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Back to Ch'ang-an: The Twilight of Chinese Civilization

Pits of ash not yet cold; rebellion broke out east of Hsiao Mountains: Liu Bang and Hsiang Yü’s illiteracy was revealed
-Chang Chieh, Early T'ang Dynasty

Comparisons between the Ch‘in Shih Hwang-ti and Mao Tsê-tung are not original—critics of Mao have drawn comparisons to the close-minded and dictatorial fashion of rule of the first emperor and the Cultural Revolution already. Usually, though, these rhetorical attacks are limited to just that: political rhetoric directed against the memory of Chairman Mao. Rarely are they carried to their logical conclusion with a full parallel between ancient Chinese history and modern Chinese politics. It has long been on the mind of your author to undertake such a project, but the idea did not readily manifest itself into words, and further research into China was necessary before anything intelligent could be written on the subject. Even now, the highest aim of this article is to provoke more informed commentary on China from sources which might critique the conclusions drawn here. What follows, therefore, is an attempt to interpret and understand how traditions endure and reemerge as a civilization begins to coalesce again, as your author believes China to be doing. Fortunately, the reactosphere has more informed authors, like Spandrell, who has written quite a bit on Asia, and offered a good jumping-off point in Xi Jinping and Chinese power relations.

The undercurrent of the article is that Western perceptions of China are largely shaped by Western ignorance of Asia. We’ve heard this tune before. The endurance of cultural practices from the late Ch'ing in modern China can sometimes disguise themselves as cyclical resurgence of ancient tropes, while actual patterns of Chinese behavior across ages will be too subtle to notice. Spengler, too, noted that the

European-American world has displayed a complete incomprehension of the fellah-revolution of Turkey (1908) and China (1911), the inner life and thought of these peoples, and consequently, even their notions of state and sovereignty (the Caliph in the one, the Son of Heaven in the other) being of an utterly different cast and therefore, a sealed book, the course of events could neither be weighed up nor even reckoned upon in advance. The member of an alien Culture can be a spectator, and therefore also a descriptive historian of the past, but he can never be a statesman, a man who feels the future working in him.

Western ignorance of Asian history and culture is undoubtedly a problem, but it is also nigh unassailable due to the utter foreignness of Asiatic forms to the Western Weltfühlen, the Faustian spirit that produced positivism and the Industrial Revolution to answer Chinese alchemy and silk production three centuries earlier. However, a careful observer will be able to learn enough to accurately interpret China’s reemergence as a civilization of world-historical significance, something that has not sprung from Asian soil in nearly two thousand years.

Spengler in the East: Chung-hua & Chinese Civilization

So perhaps it is incorrect to say that we know where Xi Jinping is going with China, but it is at least not beyond the realm of possibility to explain where he is coming from. A great deal is made of the Confucian style of post-Maoist China—as much, at least, as has been made of Confucianism in North Korea, which is a patently absurd interpretation of Juche society. The conclusions are wrong, but the inspiration, at least, seems to touch upon something of value: namely, that there is precedent for the China we are today witnessing, seemingly ascendant in comparison with the Western world. If Spengler is correct, and the 1911 Revolution constitutes merely a fellah-revolution rather than a genuine break with the past (Ch'ing ch'ao holdovers like the phenomenon of Chabuduo certainly seem to support Spengler here), then it would follow that the 20th century is merely a sort of cultural theatre of China going through motions. In the view of this author, however, China has clung on for too long to merely be fellaheen, and there are too many parallels to draw between the last century and a half of Chinese political life and China’s more ancient past to uphold Spengler’s assertion. Rather, the period between 1950 and 1976 reflects a similar 26-year period after the end of two centuries of rival warlords ignoring the Chou emperors.

By Spenglerian standards, the rise of Ch‘in Shih Hwang-ti was analogous to Augustus, marking the near-end rather than the emergence of what he called Chinese civilization. However, also by Spenglerian standards, the Ch'ing ch'ao represent a period marked by intense pseudomorphosis, leading to a twisted and warped version of what might otherwise be healthy civilizational growth. Cut off from sunlight at times, exposed to higher acid or alkaline in the soil, an otherwise healthy plant might grow sickly and produce soured fruits. Following Spengler’s own model of the Shang as a “stateless” period giving way to a new cultural form, lasting until the fall of China into fellaheen state around 260 BC with the Ts'ao Wei, it is possible to examine other points of Chinese history in which China is reimagined, its principles resurrected and altered, and a new “spirit” is introduced. In this way, what Spengler described might be better called a different civilization than that of China—perhaps Chung-hua, a pre-Chinese Civilization.

The soil is not fallow for long in China—the fellaheen Chinese, with only a vague sense of their inheritance from the Spring & Autumn period of the Chou, are a spiritually wandering people. Spengler is right to assert that Chinese after the third century AD have no conception of their ancestors’ understanding of basic principles articulated by Confucius and Lao-tzû, but this does not dictate a perpetual state of fellaheen incapacity. Rather, a sort of spiritual Shang reassert themselves as the racial and national sensibility of the Chinese during the politically disunified period of Sixteen Kingdoms. During this time, the Han ethnicity, the fellaheen body of former Chinese who had lost their sense of race, begins to physically diminish: the last step in the process of a civilization's collapse. In their place, a variety of Barbarian peoples are Sinified, coalescing into a new Chinese racial animus that is politically unified—as the Han were by the Chou—into the Sui ch'ao in the 580s AD. The Chinese themselves even speak in similar terms of this period—the term Ch'unch'iu indicates a period similar to the period following the collapse of the Shang and the rise of the Chou in the tenth century BC.

What follows is a series of political collapses and philosophical crystallisations that look too much like the growth of new civilizations to dismiss as fellaheen mimicry of the past. The rise of so-called “Neoconfucianism” during the T‘ang and Sung periods, the incorporation of Buddhism and the invention of the profoundly Chinese variant (so variant, in fact, that one is tempted to regard it as a separate religious expression altogether) of Ch'an Buddhism (or as the Japanese have it, Zen), and the rise of a new understanding of schooling as a state function all suggest a different expression of civilization than what flourished in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. The pressures of outside forces—first the Mongols, who seemed to unite under Genghis Khan quite by historical accident, and subsequently Western Europeans, who pressed against China first with economic collapse and starvation (again quite by accident – the silver from Potosí did damage all over the place) and then with the Opium Wars, indirectly or directly hobbling and imploding two dynasties, the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties.

The foundation upon which this argument is grounded is that the Ch'ing and Chou are essentially analogous and that the warring states periods of various Warlord Cliques which already de facto existed in toward the end of the Ch'ing, but really emerged after 1911. These ended, not with the Kuomintang, which never successfully suppressed them, but with the singular influence of Mao Tsê-tung as Mao Chú-hsi in 1949, as those ideologies introduced from the West blended with the solutions of this new China’s golden age—particularly “Neoconfucianism” (your author prefers “State Confucianism”)—to form a new philosophical outlook. Like the Ch‘in Shih Hwang-ti, the Chairman adopted a minority philosophy of government defined by its dogmatism and strict enforcement, purging China of dissenting forces and preparing the way for his own legacy to be immediately rejected by a dynasty that would espouse an older philosophical model that guaranteed more lasting stability. There are several candidates in historical view to occupy the role of the Han Kao-tzû—the great Tiberius of Han China, Liu Bang. It is impossible to make any assertions along this line without understanding the enduring understanding of power and authority in China, derived from concepts that only coalesced in the late Han and were not clearly defined until the T‘ang.

T'ien-hsia, T'ien-ming, T'ien-tzû: The World-Feeling of China

Anyone who has watched kung-fu movies has probably seen Jet Li’s Hero, and therefore been exposed to the concept of 天下 (“t'ien-hsia”), very poorly rendered in the subtitles to that film as “Our Land”, reducing it to some kind of pro patria more ideal. A more accurate rendering, found in the writings of Sun-Tzu, produces the phrase “everything under Heaven”, but even this does not quite capture the meaning conveyed. This is not because of some kind of mystical property these strange Asiatic characters contain, which makes their meaning too subtle for us great lumbering Westerners with our thick skulls and big eyes; rather, it is because the word has philosophical underpinnings foreign to the world-feeling of peoples living in Western Eurasia. In the West, the equivalent word would likely be “Creation”, which is also a word whose meaning is best apprehended as sign and symbol rather than as principle and concept. The Chinese, however, do not speak of “Creation” and it would be improper to render t'ien-hsia as such. The word, therefore, cannot be understood solely as principle, as we are used to (and indeed, most human beings are used to), but rather primarily as sign and symbol. It is true, the principle conveyed by the word is essentially “the world”, but the sign “t'ien-hsia” contains the basis for what Spengler called the “world-feeling” of the Chinese.

It is impossible to understand either t'ien-hsia or the accompanying concept of 天命 (“T'ien-ming”) without understanding the nature of 天 - t'ien, rendered as “Heaven”. This Heaven, however, represents neither a place nor a state of being but should be taken to express the East Asian idea of God as the All-Soul (a sort of theological cognate of the anima mundi interpretation of the Hindu ātman) 天 is not, strictly speaking, a single entity, however, in the way Brahman or Para-Brahman might be (as the Rig Veda has it: “to that which is One, the sages give many names,” an elemental expression of Hindu theology). Rather, it is a sort of collective: both a deity and the collective spirit of ancestors linking the living Chinese with their tangible past and the wisdom of the sages of epochs past. No doubt certain readers will take exception to this expression, but in the interest of accurate rendering, one might be tempted to think of it as a sort of self-aware racial conscience or even a racial soul. To speak of t'ien-hsia, therefore, as “everything under heaven” may not be as accurate as to say “everything which is given to heaven” or, perhaps “everything tied to heaven” – since it is not merely the physical world beneath the heavens, or merely 地 (“Ti”), that is, “Earth” according to East Asian Cosmology (i.e. the Three Worlds, which originate in Hinduism but can be found in the local religious beliefs wherever Buddhism is practiced, including in Neoconfucian documents).

The notion of unifying t'ien-hsia is central to all Chinese politics—but this does not necessarily mean a political union; rather the goal is to bring all t'ien-hsia into harmony and order. This is deeply influential on Chinese conceptions of nation, ethnicity, and humanity—all of which follow different rules in China than they do in the Western world. For the West, as has been discussed exhaustively by Neoreactionaries, the nation is really no older than most of our problems. In China, however, the concept of Chinese nationhood might be said to be as old as the concept of Ti itself, for the Chinese world-conception of nationhood, unlike the West, antedates the Chinese notion of ethnicity. Interpreters of China often speak of the “Middle Kingdom” concept – a circular cosmology with the Emperor at the centre, followed by the Chinese, followed by the Barbarians, emphasizing that China is the centre of the universe. This isn’t wholly inaccurate: there are Chinese who still believe that China has its own sun that follows different rules than the Sun of the Barbarians, but, on the other hand, there are Americans who believe that S. James wrote the King James Bible during the Council of Jerusalem. Oh well, Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. While the Middle Kingdom is an idea in Chinese self-perception, the harmony of t'ien-hsia is more dependent on a different motif, contained in the very word itself: the binding of T'ien with Ti and Ren (“humanity”). This is most perfectly realised in the concept of T'ien-ming, rendered popularly as the Mandate of Heaven.

T'ien-ming is the human manifestation of all those principles communicated in t'ien-hsia. As t'ien-hsia is defined by its relationship with t'ien itself, so too the Son of Heaven, Spengler’s anchor point in defining Chinese civilization, is bound to t'ien by manifesting the collective will of the ancestors called t'ien-ming. In doing so, he becomes the 天子 (“t'ien-tzû”), the adopted “Son of Heaven”, or, in a very literal rendering, the “seed of Heaven”, which rendered down further is “the seed of the collective will of the ancestors and Shang Ti (“first ruler” – God). A child, a son, a seed: these indicate imperfect forms, and this is the meaning behind the symbol of t'ien-tzû. Your author is tempted is to render this sensible to the West by referencing the Platonic doctrine of Forms, the t'ien-tzû being the actualisation of the form of the perfect 帝 (“Ti”, “Emperor, ruler” as in Shi Huang-ti – not to be confused with 地 above). However, this will only render the idea intelligible, it will not truly expose the essence of the concept. The Son of Heaven is not like a Son of God—a perfected form—rather he is under the guidance or tutelage of t'ien as his master and sage (this lends itself readily to interpretation by Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist sensibilities). Thus the rendering “Mandate of Heaven” suggests a legal judgement that does not really convey the relationship here—rather than a Mandate, what the t'ien-tzû has is the trust of t'ien to behave in a way similar to the way Shang Ti behaves in relation to t'ien, and protection so long as this remains the case. There is an element of obedience that one conceives of hearing the word “mandate”, but it is not the central element.

T'ien-hsia is maintained in harmony by the t'ien-tzû, such that the Chinese nation has a privileged place in the world by being those closest to t'ien-tzû in the way the Emperor is closest to t'ien itself. Likewise, while the t'ien-tzû is conceptualised as the Emperor and Imperial court, there is nothing to suggest that any given warlord cannot be “adopted” as the disciple of the sage T'ien, for the t'ien-tzû is not the Emperor per se, but rather whosoever is channelling the manifestation of the Heavenly Will and therefore the true Ti of t'ien-hsia. Indeed, this is the only explanation for the rise of foreign rulers like the Yüan and Ch'ing—Mongol and Manchu barbarians respectively. If barbarians can be favoured by t'ien-ming, it follows that the t'ien-tzû need not be Ti in the strict sense, since T'ien favours whoever embodies the Chinese race (in the Spenglerian sense), not the Han race (in the Darwinian sense).

The Monk, the Chairman, the Emperor

If there is anything that might shock the more poorly informed about Xi Jinping, it is that he is not especially significant in the grand scheme of Chinese history. His governing style is certainly different than Hu Jintao, as Spandrell has already pointed out, but on the whole, the nature of his power and his overall attitude towards government varies little from his predecessors back to Deng Xiaoping. The significant change in Chinese civilization has already been effected—Mao Tsê-tung achieved it when he reintroduced Mencius’ doctrine that “stability is in unity”. Far from the liberalised diversity of the “five races, one union” principle of Kuomintang, which respected the place of the various Chinese “races” under their outwardly authoritarian but otherwise incompetent governing body defined by its failure to quell the feuding warlords. But the weak scholarship and wise myopia of Hsün K'uang and his fellow Confucians inevitably gave way to the ruthless efficacy of Han Fei in the hands of Ch‘in Shih Hwang-ti. When the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are compared to Stalin’s forced industrialisation and the Holodomor, this is a failure to understand what Mao and his closest supporters were attempting. Competition on the world scale was certainly part of Mao’s ideology—but even his Three Worlds theory can be seen as a cognate of the Confucian/Buddhist doctrine native to China of Three Realms, one of which ultimately commands the other two. Understanding this as merely an interpretation of doctrines put forward by Lenin in Imperialism, it is no more than standard Marxist class warfare on an international level. Understanding it as Chinese, however, it becomes clear that Mao’s life was too supersaturated in Chinese Buddhism for him to escape its world-feeling.

The Buddhist doctrine of Three Realms posits that the universe may be divided into three distinct realms: the realm of the Formless, the highest realm; the realm of the Formed, which is corporeal but lacks Maya (illusion or delusion) and desire; and the realm of Desire, which is the realm of ordinary humans who are oppressed by Maya and suffering. T'ien, when translated into Buddhist understanding, is of the highest realm: formless, original, and inaccessible even to the bodhisattvas. In Taoism, it represents the absolute positive pole of Reality; Ren, on the other hand, dwells in Ti (地), the other pole of Reality. For the Taoist, Ren occupies a middle place in cosmology; for the Buddhist, though, Ren dwells in the afflicted and oppressive Third Realm, dominated by desire and suffering. Seeing how Chinese Buddhism shaped Mao’s thinking is, therefore, no great intellectual leap. Such influence, unconscious in Mao’s case no doubt, are utterly foreign to the Chung-hua Civilization Spengler calls “Chinese”. They originate in the T'ang, and are completely diffused into the Chinese world-feeling by the time of the Sung. Mao is, therefore, by no means a break from Chinese culture—his “Cultural Revolution” was no revolution at all: it was a completely Chinese means of harmony through unity and unity through conformity enforced by the sort of violence that has earned the moniker “Asiatic” in the West.

Both the action and its effects have precedence in Chinese history. For Mao and the Ch‘in Shih Hwang-ti have earned many comparisons. Marxism-Leninism already has a healthy dose of Western legalism (perhaps Phariseeism is a better word) built in, so drawing connexions to the Chinese philosophy of harsh punishments and other means of deterrence of ideological heterodoxy or disloyalty to the t'ien-tzû is hardly intellectual heavy-lifting. There is an error in the interpretations of Ch‘in policies, however, which see Liu Bang’s establishment of the long-lasting Confucian Han ch'ao as an explicit repudiation of Legalism in favour of orthodox Confucianism. Likewise, political analysts and their historian successors have made the error of seeing Deng Xiaoping as a sort of less bumbling and oafish Nikita Khrushchev, succeeding a tyrant and cementing his power by repudiating that tyrant and his policies. No historian, on the other hand, has any illusions that the Han would simply not exist but for the Ch'in, and that includes the policies and approach of Shih Hwang-ti. Indeed, the Han court historians implicitly endorsed these policies—not only did they recognize Shih Hwang-ti as t'ien-tzû, a concept that was only fully articulated during the Han era, but the Records of the Grand Historian takes note that one of the most outspoken opponents of the burning of Confucian books and elimination of Confucian scholars was the Emperor’s son Fusu, whose son Tzu-ying would be the weak and detestable final ruler of the dynasty. While the Han did abandon the Legalist tendency to rule by harsh punishment and fear, they also used the environment created by that style of rule to enforce their own government. The Han did not bring the people of Chung-hua freedom from oppression and tyranny—rather, they replaced the stringency of legalism with a stringency of hierarchy, of self-enforced discipline, which was just as reflective of the then-aging soul of Chung-hua Civilization.

Deng Xiaoping is a fitting parallel to the great Han Kao-tzu. The men have similar backgrounds that have been mythologized in similar ways—reflecting the needs and beliefs of their respective civilizations. In an age in which loyalty to the State and Filial Piety were paramount, Liu Bang first held authority as a loyal and fastidious official of the Ch'in emperor, who was immediately recognizable by those loyal to T'ien as exceptional, and only went into rebellion when a minor error made him a fugitive from strict Ch'in law. The weak successors of Shih Hwang-ti enticed the subjugated warlords into rebellion, and Liu Bang entered the service of the strongest of these warlords, again a loyal retainer until this leader (Hsiang Yü of Ch'u), but since he was the one to whom Tzu-ying surrendered, it was he who claimed to rule as t'ien-tzû rather than Hsiang Yü, who ruled through the puppet “Emperor” I of Ch'u, essentially no different than the corrupt eunuchs who had destroyed the court of Shih Hwang-ti. All of this is essential to the Confucian qualities of the Chung-hua Caesars, whose authority is grounded in ideologically-derived power—in this case, Confucianism and its strict hierarchies.

Deng Xiaoping is hardly a Confucian, nor does he come from the peasant background of Liu Bang, neither yet does he change his loyalties or participate in revolution against the order established by the first Chinese Caesar. His rise to power, however, does reflect Liu Bang in superficial ways—like Liu Bang, he was a loyal supporter of his Caesar; like Liu Bang, he finds himself a victim of policies natural to said Caesar; and, like Liu Bang, he comes to power as a variety of misfortunes befall his rivals. These, though, obscure rather than illuminate the real parallels between the men. Much as Shih Hwang-ti cleared the way for a Confucian Han ch'ao by eliminating the Hundred Schools of Thought, so too the Maoist purge cleared the way for Deng Xiaoping Theory, which exploited the levelling effect of Mao’s humiliation of the former landlord class to generate good will, and then in turn dealt with the former Legalists as harshly as they had dealt with the Confucians by repudiating not Mao, but the Cultural Revolution, and thereafter turned his attention from policies impacting the whole of the Chinese people to policies which only shaped government and the party. He remarked in 1975, almost immediately after his rehabilitation:

… we should use genuine Mao Zedong Thought taken as an integral whole to guide our Party, our army and our people in order to advance the cause of the Party and socialism in China and the cause of the international communist movement. In saying that we should use as our guide genuine Mao Zedong Thought taken as an integral whole, I mean that we should have a correct and comprehensive understanding of Mao Zedong thought as a system and that we should be proficient at studying it, mastering it, and applying it as a guide to our work… By creating a comprehensive theory of Party… we were able to win complete victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan [1937-45] and in the War of Liberation [1946-49]… Of course, Comrade Mao Zedong was discussing a political situation [the drive towards modernization] that should prevail not only in the Party but also in the army and among the people of the whole country.

In short, it is the theory of Party and governance that directly impacts the outcomes for China as a whole—and it is from this approach that the lasting system of Chinese Caesarism, the三位一体, (“san wei i tʻi” or “Trinity”) theory of one man controlling both the substantive and the ceremonial executive in Chinese government—head of the Party, President of China, and head of the Army. As Spandrell points out, the substantive roles are head of the Party (the focus of Chinese Caesarism) and head of the Army (Spengler’s seat of “blood power”). The Presidency of China, the leader of the people, was originally the outward sign, but T'ien-ming sits with the Secretary General of the Party, who essentially determines who will wear the symbol of T'ien-tzû to the barbarians and who will actually be T'ien-tzû. Deng Xiaoping established the Master (T'ien) and Pupil (T'ien-tzû), namely "Mao Tsê-Tung Thought" and The Party. Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, condensed the Party leadership, divided between actuality and symbol, recognising that there cannot be a t'ien-tzû and a Ti unless the two are unified in a single person: thus san wei (three “offices”) i tʻi (one body), introduced as a Christian concept, actually loses any Christian meaning and takes on a decidedly Chinese intellectual function.

The rest has already been said by Spandrell—while he was inspired by the end of presidential term limits, it is not just this political act that is insignificant, it is Xi Jinping himself, for he has done nothing to depart from or alter the form of the Deng Xiaoping’s thought or Jiang Zemin’s practical application. He is a stable and unremarkable Caesar, evidence of a China entering its twilight, no more than a century and a half behind the West in the journey into oblivion.

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