Friday, May 26, 2017

Imperial China, Identity and Worldview

Most readers will have, perhaps, heard of the infamous Opium Wars in which Victorian Great Britain defeated the China of the Great Qing Empire. Contemporary observers and even fairly modern historians have said period of conflict can be seen in more ways than that of an undeniably shameful effort to force an entire country to become drug addicts. There were other issues involved but one which I think deserves some reflection is the attitude and overall worldview of Imperial China. It is still not one to totally vindicate the British by any means, at least not in my opinion as I hope to show, but rather reflects on how people even in the Victorian era may have been trying to enforce a sort of global norm or international order of a sort on an empire which was very much out of step with the rest of the world in how it interacted with others. For myself, I do not think the Sino-centric worldview of Imperial China was entirely worthy of condemnation, though it requires some context to fully explain.

Anglo-centric view of British mission to China
Regular readers will be aware that the old, traditional, monarchical, Imperial China or, as I like to refer to it, the *real* China dealt with the world beyond their borders in a very specific way in keeping with a very Sino-centric worldview. China has often been referred to as “the Middle Kingdom” and this was a term the Chinese often used to refer to their country. However, many mistakenly believe that this referred *only* to China whereas the Chinese applied it to the entire world. There was the Upper Kingdom in the heavens, the Low Kingdom in the underworld and the earth was the Middle Kingdom. They also believed that the most important person on earth was the Emperor and everything about traditional China emphasized this point. The Forbidden City, where the Emperor lived, was held to be the center of the world and no building was allowed to exist that was taller than the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the preeminent, central throne room of the Chinese Emperor. The Emperor of China, titled as the “Son of Heaven” was held to be the divinely ordained ruler of the world, not only China, it was simply that some inconsequential and unsophisticated people beyond the borders of China were too ignorant to understand this basic fact.

Le Emperor of Vietnam before Chinese officials
In keeping with this view, the Chinese (which is to say the Han people) believed that they were the most advanced and civilized people on earth. Others, if they recognized their place within this Sino-centric world view, could also be considered civilized but any who did not were barbarians, unworthy of serious consideration. It is also for this reason that the Chinese refused to deal with anyone who did not, at the outset, recognize the total supremacy of the Chinese Emperor and adopt or at least make a show of adopting their worldview. The Emperor of China was the only emperor, the rulers of Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and so on had only kings. One reason for the longstanding antagonism between China and Japan was that, while there were periods when the Japanese played along and sent tribute to the Chinese Emperor, they never totally went along with this system and tended to insist on referring to their ruler as the Emperor of Japan and would not tolerate the notion that he could be a vassal or in any way subordinate to the Emperor of China.

Of course, not everyone went along with this way of thinking. The Vietnamese in particular were well known for referring to their ruler as “king” when dealing with the Chinese but using the title of “emperor” among themselves. They were ruled by the Vietnamese Emperor and everyone knew it but, for the sake of peace and stability, they would pay court to the Emperor of China since that was what was required to keep the Chinese happy. The Europeans were a more mixed bag. Some went along with this local custom, while others refused, first by insisting on meeting the Emperor face-to-face as any ambassador would do with a European monarch and then refusing to get down on both knees and bow down in front of him. They did not show such obeisance to their own monarchs, much less a foreign one. This, of course, inevitably led to problems.

Barbarians on the rampage
This, however, was a mentality that was actually very common and certainly not unknown to Europe. The English word, “barbarian” comes from the Greek word “barbaros” and was used to refer to pretty much anyone who was not Greek and even among the Greek city-states themselves as an insult. The Romans, likewise, referred to almost everyone who was not Roman as a barbarian. In America, many Indian tribes, such as the Navajo with “Dineh”, referred to themselves as ‘the people’ or ‘the humans’ which made the other tribes they encountered non-humans. The traditional worldview of the Jews is that they are the chosen people of God, favored above all others and that all other people in the world, the gentiles, are unclean and to be shunned for fear of contamination. It is not hard to imagine this mentality leading to trouble, yet, I also think this mentality is a major part of why the Jews have survived for so long, even without a nation-state of their own. If you are no better, which is to say no different, than any other people, there is no reason why you should survive. You are not needed, you may even be a hindrance, so why bother trying?

The despicable talking shop of the world
In the west, all of this was supposed to have been done away with after the adoption of the Westphalian system (named for the Treaty of Westphalia), following the horrific Thirty Years War in central Europe (mostly Germany). It was that system which said that every nation-state is sovereign within its own borders, should not interfere in the internal affairs of other states and that all are equal in terms of their sovereignty. However, after World War I with the League of Nations, the west seemed to disregard the Westphalian system and it would be hard to argue that it was not abandoned completely after World War II with the establishment of the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization and the increasing use of economic pressure to reward or punish countries who do not follow along with the prevailing international order. China, of course, is one of the five “ruling” members of the United Nations, China is a member of the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. Yet, China never seems to have fully ‘bought in’ to any of these organizations and many explain this by saying that the old Sino-centric worldview has not completely disappeared from China.

After all, the People’s Bandit Republic of Chinese Sweatshops has certainly not embraced the liberalism and human rights called for by the United Nations. It deals with countries that the UN says are to be shunned, it has engaged in currency manipulation to give its own economy an advantage and has even begun trying to establish a “World Bank” of its own. In effect, they have adopted the forms but not the substance of these new internationalist organizations. They use them to their own advantage but never adhere to anything they say which would, in their view, be detrimental to the current Chinese ruling class and political system. It may be that the Sino-centric mentality does survive in Peking and I would say it proves that the mentality was not all that bad in the first place. Obviously, if you are not Chinese, you are not going to agree with it but if you are Chinese, it has helped them remain more independent than other countries that no longer feel that they are anything unique or special.

Emperor Tongzhi of the Great Qing Empire
The point, in my view, where Imperial China began to go down the wrong path was with the death of the Tongzhi Emperor, the tenth ruler of the Great Qing Empire and one not generally considered very exceptional at all. However, his personal qualities are rather beside the point, what mattered was that his reign saw the attempt at what was called the “Tongzhi Restoration” in which traditional, Imperial China tried to begin the process of modernization while retaining their traditional values, traditional culture, mindset and, of course, their imperial monarchy. This came after China had been defeated by Britain, then Britain and France in the Opium Wars, most of the Chinese coast had become dominated by the ‘foreign devils’ and China had been forced to sign the “Unequal Treaties” with numerous foreign powers. This greatly disturbed the Chinese and quite rightly so. They should have been disturbed because what happened to them was completely unjust. At the same time, they looked over at Japan which, after the “Meiji Restoration”, was growing more advanced, more prosperous and more powerful with each passing year. Traditionally, the Chinese had always viewed the Japanese with contempt, calling them “dwarfs” and a nest of pirates, but now saw them becoming more advanced and not being pushed around by the Europeans the way that China was.

As absurd as giant portraits of Karl Marx?
Since the Tonghzi Restoration did not work out, there are of course a horde of historians who can explain why it was doomed to failure after the fact. However, I remain obstinately unconvinced. The basic idea was good, the only problem was in how it was implemented and the considerable opposition that existed at court to any change whatsoever. It probably did not help that, whereas the Meiji Restoration returned political power to the Meiji Emperor of Japan, the Tongzhi Restoration did not bring about a similar empowerment of the Tongzhi Emperor of China. He was still capable of being thwarted by powerful factions at court, particularly the clique around the powerful Empress-Dowager Cixi. She came around to the need for reform eventually but by that time the situation had deteriorated considerably and the reserves of public patience had been largely depleted. The result was the Xinhai Revolution and the end of traditional China with the resulting republic proving unworkable and ultimately falling victim to a new absolutist ideology, one dreamed up by a Jew in Germany in the 19th Century. Yet, despite being foreign in every way, even under Communism, the Chinese remained confident in their own identity and Chairman Mao invoked the traditional Sino-centric worldview on his day of triumph, when he stood on the Tiananmen Gate and proclaimed the “People’s Republic of China” saying that, with his victory, “the world has stood up”.

You will notice that he said, “the world” and not simply that China or that, “the Chinese have stood up”. The pertinent point is that the Chinese do not view themselves as no different from any other people, they do not view themselves as replaceable or interchangeable in the way that western Europeans seem to. They do not ‘go along to get along’ but, on the contrary, insist that others ‘go along’ with their point of view in order to ‘get along’ with them. The most obvious example of this is their insistence on being recognized as the one and only legitimate government of China and refusal to maintain formal relations with anyone who continues to maintain formal relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Once a sacred ritual, now empty play acting
Obviously, holding yourself superior to all others and insisting on groveling submission to all you deal with is not a recipe for good will and friendly interaction with foreign powers. However, the traditional Chinese worldview has served China well once they were able to moderate a bit and be more realistic about it. They have not been swallowed up by the internationalist machine but have rather used it to their own advantage, though even in China there are inroads being made by the mindset of the global elite that must be pushed back against. The biggest tragedy, however, is that the regime in China which is doing this is itself not truly Chinese in any political, cultural or traditional sense. With the overthrow of the monarchy, starting with the original Republic of China and the abdication of the last emperor, China effectively cut out its own heart, the centerpiece of all they once were, the apex of the mountain of history and heritage that ultimately defined them as a people. In that regard, they have much yet to learn and must fully restore their traditional and truly Chinese society. However, in terms of identity, how they view themselves and how they view the world, the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from China.

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