What Is China?: Territory, Ethnicity, Culture and History 
by Ge Zhaoguang, translated by Michael Gibbs Hill.
Harvard, 224 pp., £31.95, March 2019, 978 0 674 73714 3
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Inthe 1950s, Western scholars and Chinese émigrés were writing extensively on the classical tradition in China, but historians in the People’s Republic were constrained by a Marxist framework that sorted the major thinkers of the past into ‘materialists’ (good) and ‘idealists’ (bad). This impasse lasted until Mao’s death in 1976, but classical scholarship continued to be neglected into the 1980s, as a flood of translations entered China and with them a vast body of Western thought. During the Mao era, Chinese scholars had access to Soviet culture, which invoked classical learning from the Greeks through to Hegel and Marx, but they knew little or nothing of non-Marxist developments since the late 19th century. As Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault and many others became available, this ‘culture fever’, which reoriented intellectuals in China towards the West, seemed to rule out any widespread reappraisal at home of classical Chinese thought. Since the turn of the century, however, the classical philosophers and their underexamined legacy have seized the Chinese imagination, and a domestic ‘culture fever’ has gained ground in academic circles and beyond. Intellectuals in mainland China have resumed a conversation with their counterparts in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and the West, restoring the international discourse ended by Mao.

Ge Zhaoguang (b. 1950), a professor of history at Fudan University in Shanghai, is one of the foremost – and most prolific – historians of Chinese thought. His work covers a vast range of Chinese writing from ancient times to the present, but it’s only in the last eight or nine years that a handful of his books have been made available in English. All of them bear on the issues that preoccupy Chinese intellectuals today. Ge is not the only PRC scholar to publish ambitious, wide-ranging surveys (with detailed commentary) on the classical Chinese tradition, but his approach to the field is distinctive and modulates from one book to the next. His Intellectual History of China is a monumental, two-volume conspectus of two thousand years of classical Chinese scholarship. Here in ‘China’ I Dwell consists of eight essays about cultural exchange, and includes, among other subjects, readings of Japanese and Western historiographies of China. What Is China? addresses the larger themes of Chinese identity – questions of territory, ethnicity and intellectual genealogy. It is Ge’s most daring attempt at an account of Chinese classical learning, presenting the scope of a long intellectual tradition and pointing up its limitations. Perhaps inevitably, it leaves out too much to be wholly persuasive.

His two volumes on China’s intellectual history leave him far more room for manoeuvre. They describe the formation of an intellectual community in the second millennium BCE and its continuation until the end of the 19th century. The founding figures (not a single female writer is mentioned) were ritual specialists attendant on kings. Over time they became an aristocracy of scholars who shaped the intellectual development of China for more than two thousand years. They called themselves shi, or ‘knights’, but they weren’t warriors – or priests – but thinkers, who debated the nature of the cosmos, the precepts of the virtuous life, good governance and the paths to spiritual transcendence. In short, the preoccupations we associate with Karl Jaspers’s Axial Age, roughly 750-400 BCE, the time of Confucius, the Upanishads, the Buddha and Socrates. But in Ge’s understanding of Chinese history, the Axial Age was not a time of radical transition from unselfconscious practice to philosophy; in China, uniquely in world civilisation, philosophy was already inherent in the day to day practice of kings and their subjects, and went on to develop organically. He is in no doubt that social transformations have a determining influence on scholarly arguments, but social historians will be frustrated by how little he has to say about the susceptibility of Chinese scholars to shifts in the world of politics and elite social relations. His attitude is closer to that of Keynes, stressing the gradual encroachment of ideas rather than the power of vested interests.

The first Chinese intellectuals about whom we know anything emerged during the Eastern Zhou period (around 770-256 BCE), a time of political chaos. Dozens of kingdoms vied for power, while ‘one hundred flowers bloomed and one hundred schools contended.’ Confucianists, Daoists, Legalists, Mohists (followers of the philosopher Mozi), military strategists, prognosticators, shamans and medical practitioners all competed for royal patronage. This moment of disorder and rivalry was also the time of China’s greatest intellectual ferment (a pattern that recurred in all the major dynasties). The conquest of China’s core territories – the states of Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, Chu and Qi – by the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, in the third century BCE was followed by more than four hundred years of consolidated rule by the two Han dynasties (202 BCE-220 CE). In the early Han dynasty, led by the towering scholar Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE), followers of Confucianism, which had never been the dominant school, made a decisive bargain with the state. Following Confucius’ injunction that rulers should be advised to act for the benefit of their subjects, Confucians entered government service, while maintaining a disinterested pursuit of what they saw as the search for philosophical truth. Confucianism was ‘transformed into a state ideology’. If we think of Aristotle, the tutor to Alexander, rather than Socrates, say, or Augustine, we have an idea of the way the Confucians situated themselves. Scholars with practical advice to offer could change policy, if they were lucky enough not to be purged, but only at the cost of their intellectual independence. Those who stood on principle, rejecting political machinations, were prey to solipsistic musing. This dialectic drives Ge’s account, and there were powerful arguments for both tendencies. He almost never, however, discusses the abundant literature on political economy, which he regards as tainted by compromise.

The tortured scholastic engagement with the world of ideas and the world of action was challenged by Daoists from within the classical tradition of Chinese writing and Buddhists from without, as the Confucianists themselves balanced in between. Far from Weber’s image of the complacent mandarin, Ge’s Confucians are afflicted with doubts as deep as those of Martin Luther. His most original section describes the crisis of the Confucian programme following the introduction of Buddhism from India. The struggle for ascendancy lasted from the second century CE until at least the ninth century. Buddhists brought two radical new paradigms to China: Indian metaphysical speculation, and the advocacy of detachment from a world of suffering. Confucius himself had avoided any discussion of gods, spirits and ontology. After the collapse of the Han dynasty no unified state ruled China for almost five hundred years, and it was precisely gods, spirits and ontology whose absence was mourned in the articulation of public life. Buddhists and Daoists rushed to fill the gap. Yet, according to Ge, the Confucian programme held its ground so successfully that it was able, ultimately, to transform Buddhism from a self-centred faith into a doctrine of brotherhood, dedicated to good works and open to lay believers (including women). It also managed to convert Daoism, with its critiques of organised ritual, into another bureaucratised religion.

The early eighth century, five hundred years after the fall of the Han dynasty, saw the start of a long neo-Confucian revival, culminating in the work of the great synthesiser Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the Aquinas of middle period China. No figure in Ge’s account, except Confucius, receives more attention. Zhu gave Confucian thought a new, metaphysical cast; redirecting the attention of Confucian scholars from ‘ritual’ to the study of ‘principle’, and changing their understanding of ‘matter-energy’ in the universe, known as qi. (Qi persists in the contemporary concept of qigong and the martial arts.) For Zhu Xi, the way to become an enlightened person, a junzi, was to study the rational, systemic relations between abstract ‘principle’ (li) governing the natural and human world, and the matter-energy ‘stuff’ (qi) of which it consisted. Techniques of meditation and seclusion, adapted from Buddhism, combined with the ‘investigation of things’, or empirical research, would lead to sageliness. The chief Confucian virtue of ren, or ‘benevolence’, governed not only human interpersonal relations, but the connections of all sentient beings. Buddhists might call this universal ‘compassion’, but neo-Confucianists insisted that true understanding of ren would still serve to reinforce the existing social order based on orthodox ritual. This reorientation gave serious thinkers – and not just Confucians – much to consider for the next two hundred years.

But the middle period was also a time of political fragmentation and social upheaval, known as the Tang-Song transition. The collapse of the great Tang empire into regional kingdoms and the Song loss of north China to Central Eurasian dynasties radically transformed the Chinese socio-economic order. The population almost doubled, rice production boomed in the south, huge cities gained populations of up to a million people, and old class barriers broke down. And yet, the same paradoxes, anxieties and tensions reasserted themselves. Although Ge is familiar with the literature on social transformation in the Tang-Song period, he doesn’t subscribe to the view that the changing intellectual landscape was determined by social relations. While many Neo-Confucian pragmatists chose to work with the Song state, dampening metaphysical speculation, others dedicated to spiritual goals imported dangerous Buddhist and Daoist ideas into neo-Confucian discourse.

Zhu Xi had claimed that a true Confucian followed the proper moral Way (Dao) while at the same time intensively cultivating his mind-heart (Xin, the unity of reason and emotion). But his disciples diverged on how to balance the two. Some said that, if the Way – the moral code – was what really mattered, self-centred navel-gazing only distracted the sage from acting in the world. Others replied that if human nature was essentially good, a benign component of a harmonious cosmos, why bother to engage in intensive study or practical action? Why not just find the Way within the Mind itself? All religions sometimes swerve towards interiority, or devotionalism, but just as the Sufis challenged Sharia Islam, Vaishnavites the Vedic ritualists, or Christian mystics the authority of the pope, this move threatens the guardians and interpreters of scripture. In Ge’s account, Zhu Xi is a cantankerous, embattled figure, far from the plaster saint he later became, vigorously defending engagement with the world as the only true method for discovering the Way. Modern neo-Confucians who invoke his authority make the same effort to shore up the classical tradition against existentialist and postmodern critiques.

Global historians like Timothy Brook and Pamela Crossley view the short but tumultuous reign of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), when China was under Mongol rule, as constituting an epochal shift: China’s rulers for the first time claimed it as a ‘Great State’ with pretensions at universal empire, spreading its influence over Russia, India, Korea, the Middle East and Europe. These conquerors brought Central Eurasian concepts of heaven, and encouraged religious debates between Muslims, Daoists, Confucians, Buddhists and shamans, but they mostly excluded the Han literati from power. Leading scholars turned to other pursuits. This was the great period of the development of the classical dramas we know as ‘Peking Opera’, of important mathematical treatises, the importation of Persian artistic styles in ceramics, metallurgy and Mongolian horsemanship. Marco Polo and many other travellers delighted in descriptions of Kublai Khan’s Xanadu and his ‘stately pleasure dome’. But Ge mentions none of this, because it lies outside the domain of classical scholarship.

Neo-Confucianism prospered under the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), as it became the prescribed orthodoxy in the examination system that selected scholars for official posts. Daoism and Buddhism went into decline (although Ge neglects some important figures), but as scholars memorised rote answers and wrote standardised essays, Neo-Confucian thought degenerated into sterility.

In the 16th century, Wang Yangming (1472-1529), the second most important figure in the Confucian tradition, revived the vigorous controversy of the Song about the relative importance of Mind-centred cultivation v. Way-centred moral practice, focusing on mental concentration and – anticipating Marx by four hundred years – the ‘unity of theory and practice’. Wang, who was a popular local official, held that intellectuals could perform useful work in the realms of philosophy and statecraft at the same time. He believed in close contact between officials and the people, promoting open lectures in front of mass audiences, although he usually kept within orthodox bounds. But many of his followers, oddly termed ‘left-wing’ Confucians, went further down the road of open resistance to autocratic rule. They preached in the streets to mixed audiences of men and women, they argued that common people could find the Way just as easily as eminent scholars and officials, and, in the eyes of their critics, they introduced ‘wild Chan Buddhist’ – i.e. Zen Buddhist – ideas into the staid canon. A true Chan practitioner had no use for rituals and ancient texts; he could achieve Enlightenment just by obsessing over a single word: ‘Nothing’. Unfortunately Ge omits one of the strangest and most fascinating figures of the late 16th century, Li Zhi (1527-1602), who violently denounced the corruption, hypocrisy and pretensions of scholars and officials alike, while asserting the fundamental significance of individual profit.

Qing dynasty (1644-1911) thought was haunted by the alien Western tradition. Once again, as with Buddhism, scholars, encountering Jesuit concepts of theology or the techniques of Western science, attempted to incorporate these newcomers without giving up their basic principles, and once again, the classical tradition was ‘fundamentally transformed’ without actually disappearing. Ge admits that the school of empirical research opened up new arenas, but takes much too disparaging a view of Qing intellectual life. Like the scholars he discusses, he has a strange disdain for poetry and belles-lettres. At one point he calls the shift from classical studies to poetry a descent into ‘triviality’. Philosophy can be just as trivial. The vast territorial expansion of the Qing generated a profusion of genres: travel writing, diaries, frontier poetry and incipient ethnography. The Qing was also a golden age of political economy, inspiring debates on subjects such as mining, agricultural production, hydrology, currency regulation, famine relief, taxation and foreign affairs. Writers on statecraft attained a level of discourse not seen since the Song dynasty. But Ge is not interested in such practical questions.

What matters to him is the way the intellectual class maintained its autonomy from the autocratic state, now ruled by Manchus, who were paranoid about the opinions of the Han literati. Yet he skims over the work of Huang Zongxi (1610-95), the most important writer of the period, who directly addressed the issue of autocratic power. Huang argued that the Ming collapsed because of unrestrained imperial control over property and people. For him, a dynasty could endure only if it protected individual property rights by giving power to hereditary elites who held local office. Although he didn’t read Locke or Montesquieu, like them he aimed to shore up the position of what we might call the gentry. Others, like the great modernist Wei Yuan, followed Huang’s lead. Their writings, neglected at the time, undergird William Theodore de Bary’s argument that China had a ‘liberal tradition’ of constitutional thought. The legal theorist Xu Zhangrun, who was dismissed from Tsinghua University in July last year for his criticisms of Xi Jinping’s regime, invokes this tradition – and the PRC’s constitution – in his essay ‘Imminent Fears, Imminent Hopes’, an attack on corruption in the communist party-state. The 17th century still echoes today.

But Ge’s omissions show us the limits of the kind of intellectual history – or sixiangshi – he has undertaken. In the classical period, by contrast, Chinese did not make distinctions between philosophy, religion, political economy and popular culture. It was all part of wen, culture itself, and becoming cultured. Ge’s English terms, ‘knowledge, thought and belief’, provide too broad an interpretation of sixiangshi, which is the province, strictly speaking, of one fraction of a literate community, continuing a powerful tradition of commentary derived from ancient times, but one that is under constant siege from new currents and dissenters, both within and without. Confucius himself called for resistance to ‘deviant thoughts’ that departed from his ‘single thread’, and his followers knew that the struggle would continue.

In 1895, China suffered a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Japanese and then came under assault from its own intellectuals, who were heavily influenced by the Western thought that had arrived with the conquerors. The result was an almost complete rejection of the Confucian tradition over the next ninety years. Ge ends his Intellectual History of China in 1895, the year in which Yan Fu, the famous translator of Darwinist thought, wrote of the extreme ‘nervous anxiety’ afflicting intellectuals of his time. Ge does not follow the story into the next two decades, when genuine faith in the classical tradition almost completely collapsed. As he writes, by 1895, the loss of territory, cultural confidence, unity and common historical identity had ‘undermined the integrity of the classical tradition’. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 and the collapse of the dynasty in 1911 sealed its fate. But China had faced foreign invasion and cultural challenges before without the collapse of the Confucian tradition.

Was what Ge calls the ‘anger and humiliation’ of this period any more severe than that experienced during the Manchu conquest, or the embattled Song? This is the central issue for all students of modern Chinese thought. I can only offer a few hints here. The concurrent onslaught of military power, commercial competition, ideological challenges and global geopolitics eventually destroyed all the large enduring agrarian empires: Russian, Ottoman and Chinese. But Chinese intellectuals, those venerable old moles, also sabotaged the tradition from within. The hidden tensions of classical thought, between individual self-cultivation and state service, between progress and respect for the past, between external and internal dynamics, could no longer be balanced. The centre could not hold. In the words of Philip Kuhn, ‘nobody mourns the old Chinese bureaucracy … Yet its nature impeded zealotry of any sort … Without that great sheet-anchor, China yaws wildly in the storm.’ The shattered alliance of scholars and the state left China without any moral guidance for the entire 20th century.

The Republican era (1912-49), marked by civil war, imperial invasion, famine and rapid industrialisation, was a terrible moment for Confucian agrarianists; but the Maoist era was even worse. China rebuilt itself on a ruthless Stalinist industrial model; its farmers, the favoured class of Confucius, suffered the worst manmade famine in world history as a result. Mao is never mentioned in Ge’s work, an omission that has proved essential to the wider post-Maoist effort to revive ‘learning’ (xue) on the mainland, after nearly a hundred years of unrelenting assault. After Mao, Chinese endorsed cowboy capitalism of the most corrupt, environmentally destructive kind. Like all of us, they struggle to restrain capitalist greed with moral or legal norms; many of them, amazingly enough, have turned to Christianity for answers, but others search for guidance in Buddhism, Daoism, popular cults, and even Confucius. Where is the unified moral community of the past, if it ever existed, to be found?

Ge admits​ that Chinese culture contains multitudes, that it has adopted many concepts from abroad and that it has changed over time. Yet he holds firm to the belief that however we define it, China is a singular entity, unique in world history for its coherence, continuity and distinctiveness. Critiques of this unitary notion in recent Western, Japanese and Taiwanese scholarship tend to emphasise regional cultures, or embrace the idea of a larger East Asian or Asian framework; some point to the distinctiveness of Taiwan, others focus on non-Han influence; all cast a sceptical postmodern eye on received narratives of the nation-state. What Is China? is a response to these positions. To Ge’s mind, they have all narrowed historians’ views by directing them away from the central state; crucially, they have ‘diluted the dominance of China within Asia’. The unified Chinese cultural sphere was shared not only by elites, he argues, but by the common people. Several historians – Ge included – have investigated the ways in which intellectual communities construct culture and shape historical continuity to ideological ends. He nevertheless insists that core elements of something called ‘culture’ existed in a real ‘China’. Culture is not purely a socially constructed phenomenon: for Ge, there is a there there.

There are problems with his account, including his criticisms of other scholars. Just because someone carries out a study of a single Chinese region doesn’t mean they think that China is a tapestry of ill-assorted fragments. G. William Skinner argued that Qing China is best viewed as an assemblage of macro-regions rather than a single economic entity, but he did not deny the existence of common elements. No one today would deny that China has played a dominant role within the region, but the subcontinental region we now call China, with more than three thousand years of recorded history, is too vast to be subsumed under a single rubric. Perhaps Ge knows this and has attempted this feat of imagination in the Confucian spirit of zhi buke er wei (doing the impossible). One difficulty is that many of his concepts don’t correspond exactly to English terms. He often conflates China (Zhongguo) as a unified political structure with China – Huaxia or Zhonghua – as a cultural concept. He knows that for much of its history China was politically divided, but insists that a unified cultural community – wenhua gongtongti – persisted. For him, ‘China’ usually refers to a civilisational frame rather than a territory occupied by the contemporary Chinese state or its predecessors. Yet Huaxia is plagued with ambiguities. And Ge’s new expression, ‘cultural community’, which may sound natural to English readers, has a strange ring in Chinese. The term gongtongti derives from an early 20th-century Japanese neologism, kyōdōtai, which in turn has echoes of the German Volk, or national community. Its use in modern Chinese is recent and rare. (It may come from the Chinese translation of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities). The term guojia is another headache. It combines two key concepts – nation and state – that Western scholarship is careful to distinguish. Sometimes Ge’s translators use ‘nation’, sometimes ‘state’ and sometimes ‘nation-state’. But these are three different concepts wrapped up in one Chinese term. Ge adds yet another, minzu guojia, translated here as ‘ethnic nation-state’.

He asserts that the Qin-Han period (220 BCE-220 CE) marked the start of a single Chinese civilisation, based on Han ethnicity and ‘forming a clear and distinct cultural identity and cultural mainstream’. During times of conquest foreign cultures ‘melded’ with Han culture, but Han culture itself remained intact, even if it was transformed in the process. But who belonged to the Huaxia cultural sphere, and how was it constituted? For Ge, the Song dynasty marked the emergence of a true consciousness of ethnicity – minzu – centred on the Han people. And it was during the Tang-Song transition, he argues, that a new ‘early modern’ era began.

But identifying the moment of Chinese cultural formation during the Song raises many questions. Clearly this ‘culture’ did not include Mongols, Tibetans, Muslims or many non-Han peoples. (Ge doesn’t discuss the complex case of Chinese Muslims.) And where did this formation take place? Neither the northern nor the southern Song controlled the area around modern Beijing. During the Song-Liao-Jin era (916-1234 CE) China was a place of divided sovereignty, or as Morris Rossabi called it, a ‘China among equals’: this was not a period in which one dynasty ruled uncontested over most of the territory.

A history of China that only includes the Han cultural core will provide a narrow account of what is now a vast, modern nation-state. And that conjectural ‘core’ is smaller than the territory of the Ming dynasty: much of south-west China during the Ming was occupied by a handful of military garrisons; the ‘common people’ of these regions did not embrace Huaxia values. Then too, a history of China that includes the territories conquered by the Qing dynasty can’t hope to do justice to Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols, Manchus and Han alike. I’m reminded of Anderson likening the Western imperial project to ‘stretching the tight skin of the nation over the gigantic body of empire’.

In An Intellectual History of China, Ge tells us that Chinese thought evolved in a continuous, connected fashion from the Shang period (1600-1046 BCE) through the Qing, blending and incorporating in syncretic fashion. At the same time, he recognises that the Song dynasty was a crucial moment of economic development, which saw the rise of ‘nationalist’ – minzu – ideologies and the consolidation of neo-Confucian thought. Neo-Confucians, of course, incorporated and responded to the challenge of Buddhism. How does he reconcile the claim that the cultural ideals of Huaxia persisted with the claim that they changed radically during the Song? What distinguishes China from other civilisations, Ge argues, is the deep continuity of Chinese philosophical thought, based on enduring ideals: of tianxia (‘all under heaven’), harmony, cosmic order and so forth. But Western philosophers invoked Greco-Roman concepts throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period, just as Indian writers continued to refer to the Vedic tradition. China had a classical language, but so did Europe and India; they also had cosmic ideals and rituals. In the 2000s some Indian villages were still carrying out a version of Vedic rituals that dated from at least the first millennium BCE. No specific Chinese ritual can be traced back that far.

Clearly Ge, like many others, feels that the modern world threatens the coherence of Chinese culture, just as the Western challenge in the 19th century led to a serious reconsideration of the classical tradition. It was at that time, the historian Joseph Levenson argued, that Chinese scholars ceased to write within a ‘tradition’ and began to write instead as ‘traditionalists’, vainly asserting the validity of a culture that would soon die out. Intellectuals who aim to restore the study of the classics are bound to reject Levenson’s view, and for them the stakes are high. In the 20th century China lived through the most intensive assault on tradition known to history. From the start of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 through the Maoist era, scholars, fiction writers and politicians systematically attacked the ideals of Confucius, the family system, the family farm, the concepts of harmony and equilibrium, the pillars of classical civilisation; there were purges, repression, upheaval and famine, for farmers and intellectuals alike. Now, surveying the wreckage of a century, Chinese people struggle to find moral guidance in a world of rapacious capitalism, unconstrained by rule of law or moral norms. Religions of all kinds have flourished as a consequence. The Chinese state now invokes the once despised Confucius as the bedrock of native values. What role can the intellectual historian of the classical period have in such a confusing period? Asserting cultural continuity keeps the past alive and it can shape thought in the present. But using the past for the present – gu wei jin yong – risks distorting what thinkers in the past themselves intended, and plays down the real divergences in their approaches.

Is an alternative intellectual history of China possible? If so, it would not seek to define the unity of Chinese civilisation, but to celebrate its multiplicity. It would look to centrifugal forces, marginal figures and frontier contacts as sources of innovation, not threats to order. It would include women, non-Han peoples and non-elite traditions without trying to co-opt them into an orthodoxy. There is more to the culture of China than the efforts of a small literate male elite to define itself as both distinct from and in partnership with the imperial state, or indeed the modern state. No single study can embrace the vast diversity of the cultures that have emerged at the eastern end of the Eurasian continent, but we need to recognise their mutual interaction as a positive force. We will never stop writing and thinking about ‘China’, whatever it means. The concept is too useful to be abandoned. But we may need to take a detached view of certain Han intellectual perspectives and acknowledge their many entangled interactions with other literate elites and other peoples within and beyond the Sinitic sphere. The typical temple of Chinese popular religion contains multiple areas devoted to many gods, more like a circus model of culture than like the Temple of Heaven, where a single officer performed the sacrifice. Is such an intellectual history an even more impossible project than the search for a single China? Perhaps we should proceed in the spirit of zhi buke er wei.

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