China: is national greatness deep rooted, or proximal?

A recommendation from The Scholar’s Stage has finally pushed me to complete Imperial China 900–1800, a book which I first began reading over ten years ago. Like The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization this may be a work I read again and again. Unlike The Fall of Rome Imperial China is not tightly argued. There is no argument, just narrative and exposition. It is not a short treatise purporting to “explain,” it is a magnum opus “describing” (in this it is similar to A History of Byzantine State and Society). The author, F. W. Mole, is clearly a scholar of deep learning. He doesn’t “front” with puffy theory and lexical flourish. He knows things. Many things. Imperial China was the summation of his learning. Decades of the accretion of insights.

Because I have read a fair amount of Chinese history reading Imperial China has illuminated some phenomena that had earlier eluded me in terms of their causal roots. During the Tang dynasty, and again during the Yuan (Mongol) period, people of Central Asian provenance had a despised but critical role in Chinese society. During the Tang period, Central Asian Sogdians were renowned and reviled as money-lenders and merchants. During the Yuan period, Central Asians were administrative bureaucrats who dominated the civilian officialdom of the Chinese state (this, due to Mongol favoritism in a land where the Han were a recently conquered overwhelming majority).

This is a deviation from the norm in Chinese history. Civilian rule in China was often delegated to learned scholars, usually stepped in Confucian classics. The trend began during the Han dynasty. During the Sui-Tang dynasty, the prominence of aristocratic factions attenuated the role of gentry officials, but the arc of history bent toward meritocracy, and so it revived with much greater vigor during the Song dynasty.

Motte notes that one reason the Central Asians may have been reviled so is that they practiced a West Asian tradition of revenue extraction which was at variance with Chinese norms. Basically, the Central Asians were “tax farming.” In ancient Rome, this practice was severely criticized. The contrast here is with a long and robust tradition within orthodox Confucianism that the role of the state and the official class was to foster prosperity by minimizing tax burdens on the populace, not extract resources for their own enrichment. Obviously the Chinese have a long history of corruption, self-dealing, and the emergence of local petty tyrants. But the ideal, and a repeated trend in behavior among many scholar-officials across history is toward service to the state in the interests of the collective well-being and as well as the extolling of individual virtue. Glory did not go to god or the state, but the people.

This is why I have joked that Confucianism really pioneered Fusionism 2,000 years ago.

Though drawing straight-line inferences from history is a fool’s game, I have started to wonder if China’s timeless absorptive capacity due to its resilience and continuity can tell us something about its trajectory in the 21st century. I am well aware of the reality that demographics are not on its side (China’s working age population is shrinking). Ignoring this for a moment, let us take seriously the proposition that China is fundamentally bound together by something culturally ineffable, and deeply reflects the Confucian mores that have waxed and waned for 2,000 years. To not put too fine a point on it many perceive, correctly, an amoral rapacity in the modern quasi-Communist Chinese people. Some of my friends are not very optimistic about the Chinese, after having worked with them in a professional capacity. They find both their proximate moral character and ultimate vision lacking.

And yet for thousands of years, the Chinese maintained a cultural and civilizational identity which was extremely robust. When introduced to the foreign religion of Buddhism, China made it its own. In fact, Buddhist concepts and institutional structures reshaped religious Daoism. Cults like Christianity, Islam, and Manichaeanism have all entered China, and been transmuted, or appropriated. There is obviously a Chinese sense of self that is rooted in history, in cultural memory, but oftentimes these ethnocultural entities also transmit tacit and informal folkways.

It is certainly true that the scholar-officials of the Chinese bureaucratic class were not always well prepared for some of the exigencies which they were confronted with. Brittle, often hidebound, bureaucrats were often stuck at a “local optimum.” But over the long-term historically they have adapted, integrating some of the metaphysical insights of Buddhism into Neo-Confucianism most prominently, as well as adapting the Chinese imperial system to an explicitly and self-consciously non-Han ruling caste such as the Manchus.

Social disorder in China historically can have tragic consequences. The Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century resulted in the death of tens of millions. And yet China has persisted for 2,000 years as a unitary state, on and off. Its cultural and social fiber has roots into a deeper past, during the declining years of the Zhou during the first millennium before the birth of Christ. What Imperial China illustrates is that Chinese civilization had particular and locally contingent resources which allowed for the flourishing of a relatively well-ordered administrative state less contingent on tribal asabbiya necessary in West Asian polities.

In short, if “Confucian civilization” is a thing, I’m somewhat more optimistic about 25% of our species over the next few decades.

Manufacturing Chinese history cheaply

In Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire he makes the assertion that Mao Zedong was the heir of the moralist Confucian tradition, while Deng Xiaoping’s stances looked more toward pragmatic Legalism. I don’t want to rehash why Terrill presented this strange framework as a central thesis in his book. Rather, there was an instance that I found memorable where he observed that Deng was much more particular about pointing out territorial losses that China had suffered with foreign dignitaries than Mao. Deng was more conventionally nationalistic.

I always felt that this required some chutzpah on Deng’s part. The map above shows clearly why I found it curious: the maximal extend of the Chinese Empire in the 19th century was to due to the imperial ambitions of the Manchu people, under whose yoke the Han experienced centuries of being a subordinate group. Of course it is true that just as Greece conquered Rome, so the Manchus assimilated into Chinese society to such an extent that today they have basically been absorbed by the Han in all but name. And famously, rulers such as the Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor, became for their Han subjects, that is the vast majority of them, paragons of the Confucian potentate.

But the Manchus always remained Manchus, self-conscious that they were a ruling people. They struggled against their assimilation, and in their conquests outside of their civilized Chinese heartland the emperors became Manchurian warlords (the Kangxi Emperor in particular paints a broadly as a steppe warlord when he deigned to take on that persona). They were a people from from beyond the Great Wall, who had good relations with the Khalkha Mongols, and cultivated the Buddhist statelets of greater Tibet. In China, but not always of it. In other words, the empire which the republic of China inherited by and large was the achievement of a non-Chinese people.

Modern borders are what they are. Accidents of history. I don’t begrudge the Han Chinese for having inheriting the Manchu Empire. To some extent it’s their luck. But it’s a little strange that Deng Xiaoping would assume that the borders of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, were somehow sacrosanct. The Manchus were at this period waxing into the fullness of their powers, and blocked Russia from bringing the Amur basin into its hegemony (and also banned Han from migrating into these new territories!).

China’s most cosmopolitan native dynasty, the Tang*, did have dominion over much of what is today called Xinjiang. Their forces famously clashed with that of the Abbasids at Talas in modern day Kyrgyzstan. But this dominion lasted only a century. The earlier Han dynasty hegemonies over the eastern Silk Road cities were also short-lived.

As you can see on this map the Tang had to contend with a powerful Tibetan Empire, as well as Uighurs and Goturks to their north. On the northeast, in modern Manchuria, were the Khitan people, who would later reappear in Chinese history.

The reality is that for most of Chinese history half of what is today China was not part of China. If the Manchus had not conquered China, and the Ming had been replaced by an indigenous dynasty, it seems entirely likely that the outlines of the modern nation-state of China would be coterminous with with the outlines of the Ming dynasty polity.

To me a plausible “alternative history” then would result in Xinjiang and Mongolia being absorbed into the orbit of the Russia Empire, and perhaps both today being post-Soviet states. In fact, northern  Xinjiang would be a distinct post-Soviet state, because prior to genocidal campaigns by the Manchus in the 18th century this area was dominated by a western branch of the Mongol people, the Oirats. It seems likely that Tibet would have fallen more explicitly under the British orbit, and become independent along with India and other South and Southeast Asian nations after World War II.

This historical context is relevant to the situation of why minority groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans chafe under Chinese rule, especially when told that they have always been part of China. It also is important because it gives a sense of cultural and historical affinities which might go unnoticed.

Broadly speaking Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan and Vietnam (in different ways), have been part of the broader “Sinic civilization.” There are differences of detail, particularly in Japan and Vietnam, in how Chinese culture was interpreted, but its influence is undeniable. This is less clear in places like Tibet and Mongolia. I believe people sometimes confuse Chinese cultural influence with China’s geopolitical heft and the fact that to Westerners these people look East Asian, so how could they not be influenced by China despite their proximity?

The Economist recently published a fascinating article in its 1843 magazine, Animal spirits, about the revival of Mongolian shamanism. But this section is simply false: “While Buddhism is an import from China, shamanism is an expression of Mongolian national identity.” Mongols are mostly Tibetan Buddhists, and they received their Buddhism from Tibetan lamas and monks. Not Chinese. It is technically important to remember that though Tibet is part of China, but it was not part of China when it was propagating Buddhism to Mongolia!

For a detailed exploration of the Mongol religious conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, and their flirtation with Islam**, see Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. What I will say is that it does not seem to be a surprise that Mongols seem to have a history of flirting with non-Chinese religions. Many of Genghis Khan’s subjects during his rise to power were at least nominally Syriac Christians. Though Genghis Khan was an adherent of shamanism, he patronized religious professionals of many sects, and had a particularly close relationship with a Daoist monk.

Ambiguities as to the genealogy of cultural relationships also crops up in this piece in The New York Times, China and India File Rival Claims Over Tibetan Medicine. Obviously Asia’s two most powerful nations fighting over the heritage of Tibetan medicine is unseemly and gauche, though perhaps a little less worrisome than the saber rattling which is occurring on the northeast border right now.

Geographically Tibet is obviously within the borders of the modern Chinese nation-state (though Ladakh in India is arguably a fragment of Tibet which landed on the Indian side of the border). But recall that for most of its history Tibet has not been under Chinese rule. Perhaps even more importantly, Tibet has not been under much Chinese influence. On the contrary, Tibetan lamas have been cultural impresarios, exporting their religious vision to the court of Kublai Khan, then that of the Manchus, and the finally converting the Khans of the various Mongol tribes.

And in terms of its precursors, Tibetan Buddhism is the child of the last flowering of North Indian Buddhism, not Chinese Buddhism, which had evolved into an independent tradition by the time the Tibetan Empire was deciding on an institutional religion to adhere to (Chinese Buddhism was reputedly brought to the kingdom first, by a Chinese princess).*** And the Tibetan alphabet is also derived from an Indian script. Curiously, just as Indian high-level cultural influence is very salient in Southeast Asia, so it is in Buddhist Inner Asia. But while Southeast Asian Indian influences were usually maritime South Indian, those of Tibetan are from a bygone North India where Islam was marginal and Buddhism was still a presence.

Despite being a far weaker military power than the United States China is already flexing its muscle and bullying its neighbors. There are a million Chinese in Africa. Even though China may not catch up with the United States in median affluence any time soon, the trajectory of aggregate economic production is such it will likely become the the largest economy within the next half generation. The Chinese know this, and are already acting as if they are #1. They’re preparing for their “time in the sun.”

Unfortunately this will exacerbate some of the unfortunate intellectual tendencies among the Chinese due to arrogance combined with a lack of total confidence in their new position. The Chinese view of their past has strange distortions, generally having to do with the fact that they don’t want to admit that their possession of vast swaths of Inner Asia was more a matter of historical happenstance than a necessary consequence of the geographical logic of the Chinese civilization-state.

But the truth is what it is. Unfortunately I suspect implicitly the media will begin telegraphing the Chinese viewpoint without much challenge because it seems plausible enough to those that they don’t know. It will be up to us to keep the unknowing propagandists in check.


* I am aware of their Xianbei heritage, but they were highly Sinicized and by the time of great Xuanzong Emperor they were mostly Han in origin.

** Mongols outside of the homeland invariably eventually became Muslims over time.

*** I am aware that Chinese Buddhism itself has an Indian source, though mediated through the cities of the Silk Road.