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Ancient China and World Order: Lessons for Today?

Updated: Feb 25, 2018

What is the importance of history to understanding the present? I would venture to say, that in many cases, at least in the United States, history is relegated as social and political backwardness that occurred in the past. Our American worldview is inherently focused on progress and, subsequently, I believe that often we do not analyze our past extensively. Instead, we divide up our history into clean narratives – rather than a jumbled mess of events of competing power dynamics and priorities.

Within the Chinese context, it becomes much more obvious that a deep understanding of history is necessary to understand the Chinese present. Nothing fits into cleanly delineated narratives. Moreover, choosing to focus on the present rather than past in order to understand the society around us is ultimately confusing – as the present moves at a breakneck speed. When we talk about China’s future role in the world and modern-day foreign policy, many scholars emphasize the importance of understanding the past – from American scholars like John K. Fairbank to Chinese scholars like Yan Xuetong.

I would venture to say that most Chinese view their civilization as inherently separate from other civilizations, particularly due to its long-lastingness. Many Chinese whom I have talked with draw similarities between the Chinese civilization and the Jewish civilization, due to the fact that both have been able to sustain themselves continuously for thousands of years. How did the Chinese civilization last so long? It wasn’t that the Chinese were not invaded by outsiders. However, almost always, the invaders of the Chinese civilization would find themselves “Sinicized” (or made Chinese) rather than imposing their ways and values on the Chinese people. This is certainly the case with the Manchu people from the Northeast, who were the emperors during China’s final Qing dynasty. Today, it is impossible to determine who is Manchu and who is not. To emphasize this point, there is a joke that I have heard from several Chinese international relations professors: “Japan never was able to conquer China. But if Japan had succeeded, Japan would cease to exist.” Essentially, if Japan would have conquered China during World War II, the Chinese culture is so strong that Japan would have ceased to exist.

Why has Chinese society experienced such longevity? Many Chinese will say that the preeminence of the Chinese civilization is not based on material strength, but rather because of both culture and virtue. China is ultimately a Confucian culture, in which everything functions because of order – that everyone has a role which they must fill. When order is established and everyone is acting according to their role, harmony is achieved.

While Confucianism is often seen within the sphere of a family (the elders are venerated; the son must respect his father; the wife must submit to her husband; etc.) and also within a society (the common people must submit to their ruler), we can also see Confucianism in how the Chinese engaged with the outside world. The Chinese created what we now call a “tribute system” in which the emperor engaged with the peripheral civilizations through an elaborate system of trade, marriage, alliances, and gifts. (And yes, also a show of force! Ancient Chinese typically liked to document its civilization as harmonious, although modern day scholars are recognizing that this was not always the case.) More importantly, and also highly influenced by Confucianism, there was a very strict set of rituals by which the peripheral civilizations must show loyalty and exhibit their inferiority to the Chinese emperor. The peripheral civilizations must bow to the emperor and give him tribute. There was a very well-defined power structure.

Source: Palace Museum of Beijing

It is worth noting that although there was a well-defined power structure, there was also a great deal of flexibility and pragmatism, which allowed the Chinese civilization to continue to survive, in sprite of foreign conquest (such was the case with the Mongols in 1276 and the Yuan Dynasty) and constant changing of the imperial dynasties. Confucianism not only focused on the common people fulfilling their role of subservience and respect toward their emperor, but also focused on the emperor’s responsibility to his people through the “Mandate of Heaven.” If the emperor did not fulfill his role as the ruler, he would lose the “Mandate of Heaven” to rule and a new emperor could establish himself in his place. In spite of this domestic flexibility, within an international context, China engaged with the world in very similar ways. China viewed itself as the center of the world and possessing a higher moral code than its neighbors. Subsequently, they viewed themselves as superior and the peripheral civilizations as barbarian.

(Interestingly, the concept of China as the center of the world is a concept which even has a modern-day legacy. The Chinese refer to their own country as 中国. The first word in Chinese means “the center” and the second word in Chinese means “country” or “land.” Essentially, when Chinese talk about their country, they are saying something similar to the “country in the middle.” This is where we get the modern-day euphemism of the Middle Kingdom.”)

It is important to note that although I am saying “the Chinese thought this…” and “the Chinese believed that…”, I am making very vast generalizations. Ancient China was an ultimately feudal society with extremely limited opportunity for the vast majority of the peasants, who struggled daily with their basic necessities. Ancient Chinese thought was relegated mostly to the imperial system, scholars, landlords, and merchants. However, this ancient thought is extremely powerful because of its endurance and has important implications even today, as China begins its major investment projects in Southeast and Central Asia as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Can we see this as a return to the tribute system? If so, has the tribute system been adapted to the modern era?