Read The Everlasting Empire Online

Authors: Yuri Pines

Tags: #General, #History, #Ancient, #Political Science, #Asia, #History & Theory, #China

The Everlasting Empire (2 page)

BOOK: The Everlasting Empire
2.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


come. Furthermore, the ideological fertility of the Warring States period provided the empire builders with a rich repertoire of ideas from which solutions could be drawn to deal with a variety of problems and challenges. Thus, prior to the imperial unification, an ideological framework was formed within which much of the empire’s political life continued to fluctuate.

Preconceived long before it came into existence, the empire remained forever not only an administrative and military entity but also an ideological construct. It was recently defined as “the best illustration of Gramscian hegemony,”
and it is certainly true that the imperial idea enjoyed political-cultural hegemonic status. The empire’s basic ideological premises were shared by every politically significant social group and even by its immediate neighbors; no alternative political structure was considered either legitimate or desirable; and even those rulers whose ethnic or social background must have encouraged them to be critical of the imperial polity were destined to adopt it and adapt themselves to it, enriching and improving its functioning rather than dismantling it. Until the late nineteenth century, the empire was the only conceivable polity for the inhabitants of the Chinese world. Even during periods of woeful turmoil and disintegration, major political actors—from the emperor and his aides down to local elites and rebellious commoners—all vied to restore and improve the imperial order rather than replace it.

The power of the imperial ideology is undeniable, but it would be grossly inaccurate to reduce the study of the empire’s durability to analysis of its ideological guidelines. Rather, the imperial political culture developed amid complex interaction between ideological stipulations and practical requirements. The empire’s longevity derived not just from the solidity of its ideological foundations, but also from its leaders’ ability to adjust their practices and adapt to changing circumstances. This flexibility—just like the ideological rigidity—was built into the empire’s genetic code from its very inception. Preimperial thinkers bequeathed to the empire builders not a ready model, but rather a set of basic principles and a variety of conflicting policy recommendations. The resultant ideological synthesis was fluid enough to allow constant readjustment of manifold policies. When new challenges came into existence—such as the appearance of nomadic tribesmen as the empire’s most formidable rivals or the emergence of powerful local elites (see chapters 1 and 4)—the empire’s leaders were able to introduce the necessary modifications without compromising the essentials of imperial rule. This flexibility amid preservation of the basic ideological and institutional framework became the true source of the empire’s vitality.

In light of this understanding, the present study is built so as to stand at the nexus of intellectual and political history. While my earlier studies focused primarily on the formation of the imperial ideology,
here I shall


try to elucidate the dynamic interplay between the empire’s ideological guidelines and their practical adaptations. Each of the first five chapters starts with a brief analysis of the background on which specific principles concerning the empire’s maintenance—the concept of political unity, the idea of monarchism, behavioral norms for politically involved intellectuals, and rules for dealing with local elites and with the commoners—were formulated. After these introductory sections, which largely summarize my previous research, I go on to explore how the ideological principles laid down in the preimperial or early imperial period were implemented and modified in the process of their actualization. The discussion, while roughly chronological, is not intended to present a systematic history of the empire (a task that is beyond this book’s scope), but rather provides historical illustrations of the complex pattern of transformation and evolution of ideas and practices throughout the imperial millennia. I have intentionally selected my illustrations from different periods, trying to introduce, even if briefly, every major dynasty (and not a few minor ones), rather than confining the discussion to a few well-known dynasties and personalities. In this way I hope to present a sufficiently complex picture of Chinese history and to avoid haphazard generalizations, which are still quite popular in many synoptic studies of China’s past.

It is a crucial premise of this book that Chinese political culture cannot be understood in simplistic, monochromatic, or unilinear terms.
Rather, it was full of paradoxes and tensions, reflecting what Liu Zehua aptly names its
Adoration of monarchism coexisted with extremely critical views of individual monarchs; intellectuals were perceived as both the ruler’s servitors and his moral guides; a hierarchical mind-set coexisted with strong egalitarian tendencies; while the commoners, who were declared the “root” of the polity and the kingmakers, were also firmly excluded from participation in political processes. Even such an unshakable principle as the ideal of political unity of All-underHeaven was sometimes compromised in practice by redrawing the boundaries between the “internal” and “external” realms (see chapter 1). Yet as I shall try to demonstrate, these persistent “creative tensions,” to borrow Tu Wei-ming’s term, have further contributed toward flexibility of the empire’s functioning, its adaptability to a variety of domestic and foreign challenges, and its ultimate durability.

My focus on dynamism and complexity of Chinese political culture, I hope, will allow me to overcome the widespread mistrust of broad generalizations as intrinsically superficial and/or leading to reductionist, essentialized, or ahistorical perceptions of Chinese culture. It is surely not my intention to reduce China’s history to a set of immutable principles and rules (see note 8 to this introduction), or to some neat “evolutions” (e.g., toward “ever more efficient authoritarianism”; see chapter 2). Hence, rather than glossing over instances of discontinuities and ruptures, I shall


highlight them whenever appropriate, and rather than looking for primordial explanations of basic ideological and institutional patterns, I shall explore their emergence and evolution. I hope to demonstrate that each of these patterns was a product of reasonable choices made by statesmen and thinkers at different stages of the empire’s development; and many of these choices were repeatedly reinterpreted, renegotiated, and readjusted in the face of a variety of challenges. However, I also believe that beneath temporal variations we can discern common underlying principles, which, in my eyes, constitute the fundamentals of China’s imperial model, and which I hope to foreground in this book.

Aside from the danger of superficial generalizations, my study faces yet another potential pitfall—that of overreliance on traditional Chinese historiography as the major source for understanding the imperial past. As is well known, this historiography in general, and its core, the socalled dynastic histories in particular, suffer not just from political biases but also from ideological conventions that at times result in a skewed presentation of the past. Many historical works tend to perpetuate the illusion of unified rule during the ages of de facto fragmentation, and the illusion of China’s superiority over aliens during the ages of dynastic weakness; most of them focus on the center at the expense of the periphery; and the desire of many history writers to seek moral lessons in the past causes some to cross the line between descriptive and prescriptive narratives. More substantial biases permeate not just the official historiography but the entire ideological and historical production of the literati. Thus not just the absolute majority of the empire’s subjects—the lower strata, women, ethnic minorities, and the like—remain outside the focus of historical production; what is worse for the study of political culture, even elite and subelite groups other than the literati—military men and alien conquerors, eunuchs and harem women, merchants and monks—remain woefully under- or misrepresented. This intrinsic bias in the writings of the literati dictates utmost caution in the analysis of, for instance, the persistence of fundamental political values, which are explored throughout this book. Is it possible that ideological and political phenomena that did not correspond to the literati’s worldview were simply glossed over? Such a question poses an implicit challenge to the validity of my research.

To moderate this challenge, I offer two observations. First, the sheer richness of Chinese historical production and the abundance of primary documents incorporated into historical works allow a sensitive historian to reconstruct a much more nuanced picture than is often assumed. Thus, in addition to official histories, we possess—especially from the late imperial period—a variety of local histories and personal accounts, which were produced outside the court and which elucidate many topics that


remain beyond the scope of official historiography. Furthermore, numerous literary works, epigraphic sources, accounts of foreign travelers, writings by members of other ethnic groups (most notably the Manchu archives), and even material objects—all these further enrich our understanding of the complexity of China’s past and allow us to go beyond the confines of the official histories, which, as Etienne Balazs derisively said, were written “by officials for officials.”
Thus, while our picture of the Chinese past may remain incomplete and inaccurate in some details, on balance, I believe, it is possible to restore a sufficiently reliable view of China’s political and ideological trajectories.

Second, and most important for the present study, the biases of the literati are less detrimental to an understanding of Chinese political culture than to other research endeavors. Since political culture in China was from the beginning designed by the educated elite, and since this elite retained cultural and ideological (even if not always political) hegemony throughout the Chinese imperial age, its viewpoints naturally constitute the major source for my research. As these viewpoints can be reconstructed with considerable precision from the extant sources, it may be argued that the general picture presented in this study remains largely reliable.



My exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese empire pursues three distinct goals. The first and perhaps the most audacious of these is an attempt to outline the essentials of China’s political culture. I am aware that this undertaking will face the inevitable skepticism of “a generation of historians that has been training its eyes on smaller and smaller temporal and geographical chunks of Chinese history,… working to get beyond East/West generalizations.”
Nonetheless, I hope to demonstrate that historical sensitivity should not preclude readiness to generalize, and that awareness of the immense variability of Chinese history in time and space should not prevent us from discerning long-term patterns and modes of functioning, the combination of which was peculiar to China. I hope that by outlining fundamental principles of the empire’s functioning, this study will benefit both historians of China, by providing a possible framework for discussions of specifics of China’s imperial history, and colleagues and students who deal with other civilizations and are interested in understanding the patterns of China’s past for the sake of comparison.

This brings me to a second goal: namely, to locate the Chinese example more firmly within the nascent but rapidly developing field of “imperiology”—that is, the study of an empire as a historical and sociopolitical


phenomenon. Comparative studies of imperial formations were undertaken by both historians and social scientists in the past, and in recent years interest in the topic has visibly burgeoned.
With the increasing theoretical sophistication of these studies, particularly evidenced by Goldstone and Haldon’s recent insightful analysis of the empires’ developmental trajectories, the possibility of creating a viable cross-civilization comparative framework increases as well.
Yet while the Chinese case is duly present in most of the comparative studies (and is very prominent in some), research is still overwhelmingly dominated by the Occidental (Roman or, less frequently, Near Eastern) perspective. I think that the time is ripe to reverse this trend, taking into account the Chinese imperial experience in its full complexity. My study in particular may contribute to this end by exploring the importance of the ideological factors behind the empire’s sustainability and addressing thereby what appears to be one of the crucial factors behind the differences in the empires’ life spans.

To be sure, the present monograph is but a preliminary contribution to comparative “imperiology.” Establishing a more rigid comparative framework would require more systematic discussion of a number of questions that are only cursorily dealt with in the present study, such as the impact of geographic, economic, religious, ethnic, and military factors on the empires’ different trajectories. To what extent did China benefit from its relative isolation from other civilizations of comparable economic and ideological prowess—for example, those in western and southern Eurasia? To what extent did it benefit from its relative economic self-sufficiency, which allowed China’s rulers to moderate contacts with the outside world more efficiently than would be possible elsewhere? How did the Chinese empire escape major religious challenges to its structure and to its mode of functioning? What were the costs and benefits of the empire’s strongly pronounced tendency to subjugate the military to civilian control? Were the ethnic identities in the Chinese world more malleable and less politically potent than those elsewhere? These and manifold other questions will require further studies.

BOOK: The Everlasting Empire
2.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Habitaciones Cerradas by Care Santos
Room for Love by Andrea Meyer
Rule 34 by Charles Stross
Just Another Kid by Torey Hayden
Beggar of Love by Lee Lynch
Lily (Suitors of Seattle) by Osbourne, Kirsten
Canyon Road by Thomas, Thea