Oriental Despotism

One of the oldest and most persistent misconceptions about China is “Oriental Despotism”, a notion that continues to find its way into popular textbooks:

Montesquieu regarded despotism as a pernicious form of government, corrupt by its very nature. Ruling as he wishes and unchecked by law, the despot knows nothing of moderation and institutionalizes cruelty and violence . . . To safeguard liberty from despotism, Montesquieu advocated the principle of separation of powers.
Marvin Perry, et. al., Western Civilization: a brief history, 2013

What the historian who wrote this most likely understood but failed to mention is that, for Montesquieu, “liberty” referred to the privileges that aristocrats like him enjoyed and commoners did not, while “despotism” referred to any egalitarian system where aristocratic privilege was not recognized. Moreover, the separation of powers had been introduced to Europe as a Chinese practice some fifteen years prior to Montesqueu’s Spirit of the Laws.

The textbook did get one thing right: the term Oriental Despotism was popularized by Charles the Second, Baron of Montesquieu, though it had been around for centuries. A century earlier, Giovanni Botero (1540-1617) wrote “The government of China has much of despotism.” “Despotism” was the only term Botero could conceive for describing a nation that was not governed by aristocracy: “one should know that there is no other lord in all of China than the king; neither do they know what is a count, marquis or duke; nor is there any other one to whom taxes or duties are paid”.
Walter Demel, “China in the Political Thought of Western and Central Europe” in Lee, Thomas H. C., China and Europe: Images and Influences in Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1991), 45-64, reference p. 55.

Botero could not have imagined a system such as China’s where political authority was invested in hundreds of offices under the state, and where the state was formally distinguished from the court. Since, in Europe, either the monarch ruled alone or he ruled in league with the aristocracy, and since China clearly didn’t have an aristocracy, the only other concept available to Botero was “despotism”.

During the decades preceding the publication of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, English radicals had been advocating the adoption of several key Chinese institutions, including meritocratic appointment to office and systemic checks on government corruption. As a ranking member of the European aristocracy, Baron Montesquieu was understandably worried what might happen if China’s egalitarian ideals were adopted in Europe: the entire system of hereditary privilege would collapse. His defense of privilege therefore took the form of a sustained attack on the meritocratic system:

There are men who have endeavoured in some countries in Europe [for instance, England] to abolish all the jurisdiction of the nobility; not perceiving that they were driving at the very thing that was done by the parliament of England. Abolish the privileges of the lords, of the clergy, and of the cities in a monarchy; and you will soon have a popular state, or else a despotic government (Montesquieu, 1752: I:22.)

Here “despotic” has its roots in earlier usage, designating any egalitarian system that, quite naturally, did not recognize aristocratic privilege. Francois Quesnay (1694-1774) readily exposed Montesquieu’s equivocation, but the device managed to fool a great many who confused Montesquieu’s “despotism” with the more normal sense of the word.

During the Cold War Karl Wittfogel revived this sleight-of-hand, a fact bemoaned by the historian E. G. Pulleyblank. His words remain just as apt today as when they were first written during the McCarthy Era: “It is a matter for great regret that such a hoary stereotype should be given fresh life and apparent scholarly justifications [in Karl Wittfogel’s work] at a time when so much depends on the creation of real mutual appreciation and understanding between East and West”.
E.G. Pulleyblank, “Review of Oriental despotism: a comparative study of total power by Wittfogel, K., August, 1958. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. v.21.no.1/3 pp. 657-660.

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