Recently, the research paradigm of the economic thoughts in ancient China mainly emphasizes the concepts in western mainline economics, such as market, exchange and division of labor, but ignores the other factors, like political power and morality. In that case, it is widely believed that the economic thoughts in ancient China are scattered and unstructured, which means there is no clear logical chain between the relevant concepts. However, political power is a vital consideration for economic problems in ancient China, and the moral concepts proposed by different schools in China are the foundation of economic analysis at that time. Then how could we understand these ideas more precisely and comprehensively, and how should we consider the difference in economic concepts between China and the West? Are there any unique and structured ideas in ancient China? To answer these urgent problems has certain significance to fully understand the economic thoughts in ancient China, and also can provide some enlightenment for revaluating those ideas.
In a bid to deal with these problems, this paper would, as an example, analyze the economic thoughts of Confucius with a paradigm including the political and moral factors. First of all, we summarize the essential economic problems the society facing in the West-Zhou Dynasty and the Spring-Autumn Period, especially the problems about how the rulers having political power intervene in the institutional change. Then, according to the historical materials during these periods, we try to find out the measures ancient thinkers took to tackle the specific problems with moral concepts, and the whole progress in which they create an economy institution design. In the end, we analyze Confucius’ ideas about the morality and institutional design, and thereby try to summarize the basic structure and inner logic of the economic thoughts in ancient China.
It comes to the following conclusions: Firstly, the core of Confucius’ economic thoughts is about how to deal with the economic problems with the discussion of moral concepts being prevalent during that period. His planning about economic institutions, such as the land system and tax system, is based on his argument for political legitimacy. Secondly, the basic structure of the economic thoughts in ancient China may include three considerations: the knowledge of sociopolitical and economic problems, the knowledge of social legitimacy in terms of morality, the design of economic institutions. Thirdly, there is a consistent logic in ancient economic thoughts. The discovery of objective facts including specific political and economic problems would influence the value judgment reflected by the change of moral concepts’ definition, and thereby these kinds of change in moral concepts would lead to a new institutional design.
The conclusions of this paper provide some enlightenment for the study of ancient economic thoughts. We provide a new study paradigm of ancient economic thoughts, which include some neglected factors, such as political power, moral concepts and economic institutions. Except for Confucius, this paradigm can be also used in others’ economic thoughts in ancient time. What’s more, emphasizing the link between ancient economic thoughts and specific economic problems would be beneficial to understand the development of economy in modern society, like the moral issues caused by the development of market-oriented economy in China.
In short, this paper provides a new angle of view to understand the economic thoughts in ancient China more precisely and comprehensively, compared with the previous study paradigm which follows Western mainstream economic theories. Additionally, it also deeply analyzes the important role of power and ethics in the formation and development of ancient economic thoughts and their internal relations, and on this basis gives the basic logic that the ancients followed in discussing economic issues.