A Different Read on China
An immensely popular book in China reenvisions China’s historical narrative as one leading to liberalism.
by Shi Zhan 施展 (Guanxi Normal University Press, 697 pp., $32.20)
For centuries, the legitimacy of Chinese rulers has turned on their narrative of China’s past. “The goal of Chinese historians,” as one political theorist at Peking University Law School explains, “was not a simple research for objective facts, but rather a philosophical search for universal values and meaning in the factual record.” History and politics have ever been intimately connected in the Chinese political tradition. From the emperor of the Great Qin to the communist apparatchiks of the present day, Chinese statesmen have justified their rule with an interpretation of a transcendent order drawn from historical facts. Whoever successfully connects their political agenda with this higher, historical order gains the mandate to rule.
Unfortunately, liberals in China have been slow to leverage history to their cause. Instead, mainstream Chinese arguments for liberalism often begin with ahistorical values such as equality, individual liberty, and universal human rights—values that are supposedly innate and self-evident but that lack any grounding in Chinese political tradition. The difficulty of tying abstract liberal values with China’s particular history and tradition is one reason for the liberals’ weakness in Chinese intellectual life. Against the backdrop of the Chinese Communist Party’s lofty appeal to the nation’s historical missions, liberal arguments often seem mundane, doctrinaire, and uninspiring.
Shi Zhan’s The Hub: 3000 Years of China is an answer to this challenge. A professor of history at the Shanghai International Studies University and a researcher at the Center for Global Civilizational History, Shi has produced the first work in the canon of Chinese liberalism that roots its argument in China’s specific national history. In contrast to traditional Chinese liberals, who since the New Cultural Movement of the 1910s have regarded China’s historical heritage as illiberal baggage, Shi introduces a new historiography that describes liberal universalism as the natural culmination of China’s journey through the millennia. He argues that Chinese statesmen and literati throughout history have long aspired to establish a universal empire, but that in the modern age, this universalistic aspiration can be realized only by China joining the liberal international order. His narrative calls on China to transcend its xenophobic nationalism, to institute a constitutional government, and to become a rule-abiding member of the international community. China’s destiny, he declares, is to become a “world-historical” nation that ushers the spread of liberal universalism.
The Hub is a landmark argument of liberalism in China. And it is something that those in the West ought to pay attention to as well: The book has gained wide popularity among patriotic Chinese men and women who want their country to play a significant role in the unfolding of world history. Xi Jinping’s strongman politics used to be their only option. But now, The Hub offers an alternative path to national revival. It is a cause for hope, however qualified, that a liberal and democratic China is possible in the future.
China’s Return to History
Liberalism gained currency in the 1980s among Chinese intellectuals in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the ideological campaign in the final decade of Mao’s regime that unleashed a “red terror” into the country. Countless Chinese were purged from society, incarcerated, or executed. One Chinese liberal, Liu Qin, compares the grim historical experience of Maoist China to the way liberalism arose in the West after the religious wars in the 16th century. The cultural revolution in China left a sour taste in people’s mouth; when it ended, many Chinese intellectuals no longer had any respect for ideological orthodoxy. It was against the backdrop of this historical trauma that the liberal call for pluralism, equal liberty, and the rule of law gained wide recognition. For a time, the liberal dream captured the imagination of intellectuals and fueled the country’s zeal for economic and political reform.
But the liberal revolution never arrived. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) violently quashed it before it had a chance to spread its wings. In the aftermath, Party leaders realized they needed a new ideological narrative to cement their hold on power. They soon began to replace old socialist bromides of the Mao era with a different legitimizing narrative, which refashioned China’s wrestle with modernity into a nationalist morality tale.
The outlines of this narrative can be traced in official speeches, school textbooks, and state-sponsored documentaries. For the Party and its defenders, modern Chinese history starts with what they call a “century of humiliation.” This refers to the decades between the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 and the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. During this century, their story goes, China’s ancient civilization suffered one humiliating defeat after another. Chinese life in these years was defined by the injustice of Western imperialism. Redeeming the nation from this humiliation is thus the historical mission of the Chinese people—China must reclaim its honored place at the center of human civilization. The CCP calls this quest “national rejuvenation,” that only they can promise to fulfill.
Various scholars have provided their own riff on the myth. Jiang Shigong, a pro-government scholar at Peking University, believes that China’s national revival requires the rejection of Western liberalism. For him, liberalism is not only a political ideology but also a secularized version of Protestant Christianity, a religion that is foreign to the Chinese soil.
China’s cultural conservatives have also made use of the national rejuvenation narrative. Dividing history along the fault line of “the ancient and the modern,” these cultural conservatives dismiss the liberal argument for individual liberty as the poisoned fruit of a foreign modernity. “Modernity has transformed the West into a spiritual wasteland, a cultural wasteland,” writes Gan Yang, a philosophy professor and a self-proclaimed “Confucian socialist.” Instead of mindlessly importing Western modernity into China, he thinks that China should return to the study of its ancient Confucian tradition. More explicitly, Liu Xiaofeng, a philosophy professor at Renmin University, states that China’s future lies in an aristocracy undergirded by Confucian ethics. These scholars are not necessarily apologists for the state. Yet, absent a commitment to individual liberty, their argument against liberalism has lent legitimacy to the CCP.
Liberals, in contrast, have struggled to leverage history in a comparable way. Some have tried to revise China’s traditional cosmology, while others have simply lamented the lack of any tradition of self-government in China. Shi Zhan is the first to offer an alternative to mainstream historiography, arguing that liberalism is China’s historic destiny. His daring and innovative account is starting to shift the dialogue regarding the nation’s future.
The Making of a World-Historical Nation
Shi Zhan understands that in order to convince people of China’s liberal future, he must have a coherent account about their nation’s past. To this end, The Hub aspires to tell a “philosophy of history” for China—a Grand Narrative that allows individuals to recognize one another as belonging to a greater whole. Shi takes inspiration from Hegel, whose philosophy (though obscure for most Americans) is intuitive for many in the Chinese public partly due to its similarity with Marxism. Akin to Hegel, Shi posits a rational pattern behind the evolution of human society that follows a “dialectic” of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In his presentation, the thesis and the antithesis are conflicting societies whose interactions beget a new, synthesized order that absolves the culture and institutions from each of the old societies. Yet unlike Hegel, Shi seeks to account for the unfolding of this dialectic in the East.
In Shi’s telling, Chinese history follows a dialectic among multiple ethnicities and multiple geographies. “China” is not a single civilization. It is instead a “composite system” made up of five distinct yet interdependent regions: the Central Plains, the Northern Steppe, the Eastern Seas, the Western Oases, and the Tibetan Plateau. “Chinese” history is the dynamic interactions—a dialogue, if you will—among these societies. It is with this paradigm that Shi Zhan seeks to reconcile “Western” liberalism with the “Eastern” empire.
One example of the dialectic in Chinese history is the interaction between the agrarian Central Plains (or the Han civilization) and the nomadic Northern Steppe (the grassland and the Mongolian civilization)—the “thesis” and the “antithesis” that shaped one another. The two regions evolved together as they engaged in trade and war. For some time, trade was possible when there was mutual dependence: the nomadic tribes needed agricultural goods for their livelihood, and the rulers on the Central Plains needed horses from the grassland to sustain their military powers. But once the rulers in the Central Plains were unified under a single emperor and the demand for horses decreased, the nomads had to resort to war to satisfy their demands for agricultural goods. Their conquest of the Central Plains eventually led to the founding of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, a dual empire that unified both regions under its rule.
Besides the dialectics between the Central Plains and the Northern Steppe, the Eastern Seas, the Western Oases, and the Tibetan Plateau also played a role in the system, pushing the continent toward greater unification. The Qing Empire (1636-1911)—the last dynasty before China’s republican revolution—was the fruit of this history. According to Shi, the Qing was an “universal empire” that spanned the Eastern continent, unifying all ethnicities and geographies under its rule. But history does not end with the Qing Empire. While the Qing attained universality on the Eastern continent, the arrival of the West confronted it with a new “antithesis”—ushering the cycle of history to a higher, global stage.
Shi’s dialectic is important for reframing China’s experience with the West. It defies the trope of a “national humiliation” under Western colonialism. Instead of portraying China as a victim of foreign oppression, Shi presents China as an interlocutor with the West. For him, there was no century of “humiliation,” only a century of “encounter” where both China and the West evolved as a result of their contact with one another. This unfolding of the universal history pushes China toward a higher “synthesis”—one that requires modern China to join the community of nations in a rule-based international order, and to liberalize its internal governance.
As the book draws to a close, Shi Zhan reasserts the liberal characterization of the end of history, only this time with China at the forefront of the historical dialectic. China, he argues, must become a “world-historical” nation—a nation that seeks not its own glory and domination but that recognizes its critical role in advancing human freedom. For Shi Zhan, this world-historical mission must become China’s special providence.
A Unique Brand of Liberalism
The Hub offers a unique brand of liberalism, and the liberals in China are not quite sure what to make of it. While some have celebrated the book, others are concerned that Shi has leaned too far into China’s nationalism. Their skepticism is understandable: At first sight, Shi’s argument appears to be nationalistic, and his narrative does not hinge on the acceptance of liberal values. It also plays on the patriotism of Chinese people by giving China a special role in world history. However, the core of Shi’s argument is that China should transcend nationalism and adopt a universalistic national identity. Any careful reader should recognize the liberal message beneath his narrative.
The Hub also distinguishes itself from other liberals’ treatments of the same with insight into constitutional formation. Due to state censorship and restrictions of academic research, Chinese liberals have struggled to propose openly an institutional pathway for China’s liberalization. As a result, their vision for a liberal China often seems unpractical and idealistic. But buried in the last chapter of The Hub is a little paragraph where Shi Zhan hints that he might have an institutional pathway in mind. “The goal of China’s modernization is constitutionalism,” he writes. Constitution-making will not be easy. It must give equal recognition to all ethnicities in the country while maintaining the state’s unity. It must allow the people to participate in government while ensuring the functionality of daily politics. Most importantly, he adds, constitutionalism must be realized in a historical process where people can learn the art of self-government. Shi’s description of this constitution is obscure to evade censors, but one is left wondering whether he has something tangible in mind that he’s yet to debut.
Since the book’s publication in 2018, The Hub has sold 420,000 copies, with a second print edition in the works. In contrast to the lukewarm reaction from the academia, the book has gained wide popularity among Chinese entrepreneurs, c-suite executives, students, and technocratic bureaucrats. Its success signals its appeal to ordinary Chinese people. With its newfound prominence, China is looking for an identity—and not everyone is satisfied with what Xi Jinping has to offer. For these Chinese, Shi Zhan has given them an attractive alternative for their nation’s future.
Nancy Yu is the Research Assistant at the Center for Strategic Translation. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Image: Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping greets the American public at a rodeo, 1979
Simonton, Texas. (Meridian International Center)
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