🦋 Let’s tell a more contextual story about Minben

Li-Chia Lo revisits Rongxin Li’s essay on the Confucian concept of Minben (people-core/root) to offer more context to the concept and to differentiate it from the Chinese concept of Minzhu (people-master). He argues that both concepts are different, and we should not elide them

Rongxin Li introduced the concept of Minben to The Loop's ongoing Science of Democracy discussion. More contextual information about Minben, as well as its connection to the discussion of Minzhu, would further benefit the discussion. I will therefore explain how Minben emerged out of Confucian political philosophy; the ongoing debate between Minben and Minzhu; and why Minben is not Minzhu.

The emergence of Minben  

The history of modern China is marked by several socially seismic events. Of these, the 'wind/wave from the West' is arguably the most crucial. Western powers brought opium, weapons and brutality to China. But they also brought certain contributions to science and politics. It was against this background that democracy was translated into the Chinese context as Minzhu.

We can understand Minzhu literally as either

people as the master


people (min) and master (zhu)

Consequently, the idea and translation of Minzhu continues to baffle intellectuals, because it is difficult to find any corresponding idea or tradition in China's cultural resources.

The introduction of Western ideas created mixed feelings toward Chinese traditions. Some people wanted to preserve native traditions; others to reject them in favour of the new. Debates in China were complicated, and long. But the May Fourth Movement in 1919 marked the moment of intellectual and ideological transition.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) now positions this movement as the moment of nationalistic awakening. Yet the Movement was also the Chinese version of Enlightenment. The CPC cofounder Chen Duxiu 陈独秀, a leading figure in this movement, called for the Chinese to embrace both Mr D (democracy) and Mr S (science).

In the 1980s, scholars in China were disheartened that Chinese people appeared to misunderstand Confucianism, and felt the need to rescue its legacy

The CPC banished and ignored Confucianism until the reform and opening up policy in 1978. In the meantime, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States, New Confucian scholars revived Confucianism in the 1950s and brought Confucianism back to China in the 1980s. They were disheartened that Chinese people appeared to misunderstand Confucianism and abandon its traditions. These scholars felt the need to rescue the Confucian legacy from what they saw as destruction by Western modernity. Ironically, it was Kant's second critique which inspired such scholars to reinterpret Confucian canons and ‘rediscover’ the genealogy of Minben in Chinese history.  

Minben and Minzhu

In Chinese, min 民 means people, and ben 本 refers to the concept of core or roots. We can thus understand Minben as 'people as the root of a polis'. Two passages in Confucian canons gave New Confucian scholars the inspiration to rearticulate Confucian political theory.

The first passage, in the Book of Documents 尚書, reads, ‘People is the root of a polis. A polis is peaceful when the root is taken care of 民為邦本,本固邦寧’. The first passage confirms the importance of the people. This second passage from Mencius’ (Confucius’) work uplifts the role of the people:

‘The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the least 民為貴,社稷次之,君為輕

Mencius – Book 7, Part 2

These quotes re-energised Confucianism by injecting democratic thinking into it. New Confucian scholars believe that Mencius sets an example of how people stand at the centre of any regime and that the sovereign should govern a regime based only on the interests of the people. This is, incidentally, where meritocracy comes into play, because a sovereign must rely on meritocrats to help govern the regime to people's satisfaction. 

The people as sovereign of their own regime

Minben might sound like a Confucian version of democracy. But Minben's distance from Minzhu cannot be ignored. Scholars usually describe Minben as a Confucian political philosophy with some democratic implications. In Minzhu lies the idea that the people are the sovereign of their own regime. This eliminates the role of the emperor.

Scholars usually describe Minben as a Confucian political philosophy with some democratic implications

By contrast, the source of power in the idea of Minben or any Confucian political theory is the emperor. This political arrangement centres around how the emperor and (almost always) his meritocrats govern and decide what is best for the people. The 'democratic' part of Minben rests in how the people evaluate the emperor's performance.

This corresponds to a common critique of Minben that it is a government for the people, not by the people. Its spirit might find resonance in electoral democracy: 'Keep watch / throw the rascal/s out'. However, we might only be able to find the means for throwing in Minben in popular revolt.

Minben is not Minzhu

So, Minben is different from Minzhu. Yet it can still help enliven the spirit of democracy, in China and beyond. Minben emphasises the 'last position' of the sovereign. It holds that there is nothing more important than the welfare of the people. This is a point that representative liberal democracies can, and often do, lose sight of.

But this is where Minben’s scope seems to end. Mencius’ work does not make clear how the people ensure their sovereign rules with their best interests in mind. Minzhu offers an answer to this. It argues that the people are the sovereign and they decide how they will be ruled. Consequently, the people decide what their best interests are – agenda setting and public administration, for example.

In this light, it is easy enough to understand why the Communist Party of China – once hostile to Confucianism – has lately been affirming how its revolutionary approach to governance is a legitimate act of Minben or of 'democracy, China style'. If we tried it with Minzhu, such a claim would be laughable.

No.85 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Li-Chia Lo
Li-Chia Lo
Associate, Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra

Li-Chia holds a PhD from the School of Social & Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

He has published on deliberative democracy in China and trade politics between China and Taiwan.

His research interests include critical and democratic theory, as well as China and Taiwan studies, with a focus on the cross-cultural/contextual transformation of political ideas.

By analysing a diverse range of texts, he aims to uncover the flow of meaning, action, and participation.

Recently, he has honed his data analytics skills and aims to bridge computerised text analysis with discourse analysis.

He tweets @thinkingpolis

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