Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governance, saying: “What would you think if I were to execute people who don’t follow the Way in order to help the people who do follow the Way?” Confucius replied: “You are here to govern; what need is there to execute people? If you desire goodness, the people will be good. A leader’s virtue is like the wind; the virtue of the common people is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass it will surely bend.”
The “wind and grass” metaphor that Confucius finishes this passage with was seized upon by generation after generation of the ruling classes in China to justify their hold on power: the duty of the people was simply to bend to their will.
Confucius was probably making a more subtle point, however. If a leader sets the wrong moral example, the people cannot be blamed for following it. They will move in whatever direction the “wind” blows.
Like other members of the ruling elite, Confucius had what could be described as a rather patronizing view of the common people (小人/xiǎorén does, after all, literally mean “little people”), seeing them as almost childlike in their innocence and thus easy to mold.
Given that British politicians still bandy around phrases like “ordinary people” and “hard-working families” to show that they are in touch with the masses, I wonder how far we have really progressed since Confucius’s times.