Circle of fear in early China

Michael Nylan, Trenton Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Montesquieu wrote that ‘China is a despotic state whose principle is fear’. And indeed, in the early modern context in China, fear and despotism, on the one hand, were opposed to ziyou (‘freedom’), on the other. These constructs created a discursive space in which theorists of the nation-state felt the need to articulate the complex relations binding despotism to fear. By contrast, during the early empires in China a different set of relations was imagined, wherein salutary fear was aligned against both despotism and freedom and, crucially, with according others a proper sense of dignity. For by the arguments of remote antiquity, ‘submission to instruction and fear of the gods’ functioned both as a vital check on despotism and as the key barrier to the unchecked and unhampered self-assertion by subjects and rulers. Yet this notion of ritual operating within a circle of fear it helped to foster has so far escaped scholarly notice, perhaps because it does not square with the ritual theories that dominate our modern discourse and perhaps because such ritual fear has been dismissed easily as remnant, primitive superstition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number26
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Religious studies


  • Autocratic rule
  • Classical China
  • Fear
  • Freedom
  • Ritual theories


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