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

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

Yuri Pines

Language: English

Pages: 256

ISBN: 0691134952

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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 Empire traces 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.

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central government can grant certain areas real autonomy, much beyond what is acceptable in most nation-states. It may be expected that China will apply similar flexibility in settling the Taiwan issue, and, perhaps (though this is less likely), in resolving tensions on the country’s ethnic frontiers. Insofar as the overarching principle of political unity is not compromised, China may well be able to allow a considerable degree of local variation with regard to its practical implementation. The

Confucian Intellectual,” 20. 13. See detailed discussion in Pines, “To Rebel Is Justified?” 14. Mengzi, “Liang Hui Wang B” 2.8: 42. 15. Han Feizi, “Zhong xiao” XX.52: 465–466. 16. See Xunzi, “Zheng lun” XII.18: 322–325, and discussion in Pines, “To Rebel Is Justified?” 16–20. 17. I adopt “egalitarian” here from Chinese scholars who usually define rebel ideology in this way (pingjunzhuyi). See, e.g., Dong Chuping, Nongmin zhanzheng yu pingjunzhuyi. 18. The Chinese debates are neatly

the power-holders. These activities were unlawful, to be sure, and their participants faced grave consequences. Yet insofar as “the people” were unanimously treated as the polity’s “root,” and insofar as their mood was considered the primary determinant of the regime’s legitimacy, widespread protest activities were indicative in the eyes of elites and commoners alike of Heaven’s disapproval of local power-holders, or, worse, of the ruling house. Thus protest, and even rebellion, while illegal,

denominator of Chinese political culture: the belief in the justifiability of insurrection against an unrighteous regime. It appears, in sum, that Meadows’s observation was quite accurate: the right to rebel was indeed ingrained in the Chinese political tradition—and it was the only “right” through which the oppressed and the dispossessed could gain some leverage vis-à-vis the ruling elites. THE QUESTION OF EQUALITY One of the persistent features of popular uprisings in Chinese history is

weaklings on the throne that huge rebellions shattered the Ming and Qing dynasties. Weakness, not brutality, was the most unforgivable mistake of the dynastic leaders. Should the dynasty fail to suppress a criminal gang, should it allow sectarians to score a few victories, should it let rioters escape punishment—all these laxities would be interpreted as ominous signs of its decay and would change the balance of power. In that case even the government’s victories, unless decisive, would matter

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