Montesquieu
 

XIX.17 A property particular to the government of China

The legis­la­tors of China went fur­ther1 : they confla­ted reli­gion, laws, ethos, and man­ners ; all of that was mora­lity, all of that was vir­tue. The pre­cepts that rela­ted to these four points were what they cal­led the rites. It was in the exact obser­va­tion of these rites that the Chinese govern­ment pre­vai­led. People spent their entire youth lear­ning them, and their entire life prac­ti­cing them. The lear­ned taught them, the magis­tra­tes prea­ched them ; and as they sub­su­med all the minor acts of life, so long as the means were found to see that they were exactly obser­ved, China was well gover­ned.

Two things were able to easily engrave the rites into the hearts and minds of the Chinese : one, the dif­fi­culty of the wri­ting, to which the mind has for a very large part of life been uni­quely occu­pied,2 because it was neces­sary to learn to read in the books and for the books that contai­ned them ; the other, the fact that, the pre­cepts of the rites being in no way spi­ri­tual, being sim­ply the rules of com­mu­nal prac­tice, minds are more rea­dily convin­ced and impres­sed with them than with some­thing intel­lec­tual.

The prin­ces who, ins­tead of gover­ning through the rites, gover­ned by force of cor­po­ral punish­ments, were trying to make the punish­ments do some­thing it is not in their power to do, which is to ins­till an ethos. Punishments will indeed remove from society a citi­zen who, having lost his com­pass, vio­la­tes the laws ; but if eve­ryone has lost his com­pass, will they res­tore it ? Corporal punish­ments will indeed put an end to seve­ral conse­quen­ces of the gene­ral malady, but they will not cor­rect that malady. Thus, when the prin­ci­ples of the Chinese govern­ment were aban­do­ned, when its mora­lity was lost, the state fell into anar­chy, and revo­lu­tions fol­lo­wed.

See the classical books of which Fatherdu Halde has given us such fine passages.

That is what established emulation, the flight of idleness and esteem for knowledge.