Economic Discourse in Early Chinese Thought: From Antiquity to the Mid-Warring States Era (4th Century BCE)


Yang Fu

PhD defended at: 

University of Cambridge


This dissertation attempts to reconstruct a history of economic discourse in early Chinese thought from antiquity through to the mid-Warring States era (fourth century BCE) based on the analysis of a selection of received texts. Contrary to claims held by economists working on the history of Chinese economic thought, I argue that economic ideas in early China can only be traced when references to economic matters are framed into discursive practice. I identify three key principles that underlie the management of resources in early Chinese thought – ritual as a normative measure, morality, and the notion of calculation – and argue that economic discourse in early Chinese thought is first and foremost aimed at elaborating different views about the ideal socio-political order.
Chapter 1 explores economic ideas in the Shangshu and Shijing. These texts reveal the significance of the notions of self-sufficiency and reciprocity in the discourse on economic matters before the fifth century BCE. Chapter 2 investigates the ways in which the idea of ritual figures in discussions on wealth and labour in the Zuozhuan and Guoyu and how ritual is linked with the notions of sufficiency and reciprocity seen in the Shangshu and Shijing. Chapter 3 examines how the Lunyu conceives of economic life through moral categories, and shows that analysing the text from an economic angle reveals its interplay with other texts.
In chapter 4 I analyse the Mozi and demonstrate how the Mohists articulate the notions of calculation and reciprocity in order to propose a theory about the formation of society. It further explores how these two concepts inform the Mohist way of economic decision-making. Chapter 5 probes into the core Mohist ideas and suggests that their underlying consideration is to a significant degree economic. Chapter 6 argues that economic discourse in the Mengzi is intended to respond both to its social milieu - within which the pursuit of material benefits became a more serious issue - as well as to the prevalence of the Mohist idea of calculation. In the Mengzi, the foremost concern is to apply moral principles to the management of economic matters.