This term refers to the rule of a state by means of force and power as opposed to “benevolent governance.” The ruling court of the Zhou Dynasty began to decline in the Spring and Autumn Period while some of its vassal states grew stronger. Some state rulers, who were dukes or princes, began to maintain the social order by manipulating the throne and other state rulers. Some emerged as the more powerful among other states. Their governing principles and policies were regarded as despotic governance. In their governance, they valued benefits and power instead of benevolence and moral principles. They ruled by brutal force instead of by the force of morality; they governed by coercion instead of moral suasion. They ignored ethics and made people live in fear. All they cared for was the benefits to their own states. Such practices went against the philosophy of the Chinese nation that has all along upheld peace and harmony, not force. Since ancient times, China has valued benevolent governance, and rejected despotic rule. This is the historical and cultural foundation of the Chinese notion of opposing hegemony and power politics.
A monarch who values the rule of morality and justice will be able to achieve benevolent governance; a monarch who adepts at intrigues and seizes power by war will practice despotic governance. (Guanzi)
One who seizes throne by force in the name of benevolence and justice needs a big state as his power base. One who ascends the throne by upholding morality and benevolence may not necessarily have a big state as his base… To make people subservient by force cannot make them observe the rule willingly. They are just too weak to resist. To make people subservient by morality can make them accept the rule willingly. The way the 72 disciples of Confucius held their master in high esteem is a good example. (Mencius)
A man who runs a state by upholding morality and justice may become a revered ruler of his whole country. With sincerity and honesty he will enjoy authority among vassal states whereas intrigues and conspiracies can only lead to his doom. (Xunzi)