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  • Writer's pictureAydin Quach

Is Chinese History "Immobile?"

Updated: May 10, 2020


Popular imaginations of Chinese history may emphasize an “immobile empire” that changes little across its history and use an aptly called “dynastic cycle” as an explanation of why Chinese history appears to be stuck in a state of stasis. This idea of the rise and fall of dynasties because of corruption and then a restoration to order is used as a blanket theory across all of Chinese history and reinforces the idea of the “immobile empire.” However, this illustration of Chinese history may, in fact, be flawed. If we are to understand the study and discipline of history as the study of change over time, then Valarie Hansen’s proposition of the history of China as the history of an “Open Empire” serves to recontextualize the idea of the “immobile empire.” Chinese history is not a history of just changes or just continuities -- the history of China is best illustrated as changes that are a part of the continuity and narrative. Hansen offers a propelling theory founded on the idea that Chinese history is dynamic and “open” to change. This involves many voices and people, both Chinese and non-Chinese.[1] What fundamentally we know now as “Chinese” was a constant evolution. The currents of these changes within the continuity can be explained and demonstrated by charting how Confucius’ teachings permeated throughout Chinese history in the backdrop as a foundation for “Chineseness,” but changed with the ebb and flow of dynasties.

What we consider to be “China” in terms of geography changes almost as much as the dynasties throughout history. Changes in territory through Chinese history offered a seismic shift in the way the Chinese understood themselves relative to the world. Specifically, they change the understanding of what is “Chinese” and what is considered “barbarian” in the context of the Confucian tradition. There is no better example of this than the Song Dynasty, which saw Chinese recognizing the Western Xia Dynasty of the Tanguts to the west of China as political equals. The prevailing cultural notion in Chinese history was that of Sinocentrism, which suggests the idea of Chinese superiority in relation to all of its neighbours and foreigners. Sinocentrisim is also what enabled the creation of the tribute system in China.[2] The cultivation of a distinct Han Chinese culture served to help differentiate between “Chinese” and “barbarian.” Han culture embraced the Confucian values of filial piety as well as order.[3] Emperor Jingzong, the founding emperor of the Western Xia, requested that the Song Dynasty ruler recognize him not just as a fellow ruler, but in particular, a ruler of a state that is just as Chinese as the Song Dynasty. Jingzong wished to bow to his southern neighbour in respect and emulation as political equals. Jingzong wrote: “I humbly look to Your Majesty the Emperor, in your profound wisdom and perfection, whose benevolence extends to all things, to permit me to be invested as the “ruler facing south” in this western land.[4]” This emulation of the Song emperor came at the cost of shattering Confucian understandings of rulership. There was only to be one person holding the Mandate of Heaven in the Confucian tradition. What Jinzong was trying to do was assert himself as the son of Heaven -- just like the Song emperor. This was a first in Chinese history. Never had there been two sons of Heaven that of two different kingdoms both equally held the Mandate of Heaven.

Jingzong saw his kingdom as much “Chinese” as the actual Chinese empire and sought to propagate Chinese style governance. Jingzong followed the lead of the Chinese in trying to civilize and being the barbarians in his region into the fold and submit them to the superior Chinese rule. It served as a way to legitimize his sovereignty. “Now that the dress regulations have been completed, the script put into effect, the rites and music made manifest, the vessels and implements prepared, the Tibetans, Tatars, Changye, and Jiaohe [Uighurs] have all recognized my sovereignty.[5]” As much as the Chinese wanted to remain the distinguished power in East Asia, the Song Dynasty as that idea of superiority continuously being contested. Jingzong, in fact, writes that he believes the Chinese culture and identity should be shared and spread, comparing it to a force of nature that cannot be ignored. “As the fish come and the birds go, so will be transmitted the sounds of our neighbouring states; as the earth is old and Heaven spacious, so long will I subdue disturbances along the border.[6]” What Jingzong was trying to assert was his legitimacy to the Chinese people. To this extent, he was trying to make a case that Chinese identity has more to do with culture than with blood since so many non-Chinese and Chinese intermingled, and so many people followed Chinese customs and culture.

The Song Dynasty also provides a useful historical backdrop for examining the evolution of Chinese political thought. With a humiliating defeat to barbarian forces and the loss of substantial territory, the political elite began to question the methodology of rulership as well as the prevailing political philosophies -- namely Confucianism and its role in governmental politics. Confucianism, which was once traditionally seen as a uniform political philosophy that followed one general interpretation throughout Chinese history, saw a split in Song China. Seen as the head of a new wave of Confucianism, Wang Anshi saw the loss of Chinese territory to barbarians as a sign that the rulers were not heeding the advice of Confucian classics correctly as well as not ruling in the same way as the sage kings of old.[7] He stood in stark contrast to others in the court that wished to follow more conservative policymaking, such as Sima Guang. For once, the system that had worked in China for so long was hotly debated.

Wang Anshi believed that without a strong set of court officials, a virtuous and good ruler would still amount to nothing.[8] The old rulers of China had to have an influential court filled with intellectuals, and Wang Anshi suggested that the current emperor would do well to “emulate their strong legacy of stability that the current emperor can achieve greatness.[9]” Wang Anshi quotes Confucious: “Though he may have humane heart and a reputation for humaneness, one from whom the people receive no benefits will not serve as a model for later generations because he does not practice the way of the former kings.[10]” Wang Anshi used the kings of older periods as a framework for what was known and what was a foundational core to Chinese rulership, but added his own perceptions as to how this was to be best achieved. His prescriptions to the emperor revolve around the cultivation of well-learned men through schools and having these well-learned men compete for government positions in the form of competitive plurality.[11] This elite within the court would be trusted to complete all the tasks set before them and would take on more responsibility than previous administrations. This system, he argued, will cultivate new ideas and creativity that will help the empire. He suggested to the emperor to allow for increased freedoms and trust towards his officials because officials “hands tied by this law or that regulation [will be] unable to carry out their own ideas.[12]” Wang Anshi’s ideas led him to become the chancellor of the Imperial Court and saw his implementation of the New Policies, such as the Green Sprouts reform, which sought to protect peasants and working-class people from the rich that may extort them for their means.[13]

In the Ming Dynasty, we see another example of the opening up of the empire to new ideas and new thoughts that trigger a new change while keeping in line with the continuity of Confucian thought. More importantly, we see that Chinese society and culture are capable of rationalizing new ideas and transforming their own beliefs and understandings. Responses by Chinese literati to the teachings of the Bible from Matteo Ricci suggests that they blended the Christian understanding of the world with their own Confucian understanding -- in particular, “the Christian God was equated with Di, the ruler of Heaven.[14]” “The primal power that governs Heaven is the king and father of all [...] the master Zhu Xi identified Di as the ruler of Heaven. Thus the idea of the Lord of Heaven [Goel] did not begin with Mr. Li [Ricci].[15]” The parallels between Christianity and Confucianism did more than justify that Christianity was compatible with Chinese culture; it enriched and changed the Chinese understanding of Confucianism.

Christianity was able to reconcile some of the critical challenges with Confucian traditions, chiefly the understanding of the self as well as morality in society. One such issue was the promotion of good morals to those that were not the emperor and did not hold the Mandate of Heaven. Specifically, interactions with Christianity provided answers as to how everyday people were supposed to act and interact outside of the family unit.“To do good is like ascending, that is, ascending into Heaven; to do evil is like falling, that is, falling into Hell.[16]” The idea of assertion to Heaven and descent into Hell prompted a boom in philosophical writings that revolved around a fusion of Confucianism as well as Christianity. The writings that came from this initial analysis of Christianity stressed how institutions were essential in both Christianity and Confucianism. “Now, in their countries, men of the church all cultivate personal virtue in order to serve the Lord of Heaven. They heard that in China, the teachings of the sages also all cultivate personal virtue and serve Heaven.[17]” More specifically, it provided clarity and justification that Confucian traditions were superior to those of other faiths, such as Buddhism. “Those who practice yoga use spells and incantations that are perverse and contrary to reason. Furthermore, they desire to place the Buddha above the Lord-Up-High, which is contrary to the intent of the ancient kings and sages. It causes men not to know what to follow or what to depend on.[18]

Fitting into the narrative of an “open empire,” Chinese history can be represented as an organic membrane that is semi-porous in which it is open and influences others around them but is also changed and affected by the forces that interact with it. In the interplay of trade, war, and politics, the Confucian tradition stands as a testament to Chinese philosophical thought and culture. It would be wrong to state that the Confucian tradition was immobile and not subject to change. Through conflict and foreign political intrigue, the Confucian tradition spread and changed as its limits began to be tested. In the face of adversity and political insecurity, the Confucian tradition rearticulated itself into new forms. When faced with new ideas and philosophies, Confucianism adopted them and moulded them into a new synthesis that enriched what was already known. What we can see through the evolution of Confucian traditions is, in fact, a microcosm of how we can interpret Chinese history. It is a history that is dynamic and changes over time. It is also a history that has its foundations firmly rooted in tradition, but those traditions change and evolve with changing circumstances. More importantly, the foundation also serves as the continuity and the narrative in which we can see the changes that arise over time.

[1] Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), p.5) [2] Ibid., 13. [3] Ibid. [4] Patricia Buckley Ebrey, “The Tanguts and Their Relations with the Han Chinese,” in Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, Second (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1993), pp. 139-141, p.139) [5] Ibid., 140. [6] Ibid., 141. [7] Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, “A Petition to Do Away with the Most Harmful of the New Laws,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 625-626, p.625) [8] Aydin Quach, “HIST 379 Week 4: Reading Response,” HIST 379 Week 4: Reading Response, 2019) [9] Ibid. [10]Theodore De Bary and Irene Bloom, “Wang Anshi: Memorial to Emperor Renzong (1058),” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 612-616, p.613) [11] Aydin Quach, “HIST 379 Week 4. [12] Ibid., 616. [13] Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, p.246. [14] Aydin Quach, “HIST 379 Week 10: Reading Response,” HIST 379 Week 10: Reading Response, 2019) [15] Theodore De Bary and Richard Lufrando, “Chinese Responses to Early Christian Contacts,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 142-154, p.145) [16] Ibid., 147. [17] Ibid., 148. [18] Ibid., 150.


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