Kuora: Three common misconceptions about China

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on December 27, 2017:

What are the most common misconceptions about Chinese history among Westerners?

I’m not sure how “common” these misconceptions are, as I’m pretty sure the knowledge of China’s history among 90 percent of “Westerners” doesn’t even rise to the level where there’d be misconceptions such as the ones I’ll haphazardly list below. But among reasonably educated Europeans and Americans I’ve chatted with — even those with some exposure to Chinese history — I do encounter these ideas with some frequency:

1. That China’s imperial past is a long series of sequential dynasties. 

This idea is completely understandable, because often this is how it’s taught. There were these three pre-imperial dynasties called Xia (shrouded in myth), then Shang, then Zhou; then after Zhou broke apart there was the Spring and Autumn period, then the Warring States, then Qin unified China and the imperial period begins: Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing.

But Qin didn’t give way neatly to Han; there was a long and horrifically bloody war between rival contenders before Liu Bang emerged on top to found a new dynasty. There was a staggeringly long period of disunity from the end of the Han (nominally in AD 220, in fact arguably more than 30 years earlier than that) that lasted all the way until the Sui reunified China in the late 6th century. That’s a period longer than any of the big dynasties unless you count Western and Eastern Han as one — which you shouldn’t, since there was actually a short-lived dynasty, the Xin dynasty, set up by a usurper named Wang Mang who might have made a decent emperor but had absolutely shit luck with natural catastrophes.

Tang nominally lasted until 907, but in 751 it was riven by a huge rebellion that nearly did the dynasty in, and it never quite recovered afterward, and the territory it directly controlled shrank appreciably. There was another (shorter) period of disunity that followed the Tang collapse, with five dynasties rising in quick succession and 10 kingdoms carved out all in the course of just 50-odd years.

Song reunified things in 960, but Song never really ruled all of China, as the Khitan Liao held a good swath of territory south of the Great Wall, and then in the early 12th century Song had to give up the whole north to the invading Jürchen, then dealt with the Mongol threat for many decades after their first brushes with them in the 1220s before they were finally snuffed out.

The Mongol Yuan dynasty didn’t give way neatly to Ming: the Ming founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, was just one of many rebel leaders who rose up to toss out the Mongols. Even the Qing weren’t the ones who actually overthrew the last Ming emperor in 1644. Some weeks before they entered the city, a rebel leader named Li Zicheng had taken Beijing and compelled the last Ming emperor to hang himself.

In mid-19th century, China was effectively divided north and south, with the south ruled by the Taiping, a quasi-Christian millenarian sect that had made its capital at Nanjing and were only defeated after a long, long war that cost an estimated 20 million lives. The transition to a Republic — never quite complete — was vexed by the many warlords who vied for power from 1916 through the ensuing couple of decades.

Does this mean it’s meaningless to speak of China as a continuous civilization? Probably not. But it’s more complicated than your basic layman’s notion of history — whether that layman is Chinese or otherwise.

2. That China always saw itself as a “middle kingdom” and the only center of civilization. 

China is certainly guilty of a kind of civilizational arrogance, but the notion that it has always regarded itself as the center of the universe and that even its very name implied this is just incorrect. “Middle Kingdom” — 中国 (zhōngguó) — is first used to refer to the “central states” of the Eastern Zhou — the royal domains of the Zhou, enfeoffed to close family relations, that were close to the Zhou capital itself, in the heartland of the Yellow River floodplain in what is today North China’s Henan Province. It wasn’t really used to refer to the “country” except occasionally by the Qing dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries — so it’s hardly evidence of this “middle kingdom” mentality. Nor was it China’s assumption that it was the only civilization. The Roman Empire was known to the Chinese of the Qin and Han dynasties; they called it 大秦 (dàqín)or “Great Qin,” which some have suggested means they believed Rome to be a power greater still than the Qin. The Northern Song recognized another “son of heaven” in the person of the Khitan Liao emperor.

In the 1950s, Western sinologists like the late great John King Fairbank described imperial China’s foreign relations in terms of something they called the Tribute System, in which China supposedly required supplicant nations from around Asia to bring it valuable goods and prostrate themselves before the Son of Heaven. Some rituals like this probably did exist, but modern scholars have debunked the idea that it was ever a “system.” Indeed no Chinese word for “tribute system” ever existed — until they were forced to translate it from English much later.

This whole “middle kingdom mentality” myth is a particularly pernicious one; it’s deeply essentialist, and from it, some have concluded that a strong China will somehow spring back into that form and seek to reimpose this imaginary “tribute system” on the rest of Asia — indeed, on the rest of the world.

3. That China has always been a peaceful nation. 

You only hear this from rank apologists who repeat official propaganda, but this assertion is easily disproved. “China,” after all, has not always occupied its modern political borders, and to believe that it expanded to said borders entirely through peaceful cooptation of indigenous peoples is deluded. We have many clear descriptions of, for instance, the expansion of Han peoples into what is now southern Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the annals of the Three Kingdoms — fictionalized but still somewhat factually based in the beloved Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Long chapters are devoted to the great strategist Zhuge Liang’s campaigns against the “Southern Barbarian” kings of that region, especially one Meng Huo (who Zhuge captures and releases six times before he finally submits with his seventh capture). More recent expansive warfare is abundantly obvious, with the campaigns of the Qianlong Emperor in mid-18th century, by which he conquered Mongolia, Turkestan (now Xinjiang), and Tibet. Though China arguably never “seized” territory in the war with India in 1962 — Chinese troops withdrew to the pre-war “actual line of control” — this was not exactly a “peaceful” approach to settling a border dispute. And then of course there was Vietnam, against which China fought a “punitive” campaign in 1979 and 1980.

Kuora is a weekly column.