Book Review of “A History of Chinese Civilization” by Jacques Gernet (1982)

I have just finished reading “A History of Chinese Civilization” by Jacques Gernet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982 [1972]), a French scholar of Chinese history, and was very much blown away by it. What any good writer of history is doing is to integrate all elements of a country’s history, i.e. the politics, the society, the economy, the technology, the culture, the philosophy, the sciences, the intellectual trends, the literature etc. I have previously read Chinese history books, but their natural deficiency is that they overtly focus on the political history, i.e. the rise and fall of dynasties and empires, the intrigues, the backstabbing, the gossiping, the wars and the peasant rebellions among others. Gernet’s work does not fall into this trap. He does not hide his western perspective, but how would one do it anyway? He uses western terms like “rationalism”, “materialism” and so forth to describe the intellectual currents since the days of Confucius. This is not so much a weakness as much as an attempt to lay out to western readers what Chinese civilization and history entails.

I remark on two elements of the book that I particularly enjoyed: the social and economic history and the intellectual history. This will be more descriptive rather than reflective, which expresses my profound amazement at the clarity and breadth of Gernet’s scholarship (albeit not so much depth because it is difficult to squeeze all the civilization into 700 pages of writing).

The major reason why dynasties collapse is evidently because they lose the proverbial “Mandate of Heaven” as is described by Confucius and his followers. The rulers don’t deliver what the people think they deserve. The persistent pattern in Chinese history is that dynasties get overthrown, because of (1) the toleration of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few large landowners at the expense of peasants (e.g. Han dynasty, p.150); (2) the fiscal crisis of the state, which is linked to (3) the corruption and mismanagement of power (e.g. lavish court feasts) within the central government, (4) the waging of costly wars and military campaigns; furthermore (5) the overtaxation of the rural peasantry, which usually carries most of the tax burden, their exploitation by the landowners and the bankers, who lend at usurious interest rates; (6) foreign invasion (as with the Mongols in 1200s, Manchu Qing dynasty in 1600s, western powers in 1800s and Japan in 1930s-40s); (7) famines usually resulting in peasant rebellions, (8) decentralization weakening the center (as in 1800s Qing).

Another important social and economic question revolves around the methods of production, which include changes in technological availability and the “social relations” of production. As with most civilizations, Chinese superiority emerged out of a gradual increase in agricultural productivity. Foremost in my mind is the importation of a rice seed  from Vietnam in the 1000s (Song dynasty) to the lower Yangtze river area, which substantially increased the population in that region. The next stage of civilizational development is the growth in the number of large, affluent landowners, who can live off the labor of the peasants from whom the land was usurped (pp.312-3). The next stage involves the growth of the cities with the merchants, traders and the bourgeoisie. Manufacturing was developed only very late and until the the Communist takeover in 1949 was restricted to the coastal area around Shanghai and Jiangsu province. Gernet remarks that the Mongols and Song rulers (900-1200s) relied on merchants for tax revenues, while the Ming and Qing (1300-1900s) economy heavily relied on farmers (p.391).

Growing overall affluence also allowed the king to expand his tax capacity and pay for the huge court to entertain him, the large army to secure the borders and conquer new spaces, and most interestingly, develop the massive state bureaucracy involving civil servants (the so-called ‘literati’ 士大夫  shìdàfū as they passed complex imperial exams with knowledge of ancient historical texts to become a civil servant) and eunuchs (宦官 huànguān), who were castrated men, who ran the day to day affairs of government, swearing loyalty only to the king as they don’t have children of their own. The strong, central Chinese state, which was first established by Qin Shi Huang (221 BC) has been the hallmark of Chinese civilization, which makes current calls for a more relaxed Communist state quite laughable.

A brief aside on an important historical question, which was first raised by a high-level Taiwanese official, who shared the anecdote of him studying in a US university many years ago and a professor asking him the question, “Why did the Nationalists lose the civil war against the Communists?” Barrington Moore (“Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy”) answered the question partly by stating that the Nationalists did not really care much about the peasant question. Most people were living on the land, surviving on a subsistence income and still being brutally oppressed by the big landowners. (Though Moore’s argument states, on the contrary, that peasants were quite powerful, but I would say only to the extent that they were activated and organized by the Communist insurgency.) Gernet adds to this by claiming that Chiang Kai-shek’s (Nationalist) power base were the military and the Shanghai-based bankers (p.631, 634). The three banker families included the Soong’s, Kung’s and Chen’s. Chiang was married to Soong Mei-ling from the Soong family, and his brother-in-law via the Soong family was Kung Hsiang-hsi, the other major banker. The bankers paid for Chiang’s military academy and the wars of annihilation he was fighting against the Communists.

When the Japanese seized Manchuria in 1932, Chiang was not so much bothered by the “disease of the skin” (Japanese) as much as by the “cancer below the skin” (Communists). In fact, he did not give up assaulting Communist bases until his own generals kidnapped him and forced him to cooperate with the Communists in a united front against Japan (1936). The Communists themselves were almost annihilated by the Nationalist military campaigns, but they survived the Long March and regrouped. Mao Zedong formulated a populist campaign to organize the vast masses of peasants to fight for the Communists and be paid off by massive land redistribution hurting the big landowners (and part of the Nationalists’ power base). During the Japanese invasion in 1937, Chiang’s troops were routed despite heavy US support and he transferred his power base to Chongqing. The Communists organized guerilla attacks behind the lines in Japanese-controlled territory, had close support by the rural peasantry and was always able to hide against big attacks in the hinterland. The Nationalists were not so fortunate as their power base was primarily based in the big cities, which the Japanese controlled throughout the war.

When the Japanese were defeated, Chiang realized the difficulty of reconquering China, which at this point was very Communist, especially in the north, where most of the Japanese troops were concentrated. Despite receiving more loans and military aid from the US, the Nationalists were quickly defeated and expelled in the Civil War and took refuge in Taiwan. If it were not for the Korean War, where Communist China hurled half a million soldiers against the US forces aiding South Korea, the US would not have sent their fleet to the straits of Taiwan, and Chiang and the Nationalists would not have survived the end of the civil war. (There were clear invasion plans of Taiwan by the mainland.) In short, the Communists defeated the Nationalists, because the former knew how to mobilize the peasants, who if they were mobilized sufficiently were the most powerful force, while the Nationalists’ reliance on the military, the industrialists and bankers in the big cities gave them only the illusion of permanent power. The Japanese invasion was also important in giving the Communists breathing room to regroup, while the Nationalists sat out the invasion with their economic power base taken by the Japanese.

Back to Gernet: Intellectual history in China is very rich, and that book was, of course, only able to scratch the surface of what intellectuals were capable of producing. Much of the basic ideas were established early on, and are summarized by Confucianism (with Mencius as most important follower), Mohism, Legalism, Taoism and Buddhism. Confucianism is foremost concerned about creating a perfectly harmonious society, which achievable by ritual behavior of the good man, respecting elders and those in power, pursuing wisdom and self-knowledge. Confucius is rather practical in orientation and is only concerned with good behavior in the current world without any mention of transcendentalism as is common in the monotheist religions of the west. Mencius agreed with Confucius. He claimed, in addition, that humans are inherently good, they merely need to be shown the good way. He sees the importance of having benevolent rulers, who are kind to the people to shape them in a good direction.

Mohism says that creating an egalitarian society based on altruistic principles would provide for the common good (some similarity to Marxism is clearly evident). Mohists reject the blind pursuit of rituals, and prefer self-reflection to attain wisdom. They also prefer asceticism and a renunciation of worldly riches. Legalists claim that the prince must concentrate power into his hands and establish a rule of law to provide for political stability. Taoists and Buddhists are much more transcendental in that they demand of followers a retreat from the world and seek salvation. Gernet, however, remarks that Chinese thinking emphasizes the “general, spontaneous order over the notion of direct, mechanical action” (p.524). In other words, rather than seeking truth in a reality outside of things (i.e. transcendentalism, reification), the Chinese thinkers accepted the truth of the worldly order. Westerners might describe this as secularism and materialism. In addition, Chinese writing, which is based on pictographs rather than phonetics, has an inherently mathematical quality, which facilitated the rise of an elite literati caste to pursue scientific and philosophical inquiry.

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