li, law and zombies

Maintaining social order in imperial China and a zombie apocalypse: a comparative analysis.


Hard copy (one page) due at the beginning of class Monday

You are out partying too late, fall into a deep sleep on the couch, and are awoken by UW Chancellor Ward, who informs you that there has been a zombie apocalypse. Half the student population has been wiped out and the Chancellor wants you to take over as House Fellow in an all-freshman dorm to maintain social order. He hands you a copy of T’ung-tsu Ch’u’s “The Confucian School and the Legal School” as he heads out the door, explaining that it has been adopted as the official UW Policy and Procedures Manual.  Do you govern the dorm according to li or law? Why? What happens?

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As I try to piece together the previous night, raising the palms of my hands to rub away the blurriness in my eyes, I reminiscently mumble aloud “nothing good ever happens when you black out.”

“Tell me about it, but this time it’s a little worse than that.” Now my head flew around in proper fashion, and I began to feel the first tip of those rusty dull knives in the back of my head. The room I was in oddly resembled my old dorm room, and perched on a futon behind me was none other than UW Chancellor Ward.


Chancellor David Ward

From the looks of him he was not joking about having a bad night. His suit  was badly torn across the chest, both his sleeves had been ripped off and blood and dirt soiled his face. His face was the most captivating; it was blank. He was not even looking at me. He stared into the whitewashed brick walls and emotionlessly explained how bad the night really was…

Chancellor Ward stood up, informing me that because I was the oldest living student in Witte, I was in charge of all the freshmen who had barricaded the dorm from the flesh addicted horde outside.

Witte Hall Dormitory

As he turned to leave, he said he had something for me that would help. I hungrily eyed the 12 gauge shotgun propped up next to the door, but I was severely disappointed when he tossed me a small book labeled The Confucian School and the Legal School. “Are you kidding me!?” was all I could muster.


T’ung-Tsu Ch’ü, Law and Society in Traditional China (Paris: Mouton, 1961)

As I rounded up all the freshmen in the main lobby, I began to explain what I had learned. I explained the school of thought concerning li. I explained that some Confucian teachings preach education of the moral law, music, harmony, and social order. The most fundamental of Confucian beliefs consider law unnecessary and even harmful to society. They claim that education can bring “perpetual ease” with supreme and continuous effort creating a permanently peaceful society.


Woman playing a sanxian

However, law seeks uniformity by punishment; consequently only causing people to try and avoid punishment and leaving no room for a sense of shame. With law there is no difference between the virtuous woman who commits no crime and the evil woman who fears to commit a crime because of punishment.


Three Chinese “Prisoners” in a Cangue

At his point, I placated the concerned looks of the rational thinkers in the room. Obviously, these Confucian Zen masters hadn’t read any Hobbs or Machiavelli. People are generally self-interested, and during the zombie apocalypse, if ever, is when people will tend to act the most selfishly. When your neighbor’s brains are being munched on by the local policeman, I do not think you are going to think of benevolence, righteousness, harmony, or the good of society…

450cropped confucian scholar


To hammer home the necessity of law to the more intellectually inept freshmen in the room, I used the quote from Han Fei tzu saying “An intelligent person emphasizes facts, dismisses what is useless, does not mention benevolence and righteousness, and does not listen to the word of the Confucian scholars.”

With that over, I threw the small booklet out the window.

Anonymous Student

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Chancellor Ward’s fleeing footsteps echo down the hallway and I am suffocating. T’ung-tsu Ch’u’s “The Confucian School and the Legal School” feels heavy in my hands. I have seen my fair share of Zombie movies and the vast majority of them do not end with cute puppies and rainbows.


Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)

Suddenly I realize I am doomed to spend my last hours comforting distressed freshmen. I decide to suck it up and begin to flip through the manual while mentally trying to recall apocalypse survival tips. My brow furrows as I realize the manual consists of two completely different schools of thought. Which school did the chancellor want me to follow?


Confucian analect

I hurriedly pull out my red pen and begin to underline the main concepts. The Confucian School believes that equality is not inherent. Humans are born with different levels of intelligence and that influences the division of labor. Scholars sit at the top while physical laborers receive fewer benefits. I imagine Wisconsin’s strongest athletes zombie-proofing the dorm while the students with the highest GPA’s and I relax and snack on frozen yoghurt.

witte interior plus dead

Witte Hall Dormitory

The image fades and I feel ashamed. No, as a house fellow I should treat all the students fairly. As for rules, The Confucian School believed that humans just needed to be taught how to be good and if they were not good, then the emperor is to blame. ….

With the help of my new dorm mates, wooden chairs are broken down into boards and nailed to the windows. Food scrounged and rationed. The Law we live by is tacked up on the wall of the common room. It states, “Endangering the lives of your fellow dorm mates is a punishable offense and will result in Zombie sacrifice.”

Mahalia Mack

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As UW Chancellor Ward hurries out the back hallway of the boy’s dormitory, only an ominous bloody handprint flickers neon brown as the exit light struggles to stay on. You declare to him “I don’t know what to do!…I signed up to be a house fellow, not to lead or protect these freshmen!”

The chancellor stops dead in his tracks, one foot out the door, and says, “Listen Colin, I know you are not even a year older than most of these kids, but they respect you enough to listen to what you have to say and more importantly you MUST maintain social order. Legal Studies is your major, you should know the first…”


He stops midsentence and immediately starts trembling. Five zombies are  running full-speed up Johnson Street screaming “Gophers football rules! Bucky is dead!” “Oh Jesus” the chancellor murmurs, “here are the keys to the dorm…”


Bucky Badger enzombied

“OK, Colin, think…What do these freshmen want? Well, I don’t think I  handle a mutiny with only me in charge, and I don’t think they will go for Li Law, me declaring I am above them somehow because I am older and obviously a lot more wise…” Suddenly, you hear the entire floor of boys, wide-awake and rush to start implementing The Legalists Law.

Colin Tucker

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I am well aware that society as it was is no more, social order is tenuous at best and the loss of many persons the proceeding night has led to an all around general deterioration of basic cultural niceties. There is simply too much temptation to commit evil acts for li to be the primary basis through which I derive my authority. The deceased students left behind many valuable items that the survivors covet greatly…


Bucky Badger winter hat, Pipefitter

In the end, the students in my dorm hate me; for my status is low and my punishments are severe and oft dolled out. That said, my dorm is very stable and safe, no more students are lost to the Zombpocalypse and the students quickly understand their place as well as the behavioral parameters that I have laid out for them to avoid punishment. As society recovers and my students grow to fill leaderships roles far and wide they reflect with understanding why my hand had to be so heavy and how my decisions helped bring society back to the point where li could eclipse law as the predominant legal influence.

Nicholas Bartholomew
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Chinese zombie


Chinese zombie