Wang on Pines, 'The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy'

Yuri Pines
Jingbin Wang

Yuri Pines. The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 248 pp. $39.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-13495-6.

Reviewed by Jingbin Wang (Elizabeth City State University)
Published on H-Empire (July, 2014)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

Ideology and the Longevity of the Chinese Empire

For over two thousand years, from its first unification and emergence as an empire in 221 BCE to the founding of the republic in 1912, China boasted the longest continuous polity in the world. There were periods when China was divided, with more than one political center. However, it was reunified each time after its collapse, with more or less the same sociopolitical structure. Empires abounded in world history, but none enjoyed the kind of longevity the Chinese empire did. Why did the Chinese imperial system last so long? Such is the question Yuri Pines, the Michael W. Lipson Chair in Chinese Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, asks in his recent book, The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy. In response to two popular views based on geography and demography, Pines counters that the Chinese topography was “as conducive to the emergence of small independent polities as any part of the world” and that the Chinese population was “similarly heterogeneous” (p. 11). Moreover, the Chinese empire was “not only an administrative and military entity but also an ideological construct” (p. 4). Focusing on the role of ideology, Pines argues that certain ideological premises and their flexible implementation combined to contribute to the exceptional durability of the Chinese political system. At the end of the book, Pines discusses the imperial legacy in post-1911 China. 

In the first two chapters, Pines lays out what he calls the two ideological premises of political unity and monarchism respectively, summarizing his earlier work, especially Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (2009), and elaborates on how they operated in reality. According to Pines, each premise was a major contributing factor in the longevity of the Chinese empire. Specifically, it was widely agreed first among the educated elite during the immediate pre-imperial Warring States period and then among all major political actors that “All-under-Heaven” should be unified under one single monarch. Whoever could unify China and maintain order and peace gained legitimacy in the eyes of both the elites and the people. This was the case even when China disintegrated into regional states and fell under nomadic rule. There were always attempts to restore unity during periods of fragmentation. Unity was the norm, and disunity simply an aberration. In addition, what made the empire resilient was the flexibility that the imperial rulers displayed in their attitude toward its boundaries. As their fortunes rose and fell, they could adapt to a territorially larger or smaller empire. Similarly, the emperor was an absolute and almost divine monarch in theory, but often a weak one in practice. The majority of the emperors were mediocre, dealing with a bureaucracy that was not always cooperative. They worked under a system of “checks and balances” with Chinese characteristics. Even strong emperors, such as Han Emperor Wu and Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, operated under various constraints. As a rule, the government stood somewhere between centralization and decentralization, which was conducive to the stability of the empire. 

In the three chapters that follow, Pines demonstrates how the literati, local elites, and the people each helped sustain the imperial order in their own way despite their own concerns and sometimes conflicts of interest with the government. Otherwise known as scholar-officials, the literati saw themselves as moral leaders to the whole society, including the emperor. Yet they were at the same time committed to government service and always loyal to the throne. Local elites could be potential challengers to the center. Therefore, they were suppressed and kept under control in regional states during the Warring States period and especially in the Qin dynasty. But for most of the imperial era from the Han dynasty, local elites were either co-opted into the government bureaucracy or encouraged to perform various tasks in the localities to cut administrative costs. The common people were normally excluded from the political process, but had the right to rebel. Destructive as they were of a dynasty in the short run, rebels always sought changes from within and were paradoxically a stabilizing force for the imperial system.

In the last chapter, Pines revisits each of the themes covered in the earlier chapters from our vantage point in modern times and considers how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could draw on traditional Chinese political culture to compensate for the lost appeal of Marxism-Leninism. A sea change befell the literati, local elites, and the people. Intellectuals lost their dual cultural and political leadership roles. Local elites as an autonomous force disappeared. The people for the first time got involved in the political process. They were even politicized in Mao’s times. However, the current government is moving away from mass campaigns toward political elitism, more along traditional lines. It might move to cultivate the “newly emerging socioeconomic elites” while continuing to show concern for the people as in the imperial era (p. 182). Monarchism has found its way into the party leadership as “a collective emperor.” Now as in the past, it is important for the government to maintain “its hegemonic position vis-à-vis a variety of social groups and local interests, and reining in centrifugal socioeconomic and political forces” (p. 181). The idea of political unity remains valid (in nationalist rather than universalist terms). As long as the principle of one unified China is not compromised, Beijing is expected to show flexibility on Taiwan and even ethnic frontier issues.

Drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, The Everlasting Empire is an illuminating study of how to approach ideological principles in general and traditional Chinese political culture in particular. For centuries in the West, it was common to examine ideology or culture in essentialist and ahistorical terms, especially when it came to China. Consequently, one could easily equate a Chinese emperor with a despot. Pines’s effort to look at the modes of functioning as well as the ideological stipulations of the empire reveals two sides to an emperor: one in theory and one in reality. It offers a necessary corrective to the literature that has tended to focus on the theory but not the practice of the Chinese imperial experience.

The author nicely goes beyond the Western modernization perspective and evaluates the Chinese empire through the Chinese prism and in a historical context. While many revile the empire’s stability as a sign of stagnation, Pines sees virtue in it. According to Pines, the alternative to stability and peace in the Chinese historical context was a divided China torn by interstate wars. And “their destructiveness dwarfed the human and economic costs the population had to pay under even the most cruel and tyrannical regime” (p. 42). Although a stable system relatively had more merit to the Chinese than outsiders have been able to appreciate, Pines fully recognizes its limitation: “imperial China’s disastrous performance vis-à-vis Western (and Japanese) challenges in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries.” Nevertheless, Pines insists, “few if any premodern polities worldwide were able to provide such a fair degree of stability, peace, and relative prosperity to so many people as did the Chinese empire” (p. 9).

Pines adds a thought-provoking historical perspective to the party’s legitimacy issue. He points out that “the successful unification of both China proper and its ethnic peripheries became ... an important—perhaps the primary—source of the Party’s legitimacy” (p. 167). Many Western observers have tied the party’s legitimacy to political as well as economic liberalization. If the party’s ability to hold the Chinese world together and maintain stability matters most to the people, political reform is not likely to be a priority for a long time to come. China watchers who have been expecting the party to collapse without such reform sooner or later would do well to have second thought.

The central question—why the Chinese empire lasted so long (over two thousand years)—in the book is clear, but becomes less clear when the author rephrases it and gets down to specific dynasties. For example, in one place, he underscores the empire’s “repeated resurrection in more or less the same territory and with a functional structure similar to that of the preturmoil period” (p. 3). Elsewhere, he asks, “what  are the reasons, then, for the sustainability of the unified empire, and, most of all, for its regeneration after periods of division” (p. 11)? The “sustainability” question is straightforward, but the “regeneration” one is not. Did the latter also include those cases in which the collapse of one dynasty was immediately followed by the founding of another one, with turmoil in between but without long periods of division? One can find the answer only when reading the theme chapter, but analytically, the author does not make that distinction. As far as specific dynasties were concerned, the Qin was the first to establish an empire, albeit after periods of division, so it did not fit into the “regeneration” framework. Nor did it go well with the “sustainability” framework because the Qin empire was such a short-lived one (221-206 BCE). Some conceptual clarity would have been helpful and desirable.

Pines indicates that he is more interested in the “regeneration” question, but he is not explicit about which cases were “regeneration” cases. Reading between the lines, one can clearly see two cases of “regeneration after periods of division”: the Sui and Song dynasties (founded after about three and a half centuries and half a century of disintegration respectively). The Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) could be a period of division when the Chinese lost the North, and the Yuan dynasty would then be a regeneration case. The author does not touch on the question. Also, he chooses to discuss questions in an illustrative manner, not systematically. Although the Sui was important to his question, he ignores the dynasty. Instead, he focuses on the Tang dynasty, which came immediately after the collapse of the Sui and did not constitute a case of “regeneration after periods of division.” He could have devoted his attention to the beginning of the Tang. Surprisingly, his attention centers on the last decades of the tottering dynasty. Pines seeks to explain how it could continue to survive after the 850s by exploiting its ritual superiority. This was clearly a “sustainability” case. Even here one wonders whether or not the ideological factor really did the job because the court continued to do so, but ceased to be successful after the 870s. In short, a clear specification of the cases and a more systematic treatment of them would have helped to offer a more satisfying answer.

In the section on how the Song could revive the empire, Pines says little (in two paragraphs), but focuses on how regional states unsuccessfully attempted reunification (in three pages). In the former case, he simply points to the ideological commitment among both the conquerors and the conquered to the idea of political unity, leaving the answer incomplete even on his own terms. It is his stated purpose not to “pretend to provide a comprehensive answer” and rather to “focus on a single variable” (“the empire’s exceptional ideological prowess”) (p. 3). This is mostly true. Yet from the start, Pines acknowledges, “unification was attained through resolute military action” (p. 19). The military factor has to be addressed at least in a way that can help put the ideological factor into perspective, because although an ideology encouraged (re)unification in the case of China, it might not have appeared to be that significant had no power been able to unify a fragmentary Chinese world by force in the first place.

The military factor is more important than the author assumes from a comparative perspective as well. Pines refers to a multistate Europe and asserts that it could not be unified as an empire because it lacked the kind of political culture (and its flexible implementation) peculiar to China. Yet one wonders whether the nationally divided Europe really lacked a unifying ideology or sufficiently powerful military powers. Indeed, Pines is most revealing when he shows that despite “an elaborate legitimation campaign,” one of the pre-Song regional states Later Liang failed to achieve unification primarily because of “the weakness of his armies” (p. 28).

Despite the limitation of focusing on a single variable, The Everlasting Empire has made the most of it. Moving between ideology and the real world, the author has gone far to deepen our understanding of the practical impact of traditional Chinese political culture on the empire. In so doing, he debunks various myths and stereotypes prevalent in both China and the West. This book is a good starting point for those who wish to provide a more comprehensive answer. It should be of interest to both students and scholars.

Printable Version:

Citation: Jingbin Wang. Review of Pines, Yuri, The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. July, 2014.

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