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Date: Tue, 17 Mar 1998 07:23:58 -0500
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@h-net.msu.edu>
From: "Steven A. Leibo, The Sage Colleges" <leibo@cnsvax.albany.edu>
Subject: H-ASIA: Zhongguo or "central kingdom"

Zhongguo or ‘Central Kingdom’

A dialog from the H-Asia list, March 1998

Date: Sun, 15 Mar 1998
From: Robert Entenmann <entenman@stolaf.edu>

Wolfgang Behr points out that in Chinese Buddhist texts "Zhongguo" can refer to the middle states of India. There are other uses of this term that refer to areas outside of China. In Japanese Chugoku refers to the area around Hiroshima as well as China (is that one reason the Japanese used the term "Shina? "). As Alec Woodside has noted, in 1805 the Gia-long Emperor of Vietnam refered to his own country as "Trung-quoc " (China was the Qing country - Thanh-quoc - or the Northern court - Bac-trieu). Of course the Romans called their sea the Mediterraneus, which means more or less the same thing. There's nothing uniquely Chinese about thinking the world revolves around you.

Robert Entenmann
St. Olaf College

Date: Sun, 22 Mar 1998 13:54:40 +0000
From: "Thomas C. Bartlett" <T.Bartlett@latrobe.edu.au>

In response to John Mensing's remarks:

1) Mensing blames Confucius' thought for supporting "what is worst about the current government". On the contrary, I would say that Confucius is no more to blame for the excesses of Chinese autocracy than is Jesus of Nazareth for the harsh and dictatorial imposition of orthodoxy and imperial power by nominally Christian rulers after Constantine (early 4th century CE), whether based in Rome, Byzantium, Spain or Russia.

Let's consider the thought that Jesus' famous "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" was essentially a sensible strategy for meeting very different kinds of demands placed on the loyalties of fundamentalist Jews living under gentile Roman domination. (Indeed, viewing this famous phrase from the perspective of the well known Chinese dichotomy, "nei4-wai4", may invest it with fresh meaning.) But that distinction, between the prerogatives of the state and those of religion, has survived into modern times as an abiding expression of dual sources of authority in Western civilization. In fact, this has been the actual situation in Europe since the demise of Roman imperial administration in the west in the late 5th century CE.

In comparison to Chinese history, the most significant fact about European history may be the repeated failure of those leaders since the middle ages (more recently by Napoleon, Bismarck, Hitler, Stalin, and Brezhnev) who aspired to reimpose unified imperial administration over all European nations. It's not that there was an absence of people who wanted to unify fully the political and the moral spheres over the whole European world; it's just that it hasn't been possible yet to achieve that goal, much less to make it last for centuries.

Rather, in China, since the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE to 8 CE) the mature Chinese imperial system (repeatedly re-established in later dynasties and enduring in more or less the same basic form until 1910) has been accurately described by the famous phrase "Confucian exterior, Legalist interior" ("Yin1 Fa3 Yang2 Ru2"); we might translate this as "velvet glove (masking a) mailed fist".

Like Jesus (and Buddha, right?), Confucius did not produce any original writings of his own; he said of himself, "(I have merely) transmitted, not created" ("chuan2 er2 bu4 zuo4"). That is, he edited 3 classic texts: Changes, Odes, and Documents, (although in doing so he may well have reshaped the material according to his own editorial opinion), and his conversations with students were recorded by them (without distortion?) in "Analects". Confucius' avowed political idea was the model of the Zhou dynasty, a loose federation of feudatories, indicated by his famous phrase, "I follow the Zhou" ("wu2 cong2 Zhou1"). Accordingly, as the term "Zhongguo" is used in any of these texts associated directly with the historical figure of Confucius, that term does not describe a centralized dictatorial state. Rather, it describes an interstate system which shared common cultural-political values, and shows features strikingly simlilar to the "feudal" states of medieval Europe, which nominally recognized the moral superiority of the Pope, but struggled among each other when they weren't temporarily joining forces to resist external enemies.

Rather, instead of following in the well worn path of 20th century critics of imperial Confucianism, I would point to another ancient philosopher, whose name has appeared in this mail group not long ago, Han Fei, as being the primary native source of "what is worst about the current government". (That is, leaving V. I. Lenin aside for the moment.) As Burton Watson points out in the introduction to his translations of selected passages from the writings of the core Legalist text, "Han Feizi", the pre-Qin philosophical schools were developed by men (Kong Qiu, Zhuang Zhou, Meng Ke, Mo Di, et al.) who were commoners by birth, the conspicuous exception being Han Fei, author of the "Han Feizi". Han Fei was by descent an aristocrat of the royal clan of the state of Han (one of the "central states"), and his political philosophy was dedicated, pure and simple, to the maintenance, and indeed to the enhancement, of the prerogatives and power of the established political elite.

Han Fei's Legalist thought was Machiavellian more than one and a half millenia before Machiavelli. (I'm not suggesting any historical influence, but has anyone considered that angle?) That is, Legalist thought was avowedly "realist" and radically amoral in its attitude toward traditional ethical principles. In particular, this implied a contemptuous disrespect for Confucian virtues as expressed in ideal ancient models.

The Legalist thought of Han Fei has remained the core of Chinese statist thought and administrative practice since the Qin dynasty's unification. It has been rendered all the more subtly effective by the seductive overlay of Confucian ideology and rhetoric that was (cynically?) grafted onto this centralized state system in the Han period, was maintained in most of the longer lasting later dynasties, and was emphatically enhanced under the last two regimes, the Ming and Qing.

2) Mensing comments, "Much of China's totalitarian power devolves from a distinctly pre-modern national identity." Isn't it more accurate to say that the modern totalitarian power derives from enduring principles of political authority? The traditional Chinese polity has been called a "civilization state", just what western Europe lacked for a millenium and a half. In fact, Han Yu argued more than a thousand years ago that concentration of power increases in parallel with growth of social complexity, a notion which seems remarkably "modern", I think. Many modern Chinese seem to assume that this is true. In the 17th century there were Chinese critics of over-centralization, but they have had little historical effect on adminitrative practice. Informed Chinese often speak of the history of Chinese administration as the oscillation between periods of tighter and looser control. In this context, "looser control" may seem to show superficial resemblance to "federalism", as its American proponents, generally conservative, understand that concept, but the two are not fundamentally the same.

The issue of "national identity" is really something else, I think, and may be more modern than pre-modern. Before the late 19th century, the notion of "national identity" in a modern sense was almost (but not quite entirely) unknown in China; in its modern form, it is essentially a foreign introduction. China long ago had "Han4ren2" (a culturally defined identity), but it wasn't until the last 100 years or so that China had a "Han4zu2" (biologically defined, racial identity). What makes it seem out of date to us now may be the fact that some western societies have to a considerable degree moved beyond that kind of ideology.

3) A final paragraph, presented as a response from Robert Entenmann, says that China today is where Japan was in the 1930s. Perhaps better, I think, to say that China in the Cultural Revolution period was where Japan was in the 1930s. That is, the whole nation was then in the grip of a fanatical clique of power holders whose monomaniacal suppression of dissent and fixation on impossible goals drove the nation to disaster. China is today well on the road to recovery from that dismal situation, and my conversations with educated Chinese recently show that they appreciate the importance of diversity of responsible opinion. In particular, an orderly system of legal procedure, which can appropriately consider various views, is valued especially because of China's painful recent experience under arbitrary rule by the whim of one man or a few people claiming to speak for the one man. But whether the legal system will be strengthened in accord with principles such as those that dominate Anglo-American law may be an entirely different matter.

4) Mensing resides in Japan and apparently, by speaking Japanese language, has close daily interaction with Japanese people. If he were to move to China and speak Chinese with the people there, I think he would find much more variety of opinion and skepticism about political authority than he seems to be aware of. I visited Beijing 3 times in 1997, between July and December; in my last visit I noticed a very perceptible relaxation of inhibitions on people's willingness to speak frankly in my presence. I think that confirmation of the Dengist line at the 15th party congress was a significant milestone in persuading people that they would not suffer recriminations for committing themselves further to the policy of opennenss.

5) As for the issue of "sinocentrism", it's certainly true that the government is playing to national pride. Even people in official circles will candidly admit that Chinese are going through a crisis of faith. Hard to blame them, after socialism promised so much, required so much of the people, and fell so far short of its promises. The government is playing the "longest continuous history" tune for all the mileage they can get out of it. Given what China has been through in the 20th century, there's nothing quite like a decade of stability in fundamental policy, a full belly, and a bit of cash in the pocket to make people think they've finally found the solution. Nevertheless, despite the official media's almost pathetic incantations of familiar rhetoric about China's history, etc., there still remains a somewhat desperate, or even nouveau riche, dimension to these pretensions. Who do you think really believes these things? Probably only those who lack access to any better sources of information than official propaganda. Of course, it's true that such things can get out of hand.

Several months ago, when in Beijing, I met a 40 year old (plus or minus) researcher in administrative policy who had visited the United States on a 30 day grant from USIA (or whatever it's now called). He began our conversation by saying "I don't worship America, BUT...." And he then went on to say what I suppose is a widely circulated judgment among informed Chinese these days, "God was really much too partial to America." I asked in response if he meant that he believes in God. He, of course, denied that, confirming that it was just a figure of speech. But WHOSE figure of speech, if you please? In short, this man is a classic example of what used to be pointed to as the evil called "Peaceful Evolution", and the fact seems to be that it is evidently alive and well.

In sum, let's remember that something has fundamentally changed in China, within the last generation. China is now no longer self sufficient in basic food supply nor in energy needs. The policy of opening is not a matter of choice; rather, it is the dirct consequence of Mao's population policy. Again and again, Chinese refer in almost despairing tones to the burden of their country's vast population. World War III, which Mao expected to occur in his lifetime, hasn't yet broken out, and is not expected to break out any time soon. China now has more or less double the population that Mao expected would survive the putative WWIII. Domestic resources are simply insufficient to support so many people. This new reality is what generates alot of the anxiety that seeks to hide itself in reveries about ancient China's solitary splendour. Knowledgeable Chinese understand these things and are prone to regard official propaganda with skepticism, while at the same time repeating the same propagandistic themes to any gullible foreigner who will swallow it.

Thomas C. Bartlett
La Trobe University

March 22, 1998
From: D B Wagner <DWag@compuserve.com>

Excuse me for butting in, but let us get something straight. Whether one agrees or disagrees with what is being said about the Chinese government, it is not methodologically sound to use the etymology of the name as part of your evidence. Think of all the sillinesses you could get into if you argued the same way from the etymologies of other countries' names.

Don Wagner

Date: Sat, 21 Mar 1998
From: chenj <chenj@yorku.ca>

Just a thought for those who are intereted in sinocentricism to consider. Sinocentricism, like all forms of narcissisms, has its opposition even in China. Lu Xun was definitely an anti-Sinocentricist; so was Wang Xiaobo, the often devastating critic of Chinese collective and individual narcissists (cf. his ). In the current issue of the Huaxiawenzhai (#364, 20/Mar/1998 on the internet), there is an article on the theme of "sowing dragon seeds." Let me quote a paragraph from it:

"Of the nations of the world, only the Chinese nation practices family planning {sic}. If we think China is already overcrowded, she must send her people to other countries. There is absolutely no reason to exterminate them. The USA is a beautiful and fertile land, a good place for sowing dragon seeds. We are the descendants of the Dragon, and therefore we must sow dragon seeds here."

Further to justify his thesis, the author goes on: "Indisputably* to sow dragon seeds in the USA is also a contribution to the Chinese nation."

Sinocentricism, like othe narcissisms. has its myth. The symbol of the Dragon (or the Yellow Emperor for that matter) cannot possibly be a rational justification of the author's argument. The Dragon is the superiority of the Chinese. It appears in many of the books written by Chinese scholars and students studying or having studied in the USA and Canada and other foreign lands. The author I have quoted above says that he had been a rusticated youth in the last years of Mao's rule, given the opportunity to study at the Peking University which he calls "my alma mater" by Deng Xiaoping, got his Ph.D. and also a teaching post in, probably, the state of Washington.

I firmly believe that in trying to understand sinocentricism, one must not lose sight on its irrationality. Not all its roots can be found in the tradition of Chinese philosophy and learning from Western political thought. It is obviously a kind of narcissism and narcissism is a psychological disorder!

*yingai, Matthews, 7407 and 3191.

Jerome Chen