Classical Confucianism, punitive expeditions, and humanitarian intervention

Sumner B. Twiss, Keung Lap Jonathan Chan

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapter


Building on the authors' previous work regarding the classical Confucian position on the legitimate use of military force as represented by Mencius and Xunzi, this paper probes their understanding of punitive expeditions undertaken against tyrants in particular - aims, justification, preconditions, and limits. It compares this understanding with contemporary Western models of humanitarian intervention, and argues that the Confucian punitive expedition aligns most closely with the emerging 'responsibility to protect' model in Western discussions, although it also differs from the latter in certain respects. For example, the Confucian expedition explicitly forwards as legitimate aims regime change and the punishment of tyrants, in addition to rescue of an abused population and assistance in rebuilding a decent society. The Confucian understanding also appears to set a lower threshold standard (well short of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or large-scale massacre) for what counts as severe tyranny warranting intervention, and it explicitly speaks of an obligation (beyond mere permissibility) to intervene when that threshold is exceeded. In its concluding section, the paper discusses some possible contemporary implications of the classical Confucian understanding of a punitive expedition against tyrants. © 2012 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationChinese just war ethics: Origin, development, and dissent
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781315740706
ISBN (Print)9781138824355
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Publication series

NameWar, conflict and ethics
PublisherTaylor & Francis

User-Defined Keywords

  • Mencius
  • models of humanitarian intervention
  • punishment and rectification
  • punitive expedition
  • regime change
  • responsibility to protect
  • severe tyranny
  • true kingship
  • Xunzi


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