The Problem of China
China is a problem. The trouble with China is that it does not fit into the pattern of history as we know it in the West: or rather it provides an alternative pattern that we prefer to ignore. The problem continues today with modern China. Modern China is a hugely successful country with a thriving and booming economy that makes many of the products that we so ardently desire in the West. It appears to be a thriving market economy where the citizens are offered the wide choice of goodies that a thriving market economy can offer. In addition it appears to make many of the right and difficult choices, most notably over population control where their system though harsh, is nevertheless successful. And yet at the top it is a Marxist dictatorship ruled by a single supreme ruler, albeit one who is replaced at regular intervals. How long it will last we do not know, though here in the West we are convinced – perhaps wrongly? – that it is heading for an inevitable collapse and that democracy will eventually win out.
Yet modern China inherits many of the characteristics of Ancient China in its obedience to its supreme ruler, and the reliance of the supreme ruler upon a bureaucracy chosen by competitive examination and thus extremely learned and competent. We need to study Ancient China if we are to understand modern China.
Ancient China presents several problems: it was very long lived and had no dark age. Here in the West the Roman Empire paralleled in many ways the Han Empire in Ancient China. However when the Roman Empire collapsed, the fall was very precipitous and was followed by a Dark Age that was very long and where the principles of the Roman Empire were to a large extent lost. When Charlemagne proclaimed his revival of the Holy Roman Empire in AD 800, it may have been holy but it certainly was not Roman. And if it was holy its holiness was not that of the ancient gods of Rome but of an entirely new and very different god.
The Dark Ages were followed by the Middle Ages – and the name itself is significant: they are in the middle between the Roman Empire and the new age that arose in the West with the Renaissance. Admittedly these ideas and the conflicting states that arose in Europe in the early modern period led through to the Industrial Revolution when Europe and America made a huge leap forward that made all other societies obsolete. But we somehow believe that this pattern of Dark Ages followed by Middle Ages should be applicable everywhere and we are very put out when we find that China danced to a very different tune. How far is the Chinese pattern the normal pattern, and how far should our development here in the West be considered to be abnormal?
In the early summer of 2014 we went to China for an eighteen day tour of Ancient China making our way round the northern half of China where most of its history took place. I have recorded my experiences in a blog on Ancient China which parallels and in places expands on many of the pages here. My experiences challenged many of my ideas about the whole pattern of history.
In these pages I set out an analysis of how Ancient China really worked. I first look at the history of China, concentrating in particular on the disruptions, the mini dark ages that separated the succeeding dynasties. I start with prehistory, and the philosophers of China, and then look at Qin, the first Emperor of China, and compare him with Augustus and to see how these two very great men changed their societies and made them very different.
I then follow through the successive dynasties, and the periods of disruption that separate them, ending up in the 20th century, which has some interesting similarities to previous dynasties: was Mao Tze Tung one of the most potent emperors of all?
I then go on to the governance of China, to see how China was governed. China was a palace empire, so I begin by looking at the palaces, particularly the palace in Beijing known as the Forbidden City, one of the most significant palaces anywhere in the world. However in many ways, the earlier Tang palace/town at Xian was even more important, and I look at this in some detail.
I then move on to local government and in particular the county town of Pingyao, then the examination system, Buddhism, money, and how the economy of China really worked.
The success of the modern Chinese economy poses many questions for us in the West. We need to think again our ideas about money and markets and democracy and ask ourselves whether there is anything we can adopt from the Chinese ideals. I have learnt much from China – and I hope that I will be able to challenge some of the more conventional ideas.
30th January 2015, revised 7th October 2015