Purdue University Graduate School
Zhang_Doctoral Dissertation (06-14-2023).pdf (1.8 MB)


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posted on 2023-06-15, 17:40 authored by Qian ZhangQian Zhang


This dissertation attempts to explain a uniquely modern phenomenon—totalitarianism—through a case study of Chinese totalitarianism. It seeks to solve the puzzle of why the Chinese people’s inclinations, manners, customs, and morals were particularly suitable for totalitarian rule, and its thesis is that Confucianism laid the moral and psychological foundations of Chinese totalitarianism, paving the way for socialism and communism’s takeover of China in the twentieth century. 

It is this Confucian substratum that distinguishes Chinese totalitarianism from Western parallels. It is true that socialist and communist ideas were significant in advancing the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship, but the Chinese did not succumb to a socialism or communism imported from abroad. In the West, totalitarian ideologies bewitched masses suffering from economic crises and social unrest, who were thus willing to accept a centralized government led by a “strong man” promising economic renewal and restoral of order. In China, those ideologies only took root because of and on the basis of their accordance with the preexisting Confucianism. 

This dissertation includes in-depth and extensive textual analysis of original Confucian texts. Its theoretical analysis of Confucius’s original thought, in particular his ethical and political teachings, illustrates how traditional Chinese political culture, nurtured in Confucian ethics, predisposed the Chinese people to a totalitarian solution to political problems. 

Chapter 2 presents the analysis’s method and terminology, which are unconventional. It explicates a few key terms which are essential to the Confucian canon, but which have long been mistranslated in the English literature. Chapter 3 reviews the literature of totalitarianism and proposes a (re)conceptualization of totalitarianism deviating from conventional treatments. Chapter 4 turns to the analysis of the intellectual characteristics of the ru school of thought, explaining the amenability of Chinese society to a totalitarian rule depending on mass obedience and the inability of individuals to think for themselves. It is shown that human hermeneutics—modes of interpreting and understanding phenomena—are realized fundamentally differently in China than in the West. Chapter 5 examines ru ethics, the moral foundation of traditional Chinese politics, which is here termed family politics. Comparing Western accounts of ethics with 伦理 (lun li) demonstrates the essential differences between Chinese and Western morality. Chapter 6 concerns China’s traditional political culture, which shaped China’s imperial politics and is still robust in today’s China. Finally, Chapter 7 explains why European socialism, an ideology seemingly alien to Chinese culture, nonetheless was able to flourish in China. This chapter also addresses the question of why other East Asian countries, also influenced by the ru school of thought, did not follow the same totalitarian pathway as China.  


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Political Science

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Fenggang Yang

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Dr. Cherie Maestas

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. David D. Corey

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. David A. Reingold

Additional Committee Member 4

Dr. Mark Tilton

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