China Was Never an Empire of the Mind

“Let us go forward as with other matters and other measures similar in aim and effect – let us go forward in malice to none and good will to all. Such plans offer far better prizes than taking away other people’s provinces or lands or grinding them down in exploitation. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”

 –Winston Churchill, “The Gift of a Common Tongue,” September 1943

One of the more interesting unsolved puzzles of world history is why the region of the world now known as “China” has spent most of the last millennium united under one political regime, while all other centers of civilization, be they in Europe, the Near East, or the great Indic river basins, passed their days divided. Some push the unity of “Inner China” (modern China sans Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan) back even further than this, and speak of a single Chinese empire stretching back to the beginnings of antiquity. This is not warranted. While inner China was united under one political regime several times in the first millennium, it was just as often divided between many warring nations and claimants. Were world historians writing their tomes in the 4th century AD, they would conclude that China was a land just as prone to division as Europe. In the millennium that preceded the Sui Dynasty’s conquest of Inner China, the Chinese world had spent more centuries divided than united.

Things did not stay this way. In 581 AD he Sui Dynasty brought all of inner China brought under one regime’s control for the second time. Over the centuries this feat that would be repeated by the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing in turn. Western history has no parallels to this. There was only ever one Roman Empire. Once it fell, no caliphate has ever matched the glories of the Umayyads.

Explanations for China’s peculiar path are many. Some of these theories are more popular than others. The most popular is that Chinese unity was a product of Chinese geography. I debunked that notion in one of the more popular posts on this website. Read that post here, if you are interested; I will not retread that argument in this post. Here I want to tackle another common explanation for Chinese unity: China persisted through the centuries, this theory goes, because the idea of China as a unified empire persisted through all that time as well.

China during one its eras of disuion, the age of “Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.”

Map by Ian Kiu  via Wikimedia Commons

Though its proponents don’t really put it in these terms, their essential argument is that the ideal of Chinese unity was a Schelling point for conquerors. Every Chinese warlord and mandarin had a mental map of what needed to be controlled to in order to claim the Mandate of Heaven for themselves. “All Under Heaven” is what they called these lands, though even in ancient times it was quite apparent that there was far more under heaven than any emperor could administer. But the idea that certain areas were the natural inheritance of empire stuck around, as did the belief of the people who lived in those areas that they were really part of the same system and culture, even if it was temporarily divided between many regimes.

Europe lacked such a Schelling point, and this is why we talk of Napoleon and Hitler conquering Europe instead of reunifying it. That distinction is not just a semantic game: people treat foreign invasions and civil wars differently, and nations oft fight with greater fury to defend their homeland from foreign conquerors than domestic rebels. By this logic, part of the reason the conquests of tyrants like Hitler and Napoleon were so ephemeral was the fact these tyrants were perceived as conquerors, not reunifiers. Historians who study the war-torn history of China’s republican era often bring up this distinction. The battles waged between warlords and political parties of that era were simply of a different character than the battles fought in China’s war with Japan a few years later. Wars fought to reunify China fall in a different category than wars fought by outsiders to conquer her. [1]

However, there was nothing objective about the Japanese forces that made the Chinese people and their leaders treat them differently than they treated the forces of a Chinese warlord–in many cases, the soldiers of a warlord were just as alien to the ‘natives’ they conquered as the Japanese were. The Chinese soldier of the early 20th century, like his Japanese counterparts, usually spoke a different language and followed different customs than the people he fought amongst, and found himself just as bewildered by the climate and diet of the lands he was sent to fight for. The distinction between Japanese-led invasion and Chinese-led reunification existed only in the minds of those who made it. It was an idea–or rather, an iteration of an idea that had existed in some form for a thousand years of Chinese history.  In the end it was the idea that there is one China and that this one China ought to be one and indivisible that made it so.

Or at least that is how the argument goes.

The most sophisticated versions of this argument pay special attention to how important ideas and the texts that held them were to the structure of imperial Chinese society. Mark Edward Lewis’s account is compelling:

The Han imperium had created a new type of elite that was tied to the state through its economic dependence on salary and an intellectual commitment—more or less sincere—to the literary culture sanctioned by the court. However, the insecurity of office which the state used to assure the obedience of the officials meant that they were obliged to protect their futures, and those of their children, by finding resources outside the state sphere. Having obtained these resources, they ceased to be creatures of the state and became semi-independent local powers in the image of the great clans destroyed by Emperor Wu. 

This became the classic form to the imperial Chinese elite, able to maintain itself only by balancing service to the state with the development of local bases. This type of elite was crucial to the conditioning of the state, which could never collect tax income sufficient to maintain a bureaucracy that was able to control the entire population. Instead the state maintained a bureaucracy that could preserve a degree of public order ad secure a sufficient income, and then relied on local powers to keep the peace where the state lacked the manpower to police The loyalty of these powers, in turn, was secured through the possibility of gaining crucial supplementary income through holding office or providing other services to the state. 

In this system where the polity was created through the combination of paid agents and local allies, the texts of imperial canon served as the central cord binding the state proper to the powerful families on who it relied. Most families of the Eastern Han elite enriched themselves through office gained by study, or taken up study to secure wealth already gained. The canonical texts thus provided a major route by which families remained in states service. As the texts came to dominate the intellectual sphere, and serve the lingua franca of citations in which public debate was conducted, they also defined an intellectual frame in which state and families united in a common vision of society. The canonical texts instituted as a means of recruiting and controlling officials, thus became the core of a political system in which officials and dynasties were equally bound, and on which both depended. [2]

I do not disagree with Lewis’ description.  He has rather impressively distilled the entire imperial system into three paragraphs, and this stylized description of traditional China’s political economy and social structure is probably the best I have seen. His account parallels historical sociologist Jack Goldstone’s suggestion that we understand the traditional political and intellectual structures of Old War civilizations as “complex systems… [that had] the property of stable equilibria. even when greatly disturbed, they had self-restoring features, such as an elite committed to a core culture, key sacred defining texts that maintained their role at the center of that culture, and principles of rule including hereditary leadership, elite privileges and religious support for both.” [3]  Those looking to paint the inner workings of the early Islamic system, or its counterparts in Christendom, could do worse than take Lewis’ three paragraphs as their guide.

However, it is knowledge of the history of these other civilizations that makes me question Lewis’ final conclusion:

 When the state defined itself through a group of texts, and justified itself through their teachings, then these writings could be invoked to criticize specific policies, or ultimately to condemn the state itself. These texts, however, also provided the means by which the imperial order could survive the demise of each of its incarnations. To the extent that this order was implanted in the values and aspirations of the powerful families, and that it was crucial both to their economic survival and their claims to superiority over rivals with no traditions of imperial service, the dream of empire would be carried forward and a new dynasty established in the rubble of the old. Thus writing was not only crucial to the administrative functioning of the state, but more important it served as the seed which, planted in the soil of local society, produced a new state each time the old one fell. [4]

Had we no knowledge of the other civilizations outside of China, this narrative would be a convincing one. We do have such knowledge, however, and it puts this theory into doubt. Simply stated, the ideology of imperial unity is not a Chinese invention. The Roman political system was just as dependent on an ideology that “dominated the intellectual sphere, and serve the lingua franca of citations in which public debate was conducted, they also defined an intellectual frame in which state and families united in a common vision of society” as the Chinese one was. This intellectual frame did not die with the Western Empire. It continued to dominate European politics and society for hundreds of years after Rome’s collapse. Remember, the last man to claim the title Holy Roman Emperor died in 1835! The political and intellectual system of the Early Islamic empires has cast just as long a historical shadow. Men are killing and dying in the name of a resurrected Caliphate as you read this.

The problem was not that men and women in Mediterranean world stopped believing in the ideal of universal empire, nor even that elites stopped identifying with a broader imperial identity. The real problem was that those who inherited the intellectual legacy  of Catholic Empire and Universal Caliphate did not also inherit the administrative tools needed to administer one. The Dark Ages was a time where men could dream of empire but could not build one. In Europe the decisive moment came piecemeal to different parts of the continent, first as the Carolingian empire collapsed, then when the Caliphate of Cordoba followed in its footsteps, and finally after the Investiture conflict and the civil war that followed left the Salians in only nominal control of their realm.  Power was so forcefully decentralized in the decades that followed each collapse that some historians argue we should not describe the feudal structures that followed as “governments” at all. [5] Europeans of this era did not forget how to dream, but they had forgotten how to govern. It would take centuries of state building until Europeans had regained the ability to field armies, administer taxes, and incorporate new conquests into their kingdoms. The slate was wiped clean clean. By these new states became strong enough to extend their control over distant lands, the memory of Rome ha dimmed and identity had reverted to the centers of local power where state building had begun. [6]

This process never happened in China. The Chinese also continued to dream of unity–but more importantly, they never completely lost their capacity to transform their dreams into reality. The imperial center was destroyed, but the bureaucratic structures that held the imperial system together at the lower levels of society lived on. The structures used to govern China and wring taxes from the Chinese people did change over the course of Chinese history, but there was never anything comparable to the total administrative collapse seen in early medieval Europe or the late medieval Near East .The old regime had been decentralized, but not destroyed. This not just made it easier for the next generation of Chinese warlords to mobilize the armies needed to reconquer all of China, but it also made it far easier for them to incorporate what they conquered as fiscally productive parts of their domain. 

Each period of unification deepened the connections between different regions of China, making it that much easier for warlords, rebels, and foreign conquerors to administer their new conquests then next time China fell apart. It’s a classic example of virtuous cycle at work. The more time China spent unified the easier it was to unify it in the future.  This led to one of the more striking patterns of Chinese history: each major period of disunity was shorter than the last.

The logic of Schelling points and the ideals of universal empire played a part in all this, and of course the longer China was unified the stronger these ideals would be. However, as the Western experience suggests, imperial ideology may have been a necessary condition of unification, but it was not a sufficient one. Ideas alone do not make empires. China was never an empire of the mind. Like all else built by the hands of man, China was a creation of  blood, toil, and fear.


[1] For a lucid example, see Arthur Waldron, From War to Nationalism: China’s Turning Point, 1924-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 48-49.

[2] Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Ancient China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 361.

[3] Jack Goldstone, “The Origins of Western Superiority: A comment on Modes of Meta-History and Duchesne’s Indo-Europeans,Cliodynamics 4, no 1 (2013), 63.

[4] Lewis, Writing and Authority, 361. 

[5]  Thomas Bison, The Crisis of the Thirteenth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of
European Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1-22.

[6] The literature on European state building in the medieval and pre-modern eras is vast. Charles Tllly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States is the classic account, though this gloss–particular the details regarding the onset of systematic collapse–is indebted to Thomas Ertman’s Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Early Modern Europe.

Readers may also be interested in seeing my white paper comparing the state building experiences of early modern Europe, ancient China, and medieval Japan for a more thorough review of the literature.

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Everywhere had blood toil and fear. What China had was paper, standard forms and scholar bureaucrats.

Does anyone know of a good account of how/when different parts of China became included in those "certain areas were the natural inheritance of empire stuck around, as did the belief of the people who lived in those areas that they were really part of the same system and culture"? I've been vaguely wondering about this after seeing some of the pre-Chinese culture artifacts in musea in Chengdu.

In a related point, I remember attending a talk on a paper in progress where the author argued that China as a unified political whole only became a strong norm during the Southern Song, under the trauma of the loss of the North. Been four years or so, though, so can't dredge up the details of the author any more.

Braudel observed the same phenomenon, "Imagine the impact on European civilization of a series of Imperial dynasties maintaining the self-same style and significance from Augustus until the First World War" and, in his History of Civilizations' set out to investigate it. As did Mark Elvin, in his 'Patterns of the Chinese Past' (a great read).

But that just kind of pushes the question of why China was unusually united a step back — if the answer was that Chinese civilization's administrative infrastructure survived better despite changing rulers, while other civilizations' infrastructure didn't, it still raises the issue of why such a bureaucracy developed and/or was maintained more strongly specifically in China in the first place and not elsewhere.

The survival of the mechanisms at the lower level definitely seems crucial here, because the eastern Roman Empire (the richer part) never managed to fully re-unify the empire again – not in the period before the rise of Islam, not in the period after the caliphate had collapsed into kingdoms. I guess technically its successor state – the Ottoman Empire – came closer than any, effectively re-unifying the domains of the eastern Roman Empire by the late 17th century before falling back.

@Trees and bushes– You are absolutely correct. That is the next post in the series I think. The differences between the Han and Roman bureaucratic structure made all the difference… and the development of each was quite accidental. Accidents cast long shadows over history.

I haven't written that post yet up however b/c I would like to do more research on Persian administrative continuity (the Persians can make a good claim for resurrecting empire several goes in a row), its failure with the Abbasids, and what we know about governmental structures on the subcontinent.

But the Roman v. Han contrast is telling. If you have read this paper by Scheidel you will no where I am going with this:

When you wrote about Europe lacking a "Schelling point", I was ready to reply that "recreate the Roman Empire" was a goal of many powers throughout history. It is just that none of them (Byzantines, HRE, Arabs, Ottomans, etc.) succeeded. Then you said pretty much everything I was wanted to say in your conclusion, and better than I would have. Excellent post.

One difference between Europe and China is that the Roman ideology that "dominated the intellectual sphere" during the height of the Empire did not get passed on to western Europe. Instead, what had been the Western Empire received a different, Christian worldview. This view provided the ideological framework necessary for the re-establishment of a universal Christendom in the West under the Catholic Church, but not for the re-establishment of a temporal Empire on lines similar to those of Rome.

The inability of anyone to unify the Roman Empire may also be the result of luck, as well as of weakness. Had the rise of Islam not occurred, the Byzantine Empire might have been able to eventually defeat the Persian Empire, build on the conquests of Belisarius and retake the west. If the Moslems had won at Tours, who knows where their conquests would have ended? If the papacy had been weaker, the Hohenstaufens may have been able to take on a role akin to the Japanese Shoguns, leaving the popes in the role of the Japanese Emperor. If any of these things had happened, and if Yang Jian had been assassinated before he could consolidate power as Emperor Wen of Sui, we might be wondering why Europe seems destined to be united, while the East Coast of Asia has never been able to consolidate as it did under the Han dynasty.

Over on the Facebook discussion, I posted a link to Dingxin Zhao's new book:

It is a historical-sociological (think Mann's Sources of Social Power) political-structural (think Tilly) account of the emergence, consolidation, and resilience of the core of the Chinese bureaucratic state. The short answer to the "Why" question is something like: wars make states. The intense competition of the Warring States period incentivized a publicly oriented instrumental rationality that ultimately produced relatively impersonal territorial administration as a key means for more effective war fighting. Once that was consolidated first by Qin and later by the Han Dynasty, it produced a template that various rulers returned to over and over again historically. Of course, re-centralization was not inevitable after the long Period of Disunion, but it can, at least in part, be accounted for by the initial conditions surrounding the emergence of the "Confucian-Legalist State." And while I am most sympathetic to the political-strucutural analyses, it must be said by by the Song Dynasty the ideological power of "Confucianism" as a public-disseminated state doctrine certainly helped reinforce the structural power of the bureaucracy.

I believe that Northern India exhibits a similar pattern. [I am using India loosely to correspond to South Asia.] The civilizational core has varied between Patna (Pataliputra) in Bihar to the Delhi-Lahore region of Ganga-Yamuna-Indus tributaries. Power has shifted between these two poles in Northern India.

In the last millennium, Lahore-Delhi-Agra was the center of power first under various Muslim dynasties, then the Mughals, and finally the British. Interestingly, the British expanded their domain from Bengal-Bihar to Delhi and eventually all of India. In the first millennium CE, the center of power was primarily in the lower reaches of the Ganges. Power shifted westwards with waves of incursions from Afghanistan starting with the Kushanas, Huns, Turks, Afghans, and finally the Mongols.

The center of power had to shift westwards to preempt invading forces, since once you came down from the badlands of today's North West Frontier region of Pakistan, essentially all of Northern India stretched before you, with few natural obstructions except for some mighty rivers. The historical Grand Trunk Road was the commercial and cultural artery of North India. Most empires of North India stretched from Bengal to the Punjab. Development and spread of Hindustani/Hindi/Urdu also followed this same stretch.

The natural barriers between the Deccan and Northern India have precluded the type of linguistic and political unity that characterized China. Many North Indian empires would extend into the Deccan, but control was loosely exercised and over brief periods. But cultural unity existed to various degrees, in South Asia. The underlying unity based loosely on Sanatana Dharma and its various shades (Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti based) have existed for millenia. As political Islam came to dominate India, cultural Islam also provided a layer of cultural commonality for Muslims in India.

Sorry for the rambling post. My point was that geography played a major role in defining the major cores of Indic civilization. Some of the same observations made about elites/bureaucracy in China and its relation with the emperor can be applied to India as well, especially in the context of Norther India. Southern Indian polity is much more fractured as is its geography.

I just discover this blog through this article, it is very well done, and I'm going to take the next few days reading it.

Also here are few more factors that makes the Chinese more unified early than other civilizations, none of them are the silver bullet, but each one of them adds up.

1. Like many civilizations, the original Chinese civilization arose from the 2 rivers, the yellow river and Yangtze rivers, and those rivers are notorious for jumping banks and wiping out the people around it. So this requires people who live there to cooperate more to survive, in fact one of the first few legendary emperor of China was know for building dams and controlling the river.

2. Geography does explain somewhere, and I'm referring to north of China the Mongolia plains, that place is absolute hell for the agricultural Chinese civilization to the south, it would constantly spawn nomadic people and come down south and kick the crap out of the Chinese, the earliest recording is the Xun-nu people who had battles with the Han dynasty, and against all odds the Han dynasty at great cost defeated them and scatter them, but were never able to control that land (some say the Hun who push the Goth into Rome were the decedent of Xun-nu), after that, there many other people that spawn there, many Mongol tribes, Manchus, Dzungar, Uygur etc… and managing to survive against those tribes takes cooperation and a good centralized bureaucracy for China to survive.

3. Culture, you mention the mandate of Heaven, this is the key concept, no self respecting warlord would only conquer half of China and call it a day, you either conquer all of it, or you get conquered. But at same time, Chinese culture is very adoptable, what you think of Han culture is actually slowly borrowed from other peoples that they meet, that they think have better ways of doing things than their own culture, so overtime they have taken in all of the most efficient aspect of other culture to make themselves the most efficient, thats why you see that China was conquered twice by Mongols and Manchus, but in the end the Mongol were kicked out in less than 100 years and the Manchus were totally assimilated into Chinese culture.

4. The writing system. This is the more underrated reason I think, because unlike English, France, Spanish alphabet system where the language's writing is correlated with the speech, Chinese writing does not equal Mandarin, this is why Chinese is much more harder to learn, because you have to learn the writing/reading almost independent from speaking. This also means no matter what regional dialog the people speaks in ancient China, they can all understand each other by the writing (really helps with bureaucracy). Unlike romanticized language, it is all adapted form Latin, but as Roman empire break up and over time due to various reason, people starting to speak different dialog, and overtime that translate into different languages… and with it, different writing, different identity.

Excellent post, but quite a misleading title because it apparently was an empire of the mind – but so was Europe

I'm currently an undergrad student a major public university on the East Coast of the US and I must say that I am so happy to have stumbled across your blog!

Your argument that Chinese dynasties had succesfully shorter interregnums-"each major period of disunity was shorter than the last." has actually been observed by other historians as well: Victor Lieberman explicitly address this topic in the second volume of his two volume masterpiece on global history "Strange Parallels Southeast Asia in Global Context Vol. 2" in a section titled "Progressively Shorter Interregna: A Precis of Chinese Political History" from pages 497-504!

He notes that the phenomnena of progressively shorter interregnum periods is a global, not merely Chinese phenomenon: "The resultant ratio of major postcharter interregna therefore was 399:119:152:17:17, whereas in France the ratio was 220:116:36, in Burma 252:14:5, and in Russia 210:15" (p. 503-504).

As he concludes on page 504: "But the main point seems indisputable: in China as in mainland Southeast Asia, Russia, France, and Japan, political integration grew more secure and the prospect of permanent fragmentation increasingly remote until by 1279 in China (1613 in Burma, 1500 in Siam, 1453 in Russia, 1453 in France, 1603 in Japan) the latter prospect had effectively vanished."

As far as I can tell there are nonetheless two major differences in your argument and Lieberman's argument. The first is that Lieberman makes his basis of comparison the European polities that existed after Rome whereas you use Rome itself. The second is that Lieberman focuses mainly on regime (dis)continuity and puts less emphasis on the territorial (dis)continuity that you describe in your post, although I might add that as for this difference, I have not yet read Lieberman's book in its entirety, which would be needed to make this claim about the differences between your and his argument conclusive.

Excellent post!

"The real problem was that those who inherited the intellectual legacy of Catholic Empire and Universal Caliphate did not also inherit the administrative tools needed to administer one."

One of the crucial tools was a widespread belief that political unity was the right and proper form of government. Islam never settled on an agreed political form (it says there should be a righteous leader approved by the community, but not much more) and Europeans called on a range of justifications for legitimacy – approval of the nation (Frankish/Lombard/Saxon/Polish/Czech etc); religious unity through the Church; loyalty to some sacred family. No one over-rode the others.

This made China much easier to unify – each addition was not a hot-bed of rebellion to be garrisoned, but an an accession of strength. The pattern of Chinese expansion reinforced this – around a million Han Chinese moved south after the Han fell, making the Yangtze an extension of the northern political pattern, rather than an alternate source of power.