Belknap, Harvard, 2018, 201 pp., $39.95
Under repressive regimes political disputes are often fought out under the cloak of historical studies replete with subtle pointed allusions or poisoned innuendo. Peering at hairline cracks in the Sino-Soviet relationship as a diplomat in the early 1960s I recall my antennae tingling when an article in an obscure Soviet historical journal took sudden and vicious exception to the career of Genghis Khan; a stand-in, it quickly emerged, for Chairman Mao.
Five years later, when I worked in Beijing during the earliest years of the Cultural Revolution, I found myself reading vicious attacks in Red Guard wall posters on Wu Han, the author of an abstruse-sounding play called The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office. The play was about a brave Ming dynasty official who dared criticize the Emperor. Peng Dehuai, the Defense Minister fired for criticizing the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, was the righteous official, and the emperor of course, Mao. Wu Han, it nearly goes without saying, perished in prison.
Though he deals with the entire sweep of China’s history from the earliest times to the present, in a book with no lack of messages for the present—some of which will likely rile other Chinese scholars—I suspect Ge Zhaoguang will be safe. The times are not good for candid analysts who dare to go public, though not as bad as they were, and apart from the final chapter, “Practical Questions,” the surface of his work is unruffled by contemporary politics. Xi Jinping is not mentioned at all, and there is a single innocuous mention of Mao. More than that, Ge is also protected in these more normal times by his prominence as a professor at the National Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies and the Department of History at Fudan University in Shanghai. He is also well known abroad, having since 1997 been a visiting professor in Japan, Belgium, Taiwan, and the United States (Princeton University, from 2010-13.) That is no doubt why his book rates an English translation under the imprimatur of Harvard University Press. (The first edition in Chinese was published in 2014 by Hong Kong Oxford University Press.)
What Is China? is a short book on vast topics. In what can at times come across as abstract and opaque notions of culture, the nation-state, or national identity, Ge spans 5,000 years of history. The most basic concepts are questioned so dutifully that both “China” and its “rise” can find themselves in inverted commas. The author’s impatience with much foreign historiography of China, whether Japanese or Western—including postmodern critiques of the nation-state—accounts for some of the book’s didactic nature. But that nature mainly springs from Ge’s conviction that seemingly straightforward questions about China’s territories, peoples, faiths, and historical development are far more complex than for other countries. At pains to stress both the uniqueness and capacious nature of Chinese culture as a whole, along with that culture’s apparent insularity, he seeks to show that a simultaneous awareness of the outside world never lapsed in China’s long history.
Central to Ge’s argument is the concept of All-Under-Heaven (Tianxia), the core of the Chinese mentality since the earliest times. Best thought of as a vast inverted basket atop a chessboard of territories (the geometrical improbability underscores the imprecision of the notion), All-Under-Heaven extended in four directions and comprised three circles: the capital and the ruler, the land of the Han, and those occupied by barbarians. The idea of The Middle Kingdom was inherited by the Qin and Western Han dynasties (221 BCE to 9 CE), yet in the first of many authorial qualifications we are assured that it was far less restrictive than it appears, denoting in practice a space comprising a wide variety of intermingled races, ideas, cultures, and religions: “All-Under-Heaven is actually a self-centered cultural imagining . . . It was this cultural vision that, by placing China at the center of the world, produced distinctions between Chinese and barbarians.”
On the other hand, the national identity, state ideology, and cultural orientation of Han China grew from these mixed elements during the period of unification under the Qin and Han. So it is wrong to see the country as self-enclosed or uninterested in the surrounding world: As early as 138 BCE an explorer, Zhang Qian, travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, stimulating other explorations, followed by the opening of the Silk Road.
Ge sees the root elements of Chinese culture as the use of Chinese characters, the structure of family, the clan and the state, and the “three teachings in one”: the Buddhism that cultivated the mind, the Taoism that extended life, and the Confucianism that served as a practical system for governing. Then there was the unity of heaven and man in the universe, and the study of yin and yang and the five elements, which influenced everything from medicine to building, and even politics.
The self-conscious exclusivity that much of this implied was contradicted most flagrantly under the Tang dynasty (618-907). During this period (and especially the eighth century) foreigners, including Turkic peoples, Persians, and Indians, arrived in large numbers and appear to have been assimilated without great difficulty. They did not necessarily see themselves as foreign, and the Hans did not always see themselves as superior. The immigrants could rise to high rank, their fashions were often adopted, and they were seen as an energizing presence who could blend with the Hans.
Yet toward the end of the Tang a reaction set in, and the Song Taizu Emperor was to complain, “Beyond the four posts of my bed the rest of my house belongs to other people.” The practice of bestowing the status of tributary states on the countries surrounding China was discontinued, and a sharper consciousness arose about neighboring peoples and the borders that divided them. Critics of the country’s former openness denounced attempts to meld Chinese and foreigners together in a limitless expanse of empire for fear that the power of the nation and state alike would be diminished by so doing. There is nothing especially Chinese about the notion, of course; some Romans under the Republic reputedly felt it, and so did so-called Little Englanders a century or so ago. But what Ge describes had uniquely Chinese characteristics.
It was this gap between the All-Under-Heaven delusion and the reality of connections between states, Ge suggests, that brought about suspicions of foreign cultures. The southern Song especially developed traditionalist and socially reactionary attitudes. Its consciousness of borders and the need for formal links between states led to defensive measures to regularize the country’s loose and permeable frontiers. Border surveys, control of crossings, and limitations on where foreigners could reside followed. To prevent the outflow of knowledge and technology, controls were also imposed on Chinese leaving the country.
Afraid of absorbing too many foreigners and losing its national essence, the Song did its best to spread Han culture forcibly. The slogan of “Glorifying the throne and casting out barbarians” carries foretastes of later reactions against foreign contacts and incursions, such as the ban on teaching foreigners Chinese in the 19th century, the Boxer rebellion of 1901 in response to colonial inroads, and the enforced worship of the Great Helmsman and the chauvinism of his 1966 Cultural Revolution in the Communist period. In the Tang-Song transformation, as in late-1960s Maoist China, efforts to curb ostentatious wealth, drinking, sex, and aesthetic pursuits were couched as foreign sins. (Later, as the Mongolians and the Manchu Qing dynasty were superimposed on or interwoven with Han culture, things were to change again.)
The Song period marks another Chinese paradox. Ge believes that it was China’s awareness of its international context that encouraged the development of the early modern state sooner than in Europe. Though dating back millennia, China until the Song dynasty did not have a real sense of foreign lands (waiguo), nor was it fully conscious of itself as a nation-state. At the same time countries on its borders, such as Japan, Korea, and Annam (Vietnam), began to pull away from the tribute system and see themselves as having separate cultural statuses.
At the turn of the 14th century came another startling development. Equipped with a fleet of ships in advance of those of contemporary Europe, the Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral, court eunuch, and Muslim Zheng He (1371–1433) made voyages reaching as far as the Persian Gulf and East Africa. In a decision whose consequences for China are in retrospect extraordinary, forty years before Columbus set sail on his first expedition, the Emperor debarred its outstanding admiral from further explorations. The Chinese, it seemed, were uninterested in colonial ventures beyond their immediate frontiers.
To this day explanations of China’s failure to capitalize on its naval prowess are inadequate, and unfortunately Ge does not provide any advance. It has been suggested that China took the view that Zheng He’s discoveries merely confirmed that the outer world was peopled by barbarians who posed no challenge to a superior civilization, so that there was little point in pursuing wider explorations. Already, over some 300 years the Chinese had developed seaborne commerce in the Far East to meet the taste for spices and need for raw materials, and that was deemed enough.
Then, in the mid-Ming dynasty (1516) came Rafael Perestrello, a Portuguese adventurer and harbinger of what was to become early globalization, with all its challenges to Chinese customs and thinking. Not long after came the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci, who is thought to have brought with him a painting he had made of a world map with its five great continents and four oceans. Ge believes the map made a big impression on the Chinese, though not big enough to persuade them to resume their exploration of distant lands.
Next, in 1644 the national territory was greatly expanded with the Great Qing dynasty. China then became what Ge calls a super-empire, pulling together Mongols, Manchus, Uighur, Tibetan, and Han peoples, with the tensions that were to follow. After the 19th-century Western incursions, predatory post-Meiji Japanese historiographers began claiming that the real Han China was confined to the area south of the Great Wall and east of Xinjiang and Tibet, arguing in effect that the rest was up for grabs. In the ferocious conflicts that followed embattled Chinese historians came to their country’s defense, arguing that a culturally unified China already existed, within whose changing borders the central region had always remained stable, and that the Han and other cultures had melded into a civilization.
As the modern world approaches Ge comes clean—or cleaner—about his agenda. After some bland or contradictory pages, designed, one suspects, to present a balanced enough view to avoid controversy, now he argues increasingly forcefully against excessive nationalism and, more unusually, state power—not something lightly done in contemporary China.
Calling on his fellow citizens to remember the less benign periods of its history, he points out that although, unlike Europe, China has been spared religious wars, this was largely because all religions were under state control, owing to high levels of centralism. Then he chastises the “excessive pride” of a culture shored up by a tribute system, whose leader saw himself not just as the son of heaven but above all alien peoples. Anyone who has witnessed the reception of Third World communist leaders or sympathizers in Beijing during the Mao period, as Ge must have done by the dozen, will conclude that he can hardly be unaware of the parallels.
Tipping the balance the other way, as if afraid he has gone too far, our author then asserts that China today must not go to the other extreme and apologize too much for its past. China’s modern community, he insists, is not the product of an imagined history, as postmodernists claim in order to deconstruct the country, and for all its excesses it cannot be denied that the centralized Chinese world of the past fostered a distinct national culture.
Waxing bold again, in allusive but unambiguous language he then makes clear his fear that China’s rise and growing confidence could lead historians and others to a narrow focus on Han culture. To do this would be dangerous and extreme, he stresses, turning respect for traditional culture, whether Confucianism or a fashion for traditional Han clothes, in a nationalistic direction. “The plural nature of Chinese culture is also the complexity, tolerance and openness of Chinese culture.”
This passage brought to mind a strikingly bombastic recent editorial in the semi-official China Daily, in which the nationalist chutzpah Ge fears emerged in raw form. Criticizing the assumption by Francis Fukuyama that Western democracy would triumph the world over and reminding us of how it had failed to resolve its own problems (this was after the election of President Trump), it went on:
In contrast, socialism with Chinese characteristics is propelling China toward realizing the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. China’s democratic system under the leadership of the Communist Party of China is perfectly suited to the country’s present conditions and cultural traditions. Unlike Western political parties that represent the interests of only part of the people, the CPC represents the working class along with the rest of the Chinese people.
China is the only ancient civilization that has continued to evolve without a break for more than 5,000 years. And the CPC has inherited, and has been promoting, the cultural traditions of that civilization with the aim of serving the nation and its people. And contrary to some Western scholars’ prophecy during the Cold War, China is rising steadily while the West remains mired in all kinds of troubles.
Later, Ge echoes approvingly a living Chinese historian who warned that for millennia China’s conviction that it was the center of the world had prevented it from adjusting to the idea of equal coexistence with other states. He adds that in a globalized era the ancient worldview based on a tribute system lost its validity some time ago; a statement of the obvious, perhaps, but countries like Vietnam and South Korea will be glad to hear a Chinese historian of Ge’s repute repeat it.
The twists and turns of his argument, however, are not over. Inclining yet again in another direction, he reminds us that the first priority of his country has been to escape the grip that Western culture had on its ideas and institutions in the early modern period and return to the traditional culture in search of a foundation for rebuilding modern Chinese values. This search for identity was essential:
This means working, in an era when faith is all but absent, to re-establish cohesion among “Chinese” citizens in their views on history, culture, values, and especially the state. . . . As China rises, then, it becomes essential in the eyes of many to show the world that our vast country has not only taken its place amongst the so-called great nations of the world but also should have a commanding position, specifically in terms of culture.
One can understand such an aspiration in a resurgent power of China’s extraordinary historical achievements. Though now that Ge is writing specifically about modern China one is bound to add that a commanding position in the world of culture is unlikely to be forthcoming in a country whose current semi-dictator has just proclaimed himself leader for life, tightened the grip of his Party on culture, and renewed the stultifying, tedious, and mind-numbing Maoist practice of obliging his people, notably students and officials, to study his speeches. To be fair, Ge cannot have known of Xi Jinping’s self-promotion to lifelong leadership when he wrote, but the trends were already there to be discerned.
Back on the attack, Ge goes on to denounce the idea that since at a philosophical level the Confucian world is one without borders, the All-Under-Heaven order should replace the current world order. Ge will have none of it, calling the notion arrogant, self-centered, slapdash thinking that could only lead to chauvinism. The rest of us may reflect what Ge feels unable to point out: namely, that until forty years ago the Chinese regime’s philosophy was based on a not-dissimilar belief in globally valid doctrines, this time stemming from Marxism-Leninism, fused with Mao Zedong’s highly nationalistic thinking, ultimately destined, we were assured, to replace the world order, too.
Irrational exuberance, Ge almost calls this line of thinking, a world away from what he calls the “rational strategy [for China] to keep a low profile and bide its time” (such is Ge’s apolitical presentation that he doesn’t even attribute the quote to Deng Xiaoping). All this he attributes to an urge to play power politics, excusable only insofar as it can reflect feelings in a country so long engaged in a struggle against humiliation and oppression, at a moment in world history when the West now has burgeoning problems. Now is China’s time, is the message (or, as we might put it, the feeling that “we are the masters now”). Such ideas, Ge insists, could “lead to ambitions to gain hegemony over All-Under-Heaven with the wealth and military power gained through modernization. These ambitions, in turn, can become barriers that use culture to divide inner and outer—you and me.”
Again All-Under-Heaven comes back like a nagging tooth, though not always in a negative context. He is indignant with “a scholar with a government position” who says that the state should be a “cultural and civilizational” body that reconstructs the country in the spirit of an All-Under-Heaven philosophy rooted in the Confucian classics, and with those who speak of a new China “remaking the world.” At the same time, he agrees that some of this “Celestial dynasty” mentality could morph into a more positive globalism, one open to universal values within a framework of unity and diversity. He ends, however, with a salutary warning:
When All-Under-Heaven is brought to life, when imagined versions of the tribute system are taken for real, and memories of the Celestial Empire are unearthed, then it is likely that Chinese culture and national sentiment will turn to nationalism (or statism) that resists both global modern civilization and regional cooperation. Such a turn of events would truly lead to a clash of civilizations.
The sentiment seems clear enough. Clarity at last, we think; yet Ge’s scrupulous lack of specificity leaves important questions open. Is this an oblique criticism of Xi Jinping’s growing appeals to national sentiment and more forward policies, whether in the South China Sea or moves toward a tribute-like relationship with smaller neighbors? Or is he sounding a historically coded note of warning: “So far and no further.”
Either way, What Is China? serves to alert us to tensions within China’s academic community, and to an extent perhaps within Ge Zhaoguang himself, at a time when his country’s sudden and massive advances run the risk of inducing dizziness from success. The temptations of triumphalism, after all, come in many flavors.