The Everlasting Empire

The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy

Yuri Pines
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Everlasting Empire
    Book Description:

    Established in 221 BCE, the Chinese empire lasted for 2,132 years before being replaced by the Republic of China in 1912. During its two millennia, the empire endured internal wars, foreign incursions, alien occupations, and devastating rebellions--yet fundamental institutional, sociopolitical, and cultural features of the empire remained intact.The Everlasting Empiretraces the roots of the Chinese empire's exceptional longevity and unparalleled political durability, and shows how lessons from the imperial past are relevant for China today.

    Yuri Pines demonstrates that the empire survived and adjusted to a variety of domestic and external challenges through a peculiar combination of rigid ideological premises and their flexible implementation. The empire's major political actors and neighbors shared its fundamental ideological principles, such as unity under a single monarch--hence, even the empire's strongest domestic and foreign foes adopted the system of imperial rule. Yet details of this rule were constantly negotiated and adjusted. Pines shows how deep tensions between political actors including the emperor, the literati, local elites, and rebellious commoners actually enabled the empire's basic institutional framework to remain critically vital and adaptable to ever-changing sociopolitical circumstances. As contemporary China moves toward a new period of prosperity and power in the twenty-first century, Pines argues that the legacy of the empire may become an increasingly important force in shaping the nation's future trajectory.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4227-8
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Western observers seem always to have been fascinated with the durability of the Chinese political system. While attitudes toward the Chinese political model changed dramatically over the centuries, reflecting shifts and turns in Europe’s political and intellectual history—from the Jesuits’ admiration of China’s stability to Hegel’s derision of its stagnation, from Voltaire’s praise of it as an exemplary enlightened monarchy to Karl Wittfogel’s detestation of its “Oriental despotism”—interest in the Chinese empire’s exceptional longevity persisted.¹ In turn it led Western scholars to investigate numerous aspects of Chinese political thought, values, and modes of sociopolitical behavior—what today may...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Ideal of “Great Unity”
    (pp. 11-43)

    The phrase in the epigraph, taken from the preface to a classical Chinese novel,The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, may serve as an excellent summary of Chinese history. An ostensibly endless chain of unifications, subsequent disintegrations, and renewed unifications of theoikoumenē, “All-under-Heaven” (tianxia), is a distinctive feature of the Chinese empire. While there is nothing exceptional about periodic disintegrations of the empire, its repeated resurrection in a more or less similar territorial framework and with a mode of functioning similar to that of the preceding unified dynasty clearly distinguishes China from other continental empires. It seems that...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Monarch
    (pp. 44-75)

    Both epigraphs are taken from theLüshi chunqiu, the major ideological compendium composed on the eve of the imperial unification of 221 BCE. The ideas they convey, namely, the fear of sociopolitical disintegration without a single powerful monarch and the belief that a rulercentered polity is the only normal and normative situation on earth, can be considered a succinct summary of the ideological consensus that crystallized during the Warring States period and remained unshaken until the very end of the imperial age. Throughout the intervening two-odd millennia, China was ruled by an immense variety of individuals: dreadful tyrants and weaklings,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Literati
    (pp. 76-103)

    The epigraph, taken from the “Inscription of the Yueyang Tower” by Fan Zhongyan (989–1052 CE), contains arguably the most famous lines by this leading man of letters of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126).¹ Fan, one of the pivotal figures of the Northern Song intellectual revival, succinctly summarized certain basic features of the Chinese literati’s selfimage. Being 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 “find his place” among his...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Local Elite
    (pp. 104-133)

    Mengzi’s assertion cited in the epigraph is a curious anachronism. It presupposes the existence of a socially and culturally powerful elite, on whose influence power-holders must depend to ensure smooth governance. This elite did indeed exist through the second third of the first millennium BCE, but by Mengzi’s time (fourth century BCE) it was vanishing, submerged by the increasingly powerful bureaucratic Warring State. Yet retrograde as it looks, Mengzi’s statement was also something of a prophecy: within a few centuries of his death the power of “grand families” would be duly resurrected, and they would play a crucial role in...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The People
    (pp. 134-161)

    The Words of Xunzi (ca. 310–230 BCE) cited in the epigraph proved to be prophetic. Prior to his age, China witnessed no popular uprisings that left an imprint in historical texts, but shortly after his death a huge rebellion toppled the first imperial dynasty, Qin (221–207 BCE). Since then mass uprisings have recurred repeatedly in Chinese history, bringing an end to several major dynasties and severely crippling others. The scope, frequency, ferocity, and political impact of these uprisings dwarf any comparable insurrections elsewhere in the premodern world.

    Twenty-two centuries after Xunzi, British interpreter and intelligence officer Thomas Meadows,...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Imperial Political Culture in the Modern Age
    (pp. 162-184)

    In the eighteenth century, the reigning Qing dynasty and the Chinese empire in general reached the peak of their development. For two millennia the empire had withstood countless challenges and recovered from a variety of crises; its statesmen had accumulated historical wisdom enabling them to continuously improve the functioning of the imperial system. Moreover, the Qing dynasty was blessed with a sequence of extraordinarily gifted monarchs, who were skillful in both domestic and external affairs, and under whose aegis China entered one of its lengthiest ages of stability and prosperity, of unprecedented territorial expansion and security on its borders. A...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 185-208)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 209-232)
  13. Index
    (pp. 233-245)