Axial Age in China: Timeless reflections for AI era from Chinese philosophy  

Published on 16 August 2023
Updated on 19 March 2024

China’s Axial Age, a period of shaping main cultural tenets, is built around three major thinkers: Shang Yang, Confucius, and Lao Tze. Their wisdom, deeply embedded in a multitude of age-old quotes, remains pertinent in our contemporary society. Their ideas, addressing the quintessence of human existence in an organised society, could also have important significance in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI). 

China, being a leading digital power along with the USA, boasts billions of internet users, cutting-edge tech firms, and a robust AI research landscape. To comprehend the dynamics of AI in China, it is crucial to understand the Chinese philosophies that continue to shape the country’s cultural landscape, and its mindset.  

In this text, we will delve into the primary tenets of the three schools of Chinese thought, highlighting their possible interconnections with AI and the digital era. 

Chinese legalism: The rule of law

The need to govern a large society has been a central concern in Chinese philosophy. Shang Yang, who lived more than 2200 years ago, formulated the concept of legalism, advocating the rule of law for societal stability and prosperity. He paid with his life for championing legal equality, as the aristocracy saw this as a threat to their privileges. However, his ideas endured, propelling the state of Qin into a powerful and prosperous entity, resulting in Qin conquering other Chinese states and unifying China under the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in 221 BCE. This formative phase ingrained the significance of legality into China’s collective subconsciousness, influencing governance throughout the centuries. 

The legalist approach continues to shape digital developments. China has adopted comprehensive legal frameworks governing data, e-commerce, and cybersecurity. In the emerging AI field, China has developed a set of regulations as well: Regulation on recommendation algorithms (in force as of 1 March 2022), Provisions for synthetically generated content (in force as of 10 January 2023), and Interim rules for generative AI (to enter into force on 15 August 2023). 

Confucianism: Emphasis on good governance and meritocracy

Confucius also advocated for state officials to be chosen based on their intellectual prowess and grasp of the Four Books and Five Classics, and argued for evidence-based policies.

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Four Books and Five Classics

Confucianism’s approach to good governance could inspire a search for AI governance. More specifically, its emphasis on taxation for social equality resonates well with the current focus on taxation of digital activities on national and global levels (e.g., OECD online taxation). 

Daoism: The art of effortless action

Unlike the previous two schools of thought, Daoism is sceptical about the possibility of achieving perfect order in human society, but argues that a ‘good enough’ order can still be achieved by following ‘The Way’ (Dao) – a principle of minimal governance and intervention. Daoism prefers nurturing an environment that encourages positive actions to strict orders and rigid controls by rulers.

Their views align well with the early development of the internet when limited government interference facilitated fast digital growth. 

Nowadays, as we are setting the rules for the AI era, the Daoist classification of governance is a good reminder:

‘The best governance is the governance that people do not know of its existence; the second is the governance that people approach and praise; the third is the governance that people fear; the worst governance is the governance that people scorn.’ (Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17). 

In addition, the complexity of AI requires a cautious approach, as Dao advised rulers to be ‘like the fox crossing a frozen stream in winter’. The fox carefully tests the ice before taking each step. A cautious approach can reduce the unforeseen side effects of governance decisions. For example, earlier this year, when the Italian data regulator requested that OpenAI observe data protection rules, it resulted in a temporary restriction of access to ChatGPT for Italian users. While this dispute was resolved, the question of the (un)foreseen consequences of governance decisions will increase in relevance. 

A shared tenet: The Mandate from Heaven

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Tianming – Mandate of Heaven
Chinese philosophical concept of the legitimacy of rulers

A shared tenet in Chinese philosophy and religion is the concept of the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ The ruler’s authority is metaphysically granted and can be withdrawn by ‘Heaven’ in the event they fail to fulfil their responsibilities, such as maintaining economic stability, societal progress, and security. As happened with the Qing Dynasty in the early 20th century, societal upheaval and the loss of power sanctioned failure to uphold the Mandate from Heaven. 

This concept resonates well with the social contract theory in Western political philosophy, which suggests that sovereign power is exchanged for social stability and economic prosperity.

Parting thoughts

In all three philosophies, the need for harmony and balance in all areas of governance is prominent. Translating this to the digital era, the challenge lies in finding an equilibrium between freedom and duty, privacy and security, innovation and stability, and rewards and equality.

This is why the enduring wisdom of China’s Axial Age presents critical insights for exploring the largely uncharted terrain of AI. The timeless teachings of ancient Chinese scholars offer inspiring ideas for dealing with the pivotal issues of the AI era, such as human agency and other predicaments. 

An examination of China’s Axial Age also provides a lens to understand the deeper cultural norms of contemporary Chinese society, which is a digital powerhouse with 20% of the world’s internet users, leading tech companies, and a thriving research ecosystem. Hence, gaining insights from China’s Axial Age, along with other cultural traditions, can substantially contribute to fostering more inclusive, informed, and impactful global AI governance.

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1 reply
  1. Sushma Joshi
    Sushma Joshi says:

    Interesting analysis of how ancient Chinese classical thoughts can be used for AI governance. Also interesting to see China recently formulated three regulations on AI and digital data. I’m going to assume Western countries are still at the handwringing, “do we regulate or do we not regulate” stage. Please share more on these three new policies and regulations.


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