Envisioning Eternal Empire

Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era

Yuri Pines
Copyright Date: 2009
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    Envisioning Eternal Empire
    Book Description:

    This ambitious book looks into the reasons for the exceptional durability of the Chinese empire, which lasted for more than two millennia (221 BCE-1911 CE). Yuri Pines identifies the roots of the empire's longevity in the activities of thinkers of the Warring States period (453-221 BCE), who, in their search for solutions to an ongoing political crisis, developed ideals, values, and perceptions that would become essential for the future imperial polity. In marked distinction to similar empires worldwide, the Chinese empire was envisioned and to a certain extent "preplanned" long before it came into being. As a result, it was not only a military and administrative construct, but also an intellectual one. Pines makes the argument that it was precisely its ideological appeal that allowed the survival and regeneration of the empire after repeated periods of turmoil.

    Envisioning Eternal Empirepresents a panoptic survey of philosophical and social conflicts in Warring States political culture. By examining the extant corpus of preimperial literature, including transmitted texts and manuscripts uncovered at archaeological sites, Pines locates the common ideas of competing thinkers that underlie their ideological controversies. This bold approach allows him to transcend the once fashionable perspective of competing "schools of thought" and show that beneath the immense pluralism of Warring States thought one may identify common ideological choices that eventually shaped traditional Chinese political culture. The result is a refreshingly novel look at the foundational period in Chinese intellectual history.

    Pines' analysis of the political thought of the period focuses on the thinkers' perceptions of three main components of the preimperial and imperial polity: the ruler, the elite, and the commoners. Regarding each of them, he identifies both the common ground and unresolved intrinsic tensions of Warring States discourse. Thus, while thinkers staunchly supported the idea of the omnipotent universal monarch, they were also aware of the mediocrity and ineptitude of acting sovereigns. They were committed to a career in government yet feared to compromise their integrity in service of corrupt rulers. They declared their dedication to "the people" yet firmly opposed the lower strata's input in political processes. Pines asserts that the persistence of these unresolved tensions eventually became one of the most important assets of China's political culture. The ensuing imperial political system was not excessively rigid, but sufficiently flexible to adapt itself to a variety of domestic and foreign pressures. This remarkable adaptability within the constant ideological framework contributed decisively to the empire's longevity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6239-8
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    The year 221 BCE¹ marks a momentous beginning in the political history of humankind. After a series of wars, the king of the northwestern state of Qin 秦 brought the Chinese world²—which for him equaled to the civilized world, “All under Heaven”—under his control. Triumphant, the king ushered in a series of ritual, administrative, and religious innovations to mark his unprecedented success, adopting the new title of “emperor” (huangdi皇帝, literally “the august thearch”)³ instead of a mere “king” (wang王). This was the official proclamation of a new, imperial, age in Chinese history, an age that was...

  5. Part I The Ruler
    • CHAPTER 1 Ritual Figureheads
      (pp. 13-24)

      The lines cited in the epigraph come from the opening paragraphs of Sima Guang’s (司馬光, 1019–1086 CE) masterpiece,The Comprehensive Mirror to Aid the Government(Zizhi tongjian資治通鋻), arguably the most influential political-historical text of the second imperial millennium.¹ In a few sentences, Sima Guang succinctly summarizes what he considers the quintessence of Chinese political culture: first, the existence of the universal and omnipotent monarch; second, the intrinsic link between the monarch’s power, the functioning of the ritual pyramid, and the preservation of the sociopolitical order in general; third, that the monarch should normally command the complete obedience of his...

    • CHAPTER 2 Ways of Monarchism
      (pp. 25-53)

      While the end of the Chunqiu period marks the low ebb of the rulers’ fortunes, the next two centuries witnessed unprecedented resurrection of the sovereign’s power in all major states. A series of profound administrative reforms brought about a new entity, which Mark Lewis has aptly named “the ruler-centered state.”¹ These reforms included, among others, limitations on hereditary office-holding and its replacement with recruitment based on talent; abolition of hereditary allotments, instead of which officials henceforth received ranked salaries paid in grain, or, in rare instances, in precious metals; and replacement of the allotments’ autonomy with centrally ruled “commanderies and...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Search for the Ideal Ruler
      (pp. 54-81)

      In Chapter 2 I noted several times the potential contradiction between the flattering image of an ideal ruler in Zhanguo texts and the negative assessments of current rulers by many thinkers. It is time now to investigate more thoroughly the impact of this implicit contradiction on Zhanguo views of rulership. We can outline two main ways in which thinkers of the Warring States tried to resolve the contradiction between the ideal and the reality: that of the optimists, who hoped to ensure that the throne would be occupied by a truly worthy person, and that of the more sober thinkers,...

    • CHAPTER 4 An Omnipotent Rubber Stamp
      (pp. 82-112)

      In the previous chapter, we outlined the rise and fall of hopes for finding a viable pattern of placing an able monarch on the throne. The ultimate fiasco of these attempts to secure an ideal sovereign did not mean, however, that the contradiction between the high expectations of the True Monarch and the low esteem of current lords was thereafter ignored. On the contrary, late Zhanguo thinkers made painstaking efforts to find a more practical solution to the inherent conflict between their ideals and gloomy reality. The solution, albeit inconclusive, was to limit the ruler’s direct involvement in policy-making, thereby...

  6. Part II Shi:: The Intellectual
    • CHAPTER 5 The Rise of the Shi
      (pp. 115-135)

      This epigraph, taken from the “Inscription of the Yueyang Tower” (“Yueyang Lou ji” 岳陽樓記) by Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹, 989–1052 CE), contains arguably the most famous lines by this leading intellectual of the Northern Song dynasty (北宋, 960–1126).¹ Fan, one of the pivotal figures of the Northern Song intellectual revival, succinctly summarized certain basic features of the self-image of the Chinese elite. Dedicated to one’s lofty ideals to the point of self-denial, being public-spirited and politically involved (worrying about the people and about the ruler), and having a sense of collective identity, a notion reflected in Fan’s desire to...

    • CHAPTER 6 To Serve or Not to Serve
      (pp. 136-162)

      We have seen that the increasing self-confidence of Zhanguoshiwas intrinsically linked to their rise to the top of the government apparatus. But how much were theshidependent on this apparatus? As a departure point for our discussion we may take two Mengzi’s statements. On the one hand, he claimed: “[F]or ashito lose his position is like for the regional lord to lose his state,” and “[S]ervice (shi仕) for ashiis like tilling for a peasant,”¹ thus identifying a government career as the only appropriate mode of existence for theshi. On the other...

    • CHAPTER 7 Shi and the Rulers
      (pp. 163-184)

      In Chapters 5 and 6 I focused on two major developments that shaped theshiimage and behavior during the Zhanguo period. First was their growing pride and feeling of indispensability as possessors of the Way and the rulers’ guides; second was their ever-stronger attachment to official careers bolstered by their economic dependence on the government and their self-imposed imperative to serve at the rulers’ courts. These coexistent trends created a peculiar situation in whichshiintellectuals considered themselves superior to the rulers morally, but at the same time were obliged to behave as the rulers’ servants. The resultant tension...

  7. Part III The People
    • CHAPTER 8 Ruling for the People
      (pp. 187-197)

      When President George W. Bush chose to cite the lines of the epigraph from “The Song of Five Sons” (“Wu zi zhi ge” 五子之歌)—a forged chapter of the so-called “old text” (gu wen古文)Book of Documents—on the eve of his visit to the People’s Republic of China in November 2005, he made a clever choice.¹ The idea that “the people are the root” (or the foundation) of the country (min ben民本), that the ruler bears responsibility for their livelihood, and that forsaking this responsibility may result in grave consequences for the monarch, was one of the...

    • CHAPTER 9 “Full Bellies, Empty Hearts”
      (pp. 198-218)

      The title of this chapter comes from the third paragraph of theLaozi:

      If you do not elevate the worthy, the people will not contend. If you do not esteem goods that are difficult to attain, there will be no thieves among the people. If you do not display desires, the people will not be calamitous. Therefore the orderly rule of the sage is to empty their hearts and fill their bellies, to weaken their will and strengthen their bones. He constantly causes the people be without knowledge and without desires; causes the knowledgeable to dare not [acting]. He does...

  8. The Legacy of the Warring States
    (pp. 219-222)

    The twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of interest in the intellectual legacy of the Warring States. Academics, politicians, and occasionally even students and workers were repeatedly engulfed in controversies about the nature of ancient political thought and about its relevance (or irrelevance) to the projects of modernization, socialism, democracy, patriotism, human rights—and the other ideological agendas that intermittently dominated political discourse in China and among China-watchers abroad. At times the controversies became fierce, even grotesque—like during the infamous “Anti-Confucian” campaign of the early 1970s; at times—like under the current technocratic leadership in Beijing—they have been...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 223-270)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-296)
  11. Index
    (pp. 297-311)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 312-313)