Portrait of Zichan from Sancai Tuhui
Portrait of Zichan from Sancai Tuhui

Gongsun Qiao (Chinese: 公孫僑),[1] died 522 BC, was better known by his courtesy name Zichan (Chinese: 子產) (WG: Tzu Ch'an). From 544 BC until his death, he served as the chief minister of the State of Zheng. His ancestral surname was Ji (姬), and clan name Guo (國). As politician of a small but venerable state in central China during the Spring and Autumn period (Chunqiu), he faced not only aggressive larger states, but also the confusion caused by a governing tradition in crisis. Under him the Zheng state managed to grow and prosper. Zichan was responsible for many of its strengthening reforms and his statecraft was often viewed with respect.

Career profile

A grandson of Duke Mu of Zheng, Zichan served as prime minister of Zheng from 544 BC until his death. Under Zichan, the Zheng state managed to grow and prosper. It expanded its territory. This was a difficult task for a small state surrounded by several large states, accomplished toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period.

Reform programs

Zichan was responsible for many reforms that strengthened the state of Zheng. A realist, Zichan was heavily involved in all aspects of the state, reforming agricultural and commercial laws, setting the borders, centralising the state, ensuring the hiring of capable ministers, and changing social norms. He prohibited the hanging and later deliver of pamphlets,[2] but is also recorded as having prevented other ministers from executing a man for criticising the government, arguing that it was in the best interests of the state to listen to the opinions of the common people.[3]

From the Shiji of the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian:

Tzu-ch'an[4] was one of the high ministers of the state of Cheng. ... [T]he state [had been] in confusion, superiors and inferiors were at odds with each other, and fathers and sons quarreled. ... [Then] Tzu-ch'an [was] appointed prime minister. After... one year, the children in the state had ceased their naughty behavior, grey-haired elders were no longer seen carrying heavy burdens... . After two years, no one overcharged in the markets. After three years, people stopped locking their gates at night... . After four years, people did not bother to take home their farm tools when the day's work was finished, and after five years, no more conscription orders were sent out to the knights. ... Tzu-ch'an ruled for twenty-six years, and when he died the young men wept and the old men cried... .[5][6]

The ‘’Zuo Zhuan’’ gives us a different version of the public's appraisal about Zichan's policies. After one year the workers complain about new taxes on their clothes and new levy requirements on the lands. Yet after three years the workers praise Zichan: for instructing their children, and for increasing the yield of their fields.[7]

The Zuo Zhuan records that he drafted penal laws to protect private property. He also enacted harsh punishments for criminals. Because of his focus on laws, historians often classify him as a Legalist.

Publishes laws in 536

In his reform of government Zichan came to emphasise the rule of law. Before, in each state the powerful clans of traditional Zhou-era lineage had enforced their closely-held laws. Such laws and regulations were only known by "the limited number of dignitaries who were concerned with their execution and enforcement."[8] Yet among the states in general this system was weakening, dissolving. The various ministerial regimes eventually began a process of replacing clan rule and assuming direct control of the population. In 536 BC, Zichan had the penal legal statutes of his Zheng state cast on a bronze ding, and so made public, a first among the Eastern Zhou states.[9][10] A law known by those subject to it allowed their active participation, while such laws also served the state as a more effective tool of control and guidance.

For publishing the laws of Zheng, Zichan was criticized by his contemporaries. It undermined the nobility, their governing authority and their judicial role. Before, in making their legal judgments, social traditions were applied as interpretation by the ruling elite, which could not be challenged. By articulating and making public the legal statutes the people were empowered to better advance an opposing view of the state law. Up until then ruling circles thought publishing the law would be detrimental, would open the door to public argument, bickering, and shameless maneuvering to avoid social tradition, its time-tested moral force.[11][12] The situation was multi-sided, aa political roles were changing and the social tradition itself was in flux. Opening up laws to be viewied by the common people would eventually become a trend in ancient Chinese statecraft.

Deng Xi (545-501), for example, though a child when the laws were published, for good or ill soon acquired a reputation for provoking such social conflict and instability. Deng Xi was a controversial official of Zheng with Mingjia philosophical views.[13] Despite the probable corrosive activities of the Mingjia, Zichan had a bronze ding cast bearing the laws. Deng Xi came of age, challenged the state and its ministers, including Zichan.[14][15] Decades later the state of Zheng put him to death. The era's documents are divided as to who ordered his execution. It probably was not Zichan.[16][17][18]

A long 'letter' against Zichan's making laws public was written by Shuxiang a minister of Jin. It marshaled strong traditional arguments against his publishing the penal laws of Zheng. Harshly accusing Zichan of grave error, it predicted future calamity. Both the letter and his reply are in the Zuo Zhuang. Zichan's response claims he's "untalented" thus unable to properly manage the laws for future generations. To benefit people alive today was his aim.[19][20][21] Issues at stake here were long debated, e.g., by future political writers.[22][23]

Interstate relations

Zichan was also highly skilled in state-to-state politics. When the State of Jin tried to interfere in Zheng's internal affairs after the death of a Zheng minister, Zichan was well aware of the danger, arguing that if Jin was allowed to determine the successor of the deceased minister in the state of Zheng, Zheng would then have lost its sovereignty to Jin. He then proceeded to convince Jin not to interfere Zheng's internal politics.

The Zuozhuan mentions a summer meeting in 517 shortly after Zochan died. The Jin minister asked about ceremony and li (ritual propriety) of an official of Zheng, who then recounts a speech by "our former high officer" Zichan. The Zuozhuan quotes it at length. It is the book's "grandest exposition of ritual and its role in ordering human life in accordance with cosmic principles", according to the modern translators.[24][25][26] Feng comments on Zichan: "The idea expressed here... is that the practical value of ceremonials and music, punishments and penalties, lies in preventing the people from falling into disorder, and that these have originated from man's capacity for imitating Heaven and Earth."[27]

As a philosopher

Zichan's political thinking is known from his words and actions as a minister of state. The kernels of his thought are found in the historical record, often in accounts of his exemplary conduct. Later philosophers also would mention him and create a context for his points of view. His public life earned him in his time and a lasting reputation.[28][29][30]

Zichan lived in the Chunqiu when "the old older broke down". The people "were bewildered by the lack of standards for settling disputes and maintaining harmonious relationships." The old hereditary houses lost cultural leadership, but the new regimes were in constant conflict, and lacked customary acceptance. The era's instability led to an increasingly militant search for new social structures.[31][32] Zichan is "depicted in the Tso-chuan as one of the wisest men of his time and also as leading statesman in Cheng" which state was under constant threat. In his person Zichan evidently practiced traditional ceremony and virtues. In his politics, however, he seemed to anticipate later Zhan guo-era legalist philosophy, i.e., using newly articulated and promulgated standards to enforce state-wide obedience and so to better control events.[33]

Confucius was almost 30 when Zichan died and so likewise was "born in [this] period of great political and social change", a centuries-long revolutionary "upheaval caused by forces beyond his control and already under way." Prof. Creel notes scholarly speculation about the original sources of Confucian teaching; he comments that the Zou Zhuan quotes at length "several statesmen who, living shortly before Confucius... expressed ideas remarkably like his." They were "advanced in their thinking". Creel footnotes analogously to Zichan, but draws no conclusions.[34]

Confucius was said to have spoken well of Zichan, according to the Lunyu:

The Master said of Tsze-ch'an that he had four of the characteristics of a superior man: in his conduct of himself, he was humble; in serving his superiors, he was respectful; in nourishing the people, he was kind; in ordering the people, he was just."[35][36]

The Zuo Zhuan quotes at length from the words spoken by Zichan. His thoughts tended to separate the distant domains of Heaven and the near domain of the human world. He argued against superstition and acted to curb the authority of the Master of Divination. He counseled the people to follow their reason and experience. Heaven's way is distant and difficult to grasp; while the human way is near at hand.[37][38][39]

The Mengzi of Mencius refers to Zichan. A perplexed disciple questions Mencius about the conduct of Shun, one of the legendary sage kings. Shun's hostile parents and family lied to him. Shun mistakenly believed them, but he did not become corrupt thereby. Shun believed out of his regard for his parents. The life of virtue is discussed. Mencius then compared Shun here to Zichan when he believed a dishonest servant. Given a live fish to keep in a pond, instead the groundskeeper cooked and ate it. He told Zichan, however, it swam in the pond. Zichan was happy that the fish "found his place". Hearing Zichan, the servant mocked his reputation for wisdom. But not Mencius, who concludes: "Thus a noble man may be taken in by what is right, but he cannot be misled by what is country to the way".[40][41][42]






  1. ^ Kung-sun ch'iao (Wade-Giles). Watson (1989), p.155.
  2. ^ Sun (2015), p.15
  3. ^ Lewis (2021), p.79 (praised by Confucius).
  4. ^ 'Zichan' per the Wade-Giles romanization.
  5. ^ Sima Qian, Records (1961), v.II, p.415 (quote).
  6. ^ Confucius, when appointed chancellor of Lu by its ruler Ting (Duke Ding) was similarly described by this Han historian Sima Qian. Yang and Yang (1979), p.8. Wilhelm (1931), p.23.
  7. ^ Durant, Li, Schaberg (2020), p.207 <Xiang 30.13 (543 BCE)>.
  8. ^ Timoteus Pokora, "China," in The Early State (The Hague: Mouton 1978), edited by Claessen and Skalnik, p.206. The laws "were not made known to the public."
  9. ^ Li Feng (2013), p. 174-175.
  10. ^ Hsu (1965), pp. 14, 20-23.
  11. ^ Durrant, Li, Schubert (2020), p.178 [Zhao 6.3], e.g., letter from Shuxiang, an official of Jin state.
  12. ^ Cf., Fung (1937, 2d ed 1952, 1983), p.314: Confucius also attacked such notions of publishing laws.
  13. ^ "School of Names", at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Annex, accessed 2022.12.12. The Mingjia was "notorious for logic-chopping". Although Deng Xi "established a link between disputation and litigation", it led to an anciently acceptable conclusion "that litigators disrupt social order and should be banned" (3.Deng Xi ¶1).
  14. ^ Lu (1998), 128, 130-135: "Deng Xi made every effort to counter the suppression of ideas and opinions imposed by the rulers of Zhen." Lu relies on the Lu Shi Chun Qiu, yet here it was Zichan's authority that Deng Xi fought against (p.131).
  15. ^ Hutton (2014): the Xunzi harshly criticized Deng Xi, accusing him of using reason "to deceive and confuse the masses" (p.41 [6:48-50]), and of disregard for true right and wrong "in order to degrade and humiliate others" (pp.55-56 [8:118-120]). Hutton refers to the Mingjia as "sophists" (p.204n24).
  16. ^ Durant, Li, Schubert (2020), p.180. The Zuo Zhuang [Ding 9.1] of 501 states that the Zheng ruler Si Chuan put Deng Xi to death, i.e., over 20 years after Zichan died, (35 since casting the laws in bronze).
  17. ^ Sun (2015), Deng Xi executed by Zheng's ruler (p.16) in 501 (p.14). "But the problems he raised were not solved by his death" (p.16).
  18. ^ Hutton (2014), p.319: the Xunzi [28:42-43], without giving a date, states that "Zichan executed Deng Xi". This statement is the last on a short list given by Confucius (in the Xunzi) of six historic executions. It's context: Confucius himself had ordered an execution, then spoke of five reasons that justified putting a person to death (e.g., his "speaking falsely and arguing well" or his doing "what is wrong and making it seem smooth"). Confucius then gave his short list, the sixth being Zichan. Hutton (2014), p.318-319: Hunzi [28:21-47].
  19. ^ Durant, Li, Schubert (2020), pp. 177-178 & 179 [Zhao 6.3].
  20. ^ "I have not the talents nor the ability to act fo posterity; my object is to save the present age" (Legge's 1872 translation in E. D. Thomas, Chinese Political Thought (New York: Prentice-Hall 1927), p.229.
  21. ^ Fung (2d 1983), pp. 313-314: Zichan's reply.
  22. ^ Cf., Sun Zhenbin (2015), p.16, note 43.
  23. ^ Issues discussed in Philosophy section.
  24. ^ Durrant, Li, Schaberg (2020), p.127 ("grandest" quote), p.128 (Zheng official's quote). Zichan's speech at pp. 128-129 in 40 lines.
  25. ^ Fung (1937, 2d ed 1952, 1983). Zichan's speech at pp. 38-39 in 45 lines. Fung includes it in his chapter "Philosophical Thought prior to Confucius".
  26. ^ Watson (1989) does not translate this speech of Zichan.
  27. ^ Fung (2d ed 1983), p. 39.
  28. ^ Schwartz (1985), pp. 325-327, 328 (portrayal of Zichan with regard to later legalism), 353 (reasoning versus the diviner's mythical view of comets). Only in the next generation did Confucius, an unsuccessful office seeker, establish the literate tradition of independent, private in China (p.60).
  29. ^ Rubin (1976), p.15: Zichan seen as "a statesman and thinker".
  30. ^ Lewis (2021), p. 39.
  31. ^ Hsu (1965), p.53 quote. In the late Zhou era, the nobility's once unquestioned rule antenuates, then falters. The emerging shih follows a traditional code (p.8) of status and loyalty, but their rulings begin to appear arbitrary, lose an effective hold on people. The state ministers begin to encroach on noblity's power, then to usurp authority (pp. 1-8, 31-37).
  32. ^ Li (2010), pp. 161-178. After fall of Western Zhou royal lineage systems eclipsed at top by various hegemons. The xian system emerges: feudal rule by Zhou nobility replaced by state appointed local officials. The shih class rises. States explicitly employ legal codes to better control the population. The Chunqiu era involved "wide-ranging and fundamental" changes, "totally reshaping" ancient China (p.161).
  33. ^ Schwartz (1985), pp. 323-327, quote at 325. Schwartz notes that our texts about Zichan may reflect a subsequent legalist bias (p.325).
  34. ^ Creel (1949, 1960), pp. 112-113 text, p.309 note 2. Creel remarks that the "sources" similarity might be a result of editing by later interpreters.
  35. ^ Legge (1893, 1971), p.178 (bk.V ch.XV). Also, Kung of Zichan: he gave government notices "proper elegance and finish", p.278 (bk.XIV ch.IX).
  36. ^ Brooks & Brooks (1998), p.105: translation per 5:15 re Zichan ([here romanized as Dž-chǎn, cf.p2). This passage, however, may be an interpolation (added at bk.13) made by Dž-Jīng (c.351-295). A rival (as an heir) to Mengzi (as a meritocratic challenger), Dž-Jīng was the fourth head of the Kung school at Lu (pp. 89, 99, 117 [rivals]; 145 [his death, his son repurposes school], 285, 287, 333 [Kung lineage & school]). Also Kung re Zichan's "elegance" p.120 (14:9).
  37. ^ Kaizuka ([1951], 2002), pp. 83-85.
  38. ^ Schwartz (1985), re Zuo Zhuan: pp. 176, 177 (speech); p.181 (qi).
  39. ^ Lewis (2021), pp. 27-28.
  40. ^ Mengzi of Van Norden (2008), pp. 118-120 [5A 2.1-2.4]. Van Norden notes that the "cognitive error" was considered "highly admirable" by Mengzi and later by the Neo-Confician Zhu Xi as a form of "virtue ethics" (p.120).
  41. ^ Mencius of Legge (1895, 1970), pp. 347-348 [V.II.4].
  42. ^ De Barry and Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1 (Columbia University 1960, 2d ed 1999), p.143 (quote at end).
  43. ^ Wade-Giles: Ch'un Ch'iu.
  44. ^ James Legge, Confucius [texts] (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2d rev ed 1893, reprint Dover 1971).
  45. ^ Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius. A philosophical translation (New York: Ballantine 1998).
  46. ^ R. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks, The Original Analects. Sayings of Confucius and his successors (Columbia University 1998).
  47. ^ French: Couvreur (1895); German: Wilhelm (1921).
  48. ^ Records of the Grand Historian of China. Translated from the Shih Chi of Ssu-Ma Ch'ien (Columbia University 1961, two volumes) by Watson who begins with the Han dynasty (v.I, p.14).
  49. ^ The Grand Scribe's Records (University of Indiana 1994-[2021], multiple volumes), edited by William H. Nienhauser, Jr..
  50. ^ As to Nienhauser-edited volumes, see Revised Volume VII re The Memoirs of Pre-Han China (1994, 2021): Confucius not among 28 here. C.f., p.xv: of 44 memoirs, 7 in v.I, and "9 more for future volumes".
  51. ^ Cf., Kaizuka (1951, 2002), pp. 42-43: the Shiji chapter [#47] "The History of the Confucius Family".
  52. ^ Wilhelm, Kung-Tse: Leben und Werk (Stuttgart: Frommanns 1925).
  53. ^ Bryan W. Van Norden, translator, Mengzi, with selections from traditional commentaries (Indianapolis: Hackett 2008).
  54. ^ James Legge, translator, The Works of Mencius (Oxford: Clarendon 2d ed 1895, reprint Dover 1970).
  55. ^ Eric L. Hutton, Xunzi. The complete text (Princeton University 2014).
  56. ^ Burton Watson, translator, Hsün Tzu. Basic writings (Columbia University 1963, 1996).
  57. ^ Burton Watson, translator, Han Fei Tsu. Basic writings (Columbia University 1964).
  58. ^ Wade-Giles: Chan Kuo.
  59. ^ Walker (1953, 1971), p.127, n.30: "The best work in a Western language" on Zichan.
  60. ^ Chen Sen, "The age of territorial lords".
  61. ^ Jue Guo, "The spirit world".
  62. ^ Ori Tavor, "Religious thought".
  63. ^ Yuri Pines, "Political thought".

See also