Long-time readers of this blog know I’m quite interested in the history of Central Asia. This region of the world is “back in the news.” The Uyghurs of the Tarim basin are in the eye of the storm, with the Chinese government’s totalitarian apparatus zeroed in on them.
But is this so surprising? I would say no. The northern half of Xinjiang is “Dzungaria”, named after a collection of groups called “Dzungar Mongols.” But very few Mongols live in Dzungaria today. This is because 250 years ago they were ethnically cleansed by the Manchu Empire. The Qing dynasty.
Over the years I have written and talked about the Hui people of China a fair amount. Who are the Hui? In short, they are a group of Muslims who live in China proper and have assimilated to the predominant cultural forms of the nation. The Hui of Yunnan speak in the dialect of Yunnan. The Hui of the north speak the dialect of their locality. And so forth.
But, due to their Muslim religion, they are obviously quite distinct culturally from the Chinese majority. They do not eat pork, and they dress somewhat differently. That being said, the cultural distance between the Hui and the Han is far smaller than that between the Uyghur and the Han. There are about as many Hui and Uyghur in China, so it is a misnomer when you see headlines of the form “Chinese Muslims” when referring to the Uyghur, when in fact the majority of Chinese Muslims are not Uyghur (there are other Muslim ethnic groups so that Uyghur overall are less than 50%).
In most of China proper the largest ethnic minority, and the Hui are viewed as ethnicity, are the Hui. In Central Asia the Hui are known as Dungans, and are viewed as Chinese first, not Muslims first (in China proper the Hui see themselves as Muslims, but the Dungan communities in post-Soviet Central Asia see themselves as Chinese). A disproportionate number of Hui, Dungans, were involved in the Manchu driven conquest and control of Xinjiang. The Hui are not physically distinct from the Han on the whole if they do not dress distinctively, and they speak and write in Chinese. But, their religion allows them to interface with Central Asian Turkic Muslims in a way that is more difficult than the Han. In other words, they are a “middle-man minority” in places like Xinjiang.
This brings us to the question of the genetic origins of the Hui. Are they simply Islamicized Han Chinese? The short answer is they are not simply Islamicized Han Chinese, but they are quite similar to the Han genetically. Over the years various methods give a proportion of about 10% “West Eurasian” and 90% “East Eurasian” for the Hui. This aligns with what you see physically in their faces. They look Chinese.
…Analyses of over 700K SNPs in 109 western Chinese individuals (49 Sichuan Hui and 60 geographically close Nanchong Han) together with the available ancient and modern Eurasians allowed us to fully explore the genomic makeup and origin of Huis and neighboring Hans. The results of the traditional and formal admixture-statistics (PCA, ADMIXTURE, and allele-sharing-based f-statistics) illuminated a strong genomic affinity between Sichuan Hui and Neolithic-to-modern Northern East Asians, which suggested massive gene influx from East Asian into Sichuan Hui people. Three-way admixture models in the qpWave/qpAdm analyses further revealed a small stream of gene influx from western Eurasian related to French or Andronovo into these Hui people, which was further directly confirmed via the admixture event from the temporally different western sources to Hui people in the qpGraph-based phylogenetic model, suggesting the key role of cultural diffusion model in the genetic formation of the modern East Asian Hui. ALDER-based admixture date estimation showed that this observed western Eurasian admixture signal was introduced into East Asian Hui during the historic periods, concordant with the extensive western-eastern communication in the Silk Road and historically documented Huis migration history. Summarily, although significant cultural differentiation among Hui and their neighbors existed, our genomic analysis showed their strong affinity with modern and ancient Northern East Asians. Our results supported that modern Chinese Hui arose from the mixture of minor western Eurasian ancestry and predominantly East Asian ancestry.
In the preprint you’ll see an AdmixtureGraph which shows that the Hui of Sichuan can be modeled as 93% Sichuan Han and 7% “Scythian”. The model fits, but the history does not. Take a look at the admixture plot and it seems quite clear to me the most likely “donor” population are Central Asian Turks, not ancient Iranians. The issue is that the Iranians themselves are predominant contributors to the ancestry of many Turkic groups. These groups are about 50% West Eurasian, so the better model probably is that about 15% of the ancestry of the Hui of Sichuan derives from Muslims of Turkic origin.
In the preprint the authors used ALDER to date the admixture to 500 or 1000 years ago depending on the group. They note that these dates will pick up the last admixture, not earlier ones. I don’t really trust the specificity of the dates because I don’t trust the model of admixture. The most plausible scenario is the one that is presented as the most likely by historians. Large numbers of Muslims arrived during the Mongol Yuan dynasty to help them rule and exploit the local Han Chinese. There were always Muslim communities before, but they were periodically suppressed, exterminated, or assimilated (see what happened in Guangzhou during the Tang dynasty). In contrast, after the fall of the Yuan the Muslims of China rooted in these Turkic communities remained and assimilated.
The great Ming naval commander Zheng He was from the Muslim community of Yunnan. He was already quite assimilated to Chinese culture, practicing worship of native gods as well as Islam without perceiving a contradiction. He was a great-great-great-grandson of an emigre from Bukhara, albeit someone of Iranian background (“Tajik”). Many Hui clearly assimilated totally into being Han (some South Chinese lineages descend from Muslims, but are culturally Han in all ways).
But the flip side is that there was the assimilation of Han Chinese into Muslim identity as well. Though some men converted (a branch of the Kong clan, the descendants of Confucius, converted to Islam with the marriage of one of their members to a Muslim woman), most of the Han who became Hui were likely women. In the attached preprint every single Hui mtDNA lineage is East Asian. The vast majority of the Y chromosomes seem East Asian as well, but I have seen other papers where many Hui carry haplogroups R1a and J, which suggest descent in part from Iranian peoples. If the Hui are today 85% Han, and they have been in China 30 generations, then a 5% outmarriage rate per generation would suffice to allow for this outcome.
In sum, these preprints and papers give genetic evidence that the primary exogenous ancestry into the modern Hui is from Turkic Central Asians. This aligns with the scholars who argue that the Mongol conquest was the primary accelerant of the establishment of the Hui in China.
Because the audience is American the author quotes scholars talking about colonialism and the model of the American “melting pot.” Obviously, China’s actions `have been to be understood in an early modern and ancient context.
China’s revanchist sentiments toward territories in its northeast derives from the Amur Annexation of the 1850s, where Russia acquired further territory in an unequal treaty. But, the original border to the north was only established in 1689 with the Treaty of Nerchinsk between the Manchus and Russia. In other words, much of China today as a political-territorial entity has relatively shallow historical roots and derives from the Manchu Empire, which itself is often depicted as alien by Chinese nationalists. The Chinese nation-state has reappropriated the Manchu patrimony and erased its origins in cultural memory.
To me, it is clear that the difficulties of integration and assimilation having to do with several of the peoples mentioned in the WSJ piece is due to the fact that the Peoples’ Republic of China inherited the multiethnic Manchu Empire. The Manchu relationship with the Tibetans and Mongols was close, with the Mongols often serving as imperial auxiliaries (there was a tradition of intermarriage between the descendants of Genghis Khan’s younger brother, Khasr, and the Manchu elite lineages), and the Tibetans providing the Manchus ideological legitimacy in the same manner that they did earlier to various Mongol groups. These relationships are outside of, and parallel, to early modern Chinese history, by which I refer to the Imperial Chinese tradition which Manchu rulers such as Kangxi Emperor so perfectly exemplified within China proper.
One has to bracket the relationships between the Han Chinese with peripheral groups that have some level of ethno-territorial integrity (e.g., Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols), and those minorities which have been resident with China proper (e.g., the Hui and the Zhuang). The Chinese have never had a history of assimilating Tibetans and Uighurs on the frontiers because these territories are relatively new acquisitions (Han and Tang dynasty control of parts of Xinjiang were always very tenuous and short-lived). The Tibetan autonomous zone was under Chinese rule only when China was ruled by foreign dynasties with pro-Tibetan cultural policies, the Mongol Yuan and the Manchus.
In contrast, China has a long history of assimilating minorities to various extents within Han dominated territory. Han Chinese north of the Yangzi clearly have West Eurasian ancestry. My own belief is that this is mostly assimilation of pastoralists, whether Turkic or Mongol, as these groups both exhibit West Eurasian ancestry (the Tang dynasty had partial Xianbei origins).
There are other aspects of the article which I think hint and allude to these deeper and more ancient dynamics. Rodney Stark in One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism reports an empirical instance of assimilation in China proper. The wives of the last prominent Jews of Kaifeng in the 18th century were raising pigs in their front yards. It was a clear instance of assimilation into Han culture. Stark argues that the integration of Jewish elites into the Chinese bureaucracy bled away leaders who might have allowed the community to maintain its integrity.
Though most of the Kaifeng Jews (who were probably descended from Persian Jews) became Han, some of them became Hui. That is, Muslims who speak the local Han dialect and besides religion are not so different from the Han. Why did the Hui persist while the Jews did not? The key here is clearly numbers, as the Hui were never as isolated from other Muslims, and there were always enough of them that many cities had zones allocated to their habitation. But even the Hui were subject to assimilative pressures, and many Han today have Hui ancestry. Because of the Chinese fixation on paternal lineage, there are clans who know that their direct paternal ancestor was a Persian Muslim, even though in all ways the clan members are Han Chinese.
As a stylized fact, the traditional Confucian understanding of being civilized was predicated on cultural orientations and rituals, not descent. This means that the path toward assimilation was relatively easy for those amenable to participating in the proper rites and speaking the Chinese language. If you read the WSJ piece it is hard not to come away with the idea that the aim of the PRC is simply to integrate ethnic minorities into being Han through the Chinese language, abandonment of excessive ties to exclusive religion, and intermarriage.
For obvious reasons, the piece focuses on the assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities. But the PRC has also been engaging in a major drive to make it so that all citizens of the PRC, including dialect-speaking Han, are fluent in Standard Mandarin. Today the figure is around 80%. Within a generation, it is likely to be well above 90%. This is not surprising or exceptional. All Germans can now speak Standard German, but there was a time when many spoke only regional dialects.
92% of the population of the PRC was Han in the 2010 Census. This was probably an underestimate. Nearly all of the “Manchu” (0.75%) were culturally Han and identified as Manchu to obtain benefits that accrue to ethnic minorities. Peter Brown in The Rise of Western Christendom argues that it was after the switch to Arabic that Islamicization occurred at a much faster pace in the Fertile Crescent. When Uighur and Mongol parents protest that their children are learning Mandarin Chinese as their first language, their fears are well-founded.
My overall comment here is that China has to be understood on its own terms. The imposition of external categories and interpretative frameworks can illuminate some elements, but quite often it obscures and muddies. The leadership of China may justify its policies on modern grouds (e.g., “we are developing them economically…”), but it is hard for me not to see echoes of previous civilizing drives, whereby ethnic minorities became Chinese (part of this entailed edicts which imposed outmarriage!).
I don’t really have much to say about this. It’s just strange to me that this isn’t a bigger story. Zoom is now huge for professionals. And TikTok seems to be the way that people born in the year 2000 and later prefer to communicate. This isn’t the 20th century anymore. China may not have in-your-face cultural power, but the control of platforms like this matters a lot (I recall in 1995 foreign governments were very worried about backdoors in Windows 95 for the US government placed there by Microsoft).
Reading Noah Smith’s Invincible empire? I thought back to David Wingrove’s future history where China reigns supreme, Chung Kuo. In the 1990’s it felt like this was very speculative science fiction. After all, we all knew that China would become liberal democratic in a few decades.
I guess the joke was on us. The Chung Kuo series posits a technologically advanced, if stagnant, world dominated by a social system that recapitulates Neo-Confucianism. If not exactly a dystopia, reading it as an American in the 1990’s meant suspending disbelief. After all, we knew the future would be American.
In the 2000’s I was quite open to Gordon Chang’s thesis about the collapse of China. I know many people back then who were very skeptical, reasonably so, about China’s economic growth statistics and the sustainability of its model. It was all fake. Unlike the West, which is based on objectivity and truth. Those who I am still in touch with who were skeptics are skeptics no more. You can fake a lot of statistics, but finished goods exported to the world or energy consumption are harder to fake.
After 9/11 I felt many American international discussions always came back to the Middle East. That was our lodestar. In the 2020’s I think it will be all about the dragon. As Smith notes, China is already 40% of Asia’s GDP. It’s already huge, important, and its “gravitational pull” is hard to escape.
In private forums, I am on I sometimes ask: the dragon or our nihilist elites? I have no illusion about what China is. But I am also fearful of what our American intelligentsia is becoming. And I am not the only one. The 2016 great “Russia flip” shows ideological valences in relation to foreign actors can change fast.
This will be an interesting decade…
Note: If it is not obvious, I began 2020 as a reluctant “China dove.” I am not that anymore, but I am not sure what I am.
Catching up on Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom (I have to get to chapter 11 in the next few days). To say that this is a hard book to follow on occasion is understating difficulties. The narrative jumps across years, across China, and between protagonists, extensively. There are obviously three factions. The Taiping. The Qing regime. And foreigners. But the last class is heterogeneous in nationality and interests. While the Taiping and Qing obviously oppose each other, there are cases where the Europeans fight both the Taiping and Qing and other cases where Europeans lean toward supporting the regimes of the Taiping and Qing. Additionally, in the case of the French and British forces, many of the “Europeans” are non-white colonials. Algerian Arabs and Indian Sikhs, to name two instances.
Geographically the core of the action is still in the lower Yangzi valley. The Taiping, whose origins are in the South are now firmly established for years as a dominant regime. Internal faction and infighting hobble their effectiveness, and Hong Rengan, the cousin of the Taiping king, is the de facto leader. Local levies in Hunan around the loyalist official Zeng Guoquan are described as the real factor in stopping the Taiping advance. The sections about Zeng are interesting to me because he illustrates the banality and normalcy of Chinese scholar officialdom for thousands of years. Knowing about the Taiping Rebellion only superficially I have long wondered how the Qing managed to not be overthrown. And Europeans and Americans of the time also took it for granted quite often than the Qing would be toppled.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom so far depicts the Qing, and the Manchu and Mongol core of the ruling caste, as ineffectual and incompetent. Rather, Taiping infighting, European ambivalence, and perhaps more importantly the inertia and robustness of the Chinese imperial system maintain a metastable equilibrium of three parties engaging in battles with each other. Zeng in particular seems like a force of nature, somewhat independent of his notional fealty to the Qing. The Chinese elite accepts Qing rule, but by this point, they ran much of the show.
I was not aware before this book that the Europeans engaged in joint expeditions against the Qing during the Taiping Rebellion, but this is described in detail in these chapters. Additionally, the French in particular come off as rather brutal and fixated on looting. The religious difference between the Catholic French and Protestant British and Americans also seems to color their views of the Taiping, as the latter was influenced by Protestant iconoclasm. Overall, many of the more enthusiastic Europeans and Americans remind me somewhat of pro-Iraq pundits in the early 2000’s. They thought that the Taiping victory would produce general realignment, and bring China into the Anglo-Protestant orbit.
The only “good guy” that I see so far is Zeng. His militia seems to be fighting for the people. For Hunan. In contrast, the Taiping as a whole have lost the plot, while most of the Europeans and Qing elites are focused on their own power and status.
This cartoon cutout view is certainly one I would probably have unreflectively parroted in my teens. It seems erudite and counterintuitive. A classic, “well actually…” fact. But the more history I read, the less and less plausible I found the implications of the recent invention of nationalism. The nation-state as conceived between the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna shapes and dictates modern understandings, but the sentiments and elements that come together to make the nation-state a powerful cultural phenomenon are quite old and widespread. Human tribalism emerges out of our innate cognitive architecture and is further selected through the process of cultural evolution. To some extent, this is extensible and scalable.
With that being said, how natural is the Han Chinese identity, which has come to the fore and will determine the course of this century? This is the ethnic-national group which makes up 90-95% of China’s current population. They are Chinese qua Chinese in a fundamental sense. People united by the written Chinese language, speaking related dialects which diverged over the past 2,000 years and bound together by a historical-cultural tradition with 3,000 years of continuity.
If you read History and Geography of Human Genes one of the peculiar results from the analyses within is that North Chinese cluster with Japanese, Koreans, etc., while South Chinese cluster with Southeast Asians. This did not turn out to be true. Most specifically, the South Chinese have a greater affinity for Southeast Asian groups (e.g., the Vietnamese Kinh) than North Chinese, but they are not closer to Southeast Asians than they are to North Chinese (the furthest southern dialect groups, such as those of Guangdong, are about equidistant to Vietnamese).
But what about the North Chinese? Are they simply Sinicized Mongols? It is clear that some of the North Chinese exhibit shifts toward West Eurasians. I think this is mostly through Mongols and Turks, who have a minor West Eurasian component. But, I believe that both North and South Chinese will be shown to have 50% or more of their ancestry attributable to people who founded the Erlitou culture of Henan. The Han exhibit signs in their genomes of massive demographic expansion in the Holocene. Some of the geographic variations we see today are due to differentiation driven by isolation by distance. Another proportion of it is through admixture with the substrate (e.g., the Yue have left a noticeable cultural imprint on parts of South China, and I suspect it’s a genetic impact as well). And finally, some of it is through admixture with newcomers. This is particularly true in China north of the Yangzi, which has been impacted by barbarian peoples since the rise of the Zhou and the interactions with the Rong and Di.
But China is too large, extensive, and long-lasting, to imagine it has a strong ethnic core with a genetic coherency in the way Finland has a strong Suomi core. Rather, genetics may more usefully be pointing to the powerful integrative and anti-centripetal forces at work across Chinese history. Hakka moved south, while southern families moved north again with the rise of the Sui-Tang. The 20th-century century has been characterized by the demographic Sinicization of Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, which had for most of Chinese history been outside of the domains of China proper.
Though I think one can argue that Classical China really crystalized during the Han Dynasty, my reading of works such as Li Feng’s Early China indicate that the root of later developments really dates to the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius’ valorization of the Duke of Zhou may simply reflect the importance of the Zhou revolution in setting the tone of what China became. If the Shang were the Mycenaeans, the Zhou were the Classical Greeks. The Shang Dynasty and the Mycenaeans spoke the language and worshipped the gods of the people who would succeed them, but they lacked the spirit which would define Chinese and Greek civilization. For China, that spirit is reflected in the ideas, the canon, of the Spring and Autumn Period.
Though Classical Greek civilization and culture has persisted in a form, to a great extent it was adopted, synthesized, and transmuted. The integration of Greek philosophy into Christian theology preserved Greek thought, but it also transformed its import and made it so that that cultural inheritance was not defining or exclusive to the Greeks. This is far less the case with Classical China. An intellectual in the year 1900 arguably expressed the living tradition which had its genesis during the Spring and Autumn Period. It is as if the Platonic Academy had maintained its institutional integrity for 2,000 years. Or, if the civilian Roman senatorial elite had not been dissolved between the 4th and 6th-century A.D., to eventually be replaced by illiterate barbarian warlords (there was a bridge period of barbarians who exhibited some of the best aspects of Romanitas).
All this to say that China and Han identity is not a purely contingent construction of the 19th-century or a response to modernity and European hegemony. This is more clear to me after having read The Han: China’s Diverse Majority. The author engages in an ethnography and intellectual history, teasing out the parameters of the Hanzu self-identification promoted by Chinese nationalists in the 19th and 20th-century. The argument goes that this identity superseded and suppressed deep regional divergence, between north and south, Mandarin dialect and non-Mandarin. The Han does not address this position directly, but the intellectual history outlined makes it clear that what we substantively think of as the Chinese people had a self-conception even before the Han Dynasty. Just like the Egyptians or Indians, the early Chinese thought of themselves as the center of the world, as the civilized people par excellence. They did not think of themselves as a nationality at parity with other groups. Rather, they saw other groups as barbarians who could still be civilized, and so become Chinese.
Perhaps a useful analogy here might be a “what-if” scenario where the Latin Western Roman Empire did not fall permanently in the late 5th-century but resurrected itself. But even here I think it understates the integrative and unitary nature of Chinese self-conception even before the Han Dynasty. The Latinization of Iberia and Gaul seem to mostly been due to acculturation. I believe that Sinicization was accompanied by demographic expansion.
The People’s Republic of China is not just an imagined community. It is an outgrowth of a political and social unit that has been evolving for 3,000 years.
Finally, I think at this point it is useful to end with a comparative exercise that compares the attitudes of the civilizations of the Eurasian oikumene to a very important and universal human phenomenon: religion. The “Greater West” (The West + Arab-Turkic-Persian Islam), India, and China, overlap and differ in very particular ways.
The Greater West has developed exclusive and socially universal religious confessionalization to a very great extent. Exclusive, insofar as on paper religious confessionalization is in its mature state is not about pluralistic competition, but the solidifying of a monopoly. Universal, in that the religious identity cuts across class and ethnicity in a very cohesive fashion.
Modern India, and to some extent premodern India, seems to have developed strong confessional identities which are somewhat exclusive. Or have become so. People die because they are Muslim or Hindu, and the boundaries are sharp and stark. But, Indian society is not so universalizing. Within Hinduism, the Sanata Dharma, there are a wide range of practices and beliefs. Buddhism is part of this broader tradition and has engaged in confessionalization and universalizing very early on. But, like Hinduism, it tends not to seek exclusive monopoly on society.
Finally, we have the situation in China. Though “world religions” have been prominent historically, the Chinese do not develop exclusive or socially universal attachments. A single religion does not bind society together, and individuals can “consume” religious services and beliefs from a wide array of systems. It is sometimes said that in East Asia religion is unimportant. This is false. Rather, religion is not homogeneous or monopolistic. And often confessional identities are weak.
I bring this up because though there are deep human universals, there are also striking cultural differences. Indians often scoff at the Chinese tendency to convert to Christianity in the West, suggesting that perhaps the Chinese lack cultural pride. This is a false inference because the issue that Indians do not understand is that Chinese society does not tie itself to a strong confessional religious identity. Chinese identity at the core does not have to do with supernatural belief systems. Similarly, Westerners are often perplexed by the open-minded latitudinarianism of many Hindus. But Westerners do not internalize that Hindu religious beliefs are less about individual identity and more about collective communal customs and ties. Undergirded often by a monistic metaphysical system, Indians see little need to convert the world to become like themselves, because even within India communal diversity is the norm, and universalizing tendencies in religion has been marginal until lately.
We’re going into an interesting century. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll leave to you.
The New York Times has published a piece on what is happening in China, ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims, based on a leak of 400 pages (I assume you should be able to read the article if you click the link even without a subscription). As to the source of that leak, “The papers were brought to light by a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”
The piece is a testament to the brutality of the fiat will of an authoritarian state. But it is also a testament to the humanity that persists in the face of that domination of spirit.
The entire article is very long and detailed, and I invite readers who can read Chinese to read the original documents. Obviously I cannot. But, my own takeaway is that it’s about as bad as we thought, and Xi Jinping is a more subtle and complex thinker on issues related to Xinjiang than the title might imply.
On the whole, I think we should be skeptical about sensational stories, such as the one about people being harvested for their organs. These are the sorts of things that really induce click-throughs, but if you consider the genetics Uyghurs are not going to be the best source of organ matches for most Chinese in any case (in contrast, criminals drawn from the general population could be).
But after reading Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolutionwhat is described in the piece is very familiar (there are major differences, the Cultural Revolution was very much an intra-elite conflict in which the masses were collateral damage, while this is clearly directed by a more unified state against an ethnoreligious group). Some of the responses to the article declared that this was similar to what was occurring in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. I am open to suggestions about the strength of the analogy, or book recommendations about Nazi Germany (I recently read Thomas Childers’ The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany), but from what I have read about the rise of the Nazi state and its industrial-scale genocidal aims and operations, this is not that. There is a precedent that I think is analogous to what the Nazis aimed for, and that is the Dzhungar genocide.
Rather, it seems that Xi Jinping’s goal is to use state coercion to forcibly extinguish the cultural distinctiveness of the Uyghur people. This aim also erupted explosively during the Cultural Revolution when minority customs were targeted by the Red Guards, but its roots are old in the Chinese system and cultural memory. The Chinese have assimilated foreigners and minority groups for thousands of years. Sometimes that assimilation is passive. And sometimes it is aggressive. But it has been a feature of the Chinese cultural landscape since the beginning.
The nature of Chinese assimilation can often cause problems for religions, particularly those perceived to be foreign. Even after 1,500 years of a presence at the center of Chinese life, Buddhism was still seen as a foreign antisocial influence by Confucian mandarins at the end of the Imperial period. Attempting to understand the Chinese in terms of their own society, early European Roman Catholic missionaries dressed in a manner similar to Buddhist monks when they arrived in the Ming court. Only later did they understand that the Chinese elites did not hold these monks in particularly high esteem, and so changed their wardrobe to mimic Confucian bureaucrats.
As a stylized fact between the end of the Shang dynasty and the crystallization of State Confucianism under the Han dynasty, the intellectual elite of Chinese society shifted away from the propitiation of a personal God (Shangdi) toward reverence for an impersonal principle of Heaven (Tian). This is not to say the cults of various supernatural figures, gods and goddesses, were not popular. Rather, these were a mass religious phenomenon, but not integrated seriously into the ideology of the elite. In contrast, though Christianity and Islam exhibit elite and mass modalities, they perceive themselves as a whole on some level. The contempt of Christian or Muslim elites for the superstitions of the mass of believers is tempered by their role as spiritual mentors and teachers (e.g., “reforming Christianity”). In contrast, the Confucian educated elite of China treated mass religion with benign neglect, not as something worthy of ideological engagement. So long as religion was not a motive force for revolution and an institutional rival to the state and its subsidiary units, it was left in peace.
This juxtaposition and contrast explain the Chinese attitudes toward “foreign” and “Western” religions. The Chinese customs and traditions as passed down from the time of Confucius served as organizing principles of civilized life. Islam and Christianity can also serve as civilizing forces. Christianity was the primary force through which Romanitas was transmitted after the fall of the Western Roman Empire to Northern Europe. Islam emerged as a binding ethos of a vast and diverse Caliphate. China, with its own indigenous traditions, did not need some such a binding force.
There was a period in the early Tang dynasty when various forms of Buddhism became so institutionally powerful that it looked as that religion would come to take a central position in elite Chinese identity, as it had and would in many societies (e.g., Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Silla Korea, and Tokugawa Japan). But what happened is that in the second half of the Tang dynasty institutional Buddhism was eviscerated, with the monastic wealth being confiscated, and monks and nuns being driven back to secular life. Though Buddhism persisted, obviously, it never again challenged the Confucian system as an institutional framework and body which provided an alternative Weltanschauung which could supersede the rites developed during the Spring and Autumn periods.*
Modern China’s “problems” with two particular groups in the western regions, Uyghurs and Tibetans is not a surprise. Both of these groups are strongly attached to a religious Weltanschauung which is somewhat incommensurable with the Chinese system. And, both of these have never really been part of the Chinese system in a deep way. The conquest of Xinjiang under the Manchus was the conquest of the Manchus as Central Asian warlords, not as Emperors of China. Tibet received Manchu protection, but it was given autonomy, in part due to the Manchu affinity for Tibetan Buddhism (there are also complex politics with the Mongols).**
The Uyghur Muslims, who are culturally descended from Karluk Turks who expanded into the Tarim basin between 1000 and 1500 AD, have little historical experience of the assimilationist tendencies of the Chinese state. This is in contrast to the Hui Muslims, Muslims in China proper who speak dialects of Chinese, and are physically quite similar to their Han neighbors (some West Asian ancestry is visible in many Hui as well). Though there are concentrations of Hui in Gansu and Yunnan, Muslims have been a presence in the cities of eastern China for many centuries. The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China is a work that explores the intellectual response of very religious Muslim intellectuals to the claims of Chinese civilization. I will not review the whole argument, but I will say that it is clear one line of reasoning began to lead to a synthesis with Confucian thought so that an Islam with clear Chinese characteristics was emerging in the 18th-century. Further west, in and around the Gansu corridor, Chinese Muslim practice and belief were veering into syncretism with Pure Land Buddhism.
But these syntheses were not to be. Early modernity saw the collapse of the Manchu political system, the prestige of Chinese culture, and the reemergence of an international Islam reinvigorated by modern communication technology and travel. Chinese Islam has experienced several waves of “reform,” which operationally mean standardization and alignment with world-normative Islam so that several Chinese sects now derive from this process of reinvigoration. Though Chinese Muslims have always lived a somewhat separate life from non-Muslims due to their dietary restrictions, Islamic reform movements have also added more external differentiation, from the manner of dress to grooming, to the architectural style of the mosque.
The widespread mass antipathy toward Islam from the Chinese populace reflects the reality that Islam, properly understood by most Muslims, involves participation and assertion in public domains of the Islamic religion, and regulation of private life in a manner which mandates separation from the broader non-Muslim society. Islam is not simply another private cultic practice, a devotion to a regional god, or excessive enthusiasm for amulets and astrology. It is an ethical and metaphysical system that can rival Neo-Confucianism and Communism. Chinese history suggests that religious organizations have a great ability to mobilize and become the seedbeds for revolution and overthrow the current order. The founder of the Ming dynasty spent a period as a Buddhist monk, but ultimately his path to victory came through his association with a regional millenarian cult with Manichaean antecedents.
In the article above Xi notes that acts of violence by Uyghur radicals in the late 2000s have a cause proximately in geopolitics (Islamic radicalism in Central and West Asia). But, he suggests that the ultimate issue is the depth of the feeling of Muslims about their religion. This indicates that the ultimate aim by Xi is of a much broader scope than the reeducation of just the Uyghurs. There are as many Hui Muslims as Uyghurs, and the Hui are distributed broadly across China. Xi seems to be a realist and understand that religion will not fade away. But, he also seems to be affirming the historical practice of the Chinese state and elite in crushing the institutional independence and solidity of religions that involve more than just personal and private devotion.
Religion as another individual consumer good is tolerable. Religion as a force for social coordination for the production of social phenomena is dangerous.
Previous Chinese leaders seem to have accepted and believed that economic development will lead to ethnic and religious harmony. But the literature does not show a simple pattern where development leads to a diminishment of confessional or sectarian feelings. On the contrary, the anomie induced by rapid development can result in the emergence of powerful religious revivals whose aim is to bring order and stability back into the lives of the dislocated. Uyghur separatism may in fact be due to economic development, and the greater integration of the Uyghurs with ethnic Han.
Historically the Chinese state has been suspicious of overlarge and powerful non-state institutions of civic society. Islamic religious revival and identity is a problem because it counteracts the assimilative power of the consumer economy. The reeducation camps are an attempt to check the integrative action of Islam, so that eventually the Uyghurs as a distinctive ethnic unit may disappear. This is entirely possible, as they are only 0.76% of the population of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Finally, one must admit that cultural extinction does not entail physical genocide. But the loss of memory effaces the past and restructures the present. The eastern Uyghur city of Turpan was conquered by Muslim Turks only in the late 14th-century. It was the last bastion of Buddhist Uyghur culture. Within a century the Uyghurs of Turpan were Islamicized. In the 17th-century the Uyghurs of Turpan believed that the ruined Buddhism temples that their ancestors had worshipped in and built were actually the works of the Oirat Mongols, who had recently converted to Buddhism.
The truth is what one chooses to remember. Or is forced to.
* Neo-Confucianism and religious Daoism both “borrowed” extensively from Buddhist metaphysics, while the influence of Daoism is clear in some Chinese sects, such as Chan, which became Zen in Japan.
** Han and Tang dynasty suzerainty over Tarim basin oases have nothing to do with modern Uyghurs and were tenuous and short-lived in any case.
On the first episode of a new podcast, The Realignment, the hosts interview J. D. Vance. It was an interesting conversation, during the course of which Vance expressed a great deal of alarmism about the rise of China as a world power. He indicated that hear feared China is intent on world domination. Vance’s mentor, Peter Thiel, is also a China-skeptic.
I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, Thiel and Vance are expressing a reasonable view of the reality that the coming age of instability is going to be driven by the emergence of a rival superpower to the United States of America.* In Ian Morris’ War! What Is It Good For? he argues that hyper-powers and “world police” impose order and peace, which is good for everyone. This was also the logic, in part, of the post-war maintenance of American military forces (as opposed to our customary drawdown and demobilization). American military power allowed for Germany and Japan to flourish as economic powers.
The rise of Chinese economic and military power in the 21st-century at some level of parity with the United States of America will destabilize certain established relationships between and across nations. China doesn’t even have to match the United States, the Soviet Union in the 20th-century showed all one needs is some level of parity to introduce destabilization into many regions of the world, as kleptocrats can play the great powers against each other.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the 2000s Chimerica was a force for global development, and the USA and China operated as two legs of an engine that drove the world economy. If you read Thomas Friedman and the boosters of globalization you would smile at the thought of win-win dynamics, and the vast markets that were going to emerge for American products.
It hasn’t worked out that way. But, despite Vance and Thiel’s criticisms, part of me has to admit that the rise of Chinese prosperity is one of the greatest and most positive things that has occurred in the history of the world. The decline of grinding poverty to a great extent is the rise of the Chinese economy, driven by the industry and ingenuity of its people, despite its authoritarian government and perverse regnant Communist ideology. If I was Chinese, I would surely be proud about the rise of my nation, and my people, from the horrible shocks of the 20th-century, from the de facto colonization of the early decades to the self-inflicted horror of Maoist Communism.
So the question presents itself: is there any scenario where a China which takes its rightful place in the sun does not threaten the American order? The most unrealistic boosters of the pre-2008 consensus made the argument that economic integration would make it so that ties of common interest and affinity would knit together China and the liberal democratic world. Liberalization the economic sphere would lead to liberalization in the political sphere.
That has not happened. And, it does not seem to be likely to happen in the near future. Chinese economic output is converging with the West (some urban regions are already part of the developed world), but its social and political culture is not doing so at all. Arguably it is less amenable to liberal democratic norms today than it was a generation ago.
As an empirical matter we, Americans, are going to have to deal with the rise of the dragon. I do think that Vance presented in the podcast an excessively apocalyptic view. I do not believe that the Chinese political class has ambitions of world domination. I believe it has ambitions of a level of hegemony at least comparable to that of America, which is a great deal of power. Nor do I believe that the Chinese consumer, who are threatened by demographic headwinds, are willing to subsidize the sort of quasi-imperium that the American public has paid for for the past 70+ years in the form of bases the world over.
When it comes to economics and military concerns I don’t have simple answers. But I do have some thoughts about culture. Today, in the midst of its economic revival, the average citizen of mainland China is quite self-interested and selfish. This will not always be so, as post-material concerns will arise. Chinese society, the Chinese state, has traditionally rested on a system of political and social ethics which is entirely intelligible and civilized to the non-Chinese mind. Concepts such as “good-heartedness” and “rites” are not difficult to understand in regards to why they might be useful to the maintenance of a proper society and individual flourishing.
Today in the West there is a tendency to exalt individual self-actualization and self-cultivation above all. It is an atomistic and ad hoc ideology. Though somewhat marginal, it may become less so over time. Many Americans are not excited about denouncing all the “olds” at the behest of our own red guards. Though I understand in geopolitical terms Vance and Thiel’s alarm, when it comes to culture I have to admit that I do hope Chinese assertiveness may allow our global civilization to stand athwart history just a bit, and make some room for the verities of yore.
* It is also not irrelevant that I broadly share Thiel and Vance’s political sympathies in the American context.
Like the last pagan Neoplatonists in the 6th century A.D., Scholars Stage and I keep blogging, even though that world is the past. Recently he wrote a post worth reading, Give No Heed to the Walking Dead. He reflects on the forecasts of China optimists and concludes in a rather gloomy manner.
I’ve been thinking about and reading about China since the middle of the 1990s. That’s a long time. China has changed a lot.
There are two general things that seem worth commenting on:
– The predictions of the inevitable coming doom of the Chinese economy seem to keep being pushed back five years. Most of us are aware of all the structural problems, from demographics to institutions, that are obstacles to China’s flourishing as a developed economy. They are still there. And it still hasn’t collapsed.
– The predictions of the inevitable liberalization and democratization of China’s politics also came to naught. Particular neoliberal theories of the late 1990s were tested. And results suggest that some inevitabilities may not be inevitable.