Governing a medium-size country

子曰:「道千乘之國,敬事而信,節用而愛人,使民以時。」
Confucius said: “To govern a medium-size country, you must pay strict attention to its affairs and fulfill your promises; be economical and love your people; and only mobilize them for labor at the right times of the year.”

Although Confucius is best known as a teacher and philosopher, he was at heart a politician or perhaps even the ancient Chinese equivalent of a modern-day think tank policy wonk ever eager to grab the ear of any ruler willing or desperate enough to listen to his opinions.

Still, at least he kept his opinions short and to the point, as Chapter V of Book One of the Analects so clearly illustrates, and he didn’t feel the need to embellish them using fancy charts and diagrams either. Indeed, in this short passage he tells you just about everything you need to know about government. If only our modern day politicians would just take a couple of minutes out of their busy schedules to read it!

There are a couple of historical curiosities in the chapter that are worth exploring, the most interesting of which is how I arrived at the term “medium-size country” (千乘之國), which literally means “a country of a thousand four-horse chariots”.

In ancient China, the power of a country was measured by the number of chariots it could muster for battle, just as we used to gauge the strength of a state by the number of nuclear warheads it owned during the second half of twentieth century.

By Confucius’ time 1,000 chariots made for quite an impressive display of force, but they certainly didn’t match the numbers that some of the larger kingdoms had available – hence my decision to translate it as “medium-size country”.

Of course, this leads to the question of why Confucius chose to be so specific in his terminology. Why didn’t he just say “to govern a country…”, for example? After all, the principles should be the same. Naturally, there are no recorded answers to this question, but it is true that after his exile from his home state of Lu in 497 BC Confucius devoted most of what today you might call his outreach efforts to smaller states that he considered more promising prospects for his services.

The second curiosity is the last phrase of the chapter (使民以時), which I have translated as “and only mobilize them for labor at the right times of the year.” The inference here is that the ruler should let his people carry out seasonal agricultural tasks such as planting and harvesting without interference, and only call them up for war or work such as building irrigation systems at other times of the year. If the ruler demanded too much free labor from his people, they would either rebel or flee to another state with a much more benign leader.

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