had a strong impact on all Asian societies. Indeed, this idea became the linchpin to undermining the Western imperium itself. But even with this wave of Western egalitarianism, Asian societies retain an even more profound rootedness in hierarchy. Western ideas of equal treatment and equal dignity have woven their way into the fabric of all Asian societies. But the “rightness” of hierarchy remains (Dumont, 1970). Gandhi, for example, called members of the “untouchable” caste harijans, or “children of God,” but still supported the moral virtue of the hierarchical caste system itself. Echoes of the old Confucian hierarchy remain strong in China, as do patterns of the samurai ritual and hierarchical obligations in Japan, particularly in its unique corporate culture. Thus, equality in Asia, with this hierarchical persistence, is better rendered as equity, which is a word that gives more room for social ladders in a formulation of fairness and justice.

Illustratively, then, in passing these three universal political concepts of democracy, freedom, and equality through the analytical prism of the historical context of Asia, we find that all Asians persist in holding onto two anchors. First, Asians retain a strong preference for groups, particularly the extended family, over individuals as the primary unit of society. Second, in this preference for groups, Asians continue to choose a hierarchical ordering of these groups over any comprehensive notions of full social equality. The persistent hold of these two anchors necessitates an Asian reformulation of these concepts, which have heretofore been defined only from a Western context. Thus, the expression of individual freedom or rights from the West must in Asia be tempered by a greater consideration for group responsibilities so that freedom in Asia is merely a relative autonomy from them. Similarly, the penchant for hierarchy in Asia imposes equity as an appropriate expression of fairness, rather than equality. Turning to politics from these two reformulations, democracy in Asia, therefore, will need to be constructed and expressed in political arrangements that value groups and legitimate hierarchy. Thus, the cultural settings of such seemingly universal political concepts as democracy, freedom, and equality achieve richer meaning and nuance when analyzed comparatively through their evolution in other cultures, including those in Asia.


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