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History and politics in the Chinese tradition

Published onJan 31, 2022
History and politics in the Chinese tradition

There are many traditions in China that influenced political thought and action. The earliest were those that connected good governance to mythical rulers who had the Mandate of Heaven. Thereafter, recording and transmitting what good and bad rulers did was recognized as the best way to ensure that lessons were learnt and future rulers would know what they should do.

There are no records on the origins of the criteria of what good governance meant. The fragmentary archaeological evidence pertaining to the Shang dynasty of the 2nd millennium BC support the surviving chapters of the Book of Documents and they were used to prepare later rulers to acknowledge the great contributions of the founders of the Western Zhou dynasty, Emperors Wen and Wu and Wu’s younger brother, the Duke of Zhou.

Centuries later, during the Spring and Autumn period (8th-5th centuries BC), several thinkers emerged to offer their respective interpretations of what the Zhou founders had done for those contending lords who wanted to be better rulers. In their offerings, there were references to actions that might be described as political. But the main thrust of the advice given was about how to govern well. In time, when anarchic conditions led to intense fighting among the Warring States (5th to 3rd centuries BC), the emphasis shifted decisively towards interstate politics not unlike those of Western Europe of the later medieval and early modern periods.

The militarized states were finally exhausted and enabled the strongest among them to unify “all under Heaven” under the Qin Empire at the end of the 3rd century BC. Thereafter, politics returned to focus on the centralized power to govern founded by the legitimacy won on the battlefield. It established the winner-take-all principle that reduced the art of politics to devising the best principles of loyal and responsible service to the sovereign ruler. The legalist state that emerged appointed all officials. After centuries of court politics and, having adopted some Confucian ideas of meritocracy practiced through imperial examinations, the rulers diminished the role of aristocratic families and encouraged the politics of the mandarinate. What was extraordinary was how this literati structure of politics survived two total conquests by confederated tribal forces, the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty (1276-1368) and the Manchus of the Qing (1644-1911).

This brief account of how China was again and again unified sets the scene for the nature of history writing from its origins to modern times. The big step forward was made by Sima Qian of the Han dynasty during the 2nd century BC when he brought the Spring and Autumn Annals compiled by Confucius together with the Commentaries and other documentary collections into an original new form. This was the Shiji (Historical Records) that consisted of four divisions: Basic Annals, Tables summarizing events and lineages, Monographs on institutions of government, and two sets of Biographies. That later became the model for the 24 zhengshi or Standard Histories that were compiled for each dynasty for the next 2,000 years.

China’s history was largely in the hands of mandarin officials. Under Emperor Wu (141-87 BC) of the Han dynasty, when Sima Qian was writing, Confucian scholars were brought in to shape future generations of professional bureaucrats. These Confucians introduced new principles of a benign and caring rulership that gained wide acceptance over the next four centuries. Thereafter, having their successes placed on record became the key to imperial state building.

These developments shaped imperial politics that was couched in terms of periods of order and disorder. Within the empire, order was left to court politics among the elites who fought for good governance in the name of the emperor. Disorder prevailed when rivalries broke out among military officers, and when the discontented peasant majority were aroused. Outside, often spurred by disorder within, there was the politics of neighbouring tribes who mustered power to threaten, and sometimes to conquer, the empire. These remained the alternative political changes throughout history until the 20th century. Whether in the form of court intrigues, mutinies or peasant rebellions, or border wars leading to full invasions, they provided the historians with ample documentation to be compiled into their histories.

In short, from the later periods of the Han dynasty through the centuries of division from 3rd to the end of the 6th centuries, there was increasing attention to the practical value of history for the politics of good governance. But the lack of an agreed set of principles for political conduct remained a serious problem. The ideas drawn from the Confucian classics were challenged by the rise of Buddhism and were further challenged by the popular Daoism that the Buddhists had inspired. The rivalries among the different groups influenced the various emperors of this period of divisions. It eventually became clear to the Confucian mandarins that only the institutionalized records of each dynasty could provide a consistent picture of stable government and guarantee the continuity that their political culture had evolved to respect.

Thus following the reunification of China under the Sui and Tang dynasties (late 6th to early 7th centuries), a fresh appraisal of the value of reliable records occurred and a formal History Office was established. The task of gathering, selecting and editing all official documents became increasingly professionalized. By so doing, the mandarins were able to affirm that the histories provided the best support for good governance and integrating that area of knowledge was vital to the understanding and practice of the politics that the system created. This renewed confidence led in turn to the Song philosophers’ faith in Confucian values as the core of political wisdom, the first step to making the study of Confucian classics the gold standard of imperial success, the orthodoxy that dictated the examination system for six centuries. The indispensable historians provided exemplar records to justify that practice as well as the political actions needed to keep the empire strong and united.

During the two decades before the end of the Emperor-state in 1911, a questioning of the traditional relationship between history and politics had begun. Japanese translations of a wide range of European historical works pointed the way. In China, Liang Qichao and Zhang Binglin provided ideas as to how history could be rewritten. By the turn of the century, young scholars returning from spells in Western universities began to reexamine the sources of ancient history. Two major strands emerged after the May Fourth Movement. Both rejected traditional historiography and treated historical writings of the past merely as documents useful for modern use and analysis. One strand looked to the scientific ideal to train professional historians who were objective and committed to reconstruct a reliable picture of the past. The other, however, believed that the correct interpretation of the past should still serve the interests of the country if not the rulers and their elite supporters.

At this point, modern politics took over and the former strand became isolated in university departments and a few research centres. Elsewhere, the young were repelled by expanding foreign imperialist interests and turned to radical responses, notably to patriotic calls to save the country. In short, political ideologies swept professional scholarship aside. The writing of history once again became an integral part of the political struggle for national leadership.

At this stage, the most powerful models came from the West. The nationalist historians of the KMT in 1928 turned to European methodologies to rewrite the country’s history. The most notable example was the efforts to define China’s modern history as starting with the country’s opening to the West after the First Opium War. This was accompanied by the decision not to accept the Draft Standard History of the Qing dynasty compiled by former Qing officials who completed their task in Japanese-created Manchukuo. The consensus then was to reject the tradition that a new regime would write the official history of the one that it had replaced.

It is interesting how quickly this periodization became widely accepted. The willingness to discard tradition and highlight the abject failure of the late Manchu rulers was obvious. The new history would begin with China’s modernization, the emergence of national consciousness that grew to become a powerful drive to rejuvenate China’s political greatness.

However, the appeal for a new start also found inspiration from another direction. This was the Russian revolution that was seen as a popular movement that fought in the name of people exploited by capitalist imperialism. Karl Marx’s idea of class struggle to reinterpret history and its success in Russia offered an alternative worldview that challenged the dominance of Western historiography. At its heart was the power of history to help humankind to progressive change. What was refreshing was the slogan of people writing their own history in opposition to all the previous histories written by the elite classes to maintain their power.

It is easy to see why the Chinese of the generation after the fall of the dynastic state saw all politics as war – wars of invasion, civil wars and class struggles - and the power to write and rewrite such histories was the measure of political victory. By the 1930s, most historians in China were drawn to fierce debates about the power behind history writing. The nationalists favoured those who could inspire all Chinese to make sacrifices in defense of national revival. In contrast, the communists led by Mao Zedong argued that such a revival would be meaningful only if led by the working classes. And raising political consciousness to achieve that result would require the total rewriting of the literati class histories that had ended with China’s decadence.

The debates were brought to a close with the CCP victory on the battlefield in 1949. New China needed new history and Soviet historiography replaced everything traditionalist or vaguely liberal capitalist. Only the early efforts of the 1930s to fit all Chinese history into the Marxist frame were retained, and even they had to be revised to match the Stalinist discourse. The matrix of history and politics was closer than ever. And when political relations between Maoist China and post-Stalinist USSR began to deteriorate, history writing followed suit. Mao Zedong accused the Soviets of revisionism, and this left the historians in total confusion. During the Cultural Revolution, that was further compounded by the reappearance of quotations from the Confucian classics that Mao and his generation had thrown into the dustbin of history. History and politics had become one again, with history as the instrument of every kind and level of political struggle. It was another “End of History” moment.

When Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms, the few surviving historians resurfaced and were encouraged to think again. Turning to professional history writing became possible, traditional histories were reintroduced into the classrooms and there was a new respect for earlier efforts to explain the past. A great deal of catching up needed to be done after decades of neglect, not only to learn about non-Marxist writings about world history but also to evaluate the work on Chinese history that had been done by Chinese and non-Chinese historians during the past decades.

This is not the place to describe what has been happening in the field of history sine the 1980s. Enough to say that the subject has become an industry and some fine research has been done. What is clear is that the crude political interventions in the rewriting of history have largely given way to a willingness to study the past afresh. But the new work is no less tied to political needs and priorities. To put it simply, the quest for truth is possible but only if it does not challenge the current desire to find continuity with China’s great past. It could even be desirable if it could help the country onto the road to a progressive future.


Wang Gungwu is University Professor and Chairman of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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