Although my class has been focused on European history and European politics, I have tried whenever possible to connect discussions back to China or to ask students to connect what they’ve learned back to what they learned about Chinese history in school. It’s been really interesting to see how the students contextualize their understanding of contemporary Chinese politics in history. One thing that has drawn a lot of my attention for the last year has been the role that authoritarianism plays in my student’s understanding of Chinese history and politics.
One of my first lessons last semester focused on Ancient Greece and the historical roots of Greek democracy. I got back a plethora of response papers that postulated a rather interesting geographical determinist answer for the lack of similar institutions in China. Greece was a peninsula where easy access to the ocean has encouraged maritime commerce early in many parts of the region. As a result, the constant travel and communication between different regions and cultures in Greek society produced a culture that valued individual freedom and relative political independence. Ancient China’s primary reliance on agriculture, my students argued, made it much more susceptible to autocratic power by comparison.
This basic truism plays a commanding role in their understanding of every period of Imperial Chinese history. My students have argued over and over again in response papers that, as official policy dictated, the Emperor held absolute unquestioned authority over every aspect of Chinese politics, made all decisions himself, and was ultimately responsible for all of the Imperial government’s policies. The question of relative government power in European and Chinese history is one which has reappeared frequently in my discussions with students. They frequently argue that the power of early modern Chinese emperors must have far outstripped that of European kings, inhibited as European rulers were by powerful nobles and by a politically independent Church.
This trend got particularly interesting when we got to the Industrial Revolution in class last week. I tried to present to my students a little bit of the fairly complicated and difficult to navigate network of different historical arguments behind why the Industrial Revolution happened first in Europe and not China. I tried to explain how recent Western historiography had cast significant doubt on the traditional mix of arguments which posited that European scientific culture, backed by patent laws and social and political institutions which encouraged self-motivated individual innovation and competition, had technologically outstripped societies trapped within some form of “oriental despotism.” Drawing mostly on the work of Kenneth Pomeranz (whom I had read in undergrad for Niall Ferguson), I tried to present some of the more recent historiography which has downplayed cultural essentialism for a more complex combination of environmental, political, and economic factors. To my surprise, though, my students had no interest whatsoever in a history freed from the bias against “Oriental Despotism.” As I lectured I watched them balk at the idea that Chinese living standards at the end of the eighteenth century have been shown, on closer scrutiny, to rival if not exceed those of Britain at the time. I encountered even more skepticism at the argument posited by Pomeranz that British technology was not resoundingly ahead of Chinese technology.
I received several skeptical emails after class that week explaining why they had had trouble believing Pomeranz. My students argued that the stifling social, intellectual and economic control of the all-powerful emperor had strangled any home-grown technical innovation and any semblance of a domestic market economy. I then suddenly found myself in the rather strange position if defending the relative strength of the pre-industrial Chinese economy against the overly Eurocentric views of my Chinese students. Their arguments certainly made me reconsider my own position and I believe that their points have some merit. Pomeranz is after all not formost a Chinese historian, and his synthesis of economic historians may overlook some common themes of Chinese history which my students are more familiar with. For example, my students are fond on drawing upon a long-standing Imperial policy known as 重农轻商, or “encourage agriculture and de-emphasize commerce.” This policy, founded in the traditional Confucian attitude that merchants were untrustworthy while farmers were the moral backbone of society, sought to make life difficult for commercial entrepreneurs while encouraging small-scale farming.
While my students have convinced me to at least reconsider an uncritical reading of Pomeranz, my training as a localist historian has nonetheless made me deeply suspicious of the absolutist arguments that seem to dominate their understanding of Chinese politics. Many of my professors in college emphasized the declining role in recent scholarship of historical narratives told primarily from the perspective of the central government. Official government sources tend to overestimate their reach (especially in the case of China, where civil service officials’ careers could depend on how they reported their own performance in official records), and tend to simplify the extremely complex power dynamics between officials, local elites, and other authorities at the local level. As a result I have done my best to at least cast some doubt in my students’ unqualified acceptance of Imperial authority, pointing out that at the very least, in the days where transport and communication functioned on horseback, technological limitations must have made it impossible for a central government to have consisted and sophisticated control over far-away provinces. Recently I have started to counter some of their old Chinese sayings with one that 博哥 taught me: 山高皇帝远, or “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
The prevailing narrative that my students have learned offers a rather shocking contrast to the dominant themes that young students of American history get in elementary and high school. I remember learning in my high school American history classes about the relative autonomy of the American colonies from the very early stages of British control, and about local colonial governments that, in the absence of strong centralized control, had developed representative institutions that from the early stages of American government enshrined certain principles of individual involvement. Americans learn that the roots of democracy and individual liberty run deep in their history. This contrast certainly provides a stark reminder that the institutions needed to support a stable representative government are the products of a particular time and place and can only develop slowly over time. Certainly this understanding of Chinese history encourages the prevailing attitude among most young people here that while democratic reform may be desirable eventually, in China it is at least several generations off (on multiple occasions I have had students or other friends my age say that democratic reform in China is at least a hundred years away) and must follow a long period of very gradual reform.
While I think this line of historical reasoning has some merit, it’s a little bit unnerving just how well it serves to reinforce the status quo. I can’t presume to have any familiarity with the Education Ministry or its process of curriculum development–and certainly every government is guilty of encouraging a certain political culture through its education system. But nonetheless I am keenly aware of how successfully this narrative enhances historical continuity between the current regime and the long stretch of Chinese Imperial history. Of course China has an authoritarian government. It’s always had one, since the beginning of recorded history. This connection seemed even closer to the surface as Beijing marked-or rather, conspicuously went out of its way not to mark-the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen massacres last week.