Diary note 61: China in three steps

Speech given for discussion society ‘de Tomaat’, De Witte, The Hague

China from within.

Today, 12 October 2023, I had wanted to talk about contemporary China in contemporary geopolitics. But as I thought about this, it occurred to me that China’s present is a continuation of China’s past more than is usually assumed. And that the continuity of Chinese society and culture is an often underestimated factor.

Therefore, to understand contemporary China, I would like to dive into the past in three steps. The first step is superficial and deals with the capital’s role in Chinese history. The second tells of my visit to the capital Beijing in 2009 and my personal impressions. The third step will be about Confucius’ lore, the so-called Analects (Lun Yu, “selected sayings”), which form the traditional basis of state doctrine.

I hope these three steps, however flawed, will bring us closer to understanding China “from within”.

Step 1, history

1. China is old
the US is not old
Europe is in between

Many of the misunderstandings about China in America seem to stem from the difference between a new and an old civilisation.

America is 2 and half centuries old and China 2 and half millennia. America is mostly forward-looking, China only became so after the establishment of the Republic in 1917 and the People’s Republic in 1949.

Perhaps Europe can better understand what it is to focus a millennial system on the future.

2. The current capital of China is Beijing. Beijing, the Northern Capital, was established in 1644 as the capital replacing Nanjing, the Southern Capital, established in 1368. Beijing and Nanjing followed in a whole series of capitals, starting with Chang’an, which already existed in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). These capitals were not insignificant. Chang’an, for example, was as big as Constantinople in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907).

3. Capitals have for two thousand years been the centre of the Chinese empire where all power coalesced in the emperor and from there flowed back to states and cities.

4. This empire and the emperor could fall back on a civil service of Mandarins controlling the economy and administering justice.

5. This apparatus was schooled through an academic examination system. Passing the academy gave access to the civil service.

6. When the capital moved, the emperor, the civil service and the academic examination system travelled with it.

7. The top-down state apparatus remains even if a foreign power conquers China. China has been conquered several times, including by the Mongols (Yuan dynasty 1271 – 1368) and the Manchus (Qing dynasty 1636 – 1912). The foreign dynasty merges with the Chinese system.

8. In his translation of the Analects of Confucius, Arthur Waley makes the interesting note that the Chinese do not record their personal life time with an abstract year, but according to the Emperor in whose time they live.

9. A major source for China’s theory of state is Confucius (Kong zi, or Kong fuzi 551 – 497 BC). There are other influences, for more than 2,000 years, leading to Neo-Confucianism. But no influence was as important as the teachings of Confucius. Every textbook in China begins with a statement by Confucius about the unity of mankind. From the Eastern Han Dynasty onwards (25 – 220), Confucian classics were engraved in stone by imperial order, most recently by the Qing emperor Qianlong from 1789. The teachings of Confucius are valid and must remain.

10. The homogeneity of state doctrine is striking and leads to different reactions among reformers. The Jesuits, who tried to Christianise China centuries ago, were already toying with the idea that it would be enough to convert the emperor. The state system would follow. After the fall of the Manchu Empire in 1917, the new republic is trying to introduce an entirely new system , based on Western examples. China wants to get rid of Confucius. China wants to get rid of its past. Mao Ze-Dong tries to implement Marxism as a theory of state after the Liberal Revolution. It also seeks to make the city more equal to the countryside. When this failed, during the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary youth tried to destroy the Confucian. legacy in the spirit of Mao, which failed.

Recently, President Xi Jinping ended his speech with Confucius, possibly unconsciously.

Step 2, contemporary impressions

I had never been to the capital before and decided not to visit the Imperial Government Centre there first. This government centre was not accessible to the ordinary Chinese in the past. The ‘purple Forbidden City’ (Zijin Cheng) was off limits to Chinese citizens, who largely lived south of it in a lower town. You entered the Forbidden City only through a relationship to either the civil service or the dynasty. Incidentally, the concept of citizen was unknown in China.

The Temple of Confucius, not far from the Forbidden City but outside it, could prove a good starting point. We, my partner and I, headed there.

The temple of Confucius was on an old street, a hutong. In the pavement, two stones marked the proximity of the temple’s entrance gate. These stones contained a command in two languages, Mandarin and Manchu. Visitors were admonished at these elevations to dismount and continue on foot. Out of respect for the great teacher. Distinguished Chinese had and sedan chair or were on horseback. These stepping stones were all over China at Confucius’ temples.

They taught me that above the elite of military and civil servants there was a higher authority other than the emperor. A kind of moral authority.

The entrance gate had something of a military checkpoint, not an entrance to a religious shrine, but a more worldly pinnacle.

Behind it, a large courtyard unfolded, where thousands of officials or students could gather. Dignified rows of trees gave this courtyard something of a forecourt.

A formidable statue of the smiling teacher greeted the visitor before entering the temple, which contained mostly mementos, and no religious items. Off to the side was a huge collection of steles, with the names carved in stone over the centuries of alumni who passed the triennial government examination. Over fifty thousand. There was also a collection of sayings of Confucius chiselled in stone.

(One could imagine, by the way, that before an important decision or exam, prayers for a happy ending did take place here).

Also striking was the use of stone, From black granite were gigantic drums hewn, said to have been made under the Zhou, a thousand years before our era, and then dragged by various emperors. Drums made of granite. The emphasis was of something enduring, an eternal truth. Or a silent force, to quote Couperus.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards in the Temple of Confucius and the adjoining imperial academy made attempts to also destroy the thousands of Confucian scripts carved in stone, but failed. It is said due to intervention by Communist Party leader Zhou En-Lai.

Both the action of the youth and that of the government member confirm the philosopher’s enduring importance to the present: old against new.

But there was another surprise – an Imperial Chair.

On the outside of the temple, the imperial academy (guozijian) also appeared to have been housed. The imperial academy was the highest institution where future officials took their final state exams to be admitted to a place in the bureaucracy of the empire.

As mentioned, this academy travelled with the emperor, and was thus located in the northern capital for centuries.

Within this academy, moreover, there was a special pavilion (biyong) where once or a few times a year the Emperor came to orally interpret state doctrine to the top of the political and civil service. Those close to the Emperor were expected to verbally relay his words to back rows.

A special pavilion had thus been built for this imperial lesson to his servants. It was in the middle of a circular pond (the symbol of the universe) and formed a square within it (the symbol of the empire).

It was not difficult to see in this a precursor to today’s gatherings in the People’s Palace, a few thousand metres away, at the Public Peace Gate Square, where now the Communist Party leader interprets the statehood future for all of China and formulates its course.

After all, it matters who in the Middle Kingdom interprets the mandate from heaven, and again, in Communist China, it was not the people. However, the Tien An Men square adjacent to the Forbidden City was greatly expanded. And modelled on Red Square with the tsarist/Leninist, not Chinese, mausoleum of the first emperor of the new dynasty. Also, his portrait still watches over the square above the southern entrance to the Forbidden City.

In short, the visit to the feudal temple (as the Red Guards called it) shed its own light on the Empire’s current politics.

Apart from the emperor’s role as guardian of the unity of state doctrine, it is worth noting that an empire-wide institution, the aforementioned Imperial Academy, existed for this purpose. It was more than a university, rather a kind of state church. On the one hand the guardian of unity, on the other, a source of criticism of the state. I picture it as the Catholic College of Cardinals in Rome. For a gigantic empire like the Chinese with 17 cultures and diverse languages, provincial and urban administrations, it was not natural that the development of ideas would correspond.

Like the Pope with heresy, the emperor structurally had to contend with dissent inside and outside the Forbidden City.

In imperial times, the custom was for senior officials from around the emperor to inspect the docility of the apparatus. That is, the degree of success of centrally decreed political instructions. They went on missions in the provinces or rather federal states of the empire, to promote homogeneity and credibility

I knew these inspections from literature, and also from the detective novels by Dutch author and sinologist Robert van Gulik, the Rechter Tie series.

There can be little doubt about the authoritarian nature of the Confucian empire. Ethics and politics came from the mouth of the emperor. But the picture is more nuanced.

Taiwan too was Confucian, and thus law-abiding. I wrote down my own impressions of this in Travels with Kengie. But the state there could be corrected by protest. As demonstrated by an uprising of an old neighbourhood in Taipei against demolition in favour of a traffic square. Not only did the demolition not go ahead but the statue of Chiang Kai-Shek was given a more modest place in the design. This is not yet democracy, but sensitivity to the voice of the people. It makes a top-down democracy conceivable.

Step 3, the doctrine

Confucius (Kong zi, or Kong Fuzi 551-479 BC), whose sayings were compulsorily studied by every official, had been an itinerant theorist of Chinese state philosophy, whose collected works became sacrosanct two hundred years after his death. In the West, they are known as the Analects (Lun Yu).

The tendency of the Westerner is quick to think of something floaty rather than realism when thinking of this intellectual foundation. Chinese culture, on the other hand, is imbued with a practical spirit. Confucius was an empiricist, based on daily practice. He is sometimes reminiscent of Machiavellis quest for realism in politics.

Thus Confucius says:

Book IX – 17 The Master said, I have never yet seen anyone whose desire to build up his moral power was as strong as sexual desire.

I am happy to give him the floor, with a personal anthology from his oldest work:

(The Analects of Confucius, Arthur Waley)

Book I – 10
Tzu-Ch’in said to Tzu-Kung, When our Master arrives in a fresh country he always manages to find out about its policy. Does he do this by asking questions, or do people tell him of their own accord?

Tzu-Kung said, Our Master gets things by being cordial, frank, courteous, temperate, deferential. That is our Master’s way of enquiring – a very different matter, certainly, from the way in which enquiries are generally made.

II – 1
The Master said, he who rules by moral force (tê) is like the pole-star, which remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it.

The Master said, Govern the people by regulations, keep order among them by chastisements, and they will flee from you, and lose all self-respect. Govern them by moral force, keep order among them by ritual and they will keep their self-respect and come to you of their own accord.

The Master said, he who by reanimating the Old can gain knowledge of the New is fit to be a teacher.

The Master said, A gentleman is not an implement.

Duke Ai asked, What can I do in order to get the support of the common people? Master K’ung replied, If you ‘raise up the straight and set them on top of the crooked’, the commoners will support you. But if you raise the crooked and set them on top of the straight, the commoners will not support you.

The Master said, The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we are in China.

The Master said, A gentleman takes a lot of trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay.

The Master said, He who holds no rank in a State does not discuss its policies.

Once when the Master was standing by a stream, he said, Could one but go on and on like this, never ceasing day or night!

The Master said, I have never yet seen anyone whose desire to build up his moral power was as strong as sexual desire.

The Master said, You may rob the Three Armies of their commander -in-chief, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his opinion.

Tzu-Kung asked about government. The master said, Sufficient food, sufficient weapons, and the confidence of the common people. Tzu-Kung said, Suppose you had no choice but to dispense with one of these three, which would you forgo? The Master said, Weapons. Tzu-Kung said, Suppose you were forced to dispense with one of the two that were left, which would you forgo? The Master said, Food. For from of old death has been the lot of all men; but a people that no longer trusts its rulers is lost indeed.

Reading list

In search of old Peking
L. C. Arlington & William Lewisohn
Oxford University Press
Oxford, 1935/1987

The Analects of Confucius
Arthur Waley
George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
London, 1938/1964

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows
Ai Weiwei
The Bodley Head
London, 2021