History as the Final Judge

This is part three of my professor’s lecture on speech acts. This part is even more of a digression than the thoughts on race and “the weak,” but it’s related to the Confucian quote, and, more specifically, ideas about history.

My professor was saying that he thought that social order required there to be a “final judge” (最后审判者). For the West, that “final judge” has been the Judeo-Christian God and the accompanying system of morality. However, China’s “final judge,” my professor argued, was certainly not religious in nature. So what was it?

According to him, through the ages the Chinese have feared not the judgment of some god or moral system, but rather history. He felt that for China, history is the final judge.

What did China’s emperors have to fear? Certainly not the wrath of anything divine. The only thing they feared was how historians recorded them.

Similarly, parents toil their entire lifetimes because their vision is firmly locked on the future. Their children will have better lives, and they are willing to accept a role in the history of that better future.

I’m not going to write too much about this… This is the kind of thing that doesn’t get written down in my notebook (since it’s almost completely irrelevant to speech acts), but it certainly captures my attention and imagination a bit more.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. That’s an interesting way to put it, but I think it has some problems. For example, what about Westerners who were atheists? Also, did Westerns who worried about God as the final judge then not worry about history? I’m sure there were plenty of them who did.

  2. Lantian Says: May 1, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    I could see how Judeo-Christian types have the ‘fear of God’ and death in their daily lives, keeps them from pulling the trigger at the guy that just cut them off. But the common Mr. Zhang…he cares only about history? Hmm…maybe it does explain the ‘whatever’ attitude Chinese people sometimes have, if no one knows it’s ok, but then get totally warped on other particulars. Is this prof like some yoda? I wish there was a Star Wars spin-off about Yoda produced by Peter Jackson. Did he relate it to the common Joe/Zhang?

  3. Who would be the better judge though: A Chinese historian or a non-Chinese historian?

  4. The problem with history as the final judge, is that it leaves one with the option to plumb the depths of depravity in order to succeed. If you win, you write history and it will judge you well…

  5. Sonagi Says: May 2, 2006 at 4:05 am

    The Chinese/Asian sacrifice for the betterment of my descendants is pure Darwinism. Some of the most selfless and trustworthy people I know are agnostics or atheists. It is heartening to realize that at least some human beings do not need the threat of eternal damnation or historical oblivion/notoriety in order to behave.

  6. I don’t get this “history as judge” routine. “History” doesn’t judge anything, historians do. And historians disagree on almost everything. So, for example, how does “history” judge Mao? I guess that depends on whose history you want to go by: a Western historian, a PRC historian, a Taiwanese? Not to mention that there would obviously be huge disagreements within those groups, also, which would vary greatly over time. No, that isn’t a result of how recent that bit of history is: if you examine any historical subject, you will find there are disagreements and conflicts that are just as passionate over ancient Greece as there are over Mao, etc. So, for example, in the West the “judgment of history” is that liberal democra-cy triumphed over communism. Is that the “judgment of history” in China? I guess that depends who you ask. Anyway, IMHO the “judgment of history” is a flimsy concept that doesn’t withstand five minutes of scrutiny.

    Just to get Hitler into before anyone else does (you know it’s coming): the victors write the history. Mao is the the textbook case. If Hitler won, most of us would probably think he was 70% good, 30% bad.

  7. No offense John, but this is a truly pedestrian observation. Even if we assume that human behavior is utilitarian and rational in the long-term, and that we all have relatively comparable notions of utility, taking this argument means embracing an axiomatic faith in the power of sticks over carrots.

    Which is fine… except that it is fascist. And as Sonagi points out. society actually seems to be (1) fairly orderly in the absense of final deterrents, and (2) people who profess claims to historical/religious legacies are sometimes the most pathelogical.

    I think the interesting thing here is that your professor, who undoubtedly considers himself relatively liberal, is unwittingly lecturing students on the tenets of fascism. Hope there is more to the class (and the man) than this.

  8. That sounds a lot like the ancient greek view of immortality–that one can live on forever as long as their name survives, so you’d better make sure people remember you, and in a good light too.

    I can think of a number of emperors for which this is probably true, but do you think this is the way most Chinese think (or thought)? I wonder if it’s tied to ancester worship. Do you think common people sought to do great things so that they’d be remembered by their descendants?

    Jon: It sounds like the prof. was talking in a historical context. What he said may not be true today, but it certainly was true from about 500CE until the Renaissance. And I’m sure some of the resulting beliefs live on in westerners today, even non-christians.

  9. “final judge” is a nice sounding phrase for the legitimacy-clamoring academic, but it’s too broad, and vague and broadly generazlied as a concept holding little widespread consensus among chinese. at least karma and buddhist ideas are much more socially relevant/conclusive. if anything he’s intuitively picking out what sets “western consciousness” (and he makes it monolithic entity – judeo christianity!) apart by its absence in chinese history (ignoring christianity has a long, tumultous history in pan-chinese communities from maligned marginalization to valorized occult, to self-righteous, glorified business gateway in overseas communities.) professors are ushers to portals of higher thought, not the gatekeepers. form your own mind and bungee jump from whatever he feed.

  10. The professor sounds like one of those “deep” people you’d run into in the college dorms, smoking on a bong…his next lecture is about electricity, and how it comes from other planets.

  11. Da Xiangchang Says: May 3, 2006 at 4:11 am

    What a shallow, insipid lecture! And quite wrong.

    “The West”‘s final judgement is a Judeo-Christian God? That’s an oversimplification, esp. in Europe where Christianity is essentially dying. In Bush’s government, probably, but even in American history, this is not wholly true. A lot of the founding fathers were deists (like Jefferson) and not Christians. To say “The West” is obsessed with Judeo-Christian morality is an oversimplification of the grossest sort.

    Also, I don’t think this guy even knows about Chinese history. The Chinese emperors didn’t care about “history.” They could care less! The MAIN (only?) thing they’re afraid of is their own population rebelling against them. This has been the greatest fear of old Emperors and the current ones like Hu Jintao.

  12. What did China’s emperors have to fear? Certainly not the wrath of anything divine.

    This is just dead wrong, the concept of “the mandate of heaven” was very important in the legitamacy of the Chinese emperor. That’s why they had all those ceremonial dinners and went to Tiantan to pray for a good harvest. They were trying to maintan the mandate for their dynasty.

  13. It has been quite some time since I have been here; work, you know.

    Not quite the same thing, but in a similar vein is the speech that Solon made to Croesus, as recorded by Herodotus. (I know many who live or study about East Asia have great disdain for Western Culture, I do not know why; but many do. Anyway, you can look up the passage at Elpenor, Herodotus: The End Judges Everything, it give both an English translation and the original Greek).

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