Volume 16, Issue 2, 2019
Conceptual History: China, Asia, and the Global
The Introduction of Minbenzhuyi and the Return of Its Traditional Chinese Meaning
The concepts of Minben 民本, Minbensixiang 民本思想, and Minbenzhuyi 民本主义 are rather popular in current Chinese discourse. However, “Minben” was hardly found in Chinese ancient literature as a noun. Around the year of 1916, “Minbenzhuyi” became widely accepted in Japanese intellectual circles, interpreted as one of the Japanese versions of democracy. In 1917, “Minbenzhuyi” was transferred to China as a loanword by Li Dazhao and developed into one of the Chinese definitions of democracy. Nevertheless, Chen Duxiu questioned the meaning of the term in 1919. It was not until 1922 did Liang Qichao bring Minbenzhuyi back into Chinese context and conduct a systematic analysis, which had a lasting impact on Chinese intellectual community. In the following 20 years, Minbenzhuyi was largely accepted in two different senses : 1) interpreted as Chinese definition of democracy; 2) specifically refers to the Confucian idea of “Minshiminting and Minguijunqing” (民视民听, 民贵君轻). Gradually, it became evident that Minbenzhuyi in China had grown distant from the meaning of democracy and returned to its traditional Confucian values.